Friday, May 30, 2008

A lot of catching up to do.

Two festivals, some previews, and needing to write about Indiana Jones has got me way behind. But, it's summer, which means I can actually slow down movie watching a little, since the studios start sort of staying out of each other's way. In the meantime, let's see how the stuff I've watched over the past three months holds up:

The Band's Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 February 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

This one's a fun, pleasant little movie that throws together a few likable characters and watches what happens. An Egyptian police band scheduled to play at a cultural center in Israel winds up in a small town with a name similar to where they're supposed to be going and hangs around while waiting for the next bus - which is a day away. There is some expected hostility, but also some new friendships.

It's a small story, with a simple message of realizing that one probably has more in common with one's neighbors than previously suspected, but that's why it works. Eran Kolirin doesn't add excess melodrama or twisty backstory. The joy of the film is in the very randomness of its events, and how there's not a simple, obvious lesson to be taken from them.

Syndromes and a Century (Sang Sattawat)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 February 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

It's hard to believe that this sweet little film got censored by Thai authorities but some of the really nasty horror films that get shot there apparently have no trouble. It was probably at least partially targeted for being peculiar; like a lot of Thai art films, Syndromes seems to emphasize mood over actual storytelling, and is often so abstract that I could see censors wondering if the filmmaker was trying to get something past them.

The central conceit is an interesting one - filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul has taken the story of how his parents met and told it from both perspectives - but where his mother's half is set in the past, his father's is set in the present. It's a fascinating demonstration of how times have changed but people have remained more or less the same. I was charmed by the characters - both the leads and the supporting cast - and the photography is as beautiful as I'm coming to expect from Thailand.

Romulus, My Father

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Eye-Opener)

Man, that poor kid.

Over the course of Romulus, My Father, pretty much every bad thing that could happen to Raimond Gaita's family does. His mother (Franka Potente) is mentally ill in a time when such afflictions didn't earn much sympathy; his father is a German immigrant in over his head, getting injured in car accidents, the farm is failing... Truth be told, the sheer weight of what happens is often too much; you have to remind yourself that this is based on a true story, and that the boy survives and attains some measure of wisdom for his experiences; it's not just an exercise in unrelenting, tragic misery.

It's at least got some very nice acting; Eric Bana is wonderful as the title character, larger than life and projecting more warmth than would seem humanly possible, just as a young boy would see his father in the outback. Potente is good, too; she seduces us into thinking that maybe this return and reconciliation will be different, just as she does her boy. And little Kodi Smit-McPhee is excellent as young Raimond, growing up and growing wary.

The movie is a relentless downer, but it is also beautiful and feels true in a way that doesn't just mean accurate.

One review at HBS.

The Bank Job

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 8 March 2008 at AMC Boston Common #8 (first-run)

Ah, right. That's why I like Jason Statham, and heist movies in general. Statham is a guy who keeps busy, but often with crud, and heist movies can be very formulaic, but this one is a corker. It's zippy and fast-paced, with a bunch of colorful crooks executing a meticulously laid out plan, and a couple other factions making things difficult. Things twist and turn as deviously as you could want, and when things make the jump from laid-back to deadly serious, the stakes go up, but it doesn't stop being fun.

I'm looking forward to seeing this one on Blu-ray disc; it was shot digitally and unlike a lot of other movies shot that way, it doesn't really try to look like film. The slick look even looked good in digital projection, and though it's pointedly set in the early 1970s, it still feels very current.

One review at HBS.

Paranoid Park

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 March 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Eye Opener)

Here's the thing about me and Gus Van Sant: Most of the movies of his that I've seen, I've liked: to Die For, Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, even Gerry. But there are a lot of others where I've seen the preview or the capsule description and just said no, not a chance, I'm not touching that. In my mind, they're all like his brutal segment of Paris, je t'aime, grimy and airy with nothing happening.

Paranoid Park is kind of like that (and I probably wouldn't have seen it if it hadn't been part of the Eye Opener series), but it's not as bad as all that. There is a good mystery plot to it, and I like Gabe Nevins and Lauren McKinney in it. Christopher Doyle shoots, so it looks significantly less muddy than it might have otherwise. But it can also be maddening as the timeline loops back on itself, showing us the same thing three times in some cases without necessarily adding anything new to it. It's a short movie that still seems bloated.

Overall, I'm glad I saw it, but certainly wouldn't have sought it out, and I don't figure on seeing it again.

One review at HBS.

Flash Gordon

* * (out of four)
Seen 12 March 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (The 80s Rock!)

So, now when I see "FLASH! Ah-ahhhh! He'll save every one of us!" thrown in whenever someone in a fannish setting mentions Flash Gordon, I'll know of what they speak. That's nice, I suppose. It's not cool to be ignorant.

But, geez, this is not a good movie. The Buster Crabbe serials weren't good, either, but they're more enjoyable, because they're bad in an honest effort. For all its manic energy, it's so busy giggling at how tacky it is that it completely misses the gee-whiz fun of the character thrown into a crazy situation. It's not joyless, not at all, but I have a hard time understanding why so many people seem to love a movie so intent at looking down on itself.

Four reviews at HBS.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2008 at AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run)

Huh, I could have sword I did a full review for this at the time. Ah, I did a post on the Sci-Fi Marathon message board that no-one responded to. As I'm lazy, I will just repost it here:

I have to admit, I was initially a bit disappointed with Doomsday; I was expecting big things from Neil Marshall with his follow-up to Dog Soldiers and (especially) The Descent. It takes a bit of time to get going, and it seems a little standard-issue: Tough chick leads a team into the middle of a wasteland because it may hold the key to the plague threatening them back in civilization.

The thing is: Neil Marshall doesn't do things halfway. When the movie gets to Edinburgh, it goes into full-on Mad Max mode. You don't just get punks with open shirts, funky hairdos, and crazy tattoos - you get cannibal punks with etc., etc. And they're at war with people living in a castle and dressing like they're in a renaissance fair. There are chases involving trains and horses. And everything ends with an absolutely crazy over-the-top car chase. There's blood, decapitations, and other mayhem galore, Malcolm MacDowell chewing scenery, Adrian Lester being cooler than I thought he was capable of, and then more blood and mayhem. Bob Hoskins is awesome in his smallish role. Dr. Bashir from Deep Space Nine is the Prime Minister. If you don't mind the hard R, it's a real blast.

It's also Marshall's first relatively big-budget film, and he zips the camera all over the place, spends some money on special effects to give us Scotland burning and empty, and some nasty gore. It's a very different style from The Descent (much more like Dog Soldiers), but one that winds up working well for this movie.

Five reviews at HBS.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2008 at Somerville Theatre #1 (Alloy Orchestra)

Ah, I do love the Alloy Orchestra - there's nothing like seeing a spiffily restored silent print with live accompaniment, even if it's moodier than the percussive scores they do for the likes of Buster Keaton. It also may be indicative of Paramount starting to pay more attention to its film library - their home video department has been content to cycle through the same catalog titles (and in ten years of DVD, still no The African Queen!), but now they're starting to license the deep catalog stuff to other distributors, and one can only hope that this attention to their silents - the AO is supposedly working on another von Sternberg silent for next year (The Last Command, I think) - indicates that something will be done with it.

The movie itself is pretty darn good. These silents are sometimes like proto-movies; you couldn't film the same script (even updated to work as a talkie) today because it would seem sort of generic. But as one of the first gangster films, it's new territory, and works pretty well with that in mind.

Sea Monsters 3-D

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2008 at the New England Aquarium Simons IMAX Theater (first-run)

Sometimes they seem to be making movies just for me: Cool science, nifty special effects, and 3-D? Give me. Ancient aquatic dinosaurs that make quick work of great white sharks are just a bunch of fun.

What's especially impressive is the way writer Mose Richards and director Sean MacLeod Philips build narratives to go along with their flashy images, both in the present day and in prehistoric times. Sea Monsters is anything but dry, even though it's chock full of fun information.

(And it's apparently available on Blu-ray. No 3-D that way, but pretty...)

Dolphins and Whales 3-D: Tribes of the Ocean

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2008 at the New England Aquarium Simons IMAX Theater (first-run)

In contrast, this IMAX doc that I saw as part of a double feature with Sea Monsters is kind of a chore. It's the kind of documentary about the natural world that isn't content to show us how interesting or amazing something is, but seems to feel the need to say that these whales or dolphins are better than human beings. Which isn't hard, because, you know, we're evil for how these other noble creatures are suffering thanks to our careless regard for our environment. That's a valid and important part of the situation being documented, of course, but it often feels artificial, like the filmmakers are straining to make that point even when it's not especially interesting.

The reason it's not interesting is because, unlike Sea Monsters, these guys don't make a particularly engrossing movie. It feels like they've got an outline, and rather than building a narrative, they just run down the list of sea creatures they have footage of, listing habitat, social characteristics, and how endangered they are. Even when the material itself is interesting, the presentation is dull.

In Bruges

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2008 at AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run)

It's good to see Colin Farrell choosing better movies. He's a talented guy who all too often chose boring projects in Hollywood, but getting back to his roots seems to agree with him. He's exactly what this movie needs, a brusque and crude hitman on a forced vacation in a pretty city that he has no use for. He's funny and grouchy and surprisingly disarming when it's revealed that he does, in fact, have a heart.

Brendan Gleeson is nearly as good as his partner, but the surprise is Ralph Fiennes, who has played so many upper-class roles that it's jarring to see him as a snarling, vicious gangster. His Harry has a strict moral code of his own, making him a bully with principles. The three of them connecting in the third act shifts In Bruges from a drama with dark comedy to something a bit more action-oriented, but it works because the action winds up being the collision of what three very flawed people think is the most right thing to do.

Three reviews at HBS.

Live-in Maid (Cama Adentro)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2008 in Jay's Living Room (DVD rental)

How lazy am I? I just sent this back to the Chlotrudis screener archive last week. That's not so bad as the Blockbuster Online rentals of the same vintage which I have actually been paying to have sit on my coffee table, though.

It's a nice little movie with good performances from its two lead actresses: Norma Aleandro as an upper-class woman falling on hard times as a result of Argentina's recent economic crisis and Norma Argentina as the live-in maid she can no longer afford to pay. It's an intriguing relationship that often shows up in the background of other films, a life-long intertwining of lives that is not that of family or friends, but is too close to simply be employer and employee.

One review at HBS.

Yo-Yo Girl Cop (Sukeban Deka: Kôdo nêmu = Asamiya Saki)

* * (out of four)
Seen 18 March 2008 in Jay's Living Room (I Actually Bought This)

As much as this isn't really a good movie, I do admire the spirit of absolute insanity that goes into making this sort of thing. The very premise is absurd - a top secret police agency that trains juvenile delinquents as supercops and sends them undercover with a custom yo-yo as a weapon. Then there's the opening salvo, where Saki (pop star Aya Matsuura) is established as a badass, her recruiter (Riki Takeuchi) is shown to be part of a shadowy agency, and the bad guys are shown to be really bad. It's nutty, but it's full-speed-ahead nutty, the sort that gets the audience caught up in its exaggerated story.

And then, Saki gets to her new school, and it sputters. It's just high school, and she befriends a girl who is getting bullied, and there's a guy who has a crush on her. There's a ticking clock that keeps any comedy about this tough girl being unimpressed with the kids' commonplace problems from happening and a convoluted plot, so by the time the movie gets back to the crazy, with leather-clad teenage hotties fighting with tricked-out razor-sharp yo-yos, well, the wave has broken and it's not quite as much fun as it was an hour and a half ago..

One review at HBS.

Chop Shop

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 March 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Eye Opener)

This starts at the Brattle on Friday and is well worth a look if you like this kind of almost-documentary. It feels extremely authentic; most of the people in the audience will be hard-pressed to figure out which of the people on-screen are actors and which are just people in the area that filmmaker Ramin Bahrani thought would make good characters. It's set in a very specific neighborhood, the iron triangle near Shea Stadium.

Alejandro Polanco's Ale is entrancing; the kid is intense, having to grow up fast but still only obtaining wisdom at the normal rate. There's tragedy in how hard he's gotten already, although the movie is less a lament than a demonstration of how misfortune can become learning experiences.

Married Life

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first run)

I wanted more from this movie. It's got a cast full of great people - Chris Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Patricia Clarkson, and Pierce Brosnan. Every colorful, hyper-detailed frame is a thing of beauty. And yet, despite all the loving attention filmmaker Ira sachs pays to period detail, I couldn't quite get into its 1940s frame of mind, where divorce is such a humiliating prospect that a man could convince himself that murder is a more palatable alternative and women seem to exist mainly as an adjunct to their men.

Beyond that, it's still kind of a mixed bag. Cooper and Clarkson are fantastic, especially Cooper, who becomes quietly monstrous as the film goes on. Still, this is a movie that states its premise fairly early and then plays it out in methodical fashion, without much in the way of surprise or any particularly interesting observations. It's glossy, but not a whole lot more.

Youth Without Youth

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Recent Raves)

Francis Ford Coppola's first film in years is a strange one. It's clearly the work of an aging artist with death on his mind: It stars Tim Roth as Dominic, an old man miraculously made younger; it also features themes of reincarnation and death and old age coming prematurely, death accelerated for a kind person while refusing to touch someone perhaps less worthy. It's about the hungry desire for more life even when still being around will perpetually brand one as an outsider.

It's a strange but beautiful film to watch; the images are exquisite and though the movie constantly moves into new and more bizarre realms of the fantastic, it never gets caught up in the strangeness for its own sake - the mysteries are a reason to examine Dominic and how he reacts to a strange world.

Two reviews at HBS.

Snow Angels

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 April 2008 at Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first run)

I liked this one quite a bit, although the Chlotrudis folks I saw it with didn't seem that impressed. There were some comments about this being a fairly conventional film for screenwriter/director David Gordon Green, and it is rather less abstract and more commercial than the one film of his I'd previously seen (All the Real Girls). That shouldn't be taken as a knock on it, though - it just shows that Green can tell a story just as well as he can create a mood.

One review at HBS.

Body of War

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 April 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Eye Opener)

You know, I think I'm going to avoid seeing any more Iraq war documentaries until after it's all over or the film promises something really new to say. It's not that they're bad movies, it's that they seem so pointless right now. None of them are going to convince their audience to change their opinions because nobody who is pro-war is going to actually pay for a ticket to the likes of Body of War, and vice versa (though I don't know what a pro-war example would be). It is, in its way, as much a regurgitation of talking points as the Congressional speeches it takes to task.

You could see it in the post-film discussion for this one at the Brattle - the audience there is generally liberal (as a registered Libertarian, I may be the most politically right-of-center person there), and people generally tended to pick out and comment upon the bits that confirmed their pre-existing beliefs. It got crazy in some points - one audience member went on for some time about how it just confirmed his belief that the military is just institutionalized child abuse, and claimed that what we saw of subject Tomas Young's family suggested his mother was in an abusive marriage because she wasn't the dittohead Republican her husband was and it's just impossible for them to actually get along!

The movie itself is decent enough, although it has its flaws. It's probably at its strongest when it focuses on Tomas, showing his rehabilitation. The nuts and bolts of how a young man has to cope with the type of paralysis he has is more affecting than all the facts directors Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro can muster. They do a very good job of presenting Young as flawed, rather than just a misguided young man turned noble activist, and the editing of the segments that show Senator Robert Byrd as the voice of opposition to a well-planned attack is effective despite not being at all subtle. It's a shame that the bit in the end where the two meet is so staged and self-congratulatory; the movie is pretty good before giving in to that impulse toward smugness.

The Ruins

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 April 2008 at Regal Fenway #8 (first-run)

A pretty darn good horror movie as such things go. It is what Roger Ebert calls a Dead Teenager movie, but a taut and suspenseful one. Scott B. Smith's screenplay (adapted from his own novel) contrives to put its characters in a tight spot early and then do everything it possibly can to make the situation even more difficult. There is something paranormal afoot, but there's a certain logic to everything; once the fantastic premise is in place, everything follows in a fairly logical progression.

The Ruins feels a lot nastier than many horror movies because, especially in the early going, it is content to wound - rather than taking characters out to show it means business, Smith and director Carter Smith (presumably no relation) will instead hit them with a nasty injury. This results in more tension, as the characters' options are limited by the injured parties' mobility and those folks aren't necessarily making the best decisions.

And yet, sadly, this didn't do that great while any number of weaker horror movies stick around.

Six reviews at HBS.

Darling! The Pieter-Dirk Uys Story

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 April 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye Opener)

Pieter-Dirk Uys was in Cambridge when the Brattle played this as the Sunday Eye Opener, doing his one-man show at the A.R.T. He introduced the film, though he wasn't around to take questions afterward. He did mention that the film's director, Julian Shaw, was very young - the Australian saw one of Uys's performances as a teenager and said he would make a movie about the South African satirist. Uys brushed it off, until the kid showed up in South Africa a year later to document Uys's AIDS education/entertainment programs.

That's an interesting project in itself; AIDS is an epidemic in Africa, and Uys will tell you that the behavior of his nation's government is criminal. Feeling that the only way to make any dent is to speak directly to children and teenagers, he travels to city and village schools using the best tool at his disposal - a quick and sharp wit - to get through. It's not the first time he's taken on such targets; we see archive footage of how he skewered the government during the apartheid era.

Uys is a compelling subject; he's devastatingly funny and a fine mimic, but he's also deadly serious: He is not the sort of impressionist who laughs about how idiots in government give him steady work; there is genuine hatred in his voice for the people he mocks. The film gives the impression that he is famous in his native land, but he is able to live fairly anonymously in his hometown of Darling because he is most known for a drag performance where he's buried under makeup.

Shaw is probably able to get more honest responses from the teenagers he interviews as he is that age himself, and he's either a natural talent with the camera or he is working with some very good producers and editors. Either way, this is a fairly solidly put-together movie; it'll be interesting to see what Shaw comes up with if he keeps at it.

Smart People

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 April 2008 at Regal Fenway #9 (first run)

So, how much of its success does this film owe Juno? This isn't really Ellen Page's movie; it mostly focuses on Jeff Daniels's character and how the others relate to him. He's a bit of a refugee from a Noah Baumbach film, arrogant despite his greatest successes being firmly in the rear-view mirror. It's kept from being The Squid and the Whale, though, by a lot of characters being played somewhat more broadly - Page's straight-laced daughter, Thomas Haden Church's laid-back (adopted) brother. There's also evidence of an actual heart, since he's mourning a long-dead wife rather than in an acrimonious divorce.

So it's a process of watching the Grinch's heart grow a couple sizes. That's a bit uneven; there's a lot of "try a little, fail spectacularly" until the script has Sarah Jessica Parker's character pull out the ultimate ultimatum, so to speak. In the meantime, Church carries a lot of the movie on his shoulders; he's got great comic timing and is able to comment on how screwed-up the family is without being smugly superior. He and Page play well off each other, in particular.

Two reviews at HBS.

Contempt (Le Mépris)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 April 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

We've all got embarrassing lists of great movies (or entries in some other medium) that we haven't seen, as in "how can you discuss film with even a modicum of intelligence unless you've seen this?" I can now cross Contempt off mine and say I enjoyed the experience.

I must admit, though, that I don't really care for the gotcha ending. The whole movie had been about Brigite Bardot's Camille and Michel Piccoli's Paul falling out of love, treating each other badly as a result of Paul trying to curry favor with an American movie producer. And then, the end... It just doesn't seem to follow for me. Maybe if I see it again, it'll seem more tied in, but right now, it just seems discordant for the sake of being discordant.

My Blueberry Nights

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 April 2008 at AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run)

Wong Kar-wai makes beautiful movies, and My Blueberry Nights is no exception just because he made it in America, in the English language. It's really a wonderful little film, I think, with a more charming than usual performance from Jude Law and a very nice supporting turn from David Strathairn.

One of my favorite things about the film, though, is Norah Jones in the starring role. I'm ignorant enough about music that she's got no baggage for me, and I think a lot of the criticism coming her way is knee-jerk based on other musicians who haven't impressed on film. To a certain extent, I think performance is performance, and it's worth noting that in China, performers have a much easier time moving between media. I do like Jones in this movie specifically, though; as great as the more seasoned folks are, many of them, especially Strathairn and Rachel Weisz, are clearly acting, while the lack of expected punctuation gives Jones a real everywoman quality.

Apropos of nothing: We don't get many food movies made with American cuisine at the center of it, but both My Blueberry Nights and Waitress (and the beautifully-shot TV show Pushing Daisies, now that I think of it) focus a lot of loving attention on pies. I love pie - I went up to Maine for a Memorial Day cookout at my brothers in part on the promise of homemade pie - but I'd never really thought of them as the most beautiful food in America, although there may be something to it.

Tow reviews at HBS.

The Life Before Her Eyes

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run)

(A little spoilery, so quit here if you're considering watching this cold)

Is it late enough in this film's life cycle for me to say this without being a hypocrite? See, my experience with this movie was affected by knowing that something was going on, although I only knew that something was going on because of a blog entry I read debating director Vadim Perelman's decision to let it be known that something was going on before the movie came out. I wonder if not knowing that would have made me less attentive during the movie, so I would have missed certain clues. Would that make it seem like a better movie, because the things that stood out would have seemed more clever than obvious? Or a worse one because it seemed to take a lot of character development and minimized it in the service of a twist?

Who can tell? I did wind up liking the movie - it's hard for me not to like a movie that stars Uma Thurman, and she's pretty darn good here. The writing is fairly elegant, and I liked Evan Rachel Wood as the younger version of Thurman's character, the Bad Girl Who Really Isn't That Bad.

Aaaand, I've worked my way through my wad of ticket stubs all the way to the arbitrary cutoff of Iron Man. I also want to give the Nikkatsu Action films a separate post, even though I may not be able to give them as much individual attention as I might have liked.

One review at HBS.

No comments: