Thursday, December 31, 2009

Up in the Air - “Grounded, With Its Head in the Clouds”

Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner
Directed by Jason Reitman

Jason Reitman makes films about modern people. There is a common theme to his work that focuses on the slight outsider, the one who is living life as we now begin to define it, making their own rules in the ever evolving landscape of American life. His third and latest film, Up in the Air, follows Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a man who fires people for a living. He lives city to city, flight to flight, frequent flier mile to frequent flier mile and enjoys every moment of it all. He is great at his job and resents the presence of a young upstart named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who is trying to restructure the way his business works. Along the way Ryan also meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), another perpetual plane-dweller who sparks a casual love interest and is a partner in getting laid over in any random city.

Timeliness seems essential to this film. Unlike many films which strive (and fail) to remain timeless, ‘Air’ is rather proud of steaking the ground and claiming itself as a reflection of the current economic and social climate of the U.S.A. Post-9/11 difficulties in air travel (and how to avoid them) are something that few films have addressed with such skill. When Natalie shows up at the airport planning to travel like a person would have ten or twenty years ago, she is scorned. Natalie also brings a major theme of modern technology to the table in pushing for webchat-enabled remote firings which would slash the company’s travel budget and Bingham’s hopes to stay airborne for the rest of his life. Bingham, who is oft-reminded of his being old in the film, represents a level of face to face interaction that can never be replaced. While the rest of the world might cling to their wife or kids for their few minutes away from a screen, he is happy to actually be surrounded by people all day (even if they have a fake level of courtesy or are complete strangers). As much as he may use his smart phone or laptop, he has no cubicle or office to be stuck in.

The first act really flies. The editing is quick paced and top notch as we are acquainted with the single serving life that Bingham leads. This sets up a recurring theme throughout the film where “baggage” is used both literally and metaphorically. He preaches this level of solitude in a traveling seminar where he tells you to not carry the weight of anything in life that can’t fit in your little backpack. Bingham only owns one set of clothes which come with him at all times in his durable, precisely laid out suitcase. He has estranged himself from family, shows no signs of having friends, and seems quite happy to be at a loss of all the things people complain are depending on them when they get fired.

There are three sequences with real laid off workers throughout the film (telling their horror stories, not being fired on camera). The first two of these are fairly seamlessly cut together with a scene of an actor (Zach Galifianakis, J.K. Simmons) interacting with Bingham and the events at hand. The performances of the actors shown against real people are strong enough that they flow without a hitch, a credit both to the director and these two fine character actors. The third sequence is the same people we have seen previously discussing how their lives really did get a positive new focus after being fired. The real reactions being given by those interviewed give an authenticity to the proceedings that the film seems to strive for.

Bingham’s one relationship that almost convinces him to forego his life as a baggage-less person is with Alex, who as she says, should be imagined as Ryan Bingham “but with a vagina”. The life they have together meeting up whenever they can is too good to be true and is ultimately built on a superficial idea of status cards. When Bingham seems to reach a point of willingness to give up his job, effectively his life, and leaves the conference where he is speaking in Las Vegas to see her in her home in Chicago, he (somewhat predictably) only finds disappointment in learning she has a husband and family. The life Alex lives on the road is not the one she has at home. What’s more, the film fairly clearly suggests that Alex is a nymphomaniac. The way she has adventurous sex with Bingham is one thing, but you get the feeling that he is not the only one she has this relationship with. Additionally she mentions having joined the mile high club on a domestic regional flight during the day, and masturbates before she even texts Ryan to talk one night. These are signs of a woman who is not only adulterous, but obsessively so.

After the dissolution of his relationship with Alex everything in Bingham’s life takes on a different light. The ending, which is somewhat open ended, can be translated three-fold as I see it. One is the happy ending. Ryan has ended up exactly where he was when we met him, and after everything he has gone through he decides to leave that baggage behind (literally) as he lets go of his bag and looks up at the big board of flights to take Natalie’s advice to just fly anywhere you want once he has reached his goal of elite status as only the seventh person to ever accumulate 10 million frequent flier miles. Cut to the clouds, and he is off on his journey to anywhere.

The second ending is the mundane ending. Bingham has been reinstated at his job and everything is right where he wanted it to be before Natalie started messing things up for him. He goes back to following his own advice to shed everything that didn’t fit in his backpack. Alex is gone, Natalie is too. He recommends her for her new position in San Francisco because he is showing he is right about how you have to leave everything but the job behind. He has lost his second career as a motivational speaker but that was extraneous and had to be cut. He is the Ryan Bingham we met before, once again suppressing the bad things that have tried to sidetrack him throughout life and continuing to be an excellent fire-for-hire.

The third ending is the dark ending. His willingness to extend himself to Alex ended in failure. In the process he realized the status card lifestyle has lost its’ luster. When Bingham achieves his goal of ten million miles, the moment is utterly futile and as he states, he has gone through this so many times in his head but now he doesn’t know what to say. He is back in the job exactly where he was at the beginning of the entire ordeal, and the distance with his own family has finally come to a place where he understands that he will never be close with them (even if he wanted to be) because of his own coldness. He gets asked by his boss (Jason Bateman) if he remembers a woman who threatened to jump off a bridge during a firing. He says no, but of course we know he does. This puts a seed into his mind. He ends up at the airport, lets go of his bag, effectively his life, and looks up at the meaninglessness of the big board and its’ endless flights around the country. We see his face one last time realizing this, and then we cut to an extended shot of floating through the clouds in silence. Ryan Bingham has committed suicide.


**** Four Stars - Definitely see this film

Up In the Air is now playing in theaters everywhere is has been nominated for six Golden Globe awards.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Black Dynamite - “Black Gold”

Screenplay by Michael Jai White & Byron Minns & Scott Sanders
Directed by Scott Sanders

Black Dynamite is hilarious. Anything you've heard about any other movie being the funniest film of 2009 is pure lies. It's a little bit Enter the Dragon and a little bit Shaft by way of something like Young Frankenstein, where the films being made fun of are both shown respect and ripped to shreds. It is the mid-1970's and Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) is a former CIA operative and Vietnam veteran who just wants his streets cleaned up. For too long 'the man' has been pushing drugs and guns on his people (including orphans!) and to end it, he'll go to any lengths necessary. This of course means shooting a whole bunch of people (in amazingly fake ways) and using kung fu (at which he has no equal). Needless to say, the plot hardly matters but it is refreshing to find an absurdist comedy that doesn't just ignore plot, but uses it as a tool for comedy.

Where films like Undercover Brother and Kung Pow: Enter the Fist failed in capturing a mix of humor and the blaxsploitation / kung fu cinema style, this one succeeds. It is the best period-parody film since 2001's Wet Hot American Summer. When Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made their 2007 Grindhouse project they focused so much on the scratches and lost reels of film that they lost what made those films fun- bad acting and genuine errors from filmmakers just trying to make the best film they can with the budget they have. 'Dynamite' understands this and knows how to let the joke be the sincere attempt at greatness. One scene which has the only boom-mic in shot joke in the film succeeds because of the actor's uncertainty whether to continue after it hits his afro. Within a beat he looks around and then gets back in character and delivers the scene. It's a quick moment and is relatively subtle as far as boom-mic jokes go making that much funnier.

Cameos abound in the film; Arsenio Hall, Cedric Yarborough, Richard Edson and Brian McKnight all make appearances. Forgotten comedian Tommy Davidson also has a role in the film as “Creamed Corn”, a pimp who assists Dynamite. Davidson may be the weak link in the bunch, but each is obviously enjoying their chance to chew scenery and make a dedication to the films they (probably) grew up watching. Everyone involved was clearly approaching the film from a place of love, especially Jai White, who carries the film. He is clearly following the lesson of original blaxsploitation filmmakers like Melvin Van Peebles that if you want to make a movie you just make the damn movie. If one was not in on the joke, they could take the film as a serious attempt at this type of cinema.

The Kentucky Fried Movie may have been first in parodying this entire genre of film, but Black Dynamite has become a welcome addition. The movie actually includes the line “First Lady, I'm sorry I pimp slapped you into that china cabinet” and a shootout in a donut shop. A few people have talked of how the joke stretches a bit long and that the film has effectively outstayed its welcome by the time Black Dynamite leaves Kung Fu Island. But I would say the joke going further is necessary to truly capture the laborious experience of watching one of these films. It is at this point that the film does have it's one “out of character” effects shot, but I'm willing to forgive it for the ridiculous way they cheat their filming locations in the final sequence and the final battle that takes place afterward.

This reviewer is a tough sell for comedies- a smirk or chuckle one will normally get out of me. Here there was no shortage of genuinely laughing out loud. To ruin the many gags (often as subtle as a certain look or line delivery) would be a sin so let's leave it at “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Black Dynamite are a double feature made in heaven”. The rewatchability of the latter may even come close to the former. For fans of both Bruce Lee and silly.

**** Four Stars - Definitely see this film

Black Dynamite will be released on DVD and Blu-ray disc on February 16th, 2010.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Extract - "Do Yourself A Flavor"

Written and Directed by Mike Judge

‘Extract’ tells the tale of Joel (Jason Bateman), the owner of an Extract company that produces the flavors we all know and love for vanilla, cherry, root beer and the like. It’s not a big operation, but Joel built it up himself out of his love for engineering tastes. He knows everyone in the company, unlike his business partner Brian (J.K. Simmons, hilariously flabbergasted as always) who simply refers to all the employees as “dinkus”. The manufacturing floor is filled with colorful characters as Mike (Office Space, Beavis & Butthead) Judge is known to do, usually people at differing levels of idiocy. There is the thrash metal-loving fork lift operator, the woman who blames everyone else for her problems, and of course the one dude who unquestionably loves his job, Step (Clifton Collins, Jr.). One day a series of accidents transpire that lead to Step losing his nuts (well, one gets reattached) and a sexy con artist Cindy (Mila Kunis) moves to town to try to take advantage of the situation.

This is only one of the many problems that are now plaguing Joel. He hasn’t slept with his wife (Kristen Wiig) in months (once 8 o’clock arrives and the sweatpants are put on, he has no chance), his annoying neighbor (David Koechner) won’t leave him alone, and he may have the chance to sell the company to General Mills for a huge profit if only he can settle the nut-losing issue. Of course, along the way he falls in love with Cindy but won’t cheat on his wife unless she was cheating first so his best friend Dean (Ben Affleck) convinces him to hire a gigolo to trap her into it. All of these balls go up into the air and play out in a hilarious manner that marks Judge’s return to the style of his cult-classic ‘Office Space’ after the abysmal ‘Idiocracy’.

Much like a well-made modern sitcom, this film is low on technical savvy and heavy on great delivery of a hilarious script. Each role is well cast (even if it is at times typecasting), and the hijinks ensue in a way that doesn't insult your intelligence (because it's insulting the characters). Koechner stands out as the type of guy who is just realistic enough that his annoying habits could be understood. And yet we cringe- knowing that such a person exists is so much worse than a cartoon of the neighbor who won't leave you alone.

The problem is that everything wraps up in such a neat package in the end. Lessons may have been learned and the status quo has returned like in an episode of “Andy Griffith”. In ‘Office Space’ there was a certain urgency to try and reverse the computer virus that ultimately culminated in burning down the building (Spoiler?). Here, we get a sort of tacked on situational ending with a happy ending where everything is tied up nicely. The momentum of the whole thing breaks as soon as Joel has finally solves his sex issue.

I actually wondered whether the film would have worked better as a TV show and decided that there wasn’t longevity to the concept. But on the other hand, I could see it happening- the weekly adventures of a small extract manufacturing plant, where everyone is such a character. Twelve years of working on ‘King of the Hill’ must have nurtured Judge’s mindset for this sort of TV-ready style. Either that or it’s a direct reaction to the high concept failure of ‘Idiocracy’, which despite its budget, reached for the stars. As much as I may compare it to television, there is still a crackling wit throughout and some of the funniest lines I’ve heard in 2009. I would recommend renting this at least once, definitely.

*** Three Stars – Take it or leave it

Extract is available this week on DVD and Blu-ray disc.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds - "Who's The Bastard?"

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Inglourious Basterds was not what I expected. Walking into the film, I was expecting a film (as advertised) about a group of rag tag Jewish American soldiers, hacking their way through Germany under the leadership of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). In truth, they play only a small part in the film. In fact, I would suggest that despite referring to themselves as such, they aren't even really the inglorious bastards of the film. That award belongs to Christophe Waltz's Col. Hans Landa, who rules every scene he is in with a charismatic fist. One could also make the case that the title refers to every central character of the film, who as much as I hate to admit it, is portrayed as both inglorious and bastardly at times.

The Jew who truly attacks the Nazis is Shosanna Dreyfuss (Melanie Laurent), a Jewish survivor of an attack in France, and now owner of a movie theater in Paris under the name Emmanuelle Mimieux. The Nazi war hero and film fan Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) is enamored with her and arranges to have the film premiere of Joseph Goebbel's next “masterpiece”at her theater. Shosanna decides that she will destroy the theater and everyone inside or die trying. It's hard to say who the true protagonist of the film is- Raine, Landa or Dreyfuss. But Shosanna certainly takes center stage for conceiving of the plot that the Allied forces then involve themselves (and specifically the Basterds) in that they dub “Project Kino”. The problem here is that we never see any indication of Shosanna getting the word out about her plan to the Allied forces, so either they conveniently come up with the exact same plan on their own or it's a plot hole.

Like most Quentin Tarantino films, this is sectional. Each chapter is essentially one long scene with brief intercutting. When each play out in a similar way there is a certain monotony to it, but never lethargy. What this accomplishes is probably the film's greatest feat- a dramatic tension that continually builds, usually ending in quick moments of tragedy. This is a direct nod to one of Tarantino's idols, the great Italian director Sergio (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Once Upon A Time in America) Leone. The opening scene, where Col. Landa visits a dairy farm in the French countryside, plays out (and is shot like) a combination of the second scene of TGTB&TU (Lee Van Cleef's the intimidating villain, visits a man's home), the scene from Orson Welles' Citizen Kane where a young Charles Foster Kane is essentially sold by his parents to a rich man, and a bit of the John Ford classic The Searchers thrown in for good measure. This is a tremendous feat, combining such masterstrokes of cinema and creating a new one in the process.

The serialized aspect of the film gives us many opportunities to see different aspects of the action from different characters points of view. Unfortunately, I was also left wondering where in the hell the other four Basterds (the most notably being Samm Levine) disappear off to while we follow the story of everyone else. Why have these missing men around in the first place? They serve little to no purpose and their assignment to collect the scalps of 100 Nazi soldiers given to them by Lt. Raine never really comes to fruition. One can assume that they were quite successful off-screen in this regard, but in a film that draws heavily on “ragtag soldiers with a mission” films, you would think that they could at least off handedly mention the whereabouts of the missing Basterds. I guess since every other character is given such a key role that is never wasted, why even include those that are in the first place?

Once Landa's presence and renown as a “Jew-Killer” is established, any time he reappears the tension follows. His story is odd though, because we never truly understand his motivation for making a deal to end the war and let his superiors be killed. The first indication we get of a weakness is that after he kills the Jewish family hiding in the farmer's house, he allows the daughter, Shosanna Dreyfuss, to run off into the hills making a conscious decision to not shoot her. Previously in this scene Landa explains his appreciation for the nickname he has been given, but then we never see him personally kill any Jews at any point in the film. In fact, holding himself from shooting Shosanna implies he isn't what he makes himself out to be. Later, he and Shosanna, as Emmanuelle meet again at Goebbel's table. Landa orders milk with the strudel for Shosanna, a nod to his knowledge of her secret dairy farm past. And yet, again allows her to go. He allows the plan to kill all the high ranking officials of the Third Reich to go through, apparently with his full knowledge. But still, he murders Bridget von Hammersmark with his bare hands for being a double agent and for trying to do exactly what he allows to happen. Why murder von Hammersmark only to soon after become a double-crosser himself? And why would he trust himself to the hands of Aldo Raine, whom he knows to be a savage? The “twist” of Landa betraying his fatherland seems to come from nowhere. He does admit a different feeling toward being referred to as the “Jew-Killer” when speaking with Raine at the climax of the film, shrugging it off as a nickname he never asked for. But this doesn't explain why he would simply give up on the life he built for himself in Germany, a life he seems otherwise quite proud to live.

Much has been said about the film being a “Jewish fantasy” film, reclaiming the notion that Jews can in fact fight back (an absurd notion in some ways), and in this case, indulge in wish fulfillment like personally killing Hitler and his ilk. I don’t really think the film actually is successful at this for several reasons. One, only one Jew in the whole film survives the ordeal. Two, the film dances with dangerously iffy political notions in having so much Jewish self sacrifice going on. Sgt. Donny Donnowitz (Eli Roth) A.K.A. “The Bear Jew” (and also the weakest actor in the whole film, who because of his terrible accent ends up as more of a cartoon than Hitler is portrayed as) and Pfc. Omar Ullmer (Omar Doom) end up firing round after round of ammunition into a screaming crowd that will die in a fire anyway with a look of haunting look of glee on their faces. But that’s not the worst part- the fact that they decide to remain there, blowing themselves up with dynamite instead of setting the bombs and leaving- can’t help but draw a connection to the ongoing suicide/homicide bombings of horror that continue to plague the state of Israel. Whether the filmmaker intended it or not, he is paralleling Jews attacking Nazis and Palestinian attacks on Israel, something that takes the notion of a Jewish revenge fantasy that Tarantino talked up in interviews into a dangerous opposite direction.

Also heartbreaking is the death of Shosanna, who is taking the most direct revenge of all. She is the true hero of the film and to see her taken down in such a way is painful. If it wasn’t for the glee shown in the violence throughout the film, I would say that the film was trying to show the futility of getting back at those who wronged you. Yet again we are left with the feeling of what did it all add up to in the end? Sure the war is over, but why does this revisionist take on history have to show us the continued death of Jews, especially ones we have become attached to for their vigilance in standing up against those that wronged them and their families.

Tarantino’s formula for filmmaking is out in full force here. References to an endless array of world cinema (love the nods to Bavarian mountain films, an oft forgotten era of German cinema), long speeches that take on different dramas the longer they continue, Mexican standoffs, close-ups of women's feet, it's all at play here. This may be his best film to date, because it mixes the stage play-like drawn out scenes of Reservoir Dogs with the serialization of Pulp Fiction with the complex combination of his influences into a cohesive animal that is Kill Bill, without resorting to cartoonishness. When he does break the carefully woven universe the film occupies, it stands out negatively. There is no reason to stamp the screen with a grindhouse-eque name plate for Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) and the narration by Samuel L. Jackson, whose voice is jarringly out of place in this film. Yet he holds to the period more often than not, and seems to be having fun in the process.

**** Four Stars – Definitely see this film

Inglourious Basterds is available now on DVD and Blu-ray disc.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire - "Precious Few Things To Love"

Screenplay by Geoffry Fletcher
Directed by Lee Daniels

Precious is heartbreaking. Not only because the subject matter it deals with is a girl who is abused mentally and physically throughout the picture, but because it misses the mark as a film as well. ‘Based on the novel Push by Sapphire’ is based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire and tells the story of an obese 16 year old girl living in Harlem in the 1980’s who goes by the name “Precious”. Precious (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) lives alone with her mother Mary (Mo’Nique), though she has a child with Down syndrome affectionately called “mongo” (short for mongoloid) that her Grandmother brings over whenever the social worker makes a stop by the dingy apartment. Precious is also now pregnant with her second child, both of which were the product of being raped by her faceless, never seen father. Oh, and her father gave her HIV-AIDS. In short, it’s the feel good movie of the year.

Dealing with such serious and heavy subject matter, the film has to find a balance so it doesn’t end up like a Paul Schrader film. This balance is provided by the opportunity Precious is given by being kicked out of her public school for being pregnant again (don’t worry, it gets better). Her former principal thinks she would benefit from a “leg up” program called Each One Teach One to work toward her GED, and after some hesitation and some stolen fried chicken, she decides to attend. There, the film becomes a cookie cutter inspirational teacher film as she eventually makes pals with the other students and under the tutelage of her teacher Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) learns to write about her life. Through this personal journal, she goes on a personal journey to redemption.

It is in voice over of what these diaries contain that we learn the most about who Precious is and what her innermost thoughts are. What strikes me as inconsistent is that while the scrawling we see in her book onscreen is simple, the narration expounds exponentially. It seems that the voice over is supposed to be the audience’s guide to the wonderful things she is writing, but we never get an indication that it is actually in her book. The opening credit sequence is done so that the audience sees how Precious would write it in her illiterate penmanship with the actual information spelled and written correctly in parenthesis. Perhaps we are supposed to be hearing cleaned up narration, like what she would be saying if she knew how? But then, the monologues are still so rough and dialectically correct for her character, so I don’t think that’s the case.

There are a number of continuity and time period errors in the film that I won’t get into nitpicking, but one has be mentioned because it plays a huge role in the film. When Precious steals fried chicken from a restaurant on her way to her first day of the new school, she grabs the bucket of chicken from the counter and makes a mad dash out of the restaurant leaving behind her journal notebook and pen. The following scene has Ms. Rain explaining the importance of the writing assignment at length, and the students begin to take out their books to begin writing. My first instinct was “Oh no! Precious left hers behind!” But right after, Precious magically takes out her assignment book and begins to write. No mention is made of the error. It really bothered me to my core and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Especially because when I noticed the book being left behind, we know her name is on that book and someone at the restaurant or better yet, the police, could have tracked her pilfering ass down. This is yet another thing about that scene that is completely ignored.

Throughout the film, the screen goes black momentarily for seemingly no reason. This is independent low-budget filmmaking so maybe it was an editing choice to cover a lack of footage. Or maybe it was an artistic choice. Regardless, I found it distracting as there was no cohesive reason to do this. We already have a series of fantasy sequences that Precious indulges in when trying to escape her life into her mind’s eye, usually of herself as a famous movie star or glamorous model. These scenes work to solidify her character’s need for escape and a creative mind that doesn’t know how to unleash itself onto the outside world (or that such a thing is even possible) as well as address her own insecurities with self image. They’re used to good effect but at a certain point they stop telling us more about her and just become monotonous.

In a film where technical aspects are lacking, something must be a saving grace. For this film, it is the acting by its stars, Mo’Nique and Gabourey Sidibe. Gabourey walks through the film in a zombie-like haze most of the time, either from depression or not understanding what is going on around her, fitting Precious to a T. Mo’Nique is even better, the shining star of the whole film. Her portrayal of Mary is real, raw, and ultimately understandable. You hate her for being what she is, but you know and sympathize because it’s so true to life’s real villains. When she breaks down in the end trying to explain how she just wants to be loved, you can’t help but feel heartbreaking anger for this pathetic, weak individual. The film’s ending is somewhat abrupt; some issues, like the mother/daughter dynamic, are dealt with but others linger in the air left for us to only wonder where it will go. Still, while there was little else to be enthused about in the film, Mo’Nique delivers a powerhouse performance that is all too rare even in good films.

*** Three Stars – Take it or leave it

Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire is in theaters now and the Golden Globe awards announced it today as one of their nominees for Best Picture - Drama.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Food, Inc. - “Tastes Like Success”

Directed by Robert Kenner

There’s an old children’s taunt that goes “you are what you eat”. Well if Robert Kenner held you to that, he’d say he wants you to stop being such a pile of disgusting chemicals and waste. Based in part on the books ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ and ‘Fast Food Nation’ respectively by Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, Kenner’s brilliant documentary ‘Food Inc.’ delves into the scary notion of what actually goes on in the making of regularly consumed food in the United States, who is responsible, and how it got that way. The truth may surprise you.

The film shows us how the McDonald brothers introduced the factory system to food service, creating the world’s first “fast food” restaurants that could hire cheap, easy to replace laborers. This was a cheap system that also demanded sameness in the food that would be served, and so over time the factory system spread to the butchers and farmers themselves. The vast majority of all meat in America is now provided by one of four or five conglomerate companies including Tyson, Swift and Cargill. At one time working in a slaughterhouse was actually considered one of the best and most reliable jobs. Now, it is considered one of the most dangerous, and is responsible for employing countless illegal immigrants. While the vast majority of the issues raised are ones I was relieved to not deal with as an Orthodox Jew who exclusively eats kosher food, the issue of immigrant workers is still one that affects even kosher slaughterhouses as evidenced by the legal troubles that Agriprocessors faced last year. Still, your meat is gross and the widely used slaughtering methods are inhumane.

But this isn’t simply and attack on the fast food and meat producing industries. Corn, soybeans, and other natural resources that have gone from once being farm fresh to now being ruled by big business are also dissected with the same deft hand. A number of conglomerate food service companies declined to participate in the film, but their lack of participation just seems to assure their guilt. The one large company that is in the film, surprisingly, is Wal-Mart who come off as the type that will do whatever their public demands. In this case, it is a good thing because of the movement toward stocking more organic products like Stonyfield Farms dairy. This widespread move back to organic and local food is a sign of hope though the barrier of cost still remains. As illustrated in the film, it is simply cheaper and easier to order from a dollar menu at the burger joint than it is to buy fresh fruits and vegetables from a supermarket.

The film does a great job of showing that this isn’t some liberal anti-conservative movement, knowing that there could be people who would accuse them of this and write off the film completely. What’s discussed here is a problem that everyone in the country (and beyond) is faced with three times a day. Most of the people shown who are fighting the system are from middle-America or in the case of Barabara Kowalcyk, who is fighting on Capitol Hill for a bill that puts extra stringencies on companies that have E. Coli outbreaks like the one that killed her young son, Republican. Some of the interviewees who appear on screen are incredibly brilliant and thoughtful, especially Joel Salatin, who not only comes off as a great rancher but a real philosopher who has practical solutions to the issues the industry faces at this time.

Real solutions exist; we just need to implement them. Ultimately, I believe that our government, like Wal-Mart, will follow whatever is popular and demanded by their public. While the conglomerates may have seemingly unlimited funds to take down their opposition individually, they are still at the whim of the same masses who bought their services and products in the first place. The film ends on a series of text screens that encourage us as the consumers to demand changes and do what we can on a variety of scales. Once in a while a documentary comes along that actually feels like it can change the way people live. This is that film.

***** Five Stars – Definitely see this film

Food, Inc. is available now on DVD and Blu-ray disc as well as streaming from Netflix.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Modern Romance - "Still up to dating"

Written by Albert Brooks and Monica McGowan Johnson
Directed by Albert Brooks

Modern Romance is now almost thirty years old. And yet, with all the ways the title implies speaking about romance of the early eighties, we are still living in relatively the same world. Robert Cole (Albert Brooks) is a film editor in Hollywood. He is neurotic and jealous when it comes to love. As the film opens, he is sitting down to dinner with his girlfriend Mary (Kathryn Harrold) and just has to get something off his chest. He tells her that he just can’t be with her anymore, despite how much they like each other. Her reply is to the effect of “you’re breaking up with me again?”

So begins the cycle of Robert dealing with being single once more. He goes through every stage imaginable of trying to move on, from drug use to taking up running to making plans with another woman. And at every step he buckles, just wanting to be back with Mary. It is in this way that we are given a picture of the cycle that these two lovers must have gone through before our story begins (and how they will probably continue forever). In a sense, it’s “love means having to no longer be together”.

If there is a main fault, it’s that it spends so much time dwelling on Robert’s job as an editor. While these scenes are often hilarious and as true to life as any other part of the film, they seem to be off topic from the main crux of his relationship with Mary (though the two do intertwine at times). What this adds up to is inside jokes that those of us who care about what goes on behind the scenes of a crappy movie can appreciate, but not much else. This is a recurring problem for Brooks, who seems to always put his characters in some kind of filmmaker job. While it’s nice that he writes what he knows, as the old adage goes, I can’t help but think that Robert Cole could have benefited from a more “Middle America” type of occupation.

The film is very funny. Every moment has a grounded reality to it, and yet we are laughing. Sure it’s still a movie and there are “sweetened” instances that go beyond what a person may truly do, but on the whole I think everyone has gone through or seen someone who has gone through similar trials. One of the best moments is when Robert picks up his date for the evening, trying to get over Mary. He apologizes for the fact he is just getting over a long relationship and reassures her that he is still looking forward to having a great time as they get into his car. The camera is mounted to the hood of the car so we are watching their faces as he drives off down the street away from her apartment, the rest of the world an out of focus blur behind them. Silently, Robert goes through a subtle transition on his face, one that doesn’t even reveal whether he’s happy to be going out or sad to be without Mary. Then, after an extended period of time, he stops the car and we cut to reveal the car is back in front of his date’s apartment building. It is such a great gag and it is delivered so well in the language of cinema. There is a constant flow of these jokes that deliver on their setup. The finale of the film is one, and even though I saw it coming a mile away, I still laughed audibly.

Albert Brooks seems to have been overlooked as a “west coast Woody Allen” and this movie in particular is considered his ‘Annie Hall’. But while there are similarities in themes of struggling relationships and humor, I think it is a mistake to simply undercut what Brooks brings to the table. This is a film about decided indecisiveness more than anything else, and is something that has remained timeless for those of us who feel it. Legendary director Stanley Kubrick (The Shining, Full Metal Jacket) famously called Brooks after seeing the film asking him how he was able to pull off such a great movie on the theme of jealously (something he would try to explore with his last film, Eyes Wide Shut). Brooks’ response was that “The guy who did '2001' is asking me how I did something?”

***1/2 Three and a half stars - Worth watching

The film is available on DVD in rollercoaster-themed packaging that seems like false advertising, as there is no physical rollercoaster in the film. The trailer for this movie is not available on youtube, so enjoy this clip where Robert is trying to buy running shoes.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Special – “Use Your Delusion”

Written and Directed by Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore

Comic book movies have reached well beyond their saturation point. Advances in digital technology have enabled characters like Spiderman and Superman to come across today with their full breadth of powers on screen, wowing audiences worldwide. But there was a time in cinema when simple trickery had to be employed to make us believe that Batman could even turn his head in ‘Batman’ (1989). After the success of that film, a serious of “street level” superhero and comic-based movies were made, varying in success from Dick Tracy to The Crow to The Phantom. Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore’s ‘Special’ is a movie that harkens back to that low-fi 90’s era of comics on screen.

Les (Michael Rapaport) is a parking attendant who lives alone and enjoys reading comic books. He participates in a clinical study for a new medication called “Special” which is an undisclosed new form of anti-depressant. Naturally, things go awry. The tightrope that the film walks is that it’s not that Les gains superpowers; it’s that he thinks he has. Les’ own transformation as he tries to make the most of his newly found powers (aka, his decline into insanity) is well played by Rapaport, who finally shows something more than the New York thug character type casting he has mostly been relegated to. The film is make-or-break on his performance and he gives it his all, reminding me of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler at times for some reason. Perhaps the grainy urban cinematography has something to do with it.

The upside is that the film plays with the archetypes of the hero’s journey as if Les really was going through them all to be a better savior in the end. There is the mentor figure/ doctor who is responsible for his powers (The Big Lebowski’s Jack Kehler), the supportive friends/ owners of Les’ local comic shop, the love interest/a checkout girl at the supermarket, and of course the diabolical villains who are entwined with our hero/ businessmen who engineered the drug. Unfortunately, these same archetypes make for easy stereotypes. The businessmen, despite trying to convince Les that he is imagining everything, really do act like Lex Luthor-style scumbags. They drive around in a limo and the main one is named Jonas Exiler (Paul Blackthorne), who looks and acts like a low rent Hugo Weaving. It always feels like he one step away from suddenly strapping Les to a table with a slow moving laser pointed at him. The comic book store-owning brothers Everett (Robert Baker) and Joey (Josh Peck) are such poorly written clichés that they could very well have been Walt and Steve-Dave from an early Kevin Smith film. They treat their customers like crap and spend their time debating meaningless topics or getting high. Only the doctor is given anything to work with, caught in the middle of a company who wants to make money and his allegiance to the health of his patient.

The idea of a person with no powers thinking they can save the world is nothing new. This story takes it one step forward, as psychoanalysis of someone like Batman in the real world would always lead to the conclusion he must be delusional. Here we see how a person who just goes around tackling those that he thinks are criminals would just end up going down an extremely destructive path. But in the end it all feels like something we’ve seen before with a slight twist that isn’t enough to save it. If the film stuck to its guns and allowed Les to die or “lose” in the end, we would feel the weight of a moral lesson. Instead, the film just errs on the side of super-fiction, giving us a hero triumphantly walking away and a villain clenching his fist and saying “Bah! Next time!”

** Two Stars – See it if you must

After existing in limbo for several years, Special is now on DVD.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox - "Living Up To Its Name"

Screenplay by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach
Directed by Wes Anderson

Dressed in an orange corduroy suit that both mimics Wes Anderson’s own trademark look and acts as representative of Fox’s fur, Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) is a sly and overly confident character that fits well in the overarching canon of Anderson films. Fox doesn’t apologize for his shortcomings; he merely has to come up with a better plan to overcome it all so everyone loves him. And as usual, there is an ensemble cast of various outsiders and confidants who follow our protagonist through thick and thin. Anderson has beautifully adapted the book by ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ author Roald Dahl into a unique stop-motion animated film making it his own while paying homage to the author’s original work. Though it differs in some respects, the story has been expanded in a way that is not obtrusive and feels like the organic child of the two creators. Much had been said of the distance with which Anderson directed the film (he reportedly would send his comments and wishes via the internet from his home in France) but you would never know from the final film. Every frame has the fingerprints of this auteur all over it.

The tone struck by the film is familiar territory. It is a fairly simple problem stands in the way- our hero uses his own wits- we cheer- formula, but as usual for Anderson the focus is more on the obstacle within the family rather than overcoming the external threat of the three farmers who want to destroy Mr. Fox and his home. Mr. Fox has a wife, Mrs. Fox (naturally) who is voiced by virtually the only newcomer in the cast for a Wes Anderson film, Meryl Streep. She is excellent as always and is given the biting strength that makes her the true leader of the family much like Etheline Tenenbaum or Eleanor Zissou. Perhaps this is meaningless, but I actually wonder why Angelica Huston, having played both previous roles, didn’t voice Mrs. Fox. Rounding out the family is their son Ash (Jason Schwarzman) and cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) who play rivals for Mr. Fox’s attention. Kristofferson has a mellow tone and is a natural athlete following in the chicken-snatching limber footsteps of Mr. Fox while Ash holds a grudge and is forced to find his own ways to gain his parents’ attention. One scene of their competition is truly remarkable; in one long shot we see Ash refusing to share his bedroom with Kristofferson, delegating him to sleep on a matt under an elaborate tabletop train set in the room. Their entire conversation, Kris trying to get comfortable while Ash is sitting in bed reading silently and turning out the light only to then come down and start playing with the train set has no cuts and goes on for an inordinately long time for a stop-motion film. I can’t recall ever seeing such a scene accomplished like this before.

The animation is done in a style that harkens back to Rankin-Bass films of the 1960’s and 70’s (apparently shot at 12 frames-per-second rather than the usual 24 for motion pictures). The fur of the puppets flows with a charm that can only be seen in this type of film. On the other hand, camera zooms can feel awkward at this speed, but they’re used sparingly. This isn’t the technical leap forward that Coraline represented this year nor the 80’s style of Mary and Max, which I faulted for feeling like too much of a throwback. Mary and Max bothered me with how un-animated it was at times, not necessarily that it harkened back to an older style. Fox is full of plenty of vigor and punch and at times characters literally leap around the screen. Similarly, I was struck with how subtle the movements could be at times, little ticks of the face especially. This is potentially the best visual acting I’ve seen in stop-motion. I’m still not sure whether separate, larger puppets were used for facial close-ups (of which there were lots- sometimes used for a hilarious running gag) to get those really detailed delicacies, but regardless it was wonderful. The only nitpick I would have is the inconsistent sense of scale between the animals and humans which seems to fluctuate at times (or the fact that some animals are upright and sentient while others are mindless creatures), but this hardly detracted from the overall experience.

This is Wes Anderson’s most kid-friendly film to date even though it deals with similarly dark themes in a pop manner as in his other work. Here you always know who the heroes and villains are and boundaries aren’t overstepped (the song "Heroes and Villians" by The Beach Boys is actually featured in the film). This is about family survival against those that are clearly cruel men (even though they are trying to protect that which is theirs from being stolen, but that doesn’t matter since they’re bad men). The violence never gets darker than a Disney film of old like Bambi, similarly about animals trying to survive in a world of human villains. Cleverly, the issue of curse words is glossed over by the great recurring gag of saying “cuss” when a real cuss word would otherwise be used (whether this comes from Anderson himself or screenwriting collaborator Noah Baumbach doesn’t matter as it seems to be consistent with either of their styles and sense of humor). This allows an appreciation of what is being said by adults while children can similarly be entertained. In fact, one of my favorite little touches is in the town where the climactic battle takes place that there is graphitti splashed on the side of a building that simply says “cuss” in a colorful manner.

Indeed, the whole thing comes off as the work of an experienced auteur who is playing in a sandbox of his own design. It feels like watching a child who is walking you through the story he has concocted for his action figures (an expert child, much like Max Fischer and his high school plays in Rushmore). The film is entertaining and comical, with a bit of heart. It is neither a Wes Anderson film that just happens to be done with animals nor an animal film that happens to be made by Wes Anderson. The two are designed for each other and meet in the middle to make one of the funniest films of the year.

**** Definitely see this film

The Fantastic Mr. Fox is in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

An Education – “I Get It”

Screenplay by Nick Hornby
Directed by Lone Scherfig

Based on the memoir by Lynn Barber but distinctly Nick Hornby-like in execution, ‘An Education’ is a coming of age story as seen a thousand times with a little extra charm. Hornby’s script has his usual touches; a character learning about love, communicating passions through music, and outrageous characters that still feel grounded in reality. As usual, the voice is distinctly English. A young girl living in the London suburb of Twickenham, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a bright sixteen year-old who is being pushed by her overbearing father to make the grade for Oxford College. She is obsessed with French culture and music. One day while waiting for a bus she meets a charming older man named David (Peter Sarsgaard), who seems to hold the key to getting the way of life she always wanted potentially at the risk of losing Oxford in the process.

The film’s setting is a pre-Beatles explosion 1964 England (surprisingly there is virtually no rock n’ roll in the film). Jenny is the type of girl who only a few years later would be exploring her options as a young woman looking to rebel in different ways. Carey Mulligan handles Jenny with wit and just the right amount of adorability. We understand why David pursues her, and why she in turn would contemplate giving up everything she has worked for to be with him. It is rare to see a “teen film” where the main character seems to have such a head on her shoulders. Yet, as soon as she sees a shortcut for what she ultimately wants, she takes it, showing how young and naïve she really is. She’s not above showing off to those around her, giving her the superiority that only good grades had afforded her up until now. But now with love and culture in her life she feels she is even greater than her headmistress or teachers, who all seem to be single intellectuals breeding Jenny to become another of their own ilk. Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) especially is a reflection of where Jenny sees herself heading if she takes the path written for her by the adults in her life.

Jenny’s father Jack, played by Alfred Molina, gives one of his best performances in a career of great work. Like his unforgettable cameo in Boogie Nights, Jack is a scene stealer, who cares more about Jenny and Oxford than seemingly anything else in the world. He’s the type of father who complains of not hearing enough reading coming from Jenny’s room. He dominates every scene he is in until David comes along and works his magic, turning the pit-bull into more of a retriever. Special mention must also be made of Rosamund Pike as David’s friend Helen. She is the antithesis of Jenny in almost every conceivable way but has a good natured charm. Pike’s blank stare when Helen just doesn’t understand the culture and art that David is exposing Jenny to and, along with Jack, is one of the comedic highlights of the film.

David is a bit of a mystery. He drives a great sports car, enjoys going out to clubs with friends, and generally has money to spend. He is charming and can talk himself in or out of virtually any situation. We never see him outside the context of either his friends or his car. A sly observer could see from the beginning that it all doesn’t quite add up and it should come as a surprise to no one that he ends up being a bit of a con man. Sarsgaard plays him with a combination of slyness and subtle desperation. He isn’t played like some stunted man-child going for a girl half his age but comes across as a mature person genuinely enamored by Jenny, herself mature for her age, from the start.

Unfortunately, the film virtually falls to pieces in the final twenty minutes or so. The relationship between Jenny and David had been on such an upward spike that you know it has to come down somehow, but the film just dashes everything. Without spoiling too much let’s just say that David is out of the picture at a certain point, and we never get a real resolution with him after the fact. What’s worse is that the film decides at this point to launch into a very stereotypical “working hard” montage that is dull and predictable. They could have just as easily ended it with Jenny triumphantly jogging to the top of the steps at Oxford raising her fists in the air and it wouldn’t have been any more ridiculous. The con that resolves Jenny and David’s relationship ends up duping us as an audience as well as it did the ultimately naïve sixteen year-old.

*** Three Stars – Take it or leave it

An Education is still playing in select theaters.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are - "They're Inside Us All"

Screenplay by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers
Directed by Spike Jonze

The first film from Spike Jonze since 2002’s masterpiece ‘Adaptation’, Where the Wild Things Are is the perfect cap to his “bizarro reality trilogy”. Like in his previous films, ‘Wild Things’ takes the simple beauty of life as we know it and augments it with a little magic that puts us just beyond the real into the surreal. Adapted from the classic book by Maurice Sendak, the film tells the story of Max, an uncontrollable boy who ventures off into the far off land of the wild things. While the book is fairly short, the film expands greatly on its themes of imagination and struggling to find an outlet for that energy.

It is precisely in this way that the film feels both grounded and wondrous. While the plot itself is fairly simple (Max struggles for the attention of his single mother, he goes off to a fictional land of wild creatures, they smash things and fight then he comes home), the layers of psychology on display are something to behold. Max is both a completely feral brat and yet sympathetic- we quickly understand his relationship with school, other kids, and his entire family, all by giving only one scene to each. He is a child that we either knew growing up or may have been ourselves. The actor Max Records gives one of the best performances I have ever seen from a young actor as he truly carries the entire film on his shoulders.

Running through the whole film is a sense of beauty and adventure. Whole portions of the film seem to exist in glowing natural light; we follow Max to a wonderful land of forests, deserts and beaches that feel both alien and right around the corner. The film has a prominent dark side as well, and there are a number of moments of true fear and uncertainty. The threat of being crushed or eaten by the mammoth wild things lies at every turn. The mood of the film is also set by the music by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Carter Burwell, which alternates between accentuating and setting a mood for particular sequences. If there was one drawback, it would be that the music stands out a little too much. Like editing, music is something that should work for the story and not necessarily bring attention to itself.

Once Max has gone off to the land of the wild things, we are introduced to the seven hulking creatures with simple names. The design and implementation of them is magnificent and never veers far from the suspension of disbelief. Designed by the Jim Henson Company, the suits are several steps beyond the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ or ‘Dinosaurs’ of old. The actors inside the suits contribute body movements, while the faces are animated digitally. On top of that is the voice, given to each by a prominent actor (James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker) who drives the realism of the monster to a new level. Each character coalesces from these multiple performances into a fully realized person.

Additionally, the wild things themselves act out in ways that can only be described as reflective of Max’s own thoughts, memories and insecurities. To classify each as its own specific symptom is too simple, as many take on multiple levels at their own time. Bubbling to the surface are issues of abandonment, loneliness, and anger. Sometimes the wild things are his parents (the one outstanding oedipal moment is when Max escapes the wrath of James Gandolfini’s “Carol” by climbing into the mouth of Lauren Ambrose’s “KW”. Here, Max sits in a womb-like state while the two wild things have a verbal fight echoing divorcing parents). Sometimes they are fellow kids at school. Sometimes they are just Max. Each is handled in a way that is never too obvious; it is left up to the audience to understand. Kids and adults will likely each experience it on their own level.

Subtle reference is made in the film to the 1980’s animated Disney version that almost came to be both in the mention of a “Mr. Lasseter” and the opening sequence of Max chasing a dog around the house. John Lasseter, now head of Disney Animation and one of the founders of Pixar, had tried to make a ‘Wild Things’ movie using hand drawn animation against then-revolutionary CGI backgrounds (this was a technique that eventually made its way into Beauty and the Beast). The short test sequence is embedded below for those interested. On the whole, Jonze’s film is a very good expansion on the source material. In a way I can’t picture an adaptation working in any other way. He, like Lasseter before him is a man who seems to have never forgotten the mischievous and imaginative child within himself, something that is necessary for a film like this and that comes across on the screen like gangbusters.

**** Four Stars – Definitely See This Film

‘Where the Wild Things Are’ is still in select theaters if you can catch it.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sin Nombre - "What's In A Name?"

Written and Directed by Cary Fukanaga

The winner of the “Excellence in Directing” and ‘Cinematography’ awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Sin Nombre intertwines the story of a Mexican gang member named Casper who doubts his allegiance to the gang with a teenage girl named Sayra who is trying to make it from Honduras to the U.S.A. We don’t know much about Casper beyond his membership in the gang, who are a tattooed bunch constantly at war with a rival gang. Casper is initiating a young new member who takes on the nickname Smiley while secretly breaking the gang’s strict rules about where to be and who to be with, dragging Smiley into the insubordination with him. Sayra is hesitantly setting off with her uncle and father, who was deported and separated from his new family in New Jersey and who is leading the way to sneak back into the States. Naturally, their journey takes them through the rail yards where Casper and Smiley hang out.

Casper is introduced to us sitting on his bed staring at a wall paper of vibrantly colored trees, immediately cluing us into his discontent with the gang life. Sayra is similarly introduced staring out into the densely populated city she lives in with her uncle. It is in this fashion that we know that both characters are connected by the fates. They are meant to eventually meet and fall in love against all odds, with dire consequences. This archetype of star crossed lovers works for and against the film at times. The downside is that the traditional plot points apply, making the film predictable. Once they are together, they will have unwavering dedication until an untimely end of some kind. The upside is that for the portion of the film that separates them, we are waiting to see what turns await to lead to their unity.

Each of the main roles is well handled under the direction of Cary Fukanaga. While the film’s title translates to “No Name”, I would say that he has made a name for himself with this film. I look forward to what he does next, because he shows a real ability for matching drama and character. Edgar Flores, as Casper, especially blooms under Fukanaga’s direction. With so little revealed about who Casper is and what his personal journey has been we still feel connected and understand his circumstances. The gang life depicted was heavily researched and it comes across on screen. Fukanaga lived with the actual gangsters fictionalized here to get their way of life just right. Apparently, they also gave notes on the slang used in the script to get it just right.

He also spent time with the train riding travelers trying to make their way north to get an accurate portrayal of their life on the rails. The shots of our protagonists riding atop trains as the natural world passes by are reminiscent of Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick’s Academy Award-winning film from 1978. While both have been rewarded in the category of cinematography, ‘Heaven’ is a landmark that Sin Nombre doesn’t quite live up to. The images are pretty, but not majestic. The camera placement is competent for telling the story but is neither dynamic nor especially naturalistic. One shot, however, stands out for placing us inside the head of Casper. In one scene he is knocked to the ground and the camera is sideways. The speed of film seems to change as Casper falls into frame and falls, hitting the floor. It is a rare close up in a film that keeps the camera far away during our protagonists’ most personal moments.

The film is something you see time and time again, especially around this time of year. Well made, well acted films that unfortunately don’t bring anything new to the table, story-wise. You can’t write them off because so much is right about them, and yet, the excitement that one seeks out from an excellent film is missing. It’s a shame this film isn’t on the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year, because it is just the type of movie they typically go for.

***1/2 Three and a Half Stars – Take it or leave it

Sin Nombre is available now on DVD.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Paper Heart - "Its art is in the wrong place"

Written by Nicholas Jasenovec & Charlyne Yi
Directed by Nicholas Jasenovec

Paper Heart wears its heart on its sleeve. Star Charlyne Yi and director Nicholas Jasenovec (played on screen by Jake M. Johnson)are making a documentary about love. Does it exist? In what fashion? And how do you know it's really there? They briefly discuss the subject with friends and travel the world talking to people with all perspectives on the subject. Except the “documentary” is only one side of the coin, as we are also led to believe that we also witness Yi falling in love with fellow actor and Judd Apatow regular Michael Cera (Superbad, Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist).

The problem is that while the real people who have been interviewed on their differing perspectives of love are quite intriguing, the side of the film that is showing Yi and Cera's relationship pales greatly in comparison. Each of the couples interviewed throughout the U.S. have fascinating takes on what love is. Whether it is the couple married for 50 years, the divorced hunter, “Jester” the Harley motorcycle rider who jokes about beating his wife, the gay couple in NYC or an Elvis impersonator who marries people in Las Vegas, everyone brings a tremendous amount of insight to the table. The concept of showing Yi falling in love while trying to figure out if she believes it exists at all is a good one. Unfortunately, since both she and Cera and such introverts and this is the beginning of said relationship, we don't find any grander truths about love especially when laid against these other colorful characters.

At the same time the film is investigating if love exists, it is screaming out to be loved itself. Each of the couples discussing their stories of love has their story interpreted visually by Yi using crude popsicle stick puppets that look like they were done by a grammar schooler. This playful approach starts out amusing enough, but by the time it is used in the climax of the film it becomes tiresome. Whereas every previous story is a true catalog of moments of love, the ending is a fictitious account by Yi of her own relationship with Cera. While it seems to be going for being a cutesy absurd endearing story about her appreciation for him it just ends up silly. Sure she may have found her own way to express love, but was there ever any doubt?

The film never truly convinced me of the legitimacy of the falling in love subplot. If one hasn't figured it out during the course of the film, the end credits set it in stone that this is, in fact, a mockumentary intercut with a documentary. The director himself as we see him is played by an actor that gives Yi a person to bounce feelings off of. Otherwise, the film would be too lonely, no? She would have no way to externally express her feelings. If only she (or I should say, her character) cared about the project! When the cameras get in her way, she decides it is no longer appropriate to be filmed constantly. But if she really was invested in understanding her own stunted idea of love, wouldn't she be keeping a camera by her side, filming herself whenever something important comes along?

It is debatable if mockumentaries can truly be convincing anymore. I would say that in an age where promotion and spoilers run rampant on the Internet, it is nearly impossible. Recently 'Paranormal Activity' came along to test this theory, and I would wager that in the end “the man behind the curtain” was revealed for everyone. The strength of a film shouldn't hinge on this. If the filmmakers do rely on it, like in the case of Paper Heart needing us to believe in Yi and Cera, the film is weakened. Apparently this conceit was accepted at the Sundance Film Festival this year, where the film won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. If only they had simply stuck to exploring odd concepts of love- they might be one screenwriting prize shorter, but maybe a documentary prize would be better.

*** Three Stars - Take it or leave it

Paper Heart will be released on DVD and Blu-ray this Tuesday, December 1st.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Summer Hours - "Golden Hour"

Written and Directed by Olivier Assayas

Summer Hours opens with a horde of children of all ages running through a lush yard. It is summer and everything is bright and they are on a treasure hunt of their own making. We are at a family reunion and the children are all cousins, visiting their grandmother’s house with their parents for Grandma Helene’s 75th birthday. It is in this way we are introduced to the Manly family and their intricate ties to this home which once belonged to famous French painter Paul Berthier. Helene is intensely dedicated to Paul’s life work and legacy, but realizing her own mortality, requests the collection of 19th Century art pieces that litter the home be sold and donated to museums upon her passing. What follows is a story which deals with concepts of nostalgia, family dynamics, and the difficulty of grown children becoming adults when their parents’ generation is finally gone.

The film mostly revolves around Helene’s children Frederic (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) as they juggle their lives controlled by being parents and careers that take them in different directions. Each has an extremely well defined role in the family (something that can also be said to another extent about the lesser characters in the film) and is portrayed almost flawlessly in their own skin. Frederic, as the oldest, has the most memories of Paul Berthier before his death and as such is closest to their mother. As the only sibling living in France, he is also given the major burden of dealing with the remnants of the family estate. Adrienne is the middle child, the only girl, and seems to be the most creative of the three. She is also the only unmarried and childless of the three. Jeremie, as the youngest, is the most hands-off and most willing to start anew in a completely foreign land. He, as opposed to his brother, is more focused on being a good father himself rather than dwell on notions of the family as it was in the past.

The fact that each character is dealing with their lives escalating as the past disappears is reflective of a theme in the film about cyclical generations. Some people focus only on what came before them, others only on what is yet to come. You can dwell on the way a group of people sat around a table in 1950 and compare it to today, or realize that for them in that moment they were probably just living their lives in the present. This is a significant part of what makes the film so great. We get both sides of the coin; those that have memories and those that are making new ones. Some people are born “old” and some are eternally “young”.

Many of the film’s subtleties are communicated in performance, but even more about how each character is feeling at a given moment we receive through the camera’s placement. Such expert camera placement is rare in film, where it truly fulfills its role as putting the audience in the drivers’ seat of what is taking place on screen. If the dynamic shifts from a communal jest to an uncomfortable moment for one person, the camera is right there telling us the same. This goes a long way toward making great acting excellent. Without any Point-of-view shots, we still get intimately inside the head of our protagonists.

Made in collaboration with and produced by The Musee D’Orsay in Paris, there are real works of art in the home, which play a key role in the film. It is through these objects that the home comes alive as the central figure in the film. As the home is dealt with and the art pieces end up in new places we are left to ponder whether they are living on as they were meant to or whether they are dead relics of a bygone era. The same can be said of people too. The more I think about the film, the better it gets in my mind. And I surmise that as I get older and my generation deals with the similar issues to what the the three children are dealing with here, the film will continue to age with grace.

***** Five Stars – Definitely see this film

Summer Hours is now on DVD internationally; a US release date is not yet determined.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mary and Max – “Comforting Depression”

Written and Directed by Adam Elliot

An idealist would say that every person born has a soul mate. You could go almost your entire life and not meet this person, but somehow there was always someone out there for you. Mary and Max, the first full length animated film from Academy Award winning writer/director Adam Elliot (2004’s best animated short ‘Harvie Krumpet’) is an odd subscriber to this ideology. It follows a young girl (the aforementioned Mary, voiced by Toni Collette) living in 1978 Australia who is ugly, poor, and neglected. Her mother is an alcoholic and kleptomaniac, her father a factory worker who would rather spend time with his road kill taxidermy. One day while in a post office with her mother, who is stealing stationary, she flips through a New York City phonebook and writes to a random person desperately asking if they will be her only friend. On the other end is Max (a heavily accented Philip Seymour Hoffman), an overweight, neurotic, and lonely stereotypical Jew living in New York during the ‘Taxi Driver’ era, as I affectionately call it. What follows is an often odd, sometimes hilarious and overwhelmingly sad series of communiqués between the two.

The relationship between Mary and Max is exceedingly bizarre. They send each other information only they would find important about their lives, and trinkets that only one another would appreciate. The comedy of the film always comes from a dark place, like Mary’s naiveté about the sad realities of existence. For Max, who has much more life experience, humor lives in the way he can’t understand the order of the world, from evolving popular culture to romantic relationships. Death and sorrow are common themes in their lives and letters. Max takes everything in stride- being rich is the same as a replacing a dead goldfish in his singular view.

After a period where it finally seems like joy has finally come for both our protagonists, the final act just gets bleaker than what preceded it. (Spoiler- What better way to learn about a pregnancy than during a suicide?) The best thing that can be said about the ending is that it gives us hope that is consistent with the rest of the film. As an audience, our affection for the characters and their circumstances goes hand in hand with their tragedy. Unfortunately, the residual feeling left behind by it all is the sorrow and not the joy. Though I’m no stranger to black comedy, this was a bit much.

This has been a strong year for stop-motion animation. ‘Coraline’, ‘The Fantastic Mr. Fox’ and Mary and Max all contribute nicely, and have made the short list of the 20 contenders to be nominated for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Oscars (stranger is the presence of so many stop motion films- more than the number of hand drawn contenders). Unfortunately, compared to the dazzling animation of the aforementioned Coraline, Mary and Max seems to dwell in a bygone era. While Coraline draws on the past but makes strides ahead for the development of the medium (in addition to the subtleties of the genre it is the first stop motion film to ever be made entirely in 3-D), Mary and Max feels stuck in a primitive animation style more suited to the 1980’s. Sync-mouth animation is rare in the film, and seams in the doll where pieces have been replaced are apparent.

That isn’t to say the film looks “old” or “cheap”. On the contrary, the design has its charms as well. Each of two locales central to the film is portrayed in their own sad color scheme. Australia is a sepia wasteland, feeling sparse and windblown. New York City is black and white, a noir-esque landscape of endless dirty buildings and ugly people. Both spaces excellently look and feel like alienating landscapes that reflect the feelings of our protagonists. And when an “alien” color is interjected, it shines.

The film ultimately is a peculiar exercise. It’s not that it is good or bad, per se, but I ask myself “who is this film for?” If you want a clever and humorous bleak film about two lost souls and enjoy old stop motion animation, check out ‘Mary and Max’. If not, look elsewhere.

*** Three Stars - Take it or leave it

Mary and Max is now available in the U.S.A. On Demand from a number of cable providers. See the list here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Star Trek – “More Like, Start Wreck”

Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman

A trend has arisen in films recently that in order to reboot a concept, you have to go back to the beginning. Some people see this as “back to basics”, but it seems others view it literally. Tell the origin. Show us how Macgyver first acquired a paperclip, how Big Bird moved to Sesame Street. It has worked to varying degrees for Batman, James Bond, and now- Star Trek. Rebooting a franchise that has a rabid fanbase is a tall order. But I’m not here to review whether fans were pleased. I want a good film. For the second time this year, the masses who demanded I see a hit summer blockbuster were proven to have no concept of what makes good cinema (the other, for the record, was the utterly terrible “The Hangover”).

Much like with ‘A Serious Man’, which made me wonder if non-Jews could possibly understand the film, similarly I would question if people who have never cared about Star Trek would begin to now. The new film is so deeply trying to reference the past incarnations of Star Trek that I began to play a game: Try to ignore the winks and nudges to see if anything made sense. Sadly, the answer is “no”. While the film admirably tries to get out of the rut set by the last several Star Trek films, everything ultimately comes down to story. Maybe I expect too much from a film getting back to the extremely campy basics of the original series, but when the concept of “logic” is thrown around endlessly surely they must have considered factoring the concept into the screenplay?

I constantly found myself questioning motivation for scene after scene where the only answer is “because it would be cooler that way” or “this one is for the fans” (what follows is a series of spoilers). Why, if the recruits haven’t reached the Federation academy yet, are they dressed in military attire in the bar scene where we first meet the adult James “thrice cliffhanger” Kirk? And why are they in Iowa at all when they’re out of towners on their way to school in San Francisco? What does Kirk study at the academy once he’s there, besides being a douche bag, and how did he sabotage the programming of the “Kobayashi Maru” when it’s clear he has no engineering skills whatsoever? I could go on, and I will. Why does Scotty get beamed to the Enterprise with Kirk, when he’s clearly been assigned another active duty, and for that matter, why is he then instantly a crewmember? Also, he is apparently the only engineer on the ship, despite the presence of many others, because he is both in charge of the transporter and the engines as different convenient moments. Here’s another one: Why does Captain Pike request the use of any bridge members who have combat skills to beam down and stop the Vulcan planet drill when he has an entire security team as part of his crew? What sense does it make to remove the ship’s pilot for this duty instead? Why does chief medical officer “Bones” McCoy hang out on the bridge in the second half of the film instead of being in the sick bay? And for that matter, he’s only afraid of space travel in the first scene but is totally cool with it from then on? The biggest one that irked me was why is Spock’s human mother on the council for the culture of all of Vulcan? The list just goes on and on but I think the point has been made.

The actors do their job with the material given; mostly acting as reflections or referential mouthpieces for the original cast (everyone has a catch phrase they have to utter at some point). The technical side of the film is very admirable. I actually came to appreciate the cinematography on the whole, lens flares in every shot and all. Unfortunately, when I’m sitting there thinking to myself “hey, there’s no lens flare in this particular shot” I am obviously being taken out of the cinema experience. Production design and costumes play a big role here as well, and do a good job in both updating and referencing the original series. These aspects, as well as the excellent CGI, help to pull the film from the one star range to get some points for production. I will also say that the direction of J.J. Abrams is good as well. The man knows how to tell a story and everyone knows this film was a challenge from the beginning. However a producer and director of his renown knows that story is king, and this script was a stinker almost all the way through. Suspension of disbelief is an essential part of cinema, and despite accepting this future world full of starships and aliens, I just couldn’t get behind it being so highly illogical.

** Two Stars – Watch it if you Must

Star Trek is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The General - "Saluting A Classic"

Written and Directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman

In 1926 Buster Keaton had full control of his films. He has the power and success to do anything he wanted, and he chose to adapt the story of “The Great Locomotive Chase”. During the Civil War, a band of undercover Union soldiers and men kidnapped a train out of Georgia called The General. They planned to disrupt communication lines and blow up bridges along the way to trap the Confederate army in Union land without supplies. They were followed by the train’s conductor, who refused to have his train stolen out from under him. Eventually the hijackers were caught. Some were put to death. These Union men were the first in history to receive the Medal of Honor, under President Lincoln.

Keaton’s film differs from the true story, using it as a launching point. We do find the Union soldiers hijacking The General with a plan to cut off lines. However Keaton, playing fictional engineer Johnnie Gray, turns the pursuit into an edge of your seat affair that perfectly highlights his artistry as a gymnast and comedian. The energy maintained by one lively feat after another has, in my opinion, been matched only by ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ in the pantheon of great cinema. This is a man who goes after his train in the same way that a father just “wants his kids back” in a bad Hollywood kidnapping thriller. Though the film is technically categorized as “slapstick”, I would say that the gags aren’t about hitting one another or stupidity, which I commonly associate with the genre. Smartly conceived and executed, this is a “physical comedy”. Part of the brilliance of the film also lies in the communication of subtle emotion. Even though it is a silent film, you’re there with every moment, laughing because your brain fills in the gaps of the unspoken words. Jokes that would be done today with a rambling grasping at straws explanation make you laugh in the same way if you just see the person going through those motions. At times, this is even an advantage the film has.

Apparently there was a letter writing campaign by Civil War veterans who considered a Hollywood comedy about the Great Locomotive Chase to be in poor taste. As a result, Keaton didn’t end up getting the original General for his production (it’s amazing to imagine a time when there was a possibility of a filmmaker having access to the original ‘props’ anyway). One can be certain that the original train The Texas wasn’t used. In what was at the time the single most expensive shot in the entirety of cinema, Keaton and Clyde Bruckman staged an entire train falling from a burning bridge into a river, while soldiers crossed the water. No miniatures, no tricks, this was actual footage of them torching the bridge and crashing The Texas. Especially by today’s standards, where special effects are done completely in a computer, the shot is impressive.

As with most of the great films in cinema, The General was considered a complete disaster upon initial release. In 1989, twenty-three years after Keaton’s death, The General became part of the United States National Film Registry, a preserved gem of national cinema. It is a testament to the power and durability of this film, which continues to inspire and encourage laughter after all these years. Recently, Kino Video released a digitally remastered Blu-ray disc of The General. The film looks fantastic for its age and though it won’t shine like a modern film in High Definition, when you take into account the condition the original print must have been in, it’s a remarkable sight. It is clear and clean and if one was to compare it to previous DVD releases, there is no contest. At the time of this writing it is the oldest film to have made the transition to HD.

***** Five Stars – Don’t Miss This Film