November 30, 2009

Taking It Home: Precious

("Taking It Home" is an alternative review style in which I share my thoughts on a movie's themes and how they may relate to my life, while focusing less on the acting, writing, technical aspects, or even plot of the film. It's a collection of the ideas I took home, "because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theater".)

The most tragic "happy" ending you'll see in any movie this year...

Sitting through Precious in a movie theater is about as torturous a cinematic experience you can get these days outside of a Saw film. It is the most foul-mouthed, stomach-churning, disturbingly violent film I've seen in 2009, and despite the fact that little blood is actually shed, its characters (Precious in particular) are, along with the audience, beaten to unconscious submission during 110 minutes of unrelenting emotional violation at the hands of director Lee Daniels.

Yes, Precious delivers a knockout, battering us with so much vile depravity that we leave the theater unsure of what we're even supposed to feel, and unable to immediately understand that the abuse has been inflicted on us not to educate or evoke sympathy, but to make a tragic ending appear relatively uplifting. It's been called "unflinchingly gritty" and "brutally realistic" and all kinds of other hyperbole (most are accurate), but the most explicit truth in this film is left out: Precious Jones is dead.

REVIEW: Crude (A)

As I see it, the disappointing increase in popularity and production of Michael Moore-style "agit-docs" (agit, short for agitating) over the last few years has seriously threatened to diminish the credibility of actual documentary films. These days I unfortunately flinch whenever I hear about any new documentary that even appears to be about a social issue, because chances are it's going to be much more style than substance. 

Consider Hoop Dreams as an example, and think about how that same film would be produced in 2009. It would not be Steve James patiently and unobtrusively observing William Gates and Arthur Agee as two young boys trying to discover their potential. It would be an activist filmmaker abandoning their story in order to apply a blurry lens to the salacious societal ills on display on Chicago's South Side. There would be interviews with experts and celebrities and certainly Oprah, and a tidy list of "what you can do" chores would precede the credits. Everybody would leave feeling simultaneously horrified and puffed up with pride, but you'd have almost no insight into the actual life experiences of Gates and Agee.

I say all of this to explain why, almost regardless of who made it or what it's about, I am automatically suspicious that a "socially conscious" documentary in 2009 won't actually document a story so much as create one; propaganda is the tool that leads people to action, so people must be force-fed any message a filmmaker thinks we are too dense to understand on our own. As such, when I saw the ominous tagline for Crude ("The real price of oil."), I was ready to lump it in with the rest as an over-stylized, under-educating "call to action". Thankfully, I was completely wrong.

November 27, 2009

Short Cuts: "...Breakfast the Night Before..."

City Slickers (1991). Directed by Ron Underwood; written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel; starring Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Bruno Kirby, Jack Palance, Jake Gyllenhaal, Patricia Wettig, and Helen Slater.

November 25, 2009

REVIEW: Milking the Rhino

Picture the last nature documentary you saw about the African bush: bilbao trees, tall grasses, lush jungle, parched desert, and wildlife ranging from impalas to elephants, zebras to giraffes. If it's anything like the last one I saw, the animals appeared to be living in an untouched paradise.

"The reality is that if you just turn the camera around, you have people that live just next to this wildlife," explains a national park director in Milking the Rhino, a fascinating documentary filmed over three years about the tumultuous relationship between humans and animals in post-colonial Africa. Produced by Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams, The New Americans) and directed by David E. Simpson, it is a content rich film that should forever change the way you watch a nature documentary or, if you can afford it, participate in an African safari. As one of the year's best and most thought-provoking documentaries, it's hard to even know where to begin talking about all of the issues raised in Milking the Rhino. So while I'll attempt to lay out some of its key points, I really recommend that you take the time to sit down and watch it.

November 22, 2009

300 Words About: Living Arrangements

For movie buffs, there is probably not a more surreal experience than seeing yourself on screen in a film. But seeing your own streets and neighborhood landmarks is a bit of a trip, too. For residents of the Uptown neighborhood where I live in South Minneapolis, Living Arrangements is a charming indie horror comedy with a satirical local flavor that only we can appreciate; for everyone else it's still a charming indie horror comedy.

The debut feature from Minneapolis-based director Sam Thompson, Living Arrangements is a high-concept story about a pair of newly engaged vegans, Sasha (Joe Noreen) and Billie (Alexandra Glad), who move into an Uptown apartment only to find a werewolf living in their attic. It sounds like the kind of bizarre idea you'd come up with joking around with friends at 2:00 AM, but the production is treated with just enough seriousness that by the grisly finale you're actually invested in the characters and you've long forgotten how ridiculous the premise is.

November 21, 2009

REVIEW: Etienne!

There are two kinds of pet owners in the world: cat and dog owners, and bird/fish/reptile/rodent owners. I've recently joined the ranks of the former, but for a good part of my childhood I was one of the latter. Due to my dad's reluctance to own a dog (he was once bitten by a rabid German shepherd), and due to the time and money required to care for cats and dogs, we had a series of hamsters - adorably soft little dwarf hamsters, more specifically. They live about two years and were a great source of enjoyment and entertainment for our family (I once accidentally sucked one up with the vacuum hose - she survived).

It takes a special kind of person to appreciate dwarf hamsters, and by extension, a special kind of person to appreciate a movie about one. I couldn't believe it when I saw the description for Etienne! in the Flyway Film Festival lineup: "After Richard's best and only friend, a dwarf hamster named Etienne, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he decides to take him on a bicycle road trip up the California coast to show him the world before he must put him to sleep." I had to see this movie.

November 18, 2009

Winter 2009-10 Lineup @ The Trylon microcinema

One of the things I've loved about the upstart Trylon microcinema is that a great variety of films has been featured in just the few months since it's opened: Buster Keaton, New York crime thrillers, David Cronenberg, Frank Capra, and music films as part of Sound Unseen 10. The little theater tucked away on Minnehaha Avenue is slowly but surely becoming a must-visit destination for film buffs in the Twin Cities; it's impossible to walk out of this place without feeling good about cinema. The picture looks great (The Warriors looked especially sharp on 35mm), the sound is clear, and the concession prices are unequaled in the city.

Take a weekend date night to come out and support Take-Up Productions and this independent theater space. Here's a look at the variety of classic films on tap for this winter at The Trylon:

November 17, 2009


Exactly how do you make a film with a budget of $70 (Yes, that's seventy dollars.)

"We bought a crowbar and a couple of tapes, and I think we got some tea and coffee as well -- not the expensive stuff either, the very basic kind," explained British filmmaker Mark Price in an interview I read on last May, when Colin premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. His claim was unbelievable and cheeky - in fact unbelievably cheeky, considering budgets on numerous Hollywood films each year extend into the hundreds of millions of dollars (the recent disaster movie 2012 had a price tag of $260 million). So alhough I'm not a big zombie guy, when Colin popped up on the schedule at the recent Flyway Film Festival, well I just had to see how this played out.

November 12, 2009

Getafilm Gallimaufry: This Is It, Wild Things, Flute-Playing Goat & Tyler Perry

[Note: This series includes scattered thoughts on various movie-related topics. I was looking for a word that started with the letter "g" that means collection or assortment, but lest you think I'm some elitist wordsmith, know that I'd never heard of "gallimaufry" and I don't even know how to say it, but it was the only other option the thesaurus provided aside from "goulash" (too foody) and "garbage" (no).]

There's a reason why more music critics than film critics were called on to review This Is It: a good 90% of the footage in this documentary is singing and dancing, not storytelling. You should know that if you're not already a Michael Jackson fan, because if you aren't then I imagine This Is It would be about as enjoyable as a John Tesh concert film (and if you don't like MJ then one can reasonably assume your musical tastes are that...tragic).

November 11, 2009

Taking It Home: Good Hair

("Taking It Home" is an alternative review style in which I share my thoughts on a movie's themes and how they may relate to my life, while focusing less on the acting, writing, technical aspects, or even plot of the film. It's a collection of the ideas I took home, "because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theater".)

Maintaining "good hair" really couldn't be any worse for you...

Chris Rock's Good Hair is kind of like one big weave: it's fun, it looks great, and it moves naturally, but you really don't know what actually exists at the roots, underneath the gloss and sheen. Framing the documentary with a Morgan Spurlock-like "I'm a new dad and now I have to figure out how to make the world better for my daughter" setup, Rock casually bounces between interviews with hairstylists, people on the street, and Hollywood celebrities. He travels from Beverly Hills to Harlem to India to Atlanta, and makes a lot of people laugh along the way, including the audience.

But to what end, exactly, nobody really knows. The average person will leave Good Hair knowing a little bit more about black people's hair but next to nothing new about racial identity in American culture, which is what the film so easily could have explored with just a little more investigation. Maybe it's unfair to blame Chris Rock for not probing further, though, since the only thing more audacious than a black man making a film about black women's hair in the first place would be a white man making a film about black women's hair (which isn't quite as curious as the reality of Jason Griggers in this film, a white man venerated as an expert sylist of black women's hair).

November 8, 2009

300 Words About: The Box

So lemme get this straight, that's two disasters in a row from Richard Kelly, right?

Literally the first words I heard after a promotional screening of Richard Kelly's The Box were, "I'm so glad I didn't have to pay for that," from a relieved audience member as he left the theater. Yes you did, I thought to myself. We all did, and in more than one way.

There are a lot of options presented to the characters in The Box, only some of which (I've heard) are taken from the original short story by Richard Matheson, which apparently made for a great "Twilight Zone" episode in the 80's. The options include choosing between this or that, which will lead to one of these things happening first and second and so on. Tragically for me, never was a character presented with an option to outright end the movie and save thousands of lives in theaters around the world. "The button has been pushed," proclaimed a creepy, still-Nixonian Frank Langella, and along with everyone else I had to live with (and eventually die by) the decision I had already made to see this movie.

My disappointment may differ from yours since I'd actually been looking forward to The Box for well over a year, previewing it in my forecast for 2009 and even mentioning it back in my review of Southland Tales. I think what I failed to recognize after Kelly's defense of that disaster is how closely his words resembled M. Night Shyamalan's (who, it should be known by now, is no friend to this blog). Whether you end up seeing The Box or not, know this fact: If Shyamalan and his rising heir-apparent Kelly ever make a film together, it will be a cinematic spectacle of metaphysical frivolity and pompous bloviating like the world has never seen (at least not since Knowing).

November 3, 2009

People's Republic of Cinema @ the Walker, Nov. 4-23

Beginning tomorrow night and continuing through Nov. 23 is yet another fascinating film series at the Walker Art Center: The People's Republic of Cinema: 60 Years of China on Film. I know as much about Chinese cinema as I do about aerospace engineering, which is to say I'm a total ignoramus about both subjects. 

Hopefully this series will broaden my horizons even a little, and I'm particularly intrigued by the concept of observing a country's history through the eyes of its most famous filmmakers. I'd love to see that for any country, let alone a country poised to be one of the great superpowers of this century (and a country so richly studied in last year's best documentary, Up the Yangtze).

Here's part of the official blurb from the Walker, as well as a listing of the films, synopses, and, when I could track them down, even trailers.

"The series celebrates 60 years of China on film, featuring 14 films, many of them rarely seen, which trace the evolution of China through the eyes of its filmmakers...Marking the 60th anniversary of 'New China', this timely series tracks the decades of political tumult and massive cultural and economic change that followed 1949’s Communist revolution. The People’s Republic of Cinema charts the unprecedented propulsive energies at work through years of radical transformation and looks to the future of a country still in flux—one responding both to its past and its relatively new prominence in the larger world. The series is organized chronologically by content, from films created or set during the establishment of the People’s Republic of China to those of the present day."


Is it fair to judge a film based on its bang-for-the-buck value (low budget, high production), and ignore otherwise standard criteria like writing and acting? Is the bar set a little lower for independent films, making the mediocre ones appear good and the good ones appear great?

Your perspective around these two questions will undoubtedly influence your opinion of Ink, the low budget ($250,000) sci-fi fairytale from Jamin Winans that recently played on Opening Night of the Flyway Film Festival. It's been receiving a healthy supply of positive buzz from Ain't It Cool News and Film School Rejects, and the filmmaker's comparisons of the film to Donnie Darko, The Matrix, and especially Pan's Labyrinth are justified.

But the problem with comparisons to those critically acclaimed hits is that if the film in question doesn't measure up to them (and Ink does not, in my opinion), it's maybe better not to mention the similarities at all - like hearing somebody can dance like Michael Jackson and then finding out they can't even moonwalk.

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