March 31, 2008

REVIEW: Stop-Loss (A-)

Background: Nine years ago, Kimberly Peirce won a trophy case full of "Outstanding Directorial Debut" awards for Boys Don't Cry. Then she disappeared. When her younger brother enlisted in the Army after 9/11 and served in Iraq, she began developing a screenplay about soldiers going AWOL which eventually became Stop-Loss, named after the involuntary service extension policy created by Congress after the Vietnam War. Distributed by MTV Films (who most recently brought us How She Move), Stop-Loss was taken on a tour of college campuses and heavily marketed to teens, despite its justified R-rating. Many of the actors are familiar faces to those under 30: Ryan Phillippe (Breach), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Lookout), Channing Tatum (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints), Rob Brown (Finding Forrester), and Timothy Olyphant (Live Free or Die Hard), to name just a few. You'll also recognize Ciaran Hinds (There Will Be Blood) in already his third film of 2008, and you may know Alex Frost from Gus Van Sant's disturbing Elephant.

Synopsis: We meet a group of U.S. soldiers in Tikrit as they are routinely manning a checkpoint. A shootout leads to a chase that leads to an ambush, and the troops, led by Sgt. Brandon King (Phillippe), suffer several casualties. Tommy Burgess (Gordon-Levitt) loses his best friend, Steve Shriver (Tatum) gets trapped in a building, and Rico Rodriguez (Victor Rasuk) loses two limbs and his sight. Shaken, the unit arrives back home in Texas to celebrate, commemorate, and commiserate, but it only takes one night for us to know they aren't the same young men who left. Alcohol is the preferred method of therapy, but violence and shooting stuff in the woods suffice in between hangovers. King has finished his tours and thinks he's home to stay, but when the unit reports to base on Monday he learns he's been stop-lossed and is scheduled to go back to Iraq within a matter of weeks. Enraged, he takes off for D.C. with Shriver's girlfriend, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), where he hopes to cash in on a favor from a smiley senator. Along the way he struggles with his status as a fugitive and the terrors that haunt his mind. His buddies back home aren't faring much better - Tommy especially is having a difficult time handling his friend's death. When King realizes the senator can't help a fugitive, he's thrown for a loop. He visits Rico in the hospital and buys a Canadian passport just in case he decides to flee, but his guilt is weighing too heavily on him, and a visit from Shriver combined with an incident back home convinces King that his options are limited. He can't handle another tour, but is he willing to live in paranoia and guilt for the rest of his life?

I Loved:
+ When King visited Rico at the army hospital - one of the most important scenes in the movie.
+ Victor Rasuk as Rico Rodriguez. Raising Victor Vargas is one of my favorite movies of the decade, and I can't get enough of this guy. He was also great as Tony Alva in Lords of Dogtown, and I hope he gets some better roles in the future.

I Liked:
+ Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Channing Tatum, again. Gordon-Levitt has successfully erased the developing ("3rd Rock from the Sun") years of his career with solid roles in Brick, The Lookout, and this, and Tatum is 2/2 by my count after Saints. They'll both be in next year's G.I. Joe.
+ The first 10 minutes - that combat looked more believable to me than any other dramatizations that have come out of Iraq. No stupid jokes, no dog running across the alley to break the tension, and no easy heroics. Just pure, unflinching horror that set the tone for us to understand the characters the rest of the way.
+ Abbie Cornish as Michelle. As really the only female presence in the movie, she successfully and simultaneously added the important representation of the Army wife, girlfriend, sister, and fiancee.
As an Australian, her Texan accent was pretty good, too. I'm positive I recognize her from something, but her only other credit that I've seen is A Good Year, and I don't think it's from that. I'm stumped.

I Disliked:
- The funeral scene - it was poorly written and too long.
- Rob Brown, who was discovered at an open casting call for Finding Forrester and hasn't done much since. Either he's in the wrong line of business or he's just unable to find solid roles.
- The epilogue text about Bush and stop-loss statistics. It wasn't underhanded or inappropriate, but it wasn't necessary, either. Anybody who's not troubled by what they've seen in the last two hours won't be convinced by some numbers, and anybody who wasn't already aware of stop-loss is probably too far out of it to understand anyway.

I Hated:
- "LET THE BODIES HIT THE FLOOR!" This song by Drowning Pool has now made its second appearance on screen in the last two months. Who writes something like this? Would you want to go to that concert? I must be the only one disturbed that this is becoming the unofficial theme song for U.S. troops and that Drowning Pool has been the most popular U.S.O. touring act for the last few years. Yes, it's catchy and I "get it," but...well, maybe I don't. "Killing music" isn't really my preferred genre.

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

Total: 46/50= 92% = A-

Last Word: At the five year mark of the war a couple of weeks ago, I lamented that Hollywood has poured out over 100 movies about Iraq and somehow still added little to the discussion. Consider Stop-Loss the counterargument. Sharply directed and superbly acted, it's the first important movie about the war in Iraq, and the only one I can recommend that isn't a documentary.
It isn't perfect, and it's not The Deer Hunter or Coming Home, but it's a lot better than you would think an MTV-produced movie made for teenagers would be. Kimberly Peirce has absolutely nailed her sophomore effort and proven to those unconvinced that a woman can translate the horrors of war as well as a Clint Eastwood or Oliver Stone (and I'm hopeful that she'll help forge a path for female directors behind her). There are a few melodramatic moments and the writing isn't airtight, but the film packs an emotional punch because the characters are people that we know exist all around us, and will for the rest of our lives. Stop-Loss forces us to accept this reality as much as we don't want to. We can go back to our TVs and movie blogs and other distractions, but are we going to be ready when the real effects of the war start here? When hundreds of thousands of veterans are going through the same unexaggerated struggles as these characters? That question has been on my mind for about five years now, but Stop-Loss is the first mainstream movie (The War Tapes from '06 is a similar doc) that may wake up the public and start a dialogue about the future. Hopefully we can at least agree on the importance of that discussion in this polarized and partisan culture, and Kimberly Peirce has successfully attempted to initiate one.

March 30, 2008

REVIEW: Run, Fatboy, Run (C+)

Background: Simon Pegg isn't really a household name in the U.S. yet, but a rapidly growing number of movie fans know the British actor as the public face of the partnership he shares with best friend Nick Frost, with whom he co-wrote and directed Shaun of the Dead and last year's (fantastic) Hot Fuzz. Taking a break from buddy farces, Pegg somehow ended up as the leading man in David Schwimmer's (yep, same one) directorial debut, Run, Fatboy, Run. Written by comedian Michael Ian Black and originally set in L.A., Fatboy was moved to London and Pegg was added as a co-writer. Filling out the cast are Thandie Newton (Crash, The Pursuit of Happyness) and Hank Azaria ("The Simpsons," Dodgeball). If you're curious about when the next Nike River Run is, you'll have to wait for a sequel since the race doesn't actually exist. I don't think I've ever seen so many Nike swooshes in a movie.

Synopsis: Dennis Doyle (Pegg) is a paunchy neurotic who left his pregnant fiancée, Libby (Newton), at the altar five years ago. Dennis is forgetful and frequently flustered, but he's an upstanding guy and he loves seeing his now 5 year-old son, Jake, when Libby allows. We don't know much about Dennis and Libby's relationship since the wedding day, but Dennis is shocked at the sudden appearance of Libby's strapping new boyfriend, Whit (Azaria), who makes bank as a hedger and runs marathons for charities. Determined to prove his worth as a dad and as a man, Dennis plans to run in the upcoming charity marathon, the Nike River Run on the Thames - for erectile dysfunction, but against Whit. If you haven't figured out the conventional plot from this point on, you obviously haven't seen many movies, but I'll amuse you because I respect you for reading this: Dennis is coached by his best friend and his Indian landlord while Whit becomes more villainous by the hour. After an emotional setback, Dennis finds himself again just in time to set up the climactic race and predictable ending. Oh, and one important detail - somewhere in all of that a massive blister bursts open on somebody's face.

I Loved:
+ Simon Pegg in the moments when he actually had an opportunity to act.

I Liked:
+ Thandie Newton, as a character that was just a touch softer than her grating roles in Crash and The Pursuit of Happyness. The chemistry between her and Pegg worked well, too.
+ The soundtrack - especially the song playing when Libby opens the gift from Dennis.

I Disliked:
- The deliberately frequent butt shots. Is that an inside joke or a desperate reach for cheap laughs?
- The reliance on physical comedy, especially for Simon Pegg's character. Anybody (Mr. Bean?) can fall down a flight of stairs or trip over jumpropes, but it doesn't fit Pegg well enough to work. Kind of like Steve Carrell in Evan Almighty - these aren't slapstick actors, they're clever comics. Let them shine with their natural talents.
- Some awkward editing, for which I blame Schwimmer. The bun shop scene, for example, was stuttering and overdone.

I Hated:
- That no creative effort was put into mixing up the predictable clichés
. I thought Simon Pegg's writing credit would have added more wit to this, but it doesn't appear he did anything improve on Black's original work, and the movie suffers because of it.
- The exploding blister, which may have been appropriate in Shaun of the Dead, but was just abrupt and really gross here.

Grade:
Writing - 6
Acting - 9
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 3

Total: 39/50= 78% = C+

Last Word: Were it not for some light comedy and my admiration of Simon Pegg, I would have really hammered Run, Fatboy, Run as the predictable and ultimately bland movie that it is. It still loses points for formulaic writing and poor production, but it's not an out-and-out bad movie primarily because the silly emotions that you think you feel for the characters are actually genuine. The credit for this goes to the actors, and not just the three established stars. Newcomer Matthew Fenton subtly adds a surprising amount of charm and cheer as young Jake, and even Dylan Moran and Harish Patel add life to their poorly written characters. David Schwimmer did nothing to impress me here, but my low expectations overall didn't give me much reason to be disappointed. I liked seeing Thandie Newton be able to smile a bit more again, and Simon Pegg can do wrong in these harmless roles. I'm a little curious about how he'll be as Scotty in next year's Star Trek, but somewhere I read that he and Nick Frost are working a screenplay where Frost stars and Pegg supports as comic book convention attendees. Anyway, he's the only reason to make an effort to see Run, Fatboy, Run, which is fine for a theater trip but probably best as a DVD rental.

March 28, 2008

The Woes of Roseville



The closing of Roseville 4 next week marks the third Roseville (St. Paul, MN) theater closing in the last 15 months. Movie-goers have been pacified with the opening of the sparkling AMC Rosedale 14, but the bells and whistles don't fully comfort me in my disappointment. Though I'm most often found in Minneapolis theaters, the Roseville Three were conveniently located right between Minneapolis and St. Paul, and each had their own unique charm. The new AMC already has my loyal business, but as the last of the old Roseville reels burns up in a shameful mess on the celluloid-stained screen, it's only right to give proper eulogies:

Har-Mar:

Built in 1970, the gaudy theaters at the Har-Mar Mall were both loved and laughed at for their fanciful interiors, plush carpeting and crystal chandeliers. At different times both the largest and highest-grossing theater in the state, Har-Mar turned into a laughing stock as a new generation of theaters opened with stadium seating and digital sound. Toward the end, the experience of watching a movie there was like watching a TV from the other end of a tunnel. The only theater I've ever been two that's split into two sections of the mall (additional screens and a second box office were built when a mall grocery store closed), Har-Mar was last operated by AMC and closed the week after AMC Rosedale opened in December 2006.

Dates: 1970-2006
First movie I saw there: Don't remember
Last movie I saw there: Sweet Land, December 2006
Other good memories: Titanic, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings, The Big Kahuna
Legacy: Retro before retro was cool.


Pavilion Place at Crossroads Mall:


Stuck in the middle of what I consistently consider the worst mall in America, the United Artists Pavilion Place theaters never had much of a chance to thrive. The empty retail shops you passed by on the way to the theater always made you wonder if the place would actually exist when you eventually got there. I wasn't around for the excitement when Deep Impact played there, but I can't imagine it drew many people away from Lava Links, the mini-golf/Laser Tag arcade next door. Toward the end, Pavilion actually drew some great independent films, but it just wasn't enough to compete with AMC Rosedale 14 across the street.

Dates: ????-2007
First movie I saw there: Malcolm X, I think
Last movie I saw there: Casino Royale, November 2006
Other good memories: Antwone Fisher, The Prestige
Legacy:
A favorite for teens and dates despite the lack of a food court in the mall - or anything else besides a creepy Army recruiting booth.


Roseville 4:

A first-run theater when it opened in 1974, Roseville 4's legendary charm eventually made it one of the most popular discount theaters in the Twin Cities. All tickets were $2 - and even less on Discount Tuesdays. How could you go wrong? Well...you got what you paid for in terms of ambience. The floors were the stickiest in town and so were the teenage employees. Seats were always an adventure - like literally, an adventure. Would you get the seat that drops out to the floor? The one that reclines to 180 degrees? Or my personal favorite: the seats leaning into each other and providing a loveseat for you to share with the stranger next to you who's on the phone while feeding the child on their lap? The audio and video quality were always actually pretty good, though as my brother Josh loved to say, it was the only theater around with "reverse" stadium seating.

Dates: 1974-2007
First movie I saw there: Don't remember
Last movie I saw there: Evan Almighty, July 2007
Other good memories: School of Rock, Napoleon Dynamite
Legacy: Stained seats and obstructed views, virtually for free.



Thanks for the memories, you three. You're gone but not forgotten. Hopefully, your flashy replacement will inspire as many film fans as you did during your glory years.





March 26, 2008

REVIEW: 21 (C-)

Background: Before anything else, I need to disclose a few things that colored my impression of 21. First, I went to college in Boston (specifically, at Boston University, the primary filming location for the movie) and I know my around the Las Vegas Strip. Secondly, though I don't know how to count cards, I am familiar with the story that eventually turned into Ben Mezrich's book Bringing Down the House, which was adapted into 21 (and given the new title to avoid confusion with the Steve Martin/Queen Latifah comedy classic). Neither of those facts make me special, but together they produced a lot of distractions that other viewers might have missed. Anyway, 21 was directed by Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, Monster-In-Law) and stars veterans Kevin Spacey (Superman Returns) and Laurence Fishburne (Bobby), along with up-and-comers Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) and Kate Bosworth (Superman Returns). Controversy has been brewing for some time about the casting of the film, since all of the original members of the actual MIT team in 1994 were Asian-American males. It's only 2008, though, so Sturgess (an Englishman) was hired as the lead for no sensible reason other than to see if he can pull off an American accent (he can't). Of course, 21 is meant to be a "loose" adaptation, and I guess the multiple documentary versions of the story weren't sexy enough (cue Bosworth, though her character has some basis in reality). Hollywoodization was the next logical step, but at least Jeff Ma, on whom Sturgess' character is based, has a cameo as a Blackjack dealer at Planet Hollywood.

Synopsis: Ben Campbell (Sturgess) is a saint and a genius. It's his senior year at MIT and he's applied for a prestigious full-ride scholarship to Harvard Medical School, but during his initial interview he's told his resume doesn't "jump off the page" and he glumly goes back to his blameless life. How will he get $300,000 to pay for tuition and expenses? Certainly not from the robotics project he's been working on with his impossibly nerdy friends, nor from his $8/hr job. Fortunately, opportunity comes knocking when his professor, Micky Rosa (Spacey), recruits him to join Rosa's secret Blackjack club, which also happens to include Ben's crush, Jill Taylor (Bosworth), on its roster. Initially hesitant, Ben is awkwardly seduced by Jill with a necktie and he decides winning at Blackjack is his only way to pay for med school. The plan is simple, and brilliant: the "spotters" will count the cards in the deck to determine the probability of what's left to play before signaling Ben in to the table to bet big when the deck is "hot." Micky takes the crew to Vegas for their first of many successful weekend trips, however hormones and tensions rage as Ben and Jill grow close and a jerk member of the team grows jealous of Ben's success. To make matters worse, Cole Williams (Fishburne) is monitoring the group's activity from his lair below Planet Hollywood, where they often play. Vegas is phasing out security firms in place of face-detection technologies, and Williams is fighting for his job and his trade. Counting cards is not illegal, but Williams will provide "services" (beatdowns) to casinos that become aware of gamblers counting at their tables. It doesn't take long before Micky's plan unravels - Ben is greedy and arrogant and Williams is waiting to strike. By this point the movie is a full-on farce, and before it casually ends we're treated to fake moustaches, cheesy dialogue and something missing from too many movies: a chase through a restaurant kitchen.

I Loved:
+ The nostalgia of seeing BU inside and out on the big screen. Alumni will recognize the Mugar basement, the BU Pub (and Castle), the new fitness center (new since I went there), Bay State Road and other spots. You probably won't recognize the Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square (I didn't), which was apparently dressed up as a Las Vegas spa.

I Liked:
+ Kevin Spacey as a more believable villain than his Lex Luthor. His work since 1999 has been embarrassing, but he still has a twinkle in his eye. On the same note, Laurence Fishburne has also been underachieving lately, hasn't he?
+ The soundtrack - appropriate, energetic, and thankfully missing Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation."
+ Aaron Yoo (Rocket Science) and Liza Lapira (Cloverfield) in charming supporting roles - and I guess I appreciated that they're Asian-American.

I Disliked:
- The almost obscenely predictable cliché
s: steamy Chinatown with the year-round Chinese New Year celebration and parade; "Sir - you forgot your bag" (were you holding your breath?); the clandestine, underground security dungeon (why is it always so dark in those rooms with monitors?); the 2.0.9. competition triumph; the sound of cards landing on the table with the force of an atomic bomb; "Me and Micky Rosa go way back..." (you don't say!); etc., etc., etc.
- Jim Sturgess, unfortunately. I don't know what it was here, but he didn't fit and the voiceovers were terrible. The accent and terrible script didn't help.

I Hated:
- The ridiculous errors in geography. I'll leave the Boston stuff alone (but - Jill lives in Quincy?) because most people aren't familiar enough with it, but the Las Vegas Strip is too well-known for such egregious errors. They stay at the Hard Rock (not even on Las Vegas Blvd.) and stroll downstairs to the brand new Red Rock Casino (about 15 miles away from the Strip)? The penthouse at the Hard Rock overlooks the Bellagio from across the street? Uh, not even close. You wouldn't put the Empire State Building overlooking Central Park. What's the difference here?
- The jaw-dropping script that featured some of the worst dialogue I've heard in years: "I've already lost everything; I don't want to lose you, too."

Grade:
Writing - 4
Acting - 6
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 3

Total: 35/50= 70% = C-

Last Word: Despite being a terribly-made movie in almost every aspect, 21 actually comes together as a fun and flashy weekend romp in Vegas. In that sense it's achieved its only purpose, since it would be preposterous to suggest it either tells a true story or includes any meaningful lessons. Sure to inspire a new generation of card counters in the same way Fight Club and Rounders created their respective subcultures, 21 is also the most successful commercial Las Vegas has ever produced for the college set (compared to what I accidentally saw this morning - the worst music video ever). Planet Hollywood, which opened just last year, clearly had a major advertising stake in 21, as did the Red Rock and Hard Rock casinos, neither of which are considered Vegas hotspots. Details aside, there are moments of cheap comedy (a fat kid eating Twinkies, Kevin Spacey in disguise, etc.) that try to hide the underlying tragedy: a movie that had almost unlimited potential has been turned into a lazy mess of
clichés. At times like this you really have to wonder how the guy who directed Legally Blonde got his hands on the juiciest unproduced material that has come along in years. 21 strives to be a guilty pleasure at the highest level, but my inability to swallow major inaccuracies prevented me from having any fun, and more than once my movie-watching intelligence was insulted by the writing. In the end, I was left holding the bag full of chocolate gold bullion.

March 25, 2008

REVIEW: Paranoid Park (B)

Background: Gus Van Sant films are good to use as a litmus test when talking to people who say, "I'm a big movie buff!" Good Will Hunting, Psycho, and Finding Forrester? Sure. How about everything since them (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days) or before them (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho)? The point being that Van Sant is mostly known for movies that don't really represent his niche: troubled young males. Paranoid Park is his adaptation of the 2006 Blake Nelson novel of the same name, and following his practice for Elephant, he cast a group of unknown actors (reportedly through MySpace), mostly students from Portland, OR. The book is set there and Van Sant filmed it there, but I don't know Portland well enough to know if the featured skate park is actually Paranoid Park. Anyway, the film was a smash at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, winning the 60th Anniversary Prize. The list of previous anniversary winners (it's every 5 years) doesn't explain to me what the award actually means. Let's just say that between Elephant and Paranoid Park, Cannes loves Gus Van Sant.

Synopsis: We first meet blank-faced Alex (Gabe Nevins) as he's privately writing in his journal (the first of about 25 journal-writing shots). He's detached and innocent, but quiet in an annoying sort of way, and soon enough we learn he has a secret to hide. Told in non-linear form, the story progresses as a mash up of slo-mo Super 8 video and slo-mo 35 mm film, and the soundtrack ranges from rap to classical to jazz to hard rock. The details of Alex's secret are slippery, but ultimately not that important. A security guard at the train yard near Paranoid Park was found dead, and both we and the police know Alex is involved in some way. Before we're let in on the details we've already seen his growing guilt take a toll on his daily life. His friendships are strained and his perspective on the world affected, or so it seems. Does he actually understand life in a different way, or is he just temporarily in a state of shock? We can't fully access his thoughts, and we're not supposed to - he's a teenager. Our purpose is to simply study how this particular teenager reacts to a catastrophic incident and take a meaningful lesson away from it.

I Loved:
+ The scene in which Alex is interviewed by Detective Lu - awesome camera angles and rapid-fire dialogue in a long take.
+ The Napoleon Dynamite scene. Mischievously long - and hilarious.

I Liked:
+ Some of the visuals, such as the opening credits and the walking through fallen leaves shot.
+ Gabe Nevins in his acting debut - not so much at first, but several scenes were impressive and by the end he had me.

I Disliked:
- The frequent sound effects that got right under my skin. I felt like I had autism and the tag of my shirt was irritating me. (Is that in bad taste? It's not meant to be.)
- The skateboarding footage. What was the purpose? "To...." Ok, fine. Then why so much of it?
- The lack of background information on Alex and his relationship with his parents. I was missing just this much to really empathize with his character.

I Hated:
- Lauren McKinney as Macy. I found her utterly intolerable. Was that acting or just messing around?
- The shower scene. Love it or hate it for its effect, but you have to admit it was an unbearable moment.

Grade:
Writing - 10
Acting - 8
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 4
Significance - 5

Total: 43/50= 86% = B

Last Word: It took me a couple of hours to come around on this one as my first thoughts were, "What would Gus Van Sant do if he couldn't use any music or slow motion in his films?" Paranoid Park is haunting, brooding, and unpredictable - kind of like, well, a teenager. Van Sant has quietly become the established voice of teen angst over the last 20 years, and his subjects here are familiar in a strange way - maybe not from another movie (although more than once I was reminded of Elephant), but definitely from an American high school. The simple story was perfect for a creative director, but Van Sant's overproduction was ultimately too much for me this time around. I'll chalk this one up to personal taste; whereas others may have been stirred to the soul by the long takes and mind-drilling sound effects, I was occasionally restless and eventually exhausted. To say that Gus Van Sant's films require patience on the part of the viewer is an understatement (see Gerry), but even though I was prepared to sit through it, I don't think his incredibly frequent use of slow motion added any significant elements to the story here. If there was something symbolic in it, I'm sorry to say it was over my head. Switching gears, I was pretty impressed by the non-actor actors. Though he has the facial expression of an orphaned puppy, Gabe Nevins carried the film and was great in all of the scenes that took place at the school. The other characters were hardly tolerable, from his "dude" friend to his girlfriend to his parents.
Not having read the book it's probably unfair for me to pick apart the characters, and their toxicity might have been by design, anyway. Or maybe that's just what happens when your casting agent is MySpace. To conclude: Paranoid Park is, I think, meant to be a thesis on the emotions of the American teenage boy in the midst of crisis. I almost want to call it Elephant-lite. The two films use violence in different ways, but the underlying message is how disaffected these teens are from that violence. I was disturbed, but I think the audio and visual elements distracted me from fully absorbing Paranoid Park.

March 23, 2008

Let's Go To a "Movie"


Happy Easter.

Brooks Barnes writes in today's New York Times about the rapidly increasing trend of movie theaters turning into...big screen TVs with channels that play anything
but movies. We've all seen the ads for the opera and the KISS reunion concert and Dane Cook Live and whatever else they can think to play in there, but how seriously has anyone really taken it? According to the article, this thing is about to explode. Is that good thing, a bad thing, or nothing? The jury's still out as far as I'm concerned:

CASE FOR:

“I love film, but the simple fact is that we can’t count on movie attendance to grow...As televisions get bigger and the gap between a film’s theatrical release and DVD release shrinks, exhibitors worry that attendance could slump further."

If it's getting so bad that the decision is to close a theater or else show the opera once a week - bring on the fat lady.

"...the technology needed to show live broadcasts and high-definition films is now accessible enough, and reliable enough, to make this a real market..."

HD on the big screen? Yes.

"...a $40 ticket to hear the New York Philharmonic play at Carnegie Hall gets patrons a balcony seat. At a multiplex, for half that price, customers would get digital surround-sound and a close-up view."

Hmm...for special occasions, it could be nice to have access like this. Hannah Montana is NOT a special occasion. Olympics or a World Cup final or a David Blaine special? Maybe. Maybe.


CASE AGAINST:

“Live simulcasts of sporting events or whatever won’t displace the first week of ‘Harry Potter,’ but they might displace the fifth week.”

I'm not a big Potter fan, but the "fifth week" could turn into the second week in no time.

"The New York Mets could not have been happier with a simulcast last August at Ziegfeld Theater in New York, where a live organist and the team mascot led viewers in singalongs as though they were in the ballpark."

NIGHTMARE. People are already acting "as though they were in the ballpark." No need to encourage that behavior.

“It’s less ‘let’s be a movie theater’ and more ‘let’s be a community entertainment destination.’ ”

No no - NO. Let's be a movie theater. That's what it's called, that's what it's for.


VERDICT:

I thought I had this straight: movie attendance is declining and Netflix has taken the DVD market through the roof. People want to sit in the comfort of their own homes where they can shout and eat smelly food and run around doing cartwheels and whatever else they love to do in the theater. Don't we have them right where we want them? Nope, let's flood the theaters with them and make me stand in line behind everyone buying tickets for (seriously) The Zula Patrol: Animal Adventures in Space! and the 2007 Drum Corp International World Championship Quarterfinals. And because I just saw this, you can imagine what my line crowd will be wearing.

Seems like a "give an inch, take a mile" situation. A one-time showing on a Tuesday night could quickly become fifteen "events" every weekend and movies only showing on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons before 4:00 PM. Peanut vendors in the aisle, maybe somebody singing "God Bless America" before the trailers. Eventually, voting or texting or interactivity of some sort because humans aren't able to sit and stimulate their imaginations anymore.

Anyway, there's no use debating, it's already happening.

I'm suspicious. You?

March 21, 2008

Underrated MOTM: The Mosquito Coast (1986)

The Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) for March has never received enough attention for my satisfaction. Few critics championed The Mosquito Coast when it was released at Thanksgiving in 1986, and its poor box-office showing led to a quick trip to the shelves of your local video store. (I bet it was one of the last to be converted to DVD, too.) Too bad, because it's an underappreciated movie, a profound story, and an important notch on the career belts of its cast members.

Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and last year's The Walker) adapted Paul Theroux's 1982 novel of the same name, but critics predictably pounced on the effort. "Most of its contents are still there, but they have no particular cumulative impact," said the NYT's Vincent Canby. I haven't read the book, but the screenplay worked quite well for me. I have to say, I don't think it's entirely unfair for critics to always compare a movie and its original source, but it would be nice if they would focus on the movie when they're focusing on the movie. Last year's The Kite Runner, a great film on its own, was never given a fair chance by critics because of the ridiculous expectations that accompanied it. I digress. The criticisms of The Mosquito Coast weren't just about the adaptation anyway. Roger Ebert called it "the type of bore [that] you will not tolerate," the Washington Post had two (?) critics rip it (Rita Kempley and Paul Attanasio), and TIME's Richard Schickel simply asked, "How does a director of Peter Weir's caliber make a miscalculation of this magnitude?"

Fine, it's not a classic, but there's still much to appreciate about this "compelling little movie." For starters, it's an intriguing story: Allie Fox is an unappreciated inventor and an intensely patriotic American - so much so that if he can't live in his America, he's not going to live in any America. Most of us would hop over to Canada, but Fox is not the type to ease into anything, and he wants to get as far away from American culture as possible:

"We eat when we're not hungry, drink when we're not thirsty. We buy what we don't need and throw away everything that's useful. Why sell a man what he wants? Sell him what he doesn't need. Pretend he's got eight legs and two stomachs and money to burn. It's wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. "

Packing up his wife and two kids, the increasingly unpredictable Fox moves his stead to the jungles of the Mosquito Coast of Honduras. He hires some locals and creates an impressive, self-sufficient compound on a river that even includes an ice factory ("Fat Boy"). The family lives comfortably for a short time, but Fox, who now has a God complex, is tragically unprepared for the circumstances - a rising water level, armed bandits and an intrusive missionary. As his family begins to turn on him and his creation is destroyed in various ways, Fox loses control on the way to his tragic end. Paradise Lost.

In addition to this rich narrative, The Mosquito Coast features beautiful cinematography (it was filmed in Belize), a well-suited score, and searing performances. It's no wonder Harrison Ford considers this his favorite film - he's never played a character as dark as Allie Fox. Having rolled out three Star Wars and two Indiana Jones in the nine years before this, he was probably desperate for a "real" character. A year earlier he received his first (and last!) Oscar nomination for Witness, but in my opinion he doesn't carry that film as well as he does The Mosquito Coast.

Of course, his supporting cast here would be the envy of most actors: future Oscar-winner Helen Mirren (The Queen) and the tragically promising River Phoenix, who earlier that year had also starred in Stand By Me. Two years later he would receive an Oscar nod for Running on Empty. The next year, 1989, he would be chosen by Ford to play a young Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He last wowed critics in 1991's My Private Idaho, and in 1994, just 8 years after The Mosquito Coast, he was dead of a drug overdose. Young actors are often venerated after untimely deaths, but Phoenix, like Heath Ledger, was truly a unique talent.

And what of director Peter Weir? The year prior he had directed Ford in Witness, earning him his first of four Oscar nominations for Best Director (Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). He has not directed anything since 2003 (Commander) and neither of his next two projects sound promising to me. Ford, in the meantime, is busy again with Indy after several misfires in a row (Hollywood Homicide, K-19: The Widowmaker, Firewall). Unfortunately, it seems he never found another role like Allie Fox, which some still consider his best-ever performance.

As I've already conceded, The Mosquito Coast doesn't deserve a place on the shelf of Hollywood classics. This trailer is ridiculous (they all were in the 80's) and completely misleading, and the film probably doesn't match the poignancy of the book. However, if you can look past that and appreciate its many positive aspects, you'll find an interesting character study and thought-provoking lessons on religion, family, and the American Dream.

March 19, 2008

REVIEW: Funny Games (C-)

Background: Fresh off of the critical success of his disturbing (dare the critics say Hitchcockian) thriller Cache, German director Michael Haneke has remade his 1997 film Funny Games shot-for-shot, this time for an American audience. With the original film (unseen by me) being a direct commentary on America’s obsession with movie violence, why not make a few more bucks by bringing the finger-pointing closer to the accused ? While the idea of adapting a foreign language film for Hollywood is increasingly common, the only scene-for-scene remake of a film that I can think of is Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998), which was a failure across the board. As for Funny Games, it is Haneke’s first English-language film and was executively produced by its leading actress, Naomi Watts. The trailer, which is both brilliant and intentionally misleading, sees a family (with Watts joined by the eccentric character actor Tim Roth and newcomer Devon Gearhart) being taken hostage by two creepy twenty-somethings, as played by Michael Hart (The Dreamers) and Brady Corbet (Thirteen).

Synopsis: The movie opens with the happy family passing the time in their car by playing guess-the-composer. The classical music transitions into loud heavy metal foreshadowing that their happy vacation will soon take a violent turn. On their way to their cabin they have a quick, awkward meeting with their friends, who are joined by two unknown visitors. As they get settled into their vacation they are visited by the two young men, who are obviously not as well-intentioned as they make themselves out to be. Under the guise of an attempt to borrow some eggs the situation quickly evolves into a hostage situation. After it is revealed that the two men have killed the family dog (which was disturbingly realistic), it’s pretty clear that this won’t be your standard good-guys-win thriller. They then play a series of games with the victims, mostly involving how and when they will die. In between a few near-escapes Hart starts to talk to the audience, and at one point literally rewinds the action. By its conclusion we are supposed to feel complicit in the torture of the main characters, and feel bad that we are so easily amused by the unrealistic violence and easy resolutions of the average American film.

I Loved:
+ Even after suffering unspeakable horrors to your family and with your death a certainty, you’ll still do whatever it takes to turn off NASCAR.

I Liked:
+ The acting is all top-notch. Watts
proves once again that no one is better at playing the woman-in-peril. Hart steals the show as the talkative and playful psychopath. Corbet, Roth and most notably Gearhart all perform admirably in creating a feeling of constant dread.
+ Often times when someone skewers the ultra-violence of American movies they end up wallowing in the same blood and gore that they are attempting to implicate. Haneke at least has the confidence to keep his violence off-screen, thus sharpening his tired thesis.
+ As in Cache, the director is brilliant at building the suspense. The fact that at the end he tells us that we are all stupid for being reeled in seems to insult his own style more than our bloodlust.

I Disliked:
- The frequent long takes. I understand the point of showing a five-minute scene of Naomi Watts struggling to stand up, but it’s not effective in doing anything but showing the filmmaker’s contempt for the audience.



I Hated:
- The cheap trick of having Hart engage the audience (and the late scene with the remote control) is supposed to be a clever way of turning us into accomplices. But it comes off as lazy and self-indulgent.
- Haneke constantly reminding us how much smarter he is than anyone with a $9.00 ticket in their back pocket.
- People have been making this point for years. The message might have resonated back in 1997 (even then it was predated by Natural Born Killers), but now it just seems old.

Grade:
Writing - 7
Acting - 8
Production – 9
Emotional Impact - 5
Music - 4
Significance - 2

Total: 35/50= 70% = C-

Last Word: Earlier I pointed out that the trailer was brilliant, a response which in itself makes me guilty of the film’s accusations. In it we see a charismatic psychopath cryptically talking about the “importance of entertainment” with words such as daring and magnificent flashing on-screen. I didn’t know anything about the original, and I’ll just come out with it, it looked “cool.” Well that just makes me one of the masses who unknowingly eats up the unrealistic filth that Hollywood
churns out on a daily basis. Or at least that’s what this pretentious and crafty argument against torture porn would have you believe. In actuality it’s just as manipulative and insulting as the genre it condemns. Just because the director is self-aware enough to throw in a few winks doesn’t change the fact that he uses the same tricks as the accused. I won’t for one second sit here and argue the existence of Saw or Hostel, but there are plenty of American films that use violence and unrealistic resolution as a welcome escape from reality, the whole point of going to the movies. Even if you disagree with that statement and think that American entertainment is vile trash, this movie has a dated message and is contradictory in its execution.

War in Iraq: 5 Years, 116 Movies

Today marks the five year "anniversary" of the War in Iraq, War on Terror, Iraq War, Gulf War II, Operation Iraqi Freedom, or whatever it's going to be called.

That number, 116, is not entirely exact - I just did a keyword search for "Iraq War" since 2003 on IMDb. Off the top of my head I know it's missing
No End in Sight, Taxi to the Dark Side, and Operation Homecoming - all of which were nominated for Oscars last year. So the number may be a conservative estimate, but the exact figure isn't that important. The point is, Hollywood's churned out a lot of films related to Iraq in the last five years (I'm not even counting Afghanistan), and there are probably hundreds on the way in the next 20 years.

So, do any of them get it "right"? Or maybe the better question is, what's been the point of all of these movies?

For perspective, I'll start off by listing the ones I've seen, in reverse chronological order:

Taxi to the Dark Side
Southland Tales
Lions for Lambs

In the Valley of Elah
Rendition
No End in Sight

The Kingdom

My Country, My Country

Iraq in Fragments

The War Tapes

Protocols of Zion

Why We Fight

Turtles Can Fly

Fahrenhype 9/11

Fahrenheit 9/11

Gunner Palace

Control Room

Uncovered: The War in Iraq

The Fog of War


Have I learned anything from these films? Of course. Am I able to separate fiction from reality? I think so. Are any of the 100+ films convincing and convicting? Well...yes...but I don't think much differently about the war than I did five years ago while watching grainy video from embedded reporters driving up through the deserts of Iraq. Does that say something about my "politics"? That I'm stubborn and I only watch what I know I'm going to agree with? Maybe. But I would argue that it says more about the ineffectiveness of these films, and here are the reasons why:

Fictionalized Hollywood Films:
- They're polarizing when they try to be patriotic. My review of The Kingdom tells you what I think of these ridiculous movies and TV shows like "24." I don't know if I totally swallow the notion that such material makes our problems worse, but let's just say I wouldn't consider it very diplomatic either.
- The wrong people are making them. Consider Lions for Lambs, perhaps the biggest commercial dud of the 2007 Iraq group. Streep, Redford, and Cruise are career actors and Hollywood legends - not necessarily the people you want to hear lecturing you about foreign policy.
- It's too early. We could be at the halfway mark in this thing for all we know, and there is just no way to have a clear perspective of what's going on. Platoon won Best Picture more than 10 years after the war was over in Vietnam. There needs to be time and space; filming the war while you're fighting it is like trying to take a picture of yourself while you're sprinting - the picture is unfocused and incomplete.
- They're bad. It's simple - almost all of these have been critically panned, and with good reason. Besides keeping the crowds away, the message of the movie is going to be lost if the movie is poorly made. Case in point: Rendition.

Documentaries:
- Our lives are already saturated with news about the war. The aforementioned embedded reporter videos were just a sign of things to come. Never has a war been so accessible to the public - foreign news bureaus, soldier blogs, live webcams, and at times, 25 hour a day coverage on cable news. This was my main criticism of Taxi to the Dark Side - Alex Gibney didn't have much to tell us that we didn't already know.
- Their focus is too broad. The strength of No End in Sight was that it picked a singular moment in time (the first month after Saddam's regime fell) and successfully dissected it. While it's an extreme example, Fahrenheit 9/11 was as scattered as a Jackson Pollock painting.
- It's too early, or too late. See above. Though last year's The War Tapes was a frightening look into the soldiers' experiences, many of the circumstances have changed. Same with Iraq in Fragments, which, while beautiful to look at, was dated before it was even released. With a war as dynamic as this one it's incredibly difficult to nail down a static story.
- They only focus on Iraq. We Americans are a self-centered group, and we want to see and think about ourselves. How is the war affecting families and communities back home? What's been the effect on the economy, and what will it be in 10 years? How are we preparing to deal with the hundreds of thousands of veterans who will depend on our tax dollars for care and support for the rest of their lives? OK, so maybe people won't flock to the theater for a documentary about those issues, but it would at least be a new angle on the war.

I'm not complaining - with the exception of some senseless provocations like Redacted, I've watched as much as I've been able to watch. I think I know what's going on and I've learned a good deal about the demographics of Iraq, if not the ever-changing issues. Of course I'm not looking to get my international education from Hollywood, but many of these films offer a better glimpse into the situation than we could otherwise hope to get. Indeed, some of the well-made documentaries have helped educate all of us.

But with well over 20 movies about the war being made each year, maybe it's time to consider whether we should sit back, collect our thoughts, and focus on the actual stories instead of the celluloid ones.

March 17, 2008

REVIEW: Chicago 10 (B)

Background: I've been meaning to see Brett Morgen's first film, 2002's The Kid Stays in the Picture, but despite the miss I've been excited about Chicago 10 for some time. I'm a big fan of historical anniversaries and 1968 was a year in American history without equal. The film, all documentary but part animated recreation, features the mostly recognizable voices of Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo, Nick Nolte, Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber, and the late Roy Scheider. The animation is, I believe, in the same rotoscope style we were first dazzled with in Waking Life before it was ruined by those ridiculous "pity me and my outrageous wealth" Charles Schwab commercials. Anyway, Chicago 10 premiered to rave reviews at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, and there's a possibility that it will be followed up with an oddly cast but sure to be entertaining live action version. Can all of those people really be involved in the same movie?

Synopsis: The first screen tells us the courtroom scenes are adapted from official court transcripts. This is important - it will be hard to believe later on. As Chicago and Mayor Richard Daley prepare for the 1968 Democratic National Convention, anti-war protesters from two separate groups, MOBE (National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam - yeah, I don't get the acronym either) and the "Yippies" make plans to non-violently demonstrate in Lincoln Park and the surrounding area. Their requests for a permit are denied, but the protesters show up in droves anyway. Conventional wisdom rings true, as what starts out as innocent marching and pranking ends up with tear gas, billy club beatings, and old ladies being shoved into paddy wagons. Led in spirit by the obnoxious and incredibly narcissistic Abbie Hoffman (Azaria), the other seven on trial in 1969 for conspiracy and intent to start a riot were Jerry Rubin (Ruffalo), David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale (Wright). The film cuts back and forth between the trial animations and archival footage from the protests, much of which is pretty incredible to see. The riot scenes are tense and the trial scenes are showy. All the while, The Eight are held in high esteem by Morgen, while Judge Julius Hoffman (Scheider) is portrayed as a grumpy old jerk. Certainly the defendants weren't totally innocent, but their circus of a trial was hardly just. Even the defense lawyers (William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, thus making 10) served multiple year prison sentences for their "contemptuous" behavior in the courtroom. By the abrupt conclusion we're supposed to be left in a fit of rage, but I had more questions than I had answers.

I Loved:
+ The rare archival footage, though you could never see what started each violent outburst. Everyone's just standing around anxiously and then BOOM - beatings and running for lives.

I Liked:
+
The animation, for the most part. What can I say, I'm a sucker for rotoscope, and even the traditional animation was interesting to look at here.

I Disliked:
- The use of Eminem's Bush-bashing song "Mosh." What, were there not enough war protest songs from the 60's to use here? Totally out of context, but in a funny spot right after Allen Ginsberg's "ommm" chants.
- Nick Nolte's gutteral, growling voice - the guy sounds like an animal. Literally, like a disgruntled dog or a dying alligator or something. Casting him here was unnecessarily distracting.
- That the driving rock music was an almost constant presence, even in the courtroom. Trust me, I can pay attention during a trial scene without needing to be "entertained." For that matter, was the animation even necessary? Couldn't it have simply been a live action reenactment with the same actors?

I Hated:
- Roy Scheider's voice, channeling Hans Moleman from "The Simpsons."

Grade:
Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 4
Significance - 5

Total: 25/30= 83% = B

Last Word: I'm easily annoyed by people. People like Abbie Hoffman. Not because of how they act, but because of what gets lost when they act the way he did. What went missing here was the central message of their "protest." By the final march, their speeches aren't about the war at all, they're about "us" and "the pigs." This kind of inflammatory language was the style in the 60's to be sure, but that doesn't make it any less immature and ineffective. In this case, "the whole world" was watching, alright - watching people act like idiots for no good reason. If I'm sounding like Bill O'Reilly, I don't mean to. It's just that my hackles are raised whenever people place themselves in front of the message, and for all their good intentions (and constitutional rights), the protesters at the convention didn't accomplish as much as they could have with a more reasonable approach. Although I haven't mentioned him yet, what I just said could apply to Brett Morgen here as well, who's essentially made a cartoon out of cartoonish characters. I applaud his ambition to make an important story relevant 40 years later, but he doesn't fare much better than the protesters in making a convincing argument for anything. He's made a visual and auditory feast, but I'm hungry for some more substantive information in my documentaries, maybe flavored with some structure and just a dash of objectivity. It's incredible to say so about a documentary, but despite all the flashy panache of Chicago 10, I think the live action version (if it happens) may end up being the more important film.

March 16, 2008

Movies on Moving: Immigrant Life in Contemporary Film

In today's New York Times, A.O. Scott writes an interesting piece on films about immigration, and specifically about how the challenges of new immigrants are being portrayed in contemporary cinema. Scott observes that, "until recently these themes have never been quite as ubiquitous on movie screens." He cites the current La Misma Luna, Golden Door, and The Edge of Heaven, and also recognizes last year's Babel and Fast Food Nation as taking a more focused angle on contemporary immigrant life, compared with the "warm," vintage tone of epics like The Godfather.

I think it's a fascinating new dimension in film. Truly, globalization is here to stay, and films will have to start showing how life really is, not how it was or how we want it to be. Scott's evidence of recent movies is accurate, but he's left out a few relatively recent ones that I remember connecting with on a similar level: In America (2002),
Quinceañera (2005), and The Namesake (2006).

My point is, the trend is not necessarily new in 2008, but it's certainly rising in the cinematic consciousness. Of course, 1983's El Norte was well ahead of its time (and is still searing and relevant), and documentaries on these themes have been made and ignored for years. Oh well, if it needs to be shown in the theater to wake people up, that's good enough for me.

March 15, 2008

Omni Is Awesome


Omnifest 2008 opened at the Science Museum of Minnesota this week. It's not the only film festival of its kind in the U.S., but considering the new theater here, it might be one of the best. Six films will be played in rotation through April 6th:
Everest, Cowboys: Ride Around the World, Roar: Lions of the Kalahari, Indonesia: Dance of Life, Amazon, and The Alps. Here let me just clarify the difference between IMAX and Omni, since it's always a source of confusion. IMAX is the technical term for the type of film, and generally anything you see on a massive screen (Omni or otherwise) is IMAX. The Omni designation is for the type of theater, in this case the dome as compared to the huge flat screen. I'm pretty sure that's it, case closed, but if you're a projector or something and you're reading this, please correct me.

With the exception of
The Alps (which I saw when it was released about a month ago), the other five films are "old favorites." I think I've only seen 1998's Everest, but I definitely want to see Amazon regardless of whether I saw it before. I'm surprised they aren't bringing back any of the three that I consider the best in the last few years: Mystery of the Nile, Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag and Rhythms of the World. I didn't get a whole lot out of Hurricane on the Bayou or Greece: Secrets of the Past, but for the most part the last few years have been solid after a post-Everest drought. Fortunately, it looks like there's a Return to Everest planned for next year, along with Arabia and Humpback Whales in the near future.

In the 20 years or so since I had my first Omnitheater experience, it has yet to lose its novel flavor. For my money it doesn't get much better than swooping through canyons and valleys, exploring the depths of the sea, and seeing animals frighteningly close and in their natural habitat. There have been some criticisms of museums as simply using the theaters to make some easy cash, but I see nothing wrong with it. The films are highly educational and usually highly entertaining. Sure, you have to find the right seat (2/3 up, dead center), but that's not different than in a standard theater. Also, the lack of concessions helps with the viewing experience, and people aren't allowed in late. What's wrong with that?

March 13, 2008

REVIEW: The Counterfeiters (A-)

Background: In a year of foreign films that included the universally lauded but all-unnominated 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (Romania), Persepolis (France), The Diving Bell & The Butterfly (France), and El Orfanato (Spain), it was The Counterfeiters from Austria that rose to the top and captured the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky and starring Karl Markovics and August Diehl, the film is based on a memoir written by Adolf Burger, one of the central participants in "Operation Bernhard" - the greatest counterfeiting scheme in history. Burger's character, played by Diehl, is in fact the only authentic representation from the original story. The Counterfeiters was filmed in Austria, Germany, and Monte Carlo, and features a disturbingly effective score by my favorite and yours - Argentinean harmonica player Hugo Díaz.

Synopsis: In 1936 Berlin, Salomon Sorowitsch (Markovics) is a gambling playboy, a shady jerk, and one of the world's best counterfeiters of foreign currency and identification. When he is arrested by rising SS officer Friedrich Herzog, he is sent to a labor camp as a "habitual" criminal. By the time the war begins he has proven his artistic talent, and soon he is transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp (just outside of Berlin, and the first camp in Germany), now coincidentally under the direction of Herzog. The Nazis are a conniving group, and they select a number of skilled prisoners to carry out Operation Bernhard, a plot to bankrupt the Brits and Americans by flooding their economies with counterfeit pounds and dollars. In exchange for their expertise, the prisoners are separated from the rest of the camp and given some special privileges. Sorowitsch is unique among the group in that he is actually a criminal and not just a political prisoner, and partly because of that he is pegged as the chief supervisor of the operation. The work is set into motion and the batch of pounds is made so well that the Bank of England verifies their authenticity. The next challenge is the dollar, but it cannot be completed without the specialized gelatin-setting skill of August Burger (Diehl), a prisoner who was initially sent to Auschwitz with his wife for distributing anti-Nazi propaganda. Burger is a stubborn ideologue, and he refuses to finish the dollar, knowing that it will put all of their lives in danger - but that it will also ultimately bankrupt the Nazis. Tensions rise among the prisoners, nowhere more flammable than between Burger and Sorowitsch, who is convinced that their best hope to stay alive is to continue the work. There are a number of supporting characters that add life to the story, but the soul of the film is in this philosophical battle between Sorowitsch and Burger. We know that Sorowitsch makes it out because we've already seen a flashback of his post-war trip to Monte Carlo, but it's clear that ultimately, he did not learn how to survive so much as he learned how to live.

I Loved:
+ The hand-held camera that added a sense of grainy, chaotic realism to the scenes.
+ The performance of the square-jawed Karl Markovics, who looks like a cartoon or comic-strip character. Brilliant job of navigating the massive range his role required.
+
The supporting cast led by August Diehl, who looks annoyingly familiar. I just can't place him, and I haven't seen any of his other films.

I Liked:
+ The subdued musical score - not too distracting but present enough to haunt the scenes. Reminded me a little of Jonny Greenwood's score in There Will Be Blood.
+
The use of flashbacks to juxtapose the Salomon Sorowitsch of the past, the way past, and the present.

I Disliked:
- The somewhat thrown-together ending in the present. Of course there needed to be a wrap back to the beginning, but I felt rushed through it.

I Hated:
- The point blank gun shots to the head, as you guessed.
- The frequent realization in my mind of how "true" the story was portrayed, regardless of whether or not it was a fictionalized version of it. How could humanity have sunk to such depths? And it continues...

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

Total: 46/50= 92% = A-

Last Word: While it will most certainly tell you a new story, The Counterfeiters won't really take you to a new place. By 2008 we're all hopefully aware of the horrors of the Holocaust, and it should have been no surprise to learn of even more insidious Nazi methods of exploitation and corruption. But the story isn't really about the Holocaust or the concentration camps, and it's certainly not about currency counterfeiting. Rather, the unique strength of the film is that it simply outlines the transformation of one man - and he's not the kind of angelic character we all expect. He has no family and no one he loves, not even any friends. Sorowitsch is a criminal who, incredibly, is "rehabilitated" by his experience in the concentration camps. That may sound odd, but I would argue that the man who left was a better person than the one who entered. Indeed, The Counterfeiters does better than most of its counterparts because it doesn't portray the characters as victims. We may not know their life story, but we know that they share many traits, strengths, and weaknesses with each other and with us. Certainly most of us have never dealt with such life-and-death decisions in our lives, but we can all relate to the literally insane choice that these characters face. Adapt and survive, or uncompromisingly fight? It's an aspect of the Holocaust that we haven't seen fully explored, and The Counterfeiters proves that there are certainly rich, relevant lessons yet to be learned from it.

March 12, 2008

If An Oak Falls In a Forest...Does Anybody Hear It?

Or is the better question: Does anybody care? After persistent rumors of its imminent closing in the last few years, the Oak Street Cinema is finally done. I know I'm not breaking this; it was announced earlier this week. But now that it's been official for a few days, I'm wondering - where is the outrage? Some bland articles that read like obituaries and a passive U of M editorial, and that's it?

I plan on doing a longer post dedicated to the Oak before it closes after the festival in May, but for the time being I'll just say that I'm pretty much stunned that the fight is over so quickly and quietly after what had looked like a resurgent year. The last time it was really threatened, in 2006, I hadn't yet moved back here, but a movie could have been made about the dramatic turmoil happening within Minnesota Film Arts , led by the one and only (85 year-old) Al Milgrom. Well, working with Al when I was volunteering at the festival last year, I wouldn't say he's lost any of his passion or his spirit. The problem is that this time it was Al vs. The Developers, and you know that unless this is a movie (Be Kind Rewind, anyone?), The Developers always win. Even Save the Oak Street has nothing to say anymore.

I walk or drive by the theater twice daily on my way to work, and I've really come to enjoy it this last year that I've been back - the free screenings, the festival, the one-night-only shows, and even an appearance by Crispin Glover (!) that I skipped last month. I'm not even holding it against MFA that I saw early preview screenings of three terrible "Terror" movies in a row last year (The Kingdom, Rendition, Lions for Lambs).

Since 1916, that tiny spot of real estate has featured movies that simply can't be seen anywhere else (Why did I miss Manos: The Hands of Fate Last Year last year again?). Now the only films that will be shown will be in some spoiled college kid's ultramodern room on the 5th floor who's probably watching Meet the Spartans for the 23rd time.

That's where we are now. Hope Al Milgrom has some tricks up his sleeve for the future of MFA...

March 10, 2008

Are We There Yet?

This officially marks my 100th post on Getafilm, and I'm using it to ramble because for some reason I find significance in the milestone. Good thing it just missed Semi-Pro or something similarly forgettable (because this will be really memorable).

So. I still don't exactly know what I'm doing on here and why I'm doing it, but I'm not planning to stop at 100. Rather, I'll blindly forge ahead and see what happens in the next round.

What have I learned?:
  • This takes way more time than I imagined.
  • It would be really hard to do this without a community of interesting people taking part, and I've fortunately found numerous other bloggers who have supported me - thanks much. If you haven't visited blogs in my sidebar, including the almost 50 LAMBs - well...they're great, don't go anywhere and just take my word for it! Totally kidding. Please visit them and learn from "people who know much more than me." Of course, it's not about what you know - just that you're interested.
  • Trusted friend Jeff Sauer has been enormously helpful in helping me get this off the ground. Thanks, sowcow50.
  • This takes way more creativity than I imagined.
  • I've seen a lot of movies, but I haven't seen a fraction of the movies that many others have.
  • Nevertheless, it's still possible to do this without ever having taken a film class or lived in Hollywood.
  • For the most part, I feel confident in having achieved some of the goals I started with, and I feel the time and energy I've spent so far has been worth it.
What's to come in the next 100 posts?:
  • I have a handful of new series that I'm going to try to get off the ground in the next month or two, including some more locally flavored material for the Minneapolis-St. Paul folk.
  • A possible redesign? I've been considering this for a few months but can't make up my mind, and there ain't no third direction since the Germans beat me to it. So please, help me decide (see poll): Invest in the Getafilm domain name and use WordPress (or other pro software), or do nothing and stay with Blogger? Personally, I think it's a little early for me to make the jump...
  • More interactivity - this is where you come in. I know if you're not one who frequently comments it might seem a little strange to do so, but come on in, the water's fine! Believe me, no one is an expert around here (speaking for myself), and I don't feel like you'd be reading this if you had nothing to say. At least if you're like most of the people I know. Out with it!
  • Possibly, some "deeper" material. I'm most passionately interested in the influence that film has on all of us on a personal, social, and cultural level (why I build "Societal Significance" into my review scale), and I'd like to try exploring it a little more intentionally. See the top-line quote from Grand Canyon for an idea of what I'm talking about.
  • Some bad posts. Just sayin', they'll always be there.
Lastly - the Best of the First 100 Getafilm Posts (by traffic):
  1. Oscar Luncheon 2008
  2. 2007 in Music: The Soundtrack That Wasn't
  3. (close enough to tie)
So that's where we are so far. I am completely, entirely open to feedback. Please be specific and let me know what you love, what you hate (and if so, how you think I can change), and what you hope to see in the next 100...

Thanks!

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