September 28, 2010

Wall Street: People Never Change

Hair color may change, but an obsession with a certain shade of green never does...

If Oliver Stone is disappointed that his inconsequential Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps isn't nudging its way into the Best Picture race, he might consider sneaking it into the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Fact is, for American viewers the characters may as well be speaking a rural Turkish dialect as they argue and fret about the recent financial crisis. It's yet another aimless Recession Movie that ultimately serves no purpose other than to remind us that we still have no idea what a credit default swap is. We don't understand Wall Street, and thus we can't understand Wall Street.

But then, that's assuming Stone set out to explain this disaster in the first place, which we can rule out based simply on the fact that he doesn't actually portray even one financial shenanigan (leaving Charles Ferguson's upcoming Inside Job as the all-important final chance to explain the recession in Main Street terms). Instead, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a timeless examination of greed, similar to its prequel in an attempt to personify evil as a white guy in a dark suit.

To the extent that Stone successfully portrays bankers and brokers as scheming swindlers, we should be thankful. It puts us at much greater ease when we can pin the blame on them, the lenders, and not us, the borrowers, and Stone's stylish flair throughout the film, as unnecessary as it is to the story, still achieves an essential purpose in distracting us from the film's bleak central theme: people never change.

Although advertising firms and media headlines and magazine columnists naïvely and hopelessly attempt to convince us that we've entered a "new normal" in which people will spend sparingly and save wisely, the inconvenient truth is that 90% of Americans are earning and spending as much as they ever have (and in the case of the top earners, earning more than they ever have). Interest rates remain at historic lows and credit is still freely available to nearly anyone who desires it. As the recession begins to fade on a wider scale and the opportunities for easy money begin to emerge, we will be resurrected like millions of Gordon Gekkos, anxious to reclaim our financial kingdoms, no matter the literal or figurative cost. Isn't that human nature, or, at the very least, the American way?

September 27, 2010

When Worlds Collide - Premiering Tonight on PBS

Boy, I sure don't feel like celebrating Columbus Day this year (not that I ever have; how does one do so anyway?). In fact, after seeing When Worlds Collide: The Untold Story of the Americas After Columbus, I almost feel like joining the movement against formal recognition of the holiday. This is not the film's purpose, but it's difficult to objectively consider the ramifications of Columbus' invasion (not quite a discovery) of the Americas when you learn about the millions of indigenous people who were killed and enslaved for "God" and the Spanish crown.

Narrated by author and journalist Ruben Martinez, the film richly chronicles the history of Latin America in a series of chapters that outline how the clash of European and American cultures influenced generations of mestizos up to the present day. It is indeed an "untold story", and as Martinez explains at the end of the film, the global community should by now be ready to discuss the history of this part of the world and the tragic consequences of the Spanish conquest.

It is perhaps an uncomfortable reality to acknowledge, but this historical perspective is vital for understanding ethnic identities and international relations in 2010. You might never look at Spain the same way again (or really any country that based its economy and empire on the exploitation and enslavement of Indigenous Americans), but then the best documentaries are the ones that open the eyes of viewers to new realities.

Indeed, although When Worlds Collide has its flaws (and I found Martinez' narration rather awkwardly staged throughout), a wide-ranging documentary like this is inherently limited by the scope allowed in 90 minutes of airtime. What it should do, and what it succeeds in doing, is planting a seed of interest in the minds of viewers and encouraging them to continue their own discovery and dialogue afterward. The film's website is particularly user-friendly (I like this Old World vs. New World timeline), and I really hope educators take advantage of the downloadable lesson plans, because this is the kind of material that is inexcusably absent from American classrooms - especially those that include Columbus Day on the chalkboard calendar.

When Worlds Collide premieres tonight, Sept. 27, on PBS
Click here for local listings and future air dates

September 22, 2010

300 Words About: I'm Still Here

Last week, before Casey Affleck inexplicably broke his silence about I'm Still Here being a mostly scripted hoax, I told a friend of mine how great it would be if Joaquin Phoenix walked out onto the stage of "The Late Show with David Letterman" tonight with a clean-shaven face and a normal personality. What a perfect "Gotcha!" opportunity it would have been.

Alas, his appearance will now be an anticlimactic reunion in which he will no doubt apologize to Letterman and probably fail to explain exactly what I'm Still Here is "about". From where I sit, having seen it a couple of weeks ago and immediately recognizing a number of things that just could not be real, I don't think there is anything to explain. Either you consider I'm Still Here a brilliant skewering of Hollywood celebrity culture (featuring a Best Actor-nominee worthy performance; the best of Phoenix's career), or you consider I'm Still Here just plain offensive, a joke on the movie industry and a waste of everyone's time. Much of your reaction may depend on whether you saw it before or after the cat was officially out of the bag - but if you have seen it, wasn't it pretty obvious while watching that Casey Affleck was documenting a manufactured reality?

September 19, 2010

Bad Will Hunting

We haven't seen a Boston foursome like this since 1997

The Town is surprisingly watchable, with a confident sense of place and no illusions about what it is (tense but forgettable) and what it isn't (moving or believable). I had no clue what it was about when I walked in, but I was expecting a melodramatic thriller like Gone Baby Gone, not a tightly wound cop vs. robber flick. The action sequences and set pieces were a major highlight, and the Boston accents were thankfully kept under control (other than Pete Postlethwaite's rogue brogue). And despite some truly horrendous dramatic dialogue between Ben Affleck and Rebecca Hall, the movie kept a brisk pace, rarely allowing your attention to focus on how preposterous the relationships and characters were.

So for the most part I liked it, and I've now tolerated Ben Affleck in three straight movies (The Town after Extract and State of Play), which hasn't happened in well over a decade. And speaking of those early Affleck years, there was something altogether too familiar about The Town, wasn't there? Not just because the last minute was reminiscent of The Shawshank Redemption, and not because Affleck's performance was recycled from Armageddon and Paycheck, but because, well...

September 17, 2010

Fall Film Festobonanza, Part 5: 20 Years of Milestone Films @ the Trylon & Macalester Film Series on Global Justice

Killer of Sheep & The Bicycle Thief

What: Milestone’s 20th: Two Decades of Enduring Artistry
Where: Trylon Microcinema
When: Oct 1 - 31

What: Macalester Alumni Fall 2010 Film Series: "Global Justice"
Where: John B. Davis Lecture Hall (JBD), Ruth Stricker Dayton Campus Center
When: September 22 - November 10

Just when I thought the programming at the Trylon microcinema couldn't get more varied (past series have featured Cronenberg, Spielberg, Godard, and Harryhausen, to name a few), along comes a true mixed bag of classic films: Milestone’s 20th: Two Decades of Enduring Artistry.

Fall Film Festobonanza, Part 4: Twin Cities Black Film Festival, MPLS Project, & Shamrock Film Festival

What: 8th Annual Twin Cities Black Film Festival
Where: TBA
When: October 15 - 17

What: The Minneapolis Project
Where: The Riverview
When: September 30

What: Shamrock Film Festival
Where: Rosemount
When: October 7 - 9

Even more local movie happenings, as follows:

Fall Film Festobonanza, Part 3: Sound Unseen 11

The films of Sound Unseen 11

What: 11th Sound Unseen "Films on Music" Festival
Where: Southern Theater, Trylon microcinema, Red Stag Supper Club, Minneapolis
When: October 6 - 10

Last year's Sound Unseen festival featured some really outstanding films, including P-Star Rising, We Live in Public, and one of my favorites of the entire year, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (which I believe is scheduled for a limited late fall theatrical release). Sound Unseen programs numerous films on music throughout the year, but their annual festival always features high-profile films that otherwise would not get screened in the Twin Cities. It's a cozy little festival, too, with screenings at the Trylon (50 seats) and, this year, the Southern Theater on the West Bank. Here's the official release:

Fall Film Festobonanza, Part 2: Twin Cities Film Fest

What: 1st Annual Twin Cities Film Festival
Where: Block E & Mall of America
When: September 28 - October 2

I'm not sure why, and I'm not sure how, but a second citywide international film festival has arrived in the Twin Cities:

Fall Film Festobonanza, Part 1: Olivier Assayas Regis Dialogue & Retrospective

Irma Vep, Summer Hours, and Carlos

What: Olivier Assayas Regis Dialogue & Retrospective
Where: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
When: October 1 - 31

I can't believe it's been a year since "Raising Cain", the Walker Art Center's retrospective and discussion featuring the Coen Brothers. This fall's series doesn't have quite the local flavor; just the opposite, in fact, and that's a great thing. Though I haven't seen most of Olivier Assayas' films, I know they span the entire globe, from Hong Kong to France to Vancouver to, most recently, Venezuela. Here is an excerpt from the Walker's press release:

September 12, 2010

Getafilm Gallimaufry: Animal Kingdom, Get Low, Let Me In or Leave Me Out, & Perfect Song #8

[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).]

Animal Kingdom (A)

Aside from being among the best indie movies of the year, David Michôd's Animal Kingdom is also the Feel Bad Movie of the Year. It's not graphic, it's not lewd, and it's not even particularly violent, but you become so intimate with the cold, calculating, evil characters that you just want to shower immediately afterward. I haven't been this disgusted walking out of a film since Boy A, another excellent movie that not coincidentally deals with trust, regret, family, and crime.

Stories about criminal families are nothing new, but Animal Kingdom boasts such a crackerjack script and stellar cast that you don't even realize you've heard this story before (it helps that the actors are unfamiliar to American audiences). I was a big fan of the stylistic flourishes (understated use of slow motion, haunting music, etc.) and undercurrent of unpredictability, and well, I'll just say it: if Animal Kingdom were made by a veteran American director like Scorsese, it would be a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination.

September 8, 2010

Painful Moments in Movie History #2: The Fireplace Scene

Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen

George Lucas
George Lucas, Jonathan Hales


A fire blazes in the open hearth. PADMÉ and ANAKIN are sitting in front of it, gazing into the flames.

From the moment I met you, all those years ago, not a day has gone by when I haven't thought of you. And now that I'm with you again, I'm in agony. The closer I get to you, the worse it gets. The thought of not being with you- I can't breathe. I'm haunted by the kiss that you should never have given me. My heart is beating, hoping that kiss will not become a scar. You are in my very soul, tormenting me. What can I do? I will do anything that you ask...

Silence. The logs flame in the hearth. PADMÉ meets his eye, then looks away.

September 6, 2010

Up the Yangtze, With a Paddle

The Yu Family, 2007
I consider 2008 the best year of the last decade for documentary film. Consider Surfwise, Trouble the Water, Man on Wire, Young @ Heart, Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), and Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, along with the second tier of Encounters at the End of the World, Dear Zachary, American Teen, Blindsight, Waltz with Bashir, and Standard Operating Procedure.

Above all of these great films that year, however, I placed Up the Yangtze, Yung Chang's heartbreaking examination of the impact of the Three Gorges Dam on the lives of lower and middle class Chinese living along the banks of the Yangtze River. From my review: "Yung Chang masterfully weaves power, wealth, culture, humility, sacrifice, tradition, national pride, poverty, and environmental concerns into a rich tapestry worthy of the world's attention...The unique aspects of Chinese culture are on such brilliant display in Up the Yangtze that we Westerners will have difficulty understanding them with one viewing."

The film somehow eluded the attention of AMPAS (who award the Oscars), but it did win numerous other awards and received healthy praise from critics. It was also broadcast on PBS as part of its POV documentary series, and now, two years later, the POV blog has an encouraging update from Yung Chang about the main family profiled in the film. Some highlights are below:

September 3, 2010

The Guy With the Butterfly Tattoo

"See that butterfly? You think it's Danaus plexippus, but it's not - it's Pieris rapae!" 

"A butterfly?," my wife wondered aloud as we watched George Clooney's character, Jack, perform his daily calisthenics routine in his cozy flat tucked away in a small Italian village. She was referring to the tattoo on his upper back (although it would have made just as much sense on the small of his back, and been funnier), and while I also noticed the unexplained marking, I was busy trying to determine whether Jack traveled with a pull-up bar or if they are actually standard in century-old Italian dwellings.

Whatever we were focused on while watching Anton Corbijn's The American, it wasn't the plot - such as there is one. The potential for a simmering thriller exists (the film is based on Martin Booth's well-received 1990 novel, "A Very Private Gentleman"), but the on-screen translation is a cliché-ridden and ultimately inconsequential film. Much as it tries to transcend the genre, it still ends up a vanilla "One Last Job" movie where the bank robber/assassin/detective/soldier/criminal plods along as a tortured soul, haunted by a lost love, chased by inept enemies, unable to trust anyone and forced to accept his likely fate - to die either as a martyr or as a ghost. Generally these characters do a good deal of brooding and philosophizing to supporting characters about their life's path.

Problem is, Rowan Joffe's screenplay for The American calls for very little in the way of characters talking and very much in the way of George Clooney just looking depressed. He is the picture of melancholy, sipping espresso alone in cafes, nervously walking and driving with an eye over his shoulder and a hand on his gun, tossing and turning in bed, making safe, emotionless conversation with locals, rubbing his eyes in anguish, and so on. At some point I just had to wonder, "Was this the right guy for the job?".

September 2, 2010

REVIEW: Prince of Broadway (A)

Writer/director Sean Baker's exceptional first feature, Take Out, is the kind of film that engages your curiosity in a rather distracting way; you feel as if you're watching a lost home video or a guerrilla-style student film. Scenes are unpredictable not necessarily because of complex plot twists (the story could not be simpler), but because at any given moment something in the vicinity of the shooting location, perhaps a stray animal or a loud car, seems certain to interrupt filming.

Was there a proper set? Were these people even actors?  The answer was yes, and no, but if you focused on the production details you'd potentially miss the most important fact of all: Take Out is a brilliant illustration of "a day in the life", of the common experiences of fear, frustration, relief, longing, hope, and countless other emotions that we as humans individually experience but collectively share. (See that film.)

Baker's new film, Prince of Broadway (opening tomorrow in New York and Sep. 24 in L.A.), is a glossier product, longer and more confidently made than Take Out. The sound and cinematography are vastly improved, if not still bound by the limits of a tiny budget, and the blocking is more tightly staged. In short, it's a more professional film, but if Baker has applied more of a sheen to this new product he has lost nothing under the surface, where thoughtful lessons about love, parenting, marriage, and friendship are framed by the unlikeliest of set-ups.

September 1, 2010

Two or Three Things I Know About Blogging

As I tread onward into my fourth year of maintaining this blog, it's an appropriate time for reflection. To say that I've learned some things about film and particularly about blogging over the last three years would be an understatement so great as to make it a meaningless statement. I've absorbed so much I feel like I can't even remember what I knew or thought I knew about film three years ago.

And I haven't just learned about movies, and how they are made and why they are made and how people talk about them and why they are important, but also about the nature (and sometimes disturbing power) of blogging, about how to efficiently use the internet to find trustworthy information, about how to write HTML code, about the future of online media, about professionalism and respect, and about social networking (in the truest sense: developing real friendships with people thousands of miles away). But what overwhelms me more than what I've learned so far is just how much I still have yet to learn.

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