2012

June 26, 2012
Cinearts Santana Row
USA
English
86 Minutes
Comedy / Romance
Colin Trevorrow

I dare you not to fall in love with Aubrey Plaza as an intern name Darius at Seattle Magazine, who interviews, then befriends, a man who has put an advertisement in the paper reading “Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.” The man’s name is Kenneth and he’s played by mumblecore pioneer Mark Duplass.

The magazine writer in charge of the road trip / expedition is Jeff, played by Jake M. Johnson, who is the “nice guy” on NEW GIRL. Here he plays a combination of that role, plus a large helping of Schmidt the douchebag.

Every character, not just the would-be time traveler, is dealing with some form of incredible loneliness. And the low-key nature of the performances and direction make the story seem much more universal than just a wacky guy who claims to be able to travel through time. Jeff volunteers for the assignment so that he can visit a woman he dated in his late teens who continues to live in the small town. His life has been full of empty hookups and dead-end career moves. A second intern, Arnau, has never kissed a woman, though he’s about to begin graduate school. Darius, is a loner outsider, who has never felt like she belongs. A touching dinnertime scene between Plaza and Jeff Garlin in a welcome tiny role shows the concern a father might have for the lack of action his daughter is getting.

And what to say about Kenneth? Is he crazy? What are his motivations for wanting to move the clock back ten years? What sort of trauma could have happened in his life? Jeff performs his own kind of time travel by setting up a meeting with the girl he can’t get out of his mind. She’s obviously aged since then, as he has, but will there be anything there when he arrives? Darius feels guilt over her mother’s death. Can’t we all think of a time in our past that we might think is better than our present? Specific weeks or seasons or ages or grades. I think we all can. If we did have the technology to go back to that time, what sort of dangers would we face?

Duplass never for one second winks at the audience. He shows off his martial arts training, his ease with handguns, his secret plans for stealing necessary technology. He needs to trust Darius completely, though her main job is to write an article about Kenneth, not be his assistant.

The film was sweet and slow and full of those off-handed jokes that naturalistic filmmaking is full of.

7.5 IMDB
7.2 Metacritic

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED

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1992

Netflix Blu-Ray
USA
English
131 Minutes — August 7, 1992
Drama / Western
Clint Eastwood [Play Misty For Me; The Outlaw Josey Wales; Sudden Impact; Heartbreak Ridge; Bird; White Hunter, Black Heart; The Rookie; The Bridges Of Madison County; Mystic River; Million Dollar Baby; Flags Of Our Fathers; Letters From Iwo Jima; Changeling; Gran Torino; Invictus]

#217 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

A former hired killer turned unsuccessful farmer, together with a young would-be gunfighter and an old friend, set out to collect a thousand-dollar reward for killing the cowboys who slashed the face of a prostitute.

“Harsh Western of revenge and needless slaughter that re-invents and revives the genre to spectacular effect.” — **** — Halliwell’s.

“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.

Clint Eastwood…Bill Munny
Gene Hackman…Little Bill Daggett
Morgan Freeman…Ned Logan
Richard Harris…English Bob

Oscar Wins for Picture, Director, Hackman, and Editing.

Clint Eastwood’s 1992 film, UNFORGIVEN, has a special place in my heart. But not because I liked it. I remember it being the first critically acclaimed film that I ever hated. Ever since I saw PLATOON and realized that movies meant something, I’ve generally agreed with the critical consensus on films large and small. UNFORGIVEN was universally heralded as a monumental piece of film that reinvented the western and made us forget everything we ever knew about gunfighter movies.

Um, no. 19 years ago, I couldn’t understand the big deal at all. It seemed pretty ordinary to me. So obviously the problem was mine, not the general feeling of the movie-going public. So, I’ve wanted to revisit this film for awhile, to see what in the world was wrong with me when I saw it the first time. I popped in the Blu-Ray.

And it turns out, the problem wasn’t with me back in 1992, and it isn’t with me in 2011. This is the most overrated film I’ve probably ever seen. I joke with friends that I can’t get through 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY without falling asleep, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it has value.

But UNFORGIVEN is simplistic on every level. Our “hero” Bill Munny isn’t just down on his luck, when we first see him, he’s literally being dragged through the mud by one of the pigs he raises. In fact, so afraid is Director Eastwood that we won’t get the point, that he repeats this scene again, just in case we didn’t get it the first time. Eastwood’s character doesn’t just tell us he used to be a bad guy, but he tells us over and over again. He also repeats that “I ain’t that guy anymore” several dozen times. Because his “dear departed wife turned me away from wickedness and drink.”

The character of “The Schofield Kid” is not only a stupid, blind, schoolyard bully braggart, but he’s a ridiculous braggart. “I’ve killed five men.” “I could have killed you right there.” “You ain’t much.” I mean over and over. We get it. The guy hasn’t done anything, can’t shoot anything, is a little boy trying to be tough. But my god, how about some subtlety? This guy made me want to scream. And I semi-blame the actor. I get that Munny needs money (get it?) and will put up with the kid just to get paid, but come on.

On to Morgan Freeman. “We ain’t those guys no more, we’re farmers.” The scene where Munny visits Logan is like that “one last score” scene from every bank robbery movie. First Logan’s against it, then he stands directly beneath his rifle and says “how long you expect to be gone, Bill?” There’s a scene where the kid is shooting at Munny and Logan and Morgan’s eyes are minstrel-show-wide as he crawls around wondering who’s shooting at them.

Hackman’s character is given more to work with and Richard Harris as a foppish English assassin is pretty cool. But what about the fat deputy? “Would you rather be killed in hot or cold weather?” the semi-retarded character says to the (no joke) one-armed fellow deputy.

Munny is shown unable to mount his horse, not once, not twice, but three times, while Freeman is forced to say “Jesus, Bill”. The guy who runs the billiard hall all but twirls his mustache as he calls the hookers “bitches”.

It wasn’t all bad. I get the whole “trying to outrun your past” and “can bad men really change” parts. I like the last 30 minutes or so when talk of killing changes into actual killing. I like that Morgan Freeman’s race is never mentioned and Hackman likes having a writer follow him around to publicize his legend. There are no poetic or beautiful deaths. Some important deaths happen off screen and some simply silence the characters. But these little pieces of insight amounted to about 20 minutes of a long 131-minute film.

I think what may have ruined me for this film (the second time I watched it) is HBO’s DEADWOOD. The canceled too early western epic, where every character was created in shades of grey. The bumbling hotel manager wasn’t a complete idiot. The boss of the town was cruel in ways that Hackman and the pimp in UNFORGIVEN have never thought of. The sheriff wasn’t perfect, the women had personalities and demanded justice. The nuances that DEADWOOD was full of put it head and shoulders above something like UNFORGIVEN.

I can’t believe how disappointed I was a second time. I look forward to comments defending it.

One note on the picture quality of the Blu-Ray: I’m not really one of those guys who checks the bitrate of the DVD data and figures out how clear the picture is and whatnot. However, though I haven’t seen very many Blu-Rays in my life, this one was absolutely crystal clear. Even the stuff in the far away background. It just looked magnificent. But that doesn’t mean I like it.

8.2 Metacritic
8.3 IMDB (Number 96 All Time)

UNFORGIVEN

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1958

Netflix DVD
USA
English
129 Minutes — May 28, 1958
Crime / Mystery / Romance / Thriller
Alfred Hitchcock [The 39 Steps; The Lady Vanishes; Rebecca; Notorious; Rear Window; To Catch A Thief; North By Northwest; Psycho; The Birds; Frenzy]

#2 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

A detective with a fear of heights is drawn into a complex plot in which a girl he loves apparently falls to her death. Then he meets her double.

“Double identity thriller which has many sequences in Hitchcock’s best style. A film as unsettling as the phobia it deals with, keeping its audience dizzy and off balance throughout.” — **** — Halliwell’s.

“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.

James Stewart…John Scottie Ferguson
Kim Novack…Madeleine Elster
Barbara Bel Geddes…Midge Wood

The Top 10 films of all time (based on that holy list I love) goes: Kane, this film, Rules Of The Game, 2001, 8 1/2, Godfather, Searchers, Samurai, Singing In The Rain, Potemkin.

One of these things is not like the other. And that thing is VERTIGO. There is no way that VERTIGO is the second best film ever made. No way.

Stewart is his usual charming, natural self. Novack is wooden at best and terrible at worst. Bel Geddes is entirely charming as the BFF of Scottie who has real feelings for him.

Positives:

–Hitchcock took the most beautiful city in North America and made it look even more beautiful somehow. It makes me want to drive up to The City to find Scottie’s apartment right now.
–The give and take between Scottie and Midge is pretty great.
–The sexual obsession of Stewart is pretty strong for a film made in 1958. He essentially can’t get turned on unless his date is made into another woman for him.
–Novack is pretty hot, especially in either a white coat or a black dress.
–Colors and angles are all superb, as you’d expect from Hitchcock (who apparently never looked through the camera during filmmaking).

Negatives:

–They fell in love too easily.
–How did Scottie get off the ledge in the first scene?
–Way too much following of people.
–Stewart: 50 years old; Novack: 25 years old. Um, of course he’s attracted to her.

Scottie is recuperating from his brush with death after chasing a criminal over the rooftops of San Francisco. An old college friend (though clearly living in England) asks him to follow his wife who is apparently under the spell of or possessed by a woman who died long ago. Scottie follows her and she’s gorgeous and she’s troubled and she jumps into San Francisco Bay and he had to take her wet clothes off and put her in his bed, so naturally he believes he’s in love with her. And we are asked to believe it as well. Her possession and sadness cause her to do herself harm and he spends half an hour seeing her in every other blonde in San Francisco.

And he doesn’t realize that an attractive, artistic, intelligent woman is his for the asking. Plus, she’ll fix him dinner and pour him bourbon.

Fabulous San Francisco locations. Great music.

I mean, it doesn’t suck. It’s pretty good and it was probably a big deal when it came out. But why all the praise?

I was surprisingly disappointed.

8.5 IMDB (Number 45 All Time)

VERTIGO

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2010

Cinequest 21 San Jose Film Festival
Czech Republic
Czech / Russian
110 Minutes
Drama / Family
Allice Nellis [Little Girl Blue]

MAMAS & PAPAS is about the strange lottery aspect of human fertility. While some couples try all means of medical intervention, other couples seem to be able to become pregnant simply by glancing at each other. One couple has been trying for three years and the wife is desperate. One couple is arguing over whether their relationship is strong enough to include a child or if it should be aborted. A third couple is pregnant with their third child, but money and space is tight, and didn’t she just hear the story of a woman who legally made some money by handing over her newborn to a desperate, wealthy couple? All of these stories are sort of tied together by the fertility specialist, who has her own family sadness.

There are a few things that raise this film above the typical “baby fever” type of movies we’re all used to.

–>It’s in Czech, which instantly makes it more important. Not really, but the universality of the human experience is something we get while reading subtitles.

–>The not being sure if you want a baby that appears to be the answer to prayers is shown well.

–>As I have some experience with this whole “fertility thing”, I was happy to see an agreeable husband finally explode over being treated like a “stud bull”. Once you get deep into fertility science, all the fun of “reproduction” takes a back seat to shots and timing and specimen jars.

–>As I have some experience with the whole “adoption” thing, I was touched by scenes involving all of the tests (mental, psychological, economic) that one couple had to go through. Also, the other side of the equation (the actual birth mother) was shown with care.

The acting was uniformly good. There are some mis-steps involving scuba diving and whales, believe it or not, and the “find yourself” part of the doctor’s story never took hold of me. But the genetic lottery of who gets pregnant when, by whom, and under what circumstances did take hold of me.

MAMAS & PAPAS

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NOSFERATU, EINE SYMPHONIE DES GRAUENS
1922

Cinequest 21 San Jose Film Festival
Germany
Silent — Wurlitzer Organ Accompaniment by Dennis James
Fantasy / Horror / Mystery / Romance
F. W. Murnau [Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans]

Film Number 103 Of All Time — They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000

OK, so it was made in 1922. It’s famous for being the first of the many vampire films. It’s campy and corny and silent. But was it fun to watch?

Absolutely. I was mostly worried about dozing off as it was my fourth film of the busy day. But seeing something that my great-grandparents might have seen, in a theater that my grandparents might have gone to as children, surrounded by a balcony full of fans ranging in age from about 8 to about 90, meant that it was an experience I’ll cherish forever.

Dennis James got sounds out of the mighty Wurlitzer that seemed to required five people to perform. He kept the pace and made us scared and happy and when a drummer appeared on screen, I’ll be damned if a snare drum didn’t sound from the right speaker in perfect syncopation. If you’ve never heard live accompaniment to a silent film before, get your ass out of your house and go to one. Even if you don’t like the film. It’ll be worth it.

The story was overacted and the special effects rudimentary, but again, it was filmed just after World War I, for god’s sake. Women and men alike seem to swoon, the bad guys are extra bad, the wacko mental patients extra mentally.

But I found it touched me–the darkness, the lust, the way the Count looked upon a drop of blood while licking his lips.

And my, oh my, to experience all of this in a double-decker full house like the California Theater. The title cards causing snickers and oohs and aahs. The “wow” factor of the Count levitating. The creepiness of a long boat ride. People were enthralled. I was one of them.

And I didn’t doze once.

8.1 IMDB

NOSFERATU

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LE SENTIMENT DE LA CHAIR
2010

March 4, 2011
Cinequest 21
France
French
91 Minutes
Drama / Romance
Roberto Garzelli

Benoit = Thibault Vincon
Helena = Annabelle Hettmann

Sure, it was late, and I had been up since 5:30. And I had worked a full day. And it was my third film of the day. But holy cow, what the hell was this one all about? Helena is getting her degree in Anatomical Drawing (they didn’t offer that at UC Irvine when I was there). She observes surgeries and medical students dissecting cadavers with her sketch pad always at the ready. She believes in the beauty of the outside of people–birthmarks, scars, curves, and whatnot. She can apparently mount a successful breast examination in the shower.

Sent to the doctor because of some back pain, she somehow notices that the sexy practitioner has taken an x-ray of her, but not lower back where she’s feeling the pain. Confronted, he at first makes excuses, but then admits that he’s fascinated by a slight abnormality in her anatomy. You see, he is turned on (in the sexual and non-sexual sense) by human anatomy that differs from the norm. I’ve forgotten what her difference is, but she is not angry about a second, unnecessary x-ray, but rather turned on by his semi-professional attention.

They make a date. And have sex all over the place. Often. She memorizes his moles, he can picture her internal organs. It’s a match made in “Gray’s Anatomy.” She entices him with ever more medically intrusive procedures so that he can “know” her inside and out. MRI? Check. Surgical Scope? Check.

The ending had my audience tittering. At least those who stuck around for it. It isn’t a completely sucky movie, and I kinda get the whole “if you really loved me, you know everything about me and my body” vibe it’s going for. In fact, the feeling I got most from it was David Cronenberg’s CRASH (not to be confused with the Best Picture travesty by Paul Haggis). Where something medical and sexual combine in character’s heads. In CRASH, it was the excitement of a car crash and the disfigurement that brought. In this one, it’s how much you can expect your lover to know about your skeleton and internal organs.

I won’t say anything about the final shot, except that, though I understood the director’s reasoning, it was impossible to pull off.

March 12, 2011: Upon Further Review: I kept thinking of David Cronenberg while I was watching SENTIMENT OF THE FLESH, but now after a few days to ponder, I think I’m leaning more towards the style of Catherine Breillat. She typically takes the viewer on a wild ride that ratchets up the fetish and social acceptability until few are left at the end singing its praises. This can be rape or body fluid or murder. Some Breillat viewers only last five minutes, while others finish even the least accessible of her films, happy for the experience. SENTIMENT OF THE FLESH made a rather severe leap from realistic to plausible to way-out-there a bit too quickly, perhaps, but the themes were in line with Ms. Breillat’s work.

THE SENTIMENT OF THE FLESH.

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2011

March 4, 2011
USA
English
Cinequest 21 World Premiere
Drama / Romance
Conrad Jackson

Elliot Carson = Parker Croft
Chloe Webb = Emilia Zoryan

One of the best pleasant surprises I’ve had in my 14 years at Cinequest.

On paper, this film had every red flag imaginable. Terminal illness, Los Angeles hipsters, a house party, a meet-cute in a Jamba Juice, an internet entrepreneur, and two incredibly adorable young people who spend a single night together. And yet…

Elliot visits his doctor the day before he has brain surgery. The doctor assures him that he’s optimistic, but we can tell from Elliot’s eyes, that he has no such positive feelings. He wears sunglasses indoors as the light bothers him and on the way home from the doctor’s office, he needs to pull over his car in order to barf. Looking for a bathroom in which to clean himself up, he ends up at an ice cream / smoothie place staffed by an almost supernaturally adorable girl named Chloe. As he walks in, she’s taking photographs of the store’s merchandise. She kindly lets him use the bathroom, he orders an “anything with bananas in it” drink, and they make smalltalk. But realistic smalltalk. Awkward, silence-filled, customer-employee smalltalk. He picks up a card for her photo exhibit that night–”you should come”–and heads back to his sparsely furnished, though expensive looking apartment, where he enjoys a bowl of cereal after closing the shades.

Trying to get his mind off of the next morning’s procedure, he heads down to Chloe’s show, where they exchange names and more conversation. Which leads to dinner, which leads to a houseparty, bike ride, security guards, danger, a hike, some music, and all those other things that can make a first night with someone magical. But eventually, Elliot will have to tell Chloe why he hasn’t eaten or drank anything since midnight, won’t he? And what if she wants to plan something for that weekend?

There are several things to say here, in bullet-point format:

–the cinematographer and director find a way to perfectly capture the dizziness, migraine, and ear-ringing that accompany someone who is about to barf. I can’t recall ever feeling someone’s nausea quite so vividly. The sound quiets, the lights get brighter, and the speed sort of changes. Very well done.

–The young woman who plays Chloe, Emilia Zoryan, looks like an “almost” Minka Kelly from FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. She has these huge, soulful eyes that stare at Elliot, often when he isn’t looking. She is convincing as a normal, LA girl, who works in a store, but longs for great, artistic things.

–The young man is played by Parker Croft, who was one of the writers of the film. He looks like an even-thinner young Roger Daltrey, all angles, and bones, with a big mop of blonde hair on his head. He has this slow-blinking, surfer drawl dialogue delivery that somehow isn’t annoying. Because it sounds like a kid his age. And with his very thin frame and our knowledge of his condition, we can’t help but cheer for him as he tries to experience a memorable night on what might be his last.

–The two leads, while conversing–both initially meeting, and as the topics get deeper–sound perfect together. At the Q & A after the film, it was learned that the crew filmed this over a two week period of nights. And I know that Parker was one of the writers. But something more is happening here. I don’t know if they work-shopped the dialogue or were given a simple framework upon which to improvise around. The two 20ish actors are speaking like two 20ish people who are meeting someone they might end up eventually liking. The honest awkwardness of silences, of jokes that don’t land, of spilling food on a first date–all of it seems real. They don’t finish each others sentences and they mostly don’t have a rapid-fire HIS GIRL FRIDAY thing happening. It just seems more organic. Or else I was just fooled, which is good enough for me.

–The music worked, especially a “concert in a tunnel” where someone’s friend of a friend is performing on guitar and a tiny amp. The crowd looks happy, if a bit too hip and good-looking. The other songs didn’t hit us over the head. There was no “brain tumor theme” for example.

–A new romance causes us to completely lose track of time, and somehow that feeling was communicated in this film. Everything they do could plausibly have taken place during one night. But looking back on memories of perfect nights with perfect people, we never really relay that story perfectly, do we? Maybe the bike ride took four hours and maybe it was just around the block. The important thing was who you were with, not how long it really lasted.

–Capturing blossoming feelings is incredibly difficult on screen. You have to believe in the chemistry of the two people. They have to be realistically right for each other. There has to be something in each of them that would attract the other. All of these things work in this film. Though, due to Elliot’s condition, he needs to hold back his feelings more than Chloe does. I thought that she fell too hard for him too early. Plus, she’s adorable. Why doesn’t she already have something to do that night?

–Another entirely tiny positive thing that no one probably noticed but me. Both members of the couple sustain minor injuries during their night together. Hers is much less conspicuous. But I noticed that the continuity didn’t lapse when I saw her in a later scene. Attention to detail=A.

Lest it sound like it was perfect, let me slow down that impression now.

–The hipster, mostly white-people, young and funny, houseparty birthday “my friends are outrageous” stuff was almost a bit much for me. Almost. A sobbing birthday girl, a cynical bearded friend, a guy with one of those stupid knit hats with the ear flaps, a conversation about grilled cheese, a top-half-clothing-trade. If I wasn’t so invested in the couple’s beginning, I would have hated, hated, hated that group of people. They hike up an LA mountain, where a group of people has cold beer ready and a tree adorned with lights and a couch and deep and shallow conversations abound. I get that this is a real thing that happens, but that doesn’t mean it makes good cinema. When I was their age, my friends and I acted exactly like them. If you are between the ages of 16 and 30, you’ll even love these scenes.

–Both actors were pretty spectacular, especially when compared to their resumes. Parker was a bit stronger than Emilia, but her big eyes go a long way towards helping us forget that. Parker has a big scene that starts with spinning a globe that I never quite bought. I wanted to, but it was too long, too close-up, too monologue-ish. That was the only misstep I could find in his performance.

In conclusion, I’m almost embarrassed by how much I like FALLING OVERNIGHT. I’m a sucker for the falling in like part of cinema relationships (BEFORE SUNRISE remains the gold standard), but the LA location, the age of the participants, the extra “bonus” of a brain tumor, all told me to avoid this film. I’m glad I didn’t.

FALLING OVERNIGHT

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TUAN YUAN
2010

March 4, 2011
Cinequest 21
China
Mandarin
93 Minutes
Drama
Quan’an Wang

Qiao Yu’e = Lisa Lu
Liu Yangheng = Feng Ling
Lu Shanmin = Cai-gen Yu

Liu fled China for Taiwan 50 years ago during the Communist Revolution. He has come back to an unrecognizable Shanghai and would like to reconnect with his girlfriend from before the war and bring her back to Taiwan with him. Unfortunately for his plans, she leads a broad family of three generations, none of whom is exactly happy to see the man. Oh yeah, and she’s been happily married to “a good man” named Lu for more than 40 years.

The family is understandably upset with Liu’s plans. The sisters bicker, the businessman son-in-law wants to look at it like a business proposition, the oldest son, who is Liu’s biological child, wants to leave it up to his mother. It’s none of his business, he says.

The hip, cool, and bored 20ish granddaughter is put in charge of showing Liu the sights of Shanghai. The city becomes another character in the film. When Liu left, it surely wasn’t the economic powerhouse it is today.

Just about the only person who isn’t upset with Liu’s plan is Yu’e’s husband, Lu. He seems fine. In several hilarious scenes, he shows just how okay he is with his wife leaving him for another country. He refuses money and drinks a toast in honor of the man about to take his wife away.

There is a hilarious section where the couple get caught in a bureaucratic nightmare after being told they were never “officially” married all those decades ago. “What can we do?” “Go next door and get a marriage license and then bring it back here for the divorce.” The wrinkled couple poses for their first wedding portrait sandwiched between much younger newlyweds.

Lisa Lu, as the center of this love triangle, plays her role with quiet reserve. But her eyes tell us everything we need to know about her thoughts. She may have been playing the “what if” game for 50 years–since Liu left. Or perhaps she just wants a late-life change.

And why on earth is her husband Lu, being so peaceful about the whole thing?

One of the rare Asian offerings at this year’s Cinequest Film Festival.

APART TOGETHER

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2010

February 5, 2011
Cinequest 21 San Jose Film Festival
Canada
English / German / Dutch
75 Minutes
Crime / Thriller
Ed Gass-Donnelly

Peter Stormare = Walter
Jill Hennessy = Rita
Martha Plimpton = Sam

Much better than expected. A small Canadian town is shocked by the news of a dead girl found at a local fishing lake. Sheriff Walter and his deputy appear to be the only police in town. The town is a farming community where trucks rumble past main street, there’s a barbershop and a diner, and a large Mennonite community.

Walter has a dark past involving his temper, though we’re never sure exactly what that past infraction was. We know he’s born again, lives with a simple-minded waitress named Sam, attends church regularly, and knows everyone in town. It seems that the 911 call after the body’s discovery was made by his former lover Rita, who is now shacked up with a druggie bad boy (with especially bad teeth). Walter may be known by everyone, but he is also ridiculed by quite a few. Whatever his past indiscretion, you can believe the whole town, if not the larger community knows what happened. His deacon reminds him, “you can’t change who you are.”

After the incident, Rita left him, and his father stopped speaking with him. A single, terrible violent event in a community known for pacifism. Redemption is the theme of this film.

The vistas are vast, the people appear to be real small-town folks. Hardly anyone is recognizable to movie audiences. The authenticity drips from the screen. Farmers speak in their native tongue, people pretty much act like normal people, the sun appears to be in a constant state of settingness. And though I’ve probably never written this before, even the dead body appears authentic. How do you stop your eyes from blinking and your neck from pulsating? From the bartender to the old woman serving tea, these characters are perfect.

And the music, what about the music?

If the native tribes of North America converted to Christianity, were recorded by Peter Gabriel’s World Music label, and only brought their drums and five part harmonies, the music would sound like it does in this film. It’s mostly religious in nature, many traditional songs, with a few aching love songs thrown in for good measure. And the drums are loud in the best possible way. It is foot-stomping to be sure. The music is by Bruce Peninsula.

The film is broken into chapters with huge text declaring bumper sticker bible verses. “God Meets You Where You’re At” and “Live In The World But Not Of It” or some such advice. This strangely doesn’t take away from the film in any way. The performances are fantastic. Stormare, especially, who appears to be [this close] to going haywire finds the tone between born again calmness and vein-popping hot-head. He is something to watch.

But the town is the real star. Shots are perfectly composed including a double-wide mobile home being driven through the town with police escort. Sunsets, boats on lakes, tractors going this way and that, horse-drawn buggies. It couldn’t have been shot on a soundstage. I loved the look.

My only complaint might be that it’s too short. The stuff around the murder mystery is as important as the crime itself. I would have liked to have spent some more time in the town.

This is a good one.

SMALL TOWN MURDER SONGS screens as part of the San Jose Cinequest 21 Film Festival on March 4, March 6, and March 11.

7.8 IMDB

SMALL TOWN MURDER SONGS

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2010

January 16, 2011
Camera Cinema Club
Spain / Mexico
Spanish / Wolof / Cantonese
147 Minutes (though seems longer)
Drama
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu [Amores Perros; 21 Grams; Babel]

Even Javier Bardem’s broad shoulders can’t carry the weight of this much hopelessness. Within the first five minutes of this feels like three hour “epic”, Bardem is given a cancerous death sentence, communicates with the dead, pisses blood, and attempts a reconnection with his bi-polar mess of an ex-wife. Who’s an abusive mother. And ex-drunk. And sleeping with his brother. Oh yeah, and he has two small children to care for and his only job apparently is picking up a couple of bucks from grieving families who need closure, and his “business ventures.”

In true Inarritu fashion, there are interconnected lives, though not to the degree of his past three major films. In this case the three story lines are Bardem’s dying, a sweatshop full of Chinese illegal immigrants who make knock-off purses in sweatshop conditions, and the Senegalese men who sell those purses illegally (along with some drugs) on the streets. Bardem pays off the crooked cops, argues with the Chinese about quality-control, and befriends the Senegalese sellers and warns them off the drug sales.

Bardem does all of this with the deep, soulful eyes, he’s famous for. He may have smiled twice during the film’s running time. Everywhere he turns, the world is against him, someone is taking advantage of someone, and he feels is. Or at least we’re supposed to think he feels it. Although the Chinese workers are locked in a freezing basement at night, we are led to believe that Bardem’s character, Uxbal wants to treat them better. Even though only one of the workers has any lines–his babysitter–Uxbal’s face tells us that he really, really cares about the plight of the immigrant workforce, both from Africa and Asia. Unfortunately, the screenplay affords us only two members of this downtrodden lot who we will recognize. The rest serve as background noise to the “immigrant experience” in Barcelona.

Bardem’s burden is so heavy that when one of his Senegalese sellers is deported, he feels responsible enough to look after the man’s wife and small child. When his ex-wife engages in behavior that would cause most of us to cut ties to her, he gives her another chance. When he hears of the poor conditions of the Chinese workers, he tries to do the right thing in a telegraphed tragedy–no good deed goes unpunished.

There’s not getting around the fact that the sheer shape of Bardem’s face can keep an audience’s interest for more than two hours. In fact, upon further review, his mopey face may be the only reason to recommend this film at all. It is two hours of sadness, dressed up in fancy colors and quick edits and showy focus tricks.

Bardem’s mopeyness doesn’t even stop when he meets his brother at a strip club where, no joke, the dancers have a single huge breast where there heads should be.

7.6 IMDB
5.3 Metacritic

BIUTIFUL

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2010

January 11, 2011
San Jose — Cinearts Santana Row
Canada
English
108 Minutes
Biography / Comedy / Crime / Drama
George Hickenlooper [Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse; Some Folks Call It A Slingblade; Mayor Of The Sunset Strip]

Spacey chews the scenery in this semi-true story of imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Spacey plays him as a super-jew, super workout guy, super schmoozer, super loyal husband, and super cocky. Barry Pepper matches him overacted scene for overacted scene. Not sure if it’s a black comedy or a realistic portrayal of broken Washington. Not hard to watch, though John Lovitz is pretty much replaying every slovenly medallion wearing character he’s ever been.

As a political wonk, I enjoyed seeing real-life people portrayed by look-a-likes. George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Tom DeLay, etc. Real footage of congressional hearings is spliced in. Hints are given that Abramoff had his hand in all sorts of malfeasance, including the recount in Florida in 2000.

Spacey appears to be having fun, though.

Kevin Spacey; Barry Pepper

6.5 IMDB
5.0 Metacritic

CASINO JACK

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2010

January 11, 2011
San Jose — Cinearts Santana Row
USA
English
110 Minutes
Adventure / Drama / Western
Ethan Coen and Joel Coen [Blood Simple; Raising Arizona; Miller’s Crossing; Barton Fink; The Hudsucker Proxy; Fargo; The Big Lebowski; O Brother Where Art Thou?; The Man Who Wasn’t There; No Country For Old Men; Burn After Reading; A Serious Man]

Jeff Bridges; Hailee Steinfeld; Matt Damon; Josh Brolin; Barry Pepper

Terrific from start to finish. Young Hailee Steinfeld is a force to be reckoned with, playing 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who wants justice against the man who shot her father and won’t take “no” for an answer. Not many of the telltale signs of the Coens here. It’s a beautifully shot film to be sure, but it lacks the wackiness, winking, and matter-of-fact violence that has made the Coens such great filmmakers. In a strange way, I wanted it to be more adult. They never venture past the PG-13 line, either in language or violence. I felt like an R-version of this film would have been monumental.

Having said that, I want to see it again, and some of the Coen magic shows up in the fast-paced dialogue, where Matty all but hoodwinks anyone foolish enough to negotiate with her. The language is almost West Wing level, circa late-1800s, full of legalese and old-fashioned-sounding put-downs. An early extended courtroom scene sets the stage for the verbal gymnastics we’ll be exposed to as the film goes on.

Another vintage Coen touch is a “medicine man”, dressed inside of a bear skin, complete with head attached. The Coens love to pause and watch characters tangential to the plot (the coffee shop scene in Fargo comes to mind). This man adds texture to the proceedings, though not much story.

The acting is first-rate, with young Steinfeld holding her own against Bridges and Damon, who get into a “measuring dicks” contest that is hilarious. The landscape realism had me shivering and feeling dusty. At some points the dialogue had me thinking of, yes, the late, great DEADWOOD.

Barry Pepper and his teeth play a bad guy who honors the code of the west. As part of that code, native Americans are not afforded the same “any last words” privileges that pale faces are.

When my daughter is old enough, I’ll take her to see this. There are far worse role models for young women than Mattie Ross.

8.3 IMDB
8.0 Metacritic

TRUE GRIT

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2010

December 20, 2010
Campbell CA — Camera 7
USA
English
115 Minutes — December 17, 2010
Biography / Drama / Sport
David O. Russell [Spanking The Monkey; Flirting With Disaster; Three Kings]

Mark Wahlberg; Christian Bale; Amy Adams; Melissa Leo.

Disappointingly traditional sports story about two brothers from Lowell, MA who enjoyed different levels of glory as professional boxers. Wahlberg plays Micky Ward, who is younger brother to Dicky (Christian Bale), who remains a big-shot in Lowell because he once held his own in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard. In that fight, Leonard fell down, and the town continues to argue over whether it was a knock down or simply a slip. Either way, Dicky is chummy with the whole working-class town, especially with a group of crackheads he spends time with. Micky has looked up to Dicky (yes, the names are annoying) his entire life and is hard at work training for his shot at the title. Dicky acts as trainer, but with a crack habit like his, he isn’t exactly the most punctual worker.

Micky excuses Dicky over and over again, until a fight in Atlantic City when the original opponent of Micky’s is unable to fight. He reluctantly agrees to fight a man fresh from prison, who outweighs him by 25 pounds. Micky’s clock gets cleaned. Meanwhile, their not-exactly-classy mother, Alice, played by Melissa Leo, acts as a sort of manager to Micky. She is fiercely protective of her two sons. She is also protective of her seven daughters. She and Dicky often speak of the importance of family even as that same family is keeping Micky from any real success.

Micky spots Charlene (Amy Adams) in a local bar, where her cleavage and famous rear end are two of the main attractions. She is feisty and smart and holds her own against the drunks in the bar. Micky is instantly smitten (as was I).

Will Dicky drag Micky down? Will Micky turn his back on the family? Will all seven of his sisters hate Charlene for making their brother happy? Will Alice smoke another pack of cigarettes? Will Micky get his shot at the title?

Do you really have to ask?

Wahlberg plays Micky as a timid, though buffed, brother who seems to love the shadow of his hyper-verbal older brother. We never get a real feeling for why he wants to box. It doesn’t seem to give him any joy. His scenes with Adams are pretty good, but when she sticks up for him, it sure seems like he’s substituted one mouthpiece (Dicky) for another (Charlene).

Amy Adams is adorable. She attended some college before dropping out due to partying too much. She was an elite high jumper, but now works in a bar. She’s one of those movie constructs where a hot woman makes a man the best he can be, even if she needs force him to go against everything he knows.

Melissa Leo is just this side of a caricature. If she wasn’t such an acting stud (see FROZEN RIVER or HOMICIDE), it would be laughable. She’s all tight skirts, a poofed up hairstyle, animal prints, and potty mouth. Why she continues to worship the ground her crackhead son walks on is never explained. Unfortunately, each one of the sisters is there to make the audience feel superior. They appear to be real women from around the way in Lowell. Each sister’s hairstyle requires more Final Net than the last. Each accent is stronger than the last. Each pair of white Reeboks and acid-washed jeans and half-shirts is more stereotypical than the last. The film takes place in 1993 and some allowance can be made for their fashion sense. But oh, the hair. My goodness.

The sisters immediately hate Charlene because she’s been to college and has engaged in, you know, book learnin’. There is no group of sisters so ridiculous. When they all cram onto a sofa for a family meeting, it’s like a rouge’s gallery of the rejects from a Whitesnake video. Whitesnake, incidentally, is the music played when Micky enters the boxing arena. Here I Go Again, indeed.

The entire film would have crumbled under it’s own seriousness if not for the performance of Christian Bale. He’s already rightly famous for the lengths he goes to physically in changing his body to fit the role. Here, he needs to be crackhead skinny, but not only that. He also needs to look strung out, yet energetic. He needs to be lanky and unwashed, but ready to spar in a boxing ring. His eyes are hollow and he’s got the accent down. He also made me tear up several times. He is all bravado and self-delusion. A camera crew from HBO is following him around–he says to film his comeback, they say to film stories about crack addiction. I believed that he was HNIC in Lowell. He is charming enough for people to look the other way at his drug habit, a fact that hurts him obviously more than it helps him.

The boxing scenes were pretty good. There aren’t many ways to film fight scenes that hasn’t already been tried, but this film finds a way. All of the action that takes place inside an arena is filmed on video, like we’re watching the HBO tapes. It really was effective. I forgot once in awhile that I was watching a movie and wondered why Adams and Bale were in Atlantic City watching a fight. Wahlberg is passable as a boxer, I suppose. We don’t really see that much boxing, though.

The announcers are the real team from HBO and Michael Buffer does the intros. I’m not sure if they used the actual transcripts, but this is the kind of film where an announcer will say “Micky’s finished, someone should stop this thing” exactly when Micky finally lands a punch that hobbles his opponent. Perhaps to someone new to boxing films, the things done in this one will be spectacular and riveting, but I was tired of hearing “he’s getting killed” and “this unknown is taking way too much punishment”.

Good use of locations. Exciting editing and pretty great use of music. That is, when it wasn’t hitting us over the head. “Back In The Saddle” by Aerosmith is played, when not one, but two characters are shown “back” where they belong. This film had the surprising inclusion of the greatest bass drum song of all time, “Good Times, Bad Times.” I’d always heard that Zeppelin was too expensive to license (see ALMOST FAMOUS).

I’m a sucker for sports movies. I inevitably tear up a little when our hero’s dreams are fulfilled (“Rudy, Rudy, Rudy”; “Rocky, Rocky, Rocky”; “Hey Dad, Wanna Have Catch?”) and this one was no exception. And Bale is remarkable. I hope he’s remembered during awards season. The rest of the film, is way too paint-by-numbers to be anything above the ordinary.

8.5 IMDB
7.8 Metacritic

THE FIGHTER

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1966

December 19, 2010
Netflix Criterion DVD
Soviet Union
Russian / Italian / Tatar
205 Minutes
Biography / Drama / History / War
Andrey Tarkovskiy

#43 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

Imaginary episodes from the life of a 15th-century icon painter.

“A superb recreation of medieval life dramatizes the eternal problem of the artist, whether to take part in the life around him or merely comment on it” — **** — Halliwell’s

“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.

First things, first. Yes, it’s a butt-numbing 205 minutes. It’s in black and white, has no “normal” narrative, and is mostly in Russian. This is the only DVD in my 10-year Netflix history, that I’ve mailed back unwatched, and then put back on my queue at the top position. The first time the length just seemed too daunting. But, there must be a reason that it’s number 43 on THE LIST. It deserved another chance.

With older, less mainstream films like this one, I sometimes like to read about them before watching. What I learned was not to expect a linear style of storytelling, with plot point A leading to plot point B. I wasn’t to expect the title character, Russian painter Andrei Rublev, to be on screen very often–in fact, there are several long scenes where a character takes the attention of the camera for an extended period of time, never to be seen again. The man on the balloon in the first vignette is a perfect example. Who is he and what are the circumstances of his balloon flight? And what does this have to do with painting or faith or being a monk? We are never told.

I was instructed in these essays to be aware of the movement of the camera, the brutality of the images, and most importantly, the background of each scene. This proved to be the best advice I could get before viewing ANDREI RUBLEV.

The film may, in fact, be about the struggle to find beauty in the harsh Russian winters (and summers for that matter). Or it may be about artistic motivation–how a painter sees the world and his faith and incorporates that into the icons he paints. It could be about the pettiness and jealousy that humans–including the most holy monks–struggle with on a daily basis. I have no idea.

It’s the story of a famous real-life painter with no scenes of painting. It is divided into a half-dozen chapters, some of which have no relationship to each other. Our main character isn’t in every chapter, and even when he is, he is dressed exactly like the other monks, making his identification difficult, if not impossible. “Which guy is that, again?” For the last hour, our hero is wordless, because he is punishing himself for a sin any of us would have likewise committed.

I can’t tell you if the acting is good or not. If the actors are dressed in authentic costumes or speak as they should. But what I can tell you is Tarkovskiy has composed shots, the likes of which I’ll never forget. Everything I marveled at in Kurosawa’s RAN–the horses and flags and the burning temple–are done better in this film. And horses? Oh my goodness, the horses. Every broken horse in the USSR must have had a cameo in this film. Horses are inside churches, falling down steps (in a famous, brutal, and real scene), running into battle, rolling on the ground, frolicking in the water, and eaten as a treat. To simply marshal this number of horses and riders is grounds for celebration.

An early scene has three monks traveling the Russian countryside, through mud and rain. (I was chilly for the entire 3 plus running time–never has a landscape looked less hospitable.) They enter a tavern (or is it just a barn) to take shelter. A jester is performing some sort of anti-governmental song and dance as the drunk patrons laugh along with him. When he’s finished, long after another director would go to some sort of conversation amongst the monks, Tarkovskiy instead does a slow 360 degree spin of the inside of the room. We see every face looking at us–the monks, the peasants, the drunk guys in the corner, some children in the shadows. He does two spins, I think. Most of the film is in wide shot, but on a few occasions we see close-ups of naturalistic Russian faces.

There are what appear to be throw-away scenes of nature–a water snake, a man covered in ants, a dead bird, a cat walking amongst a pile of dead bodies.

The outdoor shots are where the film really shines. The first scene, involving the balloon, has the camera follow the “pilot” as he walks around a church, enters it, climbs some stairs, climbs out a window, and reaches for the ropes which are keeping the balloon from flying away. We have somehow gotten outside with the pilot and in the background, perfectly framed, is a rapidly approaching group of men in canoes paddling towards the church to stop his flight. Both the ropes, the balloon, the man, and the distant background are in focus.

There are countless outdoor scenes involving hundreds of people and horses, where you’ll scratch your head wondering how everyone ended up in the right place at the right time. An attack on a village where the action takes place on four levels, a raiding army whose horses gallop on both sides of a lake, and in a part of the film rightly heralded, an entire village helps to create a huge church bell for the town.

This bell scene involves a boy who claims that his dead father left the secrets to bell-making in his hands only. This boy has not been seen by the audience in the first 2 1/2 hours of the film, but at this point he becomes the protagonist. He has little actual skill at this craft, but he does have some sort of natural bell-making ability. He orders workers around, discovers the right molding clay by literally sliding in it, and does not show the Tsar the respect he usually gets. The digging and melting of metal and pouring of the mold and the fire and sparks is thrilling. In a scene I’ll never forget, the men begin chipping away at the clay to reveal the smooth and huge bell beneath. It takes the whole of the village to lift it out of its hole and as the Prince and other royalty ride up to see it, we all know that if that bell doesn’t ring, the boy will lose his head.

This shot is spectacular. We are up a hill, on top of the bell and in one cut, we pan from the miles away village and its protective wall, follow a line of horses as they cross a river on a bridge, see the ropes that have helped to hoist the bell, pan over to men winching the bell out of the ground, look down on the boy, and finally straight down on the bell itself. Fantastic.




Was ANDREI RUBLEV exciting from start to finish? No. Do I have any idea what it’s about? No. I took a two-hour break in the middle to gather myself and, frankly, to wake myself up a bit. Plot-wise, there’s a lot of talk about the wickedness of man, along with some examples (the raiding Mongol army, the pagans who strip naked to run though the forest, the rapists, the guy who pokes out the eyes of artists so that they can never recreate what they’ve already produced.) But the shots are just superb. There are things happening in the background of every shot. There is choreography of hundreds of extras that left me speechless.

Am I in a hurry to see it again? Not exactly. But I’m glad I did.

8.2 IMDB

ANDREI RUBLEV

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2010

August 14, 2010
Sneak Preview Cinearts Santana Row San Jose
USA
English
90 Minutes — August 27, 2010
Comedy / Drama / Romance
Rob Reiner [This Is Spinal Tap; The Sure Thing; Stand By Me; The Princess Bride; When Harry Met Sally...; Misery; A Few Good Men; The American President]

You Never Forget Your First Love.

There is not a single moment within FLIPPED’s 90 minutes that could possibly offend anyone. Except maybe people looking for a compelling story or strong acting or well-rounded characters. But language and subject matter and the blossoming of young love are done with such apple-pie restraint, that I hate myself for hating it.

Bryce Loski moves into a new neighborhood across the street from Juli Baker. Juli introduces herself and appears to be ready to spend the day with the new family before their moving truck is even unpacked. We are told the story almost entirely in voice-over. First Bryce gets to explain what happens, and then it flips (get it?) and Juli tells us the same story from her point of view.

Bryce is played to an almost unbearably bland level by a kid named Callan McAuliffe, whose sole qualification seems to be his blond hair and skinny frame. Why Juli likes him, we cannot speculate. Juli, on the other hand, is equally attractive, but is at least given a back story and a personality which Bryce is sorely lacking. Juli is a spitfire, she isn’t afraid of what other people think, she mounts a tree sit-in 40 years before Julia Butterfly Hill will do the same thing up in Humboldt. Juli is played with a smile and energy by Madeline Carroll, whose list of credits dwarfs McAuliffe’s.

This romantic mis-match continues to their respective families. Bryce has an older sister and snobby parents played by Anthony Edwards and Rebecca De Mornay. Edwards’ character is seen with a constant scotch in his hand and a negative word for everyone, while De Mornay doesn’t appear to do anything. The one bright spot in the family is Bryce’s grandpa, played by John Mahoney who seems to figure out how great Juli is before the rest of the family does.

Juli has twin brothers, a hard-working mother (Penelope Ann Miller) and a bricklayer father, who spends his free time painting, well-played by Aidan Quinn. There is also an uncle who is in an expensive institution, which explains why the Bakers, gasp, rent their home and don’t own it like the self-respecting Loskis do. Dismissed as hillbilly dreamers by the Loskis, the two families don’t interact. But the Bakers are seen singing at the dinner table, raising eggs in the backyard, and being loved, while the Loskis argue and suffer the rage of Edwards’ character. And we suffer right along with them.

The plot is as follows: Girl sees boy move in, girl stalks boy, boy avoids girl for five years, boy realizes that she’s pretty great, girl now hates boy, boy apologizes for being a dickhead, hands are held. The end.

As I’ve mentioned, though, the girl’s affections are something worth fighting for, while the boy is a blank-staring guy with obnoxious friends.

The voiceover stuff is necessary to move the plot along, but it tries to put us in the mindset of every other, and much more well done, nostalgic film we’ve seen. The Richard Dreyfuss stuff in STAND BY ME, a much better Rob Reiner film, did this in a great way. Much of the praise for that can be leveled at Stephen King, a man who has had some success in the publishing arena.

But FLIPPED has too much voice-over and then we have the other character voice-over us a bit more. There is also a big problem with what they’re saying. They are speaking at a level of clarity and self-awareness (and vocabulary for that matter), that no 13-year-old could possibly handle. Not for a second did I think these characters were doing the talking and not some older writer or director.

The side-trip to see the retarded uncle was painful. It is nearly impossible to play mentally challenged (as Robert Downey, Jr. explained in TROPIC THUNDER), and this was no exception. Wait until you see what happens when he drops his ice cream cone. Oy.

There is a 15-minute meaningless sub-plot about the eggs that Juli’s hens are laying in her backyard. Two neighbor women begin paying her for several dozen eggs a week and she gives Bryce’s family some for free as a thank you for past niceties. During a meal, the Loski family begins by being thankful of the eggs, and then with Bryce’s help, by the end of the meal they’ll all be convinced that there is either an embryo or salmonella hiding under each shell. This leads to throwing them out, but still accepting them from Juli on a regular basis.

Quinn and Carroll are very good in their roles, Mahoney does the best he can, but the rest of the cast is not given much to work with. Edwards, especially, is never seen smiling, yells at his kids at the dinner table for seemingly no reason, and harbors preconceived notions about just about everyone he comes in contact with. His role is thankless.

After watching this, I’m convinced that TOY STORY 3 should be the film with a PG rating and this one should have eliminated one utterance of “asshole” and been the G-rated family film that it’s trying to be.

One side-note. Pay attention to the Bryce’s lawn and parking strip. When shot from Juli’s house, the strip is clearly covered in dark-green astroturf, while the lawn appears to be real. Then the strip is magically back to normal, then turf, then normal. If there’s a symbolism there, I’m not sure what it is.

You can safely take your grandmother and your six-year-old to this film. And then apologize for it later on.

6.5 IMDB

FLIPPED

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2010

August 10, 2010
HBO
USA
English
87 Minutes
Documentary
Jeffrey Blitz [Spellbound; The Office; Parks And Recreation]

Everyone knows that playing the lottery is a ridiculous way to spend money. The opening stat says that “people” believe there’s a 1 in 6 chance of winning, when the statisticians will tell you that the chances are more like 165 Million to 1. And yet, even with these stats, some people play their state’s lottery every single week. In fact, compounding the irrationality of the enterprise, when the jackpots get up over $100 Million, even more people buy tickets, even though their chances become slimmer the more people who play. I last bought a ticket when some co-workers and I went in on about a hundred tickets when everyone was talking about the huge payoff. I knew there was no chance, but: 1) it was a social thing to do; and 2) just imagine how sucky it would have been had all of them won after I chose not to play. That was something I couldn’t accept.

This film follows a half dozen winners who illustrate the maxim “be careful what you wish for.” They are all a bit wacko, except maybe the couple who lost all their friends and moved from Pennsylvania to a waterfront mansion in Florida after claiming a $110 Million jackpot. They tried to continue life normally, but it just couldn’t happen. Conversations about waking up in the morning for a hated job or about where the cheapest gas was available no longer meant anything to them. Friends would stop talking when they approached. One woman who was a friend of the couple said that every day she wishes it were her and she stays up at night wondering why it wasn’t. They’ve kept some of the thousands of letters they received about business opportunities and donation ideas. Their two teenage kids remember not being allowed to leave the house for the few months afterward for fear of kidnapping.

We should all have such trouble, right?

Another Pennsylvanian winner bought 400 pairs of identical pants when he found a style he liked. He didn’t say no to any offers for business partnerships, he promised his family a million each, he built a hilltop mansion that was so poorly designed that he couldn’t add drywall for fear of its collapse. He bought more than one limo. Then his siblings sent a hitman to kill him and someone sold him a car with all the chassis bolts cut off hoping he’d kill himself in it. He now lives in the storeroom of a supply company owned by a friend. And he appears happier for it.

There’s the heartwarming story of a Vietnamese man who won the Powerball with co-workers and could buy his family in America as well as Vietnam a huge house. He and his wife tear up while describing their escape by rickety boat.

And then there’s a cat man who is clearly not mentally stable, put off dating and friends to help his parents with their business. After they both died, he became a crazy cat man hoarder whose property was about to be condemned so full of coke bottles and cats that you couldn’t move around in it. Down to his last three bucks he bought lotto tickets and won around $6 million. He has a friend who sort of counsels him on what to do and makes all interested women speak to him first. Under his supervision the man moves to a better house, but one year later finds himself at a motel that rents rooms by the hour where he appears to feel more comfortable. It’s $200 a week and his day seems to consist of talking to his motel neighbors and feeding about a dozen cats at a local body shop. Oh yeah, and he spends money on strippers and other back-of-the-alternative-weekly companionship.

Everyone interviewed (even the woman who continues to play but has never won more than $1,000) seems to think that there’s something larger at work than random chance. Even the Berkeley mathematician. He, of all people, should know never to play, but he attributes his success to the state of “theta brain activity” he went into to get glimpses of numbers, which he wrote down in a book and played for 18 months until those numbers hit. Even he seems like a wacko. His wife, having no more use for him after his win, divorced him and took half his winnings.

I’m not sure that viewers will have their behavior changed by watching this film. If you think it’s stupid to play now, you’ll probably come out of the experience with that view solidified.

There is a prank played on a guy (first seen on THE FRESH PRINCE OF BELL-AIR) whereby his friends show the guy a tape of the previous numbers with a new lottery ticket. And then they film it. He jumps all over the room to the degree where a heart attack might not be out of the question. So that guy can tell people that he knows what its like to win the lottery. Though he has no cash to show for it.

7.2 IMDB

LUCKY

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2008

July 18, 2010
Camera Cinema Club
Ireland / Sweden
English
72 Minutes
Drama
Lance Daly

Kylie = Kelly O’Neill
Dylan = Shane Curry

Kylie’s goldfish has died. We see the color drain out of it until it appears, in closeup, a decaying gray. Kylie is an eleven-year-old girl, with an abusive older sister, an angry mother, and a despicable uncle, among other members of her family. Next door to her lives Dylan, a peer who spends his time avoiding his violent father, a man who in the opening scene appears to be losing a fight with his toaster. Dylan plays his videogames, sometimes hidden in cupboards, while his father drinks and yells at him until his mother comes home from work at which point his parents target each other instead.

Dylan is teased by some boys on those asinine tiny motorcycles while Kylie is taunted by older, experienced girls in the neighborhood (pushing a baby carriage), who wonder how far she’s gone sexually with Dylan. These two kids appear destined to spend their winter holiday avoiding their families and wandering the streets of their dismal Irish town.

Returning from a walk, Kylie’s face reflects horror as she sees a motorcycle parked in her driveway–”look who’s come to see you,” her mother says. It’s her Uncle and a series of heavy-handed filmmaking tricks including an ominous shadow, a shot of his boots while she hides under the bed, and her reaction to “give us a kiss” tell us all we need to know about what kind of man he is.

Dylan puts in headphones after his mother comes home to silence the her screaming at his father. The fight escalates and Dylan finds himself in between his parents as they trade punches. He throws his beloved Nintendo at dad, breaking it on his forehead. And then he runs upstairs for his life.

Kylie has been listening in to the argument and because she’s the coolest next door neighbor girl ever, finds a ladder and puts it up to the bathroom window where Dylan has hidden himself. A narrow escape, followed by some property damage, and the two kids are running off vowing to never return to their dismal and depressing home lives.

Though the neighborhood rumor tells the tale of a father murdering a son, Dylan is sure that his runaway older brother is living in Dublin and they set out to find him. They are 11-years-old. They have about $100, which Kylie found in a sibling’s shoe.

Getting away from their homes, even just a few miles, seems to lighten their spirits, the soundtrack, and the audience’s mood. It isn’t for another 20 minutes or so that we realize that color has been added to the film in slow, subtle ways. Like the further they get away from their side-by-side houses, the brighter the world seems. Your subconscious will feel something changing before your eyes notice something changing.

They hitch a ride with a reluctant waterway captain who in the space of an afternoon, provides more parental warmth than either child has probably experienced in their whole lives. This is also a part of Ireland that we’ve never seen. The captain is moving a dredge from their small town waterway to the mouth of a river in Dublin. Along the way, Dylan will learn about and hear his first Bob Dylan song performed with a strong accent by the boat captain. They will learn how to tie knots and how to work the boat locks and the proper impression of a monkey. It is magical. They might not have a plan once they reach their destination, but getting there is nothing short of soul-cleansing. Fictional characters have been taking trips down rivers by boat for centuries. It always seems to do the trick.

The almost unbelievably-kind boat captain gives Dylan his official jacket and off the two kids go to find his older brother on the bright, but harsh streets of Dublin.

But first, they have money and time on their hands. A haircut, sweatshirt, and his and her heelies are important enough to spend money on. Scenes of the two (who quite frankly are more accomplished at this skill than any real-life kids I’ve seen) rolling quickly and gracefully through a crowded shopping mall are beautiful and fun. They are just kids after all. And being kids, they spend their last money on gummy snakes, neglecting to plan any future meals.

There are long passages of the film without dialogue, using hand-held cameras and fantastic music which make us forget the brutality the kids have left behind, if only for a few minutes. When one of them gets down, the other picks them back up. When Dylan thinks their search is hopeless, Kylie continues knocking on doors. When Kylie has a very serious scare, it’s Dylan who rises up to save her.

Kelly O’Neill and Shane Curry are so fantastic in these roles that it’s almost scary. O’Neill plays Kylie as a brave, wise, talkative, fiercely loyal best pal to Dylan. It is impossible not to fall in love with her. Every boy wants someone like Kylie watching over them. Her home life may be the only one worse than Dylan’s and she vows much more strongly than he that she’ll never return. Curry plays Dylan as an asthmatic boy who turns his pain inward, having no friends but Kylie, and no enjoyment besides his videogame. He spends a great deal of time pouting and it usually takes the energy and work of Kylie to get him to break out of his funk. These two actors are crazy talented for being so young.

The story on paper seems incredibly depressing. Abused, poor kids run away and become targets for all manner of adult malfeasance in the big city of Dublin as they try to find a ne’r do well older sibling without money or a roof over their heads. But somehow, kids make it through hardships of all kinds.

There are plot issues I had trouble with. Let’s just say that the boy’s skill using his new shoes ends up probably saving Kylie’s life. And most adults they come into contact with are more than nice to the pair, they all seem to be able to impart a bit of wisdom, perhaps some food, and maybe a few coins and a song. Bob Dylan even gives them a beer to share as he waits to return to a stage for an encore.

Besides the manipulation of color based on the characters’ mood, we also got swirling camera work when the kids were playing, and scary dark alleys when the kids weren’t playing. The music was uniformly great and included a few Bob Dylan songs performed by both actors and the man himself. Also, for the first time that I can remember, there were subtitles, but only intermittently. When they stopped about 10 minutes in, I thought it was another film maker manipulation whereby he thought that we were comfortable enough and could follow along from that point forwards. But then they returned in most cases, and I began wondering if he only subtitled the most important dialogue. By the end I came to no great understanding of why they were sometimes there and other times they weren’t. Luckily, the actors’ faces really told us everything we needed to know.

The feeling of the film, the child-like wonder that is still evident, regardless of past experiences–the optimism and energy of youth, and the idea that with one loyal friend, the world can be taken conquered. All of this was in the faces of the two young leads. The conversations were realistic and age-appropriate. The ending left some questions unanswered. There was hope hidden within all the bad stuff we see.

Even the final scene which included a clenched fist that turned into a hug, a shared smile, and a blown kiss, were perfectly paced.

Go see it.

6.9 Metacritic
7.2 IMDB

KISSES

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2009

July 18, 2010
Showtime
USA
English
88 Minutes
Comedy / Crime / Drama / Sport
Robert D. Siegel [wrote THE WRESTLER]

Paul Aufiero = Patton Oswalt

Oswalt is perfectly cast as a die-hard New York Football Giants fan who spends his working hours in a small box in a parking garage listening to sports radio and writing the script for one of his nightly calls. He is one of those movie-level losers, like MARTY, who lives at home with his mother, has filthy friends, and posters of his sports heroes on his walls. He also sleeps in sheets that I myself had back when I was twelve. The ones with all the NFL teams on them.

His sister is married to a businessman and his brother is a personal injury lawyer as seen on TV. They all wonder what he’s doing with his life. But Paul seems to be content simply following the Giants, talking about the Giants, calling in to sports shows as a representative of the Giants, and wearing only clothes that come in Giants colors. On homegame Sundays, he and his buddy, Sal, played by indie-everywhere Kevin Corrigan, put on jerseys and facepaint and drive from their homes on Staten Island, down 95 to the Meadowlands, where they cheer with the other fans, walk around throwing the football, but strangely, don’t seem to eat or drink anything. Just when I was wondering how a guy who works in a parking garage could pay the astronomical NFL ticket prices, we cut to a shot of the two men, in the parking lot in camping chairs, watching a TV which is hot-wired onto their car battery while the real game goes on 100 yards away. This is the kind of humor the film has to offer. It’s very dark, it’s borderline mentally ill, and just this side of unbelievable.

The scripts that Paul writes for his call-ins (which he claims he says off the cuff) are full of grammar and spelling errors. And he works on them for hours. His calls end up lasting a minute or two and typically end with Scott Farrell saying “always great to hear from Paul in Staten Island.” Unfortunately, his mother often pounds on the wall imploring him to keep it down.

Paul’s single greatest hero (and here’s where we as viewers have to substitute our own–I’ll use Bono) is a killer linebacker named Quantrell Bishop. He has posters of the guy and he always wears his number 54 Bishop jersey to the parking lot. One day, the two losers are out for pizza when they spy Bishop and his posse getting gas for his Escalade. “What are they doing in Staten Island?” they ask each other before giving chase in a run-down Corolla. They stop off at a row house for something that seems vaguely criminal and then head into Manhattan. The film really gets going when we see the two men, who are complete products of their Staten Island surroundings, get nervously excited as they cross the bridge into the bustle and parking difficulties of Manhattan. Never mind the high prices. They follow Bishop into a strip club, where they are shocked to drop $29 within minutes of entering and they grab two seats facing the VIP lounge and the Bishop entourage.

In real life, this must happen all the time. I once bumped into (literally–it was crowded) Derek Jeter and his entourage at the Palms in Las Vegas (which makes me sound much cooler than I actually am.) Everyone who’s seen a celebrity in public knows that they just seem to shine brighter than those around them. I did get to glance into the famous blue eyes of Jeter, but what I also noticed was just how the energy of him being there, smiling, added a kind of buzz to the surroundings. People see celebrities in airports and hotels and concerts and they do appear to be different than we mere mortals.

But here’s the question the film asks: what if your hero turned out to be not only rude, but to beat the shit out of you until you went into a coma? I have been in the presence of celebrity probably 50 times. The soundboard at U2 shows, their hotels, in airports, at film festivals. And I’m always asked why I didn’t get an autograph. My answer is that I never want to be disappointed. And how a signature and a two-second human interaction means that I’ve “met” Bono or Stewart Copeland or Colin Farrell, I’ll never know. Gene Siskel used to say, when asked about interviewing actors and then giving them bad film reviews, something like, they’ll never be your friends–you won’t be going out for coffee with them. Plus I know they all have as many problems and they are as assholish and as messed up as the rest of us.

I say all this because in the film, the pair try to send a drink over to Bishop, who refuses a screwdriver (the only mixed drink they’ve ever heard of), so they decide to walk over anyway. They are at first ignored, then ridiculed (“look Bishop, you do got fans, ha ha ha ha.) This scene is unbearable to take. We know that Paul the schlub meeting Bishop the multi-millionaire cannot go well. But the scene takes a terrible turn when it’s discovered how long the two had been following him and Paul is punched and kicked into unconsciousness.

This alone makes a good movie, but what makes it even a bit better, and where the connections to my choice of Bono no longer work, is that the more trouble Bishop gets into, the less successful the New York Giants are on the football field. If I were to go up to Bono and say, please sign my copy of OCTOBER, and he beats me unconscious, they need to postpone some concerts. After Bishop stomps Paul, he is suspended and the Giants playoff hopes dim, the longer the investigation goes on. This part I loved. Paul is such a Big Fan, that he may decide to put his own health and a well-deserved payday aside so that he can continue to follow his beloved Giants (on TV at least) as they make a run for the Superbowl. If his name gets out, will his fellow fans hate him? Was he too much of a pest and somehow had the beating coming?

Oswalt is absolutely perfect. I’ve always known there was an actor hiding inside his schlubby comedian body. (He does a bit on a 1980s video from Night Ranger that is making me laugh right now as I remember it.) He almost dies, yet he wants his Giants to win. He has made the success of the Giants his reason for living, and without them, his family would be even more right about him. No girls, no adequate job, no life. And if it turns out that his lawsuit is the reason for the Giants demise, could he live with himself?

Added to the picture is another caller to the sports program, a guy named Philadelphia Phil, who revels in any Giants defeat and who is the arch-enemy (radio-version) of Paul from Staten Island.

Sidenote: I was at a San Francisco Giants game this year, and there was a presentation about cancer research, I think, and the spokesman was Tommy Lasorda. Now, Tommy Lasorda may be the single most hated person in San Francisco Giants history. Wanna get beat up? Wear Dodger Blue to Pac Bell Park. Or Chiefs Red to the Black Hole in Oakland. Maize and Blue in Columbus? You get the idea. However, Lasorda was years removed from being a Dodger. He was raising money for medical research. And you should have heard the boos. Oh my. Whenever the jumbotron showed him, the profanities began (from the normally white-wine sipping Giants fans). Sidenote over.

I bring it up because the hatred between the Giants and Eagles was shown pretty perfectly in BIG FAN. The two fans of different teams at first simply spar on the radio show, but over time, they get more angry and mean and how long can Paul keep the truth of his beating from the AM radio audience.

The specificity of Staten Island and the portrayal of a unique type of obsessive, the American football fan, make BIG FAN a fabulous, though not exactly fun, film.

What if your hero (Steve Jobs, Obama, Thom Yorke, Lebron) ignored you–made fun of you–almost killed you?

7.0 Metacritic
6.9 IMDB

Big Fan @ Amazon

BIG FAN

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Maybe.

This morning, I went to my favorite theater, The Camera Seven Pruneyard in beautiful Campbell, California, to “test-drive” one of the 22 new theater seats they’ve just installed there. The Camera Seven is part of the Camera Cinemas group, a South Bay institution, which opened its first theater, the now-closed Camera One, in 1975. The company has a total of 24 screens in four buildings. They continue to bring Indie film to the Silicon Valley when no one else will.

All theaters, and the Camera chain is no exception, are being faced with lower attendance and more people enjoying films at home as prices on flat-panel TVs have dropped and a service like Netflix streaming puts thousands of films at your fingertips. Movie theaters are finding ways to fight back, to get all of us lazy people to leave the house and enjoy movies where they should be experienced–in a theater.

Though the chain is regional and relatively small when compared to the AMCs and Cinemarks and Regals, they have been at the forefront of several trends.

–Thanks in large part to their support, The Cinequest San Jose Film Festival completed its 20th year this past Spring. Most of the screenings have taken place at a Camera theater.

–For 14 years now, me and 400 of my closest friends have been meeting 10 times a year on Sunday mornings to enjoy a secret film, some breakfast, and then a chat with the filmmakers. The Camera Cinema Club continues to be a highlight of my movie-going life.

–They have four screens that are using Sony 4K Digital Projection, which is 4 times the pixels of 2K projection, whatever that means. All I know is that it’s sharp and bright and doesn’t “feel” digital. Like most movie snobs, I was against the whole idea of digital, but it sure looks good in those theaters.

–And beginning this Friday July 16th, with the release of Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION, another technical milestone will be met at the neighborhood Camera Seven. D-Box Motion Seating.

Here’s what I can tell you from the fifteen minute test drive that I had this morning:

* There are 22 extra-wide seats occupying the two best rows in Theater One. These eleven seats per row take the place of 15 normal sized seats. They are cushy and red and have a ridiculously heavy-duty cup holder on the left hand side. The right hand is used to adjust the “severity” of the motion.
* Each seat is numbered so that when you buy a ticket at the box office, the staff can direct you to your exact seat, which will then be activated. No ticket sold for that seat, no activation.
* Each seat has a cool light on it that reminds me of “terminator” or “battlestar galactica” or what other sci-fi reference you want to use. It “flows” up and down, up and down, until someone sits in the seat. This is cool if you’ve arrived and the theater has already been darkened, but as an OCD moviegoer, I noticed the moving lights on the seat next to mine during the demonstration.
* The seats don’t lean back like the ones we’ve all become used to. They are really wide and feel sturdy. I’m not sure I’d sit in one without the motion effects because it’s a bit stiff and my legs dangled a little bit.
* If you sat in the third row, you’d probably feel completely left out because the people in front of you will be oohing and aahing and smiling as they move around and you’d be sitting there, as always, not moving. This will probably provide great upsell. I can imagine someone sitting in a normal seat but hearing the fun the other people are having during a trailer and running off to the box office to upgrade.

Here’s what I saw today:

1) A quick instructional/commercial clip on what’s going to happen. That clip can be seen here. When the animated chair on the screen went left, we went left; when the chair had a wave splash water on the seatback, I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel a wave “splash” my seatback.
2) A trailer for THE EXPENDABLES. There were gunshots and motorcycles and bombs going off. I was trying to calibrate my chair so I didn’t look up very often, but when I did, here’s what I noticed. When Mickey Rourke was on a motorcycle, my butt was rumbling and when that motorcycle turned, so did I. Less successful was when a guy got shot or kicked or something and fell over from left to right, my seat sort of tipped me to the right. When the soundtrack bumped, so did my seat. Think TERMINATOR 2 (dum-dum dum dum-dum [pause] dum-dum dum dum-dum) your seat will bounce in time. Which is pretty cool.
3) A trailer for TRON: LEGACY, which in my opinion used the D-Box technology a bit better. There was a helicopter shot of the top of a building (think Batman looking over Gotham) and my seat “flew” and banked like the camera did. That was my favorite effect of the day, the flying. There was more action and the light-cycles and more soundtrack thwacking. And on a side note, the Tron logo looked a crisp as anything I’ve ever seen in a theater, thanks to the 4K projectors mentioned above. It was during this clip that I noticed I was smiling.
4) Then we saw the pre-credit sequence from FAST & FURIOUS (the 4th one, I think). The part where they high-jack a gas truck (which somehow is pulling FIVE trailers up and over some Dominican Republic mountains.) When Vin Diesel spun his car around, my seat seemed to spin; when Michelle Rodriguez jumped out of the car onto the gas trailer, my chair sort of “jumped”. The footage was loud and crazy and as I was being thrown this way and that way, I glanced over to my right and watched another viewer as her head moved around. I then turned my seat down to 2. I also tried 1, but wanted more. The sequence ends with a flaming tanker rolling down a hill and Diesel timing his drag race just perfectly so that the truck bounces over his car. Then stuff blows up. Loudly.

None of the three clips I saw were from films I’d probably see in a theater. Especially Fast & Furious. But the day wasn’t about artistic creativity. It was about immersion. The first film which will utilize this technology is INCEPTION which has been my most looked-forward-to film of the summer for quite some time.

I have some questions about the technology. There’s been a great deal of debate lately over the merits of 3D. Are studios simply releasing things in 3D to pick up the $3 surcharge or are they starting from scratch to make an immersive experience? Some films are turned into 3D after filming if finished (Alice In Wonderland) and some are made 3D from scratch (Avatar, Toy Story 3, Up). Toy Story 3 is a good example of a film whose 3D didn’t call attention to itself. It was just there. It added a little something to the film experience. Nothing shot out at the audience or caused them to duck or showed off the technology. If this D-Box technology can find a way to subtly add motion to already good films, I’ll be sold. After the presentation had been finished for 15 minutes, my arms were still tingling from the Fast & Furious shaking. But then again, I had it on level 3 for most of the clip.

This D-Box experience will set you back $8 on top of the price of admission. So a 3D, Saturday evening show, could run you $20 a head. This isn’t for everyone, and if a film needs a seat to swing around to and fro to keep an audience’s interest, then maybe the plot isn’t up to snuff to begin with. How many times have we seen couples on dates eating hot dogs and nachos and sodas and candy and popcorn. All of which ends up being much more expensive than $8. A guy on a date, who is trying to impress his lady friend can easily one-up his peers by springing for the extra experience of “feeling” INCEPTION, while his friends merely “watch” INCEPTION. The experience is not unlike those amusement park rides where you swoop around left and right and get motion sick even though you’re not really moving anywhere. $8 is a small price to pay for that kind of fun.

Will the technology take off? I’m not sure. This is not something that can be inexpensively done at home, though the company does sell home theater seats that also move. Would a three hour film like AVATAR lead to “D-Box fatigue” or some kind of motion sickness. We’ll have to wait for reports to trickle in.

I think it’s a great idea to have INCEPTION be the first film to utilize this technology. By all accounts, the film is for thinking people, and the clips show a world where gravity is not absolute. I anticipate that once people find out about these seats, all 22 of them will be occupied for at least the first few weeks.

I want to thank Camera 7 General Manager Alejandro Adams, and Camera Cinemas District Manager Dominic Espinosa for letting me sample the newest technology that movie-going has to offer. And I got a bonus tour of the projection booth too!

You can follow Camera 7 on Twitter to hear how the technology is being received.

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2001

March 20, 2010
Netflix
USA
English / Spanish
80 Minutes
Documentary
Davis Guggenheim [NYPD Blue; ER; The Shield; Deadwood; An Inconvenient Truth; It Might Get Loud]

5 Teachers. 180 Days. Our Children’s Future.

As a high school teacher myself, this is the documentary that I want to show people so they can see what sort of challenges we face every day at work. I don’t just mean the many people I speak with who are confident that “anyone” can teach. I mean the supportive ones who have no idea how the dynamics of a classroom can change in an instant. This has much more truth than the heralded French film, THE CLASS, which was praised for its authenticity. While that film was more realistic than most classroom-set films, and was allegedly work-shopped for a year, it doesn’t come close to THE FIRST YEAR.

Five teachers, representing five different grade levels are featured. We meet all of them on the first day of their first year. They all work in Southern California, most thanks to the Teach For America program. A smiling teddybear from Illinois teaches kindergarten, a bilingual white man from a family full of teachers has a 4th grade class, a woman lets us into her 6th grade class, a community activist teaches 11th grade ESL social studies, and a fiery woman moves from classroom to classroom dragging her suitcase full of lesson plans and teaches social justice.

I told myself I’d give this film 10 minutes. It didn’t take that long to get me. The brief running time is divided up with different title cards. “First Day”, “Who gives up first?”, “I have a child I’m concerned about”, and so on. Lest the audience think that every day is fabulous and hugs are given all around as life lessons are learned, each teacher deals with at least one kid who is disruptive to all the others. This proves to be the most interesting portion. At least for me. The incredibly patient kindergarten teacher navigates budget cuts and pitiful staffing numbers while fighting for a doll of a boy with a severe stutter and speech problem. He also begins home visits when parents don’t show up for their conferences.

My school has a night where the parents are invited to come to school and follow their child’s schedule. I can assure you that the ten parents or so who show up each period have children who will try hard and be no trouble behaviorally the entire year. It’s the other kids I worry about. As this man pleads and begs and makes phone calls and opens his classroom early to help, the viewer can’t help but wonder exactly when he’s going to give up. A homophobic outburst in the social justice class requires an intervention, a boy with anger management issues takes the other 30 kids off task, another boy laughs during a serious ex-gang member presentation after the speakers say “what if they were aiming for you but hit your mother instead, would you be laughing then?”

It’s inspiring and honors the profession. It is also propaganda which is actively trying to recruit new teachers. Because there are five subjects followed in the 80 minutes, and because we are seeing brief periods of a full school year, we don’t ever see a “normal” day in a classroom. There are often days where everything goes well. There are days when teachers hide in their cars to sob. And there are days when all the extra preparation in the world wouldn’t have resulted in alert students engaged with the subject matter.

That film is still waiting to be made.

7.2 IMDB

The First Year @ Amazon

THE FIRST YEAR

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2010

March 7, 2010
Cinequest 20
USA / Poland
Polish / English
83 Minutes
Documentary
Steven Meyer

Is there really another worthwhile documentary to be made about the Holocaust? This brief, interesting documentary says that there is. This one follows survivors of a less well-known concentration camp called Maidanek, where participants of the Warsaw Uprising were sent. This one lacked a railroad track so the prisoners were marched from the town’s station into the front gates of the camp after traveling for days with no food or water. This camp was also unique in that prisoners were given time in a field which was in between two barracks. Another difference was that it seems as if the Nazi guards made no secret of the ultimate fate of the inmates. At other camps, prisoners on their way to the showers were told to neatly arrange their personal items so that they could find them when the shower concluded. No such charade went on at this camp. Knowing that all the gold and money they had brought to bribe the guards wouldn’t secure their freedom, the prisoners then began burying these items in the field to keep them out of the hands of the Nazis.

The film is a mixture of survivor stories and a methodical archeological dig, as well as a story about the red tape of modern Poland. It’s no shock when items are found (what sort of documentary would it have been if these stories of buried treasure proved unfounded), but hearing about a couple’s buried wedding rings or an entire family’s supply of gold is much different than seeing these items being unearthed. The items are cataloged and the survivors get a chance to hold them, struggling to see tiny inscriptions in some of them.

A post-script tells us that less than 1% of the area has been excavated.

It has become no easier over the years to watch an elderly survivor of a concentration camp walk back through the gates of the camp that killed their entire family. Sobs and memories flood back and we can somehow see their pain. Most were the only one of their large extended families to survive World War II.

Not particularly uplifting, but worth seeing.

—–

The Cinequest Program Said:

When facing even the most dire of situations, the strength of the human spirit prevails.

In 1943, thousands of survivors of the Warsaw ghetto uprising were taken and held in the Maidanek death camp. There, a revolution of a different kind would occur. Realizing they were being selected for death, the inmates, in an act of defiance and bravery, secretly buried their personal possessions so that the Nazis could not take and use them to support their war effort. Sixty-three years later, an international team of survivors and experts from around the world convened for an archeological expedition to unearth the hidden treasures.

Director Steven Meyer’s inspirational Buried Prayers is a beautiful homage to the human spirit and our necessity to survive and fight against those who attempt to take our humanity away from us. And what they discover lying six inches beneath the long-untouched earth are not just relics, but incredibly powerful stories of hope.

—–

BURIED PRAYERS

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STARRING MAJA
2009

Cinequest 20
Sweden / Ireland
Swedish
94 Minutes
Comedy / Drama
Teresa Fabik

Sort of a Swedish “Real Women Have Curves” where an overweight, but bubbly teenager shows the audience that she has feelings too. Just because this film was predictable from the first frame to the last, doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

The title character, Maja (Zandra Andersson), is an 18-year-old aspiring actress. She is also huge. She takes acting workshop classes where it’s clear she takes her craft much more seriously than the other, bored members of the troupe. She also is the butt of jokes at her school, and is bumbling in the way that only the cinematically big-boned can be. At a wedding (where she trips into the wedding cake, catches it before it collapses, and then licks the base of the bride & groom figures before quickly reconstructing the top tier, all without anyone noticing), she strikes up a conversation with the wedding videographer. Like all wedding videographers, Erika (Moa Silén) believes that she’s destined for greater cinematic glory. As she’s reviewing her video from the wedding, she stumbles upon Maja speaking directly to the camera about wanting to be an actress and declaring her availability for any projects that Erika might have.

Erika is at first intrigued by Maja’s klutziness and her seeming disconnection between her dreams and her body-type. She begins filming a thrilled Maja while shopping the footage around and being turned down at most production companies, except for one which wants to make her the basis for a comedy film called “Phat”.

When a call comes in about a role in a sitcom, Maja jumps at the chance, Erika does the driving, and a “sensitive” male classmate sneaks out of his house to go along so that he can meet with his “brother”. As this film holds no surprises, we know that Maja’s role will be described as a “hideously obese creature” who set up a blind date with the sitcom star. Erika will struggle with her conscience after setting up the part for Maja with an ex-boyfriend who has become much more successful than she has. The boy from school will learn how men posting ads online will often not, gasp, be exactly who they say they are. Maja will be in heaven as she spoons with the hot, but “theatrical” boy while they share a bed in the big, exciting, city.

There will be drama as Maja’s mother invites a large party over to watch the show, as Erika’s plans for a film at Maja’s expense are exposed, as the boy tells Maja a secret that the rest of us have known about for 45 minutes.

There are some things that the film surprised me about.
1) The boy did go to the big city, meet a man, and have some form of sex with him. Maja: you didn’t do things you didn’t want to do, did you? Boy: [no answer--then tears]
2) The acting troupe is putting on The Twelfth Night (I believe) which includes a character who is so hideous that the rest of the cast pretends to be attracted to him, until he realizes and has a speech about how evil they are by playing with his heart. This role will be played, of course, by Maja, who will wow the community theater crowd to the point of tears with her heartfelt acting talent. But the thing is, Andersson is a really good actress. We want to applaud along with the rest of the auditorium during their curtain call.
3) The film said some things about the actual chances of someone of Andersson’s build becoming famous at anything. There were scenes that were reminiscent of PRECIOUS when she pretends she’s at the BET Awards with her light-skinned boyfriend. There are dream sequences here as well.

The moral of the story I suppose is that if you’re a filmmaker, don’t make fun of your subject, find their inner soul and show it to the audience. And if you’re an overweight aspiring actress, simply find a gay man to hitch your wagon to and he’ll design a graduation gown that will be talked about for years and years. Or something.

I’d let kids of any age see this. It’s empowering. It’s crowd-pleasing. And completely predictable.

—–

The Cinequest Program Said:

Everyone wants to be seen, everyone wants to be noticed.

Finding the perfect balance of comedy and drama, Teresa Fabik’s Starring Maja inspires with a poignant, coming-of-age tale that examines our hopes and fears, about discovering ourselves and about following our dreams.

Meet Maja, an 18-year-old girl from a small town in Sweden. She dreams of becoming an actress and getting the world to see her for the beautiful person she is. But it’s difficult to get anyone to look past her portly physique, her awkward social skills, or her clumsiness. Along comes Erica, a struggling documentary filmmaker, who sees an opportunity to create some comedy and make some money by recording Maja’s daily antics. As time passes, Maja’s warm-hearted enthusiasm wins Erica over and has her questioning her motives. Maja’s journey is riddled with comedy and sadness as she struggles to find the self-esteem and courage to live her dream—on her own terms.

—–

6.9 IMDB

STARRING MAJA

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MOTHER
2009

Cinequest 20
South Korea
Korean
128 Minutes
Crime / Drama / Mystery / Thriller
Joon-ho Bong [The Host]

The closing night film of Cinequest 20, was a film by Joon-ho Bong, who also directed the much-better HOST in 2006.

This is basically the story of a mother’s loyalty to her mentally-retarded son. I’ve read a bit about this film and the phrases that continually come up are “challenged,” “simpleton,” and “slow” which I dismiss. The boy in this story is a barely functioning retarded youth who hangs out with a small-time criminal who uses him for whatever bad idea he can think up. I have seen hundreds of filmed portrayals of mentally challenged characters and few dramas have asked me to believe as ludicrous a character as Do-joon who stares at people with his mouth open and answers questions in slow motion. He forgets events and activities the second they are finished. But when he needs to be, he appears to add IQ points instantly. I almost couldn’t get past him. But Hye-ja Kim, who plays the mother, kept me at least partially entertained.

As did director Joon-ho Bong, who may have created a terrible, long, and frustrating mystery, but who can’t possibly be accused of not having the technical skill to pull of beautiful scene after beautiful scene. In one, a police interrogator karate kicks the apple out of the son’s mouth. This had nothing to do with any of the other 127 minutes, but it sure looked awesome! The opening scene showed Mother dancing, with abandon, in a field for reasons that we hope will be made clear by the end, but in actuality never are. But it was still hilarious, stunningly beautiful, and strangely emotional to watch this actress look at the camera and dance as if no one was watching.

The film is full of such moments. A building is engulfed in flames off in the distance as Mother walks through some woods. An incredibly tense scene follows a gratuitous sex scene (nothing wrong with that), in which a spilled bottle of water and it’s resulting puddle make you hold your breath as it spreads toward the dangling fingers of the bad guy.

Plot-wise, not much there. Mother runs a herbal store and moonlights as an illegal acupuncturist. She lives with her 20something son, who would forget to feed himself if she wasn’t around. Son is hit-and-runned by rich guys in a Mercedes. Boy and Thug drive out to the golf course to confront them and end up in the police station where Mother bails Son out and gives out free samples of some sort of herbal drink. Later, after a night of drinking, Boy is accuses of killing a loose schoolgirl and then displaying her for the neighborhood to see. Mother begins an investigation to find the real killer, going so far as to enlist bad guys to beat confessions out of people.

After all, her son couldn’t have possibly done what he’s been accused of, right?

And on and on. For more than two hours. Once the “mystery” has been solved, we are still subjected to another 20 minutes of slow-paced often inexplicable scenes which seem to have no connection with the original story.

I am a huge fan of Asian cinema. I enjoyed The Host and most of the creepy Korean horror films of the past decade. But this one just sucked. I don’t care if it’s from an established and much-heralded director, if this had been made in the US, no one would be giving it a second glance. Somehow it garnered an 8.1 at IMDB and a not-terrible 6.9 at Metacritic. There’s no accounting for taste.

—–

The Cinequest Program Said:

Some secrets can only be uncovered by a determined force of nature…

For twenty years Cinequest has empowered the Maverick via innovation and discovery. It fits this tradition to close a milestone program with a Maverick moment that will truly electrify…and give you one of those special moments when you leave the theatre knowing you’ve discovered something very original, very powerful.

There are many forces of nature. Perhaps the most organic and committed force is that of a mother for her child. And this power and experience of motherhood carries a universal understanding, respect and community. What would you do if your child were accused of a brutal crime?

Mother delivers a breathtaking and hugely entertaining mystery, delving into the realms of truth within the shadow side of humanity.

When it comes to her mentally challenged adult son, Do-Joon, there is nothing this middle-aged matriarch won’t do. Her devotion is put to the ultimate test when a schoolgirl is found murdered and all signs point to Do-Joon as the killer. Denied help by the authorities, she sets out to prove her son’s innocence. Using her amateur sleuthing skills, she uncovers a host of unpleasant secrets among the tormented townspeople. As the quest deepens, the heroine’s own maternal instincts become increasingly blurred.

Rather than stun with shocking sequences, director Joon-ho Bong (director of the hit film The Host) emphasizes and amazes with detailed cinematography. Shots of open fields and mystifying landscape are equally dazzling and fundamental to the mother’s journey. While her eternal love for Do-Joon may come across as shameful and outrageous, the powerful performance of the matriarch overshadows all else on screen.

—–

8.1 IMDB
6.9 Metacritic

MADEO

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APPLAUSE
2009

March 6, 2010
Cinequest 20
Denmark
Danish
85 Minutes
Drama
Martin Zandvliet

Though I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen Natasha Richardson look-a-like, Paprika Steen before, I can assure you that I’ll try to catch her in any future projects she might be involved in. She is just that good. She plays an alcoholic actress in Applause, and judging from the way she’s treated by others, a quite famous one. In a bit of too-meta storytelling, Thea is playing an alcoholic in a stage play each evening, while trying to kick the habit during daylight hours. She has also driven away what appears to be a pretty great husband and is trying to reconnect with their two young boys. But as a diva and a boozer, she isn’t exactly sure how to go about winning their trust again. Awkward hugs and unsuccessful trips to Toys R Us are just a few of the problems Thea encounters on her way to becoming a more normal-acting mother.

She attends AA meetings, but insists on visiting her neighborhood bar, even if she only enjoys a club soda and the flirtations of the men there.

The camera work is shaky and close-up. We seem to peer into her eyes, or maybe they just do a great job of catching ours. Thea is at a specific age in an actress’ life. Still beautiful, but with all of life’s years written on her face. She is mean to most of those around her, but Steen never lets us forget the humanity behind the rudeness.

There is also a scene towards the end which will give you the heaviest sense of dread.

A fantastic character study.

—–

The Cinequest Program Said:

“Even though you can’t tell, I am a good mother.”

The reason for the emotional impact achieved in Applause can be summed up in two words: Paprika Steen. One of the world’s most vibrant actresses (having starred in such films as Adam’s Apples, The Substitute and Open Hearts), Steen has the innate ability to make us laugh, cry and, yes, even to fear her with just a glance.

Steen’s tour-de-force performance as Thea in Martin Pieter Zandvliet’s debut film is, in short, fearless. A celebrated actress, Thea has been battling alcoholism for years—an addiction that led to her divorce and the loss of custody of her two sons. Pampered at work and lacking even the most basic social skills, Thea does not suffer fools gladly and fills the lives of those around her with a caustic, venomous sarcasm. But Thea wants her children back desperately and pleads with her ex-husband to let her spend time with them. But how far is she willing to go?

—–

7.2 IMDB

APPLAUSE

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HOUSE OF BRANCHING LOVE
2009

March 6, 2010
Cinequest 20
Finland
Finnish
102 Minutes
Comedy / Drama
Mika Kaurismaki

This is the kind of comedy where a man, while getting orally serviced by his girlfriend for rent, tosses a lit cigar out his window onto dry grass, where a brush fire ignites, and as the man rushes outside wearing boxers and brandishing an extinguisher, he loses control of the hose and it sprays all over his face and the window before finally hitting its target. The crowd erupts in laughter. And…scene.

A couple in their 30s is divorcing, but neither wants to leave the lakeside house, so they decide they’ll both live there, as long as they live by a set of ground rules. Samples are, we split the bills, and, no new people allowed inside, which really means that they can’t bring their new lovers over. This rule lasts about an hour. The woman calls a former one-night-stand participant and he flies his seaplane over and docks it at the house. The man asks his pimp half-brother to secure the services of a prostitute who will pose as his new love interest. But she’s on the run from a scary female mob boss who accuses her of stealing some money.

The man’s best friend is some sort of blow-dried, tight-acid-washed-jeans wearing guy who seems to have a way with the ladies, if not with his toothbrush.

The entire plot is based around a divorcing couple, who through jealousy and kidnapping and a next door neighbor with a huge dog, find that they are better together than apart. There isn’t a single surprise, and the mood changes from madcap slapstick to serious tied-to-a-chair torture seemingly at random.

Skip this one.

—–

The Cinequest Program Said:

It’s divorce: Finnish style.

In this wicked comedy, Juhani and Tuula, a successful family therapist and a business trainer, cannot practice what they preach. When they decide to divorce but continue to share the house, reason not only doesn’t prevail, long repressed emotions erupt like childish, playground tantrums. First Juhani brings home a bar pickup, infuriating Tuula so much that she gets even with a tryst of her own the next night. Juhani then ups the ante by hiring a prostitute who’s being tailed by the local mob that thinks she’s stolen a big chunk of their money, to pose as his girlfriend.

Director Mika Kaurismäki’s wild ride through domestic dysfunction not only earns its laughs, it also exposes the futility of false personas where matters of the heart are involved. Ultimately, love, in all its guises, is a part of the human condition none of us can do without.

—–

6.6 IMDB

HOUSE OF BRANCHING LOVE

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2009

February 28, 2010
Cinequest 20
India
Hindi
105 Minutes
Drama
Amit Rai

Not very successful film about a Muslim community in India. A suicide bomber has blown up a marketplace and the Indian authorities respond using force against other Muslims, detaining them for two weeks without trial. Tired of being blamed for the actions of one man, the local leader calls for a general strike, whereby each shop owners will close his store until the unjustly incarcerated men are set free. Our protagonist, an auto mechanic, is given an important job to do by governmental engineers on the day before the strike is to commence. An 1940s Ford engine is brought to his shop by official looking people who need him to fix it. It seems that the final urn of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes was recently found in a bank vault and the government is getting prepared to drive the ashes to the final Indian river using the exact same truck that carried them after his death. This is a huge honor to be picked to fix this engine, but if he keeps his shop open to do the work, his fellow Muslim businessmen will think that he’s disloyal. He will try to speak to the community leaders, but they won’t listen. He’ll be assaulted by the thuggy Muslim youth for going against orders. He’ll try and try to point out that Gandhi may have been murdered for being sympathetic to the plight of Muslim Indians. He’ll lose sleep and rely on his closest friend, a doctor who will tell him to stop stressing.

And what will the women say? We have no idea because there are only two women who appear on screen, only one of whom has a line of dialogue. There is a funeral scene which involves only men.

By the time the film ends, all warring parties will come together in a show of support that the Mahatma would have wanted to see. There is really no surprise here.

Simplistic and boring and overacted. There are some Bollywood type songs that you can bob your head to. I suppose we don’t see many films about the Muslim population of India. However, just last year at Cinequest Firaaq played, which told the story of race relations in India with much more heft.

6.9 IMDB [25 votes]

ROAD TO SANGAM

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2009

February 28, 2010
Cinequest 20
Japan
Japanese
107 Minutes
Drama
Atsushi Funahashi

I don’t need plot or the camera to move or dialogue or sex or violence or fast pacing to keep me interested. But Holy Toledo was this thing slow. I was sitting with a full cup of coffee, it was my first film of the day, and I’ll be damned if I could stay awake.

In the Yanaka neighborhood of Tokyo are a whole bunch of Buddhist temples and old-timers. And a huge, five-story pagoda used to stand over all of it. The children played around it, and it made the neighborhood happy to have it. Everyone alive at the time agrees that it burned to the ground in 1957, though how it caught on fire has two story versions. Either a crazy homeless man did it, or two lovers killed themselves by lighting it on fire while they were inside. Either way, the burning of this structure has deeply wounded the neighborhood and a student film society sets about interviewing people about it. They are also after the holy grail of filmed footage of the fire itself.

Two characters discuss how important it is to make the elderly interview subjects comfortable before asking them painful questions about the burning. This is supposed to help us in the audience go along with film maker’s pacing, which involves slow, static shots of this temple and that. Of a blind woman scrubbing tombstones. Of various ceremonies for the dead. There is also footage of the young people from the film society (actors, I think), interviewing people with memories of the pagoda (real-life citizens, I think). These stories meander until we end up learning about why the neighborhood isn’t as good as it used to be when the pagoda stood sentry. Some of the interview subjects lament that no one worships dead relatives anymore. Another doesn’t like the crime that’s moved in. Others talk about the beauty of the structure itself and how the designer went against the convention of the time and hung off the edges of the immense structure without ropes.

It is filmed mostly in Black and White, though there are rare shots of color and a few in sepia. The mixture of real neighborhood residents, a real historic fire, and actors working around them is mostly successful. The shots are uniformly beautiful, even while watching someone sweep for five minutes. But oh my goodness is it slow. And dark. And quiet.

Notes:
Slow, static shots…temple after temple…some young people are collecting film from old-timers…a five-story pagoda built in 1600s, then destroyed, then rebuilt in the 1800s, and burned in the 1950s…old-timers reminisce about what the huge structure meant to the town..

DEEP IN THE VALLEY

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2009

February 27, 2010
Cinequest 20
Norway
Norwegian / Polish / English
100 Minutes
Drama
Sara Johnsen

Terrific film about the nature of fate. And love, of course. Axel is an advertising executive in his 20s with a completely dicky demeanor. He is Asian, but was adopted at a young age by a Norwegian couple. He treats women poorly, is reckless and handsome and snobby. His adoptive parents live in a large, expensive house, and it’s clear he’s the most important thing to him. His family hires a new maid, Maria, a sexy woman from Poland, whose own son lives with her mother back in her home country. They are immediately attracted to each other, though when not having sex, he treats her as if she were his family’s maid–which, of course, she is. Maria works a second job washing dishes at an Asian restaurant in a not-so-great part of town. A co-worker, Anne, is quiet and thoughtful and was also adopted by a Norwegian, though her mother has a blue collar job working as a coat check woman in a hotel lounge. Rounding out the cast is a blond farm boy named Per, just back from the Gulf War, after being photographed brandishing a rifle in the face of a small Afghan boy. The publicity from the photo resulted in his being discharged from the army, and sent back home where he is anxious to begin his college studies. His first apartment is across the street from the restaurant. The four will become two couples.

There are several things going on in this film and not all of those things work. The film opens with night vision shots of a war zone, but Per’s military story is by far the least compelling one. He has an embedded photo-journalist (a hot one, to boot) follow him around as he goes about his army business. A car speeds through a roadblock, he kills the driver and screams at the kids in the back seat to get out. A photo is taken and he becomes a scapegoat. He has trouble sleeping afterward, but is polite and smart and ready for college.

The more successful theme is one of class distinction. Axel is spoiled and wealthy and handsome and entitled and works in a high-priced ad agency. Anne is beautiful and sweet and is a waitress at a local restaurant. Maria is in Norway on a worker’s permit, lives in a different country than her son, is both a maid and a dishwasher. That’s our hierarchy. But what caused them to reach the class level they’ve reached? Maria came to Norway looking for a better life. Axel and Anne were adopted as children from their homeland by two vastly different families. One a single mother working in a hotel, the other a well-to-do couple who throw lavish parties, support liberal causes, and think nothing of their mid-20s son coming home to live after a work suspension (for inappropriate language towards a female, of course).

Add to this the relationship that Maria and Axel enter into–she is employed by his family, how can any love affair be equal? When he’s mean to her, his barbs are always aiming towards her domestic servant status.

What if the situation were different? The girl was adopted by the wealthy couple and given all the advantages that Axel now enjoys.

I must say that as someone who was adopted as an infant, this sort of what if discussion is never far from my mind. What if the family before the one I ended up with had decided to take me? How would everything have been different–or the same? Biological children probably don’t go through this, but we “chosen babies” do. So this film hit quite close to home.

Beyond the plot, the film is populated by good looking people of various backgrounds. Axel walks around completely nude–and why shouldn’t he with that body. Anne is striking in her poise and posture and quietness. She has a first kiss that will make you swoon. Maria is louder and demonstrative and sexy. And Per is buff and handsome and as Norwegian as apple pie. Each does a fabulous job with their characters. The music and photography is great.

If you forget about an incredible coincidence for a moment and just let it wash over you, you’ll be in for a great film experience.

Notes:
Coincidence aside, fabulous story of siblings, adopted from Asia to Norway…the son is an affluent advertising creative type who is just an asshole to everyone he meets…his adopted family is beyond wealthy…clearly he’s had everything he’s ever wanted…we see him as the film opens paying his buddy to sleep with his girlfriend, thus proving her unworthiness–it’s a loyalty test she fails…sent home on a semi-suspension (for inappropriate language), Axel meets his family’s new maid, a Polish hottie who he treats like trash…Maria also works as a dishwasher at the Vietnamese restaurant where her best friend Anne works. Anne was also adopted from Vietnam, but her mother is a coat checker at a posh hotel…An ex-soldier, who becomes infamous for a photo of him aiming a machine gun in an Afghan boy’s face, moves into Maria’s low-rent building to being his college studies…the soldier finds comfort in the restaurant and the advertising exec finds comfort in the maid…there are some interesting things being said about the luck of life’s draw…both Vietnamese young people seem smart, one was adopted by affluent parents, the other by a working-class woman…how does this adoption lottery affect those involved…the cast is magnificent, and the Norway we see is less fancy, clean, and healthy than divided, racist, and full of class divisions…not sure if the soldier’s story is as compelling as the others…the scenes of war seem a bit out of place…they are good, but the vibe is different…the film is all about how big events can affect everything that follows, whether it be an international adoption, a child left in another country, or an act during wartime…

7.1 IMDB

UPPERDOG

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THE ROBBERS
2009

February 25, 2010
Cinequest 20
China
Mandarin
92 Minutes
Action
Shu-Peng Yang

A crowd-pleaser that left me sort of cold. Two bumbling thieves walk the countryside until they arrive at a village which is full of idiots. They claim to be hunters desiring water, but it quickly becomes clear that they are after any valuables the villagers have. One of the robbers has an incredible likeness to Toshiro Mifune, but a bit more chubby, and this bumblier of the bumbling duo takes a liking to the daughter of the man they first rob. Before they can get away, some soldiers show up, abuse the villagers in minor ways, then begin to abuse the daughter in much more serious ways. As the rape is taking place (though this rape is mostly played for laughs), the robber with the crush stabs the soldier, which begins a full-on samurai fight with four soldiers vs. two robbers.

This is when the film takes off into supercool territory. The soundtrack is “300-esque”, full of speed metal riffs that have nothing to do with authenticity, but just sound bitchin. As the men are running around and stabbing each other and shooting arrows into each other, the blood spurts, the villagers recoil in horror, and the soundtrack thumps on.

But as soon as there is life in the film, it begins running out of gas. Instead of thanking the robbers for saving a young maiden from her soiled fate, the village elder gets the rest of the men in town to take the two men prisoner. This will happen several more times in the course of the film. The men will save the asses of the village, the dim-witted mayor and his even more dimwitted townspeople will tie up the two men, and they’ll find any number of ways to get out of their control. On one occasion, one fakes the need to pee–in another, a sympathetic (and sexy) butcher-badass leaves one of her knives within reach so they can cut their way out.

But it’s ponderous when the same plot happens over and over. The mayor fakes paralysis in order to sneak away on a donkey to tell the army what the robbers have done with their comrades.

The film is bookended with scenes of an ancient man and woman and their crazy kid who stop for water at a village full of scared people.

The music is cool, but the film is ridiculous. I suppose if you have a soft spot for slapstick, this one might do the trick. And apparently dick jokes translate into any language and dynastic era.

5.9 IMDB

THE ROBBERS

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CRAZED FRUIT
1956

February 7, 2010
Netflix Criterion DVD
Japan
Japanese
86 Minutes
Drama
Ko Nakahira

Sort of a “Rebel Without A Cause” for Japan. It’s the 1950s and the beach kids in Japan are too bored to be rebelling against anything. They are well-to-do and spend their summer at jazz clubs, playing cards, and accumulating female conquests. They wear Hawaiian shirts and strum ukuleles and hang out at their wealthy friend’s house most of the time. They are in college, but school is the last thing on their minds. If the Hamptons had a boardwalk with amusements, it’d look a lot like the place depicted. There are sailboats and powerboats and sports cars available whenever these boys want them.

Brothers Haruji (younger, innocent, naive, angsty) and Natsuhisa (older, smoker, mistreater of women, deceiver) spend their days waterskiing and tanning and lamenting their existence. Haruji, who has apparently never mentioned a girl before, becomes smitten with someone he sees at the train station. Her name is Eri and he goes slow with her, teaching her to waterski, swimming with her, and laying out on rocks where their legs _almost_ touch. A party is held whereby each boy is to bring three girls and the one with the best “hand” wins. When Haruji and Eri walk in, the contest is over. She is poised and beautiful and bejeweled, acts innocent, but doesn’t push away her dance partners when they pull her close.

Brother will betray brother, feelings will be hurt, and Eri will turn out to be anything but the giggly schoolgirl she purports to be.

CRAZED FRUIT (what kind of stupid Anglicized title is that, anyway) is pretty frank in its depiction of sex, especially for 1950s Japan. A woman who was “passed around last night” has a conversation with virginal Haruji while they wait for his brother–she’s wearing a nightgown. A girl pulls a boy’s hand to her breast, a skirt is torn open in a moment of passion, a knowing glance turns to an embrace.

The soundtrack is full of Hawaiian music while the boys lounge in the beach house during the hot parts of the day, and jazz is loud at night. The nonchalance of their casual hookups with women must have been shocking to middle-aged moviegoers back in the day. It leaves the modern viewer with a “not much has changed” attitude.

7.7 IMDB

Crazed Fruit @ Amazon

CRAZED FRUIT

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Written by Michael W. Cummins