Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Of Monks And Terrorists

OF GODS AND MEN (Dir. Xavier Beauvois, 2010)

The most stirring scene of this immaculately affecting French film involves a group of Trappist monks singing towards a stained glass window in their Algerian monastery as an armed helicopter hovers above.

Granted, it takes a while to get there as this film is a real slow burner. We follow these monks, led by Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale, through their serene daily routines for a long tranquil stretch before a bunch of Islamic terrorists start taking over the terrain.

The monks debate on whether they should stay or go - some believing they should uphold their sacred ground, and some thinking to stay would be "collective suicide."

Based on a true story from 1996, OF GODS AND MEN beautifully builds to its profoundly powerful ending with a series of carefully crafted scenes. In one such scene, the monks drink wine to Tchaikosky's "Swan Lake" and enjoy a moment of peace as doom looms nearer.

It's so quiet and poetic a film, due to the solid cinematography of Caroline Champetier and the abundance of holy chants throughout the film, that when the brief instances of violence occur they really strike you.

Beauvois has made a spare yet intensely spiritual film that pays touching tribute to these men of faith, illuminating their final days sans sappy sentiment.

It shows that as often as the light can be salvation, it can also be the cold hard light of day. This film's brave accomplishment is that it's straight with us about that.

More later...

Monday, April 25, 2011

THE CONSPIRATOR: The Film Babble Blog Review

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.

More later...

Thursday, April 21, 2011

SUPER: The Film Babble Blog Review

SUPER (Dir. James Gunn, 2010)

Add The Crimson Bolt to the growing list of superheroes that aren't really superheroes.

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. 

More later...

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: Days Three & Four

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.

Well, now it's Sunday night and I've got a bunch of notes to unload so here's my round-up of documentaries from the last 2 days:

Films I saw on Saturday, April 16th:

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.

With amazing access to the media desk, Rossi follows these key players in print: Executive Editor Bill Keller, blogger turned Times writer Brain Stelter, Media Marketing Editor Bruce Headlam, and media and culture columnist David Carr who steals the movie over and over with his dead on acerbic comments.

As a subscriber to the Times, I loved the inside insights into the newspaper's ongoing developments, and thoroughly enjoyed how the film handled the history of the iconic newspaper with amusing anecdotes graced by great grainy archival footage.

The film was followed by a Q & A/discussion with director Rossi, producer Kate Novack, Headlam, and Stelter who all got a standing ovation.

TUGS (Dir. Jessica Edwards, 2011) / BEING ELMO (Dir. Constance Marks, 2011) This program of 2 films started with a 10 minute movie about tugboats in the New York City harbor (even including a tugboat race!) that was wonderfully shot and certainly one of the best shorts I've seen #fullframe, but it was overwhelmingly overshadowed by the bio doc of Kevin Clash, the puppeteer and voice of the iconic Sesame Street character Elmo.

BEING ELMO is a joyous journey through the life of a man who grew up obsessed with puppets. As a kid he built 85 of them which he perfected operating and developing voices. In 1978 he traveled to New York to meet puppeteer/designer Kermit Love who had worked on many Jim Henson productions, and that opened the door for Clash to apply for Sesame Street.

Clash went on to work on LABYRINTH, Dinosaurs, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, and many many Muppet productions, but his breakthrough, of course, came when puppeteer Richard Hunt frustratingly threw the Elmo puppet across the room to Clash and said: "See if you can come up with a voice for this thing."

The only fault I had with the film is that it didn't tell us about Love's death in 2008. I mean, I can understand why so much time is spent on Henson, but according to the film, Love was Clash's true mentor.

Anyway, the audience loved the movie, laughing at all the right places and aww-ing at every cute Muppet that popped up on screen, but they went nuts when a man holding what was obviously Elmo ran up and danced in front of the street during the credits.

That's right - Kevin Clash and Elmo were there!

This was great news for everyone in attendance except for TUGS director Jessica Edwards who stood alone on one side of the screen while everybody was wrapped up in Clash, and the BEING ELMO film makers (including director Constance Marks).

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.

SCENES OF A CRIME (Dirs. Grover Babcock & Blue Hadaegh, 2011) This film, about a man accused of abusing his 4 month old baby, can be unpleasant to sit through, but its a stirring inquiry into wrongful interrogation techniques. 

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.

There's also excerpts from a troubling police training video: "The Reid Technique," which hammers home the scenario in which a man might plead guilty to a crime he didn't commit. SCENES FROM A CRIME is a fascinating thought provoking film, and well deserving of the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award it won on Sunday.

MAGIC TRIP (Dirs. Alison Ellwood & Alex Gibney, 2011)

I've found the films of Alex Gibney (ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY) to be fine, but a bit flashy and formulaic at times - sexying up material when it doesn't need to be sexied up. However, that style works wonders here as he takes rough old film of the infamous Merry Pranksters from their 1964 road trip across America, and shapes it into cohesive invigorating narrative.

It's a buzz to see color footage of counter culture God Ken Kesey (author of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" if you don't know) dancing around, talking a mile-a-minute, with Neal Cassady (inspiration for the Character of Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's "On The Road"), and an assorted gang of freaks with monikers such as "Zonker", "Hardly Visible", and "Stark Naked" living it up on the eve of the '60s revolution.

Injesting every substance they can find, they make the trip in a school bus painted and re-painted in psychedelia, and dubbed "Further."

MAGIC TRIP is a colorful, funny, and rockin' flick that captures its era beautifully and is sure to give audiences a cinematic contact high.

Films I saw on Sunday, April 17th:

TABLOID (Dir. Errol Morris, 2011) This was definitely the craziest film of the fest, and coming after MAGIC TRIP - that's saying a lot. It comes from an unlikely source - famed documentarian Errol Morris (GATES OF HEAVEN, THE THIN BLUE LINE, THE FOG OF WAR, STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE) - and is about a silly subject, which was called the "Mormons sex in chains case."

Simply stated, the film is about Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen (Ms. Wyoming World), who was charged of kidnapping a Mormon missionary she used to date, after trailing him to England in 1977. 

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.

It's McKinney, herself, as an interview subject that makes this movie roll with her hilarious sing-songy Southern accent, and bubbly demeanor. Whether the film is showing us sordid headlines and photos of her in the 'Me' decade, or giving us the twisted tale of her getting involved with cloning her pit bull puppy (that's right), she's always got a funny line for the occasion.

At one point, McKinney says: "See if you can get the vision set in your head, Mr. Film Maker!" Morris sure nailed the vision here.

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.
CORMAN'S WORLD is a electrifying blast.

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.

Before JAWS and STAR WARS came along and co-opted his model with bigger budgets, Corman's movies were the go-to choice for campy big screen entertainment, and there's a lot of it here with dozens of clips, film stills, and garrish movie posters.

It's those interview bits that really had me laughing like when Jack Nicholson said: "By mistake he actually made a good picture every once in a while...I was never in it, but that was as much my fault as it was the next guy's."

Nicholson tears up a bit towards the end of the doc when talking about Corman being his sole source of support for many years. With all this mighty evidence of a one-of-a-kind film maker who still goes against the system, I did too.

The next film was a rescreening that was announced after the Awards BBQ:

THE INTERRUPTERS (Dir. Steve James, 2011) As this was my final film of the fest I was a bit weary, but this doc still had my attention from start to finish. James (HOOP DREAMS) presents the passionate mission of the "Violence Interrupters" - members of the Chicago based organizion CeaseFire.

Employing an intervention strategy intended to halt the huge amount of gun violence affecting the community, the project appears to be making strides, although in many instances in this film, the efforts can feel profoundly futile.

It's a long film (144 minutes), but James makes good use of the time following well meaning members of CeaseFire like the fiercely determined Ameena Matthews, and Cobe Williams who used to be heavily involved in crime. We sit in on meetings, walk the streets, and enter the homes in Chicago danger zones, and it's all powerfully affecting.

Okay! So that's another Full Frame Documentary Film Festival done. There were a lot of films I didn't see so please seek other's coverage. That's what I'm going to do right now, because even after seeing 20 docs over the last 4 days I'm still hungry for more.

More later...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: Day Two

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.

In RAW MATERIAL, Preliger would show a brief clip of, say, "an actual hobo" then provide a little commentary and take questions. He stressed that this was an exclusive showing of these films, mostly black and white films from the '40s, because he's "reluctant to put into the public pool" just yet.

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, WHEN CHINA MET AFRICA, 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. It's the emotionally powerful story of Mildred and Richard Loving - the couple at the heart of the landmark case that overturned the law banning interracial marriage in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967.

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.

(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.

More later...

Friday, April 15, 2011

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: Day One

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.
Here's what I saw today:

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)

A truly great documentary about an extremely painful and controversial subject - Oregon's "Death With Dignity Act" which allows physician assisted suicide. Richardson, who appeared at an after film Q & A, aims his lenses at several patients dealing with disease who've made the decision to take their lives.

The film is dominated by Cody Curtis, a 54-year old mother of two, who is suffering from liver cancer. Curtis's aplomb, and her intense yet sharp questioning of her situation leads to some heavy philosophical moments, but more to heavy tears. I've never heard more people sob at a movie before, and I have to admit my eyes weren't dry either.

There are times that it felt like maybe Richardson's camera was being too intrusive, but the director touched upon that in his comments afterwards, and his handling of the heartbreaking conclusion is admirable. Look for this when it airs on HBO this summer.

(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.

It's amusingly edited with a lot of great quotes such as Sanderson's "marriage is the price men pay for sex, and sex is the price women pay for marriage." The audience appeared to love model Muzzonigro the most - his new age speak, the foodgasms he has everytime he eats, and the air-headed way he carries himself, all went over endearingly. When the man appeared with director Moggan for the following Q & A, moderated by "Big Fish" author Daniel Wallace, the applause was deafening.

(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.

Kerthy Fix, who last year presented the festival with the excellent STRANGE POWERS: STEPHIN MERRITT AND THE MAGNETIC FIELDS, molded this tight 72 minute film out of 60 hours of concert footage filmed by the band's lighting designer Carmine Covelli. Not knowing much about Le Tigre, I was fascinated by their energy and politics - founder Kathleen Hanna describes them as "a self consciously feminist band" - and loved how full songs were included albeit edited together from different concerts. Fix did Q & A duty after the movie.

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.

More later...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

HANNA: The Film Babble Blog Review

HANNA (Dir. Joe Wright, 2011)
Little girls kicking ass – we need more of that, right? This movie seems to think so. It introduces Saoirse Ronan as the title character as she stalks an elk in an icy forest in Finland. She takes it down with a bow and arrow, but the animal still breathes as it lies on the ice in front of her.

"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.

More later...

Saturday, April 09, 2011

ARTHUR: Not Completely Artless, But Still Extremely Annoying

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.

That’s not to say that Russell Brand isn’t obnoxious in the role, don’t get me wrong. He really is.

Brand's schtick gets increasingly more annoying as the film progresses through its lazily arranged set-pieces, that stick closely to the original’s basic plot points, even recycling key dialogue, and even touches on elements of the 1988 sequel (i.e. Arthur tries to get sober and get a job).

The film does have a handful of decent one-liners mostly in the exchanges between Brand and Helen Mirren as Arthur’s nanny, but they’re not enough to justify this rancid re-imagining.

So Arthur is stuck in the pickle of having to marry a woman he’s not in love with (Jennifer Garner) or else losing his family fortune of $900 million. Indie “it” girl Greta Gerwig gets mixed up in this in the role formerly played by Liza Minnelli, but the character is now an unlicensed NYC tour-guide instead of a shoplifting waitress.

It was an inspired choice, one of the film’s few, to cast the Oscar winning Mirren, in a gender/job title change from butler to nanny, as Hobson, the role that won an Oscar for John Gielgud way back in the day. Her stern and acidic performance really helps the film through some tedious stretches.

Gerwig does good work with what she’s given, but there’s zero chemistry between her and Brand. Her aspiring children’s book author character is just a convention, and the film really isn’t very interested in her. Nor Garner, whose part is pretty insulting especially in the film’s worst bit – a sitcom-style bedroom scene that has the actress in a metal corset stuck to the bottom of Brand’s magnetic bed.

For some reason Nick Nolte appears as Garner’s grizzled father, and I don’t think I’ve seen him invested less in a part. Ditto Geraldine James as Brand’s disapproving mother, a thankless role in a movie full of them.

None of those other roles matter, of course, because it’s Brand’s show. He gets to slosh around doing wacky things like dressing up as Batman with his chauffeur (an extremely mis-used Luis Guzmán) as Robin leading the police in a high-speed chase in the Batmobile, drive the BACK TO THE FUTURE Delorean (he collects movie cars, you see), and strut down the street wearing President Lincoln’s top hat, coat, and cane he just purchased at an auction.

Unfortunately none of this is very funny, and Brand can be funny (see FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL and bits of GET HIM TO THE GREEK), but this role which I admit looked good on paper, is just too broad, too obvious, and much too irritating to elicit genuine laughter. It’s just too painfully apparent and Brand just simply doesn’t have the ginormous charm that Dudley Moore had – I mean, the original was a vehicle completely built around that charm.

ARTHUR '11 is such a predictable conventional modernized rehash, that I’m surprised there wasn’t a remix of the theme song from the original (Christopher Cross’s “Arthur’s Theme ‘Best That You Can Do’”) with a well known hip hop artist rapping over it about his billionaire boy Arthur and how he rolls.

BTW this new ARTHUR does feature the inevitable cover of “Arthur’s Theme” by Fitz and the Tantrums, which now joins the film it graces in the bulging file of unnecessary remakes.

More later...

YOUR HIGHNESS: The Film Babble Blog Review

YOUR HIGHNESS (Dir. David Gordon Green, 2011)
Sometimes really funny people make really unfunny films.
The comic pedigree of the folks involved in this medieval mess is strong – director David Gordon Green, actor/co-writer Danny McBride, and actor James Franco were all key players in one of my favorite comedies of the last 5 years: PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, but this comes nowhere near the laughter level of that manic marijuana-tinged movie.
It sure tries to, with scores of drug, sex, and bloody slaughter gags, yet none of them elicited even as much as a slight giggle out of me.
Here’s the plot anyway: McBride is an oafish prince who reluctantly joins his heroic brother (Franco) on a quest to rescue Franco’s fiancée (a dim witted Zooey Deschanel) from the clutches of an evil wizard (Justin Theroux).
Along the way they encounter Natalie Portman as a warrior princess, and they travel together taking on a five headed serpent monster, treacherous knights working for Theroux, and every profane expression known to be ever spoken by man.
On the surface YOUR HIGHNESS has everything necessary for a fantasy action comedy set during the Dark Ages – it’s got tons of sword play, silly sorcery by way of not-bad CGI, a horse-drawn chariot chase, severed limbs, gratuitous forest nymph nudity, and gorgeous locations in Northern Ireland.
Everything that is, except for legitimate laughs.
Reportedly much of the film was improvised, which makes sense because the dialogue is awful without any lines worth quoting.
McBride is simply doing his predictable slimeball schtick that he does on the HBO series East Bound And Down, and it wears thin really fast in this set-up.
All of McBride’s characteristics come off as clunky as the armor he wears.
Franco and Portman are both slumming it after their loftier turns in 127 HOURS and BLACK SWAN respectively, and it’s obvious they did this because they thought it would be fun, and I’m not doubting they had fun on set, but on screen they sadly look like they are wasting a lot of energy on extremely moronic material.
Deschanel seems detached from it all, maybe a result of certain substances that no doubt were passed around by the cast and crew.
As for the rest of the supporting players like Rasmus Hardiker, Toby Jones, and Charles Dance, I’ll let them off the hook – it’s bad enough for them to be in this film.
YOUR HIGHNESS is a crude cringe-inducing crap-fest devoid of wit and invention. I doubt even teenage stoners will laugh at it. I’m seriously surprised McBride, Franco, and Green think it would be funny, because they are capable of so much more comically.
“This quest sucks!” McBride complains at one point. I heartily agree.
More later...

Friday, April 08, 2011

WIN WIN: The Film Babble Blog Review

WIN WIN (Dir. Thomas McCarthy, 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.

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Saturday, April 02, 2011

EVEN THE RAIN: The Film Babble Blog Review

EVEN THE RAIN (Dir. Icair Bollain, 2010)

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.

More later...