Saturday, April 30, 2005

IFFB Day Two: Casting About, After Innocence, and Dead Birds

The theme for Day Two was waiting. I'm not a naturally patient person, and I suppose this is just a piece of the festival experience, but when the woman came with a survey, my line about "what could be improved" was that every movie started at least fifteen minutes to a half hour late. The situation with Casting About in the morning was ridiculous, though not entirely the festival's fault - the movie got moved to a smaller theater (some sort of technical issue), and it started a half hour or forty-five minutes late. After Innocence started late, too, but the Brattle seemed to have a better handle on handling the lines (obviously easier with one screen than four).

Then I tried to get into The Hole Story. Grr. The person in line directly in front of me was a member of the director's family, and was holding a place for others. Eventually, that one person in front of me became seventeen. I don't want to sound like I should have gotten in there instead of the filmmaker's family (and I probably could have if I had bailed on the After Innocence Q&A), but it's a question of what's polite. An informal survey over the next few days had "four" as the highest number of spots in line one person should be able to claim (and everyone thought Matt was being generous).

No trouble with Dead Birds, though. And, I'll restate - getting a good midnight movie improves the festival experience immensely. Also, it goes without saying that getting stuck in the first or second row of the Brattle is roughly a million times better than the same position in the Somerville's four smaller theaters.

Casting About

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2005 at the Somerville Theater #4 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

A few years ago, Barry J. Hershey was going to make a movie. This movie - "Moving Still" - would be set during World War II and have sizable parts for three actresses, playing an artist's model, a nun, and a dancer. One thing he was hoping to do was to incorporate audition footage in some manner, since the process had fascinated him all the way back to film school. That movie is as yet unproduced, but the idea of using the casting footage blossomed into a full feature

I sort of hope the original feature is never produced. If it gets made, then Casting About becomes a DVD extra, and the people watching it will inevitably focus on the actresses who did receive parts (if they're chosen from this pool; it has been a couple of years). As it stands now, the women are all on equal footing, and there's no right way or wrong way to approach a character. The downside of that is that, without callbacks and decisions made, it's not as complete as a process junkie like me might hope for. Of course, if the parts had been cast, there's a good chance the actresses don't release their footage for inclusion - who wants their failures immortalized on film?

Read the rest at HBS.

After Innocence

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Independent Film Festival of Boston) (projected video)

We all know that our justice system isn't perfect. It occasionally lets guilty people go free and puts innocent people in jail, and we accept the latter because we know that a perfect system is impossible: A system that never could find an innocent man guilty would likely never find anyone guilty. Thus, we also provide means for a wrongful guilty verdict to be overturned. As After Innocence shows, though, it's not an easy process, and doesn't come close to solving the problems of the wrongfully convicted.

Though the title is "After Innocence", much of the film's running time is spent on the process of establishing that innocence. In the past twenty years, DNA testing has made the process much more definitive - it is much stronger evidence than the eyewitness testimony that incarcerated most of the film's subjects. Many viewers will likely be shocked to discover just how unreliable eyewitness accounts are, especially upon learning that one of the exonorees was convicted based upon the testimony of multiple witnesses.

Read the rest at HBS.

Dead Birds

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Independent Film Festival of Boston: IFFB After Dark)

There's not much in Dead Birds that a savvy horror audience hasn't seen before. That is, in many ways, the nature of the genre - you isolate the protagonists, start picking them off one by one, and feed them just enough information so that maybe, just maybe, one or two of them can escape from their situation with skin still covering their bones. What sets this movie apart is not just how effectively it makes the audience jump, but the way it blends its various influences: It combines an undeniably American historical setting with the style of recent Asian horror.

The setting is Civil War-era Alabama. Two groups of Confederate soldiers arrive at a local bank, one on legitimate business, the other deserters looking to rob them blind. After a suitably splatter-iffic shootout, the outlaws are on their way to Mexico. One of their number has been shot, but not to worry - they know about an abandoned plantation house where they can sew him up. The kicker, of course, is that there are good reasons for this house to be abandoned - the sickly-looking crops are littered with the dead birds of the title, and they are immediately attacked by... Well, it has to be some sort of giant, hairless coyote, right?

Read the rest at HBS.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

IFFB Day One: Stolen, Childstar, and White Skin

Well, Day One for me, since I didn't manage to catch the opening night film. Amazing that that huge main theater in Somerville sold out. Still, if there's only one showing, I think it's fair to call that "Day Zero".

Anyway, I think that it's fair to say that a good line-up of midnight shows is crucial to my enjoying the IFFB. I know horror-type movies aren't really supposed to make you feel comfortable, but after a documentary without a really solid conclusion and a movie that tries to go off in a dozen different directions, a high-quality genre movie is exactly what I need. The guy making something like White Skin or, even more so, like Dead Birds is trying to achieve something very basic. Every scene is about either freaking the audience out or building up to freaking the audience out. The simplicity appeals to me.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2005 at Somerville Theater #2 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Someday, a great movie will be made about the Gardner Museum robbery. There's just too many classic elements and characters for it not to happen; the story would include a daring heist of well-known paintings, a scarred and obsessed detective, connections to fugitive Boston mob boss (and FBI informant) Whitey Bulger and the Irish Republican Army, a five million dollar reward, a newspaper reporter given a tantalizing glimpse, a former crook with conspiracty theories, and more. There's only one thing that great movie would need missing: An ending.

At approximately 1:20am on 18 March 1990, two men dressed as Boston Police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, overpowered the guards on duty, and made off with a dozen pieces, including five by Degas, three by Rembrandt, one by Manet, and one Vermeer ("The Concert", currently considered among the most valuable stolen pieces of art in the world). Suspicion fell upon notorious (and imprisoned) New England art thief Myles Connor as the mastermind, but he denied involvement. The two men he suggested were involved, Bobby Donati and David Houghton, would be dead within two years. In 1997, another associate of Connor's, William Youngworth, contacted Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg and took him on a drive to see what appeared to be one of the Rembrandts, giving him some paint chips to analyze. Youngworth claims the paintings could be returned "in thirty minutes" if he was given amnesty.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2005 at Somerville Theater #2 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Don McKellar goes for easy targets in Childstar, ones which should be easy to skewer and whose mocking should be especially appreciated by a festival audience: Pampered child actors! Irresponsible stage mothers! Crappy, inane, faux-patriotic Hollywood movies! Arrogant Americans condescending to sincere Canadians! Obsessive celebrity news! This should be shooting fish in a barrel, but McKellar often gives the frustrating impression that he can't tell fish and barrels apart.

Part of the reason why may be that McKellar is making a movie based on other peoples' horror stories. Despite a fifteen-year career as an actor in Toronto, he doesn't appear to have ever wound up cast in a Hollywood production; even eXistenZ was a local production. This means that instead of drawing on the experience of being a Canadian indie filmmaker/actor on the set of an American runaway production, he's pretty much regurgitating the same anti-Hollywood clichés that the audience has seen a million times before (early on, he even has the young movie star blithely ask who the director is). The end result is a movie that feels overly familiar, when it should have some sort of insider knowledge.

Read the rest at HBS.

White Skin (La Peau Blanche)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2005 at Somerville Theater #5 (Independent Film Festival of Boston: IFFB After Dark)

White Skin is the best kind of creepy movie. It's the kind where a sense of wrongness builds gradually enough that you don't feel the director trying to convince the audience, but quickly enough to leave you shocked. It doesn't rely on money shots, elaborate prosthetics, or set-pieces. It doesn't really want the audience to scream. Screaming, you see, is too easy a release.

Thierry's friend Henri (Frédéric Pierre) decides to treat his roommate, a sweet guy from rural Québec (they are both students in Montréal), to a hooker for his birthday. Thierry (Marc Paquet) is grateful but tells his girl that they don't have to actually do anything. She thinks it's because he'd rather be with Henri's paid companion, but that's not it at all. After all, Henri chose a redhead and Thierry finds them stomach-turning. It's not the hair, he says, so much as the pale skin; it's sickly-looking and you can see the veins if you get too close.

Read the rest at HBS.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Tentative IFFB plans

Bolted work a little bit earlier than I probably should have at 5pm, took the 70A to Watertown Square, the 71 to Harvard, then the Red Line to the Somerville Theater at about 6:15. Wound up waiting in line for an hour to try and get tickets for Lonesome Jim, only to get turned away, even though it's a 900-seat theater. Ah, well, great Red Sox on NESN.

So, here's what I'm thinking for the weekend:

FRIDAY 6:30pm - SOMERVILLE 2 - Stolen - How many real-life art thefts do you really hear about? Sounds like a neat documentary.
FRIDAY 9:00pm - SOMERVILLE 2 - Childstar - Of the movies I'm planning on seeing, probably the one most likely to get a release. Still, the Chlotrudis people are cool, and it's got a nice cast.
FRIDAY 11:00PM - SOMERVILLE 5 - White Skin with "Herbie" - Creepy French movie. It's a bummer that I won't be able to hit all the "after dark" movies.

SATURDAY 12:15pm - SOMERVILLE 3 - Casting About with "Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody?" - Kind of inside baseball, but the casting process is one of the most important parts of making a movie I don't understand.
SATURDAY 3:00pm - BRATTLE - After Innocence - Documentary on those who have been exonerated by DNA evidence.
SATURDAY 7:30pm - SOMERVILLE 5 - The Hole Story with "Samuel Demango" - Looks like it might be in the vein of Incident at Loch Ness.
SATURDAY 12:00am - BRATTLE - Dead Birds with "The Netherbeast of Berm-Tech Industries, Inc." - Civil war horror being favorably compared with stuff from Japan? Nifty.

SUNDAY 3:30pm - SOMERVILLE 4 - The Future of Food with "Magda" - I'm kind of more interested in the animated short than the alarmist documenatry.
SUNDAY 5:45pm - COOLIDGE - Filmic Achievement - Odd, there's a short playing with the Friday and Saturday showings but not this one, apparently.
SUNDAY 9:00pm - SOMERVILLE 3 - Blackballed with "Spam-ku" - Paintball has to be at least as funny as dodgeball, right?

Obviously, if I can't get out of work in time for Stolen on Friday, a lot could get rearranged. There are a few spots on Friday and Saturday where I wish I could fit another movie in, but I figure it'll give me eating time. There's a couple I know will play the Brattle soon (The Girl From Monday and Kings and Queen). I'd really like to be able to get to Mysterious Skin and Spew, but I can't figure out how ot make it work.

Thoroughly unpleasant people: Raging Bull and Oldboy

As you might be able to guess from the month between these two movies, I've been procrastinating on writing my review for Raging Bull. They're tough enough to write when I really just don't like a movie that has a bunch of praise. When it's a current movie, you can at least feel like you're one of the smart ones, saying the emperor has no clothes (like when I really rather disliked The Aviator). When it's something that's been acquiring praise for 25 years, though, I start second guessing myself, especially when I can't really say there's anything wrong with the movie.

Similarly, all five current reviews for Oldboy on HBS are five stars, and my 3.5 on a four star scale ranking translates to "only" four stars. And it lost that half star basically because the end grossed me out. I mean, why does Dae-su pull out the scissors? It's the moment when the movie jumps from "edgy" to "over the edge", just being shocking without adding much.

So, I guess on both of these, I'm knocking them down for my personal taste - especially Raging Bull, which couldn't overcome my antipathy for boxing the same way that, say, Million Dollar Baby did. But, hey, truly great movies should be able to.

Raging Bull

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagment)

I don't like boxing. I can admire the dedication and effort it takes to be a good boxer, but it takes dedication and effort to do anything well, so why not expend it on learning how to do something nobler than beating another person unconscious? Although I'm certain that there are many big-hearted boxers, the sport comes across as a thug's activity, with the rampant corruption doing little to make things look better. So I guess it's fitting that Raging Bull is basically a movie about a thug.

It's a polished movie about a thug, no question. The black and white photography is unwaveringly excellent, the actors deliver fine performances, and everything that happens rings true, which isn't always a given even for a biography. But when you get right down to it, Jake La Motta is a big, dumb, petty, violent bruiser of a man, and as such men are wont to do, he squanders his success and winds up making those around him miserable. Where's the interest in that almost inevitable progression, other than the formidable craft of Martin Scorsese and his cast and crew? That's not trivial by any means, but they bring it to a story and a character that is interesting for little other than confirming a pessimistic view of human nature.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 April 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (first-run)

Oldboy is nasty, but for the most part, it's compelling-nasty as opposed to gratuitous-nasty. Everything about it, from its plot to its performances to its violence, is over-the-top, and if there's an idea that can make the average member of an audience uncomfortable, Oldboy probably hits it at some point. Still, the shocks don't really become repulsive until the last act - acclaimed Korean director Park Chan-wook fills his garish movie with as much intrigue as grotesquerie.

The movie opens with credits suggesting clocks, and then a wild-haired man holding another off the side of the building. We flash back to see him some time earlier, drunk and disorderly in a police station waiting for a friend to pick him up, and learn that his name, "Oh Dae-su", means "easy to get along with". As his friend calls Dae-su's wife, though, we find out that someone doesn't find him so agreeable, as Dae-su disappears. We next see him in a tiny apartment whose door has an opening in the bottom for his jailors to pass him food but no explanations. After a year locked in the apartment, there's a report on TV about his wife being murdered, with Dae-su the prime suspect. He'll stay there much longer, the television his only contact with the outside world, slowly trying to dig his way out, training himself to be at least fit enough to handle himself in a fight, even if he has no sparring partners. Bare days before his escape is complete, though, he is released. He tells this story to a man he finds ready to jump off a roof, and then begins the grim business of finding out who imprisoned him - and perhaps more importantly, why.

Read the rest at HBS.

Next up: The Independent Film Festival of Boston, and some packages of shorter films.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Products of their environment: Off The Map, Melinda & Melinda, Fever Pitch

So, today, three movies defined in large part by their settings and the characters who inhabit them - desert hermits near Taos, New Mexico; Woody Allen's Manhattanites, and Boston Red Sox fans.

I'll ignore Off the Map before briefly commenting on the latest from Woody Allen: I never really was a fan of his until the Brattle had a series showing his 1970s films - at which point I wished he would retire. Normally, I'm not one to give much credence to the "he's tarnishing his legacy" claims - if someone will pay you to do what you love even if you aren't the performer you used to be, keep doing it. I've got much more respect for Rickey Henderson, still trying to compete with kids half his age, than I do for someone who doesn't. But Allen's earlier movies were so good and his new ones were so bad... What's worse, he's starting to come across as an old man, rather than the eternally middle-aged nebbish. At least he's not pairing himself off with women in their twenties or thirties or being uncomfortably sexist. Still, it's depressing. He still fancies himself a serious artist and doesn't realize he's just a brand name now.

Fever Pitch, though... I was really pleased. I recognize that the Red Sox actually winning the World Series probably played hell with the movie thematically - even though the movie takes place during last season, it's already hard to remember that just a year ago, coming so close and falling short was the hallmark of Red Sox fandom. Life's good for us now. We're not Yankees fans who expect victory, but a goofy-looking Jimmy Fallon scoring Drew Barrymore isn't a triumph of the underdog or a victory contrasted with a defeat.

The Farrellys get a lot right. "Sweet Caroline", not giving everyone from the Hub goofy accents, and even choosing places in Toronto that genuinely look like Boston to double for the city when necessary. Most importantly, they make being a Red Sox fan look fun even before the World Series; too often we've been protrayed as miserable and happy in our misery, secretly hoping the Sox would never win because we wouldn't know what to do. The last six months have shown that to be crap, but they were filming before all that happened. Also, they present the Sox-Yankees rivalry as just that, a rivalry, not an inferiority complex. The people at Fox Sports should watch this movie and absorb that, because, well, if you've watched Fox Sports cover the Red Sox... Ouch.

(Speaking of which, the announcing team in the latter parts of the movie - Don Orsillo, Tim "I Want to Have Derek Jeter's Baby" McCarver, and Harold Reynolds - is now a fixture of my nightmares)

Off the Map

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run)

Off the Map takes place in the middle of nowhere, against a desert landscape that fills the screen and extends past its borders further than any eye can see. It's surprising that the film is an adaptation of a play; I'm not sure how that would work, with the implicit boundaries a stage's wings and backdrop create. The vastness of the land makes it, as they like to say, "like another character in the movie". It's not the most interesting or dynamic character, being mostly flat and made of dirt, but that it's in the running is an indication of how this movie doesn't live up to its potential.

I get the impression that Off the Map is autobiographical. There are 1970s period details even though the movie could easily be set today; it's framed by scenes of Amy Brenneman playing an adult version of 11-year-old Bo (Valentina de Angelis), and the latter half of the movie contains narration of what would happen later. It's events that could be worked into the screenplay, but aren't, perhaps because that's not what really happened. Or maybe not; for all I know, Joan Ackermann (adapting her own play) has never left the city, or she just wants to represent that not everything happens within a movie's timeframe.

Read the rest at HBS.

Melinda and Melinda

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 April 2005 at Landmark Embassy #5 (first-run)

I like the idea behind Melinda and Melinda for the same reason I like a lot of things that aren't necessarily popular among movie fans - things like remakes, re-imaginings, and adaptations that diverge from their source material. Stories were originally amorphous things before we evolved the technology to make a permanent record, and different storytellers would tell the same story in different ways. Where Melinda and Melinda falters is that the stories Woody Allen tells using this idea aren't nearly as interesting as the idea itself.

The frame is that a group of Woody Allen New Yorkers meet for dinner, including two successful playwrights. Sy (Wallace Shawn) is a pessimist who writes comedies, while Max (Larry Pine) is a romantic who writes tragedies. Another attendee mentions something told to him by a friend of a friend, about a woman who shows up at a dinner party and throws the hosts' lives into chaos. Given the same basic concept, each expands the story into something from his own ouevre. Both involve Melinda (Radha Mitchell) interrupting a dinner party; both will include the hosts of the party setting Melidna up with a guy; and, of course, Melinda's presence will highlight the cracks in the hosts' marriage.

Read the rest at HBS.

Fever Pitch

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 April 2005 at Loews Boston Common #14 (first-run)

I can't exactly be rational about this movie. I feel like it intersects with my life, and not just because part of the movie was filmed after a game I attended (when the announcement that we could all stay to be extras came over the Public Address system, I commented to my brother that they just sold thirty thousand DVDs). The Red Sox winning the World Series was, if you haven't heard, a Big Thing in New England, and the shared euphoria afterward is powerful stuff for a movie to tap into, especially considering how fresh it still is.

So, understand, it may take a couple of years for me to be able to look at Fever Pitch and say how the movie itself makes me feel, and how it works. The delight I felt coming out of the movie is due, at least in part, to remembering my own October 2004 emotional roller coaster.

Read the rest at HBS.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

From Away: Downfall, Wilby Wonderful, and Dot the I

So, three more reviews. Only 14 behind now.

Downfall (Der Untergang)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 9 March 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (Preview)

Hitler's a cliché. Less than a year ago, I saw a short film in which Udo Keir played Hitler hiding out in London after the war, in drag. I mention this because the scenes which opened that short are strikingly similar to ones near the end of Downfall, and because it's an example of what the man has become in the past sixty years: A subject of black humor. Indeed, when Bruno Ganz made his first appearance as Adolf Hitler in Downfall, laughs escaped from a few members of the audience because he's Hitler, with the silly mustache and tics and crazy ideas. It takes a moment for the audience to realize that, yes, Hitler is absurd, but the frightening kind of absurd, the type where the inconceivable is happening around you.

We see him interviewing new secretaries at first, choosing Traudl Junge (Alexadra Maria Lara), a pretty 22-year-old girl whose accent he fancies. She'll be our perspective character, a relative innocent who within three years will find herself in a Berlin bunker as the Russians close in and the Nazi leadership at first defiantly acts as though victory is still possible. Soon, though the focus becomes making the Allies' victory hollow while avoiding justice and personal humiliation.

Read the rest at HBS.

Wilby Wonderful

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

There are small towns, and there are Movie Small Towns. Real small towns have three-or-four-digit populations, share a high school with a neighboring town, and the restaurant is open from five in the morning until two in the afternoon. Movie Small Towns have small populations, but also have the residents entangled in a soap-opera-like web of deception and intrigue, and nobody seems to have a job that prevents him or her from being in everyone else's business all day long.

Wilby, Nova Scotia, is clearly a Movie Small Town. Happily, it is populated by a who's who of Canadian film and television, including folks even those of us in the States will recognize. Right now, the most well-known is probably Sandra Oh; she plays Carol French, a tightly-wound real estate agent who is also helping to organize the island town's annual fair. Paul Gross plays her husband Buddy, the senior member of Wilby's two or three person police force; he's a native while she's what we New Englanders call "From Away". Buddy occasionally sneaks off with Sandra Anderson (Rebecca Jenkins), who earned her easy reputation in high school but has been away, but recently moved back to her home town to take over the less-popular café. He daughter Emily (Ellen Page) is best friends with MacKenzie Fisher (Marcella Grimaux), whose father Brent (Maury Chaykin) is the mayor. Also lurking around are Dan (James Allodi), selling his house after his wife left him, and Duck (Callum Keith Rennie), the local handyman.

Read the rest at HBS.

Dot The I

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Preview)

I ask in jest - is there a good-looking person shortage in the United Kingdom that required the makers of Dot the I to import all their sex appeal? It's a somewhat strange thing, seeing two Latin American actors starring in an English thriller. You start to wonder why they didn't just set the movie in Buenos Aires or Madrid, aside from the small matter of writer/director Matthew Parkhill being British.

I'm not complaining; I don't need the lady who is far too smart to be my girlfriend to tell me that Gael Garcia Bernal brings the hotness to his role of Kit, and the home movies of Natalia Verbeke's Carmen that open the movie are pretty darn sexy if you like the whole beautiful, curvy girl with a fantastic smile thing. The characters meet when Carmen's hen party (she's just gotten engaged) and Kit's night out with friends wind up seated at opposite ends of the same table in a French restaurant. The maitre d' announces that there is a French tradition about one last kiss, and Kit's the best-looking guy there. The kiss lasts longer than is probably polite, and she runs off, but a smitten Kit tracks Carmen down at her job to apologize.

Read the rest at HBS.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Recent-ish documentaries: Gunner Palace, Sunset Story, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Dust to Glory

In many ways, documentaries make the case for distribution via digital video. I don't like digital video as a rule - I've yet to see a DLP projection that can compare with 35mm projection, and when we hear about how much more convenient it is - well, I don't mind Time-Warner or AMC being put out a little if it means my $8 movie ticket looks good. They are large corporations that can handle it.

But little independent filmmakers shooting a documentary? The cost of striking a 35mm print may be a large fraction of their budget, and the cost of striking multiple prints to do a pseudo-nationwide release as opposed to just shipping one print hither and yon may be prohibitive. And national, if not international, is the way it is now - word-of-mouth moves much faster than the postcards boutique houses leave for the taking nowadays, and you've got to strike while the iron's hot.

Also, one can't help but notice that both Sunset Story and Dust to Glory sport 2003 copyrights, and Sunset Story, at least, chronicles events of 2000, and yet it's just now reaching theaters and television. It's no more "breaking news" than most documentaries, but I have to wonder if digital distribution might have allowed Laura Gebbert to get her movie into theaters quickly enough that Irja Lloyd could have seen it that way. It would also likely give documentarians a chance to move onto new projects quickly by making movies easier and quicker to sell and book.

Of course, this assumes that there's dissatisfaction with the current system. I may not know what I'm talking about.

Gunner Palace

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

They say a lot of things about war. One of my favorites is that it's long periods of boredom punctuated by brief moments of terror. There's a lot of the boredom in Gunner Palace, and not so much of the terror. Part of that is just a matter of only being able to put together the footage you shoot, but part is that directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker aren't yet seasoned filmmakers, and though they've got some good film, they don't yet seem to have the skills to make a great movie out of it.

It doesn't help that this movie about American soldiers in Iraq is made and released in contentious times, and isn't quite enough of a straight-ahead, keep the editorializing to ourselves presentation to avoid being a target. It's close, and in fact it's close enough that what looks like the directors' ideology coming through could just be random noise rather than insidious. After all, just because Rumsfeld is a lightning rod for controversy doesn't make playing clips of him speaking automatic criticism.

Read the rest at HBS.

Sunset Story

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Sunset Story is a nice little movie. At seventy-three minutes in length, it's on the short end of features, and despite being filled with people holding strong opinions, it isn't out to convince its audience of anything. Director Laura Gabbert's documentary doesn't have a whole lot to say other than that Lucille and Irja were friends, even though they met extremely late in life. Knowing this probably won't change the way I see the world, but it's the sort of knowledge that does make one's life just the smallest bit better.

Lucille Alpert and Irja Lloyd are residents of a Los Angeles retirement home called "Sunset Hall" who arrived within two weeks of each other some years before. Founded in 1923, the institution's charter is to cater to the needs of elderly "free-thinkers". Lucille (95) and Irja (80) have both always been activists, and their minds are still sharp: Lucille devours multiple newspapers every morning, while Irja still takes herself to protests, wheelchair and all ("I was a teenager during the Great Depression and I'm still marching for the same things!"). We meet other residents of the home, with subtitles briefly describing what they did before retirement (Lucille was a social worker and Irja a special education teacher), and I suspect Ms. Gabbert originally intended to make a movie about aging radicals as a concept, only later deciding to focus on the friendship these two share.

Read the rest at HBS.

Los Angeles Plays Itself

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

We've all done it. We've all gone to a movie, or rented a DVD, and had our belief happily suspended, maybe even scolded our neighbor about not being able to overlook some minor technical detail, and then been jolted out of it because the city on the screen, which claims to be our hometown, is obviously some other city (or vice versa). Or maybe a car chase will jump from one side of the city to another. Or maybe it just becomes clear that the director doesn't get the place like we do.

Hey, it's happened to me. I'm anticipating a bit of unintentional comedy when I see Fever Pitch this weekend, despite the filmmakers' best intentions. But I'm pretty sure I'll never make a three-hour movie about how Hollywood has misrepresented Boston, the way Thom Anderson has opted to educate us about Los Angeles.

Read the rest on HBS.

Dust to Glory

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 April 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Preview)

I'm not a car person. I have relatives who are fans of stock-car racing, but I tend to see that as watching other people drive all afternoon and not get anywhere. I tell friends and family members that owning a truck is wasteful. I not only don't own a vehicle of my own, but I never bothered to get my driver's license. With all that said, I found Dust to Glory, a chronicle of the Baja 1000 cross-country race, to be a ton of fun.

See, even if I don't like dealing with automobiles myself, I do like speed. I stand in awe of raw mechanical power, and can't really conceive of having control of one of these cars/trucks/motorcycles without killing someone (probably myself). There's also something delightfully pure about the race itself: Anyone can enter, from a pair of locals in a twenty-year-old Volkswagen Beetle to a sponsored team in a million dollar "trophy truck". The thousand mile race has the same start and end points, but the actual course changes from year to year, and always includes a bunch of different terrain, from mountains to beach, rolling dunes to extremely loose silt.

Read the rest at HBS.

Next: Movies from exotic Germany, Canada, and England.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Coming out of the dumping ground: Be Cool, In Good Company, The Jacket, Hostage, Sin City

So, anyway, as my friend-I've-never-met Scott Weinberg says, 2005 has been a dire year for movies, at least so far. At least out of Hollywood; I'm not going to complain too hard about getting the likes of Steamboy, Aliens of the Deep, The Animation Show 2005, and Witnesses. But, man, if I still lived in Portland Maine and pretty much only had mianstream Hollywood to watch, I'd be either looking for a new hobby or actually plowing through my DVD collection.

I'm not sure why the concept of the "dumping ground" persists in this day and age. There are two major ones, from the first of the year to mid-February (which, this year, was elongated to the end of March), and August/September. The thought has generally been that people just don't see that many movies during those time periods, but there's relatively recent evidence to show that people will come out if you give them something worthwhile: The Fugitive was a huge August hit. The Star Wars Special Editions actually had to be spaced out so that they wouldn't cannibalize each other. Titanic and the Midgets vs. Jewelry movies may have come out in December, but showed tremendous staying power. The lesson seemed to be that if you give the audience something they want to see, they'll respond, even if it's not a holiday weekend.

That would seem especially true this year, since the Oscar contentders expanding their releases really weren't going to be popular hits. Instead, the winter has been something of a cinematic dead zone. And now, it looks like we're about to shift gears like crazy, with Sin City announcing that movies are going to be good again... Just when I could use some time to watch baseball.

Be Cool

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2005 at Loews Boston Common #2 (first-run)

"Be Cool" is a somewhat ironic name for this project, as it describes its hopes as much as its story. Get Shorty was the coolest everyone in its cast had been in recent memory, and Travolta is desperately trying to recapture that moment, to be as cool as he was ten years ago. He doesn't, not really, although a little of the cool around him does rub off. This is a reasonably entertaining movie in spite of Travolta.

What made Travolta's Chili Palmer cool in Get Shorty was his unflappability, but what made that movie and character great was that he wasn't just cool. Underneath that steely gaze was a guy who didn't derive much pleasure from being ruthless, but did love the movies. It seldom came all the way to the surface, but underneath, you could tell this guy was a total geek. And that's where the charm of the character came from: While Chili's cool makes him attractive, it's not nearly as endearing as being a total dork about something you love. Which leads us to the movie's big weakness: Chili doesn't love rock 'n roll the way he loves movies. He knows it, and can hold his own in that world, but he's going through the motions.

Read the rest at HBS.

In Good Company

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 March 2005 at Somerville Theater #2 (second-run)

I don't know for sure, but I suspect In Good Company was a story idea that writer/director Paul Weitz has spent a lot of time refining in his head. Often, when a story has a long gestation period, the writer gets close to his characters as if they were real people. Characters become more well-rounded, not because the writer has particularly set out to make them so, but because that writer feels that he or she has gotten to know them, and "finds" things that make even the antagonistic characters more human.

Maybe I'm wrong; maybe In Good Company didn't start out as a much more straightforward comedy about a guy who suddenly finds himself working for an idiot half his age and is put upon because of it. Maybe Weitz didn't find himself liking the younger man more as he wrote new drafts before finally selling it. Maybe the characters in the first draft of the screenplay looked very much like the ones in the final film. If so, that's even more impressive. For now, though, I suspect that this is a movie that started as one thing but eventually became another (which isn't easy, either - it's hard to let the initial idea go).


I can't say whether or not there's necessarily truth in this movie - I've made conscious efforts to avoid the sixty-hour-work-week/produce-now-or-be-laid-off environments whenever I've had to look for work, but it feels real, mostly because we like the characters. We like Dan's solid dependability, Carter's growing good intentions, and Alex's clean slate. We want Dan's life to get a little easier, and for Carter to be a little more empathetic. Small requests, in the grand scheme of things, but we've got enough invested in these guys that they're enough for a movie.

Read the rest at HBS (although their format made me break that last paragraph up. Grr).

The Jacket

* * (out of four)
Seen 10 March 2005 at Landmark Embassy Theaters #2 (first-run)

Science fiction looks easy. After all, you're not constrained by the limits of the known world, so you can pretty much do anything, right? Well, no. Contrary to what the folks who yell "it's called science fiction" whenever a logical inconsistency is pointed out seem to think, all the details have to fit tightly together for the story to really work. The Jacket wasn't much above average to begin with, but when it decides to abandon its set-up late in the game, it sells its audience out.

Not that The Jacket was going to qualify as hard science fiction anyway; its method of time travel defies logical explanation (apparently surviving a bullet to the brain combined with later sensory deprivation is able to cause physical manifestations in a future time period). But even "modern fantasy" or "magic realism" or whatever the critics are calling it this week needs some internal consistency. Even if you go with the "it's not the nuts and bolts that are important, but the characters and how they react to their situations" crowd, the filmmaker still has to sell those situations to the audience (and some of us in the audience like our nuts and bolts). And to take it to the next step, even if you believe that suspension of disbelief is the job of the audience as opposed to the filmmaker (and I'd argue it's the other way around), it's still asking a bit much to ask the audience to believe two completely contradictory things in rapid succession.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2005 at AMC Fenway #9 (first-run)

I'm getting old. That's the only way I can explain it. I have lived sufficiently long that when confronted by a movie like Hostage, I don't find the action much fun any more. I look at it and think putting kids in danger is kind of tacky. I just generally do and think all sorts of generally old-fartsy things.

As formula thrillers go, Hostage isn't bad at all, I guess. It's got a snazzy title sequence, slick production values, and a star in Bruce Willis who is more than capable of elevating standard material. It needs another star, though - there's no bad guy who seems worthy of pulling Willis's strings. Indeed, the next-biggest star (Kevin Pollack) spends most of the movie unconscious. It means that a thriller that should be a game of cat and mouse is short a small mammal, someone who seems like a legit threat to beat Willis's character, at least within a movie.

Read the rest on HBS.

Sin City

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 April 2005 at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

Fans of most works that are adapted to films tend to grumble about the liberties taken with the source material. Comic book fans are among the most vocal, and in many ways the most justified. When comic books are made into movies, it often seems as though the studios don't realize that comics actually have stories, but are just places sources of brightly-colored characters. It's not like comics are already a combination of plot, dialog, and visuals that should translate naturally to the film medium. Heck, one of the first steps in making an action-oriented movie is to create a set of storyboards that look an awful lot like a comic book. It's not uncommon to think that you'd get a better movie if you just skipped a few steps by going straight from the comics to the storyboard.

This appears to be the method used by Robert Rodriguez in directing Frank Miller's Sin City. There's no screenplay credit, and during my last visit to my local comic shop, the staff and customers were pulling out the new collected editions and pointing out panels that corresponded exactly to shots in the trailer and movie. It's almost certainly the most faithful adaptations of a comic book ever.

Read the rest on HBS.

Next up: Documentaries