February 28, 2009

Underrated MOTM: The Boy Who Could Fly (1986)

I'm going out on quite a limb for February's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM). Of all the movies I've featured so far, this is far and away the one that I haven't seen in the longest time: more than 20 years. But there are no rules to this feature (the word "underrated" shouldn't be taken too literally; many of them have at least a 50% RT rating), and since a friend of mine and I spontaneously and independently thought of this movie the other day, here it is: The Boy Who Could Fly.

It was interesting thinking back on what I remembered and appreciated from this movie since seeing it in the theater as a young boy. Turns out the most lasting image in my head is that of a little kid (who I now assume to be a young Fred Savage) jetting around on a plastic tricycle and exacting revenge on the bullies down the street by ambushing them with a water gun filled with his own urine. Whether this happened in The Boy Who Could Fly or actually in some crazy dream of mine is for you to tell me or me to find out at a later viewing, but let's assume say that this does happen in the movie, and that it's reason enough for it to be celebrated.

Written and directed by Nick Castle (whose career peaked with The Last Starfighter in 1984 and essentially ended with Major Payne in 1995), The Boy Who Could Fly tells the story of Eric Gibb, an extremely withdrawn autistic teen who lives with his negligent, alcoholic Uncle Hugo. (Making matters worse, his uncle is played by Fred Gwynne, otherwise known as Herman Munster from "The Addams Family".) Eric's parents died in a plane crash, and he grieves by standing on his roof and stretching out his arms as if about to take flight. When Milly (Lucy Deakins) and her brother Louis (Savage) move in next door, she strikes up a friendship with Eric that not only brings him out of his shell, but also leads to a tender romance. Incidentally, I've just now realized Eric was played by Minneapolis native Jay Underwood, who just three years later would achieve movie immortality as Bug in Uncle Buck.

I know what you're thinking, because it's what anyone would naturally conclude: Milly only becomes interested in Eric when she learns that he can fly. Now what kind of message would that send? Like most teen crushes, her attraction to him is innocent and gradual until it really takes flight when, well, Eric takes flight with her in tow. It's obviously not the most believable of premises, but there's something heartwarming about their friendship that I wish was still present in today's teen romances - on screen and off.

Unfortunately, The Boy Who Could Fly could simply not be produced in the present day because the 80's-ness is completely off the charts. It is truly a movie that could only exist at one moment in time, as evidenced by a trailer that must be considered one of the worst of the entire decade:

Additionally hampered by an atrocious poster (shown above, here's a close-up) and the fact that it probably resembled a classic 80's After School Special to anyone who saw the trailer, it's no wonder The Boy Who Could Fly didn't fare very well at the box office with a total domestic gross of just over $7 million (although it would be far to say that amount would cover the cost of the cheesy special effects). Reviews were mostly positive at the time (Roger Ebert praised it as a "sweet and innocent parable"), but in the years that have passed it's been taken to task for "heavy-handed emotional manipulation and an escapist conclusion"
(Time Out New York).

Call it what you want to, but for those of us who grew up in the 80's, The Boy Who Could Fly is the kind of family-friendly romantic dramedy that will always hold a special place in our memories. It didn't
rely on potty humor (hmm, nevermind the urine attack) or past-their-prime stars looking for a quick paycheck, and it was bold enough to responsibly and respectfully confront serious issues (autism, alcoholism, death, etc.) without . Of course I say this without having seen the movie in more than two decades, but I really think it positively influenced me a subconscious level, and from what I've heard I'm not the only one.

February 26, 2009

Perfect Song, Perfect Scene #5

Opening Credits, Brown Sugar (2002): "Act Too (Love of My Life)" by The Roots

February 24, 2009

300 Words About: The Class

The class portrait of a new millennium...

I don't know how to judge The Class as a movie because I didn't see it as a movie, but as an eerily familiar depiction of my own years spent teaching multicultural 13 year-olds at an inner-city school. Despite the existence of a screenplay based on a "novel" (more like a memoir), to me The Class is a documentary more than anything else. Real students, real teachers, real school, real issues, real life. That's what I've taken away in the two weeks since seeing it: the challenges of a rapidly globalizing world are real and they're urgent, and there are no easy answers on how to bridge today's cultural norms with tomorrow's.

This fact was apparently lost on the guy sitting behind us in the theater, who muttered, "What's the point?" as the credits rolled, adding that the movie had "no redeeming qualities". The point, I would argue, is that the world is changing around us and it will be to our benefit to begin focusing on the future instead of the past as soon as possible. The U.S., like France, is going to change much more rapidly in the next 50 years than it has in the last 50 years, and it will require cultural adaptation on the part of everyone from every background.

Although I admit that the cultural makeup of the class seemed a bit more symmetric than I think you'd find in most places (these students in the movie all attend the same school, but I've found nothing saying the group in the movie comprises an actual class), it's certainly true that the number of cultures and ethnicities represented under the roof of one school is almost exponentially increasing, even in places as seemingly monocultural as Minnesota (see: Gran Torino).

Some would argue that the students in the class - tragically true to life - didn't actually learn anything throughout the year, but I would strongly disagree. They learned about other cultures and, perhaps more importantly, they learned about their own. And while understanding the universals of culture might not help them pass the 9th grade, it will most definitely prepare them for the future.

With any luck, these exchanges happening at schools around the world will prevent the development of Walt Kowalskis in future generations.

February 23, 2009

Oscars Afterglow

If Slumdog Millionaire would have lost in all of the eight categories in which it won, I truly believe my feelings about it would be the same. Really, I do. I've said before that the Oscars should have no bearing on how we feel about the films we've seen, just as the Grammys don't in any validate whether the music we listen to is "good". The people who really care about the Oscars are typically in the business of celebrity worship or box-office calculations. All I want to do is celebrate the last year in films, and if there is occasion to celebrate the specific films that really touched me, well then that's just a bonus.

In fact only three of my Top 10 films from 2008 received nominations in any category, so it's not like I had a lot invested here - awards aside, those are all still my top ten.

But the big one, #1 with a bullet, just happened to get showered with gold. And I have to say - simply seeing each of its components (editing, cinematography, score, original song, etc.) individually recognized did solidify my admiration for this film. So it was a great night for me (especially considering my review on 11/21/08: "
the best movie I've seen so far in 2008 - and it's not even close."), capped off by a feast of Indian food to celebrate the occasion.

For fun, here are my thoughts on some of the other highlights from the ceremony...

The Winners: No major surprises at all, which is...a little surprising. I ended up 19/24, missing:
- Best Supporting Actress (a bad upset pick)
- Best Sound Mixing (though I did say Slumdog deserved to win in my predictions, I didn't think it would)
- Best Documentary Short (a CNN story on Pinki Sonkar should have made this win more obvious to me)
- Best Animated Short (should have gone with my heart, La Maison was another I thought deserved to win)
- Best Foreign Language Film (wrong upset pick)

The Set: Much was made about this year's set design being a throwback to the "golden years" of the Academy Awards, but it looked the same to me aside from some cramped seating. Which is to say it looked just fine, as usual, so I don't even want to know how many millions of dollars were spent to design it.

The Genre Montages: The comedy montage was the best of the bunch, and incidentally a lot funnier than Pineapple Express actually was. I was a fan of the romance montage as well, but the others seemed repetitive, lackluster or just unnecessary. This isn't a bad idea, but it could use just a bit more work. And why no "drama" montage?

Mickey Rourke: Too bad he goes home empty-handed - he wanted it so much more than Penn.

Least Surprising Upset: Departures winning for Best Foreign Language Film. I know I chose The Class here, but it was down to the two of these after I picked up on a lot of buzz about Waltz with Bashir's near-certain loss. No documentary or animated film has ever won in this category, so it was in a pretty deep hole to begin with. Tough year for this movie, but again, if you're looking for validation that it was a good movie then you're looking in the wrong place - it's OK, you can still like it!

Most Enjoyable Upset: For me, this would have been either a win for either Viola Davis or Trouble the Water, but La Maison en Petits Cubes winning Best Animated Short Film was one of my favorite moments of the night, mostly because I got to hear three seconds of the musical score by Kenji Kondo again. As I said in my reviews of the shorts, there was nothing wrong with Presto, but La Maison was so good that I'd pay full price just to see it again (which I might have to do since it still can't be found online). I think the Animated Short category is quickly becoming one of my favorites after only two years of seeing the nominees.

(UPDATE: I found it - watch it here before it's gone!)

The Memorial Tribute in Song: Nice, but didn't really achieve the intended effect of discouraging audience applause, which makes everyone uncomfortable because the thing turns into a popularity contest.

Best Reminder: I had forgotten how great Alexander Desplat's score for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was. Make it third best of the year, after Slumdog Millionaire and Revolutionary Road (which wasn't nominated, even though Thomas Newman was still up for WALL*E, giving him a total of 10 Oscar nominations and not one win).

Kate Winslet: Finally - good for her.

Best Reminder, Part II: The second time I saw Slumdog Millionaire I was completely floored by the cinematography. Seeing the clips for a third time briefly here, it was clear to me that despite all of the brilliant work done by others this year (The Dark Knight, The Fall, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle was unmatched.

Most Selfish Moment: The "musicals are back" blowout. Connect these dots: Bill Condon was the co-producer for this year's ceremony and designed the entire program; Bill Condon also directed Dreamgirls, which was roundly considered to be snubbed when it didn't receive either a Best Picture or Best Director nomination two years ago. Hmm...

Biggest Relief: Not seeing Miley Cyrus during the entire proceedings.

Best Presenter: Will Smith - I say line him up for the hosting duties in another year when he's not nominated.

Worst Presenter: Robert Pattinson - I didn't see Twilight and I had to look up how to spell his name just now. This kid was just creepy throughout the whole show, including when he was leering from behind Mickey Rourke as Best Actor was about to be presented, causing my sister to wonder aloud, "Maybe he really is a vampire."

The Reader: This contradicts my "I don't care about the Oscar winners/losers" message, but all the nominee space this movie took up (with the exception of Kate Winslet) still doesn't really seem justified, especially when Hugh Jackman can make a really funny - and accurate - joke about it nobody having seen it. It wasn't a terrible movie by any means, but since it didn't end up actually winning anything else we'll be forever left to wonder what movie could have received more attention in its place.

The Fellowship of the Actors Presentations: Interesting idea to have members of the exclusive winners' groups give a tribal council before welcoming the new member, but it felt kind of like a fraternity or sorority initiation, or worse, a reality show. But it was a fresh idea and the recognitions for each nominee
were nicely written.

Ben Stiller: Funny...but not as funny as it would have been had the exact same gag not been staged at the Spirit Awards on Saturday night, with almost all of the same people in the audience.

Best Acceptance Speech: Heath Ledger's family. It's extremely rare for actors to receive recognition in this way, and that was about as nice as it could have been.

Best Acceptance Speech, Part II: The Japanese winners of Best Animated Short and Best Foreign Film dropping astonishingly witty lines in their brief, heartfelt thank-yous. Just to clarify because I don't think it was obvious (and I would have totally misunderstood it had I not seen the credits at the end of La Maison): Kunio Kato wasn't just making a random joke about "Mr. Roboto" because he couldn't say much else in English (here's the text). The production company for his winning film is called Robot, so he was actually making a really brilliant joke by using the lyrics to the song as part of his speech.

The Closing Credits: I thought this idea of showing 10-second clips of upcoming movies was going to be really bad, too fast, too choppy. It ended up being...OK, not really showing me anything I hadn't seen yet and also not alerting me to any upcoming movies that I didn't already have on my radar. Probably got a lot of people to tune in for the credits, though, so I guess that was a success. If it's OK that nobody actually saw the credits.

Speaking of credits, here's the capstone for the night (and for the second year in a row, the rightful winner of Best Original Song):

February 20, 2009

81st Academy Awards Winner Predictions

Didn't think I'd forgotten about my second favorite day of the year, did you? Unfortunately I didn't have time to organize an Oscar pool this year, but if you want to prove that you're a better prognosticator than me, here's your chance. (It wouldn't be that hard, by the way - I only got 13/24 correct last year.)

I'll break it down like this for each of the 24 category:
- who/what I predict will win
- who/what I think actually deserves to win from the given nominees
- who/what I really think should have won the award from 2008, Oscar nomination or not

Will win: WALL*E
Deserves to win: WALL*E
Really deserves to win: WALL*E

Will win: The Witness
Deserves to win: ?
Really deserves to win: ?

Will win: Spielzeugland (Toyland)
Deserves to win: ?
Really deserves to win: ?

Will win: Presto
Deserves to win: La Maison de Petits Cubes

Really deserves to win:
La Maison de Petits Cubes

Will win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Deserves to win: Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Really deserves to win: Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Will win: The Duchess
Deserves to win: Revolutionary Road
Really deserves to win: Revolutionary Road

Will win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Deserves to win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Really deserves to win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

BEST SOUND EDITING (sound effects)
Will win: The Dark Knight
Deserves to win: WALL*E
Really deserves to win: WALL*E

Will win: The Dark Knight
Deserves to win: Slumdog Millionaire
Really deserves to win: Slumdog Millionaire

Will win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Deserves to win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Really deserves to win: Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Will win: Slumdog Millionaire
Deserves to win: Slumdog Millionaire
Really deserves to win: Slumdog Millionaire

Will win: A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire
Deserves to win: A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire
Really deserves to win: A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire

Will win: "Jai Ho", Slumdog Millionaire
Deserves to win: "Jai Ho", Slumdog Millionaire
Really deserves to win: "Jai Ho", Slumdog Millionaire

Will win: Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire
Deserves to win: Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire
Really deserves to win: Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire

Will win: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Deserves to win:
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Really deserves to win: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Will win: Viola Davis, Doubt
Deserves to win:
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Really deserves to win: Rosemarie Dewitt, Rachel Getting Married

Will win: Sean Penn, Milk
Deserves to win: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Really deserves to win: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Will win: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Deserves to win: Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Really deserves to win: Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Will win: Man on Wire
Deserves to win: Trouble the Water
Really deserves to win: Up the Yangtze

Will win: The Class
Deserves to win: The Class
Really deserves to win: Let the Right One In

Will win: Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Deserves to win: Martin McDonagh, In Bruges
Really deserves to win: Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York

Will win: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Deserves to win: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Really deserves to win: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire

Will win: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Deserves to win: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Really deserves to win: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

Will win: Slumdog Millionaire
Deserves to win: Slumdog Millionaire
Really deserves to win: Slumdog Millionaire

Wow, even I'm surprised at how many times Slumdog Millionaire is written here. Oh well, I still love it.

Most Oscars: Slumdog Millionaire
Biggest Overall Dark Horse: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Feel free to leave your own predictions, upsets, etc. below. I won't be blogging this ceremony like last year, but I imagine I might have something to see on Monday. If not, I'll just update my total here.

REVIEW: 2009 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts

This year I was once again
able to see the five Best Animated Short Film nominees in the theater, which I still strongly recommend you do when they come to a theater near you, even though you can currently watch four of the five online. A bonus if you go to the theater, though - you get to see the five "highly commended" shorts that didn't make the cut as nominees: Varmints (UK), John and Karen (UK), Gopher Broke (U.S.), Skhizein (France), and Hot Dog (U.S.). Of these, John and Karen was possibly my favorite (watch it online). Varmints was visually arresting but a bit long at 24 minutes, and Skhizein was a Charlie Kaufman film from start to finish. The other two - both American films - were decent at best, unimaginative and immature at worst.

The nominees:

La Maison en Petits Cubes
- (Japan, 12 min):

  • My personal pick for the best of this year's bunch, La Maison en Petits Cubes is a heartbreaking and evocative story of an elderly man hanging on to a lifetime of memories as his house gradually floods. Animated in what appears to be watercolor or pencil, it also boasts one of the best musical scores I heard all year (short film or feature film), and it brought many in the theater to tears. Tragically, La Maison en Petits Cubes is the only one of the shorts currently unavailable for viewing online. Update: I found it - watch it here!  

    Lavatory - Lovestory - (Russia, 10 min)

    • A cute romantic story about a lovelorn public restroom attendant, this black-and-white sketched film is curiously captivating. It may be a minute or two longer than necessary, but the ending is a great payoff and I admire its simplicity.
    Oktapodi - (France, 3 min)

    • Short, sweet, and sharply edited, this screwball story of octopus love looked fantastic on the big screen. I'm sure there was a temptation to make this longer, but the filmmakers probably didn't want to run out of steam and lose the comedic momentum. If Finding Nemo hadn't already been made, it's possible this might have been stretched into a feature.
    Presto - (U.S., 5 min)

    • Most everyone who saw WALL*E in the theater has already had the pleasure of seeing Pixar's Presto. For me, the second time around wasn't nearly as funny. Cute rabbit, but a little too repetitive for my taste, and it seemed to be playing for cheap laughs more than anything else. I don't know, I guess I'm just a little annoyed that this is the likely winner, possibly due to an overflow of love for WALL*E. Then again, Pixar shorts have lost in previous years...
    This Way Up - (UK, 9 min)

    • A pair of undertakers (father and son) run into all kinds of trouble on their way to the cemetery in this macabre comedy. It's impressively animated and consistently entertaining, but it didn't have me rolling in the aisles like seemingly everyone else in the theater. Nonetheless, it's an above average short film and deserves to be nominated.
    I'm thinking it will come down to Presto or La Maison en Petits Cubes. The latter is far and away my preference, but I'm just too nervous about Pixar's power, so Presto remains my prediction as the winner. Hope I'm wrong...

    February 18, 2009

    Debriefing the Documentary Nominees

    [Note: I originally wrote this for the "LAMB Devours the Oscars" and am simply recycling it here. Forgive me, it's been a busy year. I'll post my full Oscar predictions sometime before Sunday, but before then I recommend you head over to the Large Association of Movie Blogs and check out the analyses of the nominees in all 24 categories.]

    If 2007 was considered one of the strongest years for feature films in nearly a decade, 2008 deserves the same recognition for its incredibly impressive lineup of documentaries. Having seen upwards of 20 of them, it was pretty hard for me to narrow down a personal list of the Best Documentaries of 2008, so I can imagine how difficult it must have been for AMPAS to eventually choose five nominees for Best Documentary Feature.

    I only saw four of the five last year, and of those only three landed on my own list - but this isn't about my picks, it's about the winning picks. And in this case, the race has been over for more than a year. Unless Academy voters have grown a conscience about Hurricane Katrina in the last few months and come down from their adrenaline high, Man on Wire will continue a winning streak that extends back to January of 2008, when it won the "World Cinema – Documentary" prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

    But as a formality, let's take a look at all of the nominees, in alphabetical order:

    The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) – My memory is a little foggy of this one since it's been almost a year since I saw it, but know this much: few people have had as rough a life as Thavi Phrasavath, and even fewer have bounced back with such impressive resilience. After fleeing Laos as a teen when the U.S. betrayed its ally in the Vietnam War, Thavi's family was given "refuge" in the urban jungle of Brooklyn, NY (which in the early 80's was not yet, it should be noted, a gentrified hipster enclave). Soon after, another betrayal within the family left Thavi as a confused, frustrated young man who felt abandoned by both his old country and his new country.

    It was during this tumultuous time – 1985, to be exact – that a young filmmaker named Ellen Kuras would discover Thavi and begin filming his daily life as part of a grad school project. Twenty-three years later, the film is complete, even if the story is not. Kuras, whose name may be familiar to people from her work as a cinematographer (He Got Game, Blow, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind), reportedly has a great reputation in Hollywood. Will it be enough to earn her an Oscar as a first-time nominee? It would be a great story, but a win would still be a major upset considering that the film has not yet seen a wide release.

    Encounters at the End of the World – Best seen on a massive, sprawling screen, this love letter to Antarctica (and, believe it or not, Roger Ebert) is part "Planet Earth" and part, well, Werner Herzog (if you've seen enough of his films you know he defies categorization). The brilliance of Encounters, aside from the technical aspects and jaw-dropping underwater cinematography, is that Herzog seamlessly blends an examination of the science-fiction creatures living at the bottom of the earth with an examination of the science-obsessed nerds sharing the ice with them. It's like a trip to the zoo in winter, but there are people on display here as well.

    The chance for a win here is questionable considering the film wasn't universally considered a success, but Herzog is greatly admired and his demographic is right in the sweet spot of the Academy voting block. Plus, there are no doubt some people still sore that his 2005 acclaimed documentary Grizzly Man was ruled ineligible a few years ago. This could be a chance at redemption, which the Academy loves to do across all categories (Scorsese's win, Denzel Washington's win, etc.).

    The Garden – The only nominee I haven't seen and the one that deserves the award for Most Boring Title, if nothing else. It's centered around the legal battle that resulted from the City of Los Angeles selling a 14-acre piece of land in South Central that had been developed into a thriving urban farm. The trailer makes it look like a gripping legal thriller in the style of Michael Clayton, but I'm not buying it. Few people have even seen this film (try to find reviews of it), but then again it's probably a bigger story in L.A., where much of the Academy resides, than anywhere else. Maybe some hometown love? Doubtful, so this remains the longshot.

    Man on Wire – Easily the most popular documentary since An Inconvenient Truth, this has been the front-runner for a solid 12 months, and it landed on many critics' and bloggers' Top 10 lists (mine included, but only #4 in the doc list). Heavily using reenactments and archival footage, it retells the riveting story of Philippe Petit's historic high wire walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. The fact that Petit is interviewed throughout the film in the present day somehow doesn't register when you see him walking thousands of feet in the air – how did this person not die? Even if Man on Wire didn't affect me on a deeply emotional level, I can appreciate that the story of Petit's feat is completely engrossing, and a real testament to the best of the human spirit in all of us. I'll be shocked if James Marsh is not holding an Oscar statuette on Sunday night.

    Trouble the Water – Winner of the "Documentary" prize at Sundance in 2008 (alongside Man on Wire, which as I mentioned took home the "World Cinema – Documentary" prize), Trouble the Water represents not one, but two major themes that have comprised several recent documentaries: 1.) it's not actually what you think it's about, which in this case is Hurricane Katrina (the same can be said for Surfwise and Blindsight); and 2.) the completed film didn't resemble what the filmmakers originally set out to make (Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father this year and My Kid Could Paint That last year).

    So what it is about? Well, a lot of things, but primarily the daily lives of individuals in the lower economic classes of America. The disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina is simply the lens through which this indictment is made clear - these class differences were around long before Katrina, and they'll be around long after her. But that doesn't stop Kimberly and Scott Roberts, the subjects of the film, from determinedly bettering themselves and their community. It's depressing and inspiring at the same time, and among these five nominees it would likely receive my personal vote. I think its chances of beating Man on Wire are slim, but still better than the other nominees.

    Final Prediction: Man on Wire

    P.S. You might remember I predicted No End in Sight to win last year. It didn't.

    February 16, 2009

    No Time To Catch Your Breath

    I have this crazy idea I've been kicking around for the last year or so and it goes like this: People need a break from new Hollywood releases. Therefore I plan to propose an official Offseason, in which no new movies would be released beginning the day after the Oscars each year, and ending April 1st (if you don't know yet, April is the new July - Iron Man 2 will officially kick off the 2010 summer movie season...next April).

    What would this Offseason do?

    1. Allow everybody a break in which to catch up on the past year's releases and any classics they've been waiting to watch on DVD. You get a solid month to get to all those movies you've been meaning to see.

    2. Prevent Hollywood from feeding us garbage. Everyone knows the months of January - March are the dumping grounds for movies that studios have no faith in. Don't be fooled by box-office records during these months (My Bloody Valentine, Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Friday the 13th have pulled in millions and millions of dollars in recent weeks), because it just means we're paying more for less. These movies dumb down movie audiences and they're a waste of time and money. Get rid of this dumping-ground time and you'll get rid of these garbage movies at the same time. Or, at the very least the studios will be forced to dump the garbage in with the rest of the movies throughout the year, when they can be easily ignored and quickly moved out of theaters.

    3. Build inflated anticipation for the summer movies (as if there isn't enough already).

    4. Other stuff, but I'll stop listing because I've been on a tangent and I want to better prepare the details of this proposal offline before I submit it to Hollywood.

    My point in mentioning all of this is that despite the fact that there are fewer quality movies in theaters during these months, I'm still somehow unable to catch a break. Here's why:

    FEBRUARY 16 - MARCH 16

    Universal Noir @ The Heights - Starting tonight with This Gun for Hire and continuing for the next month, Barry Kryshka's Take-Up Productions presents "From the Vaults of Universal: Seven Classic Film Noirs". This will be at least the fourth impressive series Barry has launched in the last year, and he is clearly establishing himself as one of the most hard-working film impresarios in the Twin Cities. Kathie Smith posted a nice Q & A with Barry last week in which he explains the challenges of screening classic films and his goals for future programming. Check it out and don't miss the opportunity to see one of these classics at the beautiful Heights Theatre.

    MARCH 2 - 19

    The Amazing Double Interlocking Polaroid System 3D Film Festival @ The Parkway - In just over a year's time, Joe Minjares has turned The Parkway into one of the most intriguing theaters in town. Second-run releases, classic movies, special events, and now a 3D film festival. During the first few weeks in March, plan on paying the always low $5 admission price to see one of these classics in 3D: House of Wax, Gorilla At Large, Miss Sadie Thompson, Inferno, The Mad Magician, and Dial M For Murder.

    MARCH 6 - 8

    1st Annual Italian Film Festival (Mpls./St. Paul) @ MCAD - Aside from the fact that is' presented by the Italian Cultural Center of Minneapolis/St. Paul, I don't know much about the background on this three day, five film festival coming up in March, but that it's happening at all is a promising sign. Check out the synopses of the five contemporary Italian films here, and make plans to head to MCAD for one of the three nights.

    Did I forget to mention the best part? ALL THE SCREENINGS ARE FREE.


    MARCH 6 - 21

    16th Annual Women With Vision International Film Festival: "Dimensions" @ The Walker Art Center - There's never a break in the action with films at the Walker. After wrapping up the Expanding the Frame series next week, the inspiring annual festival that celebrates "the perspectives women bring to the art of filmmaking" will kick off with Treeless Mountain from South Korea. This is one of the unsung movie events in the Twin Cities each year, and I admit that I even I haven't given it the attention it deserves. Last year I only saw the affecting Mutum and I was sad to have missed Older Than America. This year I have my sights on 3D Sun, Examined Life and The Sari Soldiers (pictured).

    So much for an offseason, especially with the 27th Annual Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) looming on the horizon, confirmed for April 16-30. (Speaking of which, it appears the Global Lens series will curiously be part of MSPIFF this year and not screened at the Walker...very interesting move by Minnesota Film Arts. Also interesting to see that the aforemention Mutum is included in this year's Global Lens series.)

    And just a reminder, upcoming movies and events to keep an eye on are always listed in my primitive release schedule on the left.

    February 13, 2009

    Notoriously Wrestling with Che

    (otherwise known as my misguided attempt to review three movies at the same time)

    "You know very well, who you are;
    Don't let 'em hold you down, reach for the stars..."

    So goes the well known chorus to "Juicy", the career-making debut single by the late Christopher Wallace, (known to the world as the Notorious B.I.G. or, more endearingly, just "Biggie"). On its own the chorus is a blandly inspiring slogan, but in the context of the song, and more importantly in the context of Biggie's life, it speaks to the stalwart determination of a man to prove his worth even when others weren't questioning it.

    If that sounds familiar, it's because we've seen the same story told in three recent movies: Notorious, The Wrestler, and Che, all three of which illustrate the lives of men who just didn't know when to say "when". From my perspective it doesn't really matter that two of them are about real people and one of them is not. As Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Mickey Rourke is essentially playing himself. Conversely, both Christopher Wallace and Che Guevara have been mythologized to the point that they can almost be viewed as fictional characters.

    I'm not saying that the three men lived similar lives; on the surface they could hardly be more different. I'm saying that they shared an inner struggle that no one else could understand - one that transcended their wildly different educational, cultural, and familial backgrounds: a primal need for acceptance. Acceptance from world powers (Che), acceptance from peers (Notorious), and acceptance from themselves (The Wrestler). Driven almost mad in seeking this acceptance and never finding themselves satisfied, all three of their lives traversed a path that, in hindsight, was all too predictable.

    Tragically and perhaps not surprisingly, each of these men had extremely difficult relationships with their families (shown above). Not only did all three have failed marriages, but they also had children from whom they were estranged, if they knew them at all. I admit knowing little about the inner workings of each of their families, but it's apparent to me that Wallace, Robinson, and Guevara were simply too caught up in their future to realize what they were leaving in the past, family ties included.

    You can hardly blame them, in one way, since at the height of each of their popularity they were admired by hundreds, thousands, or millions (depending on the character) of people. Like most iconic figures, their time in the limelight was intense yet fleeting, with much of their influence being realized after their careers peaked.

    So how do the movies measure up when it comes to drawing us into the lives of these men? A brief look at each:

    - Che: Directed by Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's Thirteen), it's a two-part epic that surprisingly keeps you engaged for a full four and a half hours, mostly due to a magnetic performance by Benicio del Toro. It's the same type of work he continues to do (most recently in Things We Lost in the Fire) with little fanfare and even less recognition from Hollywood award-givers. For what must have been one of the most challenging roles of his career, it's a shame so few people have taken the time to appreciate it.

    Whether Che is a humanizing biopic or a historical epic isn't as obvious as it may seem on first viewing, but either way it's an engaging, informative film that, in my opinion, was long overdue. I expect this will be looked back on as a major achievement by Soderbergh, but in the meantime it's only an honorable mention as one of the best films of 2008.

    Grade: A-

    - Notorious: What's apparent throughout this straightforward retelling of Biggie's meteoric rise is that it's meant to shine a blindingly positive light on the rapper's life and career. If you weren't hip to the production details before seeing it, it will make a lot of sense in the end credits when you see Voletta Wallace (Biggie's mother) and Sean Combs listed as executive producers. I can actually respect Combs for allowing Derek Luke (Miracle at St. Anna) to play him as a young, cocky producer with an immediately recognizable goofy dance, but I'm not sure I'm OK with the movie covering Biggie's entire career and essentially glossing over all the interesting details. It plays like an adaptation of an article from The Source magazine - luxurious living and backstage belligerence, but little analysis of what was actually motivating the artist.

    Despite Jamal Woolard's eye-popping turn as the title figure, when it comes down to it Notorious simply falls short of its potential, which of course wasn't the case with the actual man. If nothing else he deserves a treatment that attempts to illustrate his impressive inner drive. For comparison, the Oscar-nominated documentary Tupac: Resurrection wasn't perfect, but at the very least it leaves you much more interested in its subject. Notorious just leaves you singing "Juicy" for a few days - in which case you could just listen to the album instead.

    Grade: B-

    - The Wrestler: Certainly one of the most surprising movies of 2008 (and one that clocked in at #7 on my year-end list), The Wrestler continues the recent trend of not actually being about what you think it's about - Blindsight, Surfwise, and Trouble the Water serving as other recent examples. Darren Aronofsky seems to get a kick out of giving his films ambiguous titles (The Fighter is due out this year or next), which piques your interest without raising your expectations too high. He really has to be given credit for making films that are different enough to defy easy categorization, yet still exist within some kind of similar genre. You never know what you're going to get, and I find that refreshing.

    From this point on, the same should really be said for Mickey Rourke as well. Although he's admitted that he felt he'd turned in a strong performance immediately after wrapping on the set, I'm not sure how obvious it might have been in the moment that he'd dialed in one of the best acting jobs of the decade. People will say it's easy because his career path has been so similar to his character's, but I'm not sure how quickly I buy that sentiment. Try acting as yourself at another age in your life, maybe 10 years ago - or 10 years from now, to make things even more difficult. There's a lot of nuance to that kind of performance, and Rourke must have found it challenging to separate himself completely from the character, allowing "The Ram" to exist as a wholly unique man. His success in doing so accounts for as much of the excellence of the overall film as Aronofsky's direction or Robert Siegel's screenplay.

    Grade: A

    So I guess I didn't conclusively answer the question I posed prior to those brief synopses, but in short I think i could say this: Che and Notorious do well in telling the story of two men, but don't necessarily offer enough under-the-surface insights as to what was going on in their heads. The Wrestler has the advantage of covering a much shorter period of its character's life, and it doesn't waste a minute in portraying "The Ram" as a completely realistic guy who could be struggling along in any city in America.

    For that reason - its ability to provide the most depth and authenticity to its central character - I have to consider The Wrestler as the best of the bunch.

    REVIEW: Friday the 13th (C)

    Come on, don't you know by now that Jason ALWAYS wins at hide-and-go-seek? His feet are as light as a ballerina's.

    Find my review from the Star Tribune here.

    Writing - 8
    Acting - 7
    Production - 9
    Emotional Impact - 7
    Music - 5
    Social Significance - 1

    Total: 37/50= 74% = C

    February 11, 2009

    300 Words About: Waltz With Bashir

    The horror of remembering the sins of the past...

    In reviewing the underrated Stop-Loss just about a year ago, I asked the question,”… 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?” The answer, I still believe, is no.

    But what I failed to consider until I saw Waltz with Bashir is that a number of these veterans may not even remember their experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other undisclosed places. No harm, no foul? Not quite, but an interesting phenomenon to consider. With Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman has turned the stereotype of the war-traumatized soldier on its head, introducing us to himself in one of the most personal films of the year (alongside another powerful documentary, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father).

    Having passively observed as a 19 year-old Israeli soldier the brutal massacre of two refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982, Folman found himself simply unable to remember the incident when another veteran described a recurring nightmare to him one night at a bar. Upset and eventually unsettled by his own foggy visions of the past, Folman set out to find those who fought by his side with hope that they would shed light on what really happened.

    Animated but not rotoscoped, the result is an often hypnotizing blend of interviews and reenactments that illustrates a troubling history not only in Beirut, but also in the minds of so many Israeli soldiers. What must it be like to realize you've been a part of something so reprehensible? Though I'm sure Israeli war veterans don't comprise much of the Academy, it struck a nerve with enough voters to earn a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, even if it was overlooked for Best Animated Film (dogs and robots and pandas go down a little easier for the kids, you know) and Best Documentary Feature (the animation likely distracted from the reality for many voters).

    If it isn't obvious enough, Folman readily admits Waltz with Bashir is "a very anti-war statement. I was trying to say that wars are really useless and a waste of life for so many people for the sake of nothing." That much is clear - what's not is just how many American soldiers will be making the same film in 30 years.

    February 10, 2009

    REVIEW: Coraline: 3D (A-)

    Remember this classic scene from Mallrats, or the "Seinfeld" episode where Mr. Pitt stubbornly refuses to walk away from the Magic Eye poster? Like most people, I always found it hilarious to laugh at the people who couldn't relax their eyes and let the image soak in. It was so easy for me to see three dimensions, even back in the 80's when I saw the space opera Captain EO (remember when Michael Jackson acted?) at Walt Disney World and grasped at the stars as I sat dumbfounded in my seat.

    Then, somehow, I lost it. Over the course of the last few years I've found myself sitting expressionless in theaters (recently Beowulf, and to a lesser extent, U23D) while people around me "ooh", "ahh", jump back in their chairs and swipe at the air in front of them. Me? I only see the movie now - clear and sharp, but in two dimensions.

    Of course the mystery here is how I'm unable to see the third dimension when the ridiculous looking glasses should be doing all the work for me. What's my problem? Evidently I don't know how to operate the glasses. Or I'm a medical marvel.

    In any case, I'm always up to try it again, thinking, "Maybe it will work at the next movie"...in this case, Coraline, based on Neil Gaiman's award winning novella, published in 2002.

    The good news: most of the time, I experienced three dimensions. And when I did - especially in the last 20 minutes - Coraline was a dizzying delight. It was the creepy, cold, and captivating movie I wish Pan's Labyrinth would have been. Everything clicked perfectly - the seamless stop-motion animation, the splashes of color, and the beautifully haunting musical score by Bruno Coulais.

    Why do animated girls and women almost always have blue hair?

    You eventually wake up from every dream, however, and Coraline was no different. Although I should say I never really "fell asleep", meaning I couldn't quite surrender myself to the movie. It felt like a nap I kept waking up from, partly because I became restless in the middle third, and partly because I kept fiddling with my 3D glasses to see if Coraline would look the same without them. It's not a great sign that the story failed to engage me, especially since it's a really interesting concept about every kid's wish for a different life.

    As such, (and I can't believe I'm actually saying this) I almost wish Coraline would have been a scarier movie. For how frightening it already is for young children, why not go a little further? I say freak the adults out and give the kids a theater experience they'll remember forever. Heck, just give them any theater experience to remember, since this might be the last generation that doesn't watch the majority of their movies at home.

    But that's neither here nor there. Despite my minor issues with the 3D and the tone of the story, Coraline is, on balance, a solid movie in the early period of 2009...even an early contender for Best Animated Feature? Maybe that's a little premature with Monsters vs. Aliens (also in 3D), Up, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,
    9, Astro Boy and The Princess and the Frog all due out this year. But at this rate "Best 3D Animated Feature" might be added as an Oscar category, and Coraline would have that locked up.

    Writing - 10
    Acting - N/A
    Production - 10
    Emotional Impact - 8
    Music - 5
    Social Significance - 3

    Total: 36/40= 90% = A-

    February 8, 2009

    Some Detours

    Since I've unfortunately been too busy in 2009 to devote much attention here lately (January featuring the fewest number of posts I've had in a given month since 2007), I'll nod in the direction of two other spots worth checking out. These are in addition, of course, to the many excellent blogs listed in my sidebar on the left, most of which are updated far more frequently than mine:

    - The 3rd Annual Muriel Awards

    Paul Clark once again heads up the Muriel Awards (named after his guinea pig), an impressive two week awards series celebrating the best in film from 2008, including all of the major Oscar categories as well as some great extras (Best Cinematic Moment, Best Breakthrough Performance, Best Body of Work, etc.). Also celebrated are Anniversary Films - the Best Films of 1958, 1983, and 1998 (50th, 25th, and 10th year anniversaries, respectively). Keep an eye on Silly Hats Only - one award is announced each day through February 22nd, when Muriel will proudly announce her choice for the Best Picture of the year. This marked my first year as a proud voting member of the "Muriel Academy".

    - The 6th Annual "Great Performers" Feature

    Each year the New York Times Magazine scores exclusive interviews and photo shoots with the Oscar nominees and actors/actresses that gave great performances in the year prior (I studied this more in-depth last year). Available on newsstands today and online everyday, the feature is essentially an issue of People Magazine disguised as something much more artsy and intellectual. So if you don't have any shame fawning over actors and actresses
    (I do have shame, for the record, but I'm making an exception...I think), check it out.

    I hope to get back on track here this week but I'm so far behind I don't even know where to start (should I review Notorious, The Wrestler, Che, Wendy and Lucy, Coraline and Waltz with Bashir? Impossible!). I'm already a week behind for January's Underrated Movie the Month, so that will either have to be backdated or skipped altogether. And there are other features and posts that have been sitting in draft form waiting for me for weeks, plus some writeups I have due for other sites/blogs due in the next week or two. February's too short!

    February 2, 2009

    Oscar Luncheon 2009

    I had fun last year with observations on the group photo from the annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon, which was held yesterday afternoon, so I figured I'd make a tradition out of it. I recommend clicking through to open the high-resolution version in another window.

    (photo courtesy of Awards Daily)

    - Doesn't take long to find the coolest guy in the room, does it? Back row, center. Please let him make an acceptance speech...

    - So I know it must take a while to arrange everyone for this photo, but aren't there some considerations made for height? Too bad for back row, second from left, who has to peer over his neighbor's shoulder just to ensure that he has a record for his grandchildren to see.

    - So does Josh Brolin really always have the "Leonardo DiCaprio in Body of Lies" scruffy goatee? I guess he can pull it off better than Leo, but I think it hides what's actually a pretty handsome face. Yes, I'm straight and I called Josh Brolin handsome.

    - Is that Jack Nicholson standing next to Brolin? Whatever happened to Jack Nicholson?

    - Anne Hathaway literally looks like she's eleven years old- literally, eleven years old.

    - Hardest guy to find in the room: Richard Jenkins. Time to play a little game of "Where's Walter? (Vale)".

    - Frozen River is up for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress, but it should have been under consideration for Best Makeup as well. Melissa Leo looks about 20 years younger and happier than her character did.

    - If I was a jerk and I hadn't seen Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), here's where I'd make fun of Thavi Pravasath's teeth. But I'm not, and I have seen it, and it's fantastic that he's there. Good for you, Thavi. You win the Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova Award for "Hollywood Outsider Who Makes The Room A Whole Lot Cooler Just By Being There".

    - This is just an educated guess, but Penelope Cruz has to be the most photogenic person in the entire room, doesn't she? Has anyone ever seen a less-than-completely-flattering picture of her?

    - Speaking of flattering, Amy Adams appears to be right off the set of a shampoo or conditioner commercial.

    - Philip Seymour Hoffman is noticeably truant from this group, but third row, left end is a halfway decent fill-in for him.

    - So is the agreed-upon arrangement: "Dorks wear nametags, cool kids don't"?

    - Martin McDonagh has been here before, but that's no excuse for the scowl. Apparently he'd rather still be in Bruges.

    - Fortunately, Brad Pitt and his pet mustache skipped the luncheon. Along with Penn I'm not sure the room could have handled two creepily mustached Best Actor nominees. Please, somebody break the trend before Oscar night.

    - How can Kate Winslet look so happy? She's been to this luncheon like four or five times already and walked away empty-handed on the big night every time. At least roll your eyes or stick your tongue out.

    - Year after year, there are still just way too many white males in this photo - especially ones wearing dark jackets and blue or white shirts. Doesn't anyone have any style besides Mickey Rourke?

    - You can just hear the thoughts running through first time nominee Werner Herzog's mind: "It vuz a straynch ant ohfervelming experienss to be wit so many Holy-wood loominarees."

    - It's nice to see Carl Deal and Tia Lessin there (filmmaking team behind Trouble the Water), but the picture is a little incomplete without Kimberly and Scott Roberts, who in my opinion were just as involved with the production of that film. But I guess including an aspiring rapper named "Black Kold Medina" just wouldn't be "proper"...never mind that Three 6 Mafia was there a few years ago.

    - The more I see Frank Langella with that thin white beard, the more he reminds me of Sean Connery.

    - And the award for Most Underdressed goes to...you, fourth row, right end.

    - Is it just me or does Angelina Jolie's absence just make the whole group seem less, um, narcissistic and pretentious?

    -There's always one person who doesn't look like they belong, but they figured they'd sneak in and hey, maybe if they look like they should be there then nobody will notice. Usually identifiable by an overly eager smile or a smirking, knowing look at the camera, this year's interloper was difficult to pinpoint. But there he is: back row, sixth from the left. Hey, wait a minute...!
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