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

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Good Hair – "Not Quite Bangs For Your Buck"

Directed by Jeff Stilson
Written by Chris Rock & Jeff Stilson and Lance Crouther and Chuck Sklar

Chris Rock has grown up. Now a father with two young children, he has gone the way of many comics before him to make films that downplay his once wilder material in favor of calmer, family friendly fare. The exception being, instead of lowering himself into dreary morality tales with lowest common denominator laughs, he has stepped forward to make a love note documentary to his daughters. Rock feels charged with a quest to investigate the varied aspects of black hair culture after one day being asked, “Daddy do I have good hair?”

Rock assembles black people of all kinds to discuss their viewpoints on the subject of African hair. Celebrities, beauticians, product manufacturers, average customers and even Dr. Maya Angelou weigh in with their thoughts. Unfortunately the Puffy “P-Diddy” Combs is not present, a reflection of how despite being a Chris Rock film, the focus is not on humor. The majority opinion of those who are present seems to be that nappy equals bad, while doing anything it takes to have straight, smooth hair equals good. Everything under the sun is analyzed, from chemical relaxers to weaves of false hair. The industry itself is taken to task, first for predicating the use of dangerous toxins as sodium hydroxide and second for not having enough Black people profiting off of such a uniquely Black market. As the film weaves between Rock exploring the outlandish pain and price men and (mostly) women are willing to put themselves through for the sake of a western concept of hair, the film ends up uneven.

The plot is loose enough to run your hands through, and the editing could have used a good braiding. Whether it was a lack of usable footage or a directorial choice, the cutaways to Rock, especially during interviews, are often distracting and serve no purpose on screen. Strands of intrigue are intercut with an unnecessary sub-television worthy competition for the best hair stylist at an annual hair convention in Atlanta. None of the contestants are relatable and reflect the industry itself in being out of touch with reality. Too much time is devoted to just repeating the same few facts we are given about them. In a film about hair, do we need to see one of the contestants subject himself to Botox injections? The lead up to the competition is supposed to give the film its narrative thrust, but it ends up boring compared to the facts and opinions of the bigger subject at hand. And watching the competition itself, which ends up not being about the hair at all, feels totally unnecessary. We get that the industry is backwards and ridiculous without the lives of the contestants illustrating it for us.

The best bits are when Rock is trying to get to the root of it all. He investigates the subject of “weaves”, a fashion of wigs and false hair that are woven into natural hair that is immensely popular right now. Its origin is that most come from India, where the hair is shorn as part of religious ritual. The Temple sells the hair to the highest bidder, who then exports it and sells it for thousands of dollars apiece. Apparently, the Temple is second only to the Vatican in profits. Meanwhile at your average beauty shop in Harlem, normal American women are taking out layaway plans on hair pieces that they can’t afford, and Rock is there to ask “why?”

The answer seems to be nothing more than striving to be fashionable and accepted. This is an interesting aspect of it all, because as it is pointed out, some people are making hair a priority over food, rent or education. Rev. Al Sharpton speaks out against this, but at the same time, he is sporting the same slick hair he has had since James Brown took him to the White House to meet with President Reagan. Could Sharpton be taken seriously by the President if he walked in with natural African hair? A group of high school girls interviewed make the point that if one was to go to a business meeting wearing a suit and tie with a huge afro, that it would seem to be a contradiction between proper and inappropriate attire. As with most documentary subjects, a solution to the bigger problem is not given. Rock and Director Jeff Stilson do a fair job laying out the issues at hand (why would someone put a dangerous chemical all over their three-year-old daughter’s head?), but with shoddy technical work, and too much concentration off the narrative thrust, the film isn’t as hair raising as it intends to be.

**1/2 Two and a half Stars – Take it or Leave it

Good Hair is in select theaters now.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Adam Resurrected – “The Day the Clown Cried”

Directed by Paul Schrader

Screenplay by Noah Stollman based on the novel by Yoram Kaniuk

In 1972 Jerry Lewis made a film called “The Day the Clown Cried” about a Jewish clown in WWII-era Germany who is put into a concentration camp. He ends up being used by the Nazis for entertaining children, gaining their trust so he can lead them to the gas chamber. It is infamous in film circles as an unfinished, unreleased film for obvious reasons. “Adam Resurrected”, based on the 1968 novel “Adam Ben Kelev” (“Man, son of a dog” literally translated from Hebrew) by Yoram Kaniuk, addresses similar subject matter. Here, a clown is again juxtaposed against the horrors of the Holocaust. However instead of a distasteful farce, we see a moving and all too human portrait of the torture that the concentration camps inflicted, including the lasting effects it had on those who survived.

Adam Stein is played by Jeff Goldblum, who sheds most of the clichéd quirks we have come to expect from him over the years. He loses himself in the role creating levels of both sadness and joy, sometimes piled on top of one another. As the film opens we find out Adam, living in 1960’s Israel, has recently almost killed a woman during a magic trick, and is headed back to a mental institution for unstable survivors where he has spent most of the last 10 years. Adam has a run of the joint; the other patients treat him like a king, the doctors let him work out his own treatments, he sneaks alcohol from behind air conditioning vents, and the head nurse (Ayelet Zurer) even carries on an affair with him. But he cannot escape the torture that is bottled up inside.

It is at this point the film begins to flash back to life for Adam in Germany. In the 20’s he was a huge star, headlining his own circus and magic show. He had a wife and two daughters, who supported his act. But as the Nazi party rises in a beautiful sequence showing how his audience changes over a 5-10 year period, it is no longer appropriate for such a revered entertainer to also be a Jew. And so, Adam and his family end up in a concentration camp. Commandant Klein (Willem Dafoe) recognizes Adam from his show, and has him act like a dog for his amusement. This begins a long scarring period of humiliation for Adam where he is given “preferential” treatment by Klein by acting just like a pet dog, where he crawls on all fours, begs for scraps, and wears a choke collar. All the while he begs for his family to be spared due to his compliance. These flashback sequences are portrayed in stark black and white, a clean and elegant cinematography comparable to Schindler’s List, while the rest of the film is lit in a modern, muted color palette.

Director Schrader is no stranger to dark material. I’ll admit this is the first film of his I sat through since feeling like my brain needed a bath seeing “Auto Focus” in the theater. Schrader is famously the screenwriter of such dark psyche-delving material as “Taxi Driver”, “Hardcore”, and “American Gigolo”. Here, working from someone else’s screenplay, he strikes an excellent balance between the horrors that exist in humanity and hope for those who can live through such things. Hope for Adam comes from being forced to finally confront his “dog days”, and while forcing humanity on a feral fellow inmate, he has a chance at finding redemption himself.

There is a reoccurring theme throughout the film of Purim, probably the silliest holiday on the Jewish calendar. It is mentioned several times in different sequences, and the climax of the film takes place on this day. Purim is a day of joyous drinking, wearing masks, and celebrating survival in the face of near destruction. The holiday is about pointing out how what is on the surface is separate from what is inside or what we could be at our best. It is an apt metaphor that ties together the themes of life and death, suffering and celebration that resurrects Adam.

****1/2 Four and a half stars – Definitely See This Film

Adam Resurrected, after having an almost non-existent run in theaters, was recently released on DVD and Blu-ray and can also be watched streaming online through Netflix.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Last Days of Disco - "Disco Sucks"

Written and Directed by Whit Stillman

1998’s The Last Days of Disco is the third and last film from once promising indie director Whit Stillman. His previous films, ‘Metropolitan’ and ‘Barcelona’, follow a formula of the political and sexual relationships of a few well to do characters (The three films are affectionately referred to as “the yuppie trilogy”) communicated mostly through conversation. You could tell that the director was trying to unify his filmography at this point, having cameos by characters from his previous films but it just made me wish this film could live up to the previous two. Unfortunately, ‘Disco’, while following the same formula, falls flat. It seems Stillman’s career stalled on a sour note.

The film is a stilted smorgasbord of characters living on the edge of the early 1980’s “Disco Sucks” movement who still believe in the glamour of nightclubs. Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale star as researchers for a publishing company hoping for upward mobility, but they spend most of their time at an exclusive downtown Discotheque. They kind of knew each other in college but not really and somehow end up working at the same job and becoming friends and roommates despite not liking each other. They’re joined by Chris Eigeman as the club’s junior manager, who is smarmy enough to tell women that he’s suddenly gay instead of breaking up with them. Eigeman, who is great at being a lovable bastard, joins Sevigny in trying to do the best they can with the given material. Beckinsale however never truly is able to handle the rhythm of the dialogue, which like David Mamet or (I hate to say it) Kevin Smith, has to be uniquely interpreted by certain actors.

The cast is rounded out with a Jimmy, a Josh, a Tom, a Van, and other mostly interchangeable males. Josh, played by Matt Keeslar, is a manic depressive assistant district attorney that we never actually see act crazier than reciting a hymn and who ties in the storyline of the disco being shut down by the feds due to money embezzling and drug dealing. The problem is, everything in the film plays so matter of factly. Our protagonists fall in and out of relationships without any real drama or emotional impact. There are conversations about money hidden in the basement, but we’re never really in on that aspect of the club. You can tell that Stillman is trying to show a different side of the disco scene than just polyester and John Travolta (and you know this because its part of the film’s concluding summation spoken by Josh) but it seems he just can’t decide whether he wants to have our characters at the epicenter of the end of disco or casually pass through it. At one point the film cuts away to historical footage of disco records being blown up in a baseball stadium and the riot of joy that ensues. But it all seems terribly shoe horned in when the rest of the time we just follow the general malaise of our disco goers, living in Studio 54 as interpreted for a TV sitcom.

Especially strange to me (and this is really no fault of the film or its’ makers) is that only two years later Chloe Sevigny and co-star Matt Ross would be appearing in a film that similarly addresses early-80’s yuppiedom in the adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho. But where ‘Psycho’ gives us a strong parable of the excess of the era, ‘Disco’ relegates any negativity to the background. Mostly we just watch our protagonists float through night after night talking, and occasionally dancing. The dancing is probably the best part of the film, set to an excellent era specific soundtrack, the film shows you life as it was- not everyone was a boogie king- people just wanted to have fun. Unfortunately, instead of grooving next to a dance partner briefly and then forgetting about them, the film insists on unifying everyone into a group. You never really believe these people would continue to interact, especially when you take into account how many of them supposedly attended college with one another.

** Two Stars – Watch it if you must

The Last Days of Disco is available now in a nice special edition DVD recently released by The Criterion Collection.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Moon - "How do you confront yourself in isolation?"

Story and Directed by Duncan Jones
Screenplay by Nathan Parker

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. In the future an astro-man is off in space, pretty much alone in the space station save his talking computer that controls everything around him. Things start to get scary and mysterious, and it seems there is more to meets the eye about the computer/space station than we think. Duncan Jones’ Moon has all this, but with a fresh twist that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout the 90-odd minute running time. Just when you think you’ve got the film’s twists and surprises figured out in the first act, it goes off on a path that exceeds your expectations and treats the audience with intelligence.

Sam Rockwell stars in a tour de force one-man performance as Sam Bell, the only person on a moon base. His job is harvesting energy off rocks on the far side of the moon’s surface in a future where such farming has cured Earth’s energy crises. Mostly it is an innocuous job where he monitors the machinery, makes occasional trips out to the rovers and otherwise passes time exercising or carving a model of his home town. He is two weeks from finishing his three year stint on the station, and is eagerly waiting to return to his wife and young daughter. His companion is the robot Gerty, cooly voiced by Kevin Spacey.

Gerty the robot turns out to be less of a HAL from 2001 and more an expansion of what computers are meant to be- extensions of our own wants and needs. The smiley faces used on his display to show his “thoughts” are a great touch and by far the best is just watching the way the “nervous “ face is used to show his own struggle. His moral conundrum comes across almost as conflicted as Sam Bell’s, but being a computer, he ultimately must follow his programming for better or worse. It’s sad to say this is best performance I’ve seen (heard) from Spacey in years. His matter of fact delivery harkens back to ‘Se7en’, where once again he knew more than was willing to let on to our protagonist.

When things turn sour, and injuries are incurred, the film begins the drive into madness only hinted at in the trailer. The best part of it all for me was that once the twist comes, life on the station continues in a matter of fact way that an amped up Hollywood version of the film could never do. Imagine if after Sigourney Weaver blasts the Alien out the airlock in ‘Alien’, we followed her life as she just deals with the idea that “there was some messed up stuff that just happened to me” and she tries to figure out definitively where that Alien came from. ‘Moon’ never becomes mundane as it sets off on this path; it just switches gears into mystery mode.

It is from this point forward that Sam Rockwell’s performance goes from good to great. Each moment is played with tact and understanding of how to play Sam Bell at that moment. Although the Academy Awards are always based on hype more than performance, I have to say this is the best lead performance I’ve seen by an actor all year and I can only hope that come award season, there is some recognition given here. Rockwell is supported greatly by solid costume, hair and makeup departments that reflect the aspects shown of Sam Bell, especially as the film progresses.

In the end we are left with a semblance of hope and the open ended possibility of a sequel. Usually I would shun such sequel-bait, but with this concept the existence of a sequel could only serve to sweeten this film. It would take the universe in such a different but fascinating direction that I welcome it openly. I eagerly look forward to the next film from freshman filmmaker Duncan Jones, who is breathing new life into an often stale sci-fi genre.

**** Four Stars – Definitely see this film.

‘Moon’ is on home video in U.K. right now and arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in the States on January 12th, 2010.

A Serious Man - "When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies… Then what?”

Originally published at Frum

My philosophy with film is that at its best, it can have many layers of understanding and enlightenment, much as the Torah does. The new film from brothers Joel & Ethan Coen, ‘A Serious Man’, not only fulfills that idea, but has a story that is intimately Jewish on the surface as well. Anyone who grew up in a semi-religious home or went to Hebrew school is going to immediately find this world hits extremely close to a reality we all know too well. For one who additionally grew up in a suburban Midwest Jewish community, this is pretty much family.

The film opens with a quote from Torah commentator Rashi, considered the greatest of all commentators. “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” Is it an actual quote? Perhaps, perhaps not. But like their 1996 film ‘Fargo’, which opens with “Based on a true story” (it wasn’t) the opening text is simply there to set the stage. Similarly, the first scene of the film is a mashal (parable) not unlike any one might be familiar with from Jewish lore. A Yiddish speaking man returns home to the shtetl telling his wife that he received assistance fixing his cart on the way from such and such a man. His wife claims that that man has been dead for some time and must be a Dybbuk. Is he? The point is never definitively resolved and veteran actor Fyvush Finkel, who plays the ghostly Rav, is even credited in the end credits as “Dybbuk?” But what is left ringing in our ears as the audience is the Shtetl wife’s assertion that they must be cursed by Hashem (G-d).

Flash forward to late-1960’s St. Louis Park, Minnesota and we meet both Physics Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is undergoing a medical exam and his son, Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff), who is in Hebrew class, secretly listening to (perpetual theme song of the film) Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” on a pocket radio. From there the film takes off as we focus mainly on Larry’s troubles on all sides of existence. Struggles at work with students and the tenure board, struggles at home with his wife, his goy neighbors, his lay about brother who is staying with them and of course Danny’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah (Danny is hilariously learning to lein from a record of “Rabbi Youssele Rosenblatt Chants Your Haftorah Portion”). On top of all this of course are struggles with faith and with Hashem. No stone is left unturned and the hits just keep on coming leading Larry to seek the council of his local Rabbeim.

Each Rabbi shown in the film is of a different ilk. One is the young upstart Junior Rabbi. Another is the older leader of the Reform Congregation Bnai Abraham that the Gopniks attend who tells his own mashal of a local dentist who received a sign from Hashem on the teeth of a goy patient (the gamatriah used in this scene is incorrect to the corresponding letters, but it’s used to humorous effect). The third, Rabbi Marshak, is an ancient sage who no longer does much but sit in his office. As seen in the trailer, when Larry tries to seek his sage advice, the secretary turns Larry away because “The Rabbi is thinking.” Each kernel of wisdom we receive from these three Rabbeim seems absurd on the surface, supplying our protagonist and us as the audience with more questions and no answers. But upon deeper inspection, I feel that everything we need to crack the code is right there, much as the entirety of the Torah is built into the letters themselves.

Physics also plays a key part in the film, always with Kabbalistic undertones painted in. We see Larry teaching twice, one lecture is about Schrödinger’s Cat and the other on The Uncertainty Principle. Addressing a student, he tells the student that he received a poor grade on the test because he understood the simple parables like “the cat” but not the math that lies deeper below the surface. This is one of many lines of dialogue that allude to our own attempt at a deeper understanding both of Torah as Jews and this film itself (another is when Larry is talking to a woman at the beach, and she says “it can take a while before you feel what was always there, for better or worse.” As well as “We’re Jews, we have that well of tradition to draw on, to help us understand. When we’re puzzled we have all the stories that have been handed down from people who had the same problems.” Larry is essentially a modern era Iyov). Without delving too far into it, Schrödinger’s Cat relates directly to the deaths that occur in the film, as well as the idea of Larry as entangled in this mess he finds himself in. In the case of The Uncertainty Principle (which, when scrolled across an entire blackboard, curiously contains a number of Hebrew letters involved in the math), “It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.”

Is Larry a descendant of the Yiddish couple, cursed for all time? Or is a point simply being drawn about Jews in general? Is existence one horrible occurrence after another? Do curses really exist or are we simply being tested? Where is Hashem in it all? All these questions are valid thoughts to keep in mind in this complex film, which despite its surface humor (and don’t get me wrong, the film is extremely hilarious) really has an existential tone running throughout. The film ends on a question mark much like the mashal at the beginning of the film or the Coen’s Academy Award-winning ‘No Country for Old Men’. Don’t feel that this is a cop out. The film ends where it is meant to end. It simply drives home a theme that I saw throughout, which is what does it take to make a person put a continuing series of uncertainties into context?

***** Five Stars - Do Not Miss This Film

‘A Serious Man’ is playing in limited release currently and continues to expand to theaters all over the world. For a listing of where it is playing near you, see Film in Focus.

Ralphie May: Austin-tatious

Originally Published as part of's Chewer Reviewer #10


By Saul Sudin

STUDIO: Image Entertainment
MSRP: $14.98
RATED: Not rated
RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes
Stuffed to the gills. But no, there aren’t any special features.

The Pitch

South Park’s Cartman grew up and became a real boy.

The Humans

Ralphie May, more Ralphie May, and a crowd of Texans dumb enough to sell out a show put on by Ralphie May.

The Nutshell

In 2008, comedian Ralphie May recorded a live concert special with a sold-out crowd at Austin, Texas’ Paramount Theater. It was filmed by a team of trained monkeys, and released on DVD. In 2009, Saul Sudin watched said DVD in four separate sittings, because 99 minutes of this crap is just too damn much.

“I’m not planning to eat the microphone, but if I lean forward with my mouth open and one happens to go in, I can’t make any promises.”

The Lowdown

Apparently Ralphie May is a known comedian. Apparently he was featured on NBC’s Last Comic Standing, and apparently Variety listed him as one of their “10 comics to watch in 2008”. I can only presume this is because with Ralphie May around, you can’t see any of the other comics. I ended up with this disc at the bottom of the Chewer Reviewer slush pile (believe me, the other options were worse) and thought, “I love comedy; surely this can’t be that bad?”

This is as exciting as the stage show gets, folks.

Every comedian has a shtick. Some are in the Lenny Bruce mode of storytelling with intelligent profanity. Some are understated and rely on the string of witticisms like Steven Wright. And some run around the stage with boundless energy like a coked-up Richard Pryor. Ralphie May subscribes to a style I’m not quite familiar with, where the comic kind of stands there like a loaf, leaning in slightly to reach the microphone without actually picking it up off the mic stand. With that level of excitement going on, and an entire performance stage to fill, Ralphie May has chosen to focus more on diversion. For example, a giant orange jacket he wears, which jokingly he addresses at the beginning saying he is “under construction”. Unfortunately, making a short joke out of it doesn’t make the jacket a good idea. What’s worse, he’s wearing it all over the DVD package.

You can see the seam where this jacket was sown together from several wilderness tents.

With this much excitement going on visually, the special more likely works better as a stand up record than a television special or DVD. Visually, the director and his crew struggle to add something- anything- to the 90-plus minutes of run time. One camera on the left side is in black and white the entire time, making cutaways jarring. I can only assume they were going for some kind of edgy effect, but it never works because May’s material isn’t that shocking. What’s worse, the camera man chooses to focus on May’s hands most of the time, so we go from a full color wide shot of the stage to suddenly a black and white close up on hands. This is just one example of an overall shoddy directing and editing scenario.

Why is this shot in the final film?

You can see the wheels rolling in Ralphie May’s head as he performs. This is never a good thing. Sometimes subtleties of jokes are forgotten and then included. Sometimes it just makes Ralphie laugh at his own material. But it is never a good thing. And it is especially telling because everything he says seems calculated. Years of watching shocking comics must have convinced him that the way into an audience’s heart is to pretend to be cruder or more socially unacceptable than you actually are. Every time he makes a joke about his “Jew wife” or instructs the audience to find the closest black person in the audience so that they know “it’s okay to laugh” you can see how he backtracks on the joke, telling the audience why he isn’t really racist. Offensive as it may seem, this is actually a flaw. Like any other performer, a comedian must sell you on an image or character and May never quite dedicates himself fully to being the grown up “Eric Cartman” as he may come across as at times. This wouldn’t be such a problem if most of his act didn’t revolve around joking about Jews, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Mexicans.

Ralphie sweats his way through the second half of the show.

May comes across as an engineered success, and I can only assume he has had success based on the other comedy specials advertised with the DVD and the hype on the back of the package. But all the comedy is something we’ve seen before, and better. He seems like an intelligent enough person; smart enough to know the structure of a joke and how to involve an audience. It is no easy task to handle one as large as a grand old theater like the Paramount, which was never intended for a lone man standing still on stage talking to you. Thankfully the people in the rear of the balcony section had no problem seeing a man of Ralphie May’s girth from afar.

Nice video transfer.

The Package

Did you hear the one about the comedian who was so fat (how fat was he?) that he needed 5.1 surround sound just to fit in your ears? Ralphie May: Austin-Tatious is so fat it is presented in a 1.78:1 extra, extra-widescreen aspect ratio.

There are no redeeming features, nor anything I would refer to as “special”.

OVERALL: Fat Joke out of 10

Third Watch - Season 2

Originally published as part of's Chewer Reviewer #7.

by Saul Sudin

STUDIO: Warner Home Video
MSRP: $59.98
RATED: Not rated
RUNNING TIME: 989 minutes
Gag Reel

The Pitch

It’s like ER, but more portable.

The Humans

Michael (Stargate: Atlantis) Beach, Coby (The Game) Bell, Bobby (Snakes on a Plane) Cannavale, Amy (Law & Order: Trial By Jury) Carlson, Eddie (Baywatch Nights) Cibrian, Molly (Bionic Woman) Price, Kim (24) Raver, Anthony (Tropic Thunder) Ruivivar, Skipp (Oz) Sudduth, Jason (Zodiac) Wiles

Created by: Edward Allen (Criminal Minds) Bernero & John (ER) Wells

The Nutshell

Follow the adventures of several fictional 55th Precinct New York City Police, Firemen and Paramedics as they handle the “third watch”, the afternoon shift of 3-11 PM. Typical days include saving kids, mourning kids, dealing with personal issues, ending up in the hospital, and tackling the typical issue of the week in a cliché ridden style that hasn’t evolved on television in 30 years.

Third Watch's opening credit sequence and theme music brought to you by the movie 'Go'.

The Lowdown

The Second Season of Third Watch opens with an episode that deals with a rich man being kidnapped and buried alive, a mute homeless child, a gut shot fireman, a wandering geriatric woman and the adoption of a cockatoo. Yet I cannot say it was a pulse pounding 42 minutes. The tone and style is almost identical to John Wells’ previous show, ER, and comparisons couldn’t help but be drawn as the episodes went on. I would venture to say that Michael Beach’s character is almost identical to that of Eriq La Salle’s on ER.

"You'll see! One day I'll be the cop! And we'll have vampires living among us! And then we'll fight demon women... and shapeshifters!"

I had never seen an episode of Third Watch before this review, but the premise is simple enough to follow and at no point did I feel like I was missing something. The episodes contained herein represent the 2000 – 2001 season, and while it is strange to see how life was being portrayed here in a pre-9/11 New York City, it never truly became fascinating. The main issue with the series seems to be that the day to day adventures of these 10 NYC public servants is presented in a way not unlike what we have seen time and time again with a “story of the week” formula and wooden emotional moments. The show apparently ran for six healthy seasons and had a solid following so my only guess is that it really hit a stride after September 11th, considering the subject matter of the show and that it was already on for two whole seasons prior. A little research shows that they won a Peabody award for an episode that addressed the crisis by being taken from the accounts of public servants on the scene on that day.

"No one's looking...go ahead and whiz on it."

Halfway through the season, Bobby Cannavale’s character “Bobby” (what a stretch) is killed by his junkie childhood best friend, played by a guest starring Rick (Band of Brothers, Fringe) Acevedo. Flashbacks are involved, as are Bobby debating his life in a boxing ring with his father who left him as a child. Carla from Scrubs is the woman who mourns him. Apparently Cannavale wanted to be released from the show due to a lack of storylines, and I can’t blame him. The cast is bursting at the seams with 10 regulars, all of whom are vying for air time, and all of whom get shortchanged in the long run. What strikes me odd is the necessity of having 4 policemen and 4 paramedics as main characters, while we only follow 2 firemen, one of whom is introduced as a new character early in the season. If anything, I would have whittled it down to a tight 6, with two in each category. You can either try to be realistic and take on the entire precinct as characters, or just show us individual snippets. By going the in between route, no one wins.

"I love you, man" "I know." "I'm... dying...."

The widely regarded best episode of the entire series and winner of a Humanitus Award is “After Hours”, which comes about a third through this season. It deals with our entire cast of characters buddying up in small groups and pairs after work to just blow off steam from a particularly hard day dealing with a car full of drunken teenagers that all blew up on prom night. The episode is kind of a let down and while it did hold my attention more than its peers, it still left me unimpressed. Slowly over the course of the night each of the groups encounter other teens that, in the climax of the episode, are imagined as the teens who drunk and BBQ-ed. It all ends in a heartfelt reuniting of all our stars on the beach at Coney Island to make a bonfire and watch the sun rise. Now, as a New Yorker, I feel there are some essential things that need to be pointed out here. One, they get from Manhattan to the southern tip of Brooklyn at an ungodly quick pace. The second is that one character remarks when they arrive at the beach “we better find some wood to make the bonfire”. The next time we see them, they are enjoying said fire. However, where the hell does one find firewood at Coney Island? My only guess is they disassembled The Cyclone roller coaster, because there aren’t any trees for miles. It’s gaps in logic like this that separates the TV-NYC from the real NYC and ultimately is a failing of the show across the board to me. Like one board member mentioned of True Blood as the south from a New Yorker’s POV, so too Third Watch is NYC from a Hollywood POV.

"Man, I need a drink. Maybe that bar from The 25th Hour is open."

A Gag Reel is the only special feature and plays like the type of thing that was put together for an end of season party by some cast and crew. Lots of flubbed lines and some dance on set, it’s nothing to write home about.

The Package

The compression of the video is very bad, and the image often looks like it was softened by a motion smoothing TV. Otherwise, production quality is typical of a weekly drama from the early 2000’s. All six discs come housed in an extra large snapper case with swinging plastic disc holders that allow each its own convenient access. A booklet lets you know what episodes are on which disc, with brief synopses. Artwork and box size is typical for WB season collections like The West Wing or ER.

OVERALL 3.0 out of 10