Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Monday, April 25, 2011
THE CONSPIRATOR (Dir. Robert Redford, 2010)
Robert Redford's 8th film as director finds him again mining the political mechanics behind a well known controversial event. This time, it's the assassination of Abraham Lincoln with the focus being the lone female charged as a co-conspirator.
James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, a fresh out of law school lawyer who Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) suggests should defend the woman, boarding house owner Mary Surratt portrayed by Robin Wright.
McAvoy isn't interested in taking the case on because he thinks she's guilty, but as he gets enveloped into the back story, he begins to see the woman as a possible scapegoat.
Unfortunately the viewer doesn't get enveloped, as this is stiff glacially plotted material. It was first difficult to pinpoint exactly what's wrong with this film as surface-wise it's a handsome looking, well acted, and noble intentioned piece of work, but somehow it's a extremely dull experience in which history never comes alive.
Redford must have thought he was coming on too strong in LIONS FOR LAMBS (which he was), so he decided to delicately dramatize the proceedings here. Sadly so delicately that nothing has any weight to it, and all the player's parts are blandly rendered.
As Lincoln's Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Kevin Kline is the only one who carves out a convincing character, but he too is cornered inside this undercooked contraption of a non-epic.
As a by-the-numbers history lesson, THE CONSPIRATOR does put forth some undeniably important points about Constitutional rights and gives us a new angle on an ages old story, but Redford's hands off execution is too distant and dismal for the film to do anything but ultimately disappear.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Just like KICK ASS, this movie wonders out loud 'why don't people actually try to be superheroes,' gives us an ordinary schmuck who dons a costume, and has him get his ass kicked before he ultimately saves the day. However, the tone of SUPER is completely different.
Rainn Wilson is our ordinary schmuck here, a short-order cook whose wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a slimy drug dealing kingpin played by Kevin Bacon. Rainn takes us into his deprssing existence by way of dry narration ("People look stupid when they cry" he says over a shot of him sobbing), with the film starting off darkly, but a blaringly bright cartoon credits sequence seems to announce that the film is going to be an outrageous romp.
It is and it isn't - there are some funny bits here and there, but once Rainn takes up bashing people's heads in with a wrench, the film's laughs get fewer and fewer.
As a comic book store clerk who is implausibly infatuated with Rainn, Ellen Page overacts like crazy, as if she's trying make us forget her graceful performance in last summer's INCEPTION. Page makes her own costume, which she poses in creepily, and despite Rainn's insistence that he needs no sidekick, asserts herself as "Bolty" - her Robin to Rainn's Batman.
In one of many unpleasant moments, Page forces herself sexually on Rainn - why on earth did the film makers feel they had to go there? The pathetic duo arm themselves with heavy weaponry to take on Bacon's thugs, and the movie's final act is a ultra-violent shakily-shot shoot 'em up in which the film beats its premise into a bloody pulp. It's an unamusing assault on the senses with a flimsy conclusion.
The only strength is Rainn's unwavering commitment to character. This guy definitely has more layers to him than Dwight Shrute, and Rainn fleshes them out intensely. It's a character that deserves a better more rounded narrative, not these worn out conventions.
On the sidelines Liv Tyler doesn't have much to do but look drugged out, Bacon seems to be having a ball probably because he could've done the role in his sleep, and as one of the heavies Michael Rooker just looks uncomfortable. Oh, I almost forgot the odd cameo by Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle) as a Christian superhero named the Holy Avenger that Rainn is inspired by when watching him on an religious cable channel.
Really don't know what the point of that means either. SUPER is a tired take on superhero pipe-dreams that has nothing new to say satirically. I rolled my eyes more than I laughed, and I cringed more than I smiled.
I guess those are fitting reactions to a film written and directed by the guy who wrote the live action SCOOBY-DOO movies.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
I came home last night late from Durham to a neighborhood without power due to the Tornado sweeping through the area Saturday afternoon. Probably wouldn't have done much blogging anyway as I was exhausted.
Reports of the death of the newspaper have been greatly exaggerated this film successfully stresses as we see the staff of the New York Times struggle to adapt in the face of major technological advances and threats like Wikileaks.
That's right - Kevin Clash and Elmo were there!
Edwards only got one question, and looked fairly unfazed, but the Full Frame folks really ought to have given the Elmo doc, which was nearly feature length at 76 minutes, its own slot and programmed TUGS with a different short film - one that doesn't involve an iconic character loved the world over.
Using large portions of a ten hour video made by the detectives of their interrogation of the man (Adrian Thomas) who repeatedly declares his innocence, the film presents viewpoints from psychiatrists, jurors, and the cops themselves about the difficult situation.
Injesting every substance they can find, they make the trip in a school bus painted and re-painted in psychedelia, and dubbed "Further."
Maybe it's not so simple. McKinney claims repeatedly that they were in love and that her beau had been brainwashed by the Mormon Church, but interviews with the Daily Press's Peter Tory and the Daily Mirror's Kevin Gavin tell a different story.
Many documentaries about the "New Hollywood" movement in the '60s and '70s have had small segments about the huge influence of director/producer Roger Corman, so it seems time for the man to be the star of his own career appraising bio doc.
Fitting that it's certainly the most star studded film at Full Frame; it's filled with interviews with Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Robert De Niro, Peter Bogdonavich, and many more A-listers singing Corman's praises.
An incredibly funny ride through drive-in movie schlock, and exploitation mayhem is at hand with a moving message about how much fun movies that don't take themselves seriously can be.
Saturday, April 16, 2011
Another day of nice weather greeted the second day of Full Frame (that may change tomorrow though). I saw a particularly strong group of documentaries today, but it got off to a rough start:
RAW MATERIAL, INDIGESTIBLE: Now, this wasn't a movie - it was a collection of 10 film bits and fragments selected by writer/archivist Rick Prelinger. It's part of this year's thematic program "One Foot in the Archives," that also included showings of BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME, STRICTLY PROPAGANDA, and THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE.
Among these "scratch transfers" were such bits as the KKK marching in a Pennsylvania parade, footage from an Illinois asylum, and a heavily-edited-for-our-safety "technique for electro-shock therapy" training film from 1951.
The films were interesting, but the audience participation part dragged with all too few insights into the use or mis-use of archival film in the ethics versus copyright debate. It was cool to see an actual hobo though.
HOW TO PICK BERRIES (Dir. Elina Talvensaari, 2010) / WHEN CHINA MET AFRICA (Dirs. Marc Francis & Nick Francis, 2010)
The first of these short films is a 19 minute mediation on the culture clash in Finland due to Thai immigrants coming to co-opt their national crop of Cloudberries. It didn't really grab me, but its transitions through ethereal imagery is striking. I get a little weary of docs just made up of still shots of nature with a voice saying supposedly profound things on top of it.
The much better second short takes a look at China's expansion into Africa in the Aughts. We follow Chinese businessmen working with Zambian power brokers to develop relations further with farmers and road workers.
The access to these people is remarkable, but some scenes seem somewhat staged. It's a swift professionally made 75 minutes of wheeling and dealing with the scenario of Chinese colonialization compared to the British's previous entanglement with Africans being brought up in the discussion afterward with director Nick Francis.
THE LOVING STORY (Dir. Nancy Buirski, 2011)
Full Frame founder Buirski returns to the festival to premiere her debut doc, and it's one of the best films on display. Its the emotionally powerful story of Mildred and Richard Loving - the couple involved in overturning the law in Virginia banning interracial marriage in the '60s in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Lovings were arrested in 1958 right after being wed, and told they had to divorce or leave the state. They spent 9 years fighting the system aided by ACLU lawyers Bernie Cohen and Phillip Hirschkop. An astounding array of previously unseen footage, both black and white and color, makes up the film, along with interviews of the key players decorating the edges.
A post film Q and A moderated by Walter Dellinger featured Buirski, producer Elisabeth Haviland James, Hope Ryden (who filmed the Lovings back in the day), retired lawyer Cohen (who got a standing ovation), and daughter Peggy Loving.
Also a cool piece by local writer Glenn McDonald interviewing Buirski was in yesterday's Raleigh News & Observer. You can read it here.
GUN FIGHT (Dir. Barbara Kopple, 2011) Kopple's (HARLAN COUNTY U.S.A., AMERICAN DREAM, SHUT UP AND SING) moving examination on the severe state of current gun laws and gun ownership comes off like a better thought out BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE. Production on the film began 4 days after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, and it follows one of the students who was shot (Colin Goddard) as he campaigns for the fight to prevent gun violence for one of its fascinating strands.
We also meet former NRA spokesman Robert Feldman, emergency medical physician/gun violence researcher Garen Wintemute, and Temple University's Dr. Amy Goldberg, all providing probing thoughts into these complicated and often contradictory issues. Kopple's film is not anti-gun, nor pro-gun in any extreme fashion, it just wants to grasp the heart of the arguments. It left me with the debate going on in my head, and isn't that what the best documentaries are supposed to do?
A Q & A with Kopple, Feldman, producer Marc Weiss, producer Williams Cole, editor Bob Eisenhardt, Godard, and his parents (Andrew and Anne) followed the film.
CURE FOR PAIN: THE MARK SANDMAN STORY (Dirs. Robert Bralver & David Ferino, 2011) Again, it's time for the final slot rock doc. I know some of the music of the '90s alternative Boston band, but never really delved deep into their discography. This film makes me want to as it's a throbbing mix of concert footage, interviews, and TV appearances that make a convincing case for the genius of front-man Mark Sandman.
I always wondered what really went down when Sandman died during a performance in Italy in 1999, and this film touchingly tells me. CURE FOR PAIN doesn't break any new ground for music docs, but it's a excellent portrait of a man who believed he only needed a 2-string bass slide bass guitar, a sultry vocal, drums, and a baritone sax to make incredible music. And he was right.
My only complaint was that a lot of the material used was of fuzzy deteriorated VHS video (like from Late Night With Conan O'Brien and The Jon Stewart Show of which you know better quality versions exist. However, as a friend said "Morphine was always a very lo-fi band."
There was a Q & A after, but I was fading fast so I left to drive back to Raleigh and write this. Please check back for coverage of days 3 & 4.
Friday, April 15, 2011
Well, it's that time of year again - time for the 14th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in, and around the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham.
Of course, I'm only gonna be able to see a very small amount of the 100 or so films over the 4-day run of the fest, but I think I've made some good choices.
EVERYBODY'S NUTS (Dir. Fabian Euresti, 2010)
This 14 minute short concerns immigrant farm laborers in the San Joaquin Valley, California. Oil has contaminated the water supply, and worker's lives as well as livelihoods are threatened. Over still shots of the terrain, the film's auteur Euresti, who hails from the Californian area, plainly narrates. His conclusion that tells us that the title doesn't mean what we think it does is affecting, but the film is too vague to fully engage. It's spare length is thinking in the right direction though.
(Dir. U. Roberto Romano, 2011)
Also about immigrant workers, this close to full length feature (80 minutes) has the opposite problem - it's overlong, repetitive, and a bit strained. Still, its story of 3 child laborers who spend more time in the fields picking crops than in their classrooms, is expertly filmed with a lot of genuine heart. The film makers including Romano, and EVERYBODY'S NUTS director Euresti were on hand at a Q & A following. An audience member made a great point about photos and text that appeared in the end credits of HARVEST of former child laborers who've gone on to have successful lives. The film maker interestingly agreed that it sent the wrong message and wants that element removed.
(Dir. Peter Richardson, 2011)
(Dir. Julie Moggan, 2010)
A light fluffy, but very funny film that revels in the world of romance novels. It focuses on a British author (Roger Sanderson) who writes under the name Gill Anderson, book cover model Stephen Muzzonigro, a woman in India (Shumita Didi Singh), a Japanese woman (Hiroko Honmo), and a Warrington woman (Shirley Davies) who all may be too immersed in the fantasies they read.
(Dir. Kerthy Fix, 2010)
The final slot of the night is a great one for a rock documentary (or rockumentary, if you will), and this is a great one.
WHO TOOK THE BOMP? is going to have an outdoor encore presentation at Durham Central Park, Saturday, April 16th at 8:30 PM. No ticket is required as it's free admission.
Okay! Well, that's all for now. It was a fine opening day of documentaries - the only complaint I have is that they need a new animated film to play before the features. They've been using the same one the last few years and I'm tired of it.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
"I just missed your heart," Ronan says and then she produces a gun to finish off her prey.
Giant white letters on red announce HANNA, and we're off. Ronan lives in a cabin in the woods with her father (Eric Bana) who is training her to be a lethal assassin, complete with aliases and backstories. Bana tells her that if she flips a switch on a transmitter he has, the CIA will instantly know their location and immediately come to capture them.
Ronan, with fierce determination, flips it saying "come and get me."
Bana escapes, but Ronan is apprehended (not without a struggle, of course), taken to a safe house in Morrocco, and monitored by an evil CIA agent (Cate Blanchett, who appears to have modeled her American accent on Glenn Close).
Like Angelina Jolie in SALT, we are shown how bad ass Ronan is from how she can fight and kill her way out of a maximum security compound, so Blanchett and her men don't have the girl for very long.
Ronan hitches a ride with a family of tourists that includes a chatty teenage girl (Jessica Barden), and her parents (Jason Flemyng and Olivia Williams), as thugs led by the suave whistling Tom Hollander are closing in on her.
Also like in SALT, we learn that our protagonist is the result of a project to develop CIA super-operatives by altering their DNA.
This can't really be a Spoiler! can it? I mean I felt like a scenario like that was in place before I walked in.
The only surprise I can think of is that it's not based on some graphic novel.
HANNA has a real drive to it because of its incredible Chemical Brothers soundtrack. At first I thought it was going to be blah techno backing a la RUN LOLA RUN (which is definitely an influence), but it broadens into an immersive ultra-melodic experience full of snappy electronic beats, throbbing baselines, and eery vocalizing. It keep my feet a tapping throughout, and I had to download the soundtrack the second I got home.
Otherwise, I was a little bored by the familiarness of the action sequences (Lord knows we don't need another subway platform fight in which a single man lays out a gang of heavies), and often felt the film seemed like it was stitched together from other movies (a little KILL BILL here, a little LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL there, a bit of BOURNE, some of the before mentioned RUN LOLA RUN, and sprinkled with SALT obviously.
Ronan compellingly carries the film; her performance undoubtedly tops her work in ATONEMENT (directed by Joe Wright), and THE LOVELY BONES. It's a tough character to pull off convincingly, but she makes it seem effortless.
Blanchett and Bana acquit themselves well in their roles, but neither part is very distinctive or affecting. Their fates don't really seem to matter much.
Still, HANNA is enough of a riveting ride to recommend, and it sports the year's best soundtrack so far. If only it had more humanity, and inspired invention to it.
As anything but a serviceable on-the-surface action thriller, HANNA just misses the heart.
Saturday, April 09, 2011
ARTHUR (Dir. Jason Winer, 2011)
The one and only improvement that this remake of the fine but slight 1981 Dudley Moore comedy contains is that rich drunken playboy Arthur Bach doesn’t cackle obnoxiously at his own jokes throughout the entire movie.
Friday, April 08, 2011
I was a little worried during the first 5 minutes of this comedy drama. Mainly since it starts with a certain four-lettered word (the one that begins with “s”) being spoken by a little girl (Clare Folley).
For a few minutes the word becomes a bit of a running gag, and I feared I was in for a JUNO-type time with cutesy quirky humor, and over-simplified characters.
I needn’t have worried because director McCarthy (THE STATION AGENT, THE VISITOR) gradually shapes a realistic slice of small town life centering on Paul Giamatti as a worn down, yet still determined, New Jersey attorney who works nights as a high school wrestling coach.
But don’t expect THE BAD NEWS BEARS here. The film is more about the situations around those moves on the gymnasium floor, with Giamatti trying to figure out how to deal with one of his star wrestlers – Alex Shaffer (a former wrestling champ in real life).
Giamatti gets involved in the troubled teenager’s life when he becomes the guardian of a rich old man (Burt Young) just so he could collect a caretaker fee as his law business has been suffering.
Shaffer, as Young’s grandson, shows up trying to get away from his junkie mother (Melanie Lynskey), so Giamatti, and his wife (Amy Ryan) find themselves having to take care of the bleached blond boy.
In one of the film’s only comical contrivances, Bobby Cannavale as Giamatti’s best friend is constantly fretting over his ex-wife. However Giamatti and Cannavale’s exchanges are fluid and funny enough to make up for that.
Much better are Giamatti’s convincing relationships with Ryan and Shaffer. There’s also Jeffrey Tambor playing just the right note as Giamatti’s shrugging assistant coach.
Giamatti, which I believe is Latin for “good flick,” never disappoints in his sharp depictions of schlubby men on the edge of total defeat. His performance here is another winner (sorry), as his desperate (at times devious) dealings are utterly believable, sympathetic, and ultimately endearing.
When that initial fear of cringe-inducing quirkiness faded after the first few minutes, I was quite pleased at how McCarthy’s movie played out.
I predict audiences will be too, for WIN WIN is a fine underdog indie that doesn’t try too hard to get you on its side.
Saturday, April 02, 2011
In FrançoisTruffaut’s DAY FOR NIGHT (1973), the famous French director (playing a fictional famous French director) said: “Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip. By the halfway point, you just hope to survive.”
As the producer and director of a low budget film about Christopher Columbus in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Luis Tosar and Gael García Bernal can relate to that sentiment greatly.
The "Cochabamba Water Wars" of 2000 are raging, and García Bernal just happened to cast the leader (Juan Carlos Aduviri) in the demonstrations against the water hikes to play a pivotal part in his film - Hatuey, the Taínotribe chief who led a rebellion against the Spaniards in 1512.
Tosar and García Bernal fret about how this conflicts with their filming, but Aduviri simply states: “There are more important things than your movie.”
Scenes from the film within a film about Columbus are often presented without the film makers or crew visible, with documentary style recordings from the actual protests interspersed throughout so a jolting juxtaposition occurs.
We feel the stress in the faces of the extras hired on the cheap as they are unable to take a break from the reality that plans to privatize their vital water supply will threaten their already poverty stricken existence.
Aduviri, is aware of being exploited by the film makers, but is determined to push on for his cause. His passion rivals theirs, as well it should, and the fragility of a threadbare film project contrasted with the escalation of rioting demonstrators is striking to say the least.
By the time the finale comes around, the historical context of both events in Garcia Bernal and Tosar's film, and the overwhelming severity of the strike against the Bolivian goverment is tightly intertwined.
Director Bollain is sympathetic in her storytelling drawing vast humanity from the performances of Garcia Bernal, Tosar, and especially Aduviri who definitely steals the film.
EVEN THE RAIN is a powerful film that illustrates just what it means to survive, whether through cinema or through the strength of one's convictions.
Friday, April 01, 2011
SOURCE CODE (Dir. Duncan Jones, 2011)
So Jake Gyllenhaall is jarred into consciousness on a Chicago commuter train sitting across from Michelle Monaghan who’s in mid conversation mode.
She thinks he’s somebody else, and from his reflection in the train’s restroom mirror – he is somebody else.
While still scrambling to figure out what’s going on, a massive explosion destroys the train and kills him, her, and hundreds of people. Then Gyllenhaall wakes up again, but this time in a dark chamber in some sort of laboratory with Vera Farmiga in a dark blue military suit on a video monitor.
Farmiga explains to Gylennhaall that he is on a mission to inhabit a specific passenger’s mind the last 8 minutes before the train is blown up in order to identify the bomber and thwart future attacks.
Therefore Gyllenhaall is thrust into the same scene again multiple times, GROUNDHOG DAY style.
This is a juicy premise that comes equipped with some tasty twists. Gyllenhaall, who is revealed to be a army helicopter pilot, is a smart guy so it’s fun to watch him try to figure out the suspects and manipulate the situation, all the while flirting with the playful Monaghan.
As Farmiga’s superior, a stodgy Jeffrey Wright is sternly looking over her shoulder spouting out the necessary exposition about the source code that they are utilizing: “It’s not time travel; it’s time reassignment.”
As the second film of director Duncan Jones (whose first movie MOON is seriously worth checking out), SOURCE CODE is stylishly paced, elaborately assembled, and is filled with stunning visuals, but it has one fatal flaw that is really difficult for me to wrap my brain around.
Thing is, to reveal that flaw would be committing a major Spoiler! crime, so I’ll just say that this film is close to 80 maybe 85% of a superb surreal action thriller.
It's one of Gyllenhaall's most appealing performances displaying the right amount of tension and humility. By this point he doesn't have to prove that he can carry a movie, but it's still cool seeing him again give it the "old college try."
Farmiga shows that even with her lips prudishly pursed, wearing a drab uniform, and with her hair pulled back into a bun is still collassally cute. Her performance ain't bad either - she conveys a restrained sense of urgency throughout.
Monaghan doesn't have much of a character despite being the love interest, but she makes the most of it. Wright as the handicapped "source code" scientist, is all sinister in his cold calculations in a predictable "heavy" manner, but although he's mainly a device - he's not a narrative problem like the one that keeps me from being 100% on board with this movie.
So much of this film is so good that I definitely recommend it, but that one particular plot hole (that I'm dying to go off on, again - Spoiler! city) just keeps bugging me.
I know I over-think these things, and that most folks will see it as a slick serviceable popcorn picture and go about their day, but SOURCE CODE is so close to absolute brilliance in its meticulousness that I can't help but zeroing in the one element that almost derails the entire endeavor.
However, maybe getting wrapped up in that one glitch in the system is just as much fun as getting wrapped up in the rest of it.