February 26, 2010

Now on DVD: The People Speak

Watching The People Speak, a performance documentary based on the writings of the late historian Howard Zinn (he passed away almost exactly a month ago), is a little like the experience Marty McFly has in Back to the Future II when he goes back to the alterna-1985.

Listening to the diary entries and recorded quotes of several dozen American citizens (vividly brought to life by a talented cast of A-list Hollywood actors) describe the reality of the country around them, you can't help but consider how many different histories this country has (and really every country has). The history you learn from a textbook, the history you learn from your family, and of the course the history you don't hear at all. This is the American history you haven't heard.

February 24, 2010

REVIEW: 2010 Oscar Animated Shorts

Viewing the Oscar Animated Shorts in the theater has become a favorite February ritual of mine. It's enjoyable to watch them online, too, but there's something about the immersive theater experience that really makes these short films pop, even more so than feature length film. In these, every frame and every second counts, so the rich details are just jam packed into every corner of the screen.

Last year I didn't think there was any question as to which of the shorts was the best - La Maison en Petits Cubes, as I posted here numerous times, was the deserving winner. This year I'm not as confident either in the winner or even in my own opinion of what should win. Two of the films - A Matter of Loaf and Death and Logorama - stand out for their quality and creativity, respectively, so my guess is it will be one of those two, but whatever happens, here are my thoughts on the whole bunch. I've included trailers for most, but if they aren't at a theater near you I really urge you to find them online, not for the purposes of winning your Oscar pool, but because they really are astonishing achievements in animation.

February 22, 2010

Gump & Shawshank: The Scores That Didn't Score

Two movies I could watch over and over and over again are Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption. Since their shared year of release, 1994, the legacies of both films have been cemented in somewhat surprising ways. Gump is considered one of the most undeserving Oscar winners of all time, Tom Hanks' performance as the title character is still lampooned in pop culture, and it's unlikely anyone under the age of 20 understands the significance of the movie. The irony is that a film about the timelessness of U.S. history has itself dated tremendously since 1994.

Shawshank, meanwhile, helped usher in - along with Pulp Fiction - a new era of independent filmmaking in Hollywood. It was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, but walked away empty-handed. In the years since it has gained an intense following among primarily 25-40 year-old males, many of whom have helped it maintain its vice grip on the #1 spot in the IMDb Top 250 list for the past decade (eat it, Dark Knight and LOTR fanboys!).

Anyway, my point with this post is not to compare and contrast these two films that I love, but to consider a relatively stunning fact that is rarely discussed: the original scores from Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption are easily two of the best from 1990's, yet neither won the Academy Award in the category. The prize went to The Lion King, of all things, which blows my mind considering I can barely remember any of Hans Zimmer's music from that film. What I do remember are Elton John and Tim Rice's original songs, three of which received Oscar nominations and one of which ("Can You Feel the Love Tonight") took the prize. (That The Lion King, Pulp Fiction, Shawshank and Gump were all released in 1994 also offers that year as the arguably the best of the decade, but that's a discussion for another time.)

February 19, 2010

300 Words About: Shutter Island

"Listen, I'm tired of everyone staring at the bandage on my forehead - I don't know why it's there, either!"

Anal retentive that I am, it's the Little Things that always bother me in movies. An annoying minor character here, a slightly-off foreign accent there, maybe a meaningless misrepresentation of local geography (e.g., the inaccurate depiction of Red Rock Casino on or near Las Vegas Boulevard in the otherwise forgettable 21).

There were a lot of Little Things in Shutter Island that annoyed me (not the least of which was Leonardo DiCaprio's matchlit exploration of Ward C - what brand of long-burning matches illuminate a room like a Maglite?), but the prevailing problem I had with it was that Martin Scorsese didn't rectify them with substantial, even memorable scenes. In fact, it seemed he was content to surrender to formula and let all of the Little Things slide so long as he could get to that Big Bad Ending, which, I have to admit, nearly salvaged the movie.

Scorsese isn't necessarily known to be a sloppy director, but most people would probably call him a distinctive, even daring one, at least during the peak of his career. Isn't it bizarre, then, to see him submit to genre clich├ęs in Shutter Island - and even then mix them awkwardly. One minute we're in the middle of a psychological suspense thriller (Cape Fear held its tone much better), the next we're in a jump-fright horror flick. Oh, and there's a couple of jokes and some romantic melodrama and political histrionics thrown in the pot as well. The result is a squirm-inducing stew of genres that leaves you feeling like you just had a bowl of bad New England Clam Chowder.

February 17, 2010

Oscar Luncheon 2010

Photo courtesy of Alt Film Guide, click to enlarge and/or click through for the high-res version

Back again (revisit '08 & '09) with some sarcastic observations on the annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon, which was held at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Monday afternoon.

- I don't know if I've ever seen a picture of George Clooney that could be considered unflattering, but this one is about as close as you can get.

- Seems James Cameron is still "on", here evidently upset with the guy in the green shirt who's actng out on the riser below and to his left. Let it go, big guy.

- Seriously, doesn't Quentin Tarantino just LOOK like the kind of guy who would brag, "I knew Landa was one of the best characters I’ve ever written...I literally had to consider I might have written an unplayable part." Ugh.

- Speaking of which, Christoph Waltz looks quite a bit different than his charmingly evil character, doesn't he? The beard helps, but he still has a not-entirely-trustworthy look in his eyes.

- ...and the annual Academy Award for Best Floating Head goes to Louie Psihoyos, director of documentary front-runner The Cove. Looks like he's still only comfortable in undercover mode, covertly dressing in black.

February 16, 2010

HBO Presents: Reporter, with Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times

This Thursday, February 18, at 9.30pm ET/PT, HBO Documentary Films will premiere a new feature-length documentary, Reporter, profiling the work of intrepid New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof. As a Sunday subscriber to the times for the past few years, I've read a number of Kristof's columns with datelines in places including Darfur, Pakistan, and the Congo. To describe his columns as often stomach-churning would be putting it mildly; he often uses extremely descriptive language while reporting on some of the worst atrocities you could ever imagine. Take his column from two weeks ago as an example.

Reporter, which was directed by filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar, chronicles Kristof as he follows the Hutu/Tutsi conflict in Rwanda as it spills over the border into neighboring Congo. According the HBO, Reporter "tells the story of a vanishing breed of journalists who bear witness to global catastrophes, breathing life into sobering statistics one country at a time, one story at a time, one typed word at a time."

Indeed, this is one boots-on-the-ground, old-school reporter who has earned his frequent flier miles. I also appreciate that he has done a lot of work with educating college students about these issues.

Some of the stories that will be told in Reporter include:

DVD Giveaway: Howard Zinn's The People Speak

Courtesy of the fine folks at A & E Home Entertainment and The History Channel, I have a shiny new copy of The People Speak to give away to one lucky reader. Find out below how it can be yours for the low low cost of free dollars. 

Here's the official description: "Using dramatic and musical performances of the letters, diaries and speeches of everyday Americans, The People Speak focuses on the concept of democracy based on the lives and experiences of ordinary Americans who, through their words and actions, changed the course of history. Narrated by Howard Zinn and based on his bestselling books, "A People's History of the United States", and "Voices of a People's History", this groundbreaking documentary film illustrates the relevance of these passionate historical moments to our society today, reminding us that democracy is not a spectator sport and to never take liberty for granted. A journey from the founding of this country to the civil rights movement and beyond, The People Speak uses star power to celebrate democracy: executive producer Matt Damon reads from The Declaration of Independence; Bruce Springsteen performs Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land"; while other accomplished performers, including Morgan Freeman, Marisa Tomei, Josh Brolin, Viggo Mortensen, Kerry Washington, Bob Dylan and Eddie Vedder lend their voices to help re-create the emotional impact of these moments in history."

As an undergrad at BU I once heard Zinn speak, but I've never actually read any of his books. Needless to say I'm very interested to view my screener copy, and I will post a review when I announce the winner of the giveaway.

If you would like a chance to win the DVD, simply do one of two things by next Wednesday, February 24:

1.) Leave a comment below and include your email address.
2.) Email me at getafilm @ gmail.com with the words "PEOPLE SPEAK" in the subject line.

That's it! I'll randomly select from the entries and contact the winner for a shipping address (I'll take care of shipping costs). Good luck!

Learn more about the film and order it (if you don't win it) through Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

February 15, 2010

For the Love of Film: A Film Preservation Blogathon

Last summer, I had the great fortune of attending what may well have been a once-in-a-lifetime cinematic experience: viewing a stellar film print of Buster Keaton's 1924 silent film, The Navigator, accompanied by a live in-theater musical performance on the singing saw, piano, and accordion by local  band Dreamland Faces. While I was fully aware of how rare the experience was in the moment, I don't think I adequately appreciated just how many classic films have been lost to the ravages of time and lack of restoration. Since then I've gained a new admiration for film preservationists (and local theaters and filmists - thanks, Barry & the Trylon) who have made experiences like the one I had possible for so many people.

And just this weekend I was once again able to travel back in movie theater time, plopping down in a comfortable theater seat in 2010 to view a restored 35mm print of Akiro Kurosawa' 1950 classic, Rashomon. It's true, I could have watched both Rashomon and The Navigator on DVD or even for free online, but neither would have provided the pure cinematic experience as it was meant to be. Similarly, next year by this time people will be watching Avatar on their iPod Touches and 3D televisions, but they won't actually be seeing Avatar.

Fortunately, for the love of film and for the sake of all of us, a lot of people are working very hard to make sure classics of yesteryear and yesterday remain available for viewing in their original form for years to come. The National Film Preservation Foundation has preserved 1,563 films in just over 10 years, and with our help, they can continue to "save America's film heritage" and "support activities nationwide that preserve American films and improve film access for study, education, and exhibition." (View some of the restored film footage here.)

To that end, please check out For the Love of Film: A Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren, with the participation of more than 50 bloggers and film critics from around the world. The purpose of this blogathon is both to educate and, of course, to fundraise. If you contribute just what you would normally spend on a movie ticket ($10), thousands could be raised in support of film preservation - including films that may, like Rashomon, make their way back to a theater near you. Your donation is fully tax-deductible and can be made securely via Network for Good here.

Thanks to Marilyn (Ferdy) and Farran (The Siren) for their hard work on this over the last month, and to all of the participants for spreading the word and supporting the cause!

Become a fan of the blogathon on Facebook

February 12, 2010

Taking It Home: 02/12/10

As disheartening as it is to hear more and more people scoff at the Olympics every two years, I remain steadfastly loyal as a fan of the competition, the ceremony, the pomp and circumstance. Sure, billions of dollars are spent for what amounts to two weeks worth of playing games, but if you read my review of Invictus (or my post on the '08 Summer Games), you should have an idea about why I think the benefits of the Olympics on a global scale outweigh the cost of the Olympics on a local scale.

It is more than just a game - a concept nicely summarized by a piece I read this morning: "Today, cheer not just for the United States but for the other 96 countries as well. Cheer because any time so many nations congregate with common goals, under common rules and in peace, [it] ought to be cause for celebration."

And then there are the athletes who perfectly embody the spirit of the games and, if I may be so bold, the human spirit itself. I defy you not to be inspired by people like Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong:

 That's why I watch.

February 11, 2010

George Clooney: A Wardrobe Department's Dream

"A white collared shirt and/or a black sport coat?" Got it.

February 9, 2010

Short Cuts: "Mathletes Don't Wear Body Art Like That"

Along Came Polly (2004). Written and directed by John Hamburg; starring Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Hank Azaria, Debra Messing, and Alex Baldwin.

February 7, 2010

Sacked from The Blind Side, Forcing a Fumble

Hmm, it's not my eyes playing tricks on me - that is a Best Picture nomination... 

I've made the joke before that the best part of some bad movies is when the end credits begin scrolling, representing the end of the torturous affair. While this was certainly true for The Blind Side, what made matters much worse was the fact that the end credits went on to suggest what the movie should have been in the first place: a documentary. I actually became emotional viewing the photos of Michael Oher's real-life family because I finally experienced the true weight of the story. It was not the heavy-handed afterschool special it resembled during the whole running time, but actually someone's life - and it deserved a much better treatment.

February 6, 2010

HBO Presents The Black List: Volume Three

Portraits © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Next Monday, February 8, HBO will present The Black List: Volume 3, a documentary project conceived by photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (who is white) and film critic Elvis Mitchell (who is black) in which numerous African-American leaders share their "stories and insights on the struggles, triumphs and joys of black life in this country". (The name is a reclamation of the term "blacklist" - in this case it denotes an honor.)

I have not seen either of the first two volumes, though both were well received by critics. Seeing the trailer and a few clips, it would appear Volume 3 also offers what the Washington Post's Tom Shales noted about Volume 1: "This is television that matters, and that very rare thing in current TV, reality that's real. " I would expect nothing less from an interviewer like Mitchell, having recently attended a discussion he had with the Coen Brothers in which he almost got them to take off their masks. 

My guess is that the film will unfortunately be dismissed by most people as something only African-Americans would be interested in, but from what I've gathered these are candid, self-aware, thought-provoking first person accounts that deserve some consideration in the "postracial America" of the Obama era (the same could be said for Chris Rock's Good Hair last year, which also deserved an audience much larger than it received). Here is a preview and list of the interviewees for Volume Three:

February 4, 2010

MFA February Lineup @ St. Anthony Main

I'm happy to report that the dream of Minnesota Film Arts filling the limited release foreign/documentary film gap in the Twin Cities appears is being realized down on the cobblestone riverfront of St. Anthony Main. MFA is now operating from offices near the theater and they have a very promising lineup for the next month (I'm actually behind on this post; La Danse screened for the last week). Not that there was anything wrong with the St. Anthony Main theater prior to this move, but let's just say that now there is a compelling reason to go there outside of MSPIFF (the 28th celebration of which kicks off April 15). Here is the schedule for the next four weeks:

February Lineup @ The Trylon microcinema: Godard's 60's

Weekends in February @ the Trylon microcinema:

Feb 5 and 6
Made In U.S.A. (1966) 
*Minneapolis Premiere!* 
"Trench-coated Anna Karina arrives in Atlantic City (apparently a provincial French town)  to track down boyfriend Richard Widmark (a character, not the actor), only to find...and  then the bodies start dropping. A (very) metaphorical treatment of the murders of JFK and Ben Barka...and Karina’s swan song for Godard." 

I saw this last week for the first time and found myself drowning in confusion, not surprising considering it was only the third Godard film I'd seen. It's one of the artiest of all art films, evidenced by this brilliant trailer:

February 2, 2010

Getafilm Gallimaufry: Best Picture Nonsense, Clouzot, Crazy Heart, Muriel, & More

[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).]

The Best Picture Nominees

I scoffed at the decision to expand the Best Picture field six months ago, and I'm scoffing at it again now. To summarize: because The Dark Knight was not nominated for Best Picture last year and the Oscar telecast was again watched by a fraction of the population, the decision was made by AMPAS and the show's producers to nominate ten films instead of five, making the ceremony more appealing to Joe and Jane Public, who see 3-5 movies year, at least one of which is directed by Michael Bay and at least 2-4 of which star Brendan Fraser, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Lopez, or Sandra Bullock.

And so in a year where so much went wrong at the movie theater (in my opinion, of course, and for the first time I didn't even bother with predicting the nominations), we have five stereotypical Best Picture nominees (Avatar, The Hurt Locker, A Serious Man, Up in the Air, and Inglourious Basterds), three passable Best Picture nominees (Up, An Education, Precious), and two tacked-on popular hits (District 9, The Blind Side; that The Hangover was somehow not nominated for Best Picture surprised me more than anything else in the nomination announcements). I'm not saying the wrong films were nominated - that's a given every year. I'm just saying that the expanded field only made room for more wrongly chosen films.

Of course the irony is that the inclusion of Avatar alone would have been enough to get people to watch the telecast, so the expanded field turned out to be completely unnecessary. Worse, the first-ever Pixar film to be nominated for Best Picture is arguably not even one of the best Pixar films. There was a case to be made for WALL-E last year, but not so with Up this year. Besides, it will win Best Animated Feature without any problem - wouldn't that have been "enough" without what is now a somewhat meaningless Best Picture nomination?

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