April 30, 2008

On the Horizon: American Teen


Paramount/Vintage and A & E Indie Films present American Teen, a new documentary by Academy Award-nominated director Nanette Burnstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture).

In my opinion, the trailer does not do justice to either the hilarious comedy or the touching drama in American Teen, a phenomenal film that bursts with emotion. Burnstein impressively captures all the best and worst aspects of high school life as she follows four students (looks like five, but I say four) through their senior year at Warsaw (IN) Community High School. Not having seen the MTV shows to which American Teen has been compared, I can only say this was a lot better than I expected it could be.

Buzz about the film (and its Breafast Club-inspired poster) is picking up significantly as it travels the festival circuit, and I was fortunate to attend a screening followed by a Q & A with Nanette Burnstein (who won the 2008 Directing Award at Sundance for American Teen). She explained her decision to choose a film in the Midwest that was socioeconomically mixed, and especially one that existed as the only one in the area, thus serving as better "social pressure cooker" in which no one could "get lost." She went on to talk for about 15 minutes on everything from her filmmaking methods, to early criticism of the film (comparing it to "Laguna Beach"), to her own high school years in Buffalo, NY.

"I felt like I was back in high school," said Burnstein about her experience in Warsaw. Me too - and I actually liked it. I haven't laughed like that since The King of Kong, and...I'll admit that I almost became emotional at one point. Maybe it was the sugar from my snacks kicking in. Yeah, that must have been it.

Judge for yourself and find my full review when American Teen opens on July 25th.

April 29, 2008

(Movie) News You Need to Know: MSP Blues

As the already fantastic Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival winds down this week, some troubling news is surfacing for local film fans.

I haven't made it obviously known on Getafilm yet, but I'm no fan of St. Paul Pioneer Press film critic Chris Hewitt, who fortunately takes a break from the movies today and writes a terribly-titled article about the current state of filmmaking in Minnesota. The news isn't good. A group of local filmmakers staged a rally yesterday at the state capitol to urge legislators to pass the renewal of the "Snowbate" incentive, the lack of which has apparently forced the production of some recent films elsewhere. Both Juno and Leatherheads take place in Minnesota, but neither was filmed here, and we lost out to Wisconsin and Michigan, respectively, for the upcoming Public Enemies (Michael Mann) and Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood), both of which I expect to be massive hits. One ray of hope remains with native sons Joel and Ethan Coen, who are holding casting auditions for A Serious Man this weekend, with filming set to start later this year.

In more alarming news, MinnPost reports today that the Oak Street Cinema situation is no joke, as they cryptically mention a finalized deal. Back in March I wondered why there was no urgency when the Star Tribune printed the death certificate, and it sounds as though these three Minnesota Film Arts founders were of the same mindset. They make an emotional plea and ask some important questions, but it appears to be too little too late. On the other hand, you wouldn't know that from talking to Al Milgrom. Who has the real details about what's going on? Maybe I'll do some amateur sleuthing before the film festival is up...

April 28, 2008

"What You Crave!": Idiotic Teens

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports on a weekend break-in at the Plaza Maplewood Theatre, one of the few discount theaters left in the area. Is nothing sacred? Likely upset at the $1.50 ticket prices during the economic slowdown, two teens broke in Saturday night and, instead of playing classic films or setting up their XBOX 360 on the big screen, they trashed the place for about $20,000 worth of damage. Plaza Maplewood will be closed for an indefinite period for cleaning and repairs, and hopefully this won't signal the downfall of yet another Twin Cities discount theater.

"A janitor who arrived for work at 8 a.m. Sunday found a door ajar. Inside he found candy, popcorn, broken soda bottles and White Castle wrappers strewn all over. Vandals smashed the glass on arcade games, a
concession counter and a refrigerator, defaced the ticket booth with red marker, sprayed blue paint on walls and punctured the screen. A fire extinguisher found lying in a doorway apparently had been used to spray the seats, a police report said."

I'm not a detective or a forensic scientist, but this who-dun-it can clearly be linked to the original culprit: White Castle. If only we could reinstitute Hammurabi's Law and sentence these enemy combatants (terrorism against film) to eat $20,000 worth of sliders - maybe while sitting through a double feature of two of the theater's current offerings: The Eye and Vantage Point.

"Lt. Dave Kvam was unsure of a motive, but that it might be 'some kind of perverse pleasure.'"

The vandalism or the burgers?

April 27, 2008

REVIEW: The Edge of Heaven (B+)

Background: Unless you're paying attention, you may not know very much about the ongoing tension between Germany and its immigrant population, predominantly comprised of Turks. Appropriately, writer/director Fatih Akin (a German of Turkish origin) has been exploring these issues in his highly acclaimed films for the last decade or so. The only other one I've seen, Im Juli (In July), has stayed with me for years and will probably be profiled as an Underrated MOTM on Getafilm at some point. Akin's latest film, Auf der Andere Seite (The Edge of Heaven), was Germany's official submission for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008, and also won the award for Best Screenplay at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

Synopsis : The story is separated into three acts, but the characters weave in and out of each act, and time is fluid. In Bremen, Germany, we meet widower Ali Aksu (Tuncel Kurtiz) when he visits Yeter (NurselKöse), a Turkish prostitute who is estranged from her 27 year-old daughter. Ali is also Turkish and he has a son, Nejat (Baki Davrak), who is a German professor in Hamburg, and who is reluctantly accepting when Ali moves Yeter in as his live-in girlfriend. Things turn sour when Ali suffers a heart attack and returns from the hospital an angry and violent man, and an incident occurs that leads Nejat to Istanbul in search of Yeter's daughter. Unfortunately they miss each other as her daughter, Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay), is an outspoken activist in Turkey who has fled to Germany to find safety and a new life with Yeter, with whom she has had little contact for many years. As Nejat combs through Istanbul, he finds more than what he is looking for: not Ayten, but his roots. He buys a German bookstore and settles there permanently. Meanwhile in Hamburg, Ayten has found a new friend, Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), who takes her in (much to her mother's disapproval) and helps her in the search for Yeter. Another incident occurs that sends both young women to Istanbul - Ayten as a prisoner and Lotte as her legal advocate. Not all of this is happening in sequence, either, and by the third act, both Lotte's mother and Nejat's father, Ali, are back in Turkey as well (hint, hint - not the first time they've been they're together), and Nejat is left trying to piece everything together.

I Loved:
+ Nurgül Yesilçay
, a striking presence whose character, Atyen, was felt even when she wasn't on screen.
+ The sense that we were traveling as much as the characters, back and forth between Hamburg and Istanbul, and then to the Turkish coastal town of Trabzon.

I Liked:
+ When Akin infused coincidence and fate into the story with a wink and a feather's touch.
+ The supporting cast, all of whom added to the rich drama of the story in their own way. Lotte's mother, played by Hanna Schygulla, was an especially important character.

I Disliked:
- When Akin infused coincidence and fate into the story with a shout and a sledgehammer.

I Hated:
- That the titles of the three acts of the film so blatantly give away the story. Maybe I don't fully understand this occasionally used method, but telling me someone is going to die kind of takes away from the dramatic shock that we're supposed to feel when it actually happens (or so one would think - idiots throughout the theater still deafeningly gasped, "Augh! They killed her!").

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

Total: 44/50= 88% = B+

Last Word: Back in mid-March I picked out a New York Times piece about immigration in contemporary films, and The Edge of Heaven was one of the examples cited by A.O. Scott, who observed that the issue is now beginning to attract attention from filmmakers on a global level. It was a terrific perspective, and he did well in mentioning The Edge of Heaven, which achieves the rare goal of actually being the movie it tries to be. Fatih Akin certainly has the filmmaking talent to tackle the subject, but more importantly, he has the authoritative perspective and pride of someone who lives in that world every day. I don't know what his reputation (or that of the film) is in Germany, but it's encouraging to me that the country chose this as their Oscar submission. It tells an extremely important story in a very real way. Some of the coincidences existed as a bit of stretch to me, but if Akin's underlying thesis is that we're all related in some way and fate brings us together, I can live with that. There are some outstanding acting performances on display, surely a combination of the cast's talent and Akin's direction. For me, his method of giving the plot away to build tension backfired, but others may see it differently. At the end of the day I think I would rather go back and rewatch Im Juli or see his acclaimed Head-On for the first time, but The Edge of Heaven is nevertheless a solid addition to this young writer/director's list of credits. Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior) may get the most exposure of the current generation of German directors, but it should be a surprise to no one if Akin is soon regarded as the one making the most important films.

April 26, 2008

300 Words About: Kicks



With all the talk about immigration and multiculturalism in the United States these days, you'd think someone would have the wisdom to look outwards for a minute and examine how the issue is affecting so many other countries in the same way. Spain, Germany, England, Ireland, and yes, even Mexico (from Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America) are struggling with immigration, yet everyone thinks it's just our problem. Anyway, Kicks takes a multifaceted look at the the current situation in The Netherlands, where Moroccan immigrants have recently settled in large numbers. While Crash was both lauded and lamented after its release a few years ago, someone would have a hard time convincing me that it wasn't at least an important conversation starter (even if the conversation died too soon). Dutch writer/director Albert Ter Heerdt apparently felt the same way, and Kicks is made in such a similar style that he's practically begging for a comparison. Unfortunately, his version fails. It's an entertaining and very well-acted film, but the sheer number of characters (I counted 12 "main characters") in Kicks prevents us from getting a firm hold on the reality of the Dutch situation. Besides that, they're broad stereotypes: the racist cop, the depressed/drug addicted mother, the teen extremist, the naive socialite, etc. Ter Heerdt could have made an amazing film focused on just one of them (I thought the cop, the mother, the rude homeless man and the boxer all had potential), but he instead gives us 10 minutes with each. It's filmmaking in the style of speed dating, and everybody goes home alone. Regardless, Kicks still provides moments of real comedy and drama, and I imagine Dutch citizens would view it differently, for better or for worse. I appreciated the ambition and the acting, but ultimately found it a tame attempt at social commentary, and one that would have worked better as a television series.

April 25, 2008

REVIEW: Dry Season (A)

Background: It's shameful that African cinema is so hard to come by in the U.S., especially considering its recent success (e.g., Bamako, Mooladé, Tsotsi). So, sight unseen, I jumped at the chance to see Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's latest film, Daratt (Dry Season), starring Ali Bacha Barkai and Youssouf Djaoro, who between the two of them now have a total of four screen credits. Mirroring the success Haroun had with Abouna in 2002, Dry Season was the winner of multiple awards at multiple film festivals, most notably the five it won at its world premiere in Venice in 2006.

Synopsis: Atim (Barkai) is a quiet 16 year-old living in a Chadian town surrounded by desert. His father was killed in the country's civil war, and he cares for his blind grandfather. We don't know any more details about his life (where his mother is, if he's in school, etc.), but it's safe to assume that the war severely damaged the entire community. In a controversial decision, the government has just announced an amnesty for Chadians accused of crimes during the war, meaning Nassara (Djaoro), who killed Atim's father, cannot be prosecuted. With his grandfather's blessing and his father's pistol, Atim sets off for N'dajamena to carry out his "mission": avenge his father's death. Although his first interaction is with an advantageous petty thief (who eventually befriends him), Atim almost immediately locates the unassuming Nassara, now a married baker who has to talk with an amplifier due to a throat slashing suffered during the war. Atim can't find it in himself to murder Nassara in cold blood, and this dilemma gnaws at him for hours, then days, and eventually, weeks. His pistol always concealed on him, Atim learns the ropes of the bakery and in spite of himself soon moves in with Nassara and his wife, who are hoping to adopt him. We never know what Atim is thinking. He's scared. He hates Nassara. He wants a father. He loves Nassara. He wants to go home. He wants revenge. The dusty, quiet streets of N'dajamena perfectly frame the tumultuous relationship between the two characters, but the barren desert is where Atim finally has to reconcile the reason he set out on the mission in the first place.

I Loved:
+ When Atim successfully produced his first batch of baguettes - it was clearly one of the most important accomplishments in his young life. His character development throughout the length of the film was superb, due in no small part to Barkai's excellence in inhabiting the role.
+ That so much was said with so little dialogue. There are few films that so deftly use silence as well as this one.
+ How the city of N'dajamena was so present that it essentially acted as another character.

I Liked:
+ The lack of a musical score. Aside from a scene at a bar, there is not a note of music heard from start to finish, unless my memory fails me.
+ The
cinematography - with so little dialogue, the camera had to set the tone and actually "say" a lot.

I Disliked:
- A handful of the slower scenes. I tried to be patient, but once or twice I fell out of it.

I Hated:
- Nothing.

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

Total: 43/45= 95% = A

Last Word: To put it simply, Dry Season is a masterful achievement in minimalism and symbolism. Using few plot details and even less dialogue,
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun has created a moving film about the complexities of a life shattered by war. It's simultaneously an indictment and a celebration of hope, and I don't think it can be fully absorbed with one viewing. Every word and facial expression drips with meaning, and the rich themes surrounding fatherhood and "what it means to be a man" are universal to every culture. Though it may require an extreme amount of patience on the part of the viewer (no music or action and little color), Dry Season showcases two actors and an area of the world that few of us will ever see. I was devastated that Haroun was unable to attend the screening at the last minute due to visa issues. The story of Atim is representative of so many people in 2008, and it would have been fascinating to hear his insights on the issues he raises in the film. Maybe I'm being generous in thinking that this is the type of movie that, if made by an American director, would have received international acclaim. On the other hand, an American would have neither the experience or the perspective to powerfully do so much with so little.

April 24, 2008

REVIEW: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (A-)

Background: Most Americans, including me, are only familiar with one famously numbered secret agent: 007. It may come as surprise then, to learn that French writers Jean and Josette Bruce's secret agent, Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, was the subject of 143 books in their "OSS 117" series, going all the way back to 1949 - 4 years before Ian Fleming wrote "Casino Royale." OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, is both a re-creation and a parody of the original series. Directed by Michel Hazanavicius and starring French comedian Jean Dujardin, the film was nominated for five César Awards in 2007, winning only for its production design. Based on its smashing success at the French box office, keep an eye out for an OSS 117 sequel, and if you speak French, have fun here. If you don't, this will have to do.

Synopsis: When OSS agent Jack Jefferson goes missing in Cairo in 1955, the French government sends his former partner, OSS 117 - Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (Dujardin), on a mission to not only find Jefferson, but also create peace in a region saturated with spies. OSS 117 is a dashing, misogynistic, ethnocentric Francophile who distributes photos of the French president as gifts and who, like James Bond, always finds his way out of the most improbable circumstances. His guide in Cairo is Jefferson's former assistant, the gorgeous Larmina (Bérénice Bejo), who helped manage the chicken exporting operation that serves as the cover for the OSS agents. Over the course of the next few days in Cairo, OSS 117 gets mixed up with an Islamic fundamentalist group, some Soviet spies, and some optimistic Nazis. Everyone is double-crossing everyone else, and no one is who they seem. The plot and the rushed ending don't really make sense, but, well...that's kind of the point of a spoof.

I Loved:
+ The production design and cinematography - the film just looks beautiful, like a restored classic with extra attention to detail. That it won the C
ésar against the likes of Lady Chatterley and Indigènes (Days of Glory) says something about how good it really is.
+
Jean Dujardin - I'd never seen this guy before, but he's a comic genius. I was probably reminded more of Sacha Baron Cohen than anyone else, but I saw Jim Carrey in him as well. Nevertheless, he has his own unique comedic style - and it's on glorious display here.
+ When the spies were reciting cryptic proverbs after the mambo scene.

I Liked:
+ The retro title sequence and fantastic musical score.
+ The scene with the Nazis in the pyramid bunker.
+ That it was filmed in Casablanca, which adequately stands in for Cairo circa-1955.

I Disliked:
- Some plodding moments when the action died down, such as the scene at the French embassy and the overdrawn day spent sitting in the SCEP office.

I Hated:
- That the casting was so obviously inaccurate. Bejo and Atika are Argentinian and Portuguese, respectively, and it was a stretch to see them as Egyptian. A minor quibble.

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

Total: 21/30= 90% = A-

Last Word: It's so hard not to compare OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, but I'll do my best. Its technical aspects are masterful and absorbing, from the Technicolor to the costumes to the music. It may not look as good on DVD, but it was a sight to see in the theater. The laughs start right away, but unfortunately
OSS 117 loses its momentum too often, and we're left aching for more campy scenes with Jean Dujardin. Director Hazanavicius does well in not trying to hammer the plot home, but some of scenes are awkwardly placed and the repetitive gags start to lose their flavor. The good news is that Dujardin single-handedly carries this film all the way through the end credits, and several of the scenes (getting lost in the maze of streets, waking to the Mezzuin's call) are truly hilarious. If not for some awkward humor and poor writing in the second act, I would be talking about OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies as a potential new classic.

Underrated MOTM: High School High (1996)

The Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) for April is an old favorite of mine, even though it's probably the most idiotic movie I'll ever praise on Getafilm. I won't defend High School High as a classic by any stretch, but I'll try to provide some evidence as to why it deserves better than a 7% on Rotten Tomatoes (even if that's only from eight reviews). And I promise, it's a total coincidence that just a few months ago I championed Lean on Me as an Underrated MOTM on these pages.

Let's start with the vitals. Released in the fall of 2006, High School High was directed by Hart Bochman (PCU) and starred Jon Lovitz (recently in Southland Tales), Tia Carrere (still around) and Mekhi Phifer (now a regular on "ER"), but the key element to the team was writer David Zucker, who had by that time already cracked you up with his writing in Airplane!, Top Secret!, and the Naked Gun trilogy. By the mid-90's, the "good teacher in the hood" movie was ripe for a spoof, and Zucker had rich source material: Lean on Me, The Substitute, Stand and Deliver, and Dangerous Minds, to name a few. High School High threaded bits from each into its formulaic plot: schlub teacher innocently lands in tough school, befriends attractive colleague, wins over students, inspires them to pass state-administered exams, defies evil principal, and so on. Roger Ebert observed that it "makes the crucial error of taking its story seriously and angling for a happy ending," but I either didn't notice or didn't care. There wasn't a real attempt at making it a dramatic movie, but Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times criticized the same aspect of the direction.

How Hart Bochman became attached to this is a mystery to me, but it's interesting to note that Trey Parker was reportedly offered the chance to direct before him. He turned it down, but ended up starring in BASEketball two years later, which was written and directed by...David Zucker. I also don't know how the casting happened for High School High, but Jon Lovitz turned out to be a great fit. He was just coming out of his glory years (if he really had any?) from "Saturday Night Live" and "The Critic," and he had the perfect, nasally voice for a nerdy teacher. Tia Carrere was the exotic fantasy of Wayne's World fans and had recently been the evil seductress in True Lies (one of the last great action movies). Mekhi Phifer was still a relative unknown with only two film credits to his name, though one of them was his debut in Spike Lee's Clockers. Aside from Louise Fletcher (yep, Nursed Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), the rest of the cast were and still are mostly unknown, though it looks like several are earning a living with television roles.

Yes, the movie is stupid, but it's hard to defend the majority of mainstream comedy as "smart." High School High existed in an odd window in Hollywood - after the classic spoofs in the style of Mel Brooks, but before the cheap referencing and bodily fluid showcasing in spoofs like Scary Movie and its now omnipresent spawn. In its own unique way, High School High delivered sharp satire, dry dialogue, and decent acting (even if that "acting" was just delivering deadpan lines). Said New York Times critic Lawrence Van Gelder: "There's not much sense to the plot. But the film makers' blunderbuss approach to humor, with visual and verbal jokes coming in profusion and scattering high and low, guarantees that just about every funnybone is bound to be hit, some more than once."

How many times your funnybone is hit will depend on your taste and your mood, but chances are good that you'll chuckle a few times. You can't place it on a list with Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery or others that I previously mentioned, but I find the Zucker influence in High School High a lot funnier than most of the classically-defined spoofs that are being churned out these days.

I really can't believe I just attempted a defense of this movie.

April 23, 2008

REVIEW: Standard Operating Procedure (A-)

Background: At the risk of losing any credibility I might have, I need to admit that I've not seen Gates of Heaven or The Thin Blue Line (considered two of the most important documentaries of all time) in their entirety. Unfortunately, the only work I've seen by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. If you have not seen the 2004 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature since it played in the theater, revisit it as soon as possible. You'll lose sleep, but you'll gain perspective as well. Morris' new film, Standard Operating Procedure, focuses on the infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib, and it was the winner of the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in February. I have to mention here that I attended a screening of Standard Operating Procedure followed by a discussion with Errol Morris and his set photographer, Nubar Alexanian. In most cases this does not significantly affect my impression of a movie, but I'm convinced that my experience with Standard Operating Procedure would have been very different had it not been followed by such a lengthy and illuminating discussion.

Synopsis: Do a little research if you've never heard of Abu Ghraib before, because Morris is not interested in educating us with elementary facts. Right away we're in the middle of the videos and photographs - thousands of them from several different cameras, including angles the public hasn't seen before. As we're taken through an examination of the circumstances surrounding these infamous photos, we hear directly from the familiar faces that are in front of and behind the camera, including Lynndie England, Javal Davis, Megan Ambuhl Graner, Sabrina Harman, Janis Karpinski, and Jeremy Sivits. They candidly explain not just why and how the pictures were taken, but what they were thinking at the time and, most importantly, what was going on that wasn't documented. Within this analysis, Morris interjects artistic reenactments and showy camera work. He lets the interviewees present most of the political talking points for him, and perhaps consequently, he leaves a lot of room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

I Loved:
+ The fascinating interviews that left me hanging on every word. The honesty with which the interviewees speak is unbelievable, and Morris' "Interro-tron" creates an unparalleled sense of intimacy for the viewer.
+ The cinematography, particularly the extreme close-ups and mesmerizing, 1000 fps slow-motion shots. On the cooking egg shot, Morris quipped that his favorite practice (and his advice for future filmmakers) is to "just show things dropping."

I Liked:
+ The singular and unwavering focus on the photographs and the circumstances surrounding them. The precision to which the photographs are examined is stunning, and the visual organization is well designed.
+ The funniest line in an unfunny film - Javal Davis, on using country music as a torture device after "Hip Hop Hooray" and "Enter Sandman" failed: "That worked."
+ The musical score by Danny Elfman, even though it initially reminded me of the Spider-Man trilogy.

I Disliked:
- The reenactments of the torture and photo incidents. I understand that we were supposed to see what wasn't in the photographs, but to me they were flashy, unnecessary visuals that ultimately didn't show us anything new. The uncropped photos were more illuminating for me.

I Hated:
- Not hearing from Charles Graner, who is imprisoned and has no way to try to convince us that he is actually human.
- The uncensored photographs. I mentioned the same thing in my review of Alex Gibney's Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side: despite the fact that we don't know who they are, these men are still actual people, and continuing to humiliate them for years after they were tortured doesn't sit right with me. This film actually happens to be about the power of photographs (unlike Taxi), so I can't fault Morris for using them. It's not the use that I hate; I just have a visceral reaction that tells me these men, if truly innocent, somehow deserve better.

Grade:
Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 27/30= 90% = A-

Last Word (expanded): "There is an inherent mystery to every photograph," said Errol Morris early in the post-screening discussion, which lasted nearly as long as the film itself. If you're familiar with his blog (and his other films), you know Morris has an obsession for studying images. An important excerpt:

"...photographs attract false beliefs...photography can makes us think we know more than we really know. It is easy to confuse photographs with reality. To many of us, photographs are reality. But however real they may seem, they are not reality. Reality is three-dimensional. Photographs are but two-dimensional, and record only a moment, a short interval of time snatched from the long continuum of before and after...They provide an imperfect simulacrum of the surface of things."

As Morris outlines with the meticulous detail of a forensic scientist in Standard Operating Procedure, the photographs from Abu Ghraib have simply tricked us into believing in a reality that did not exist the way we think it did. He attempts with moderate success to convince us that the "few bad apples" we want to blame are the wrong ones - that their complicity only relates to the photographs and the extent to which they were influenced by their environment.

In terms of the technical merits of the film, Morris has created an absorbing and often gripping documentary. His use of light, sound, quick edits and music borders on manipulative, but it also adds a stylish sense of professionalism and expertise that you don't see very often. The photo arrays were impressive and the interviews transition smoothly. I didn't get a lot out of seeing the handwritten letters from Samantha Harman so often, but they're critical as the only evidence of a conscience at Abu Ghraib.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Standard Operating Procedure is, in fact, that evidence, and you can't help but admit that without these photographs we may never have known about Abu Ghraib or any of the interrogation methods used by U.S. military intelligence. You could argue that the photos literally changed the course of the war, and a study of them was a clever choice by Errol Morris. The questions they raise about war, leadership, gender, behavior, control, psychology, and culture are worthy of doctoral research, and Morris touches on them enough to satiate the intellectual viewer. Unfortunately, his main thesis - that blame should be placed on the U.S. government instead of the enlisted soldiers - is just a tad too extreme for me to embrace. His true political leanings aren't fully on display
in the film (believe it or not), but speaking afterwards he didn't hold back, using words like "monarchy" and urging us to "impeach Bush."

In fact, at one point he could hardly contain himself in his chair, shouting and pointing at a questioner who inquired about any signs of remorse or apology from the interviewees. His face flushed with anger, Morris unloaded a tirade about how the soldiers were used as pawns; how Bush was reelected because he was able to blame everything on them; how the entire Abu Ghraib debacle was a big cover-up. He gradually calmed down and apologized, but he'd made his point: though they did some questionable things, the soldiers weren't evil and they weren't complicit, they were just cogs in the war machine. He concluded, "The crime was not the torture; the crime was the photography. And that's sick. And amazing." In other words, embarrassing the country by taking pictures of torture turned out to be a more punishable offense than the torture itself. That's a sad truth, but it's not given enough attention by Morris, who tries only to convince us only that the wrong people were held accountable.

Separating those two issues is splitting hairs, but the failure to do so prevents Standard Operating Procedure from reaching its full potential. For all the time spent studying photos and interviewing the key players, we should have learned something more about human nature, something more about the military mindset, something more about interrogation and intelligence and American culture. Instead, Standard Operating Procedure brings us right back to where we started: people were mistreated and nobody knows why. All anyone wants to do, including Errol Morris, is point fingers at the government.

April 21, 2008

Joel and Ethan Coen: Feeling (and Fooling?) Minnesota



[This article will appear as part of MovieZeal's month-long celebration of the films of the Coen brothers. Check out excellent reviews of their movies by Evan Derrick and Luke Harrington (The Zealots), in addition to guest reviews and some illuminating insights on the Coen brand from an impressive array of movie bloggers. Like me...?]

"Fargo's naht even in Minnesoda, ya know!"

So has begun many a contentious conversation with Minnesotans about the Oscar-winning film from native sons Joel and Ethan Coen. A word of advice: if you're visiting, don't bring it up. Ironically, we obsessively claim the brothers as our own, while at the same time distance ourselves as much as possible from their most famous portrayal of us. Over the course of their filmmaking careers, the relationship between the brothers and their home state has indeed been a delicate one.

Born and raised in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park by their professorial parents (dad at the University of Minnesota, mom at St. Cloud State University), the Coens were already making films on a Super 8 camera before they reached adolescence. The boys grew up at an interesting time in Minnesota, and not just the 1950's were smack dab in the middle of the Baby Boom. The state was notoriously anti-Semitic during and after World War II, and it would be hard for me to believe such sentiment was totally absent from their childhood, even in their (still) predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Bob Dylan was probably crossing paths with their father as he wandered the U of M campus in Dinkytown. Prince was picking up a guitar for the first time across town. Heck, Al Franken practically grew up with the Coens in St. Louis Park. Like their soon-to-be-famous contemporaries (and me, decades later...), Joel and Ethan headed elsewhere after high school, broadening their horizons at NYU (Ethan), Princeton (Joel), and Bard College at Simon's Rock (both). It was clear they would not be back to Minnesota anytime soon, and by 1984 they had their first film (Blood Simple) and their first addition to the Coen family (Joel's marriage to the actress Frances McDormand). We wouldn't see them again until, of course, Fargo in 1996.

You need to know that Minnesota, like many of the tragically named "flyover states," is a place that swells with pride. For the rural population in the state, moving to "the cities" (Minneapolis and St. Paul) is akin to disowning your family, your roots. To a lesser but still noticeable extent, this thinking also translates to those who move out of the state altogether. Who did the Coens think they were, leaving and never coming back? They're too good for Minnesota? They're better than us? Perhaps you can see why Fargo, with its exaggerated accents and pathetically provincial characters, wasn't selling out theaters around here. On the contrary, many Minnesotans (perhaps already hurt by the Coens departure) were infuriated with the film. The initial reaction was so dramatic, in fact, that the Minneapolis Star Tribune warned filmgoers that "many Minnesotans may be offended by parts of Fargo."

The Coens, for their part, were puzzled by the reaction in their home state. Said Joel Coen after its release, "We were born and grew up in Minnesota, which is one of the reasons why we were interested in the story...We feel very much sort of a part of it, having some from that culture. That's another thing that sort of surprises us about the attitude of the outsider condescending to the yokels from Minnesota." Nevertheless, one quote I found from a Fergus Falls resident summed up the general sentiment at the time: "I left that movie feeling violated and lied about. The Coens should be ashamed." It didn't help the situation when the film would go on to win two Academy Awards and be named as the one of the 100 greatest films of all time by the American Film Institute. Then, ten years after its release, the Library of Congress add Fargo to its prestigious National Film Registry, ensuring that this source of embarrassment for Minnesotans would be "preserved for future generations."



"I think Minnesotans will eventually come to like Fargo," said prescient Minneapolis storyteller Kevin Kling upon the film's release in 1996. Indeed, as the film rose to become an American classic, the local hostility towards it faded. By the time the Coens were back on the national stage in 2007 for their next American classic, No Country for Old Men, half of Minnesota practically claimed familial relations with the brothers (Mine? One of my best friends auditioned for the role of Scotty Lundegaard in Fargo). This tendency to unabashedly jump at the chance for national attention seems to happen a lot here, but not without notice. "I guess I would say it's fun, but it always strikes me as the sort of thing that a place that wants to be someplace else does, not a place that's secure in itself," said media analyst David Brauer in an MPR interview about Minnesota's obsession last year with the Coens (and also with Diablo Cody of Juno fame). True to form, the City of Brainerd, MN, has been using Fargo as an appeal to tourists for years. Turns out the fine citizens here don't really care if people think they're attention-starved, they just care if people think they talk funny.

While it seems too easy to relate the Coen brothers exclusively to Fargo when talking about their link to Minnesota, none of their other films (full disclosure: I haven't seen all 12 of them) so prominently feature the state and culture that influenced them, and none of their other films left such an impression here. And although it may still be considered their career-defining work, Fargo was not an anomaly or change of pace for the Coens, but an emblematic example of their unique style. But what sets them apart from other filmmakers? Or rather, what is uniquely "Minnesotan" about their films?



In order to bolster both my knowledge of film and my credibility in writing this, I spoke with Minneapolis Star Tribune film critic Colin Covert about Joel and Ethan's relationship to their home state. He identified two aspects of their films that could be considered "Minnesotan", and I agree with both. "I think they have a very down-to-earth, Midwestern and specifically Minnesotan quality to their films," notes Covert. "They're very observant of the details of everyday life," he added, citing Raising Arizona as an example. To be sure, this is an understatement. The brothers are well-known for their meticulous attention to the regional characteristics of their story settings, including accents, landscapes, music, religion, and cultural traditions. The Los Angeles of The Big Lebowski; the Deep South of O Brother, Where Art Thou?; the West Texas of No Country for Old Men. Minnesota, with its deep commitment to preserving Scandinavian traditions, served as a perfect model for the young Coens. Growing up Jewish, the Coens must have looked on with curiosity at the Lutherans around them eating lutefisk and telling Sven and Ole jokes with funny accents (those of you outside of Minnesota don't even know what I'm talking about, do you?) - exactly the kind of specific cultural details present in so many of their films. Had the Coens grown up in a more culturally diverse place, they may not have had the same fixation on the regional characteristics that help define their distinct style.

Secondly, Covert pointed out the "dry, dark, pessimistic humor that runs through their films." Those of you familiar with "Minnesota nice" might find this surprising, but Minnesotans can actually be a pretty perverse bunch of Scandinavians. I don't know how many times I've looked around half-shocked and half-disturbed by the hoots and guffaws around me in the theater during an unsettling or bloody scene, especially at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis. Covert nailed it on the head with his description, and while it might not be a style exclusive to the Coens, neither is crass humor exclusive to witty New Yorkers or above-it-all Los Angelenos. While others were laughing at the funny accents in Fargo, Minnesotans (those who went) were cackling during the wood chipper scene. This subtle humor is palpable in many of the Coens' films, from the silly (The Hudsucker Proxy, Raising Arizona) to the suspenseful (the gas station scene in No Country for Old Men). There's one other observation that I have to make here, and that is the fact that many of the characters in their films just seem like typical Minnesotans. John Goodman (originally from Missouri), for example, could easily pass for a local in the Twin Cities.

And what about Fargo's eventual celebration here in Minnesota? "At first I thought it was extremely condescending," said Covert. "Minnesotans don't talk like that," he continued, referring to Frances McDormand's turn as Marge Gunderson (which incidentally earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress). So how did we come full circle? Laughing, Covert admitted that in the years following Fargo's success, he realized, "Minnesotans really do talk like that. On the first viewing you're terrified of the condescension, and that blinded us to the more affectionate aspects of it." But after multiple viewings, Covert observed (and I agree) that while the satire cannot be ignored, the Coens balance it out with subtle tributes to the special culture and character in which so many Minnesotans take pride.

So, twelve feature films into their career, where are we in the ever-interesting relationship between the Coen brothers and their place of birth? Soon after No Country for Old Men began its road to glory last year, the pair announced that their upcoming film, A Serious Man, would start filming in Minnesota in 2008. The story ( a "dark comedy") focuses on the life of a Jewish professor in the late 60's, and it will mark the first time they've filmed locally since Fargo. Because of its non-contemporary story and non-traditional main character, I personally don't expect A Serious Man will make as much of a splash here as Fargo, but the fact that the brothers wrote the screenplay (instead of adapting it, like No Country) increases the likelihood that an "authentic" Minnesota will be a prominent presence on the screen. Perhaps the moviegoing American public will see a new side of the state, if they see the state at all. I wondered about this aloud, and Covert agreed that the rest of the country "doesn't know Minnesota from Nebraska."

Well, we can't fault the Coen brothers for trying, even if Fargo wasn't the side we wanted to show. All we can do is hope that one day, the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" will receive its due credit for shaping the careers of two legendary American filmmakers.

April 20, 2008

REVIEW: Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? (C-)

Background: A few years ago, buzz was building about an unconventional McDonald's documentary by an unknown filmmaker. I saw Super Size Me at first opportunity in the theater, then kind of forgot about it - only to see it explode into pop culture, earn Morgan Spurlock an Oscar nomination and TV series ("30 Days"), and force McDonald's to actually eliminate their super sizing options (and vehemently deny its decision had anything to do with the film). Did Morgan Spurlock change the world? No, but he hacked a piece out of McDonald's, and that's a start. Puffed up with praise, Spurlock graduated himself from the likes of Ronald McDonald to none other than Osama bin Laden. Dubbed "The Next Great Big Adventure," Where in The World is Osama Bin Laden seemed worth a look, if for no other reason than to see if this guy would boldly stare death in the face like he did in Super Size Me.

Synopsis: It's hard to know where this actually begins. Within the first 10 minutes, we learn Spurlock's wife is months away from giving birth, Osama bin Laden can dance really well, and Spurlock is obsessed with video games. In fact, the rest of the film is framed as a video game, with Spurlock moving on to a new country after completing each "round." It's pretty clear from the time he sets foot in his first country, Egypt, that he's not at all interested in actually finding bin Laden. Rather, he's simply interviewing Egyptians, Moroccans, Palestinians, Israelis, Jordanians, Saudis, Afghans, and Pakistanis about their thoughts on the United States. Spurlock occasionally throws in a question about bin Laden for comic relief, but he's clearly not taking this trip for the reason he initially used as his motive: ridding the world of bin Laden so his new child can grow up in a utopia.

I Loved:
+ Osama bin Laden as MC Hammer. That. Was hilarious.
+ The end credits, which in two minutes accomplished more than Spurlock did in the hour and a half preceding it.

I Liked:
+ The access Spurlock gained to parts of the world not often seen, namely Saudi Arabia and Orthodox Israel.
+ That Spurlock actually seemed to listen to the answers of his interviewees.

I Disliked:
- The awkward relationship between Spurlock's trip and his wife's pregnancy. It wasn't a bad idea to work his family into it, but it just didn't transition smoothly.
- That the title of the film has nothing to do with its content.

I Hated:
- The video game background to everything. Besides being unnecessary, it wasn't even funny.
- The silly theme song.

Grade:
Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 6
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 3
Significance - 5

Total: 21/30= 70% = C-

Last Word: I'm all for the idea. Cultural understanding and fostering positive relations with the Middle East has literally never been more important. In fact, that might be why the tame Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?
is so disappointing. Morgan Spurlock simplistically and distractingly takes the conversation nowhere. In the closing credits we see the smiling faces of people of all ages from numerous countries, and Spurlock's idealistic thesis - that we're all not so different from each other - is brilliantly on display. So why not just show that for two hours and save the video games and comic bits (candid camera in the mall, calling all the bin Ladens in the phone book) for some DVD extras? I could forgive the gimmicky stuff if the message was either clear or applicable, but Spurlock fails there as well. Call me a cynic, but few people (including bin Laden or anyone in al Qaeda) are going to see this and put down their weapons. Worse yet, few Americans will take any new insights away from the film, aside from the complacency-inducing "We don't hate Americans, we hate the American government," which would be comforting if not for the fact that we actually elect those people in power. I will give Spurlock credit for at least traveling to these countries and talking to people, and I admire that he refrains from humiliation and naked manipulation (practically trademarked by Michael Moore) in his interviews. Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? won't harm anyone, but neither will it bring us any closer to Spurlock's idea of a safe world for our children.

April 18, 2008

300 Words About: The Devil Wears Prada



I missed the boat on The Devil Wears Prada during its initial theater run, partly because I don't worship the gods of fashion and partly because I'm not a 13 year-old girl, but mostly because it just didn't look like it would be a worthwhile movie. Having seen it now (in-flight on a 5" screen), I can understand why it was smashing success, and not just among readers of fashion magazines. Aside from the ever popular underdog story, the dialogue is pretty sharp. I would imagine some of the lines were actually said by Vogue editor Anna Wintour (reportedly the inspiration for Meryl Streep's character), but some of the throwaway lines by the other characters are quite funny in their own right. Emily Blunt and Streep (who received a Best Actress Oscar nod) were terrific casting choices here, and Anne Hathaway is adequate as the fish out of water. So what's wrong with The Devil Wears Prada? Well, aside from the minor quibbles I have with it (the most annoying cell phone ring I've ever heard, Alanis Morissette's horrible cover of Seal's "Crazy"), the movie is too long and too predictable. Also, I'm really sick of exaggerated character development. For example, when we first meet Andy and her friends, they enjoy wine at dinner and are hip, about-town New Yorkers, but as soon as she gets modeled up they're a blue-collar crew eating soggy fries and drinking Bud Light? Anyway, the real problem is the formulaic story - we don't see every turn coming, but the bus driver (director David Frankel) reminds us where we're going about every 10 minutes. Really, could you have imagined any other ending to this movie? Maybe I'm being picky since production annoyances and predictability are common to 90% of movies these days, and it would be unfair to make an example of Prada. Its imperfections make it perfect for an inflight movie, and Miranda is an interesting character that doesn't come along very often. That being said, I still don't worship the gods of fashion and I still don't think it was a worthwhile movie. For me.

April 17, 2008

MSP Film Fest kicks off, and so does everything else




I can hardly complain, but this is a little too much to handle. Spring is traditionally the worst movie season. Um...

Every Monday in April, Take-Up Productions is presenting" Sweet Escapism: Screwball Comedies of the Great Depression" at Pepito's Parkway Theater. The renovation at the theater is progressing, and so far the change in ownership has been very impressive indeed.

The Walker Art Center continues to churn out premieres and international film series at a terrific clip. Tuesday I was witness to an hour and a half of passionate ranting by Errol Morris following a preview screening of Standard Operating Procedure. More on that later.

Wednesdays in April and May, the United Artists 90th Anniversary Film Festival is being hosted by the Landmark in Edina. Classics, on the big screen, every week.

And today, of course, is the start of the 26th Annual Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. I list my hopefuls here, and Colin Covert sets the appropriate mood here.

Oh, right. There are also seven new releases I'm interested in seeing in the next two weeks. Impossible, you say? Well, you're usually right.

For these reasons and more, I'm going to Las Vegas this afternoon.

April 16, 2008

300 Words About: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Considered by many to be the greatest Western ever (spaghetti or otherwise), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo) is clearly still influencing filmmakers more than 40 years after its release. In 2007, we saw Hollywood usher in a new generation of Westerns (3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood), and watching Sergio Leone's classic recently, I found myself chuckling at the similarities. He so dramatically left a mark on the genre that it's nearly impossible not to accuse everyone of copying him. Consider, for example, how often we see extreme close-ups and freeze-frame character intros in contemporary films. Every element of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is seminal (e.g., the writing, acting, cinematography, score, etc. ), and yet it received not even one Oscar nomination. In fact, it didn't win any measure of any award - ever. I don't know what its eligibility status was as an Italian film, but its American competition in 1967 was stiff anyway: The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, to name a few.

Part of the genius of the film is its simplicity. It doesn't have twisting plot details or fancy special effects, and it's not meant to be a symbolic saga for the ages. Rather, it's an epic that finds its power in fascinating characters and an impossibly balanced blend of humor, action, suspense, violence, tragedy and adventure. We've seen versions of Blondie (Eastwood) show up in everybody from John McClane to Jack Foley to Jason Bourne. And Tuco (Eli Wallach)? He has almost no equal, though many have tried over the years. The ensemble cast is simply brilliant, but while it's perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film, you can't overlook the sweeping cinematography (it was filmed in Spain) or the iconic score by Ennio Morricone - easily one of the most recognizable ever.

If you were impressed with any Westerns from the Class of '07, do yourself a favor and take another look at The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It's currently making the rounds on the United Artists 90th Anniversary festival/tour, which is suffering from absolutely terrible marketing - including the lack of a website that I can link to here.

April 15, 2008

REVIEW: Planet B-Boy (B+)

Background: The documentary trend train keeps on rolling full steam in 2008, and I'm loving it. Last year it was Donkey Kong and abstract art, this year it's breakdancing. Or, to be precise, b-boying. Korean-American Benson Lee makes his documentary directorial debut with Planet B-Boy, which boasts the tagline "Breakdancing has evolved." I'm not a b-boy, but I've always thought breaking is an overlooked cultural tradition, bad movies like Kickin' It Old Skool and Step Up 2: The Streets notwithstanding. Thanks for an attempt at a more enlightening film, Benson.

Synopsis: Our first few minutes are spent learning about the history of b-boying - an important intro, because we'll learn that while breakdancing was being exploited as a an 80's fad in the U.S., the rest of the world was taking it to new heights. In 1990, the international breakdancing competition that came to be known as Battle of the Year was held in, all of places, Braunschweig, Germany. Since then the competition has evolved into the World Cup of breakdancing. Eighteen countries have elimination contests to determine which crew will represent the country at Battle of the Year. In 2005, we meet five teams who have been selected and are preparing for Germany: Gamblerz (from South Korea, and automatic invites as defending champs), Last for One (South Korean champs), Ichegeki (Japanese champs), Phase-T (French champs), and Knucklehead Zoo (U.S. champs, from Las Vegas). As we watch the teams anxiously practice for the trip, we also learn about their respective cultures and, in some cases, their family situations. Pulsing music and quick edits are our guide all the way up to the climactic final battle.

I Loved:
+ Being amazed over and over at the athleticism of these dancers.
+ The fresh art direction and stylish title designs.
+
The cultural learning that took place with Lil' Kev's family in France.

I Liked:
+ The French crew, "Phase-T". No hard feelings toward the Americans, but the French seemed like the coolest cats in town.

I Disliked:
- That the slow motion shots were rare, and even then, misplaced.
- Not getting a better look at the teams from all 18 countries. And were any from Latin America?
- That that video quality was lowest at the most important parts - like the dancing footage.

I Hated:
- That the attempt at infusing family affairs into the story didn't work out very well. It was just a bit of a distraction. Focusing on the competition and the cultures was a great idea, but the sob stories would have been more appropriate in a different kind of film.

Grade:
Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 4

Total: 26/30= 87% = B+

Last Word:
"Breaking is as legitimate as any other dance that has existed," says legendary b-boy Ken Swift in the fantastic first few minutes of Planet B-Boy. Your reaction to that statement will frame the rest of your experience of the film. If you think he's mistaken and you only saw it to give breaking a last chance, well, I totally respect that and I hope you're convinced. If you think he's right, as I do, be prepared to be taken to a new level of amazement, though truthfully it was hard to remain impressed after an hour. I mean really, seeing so many people land impossible backflips in order to spin on their pinky fingers and balance on their noses starts to make it look easy after a while, doesn't it? No matter - I and others in the theater still gushed out a few "oohs" and "ahs" in the last battle. Planet B-Boy has to be viewed on three very different levels. As an educational documentary about the history of b-boying, it doesn't deliver. Better to watch the likes of Electric Boogaloo and Breakin'. As an emotional tale of boys making their fathers and families proud amidst uncertainty about their future, it tries but fails. As a simple feature on the Battle of the Year and five competing teams from different cultures, it's an absolute thrill. Fortunately, the third aspect is the main objective of Planet B-Boy, and if you don't walk out of the theater hyped up to try some moves of your own, then there was probably no hope for you anyway. At the very least, perhaps you took away some cultural nuggets and will look at breakdancing in a different light next time you see some kids "messing around" on the street.

April 13, 2008

REVIEW: Smart People (C)

Background: It has such a witty tagline, doesn't it? Written by first-timer Mark Poirier and directed by first-timer Noam Murro (whose previous work was in TV advertising), Smart People stars Dennis Quaid (Vantage Point), Thomas Haden Church (Spider-Man 3), Ellen Page (Juno), Sarah Jessica Parker (Failure to Launch), and Ashton Holmes (A History of Violence). True to the story, it was filmed on location in and around Carnegie Mellon University and Pittsburgh, PA. It premiered at Sundance earlier this year and will no doubt benefit from the presence of sudden darling Ellen Page, who has yet to play a character that shares her age.

Synopsis: Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid) is a grumpy, frumpy, widowed English professor at Carnegie Mellon. He's the type of guy who takes up two parking spaces and moves his clock ahead so his office hours will end earlier. In other words, a pompous jerk (who wears corduroy blazers, carries a leather satchel/briefcase, and drives a hatchback - just so we know he's a college professor). When we meet him he's falling apart at the seams - his book manuscript keeps getting rejected and his good-for-nothing brother, Chuck (Haden Church), is moving in to laze around and be the "cool" uncle to Wetherhold's two children. James (Holmes) is a snarky college student who writes poetry, and Juno MacGuff Vanessa (Page) is a snarky high school student who's wise beyond her years. After a silly accident, Wetherhold is reunited with Dr. Janet Hartigan (Parker), who, like seemingly everyone in the community, was a former standout student of his who he can no longer remember. At this point in the story we know all of the characters and all that's going to happen, so what's left is to sit back and listen to "smart" people sound "stupid" while liberally applying dry sarcasm to conversations revolving around love, relationships, success, Christmas dinner, pregnancy, family, self-pity, and insecurity. You know, the usual insufferable circumstances of overly educated upper-middle class suburbanites.

I Loved:
+ Thomas Haden Church, who knows how to add just the right amount of wit, heart, and crassness to his character. A little similar to his Jack in Sideways, but a great fit nonetheless.

I Liked:
+ Ellen Page, though the timing is unfortunate right after Juno. In my opinion, her performance here was much better, and she appeared more comfortable in a more nuanced character. An aside: how many argyle sweater-vests, thick turtlenecks, and collared silk blouses does the average high school student own?

I Disliked:
- Ashton Holmes, who looked like he was as disgusted with the movie as he was with his dad.
- The bland and ever-present acoustic guitar soundtrack. It just added to the pretension.

I Hated:
- The predictable story arc and occasionally tedious dialogue. Smart People felt like a combo platter of The Savages, Juno, and Margot at the Wedding.

Grade:
Writing - 6
Acting - 10
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 4
Significance - 3

Total: 37/50= 74% = C

Last Word:
Because "smart" people like nothing more than to demean other "smart" people, we have Smart People, giving more "smart" people (film critics) the opportunity to criticize the "smart" people who made it in the first place. I'm none of the above, but indulge me: despite great performances by Ellen Page and Thomas Haden Church, this disappointing film suffers from poor writing across many flat scenes and absolutely no chemistry between Quaid and Parker. There's virtually zero momentum to the story, and to be frank, I really didn't care what happened to any of the characters, who while not altogether unlikable, are hardly relatable. To top it off, I missed any important symbolism or rich meaning hiding in the glossy, sarcastic dialogue. And how was everyone so "smart" anyway - because they're familiar with Victorian literature? Could have used a bit more evidence, though I really don't know if I would have been able to tolerate it. There's nothing wrong with making a movie about neurotic, narcissistic academics (in fact Woody Allen has made a career of it), and the intellectual crowd might have a ball with Smart People. The rest of us, however, are left rolling our eyes and thinking about it would have been a lot smarter to spend our time elsewhere.

April 11, 2008

2008 MSP Film Fest Ready to Roll

Break out the highlighter. The complete lineup for the 26th Annual Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival (April 17 - May 3) was released earlier this week by the fine folks at Minnesota Film Arts. Led by the resilient Al Milgrom (see his message on page 7), the festival continues to feature an impressive and expansive selection of world cinema in addition to several local features and shorts.

All but a few of the screenings will be held at St. Anthony Main, which lacks the charm of the Oak St. Cinema and Bell Auditorium but makes up for it with a full-time staff and electronic ticketing system (a veritable Christmas gift in April for festival volunteers like me). There will still be a handful of shows at the Oak St., including the Best of the Fest later in May, and the opening and closing night screenings will be at the Kerasotes Block E Cinema downtown.

For the second year in a row I'm going to be gone for the first five days of the festival and, after seeing the screening schedule, I'm officially crushed. Several films I've been waiting to see are screening only on the first weekend, and a few of them even include director appearances. What can I do? Get over it, despite the fact that some of them are on my radar as Best of 2008s. I'll probably see them all eventually, and I still have a chance for some solid screenings on the second weekend.

Here are my highlights:

I'm unfortunately going to miss:
The Visitor, Director present (Opening Night, 4/17)
Momma's Man
At the Death House Door, Director and Producer present
And Along Came the Tourists
Tuya's Marriage
Young @ Heart
Son of Rambow, Director and Producer present

I'm back to hopefully see (when I'm not assigned to volunteer):
The Edge of Heaven
Dot.com
The Grocer's Son

I Was a Swiss Banker

The Tracey Fragments

The Unknown Woman

Yella

Dry Season

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

Big Dreams, Little Tokyo

Black Coffee

Cabal in Kabul

Old Thieves and the Legends of a Trade

Jar City

Little Moth

My Brother is an Only Child

River

Tell No One

Public Enemy: Welcome to the Terrordome

The Betrayal

The Planet

The Sky Turns

Up the Yangtze

Noise

American Teen

Bad Faith

Boarding Gate

Clash of Egos

Kicks

Encounters at the End of the World
(Closing Night, 5/3)

Insane, right? Well I likely won't be able to hit all of those, but they're the ones I'd make an effort to see. I suggest you take the weekend to highlight your own from the 130+ films:

World Cinema
Documentaries
American Cinema
American Documentaries
International Shorts
Shorts
Childish Programs

If you're a local, get to work. If you're not, be envious - and make recommendations if you've seen any from the list.

April 9, 2008

REVIEW: Under the Same Moon (C)

Background: A few weeks ago I blurbed about a New York Times article on the growing number of films about the immigrant experience. Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna) was cited by A.O. Scott as one of the recent attempts to show the current situation facing those on their way to the U.S., in this case from Mexico. Patricia Riggen's feature directorial debut received massive interest (and unprecedented money) at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival well over a year ago, but it presumably took Fox Searchlight this long to figure out the marketing strategy. Written by Ligiah Villalobos, Under the Same Moon stars Mexican actors Kate del Castillo, Eugenio Derbez, and young Adrian Alonso, who had a bit part in 2004's tragically ignored Voces Inocentes. America Ferrera (I still cite Real Women Have Curves over "Ugly Betty") and Jesse Garcia (phenomenal in Quinceañera) are well known to American audiences, but their high billing here is disproportionate to their short screen time. The same could be said for the wildly popular norteño band Los Tigres del Norte, whose members have an awkwardly placed cameo.

Synopsis: Carlitos (Alonso) is a young, angelic schoolboy who cares for his sick grandmother and waits at the village payphone each Sunday morning to receive a call from his mother, Rosario (del Castillo), who's been working in L.A. for the past four years. She's had little success earning legal status or even a steady paycheck, and the family seems stuck in a rut. Carlitos has been anxious to cross the border for years but he's just too young to go alone; even his boss at the local "coyote" vendor won't help him arrange a trip. After the (shockingly undramatic) death of his grandmother, he decides to cross over by any means necessary, even in the underbelly of an old minivan driven by tuition-strapped siblings Marta (Ferrera) and David (Garcia). Stranded and penniless in El Paso, Carlitos has just a few days to make it to L.A. - his mother's going to be calling the payphone on Sunday morning, remember? So begins an incredible (and incredibly predictable) journey for Carlitos, who in about 72 hours experiences a lavandería list of immigrant predicaments: exploitation by drug addicts and dealers, fleeing from the INS, working as a tomato picker, hitchhiking on desert roads, tracking down old relatives, working as a dishwasher, sleeping on a park bench, and finally, running from the police. Quite a few days for a 9 year-old. Enrique (Derbez) is Carlitos' reluctant friend and guardian along the way, but he's mostly around for plot development, such as to encourage a bizarre encounter with Carlitos' dad in Tucson, AZ. Meanwhile in L.A., Rosario is oblivious to Carlitos' journey; she's busy playing hard-to-get with Paco (a literal saint played by Gabriel Porras) and cleaning the circa-1982 furnishings of Satan's mansion. Not the devil himself, but a demon of a woman who is so cartoonishly evil that she's literally referred to as Cruella de Vil. As Sunday morning arrives, we know all too well the troubles of immigrant life, but we also know where both Carlitos and Rosario will be: Under the Same Streetlight (by the payphone).

I Loved:
+ Adrian Alonso, who handled a wide range of emotions quite well and didn't act too cute when it wasn't appropriate or necessary.

I Liked:
+ The last 30 seconds - yes, I have a heart and I gave into the emotion of the moment.

I Disliked:
- America Ferrera and Jesse Garcia in their totally wasted parts. Her acting was especially awful - where did that come from?
- The out-of-nowhere encounter with Los Tigres del Norte. I'm not a fan or anything, so maybe I missed some kind of clever insight. I know they write about the immigrant experience, but this was a little bizarre.

I Hated:
- The soulless homeowner - too much of a caricature, and funny when it should have been tragic.
- The writing, and some of the editing. Most of
Ligiah Villalobos' writing credits are from the TV show "Go, Diego, Go", and she doesn't appear to have a knack for adult-oriented writing.

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

Total: 38/50= 76% = C

Last Word: The story told in Under the Same Moon is urgently important in 2008 and will be for years to come. Too bad the story alone isn't enough; the film suffers significantly from poor writing and stiff direction, and it doesn't seem to know who it's made for. It's a shame, really, because I would love to recommend this to so many people. I still may, but I'll have to hope they won't be rolling their eyes as much as I was. The formulaic plot is annoyingly contrived and the schmaltz is so overpowering that we basically lose any ability to relate to the characters. Honestly, I found myself wondering if this story about a 9 year-old boy was in fact written by a 9 year-old boy. And maybe it's written for 9 year-old boys, in which case it works well as a decent starter film for young cinephiles. Who knows? My point in this criticism is that it's difficult to effectively work Under the Same Moon into any serious discussion about immigration in the U.S. , and that's really unfortunate at a time like this. What may have started out as a great idea has become bloated and cliché
d, and even a little manipulative at times. There are certainly moments of genuine drama and comedy (including a dig at immigrant Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger), but for the most part, La Misma Luna es la misma historia.
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