December 31, 2008

Underrated MOTM: Rumble in the Bronx (1995)

December's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) left a major impression on me upon first viewing. The genre of "martial arts action flick" is not one that I've ever gone out of my way to explore, but after seeing Rumble in the Bronx in 1996, I made sure to keep an eye on the career of Jackie Chan.

Yes, he was already a massive star in his native Hong Kong well before 1995, but Rumble in the Bronx finally brought him to mainstream American audiences, which aside from sending his paycheck through the roof, also served to significantly influence martial arts action in many American movies that followed it. After Rumble in the Bronx, no longer were we satisfied with Jean Claude Van Damme's roundhouse kicks, Wesley Snipes' wide-eyed brawling or Steven Seagal's stone-faced scuffling. We wanted our fighting to be entertainment, with ever more imaginative props and ever more ambitious stunts.

Those who were already familiar with Chan's work in the 70's and 80's must have been thrilled to see American audiences eat up his frenetic fighting style, even if it was in a movie that admittedly plays like a parody of itself half of the time. The dialogue is cringe-inducingly cheesy and the bare bones plot
(Chan's character visits New York to attend his uncle's wedding) features an unnecessary number of twists . The attempts at romance are laughable (which I think was the point) and the set pieces absolutely scream "early 90's"; it would be hard to find anything in this movie outside of the action that hasn't dated terribly. In his pan of the movie, the New York Times' Stephen Holden likened the production design to "a candy-colored battleground that looks even more garishly fake than the set for Michael Jackson's 'Beat It' music video." Can't argue with that (remember when Michael Jackson was relevant?...sigh...).

In the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle also rails against the setting, charging that the movie " throws Chan into the middle of an unrecognizable, cartoonlike version of America, then makes him look silly by forcing him to take it all too seriously." LaSalle also makes a valid complaint that Rumble in the Bronx "gives [Chan] little opportunity to show his exuberant personality", which wouldn't have occurred to me at the time but makes plenty of sense now considering his winning charm in movies like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon.

So I concede that the story and production are passable at best. That the evil street gang prowls around on flashing (and numbered, as if in a race?) dirtbikes and ATV's is ridiculous, and so is the fact that numerous times during the movie it becomes painfully obvious that
Rumble in the Bronx was not filmed anywhere near the Bronx (it was shot entirely in Vancouver, British Columbia). But no matter what other problems you have with this movie, it's almost impossible to complain about a lack of energetic action. Our first real taste comes early on, when Keung (Chan) confronts some rowdy gang members in his uncle's store (watch the clip here). It's a perfect introduction to the Jackie Chan that America would grow to love - the action star often considered a combination between Bruce Lee and Buster Keaton.

From that point on, Rumble in the Bronx is an exercise in patience and optimism. If you don't get caught up in the flaws, you'll be rewarded with action sequences that have the slapstick choreography of a silent comedy and the physical prowess of the best martial arts movies. It's not entirely clear to me why such salty language was used in this movie, which a.) makes the over-dubbed dialogue sound even more awkward, and b.) earned the movie an unnecessary "R" rating, which may have kept a sizable number of action-hungry American teens out of the theater.

The distribution details in general of Rumble in the Bronx are puzzling. Filmed in 1994 and titled Hung fan au, the movie played throughout Asia in 1995 before being re-dubbed, re-edited and retitled for an American release in 1996. The eventual $30 million box office take wasn't the success some may have hoped for, but it's probably the only reason Jackie Chan got another star-making opportunity opposite Chris Tucker in Rush Hour. Additionally, it opened the doors for several of his older movies to make their way into American theaters for the first time, including the last two installments of his Police Story franchise: Supercop and Jackie Chan's First Strike.

In watching parts of Rumble in the Bronx online recently, I realized that since 1996, the only non-computer generated action in movies that left me slack-jawed upon first viewing was Tony Jaa's stunt work in Ong-Bak (some of the highlights can be seen at the end of the trailer and in the ridiculous chase scene). Both Chan and Jaa stunned me with their physical feats - running up walls, squeezing through holes, leaping over cars, and so on. These would have been plenty impressive on their own, but considering these stars do all of their own stunts, some of the scenes become absolutely unbelievable (observe Chan in Supercop, impossibly dangling from a helicopter ladder above Kuala Lumpur without any kind of safety harness).

Alas, there have been some rumors that director Stanley Tong, himself an experienced martial arts expert and stuntman, is actually the one we see in several of the most dangerous scenes in Rumble in the Bronx. It's up to the viewer to believe this (I see Chan when watching the clips) or dismiss it, or to think it matters anyway. Either way, I'm confident this movie helped raise the bar for action and martial arts movies that followed it. Stephen Holden was curious about this possibility in his review: "If 'Rumble in the Bronx' scores well enough at the box office to make Hollywood see major dollar signs, it could augur a new style of action-adventure film in which swaggering macho pyrotechnics give way to balletic daredevil comedy."

I don't know if there have been many movies that clearly qualify as "balletic daredevil comedies", but the last decade has certainly seen new interest in balletic (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix trilogy, the success of Jet Li movies), daredevil (Daniel Craig and Matt Damon doing their own stunts in Bond and Bourne, respectively), and comedy (the Rush Hour franchise by itself has earned nearly $1 billion at the box office).

My evidence of the influence Rumble in the Bronx may be limited to those examples, but I think Jackie Chan can nonetheless be given some credit for changing the action game in Hollywood. Maybe this clip will make my point more persuasively:

REVIEW: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (A-)

As I've mentioned in my Reel Life installments, the best material for movies often comes from the simplest of stories. Though obviously a work of fiction, F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story from 1921, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", is a good example of such high-potential material. The set-up is simply this: Benjamin Button ages backwards. No explanation, no crazy twists, just leave the rest for the reader to interpret.

Or to Eric Roth, the Forrest Gump screenwriter who adapted "Button" for the (surprisingly) first ever film based on the story, and didn't take many risks in departing from Gump's Oscar-winning formula (here, instead of "You never know what you gonna get," it's "You never know what's coming for ya."). Directed by David Fincher (Zodiac), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a wonder to behold for several reasons.

For starters, Fincher's vision of early 20th-century New Orleans is enchanting. I'm always one to be behind the curve on things, and it didn't strike me until mid-way through this movie that nearly all of Fincher's films look as if they were filmed on the same sound stage: Seven, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, and Zodiac. There is a grittiness, a blue steely look that he has mastered, and it comes through again in Benjamin Button even if the color hue has changed from blue-gray to gold. Every detail on the screen is carefully created; the gaslamps, the snowflakes, the fog and the shadows have as much presence as the characters. More than distract, the lighting and cinematography draw you in and allow you to just sit, study, and savor the images, as if in a museum.

Which is not to say that the humans don't grab you as well. Reteaming with Fincher for the first time in nearly a decade, Brad Pitt brings to the table perhaps his most ambitious performance to date as the title character. Nothing against the sexy hardbody Pitt (Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Troy) or the goofy dumbbell Pitt (Snatch, Burn After Reading), but I'm really starting to like the "anti-Pitt" Pitt (Babel, The Assassination of Jesse James...) - the one that doesn't inhabit so much of the screen, whether voluntarily or accidentally. Never has Pitt had to express so much with his eyes than in Benjamin Button, and he excels largely because he realizes this - and he doesn't try to out-Gump Tom Hanks.

Speaking of Gump - though Cate Blanchett (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) and Tilda Swinton (Burn After Reading) are predictably impressive, neither has much material to work with here, and neither is as memorable as Robin Wright Penn's Jenny Curran Gump. As I haven't read Fitzgerald's story, it's unclear to me whether the romantic angle was played up for the film. If so, consider it an ambitious failure. Either due to the increasingly annoying cuts to the present day or the mere fact that neither actress appeared to have much on-screen chemistry with Pitt, the most glaring problem in Button is that the love story isn't very moving, at least not consistently so.

More emotional juice may have been squeezed out of the relationship between Benjamin Button and his father (Jason Flemyng) or adoptive mother (perfectly played by Taraji P. Henson), but alas, our time with them is disproportionately short. Of course, time is of the essence in a story like this, and telling a man's life story from beginning to end, or rather end to beginning, doesn't allow for many detours.

A little boy learns to walk for the first time...

In the end, Benjamin Button is possibly more cryptic than it is "curious". Fincher's cloaked production style presents it as more of a dream than it should be, which enriches the cinematic experience but partly weakens our ability to access the profound philosophies inherent in such a tall tale. Moreover, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is so long that, like all great dreams, you have to almost sit and ponder it to remember the best parts (repeated viewings may help, and I'm fully expecting Button to live longer than its time in the theater). But it's also captivating and thought-provoking, especially for those who look at life's "big picture". Forrest Gump may have had more whimsy and it may have even been a better movie (not forgetting that it touched on a number of social issues where Benjamin Button took a pass), but for those who like their films to have a little more mysticism, elegance and intellectual potency, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will be enthralling.

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

Total: 45/50= 90% = A-

December 30, 2008

Taking It Home: Doubt

Streep and Hoffman compare notes from the drafts of their Oscar acceptance speeches...

If John Patrick Shanley considered several one-word titles for his play before eventually settling on Doubt, chances are one of the possibilities was "Candor"; almost never in my life have I heard people talk so openly to each other about such sensitive issues. The discussions between the characters in Doubt are so brutally honest, in fact, that I found myself scoffing at the screen in my head, thinking "Come on, people don't have conversations like this."

But to get caught up in questions about the reality of the language used is to miss the point of the story. Whether spoken with these words or not, the arguments between Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) certainly happen in real life. They might communicate non-verbally or through third parties, but judging by the number of shameful accusations made against Catholic priests in the last two generations, there is no "doubt" that men of the cloth have found themselves under obvious suspicion from those in their innermost circles.

Shanley's play, which was adapted by him for the film directed by him, is a rich study of the pain and suffering that comes not from knowing that a crime has been committed, but from not knowing for certain that a crime has been committed. The doubt itself is in some ways worse than the actual sin - not necessarily in God's eyes, but in the experience of the individual.

Take the wife of a cheating husband, for example, never sure how to interpret his sneaky behavior. Or the teacher of a dishonest student who turns in a plagiarized assignment. Or, more significantly, the
police officer who draws his weapon on a shadowy figure or the president who sends his country to a war based on questionable intelligence.

For each person, the gnawing uncertainty about their gut feelings is torturous. Actually confirming that the husband is unfaithful, or that the student has lifted from a classmate, or that the risk of danger was unfounded, doesn't make the problem go away. But it does make coping easier, if only because the individual can acknowledge the truth and move on, for better or worse. Until this truth is known, however, the person will endlessly suffer through cycles of certainty and skepticism. I would even argue that regret, in one of its many forms, is simply doubt by another name. When I think back on my life, half of the decisions that haunt me are the ones for which I'll never truly know the "other" outcome.

I haven't experienced the horrors of sexual abuse, but I can only imagine that those who have, especially by a trusted individual like a priest or teacher or relative, may be forever filled with doubt and suspicion and distrust of people in such positions. It must be extremely difficult to regain faith in former beliefs, evidenced by Sister Aloysius in Doubt or, as another recent example, Juliette Fontaine's brother-in-law in I've Loved You So Long.

How do you quiet the questions in your head and heart? I don't know, and I also don't know if you should attempt to relieve yourself of all uncertainties - after all, you can't have faith without also having doubt. But somewhere you have to draw the line and make a decision, and I've found it's nearly impossible to do that with any level of comfort.

What did you take home?

December 26, 2008

Taking It Home: Frost/Nixon

Richard Nixon faces his challenger after the heavyweight bout...

I had a troubling thought while watching Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, the film based on the play based on the infamous interviews between British TV host David Frost and former U.S. President Richard Milhouse Nixon. Though I haven't seen Peter Morgan's play (the original Broadway version of which, like the movie, also starred Michael Sheen and Frank Langella as Frost and Nixon, respectively), the medium of film doesn't appear to add much to the story behind "the trial Nixon never had". Nevertheless, I found myself riveted during the back-and-forth between the desperately ambitious interviewer and the desperately anxious president. Taken on its own, Frost/Nixon is thus a thoroughly engaging look into Nixon's most public attempt at redemption.

Which brings me back to that troubling thought: I realized an active imagination wasn't necessary to picture other U.S. presidents sitting in Nixon's chair, mumbling their veiled apologies like a little boy scolded after pushing his sister into the mud.

It must be a strange experience to be a head of state. The public (and/or the media) strips you of most human characteristics, like feelings and emotions, which of course makes you extremely vulnerable to personal attacks on your feelings and emotions. Some presidents were much better than others at hiding their wounds, but Nixon didn't appear to be one of them with his sweaty upper lip, his scowls disguised as smiles, and his disparaging remarks about his critics (often behind closed doors, which accelerated his downfall and has continued to haunt him over a decade after his death).

There's a temptation, actually, to consider the argument that Nixon's legacy was not defined by his policies but by his personality. After all, he was hardly the only president embroiled in controversy. Unlike our last two presidents, however, he was utterly pathetic at explaining his way out of it. Bill Clinton could charm his way out of a torture chamber if necessary, while George Bush doesn't seem to take anything seriously enough for us to expect him to carry on mature conversations, much less give logical excuses for his mistakes (a particular scene in W. comes to mind).

How would Clinton and Bush have fared against David Frost (or his contemporary version, Ryan Seacrest)? I'm not sure, but it's interesting to think about considering their shameful brotherhood. Yes, Clinton's transgressions were significantly more personal than Bush's bad deeds, but the point is that both left office with some owning up to do (and it should not not be forgotten that like Nixon, Clinton also faced impeachment). So we've had three presidents in a span of 30 years that, depending on who you ask, betrayed the oath of the country's highest office. Isn't it ironic?

Maybe not. Despite our best efforts to make them otherwise, these men have all been fallible humans like you and me. Their mistakes play out on a much bigger stage and their actions are analyzed like so many tabloid stars of the moment. They screw things up royally every now and then, and sometimes people die.

It's reason enough to make you protest, vote, or run for office yourself. You think somebody must be able to do a better job, despite so much evidence to the contrary (name me an honest politician and I'll name you two facing trial). Am I that cynical? No, not really. To the contrary, I'll be excitedly attending the inauguration of our 44th president in less than a month. There is a large serving of hope on my plate, but I've always found it goes well with a warm side of hesitancy, and after Frost/Nixon I have little reason to think otherwise.

What did you take home?

December 25, 2008

REVIEW: Valkyrie (B+)

The biggest surprise of Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, besides the fact that Hitler lives (surprise!), is that it only took about five minutes for me to accept that S.S. officers were speaking with American and British accents. Part of this is because the first few minutes are mostly taken up by a massive bombing sequence that drowns out all voices, but most of it is because early on in the movie I realized I was hooked, and what was being said was more urgently important than how it was being said.

How is it possible to become gripped with suspense when the ending of the story is already known? I can't very well explain it but by pointing to something like United 93 or, more recently, Man on Wire (the relation between the two being eerily but entirely coincidental). One argument could be that it's the mark of good storytelling, but that would only make sense if Singer's recent movies (Superman Returns, X-Men, X2) had not been such dull stories compared to his earlier ones (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil). In any case, while part of Valkyrie's success as a narrative may be Singer's direction, the rest of it must be due to the significance of the issue at hand: a brazen assassination attempt on Hitler by officers in his own army, led by Colonel Claus con Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise).

It's a story that I have to admit I was only vaguely familiar with beforehand. Even if I recognized a handful of the participant's names, I knew nothing about the details of the planned coup, or how it ultimately went awry. Fortunately for me, Singer is a gifted director when it comes to suspense, occasionally injecting spooks and frights but otherwise maintaining a palpable amount of tension throughout the most important scenes. Indeed, Valkyrie's is the type of historical thriller that, at the peak of its power (right at about the halfway mark), sucked the breath out of the room and elicited involuntary cries of "Oh no!" from the audience. I wonder if I was the only one who was reminded of the NOC list heist scene in Mission: Impossible.

Chances are, because I doubt anybody else in the theater was waxing nostalgic about Tom Cruise The Actor (as I like to define him) like I was. What can I say? I love the guy's work, whether screaming at a video monitor in Tropic Thunder or screaming over the phone in Valkyrie. He consistently plays different versions of the same character (Born on the Fourth of July and Collateral being notable exceptions), but I enjoy all of them, especially when, as in Valkyrie (and The Firm and A Few Good Men), he plays the petulant, defiant hero.

Although this is Cruise's movie from beginning to end, the supporting performances by a cast that includes great character actors like Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Wilkinson shouldn't be overlooked. Nor should the meticulous attention to detail in all aspects of the production, including the scenes filmed on location in Berlin (which were temporarily in jeopardy when Germany prohibited Cruise from working in the country due to his devotion to Scientology).

Is it that hard to find German actors these days?

Despite all of the praise I've lauded on Valkyrie, it's not without its flaws. For one thing, we really have no idea who Claus von Stauffenberg was or what his motives were in overthrowing the Third Reich. An awkward narration of a diary entry as the film opens is an attempt at setting the stage, but it's inadequate when it's not confusing (Cruise switches from English to accented German halfway through it). Additionally (though perhaps this shouldn't be considered a point of criticism), the message of hope in Valkyrie is almost completely ruined by the devastating ending. I wasn't expecting a triumph of the human spirit like Slumdog Millionaire, but it would have been nice to learn how von Stauffenberg inspired other mutinies throughout history, or how Operation Valkyrie ultimately affected the Nazi war effort. In that light, Valkyrie should not be viewed as an insightful historical account (compared to something like 2004's outstanding Downfall), but as a watchable suspense thriller it, like von Stauffenberg, almost gets the job done.

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

Total: 44/50= 88% = B+

REVIEW: Bedtime Stories (B)

"Is this really what I have to do to get people to watch my movies?"

Find my review from the Star Tribune here. It seems I'm in extreme opposition to the critical consensus in enjoying Bedtime Stories, but all I can say is that I watched it as a silly Disney movie for kids, while it appears others expected a mature, witty comedy for grown-ups.

Writing - 8
Acting - 9
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Social Significance - 3

Total: 43/50= 86% = B

December 24, 2008

Short Cuts: "How's Your Faith Now?" & "I Wasn't Talking to You"

A double feature of Short Cuts this week since I skipped it on December 10th. There are hundreds of Christmas movies to choose from but I've narrowed it down to two popular ones, one reverent and the other anything but.

To all those who celebrate it, have a Merry Christmas. I'm in Las Vegas for the week, desperately trying to thaw out before returning to the inhospitably frozen landscape of the Twin Cities...

The Nativity Story
(2006). Directed by Catherine Hardwicke; written by Mike Rich; starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, Ciarán Hinds, Oscar Isaac, and Shohreh Aghdashloo.

There's weird irony in the fact that Keisha Castle-Hughes was actually an unwed, pregnant 16 year-old while filming this, and yes, the movie lacks an intensity that the story deserves, but The Nativity Story is nonetheless a decent retelling of the birth of Christ.

And for those whose celebrations aren't as spiritual, there are always classics like Bad Santa or Christmas Vacation, which two decades after its release is as much of a Christmas tradition as a tree for some families. Great movie, but I've never understood why they ditched the "Holiday Road" segment for the opening credits in place of a curiously kid-friendly animated sequence - anybody?

Christmas Vacation (1989). Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik; written by John Hughes; starring Chevy Chase, Randy Quaid, Beverly D'Angelo, Johnny Galecki, Juliette Lewis, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

December 19, 2008

REVIEW: Yes Man (C+)

Of all the quirky character traits a movie's protagonist could have, an inability to say the word "no" has a surprising amount of potential. Unfortunately, Yes Man's team of young writers took the concept far too literally; the awkwardly meandering story makes it clear they were saying "yes" to just about any idea that popped up in their writing sessions. As I haven't read the book on which it's based, which details the real-life experiment of Scottish humorist Danny Wallace, I can't say with any authority that parts of it are completely made up.

But if the idea was to make an inspiring movie about living life out loud and seeking new experiences, ridiculously juvenile scenes (portraying oral sex from an elderly neighbor, for example) greatly reduce any chance that Yes Man can be seen for anything other than what it is: a completely predictable, ultimately disappointing romantic comedy. Clearly playing off of Liar Liar, the set-up also reminded me of Shallow Hal, which yes, also has plenty of immaturity to spare (it is a Farrelly Brothers movie), but leaves you with a more meaningful lesson, if not a lot more humor, than Yes Man.

Jim Carrey's career is in need of a good boost, but as perfect as he is for this part, the spotlight primarily shines on Rhys Darby, who doesn't stray much from his character on HBO's "Flight of the Conchords", and Zooey Deschanel, the underachieving actress who unknowingly almost killed her career last summer in The Happening. Together along with Bradley Cooper (an experienced actor known mostly from Wedding Crashers) and Terence Stamp (who plays a conscientious S.S. officer next week in Valkyrie), the cast ambles its way through repetitive gags and a disappointingly bland storyline.

The major laughs come from the minor situations - a Harry Potter-themed party, a mail-order bride fiasco, Korean language lessons (Carrey actually learned some Korean for the part). This is the good stuff, but it's still overshadowed by one too many sight gags, as if to prove Carrey can still do slapstick comedy as he inches toward age 50. Why not make use of his dramatic talent and add a little heart and soul to the character? And here's another thing: at one point his character clearly says "No" (in denying that he's a terrorist). Is this an egregious error in the story, or is there something I missed about the rules of the game? If so, forgive me for losing focus - and interest - as the movie progressed.

"Hey buddy, don't you go stealing every scene from me now..."

I'm not exactly sure why Yes Man is being rolled out during the Christmas season, where it's likely to get lost in the shuffle of the award contenders. Why not position it for a strong March or April release, where it clearly belongs? Maybe the story has come to life and the studio is saying "yes" to a risky marketing campaign. Or maybe I'm wrong and the movie will strike gold during this gloomy economic period. Either way, can you wait to see it on DVD or during its inevitable repeated play on TBS? Yes, man.

Writing - 7
Acting - 9
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Social Significance - 3

Total: 39/50= 78% = C+

December 18, 2008

Theater Seens: Titanic

I know it may be hard to believe, but it's entirely a coincidence that I'm posting about Titanic on December 18th for the second year in a row. The date holds zero significance in my memory of the movie (I first saw it on Christmas Day in 1997), but this just happens to be the day on which this edition of Theater Seens falls. Go figure. I'm not sure I have another post in me for next year, but now that this is a tradition I just might keep it going. It's not even one of my favorite movies or the best movie I've ever seen, but considering nothing approached its magnitude for 10 full years, Titanic always loomed large in my head. The crown has been passed, of course, to The Dark Knight, which is the only movie I've observed to dominate the box office and the popular culture in the same way, despite lacking catch phrases and a record number of Oscar nominations.

Anyway, I think it was a 7:00 or 8:00 PM show that Christmas night that we saw Titanic. Along with another friend, my family and I bundled through the snowy night to the (now closed) Har-Mar Theaters in Roseville. It's pretty funny to think of some of the epic movies I saw on those Har-Mar screens, including Titanic and The Lord of the Rings a few years later. There was no stadium seating at Har-Mar and the theaters were arranged like airplane cabins - 50 rows of three seats on each side with an aisle down the middle. Well maybe that's a stretch, but either way the experience was like watching a 13" TV from the opposite end of a dark tunnel. Of course I hardly knew better at the time since most of the current multiplexes didn't exist, but when I saw my last ever movie at Har-Mar before it closed (an exclusive engagement of the locally-produced Sweet Land, in December 2006), I found myself almost laughing at how theaters had evolved in the decade prior.

Considering the t
heater in which I saw Titanic, then, it's amazing that my first experience with the movie was so memorable, especially the scene featured below. During the last panicked scamper to the highest point of the ship, I felt a rush of emotions as I watched many of the passengers give in to their fate, praying, jumping, and holding each other, all while the first-class passengers sat in their lifeboats and watched in silent horror.

By the time the electricity on the ship failed, we in the theater were stricken silent as well, a horrible feeling rising as a deep groan emanated from the innards of the ship. The rest of the scene is sheer terror as the Titanic splits in half and thousands of passengers fall to their icy deaths. It was hard for me to watch the bodies falling and hitting railings and propellers on their way down - an image that unfortunately now brings to mind those who jumped out of the buildings on 9/11. The look that Kate Winslet shares with the man on the railing next to her is also profound - he offers no guidance, no last words of hope. How often do people know that they're about to face certain death, and what can they say at that moment?

For many people I imagine Jack's drowning (which my brother memorably alerted me to right before we left for the theater) turned their sobbing into outright wailing, but I've never been very moved by the love story in this movie. Rose always seemed like she was just slumming it to have fun on the way to America, and Jack didn't appear to be someone who could ever settle into a relationship. Would they have lived happily ever after? It's romantic to believe so, but I don't think I bought into the emotions until my eyes welled up a little bit when Rose eventually joined Jack on the stairway landing.

I know there are a wide range of thoughts about this movie, the majority of them quite negative (you can read my thoughts on the movie's influence here). Even if you didn't enjoy Titanic, did the grand scale of the production leave any impression on you, especially if you saw it in the theater?

Without further ado, here's the scene (I love the irony of watching a scene from a movie this big on a screen this small):

December 16, 2008

Reel Life #3

I'm overwhelmed with articles for Reel Life, the occasional feature where I highlight news nuggets that I believe lend themselves well to film adaptations, so I might have to do another edition of this sooner than I thought. I'm trying to keep up with what's been in the news in the last month, but I still have some old ones I haven't checked off so it might be a while before I'm fully current. The running motto, as usual, is:

"This feature gets to the heart of my blogging and general film philosophy: bringing that which I see on screen into real world applications for my daily life. With these examples, the flow just happens to be in the opposite direction. As always, please share your comments on these stories and feel free to suggest or email me others that you find. All rights reserved if any Reel Life stories ever make their way to the big screen..."

"Do they really think the Earth is flat?"

This is outrageous. Truly mind-boggling. You've heard of people who hold onto conspiracy theories about America's moon landing being a hoax, but how about those who also refuse to believe the Earth is round? The Flat Earth Society, comprised of people from around the world (or should it be across the world?) believe the Earth is flat and horizontally infinite. The North Pole is the dot in the middle, and Antarctica is the border around the disc that prevents you from actually sailing off the edge of the Earth. A documentary needs to be made about these "flat-earthers" because I'm endlessly fascinated at how they can deny reality. Or, somebody could take the story and run with it - "Journey to the Center of the Earth" but inside out: "Journey to the End of the Earth". Brilliant, so long as it doesn't star Brendan Fraser.

Story Potential: High
Project Possibilities: Feature length film; feature length documentary

"Minnesotan teens are sick freaks"

Actually I made up that headline, but enough disgusting stories have popped up recently that it's curiously disturbing, and two articles in particular lay out the depraved behavior going on around here. In Lakeville (possibly known to you as the exurb where an unfortunate voter thought Obama was an "Arab"), four teens lured a mentally disabled man to a rural location and tied him to a tree, beating, burning, and torturing him before knocking him unconscious over the course of two days (and not before dragging him behind a motorcycle for 200 feet). If you're psychopathic, I guess you would psychopathically say he "deserved it" if he had done something terrible. But he didn't - he didn't do anything, in fact, other than befriend a crazy 16 year-old girl who sicced her crazy friends on the completely defenseless 24 year-old for literally no reason at all. It's the kind of story that keeps you awake at night.

And if you do fall asleep you'll have nightmares about your loved ones in the local nursing home. In Albert Lea (two hours south of the Twin Cities), six teens were charged with sexual abusing and taunting the elderly residents. Read the attached abuse reports for the horrific details. The only thing more disgusting than the story itself is the fact the teens, pictured in the article, will probably smile and giggle their way out of their just punishment: hard time in prison and years of psychotherapy. Even worse, one of the girls' fathers came out in their defense after the girls admitted the abuse, explaining that they were simply "carrying out the duties of their job."

I'm not interested in a horror movie made from these stories, but a documentary on the terrifying future of America. How do humans like this exist, and how can their behavior, if not their reproduction altogether, be stopped immediately?

Story Potential: Limited
Project Possibilities: Feature length documentary

"Combat to college"

When the U.S. went to war in Iraq five years ago, I kept on finding dead ends in conversations with people when I brought up the number of veterans we were going to have in this country in the future. Almost two million men and women, mostly from my generation, have served in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001. Of them, "only" about 4,000 have lost their lives (medical technology and military strategy have significantly decreased casualties, but increased the number of wounded). The rest will be living and working with you and I for the rest of our lives, depending on our taxes to support the social services they need to survive. Apparently people are only now waking up to this fact? The short-sightedness is breathtaking. Anyway, veterans have already seen some time on the big screen (the best examples being The War Tapes and Stop-Loss), but this issue is not going to go away anytime soon (it's about to get much bigger in our lives, actually), and this article about returning vets heading to college provides some interesting and fresh material for future projects.

Story Potential: High
Project Possibilities: Feature length film; feature length documentary

"In Mexico drug war, sorting good guys from bad"

In Mexico in the last year alone, nearly 5,000 people have been senselessly murdered, many of them innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of one of the most shocking drug wars of our time. The police are the drug kingpins are the prosecutors are the mob bosses, and all other people are potential pawns, fair game to be used as ammo, collateral, and ransom payment. No one can be trusted and everyone's corrupt. It's articles like this that need to be read by Americans having fits about an influx of our neighbors to the South, if only to understand that these people are almost approaching refugee status in Mexico as it becomes an increasingly lawless place. I would argue that building up our borders is not going to stop those desperate to flee that country, so energy might be better spent developing Mexican infrastructure and stopping this out-of-control drug war, thus killing two birds with one stone? Maybe a movie will provide some insights.

Story Potential: Very High
Project Possibilities: Feature length film; feature length documentary

"Chinese girl gets 'kiss of deaf'"

This screams "silly romantic comedy for February or March release": a 20-something Chinese girl went partially deaf after receiving a passionate kiss from her boyfriend, prompting a series of media warnings about the "dangers of excessive kissing". Isn't Drew Barrymore permanently on call for roles like this?

Story Potential: Low to Moderate
Project Possibilities: Feature length film


"Pirates' luxury lifestyles on lawless coasts"

Crawl out of your cave if you still haven't heard about the unprecedented pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia. With ransom payments going over the $30 million mark, these pirates are essentially creating a new industry for a nation desperately trying to keep itself together. While the West wrings its hands about how to get its ships through the treacherous waters, rural villagers in Somalia can hardly complain about the luxurious benefits they're receiving as a trickle-down effect of the piracy. Will this story end - and how?

Story Potential: Moderate to High
Project Possibilities: Feature length film


"Mysterious piano in woods perplexes police"

A Baldwin Acrosonic piano was found by a woman walking in the woods near Harwich, MA. The piano was in tune, in good working order, and was positioned with a bench in place for an inspired passerby to sit on. You could go in all kinds of directions with this one: a documentary about pollution, a horror flick about musical ghosts, a sci-fi drama about an ancient piano that travels through time and gets played by famous people in history, a kid's movie about a piano-playing forest animal, and so on and so forth. Alright so maybe I wouldn't make a very good producer, but something about this one makes me feel like it could work well in the hands of a creative writer or director.

Story Potential: High
Project Possibilities: Feature length film
, documentary short

December 15, 2008

Listen Up: Here Come the Talkies

First up, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, February 5, 2009

Anyone who knows me, or who's read this blog with any regularity, is aware of my uncontrollably violent urges to strike down anyone who utters a word during a movie in the theater. Talking should be an offense punishable by at least one year ban from the theater, if not something much, much worse.

But what if the person talking is the film's director?

We'll have our chance to find out on February 5, 2009, when The Talkies debuts in the Twin Cities with a screening of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Heights Theater, where director John Cameron Mitchell will provide a commentary track that you literally will not (and cannot) hear anywhere else. Here's how it works:

At 7:00 PM, a 35 MM print of Hedwig and the Angry Inch will be shown.

At 9:00 PM, a 35 MM print of Hedwig and the Angry Inch will be shown while John Cameron Mitchell, live in the theater, provides a running commentary.

Who came up with this brilliant idea? Tim Massett, a newcomer to Minnesota who is today no doubt regretting his decision to come here (the high temperature today is 6 degrees below zero) from Jacksonville, FL, where he successfully launched The Talkies with appearances by Herschell Gordon Lewis, John Waters, and George Romero. It's "cinema shouting back". It's film shown in the theater, where it's meant to be seen. It's terrific.

And it's the only time I would ever tolerate talking during a movie.

Tragically, I already know that I have a prior engagement that night, which means that YOU (if you're in Minnesota or anywhere near it) have to go and report back here.

Tickets are on sale now at You can buy a ticket for the first show only or the second show only, but if you have any sense at all you'll go for the "Communist Special": the whole evening for only $25. Definitely worth the price for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and to make the deal even more sweet, it's at the beautiful Heights Theater. Tim even tells me that every effort is going to be made to dust off the legendary Wurlitzer organ and play the soundtrack to the film as folks find their seats!

How could you pass this up?


In the spirit of promoting local cinematic events, I would be remiss to also not mention Barry Kryshka's currently running series at the Parkway Theater. In fact I should have done so last week - sorry, Barry! Ready for Our Close-Up: 50 Years of L.A. Noir is a great collection of five films showcasing the dark underbelly of the City of Angels: Sunset Boulevard, Mildred Pierce, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

I was at the well-attended screening of Sunset Boulevard last week (in the middle of a blizzard, no less) and I have to say, seeing these old classics on the big screen is absolutely exhilarating. Barry screened some screwball comedies last April and it was an unforgettable experience to watch His Girl Friday in a theater full of laughing movie-lovers.

As always, tickets are only $5 - and you can even bring in your food and drinks from Pepito's. Don't miss this chance to see these classics in the theater!

December 14, 2008

(Movie) News You Need to Know: Hmong Realities and Hoop Dreams

"Gran Torino Connects Hmong Minnesotans with Hollywood"

In the Twin Cities Daily Planet a couple of weeks ago, Lisa Peterson-De La Cueva wrote a really interesting piece about how Hmong culture is being portrayed in Clint Eastwood's upcoming movie Gran Torino, which I expect will get at least three Oscar nominations.

The film was written by a Minnesotan and it's meant to be about Minnesotans. Legend has it that local construction worker and fruit truck driver Nick Schenk, who had previously never had a screenplay produced, but had been involved with short-lived programs like Comedy Central's "Let's Bowl" (which was filmed here at some really random bowling alleys - White Bear Bowl, anyone?), wrote Gran Torino with a pen and paper at Grumpy's in Northeast (it's a local dive bar, for those of you who don't know Minneapolis). He's including his friend Dave Johannson as a co-writer, even though according to Schenk, "Dave sells furnaces for the gas company."

These guys couldn't be more amateur if they tried - which is awesome, even though it will inevitably lead to Diablo Cody comparisons, who outrageously won Best Screenplay last year for a little movie she wrote here while sitting at the Starbucks inside a Target in Plymouth or somewhere. Anyway, you can learn more about Schenk's fascinating story in a recent L.A. Times article. He sounds like a cool guy, even though he's seemingly unbothered by the dirty little secret he's about to expose about Minnesota: "When I was working construction, I'd meet a lot of guys like Walt Kowalski."

Finally we can put "Minnesota Nice" to its long overdue rest! Or not...

Like Juno, Gran Torino was originally set in Minnesota but it wasn't filmed here. Entirely for tax reasons, Eastwood moved production of the movie to Michigan and lightly modified the story for the new location. Here's the problem: Gran Torino is about Eastwood vs. Hmong teenagers, and Michigan's Hmong population is a tiny fraction of Minnesota's (more Hmong live here than any state except California).

And so, money that was saved in moving filming to Michigan was immediately spent in flying Hmong actors and actresses in from Minnesota, as well as Dyane Hang Garvey, the on-set Hmong cultural consultant (and main focus of the article). I give Eastwood major credit for his decision to so accurately portray Hmong culture (albeit Hmong culture in Minnesota, not Michigan), which is apparently the result of his always faithful commitment to filming screenplays exactly as they are written.

According to the Daily Planet article, "A few scenes in the movie required a deep understanding and knowledge of Hmong culture to produce." Considering that Hmong population is fairly segregated in St. Paul here, I'm impressed that Schenk knew Hmong culture well enough to write about it - and that Eastwood and Warner Brothers went to such lengths to try and portray it accurately. Needless to say, I can't wait to see this movie.


"Basketball Players Still Bound by 'Hoop Dreams'"

This is a brief update
by Sara Olkon from the Chicago Tribune about the subjects of Hoop Dreams . I feel like I've read recent profiles on William Gates and Arthur Agee because I knew that Gates was now a pastor, but I had no idea there existed a follow-up documentary called Hoop Realities from 2006. Has anybody seen or heard of this? It played at the Virginia Film Festival last year but information about it is less than scarce. Anyway, the article may be interesting if you're wondering what Gates and Agee have been doing for the last 14 years. Here's the bittersweet short version: neither of them ever played in the NBA.

The 20 Actresses Meme

A few months ago I didn't even know what a "meme" was, but apparently it's the hot new thing. One created by Fletch completely owned the internet for a few weeks, and now a meme created by Nathaniel at The Film Experience is popping up everywhere. To my knowledge, I've been tagged by at least four people in the last week: Scott (elgringo), Pat, T.S., and Ibetolis. Although this was not a list that came to me as easily as I expected (I'm sure my friend Beaver would have a great time jabbing me here since he accuses me of never liking any actresses, which is only true as far as Angelina Jolie and Julianne Moore and a few other big names are concerned; yes, I admit a least favorite actress list might have flown right out of me), in the holiday spirit I feel I must oblige my fellow bloggers.

In no order, and as they've naturally come to me. I'll include a memorable role for each of them.

The Legends:
  • Katherine Hepburn (The African Queen)
  • Grace Kelly (Rear Window)
  • Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep)
  • Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca)
  • Vanessa Redgrave (Mission: Impossible) - yep, the '96 version

The What Have You Done for Me Lately? Group:
  • Robin Wright Penn (Breaking and Entering)
  • Elizabeth Shue (Back to the Future Part II)
  • Frances McDormand (North Country)
  • Susan Sarandon (Thelma & Louise)
  • Hilary Swank (Freedom Writers)
  • Angela Bassett (Akeelah and the Bee)
  • Salma Hayek (Frida)
  • Diane Lane (The Perfect Storm)
  • Uma Thurman (Tape)
  • Jennifer Connelly (Requiem for a Dream)

The Contemporaries:

Considering this is already a week old, I won't go through the trouble of researching who has and has not already taken part. If you're reading this and you're interested, consider yourself tagged!

December 12, 2008

REVIEW: Let the Right One In (A)

I’ve never liked horror movies. If they don’t freak me out (and it doesn’t take much), they just don’t seem worth my time and money. What’s the point of watching The Strangers, for example? Most people would say to have some laughs, but the comedy’s always been lost on me. I do like the occasional fright from the comfort of a movie theater seat - something to get the adrenaline flowing. But if I’m looking for that fix, I usually prefer the suspense of something like No Country for Old Men (not a horror movie but more gripping than most) to the gore of Saw V or The Midnight Meat Train.

In a roundabout way, this brings me to Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (
Låt den rätte komma in), a Swedish vampire film that won awards at both the Toronto and Tribeca film festivals, and also received glowing praise from Craig Kennedy and Marilyn Ferdinand in recent months. It’s been described as everything from a coming-of-age drama to a teen romance to, well, a horror movie - but of a different breed. Based on the novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also adapted the screenplay), it tells the story of Oskar, a 12 year-old boy living with his mother in a dense apartment complex on the outskirts of Stockholm. Like many bullied pre-teens whose parents have split up, Oskar spends most of his time alone, keeping private hobbies and fantasizing about seeking vengeance against the kids who torment him at school.

It’s so easy to overlook characters like Oskar as stock characters in movies and novels, but having been a middle school teacher for a few years I can say with confidence that there are millions of Oskars suffering through their awkward adolescent years. Unfortunately, most of them don’t have a friend like Eli, the young girl who moves into the apartment next to Oskar’s. Eli smells funny, doesn’t wear a jacket out in the wintry night, and can’t eat the candy Oskar shares with her. She’s a vampire, which doesn’t explain why she can complete a Rubik’s Cube overnight, but does explain her horrifying attacks on the local townspeople in a desperate attempt to stay alive on their blood. She doesn’t live alone, but the man who cares for her (by woefully hunting humans to bring blood back for her) isn’t necessarily her father.

Additional subplots and the final resolution are best experienced while watching Let the Right One In, so I won’t say more about the story other than that it’s a completely engaging 114 minutes of film, and as ironic as it sounds, it’s a story that makes vampires much more human than I ever considered. Much of this realization can be attributed to the fascinating dialogue between Oskar and Eli, and it’s easy to see why Alfredson wanted to bring Lindqvist’s book to life.

Oskar and Eli don’t talk to each other as human to vampire, but adolescent to adolescent. Lighter films would include a montage with a pop song playing over scenes of the pair throwing snowballs and sharing a hot chocolate, but the lack of such fluff actually deepens the bond between Oskar and Eli. They’re not “play friends”, but soulmates from different worlds, who depend on each other not for entertainment but for survival. Innocent and tender, their relationship is ultimately optimistic, even though the last scene foreshadows tragic circumstances on the horizon.

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is just looking for a friend who understands him...

Words like "moving" and "touching" have been used a lot in the few descriptions I've read about Let the Right One In. There are many opportunities to access these heartfelt emotions during the movie, but I didn’t leave as inspired so much as I left impressed. I was almost shocked, actually, for having seen such a brilliant story told in such an outstanding fashion. As Oskar and Eli, respectively, Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson are young stars in the making, and so is director Alfredson, who convinced me that some horror films can offer a lot more than haunting images. It was snowing, dark, and strangely quiet as I walked back to my apartment from the theater, and I kept a keen eye out for possible vampires lurking in alleys – not out of fear, but fascination.

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

Total: 47/50= 94% = A

December 9, 2008

"Buzz" Goes the Oscar Bee - Some Theories...

Already? It's already time to start with the Oscar picks? I wait for the big day all year long, and here I am almost oblivious to the fact that it's less than 100 days away.

Getafilm is not the place to come for your awards coverage, but that doesn't mean I'm not obsessed with the Oscar ceremony, which I watch with the reverence of a monk. I don't watch it to celebrate the celebrities and the winners, but to commemorate the last year in film, which of course corresponds in many ways to the last year in my life.

Anyway, I don't cover the awards here, but there are many people who do, namely at Awards Daily, Cinematic Passions, Fataculture, From the Front Row, Inside the Gold, Living in Cinema and Strange Culture. And of course the Carpetbagger, In Contention, and The Envelope. Those are the spots where I'll be checking in over the next few months.

But in the meantime, and in the spirit of the loud buzz that is emanating from Hollywood since Thanksgiving, I have some general Oscar theories that I consider each year:

1.) A one word title is a significant advantage in the Best Picture race.

Since 2000, three Best Picture winners have had one word titles: Gladiator, Chicago, and Crash. Additional nominees since then include Chocolat, Seabiscuit, Ray, Capote, Juno, and more:

Considering this, keep an eye this year on Che, Changeling, Ballast, Doubt, Milk, Valkyrie, Hunger, and Australia. I'll also add these: WALL-E, Frost/Nixon, Happy-Go-Lucky, and W. They may not technically be one word, but close enough, right?

2.) The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) loves Clint Eastwood - like LOVES him.

Dig this: in three out of the last five years, Eastwood has been nominated for both Best Director and Best Picture. Both awards, three times since 2003! He even pulled a Best Actor nomination during that stretch, for Million Dollar Baby in 2004.

What does that mean this year? Gran Torino has to be considered a dark horse, if not a front-runner, for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. Barring some public relations disaster in the next two months, I could literally see it winning all three of those. Eastwood knows exactly how to play Oscar politics. He knows when and how to release his films, and he's treated like a king in Hollywood. Never count him out.

3.) Kate Winslet has to win an Oscar at some point...right?

The woman is one of the greatest actresses of her generation, having been nominated for Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress five times in the last twelve years. She just turned 33 years old. Are you kidding me?

This year, she is the only A-lister to have two possible Best Picture nominations in the race: The Reader, and Revolutionary Road, the more likely favorite that reteams her with Leonardo DiCaprio, 10 years removed from their career-making work in Titanic.

It's possible that she'll be nominated against herself for work in both of these movies, and if she still loses - wow.

Hmm, I thought I had some more but I can't remember them now. This is really the first time I've started to seriously consider next year's winners, so maybe they'll come back to me as the race kicks into high gear.

Do you have any annual Oscar theories?

December 8, 2008

REVIEW: Australia (C+)

Australia bears all the hallmarks of an old Hollywood epic: sappy romance, horrifying bombing scenes, exotic culture, campy comedy, beautiful panoramas, evil villains and a majestic musical score. It's all grand and nostalgic. So then why is the movie such a disappointment?

For one thing, it's way too long. I recently heard an interview with L.A. Times critic Kenneth Turan, who quipped that Australia was one of the few movies to feature its own sequel within its running time. It's true - the movie literally ends, with everything tidily resolved, before starting all over again. But it's not that having two movies in one is Australia's problem. It's that both of the movies are bad, which makes it a doubly long chore to sit through.

Unfortunately, Australia bears little of the experimental fun of Baz Luhrmann's last two films, the acclaimed Moulin Rouge! and the underrated Romeo + Juliet. Like most people, I enjoyed those for their wild spirits, not for their conventional character, which makes you wonder why Luhrmann decided on telling a story from his native land with such by-the-book blandness. Somewhere in Australia (and Australia) is an interesting story, but it's obscured by all kinds of unnecessary details (who really cares about the technicalities of a real estate battle in the Outback?).

I'd have liked to learn more about Aboriginal culture, for example, which hasn't been touched on film since 2002's unforgettable Rabbit-Proof Fence (which also starred David Gulpilil, who plays King George here). In Australia, we get whiffs of the controversy and a cute face to admire (newcomer Brandon Walters, who was evidently directed by Luhrmann to channel Jar-Jar Binks), but the discussions are hardly thought-provoking, mostly because you realize everything is meant to revolve around the romance between Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, both native Australians who agreed to star without having read the screenplay. The end result is that I wasn't moved by either the love story or the cultural story, and I was roll
ing my eyes much more than I was my wiping tears away from them.

It's not that there aren't touching moments, but they're mostly accidental and even then they can be attributed to honest acting more than honest writing. Several deaths are truly tragic, and the backdrop of war behind everything eventually adds a somber mood (it's almost welcome by that point). But everytime you feel a touch of emotion coming on there's a silly joke to break up the mood or an impressive visual (and there are some very beautiful shots) to distract you from your own feelings.

Nicole Kidman searches for the end of the movie, not knowing it doesn't exist...

Australia presents us with a veritable smorgasbord of cinematic delights and plot tangents, and it's impossible not to feel uncomfortably full after consuming all of them. You can't push the plate away because it just keeps piling up with more, like some nightmarish buffet for the senses (it's fitting that the film was released at Thanksgiving). The same could probably be said for Moulin Rouge!, but as showy and theatrical as that was, there was something more... real about it. Additionally, it had a great soundtrack compared to Australia, which is almost entirely centered around "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". Hugh Jackman asks his droving buddy not to whistle the tune near the end of the movie because it reminds him of a happier time in his life. I felt the same way, actually, and was relieved when he mercifully stopped whistling, partly because I'd grown tired of the song, but mostly because it reminded me of a better movie - one that I knew I'd rather be watching.

Writing - 7
Acting - 9
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 6
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 39/50= 78% = C+
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