Thursday, March 24, 2011

Film Friday: Reader's Edition

I'm pretty stoked about introducing this post to you.  The first reason is that I didn't have to write it for once.  The second reason is that I knew I'd be in good hands with one of my most devoted readers, and someone who spends 80% of conversations with me discussing film, writing for us (oh yeah, she's my sister, too).  

I took a little break from this column for a few weeks but I'm glad to make the comeback with some great thoughts from Emily on these films.  Remember the format: 1. Good New Film, 2. Good Older Film, 3. Bad Film.  If any of my other readers get the hankering to write about some favorites or anti-favorites, let me know and I'd be glad to let you contribute as well...provided that you're not a better writer than I am.

Be sure to check out some more of Emily's thoughts on life at her blog.

Waiting for Superman (2010)

Whether or not you agree with Davis Guggenheim, no one can argue that he lacks passion when he makes a film.  The filmmaker who brought us An Inconvenient Truth has taken a look at the American public education system to try an find out why it has become so woefully inadequate.  

The film is like a triangle with three sides: The first being the students that you follow.  You watch these kids and their families talk about the hopes they have for their future and the film does an excellent job of making you feel like you are also personally invested with these kids.  The second is the interviews with people on all sides of the education system: certain “change agents” such as Michelle Rhee (the now former chancellor of DC public schools), Geoffrey Canada (who runs Harlem Children’s Zone), and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates.  

The third is the startling statistics that Guggenheim provides.  Among these statistics are the declining reading and math scores, the comparatively low American education standards, union contracts and the undoubtedly the flawed tenure system.  One of my personal favorite (is that even the right word I want to use here?) moments comes when the filmmakers mock lousy teachers getting moved from school to school in a piece known as the Dance of the Lemons or the Turkey Trot.  

Full disclosure here: I’m an educator and so is my husband.  I was a member of one of the unions discussed in the film and my husband still is.  But there wasn’t much in the film that I disagreed with.  I appreciated Geoffrey Canada talking openly about the rough and horrible home lives many of his students come from and how good systems can overcome that.  Knowing that there are schools out there working in these kind of environments gives hope. 

No matter what your views are, this film is worth seeing if you’ve ever been in a public school, or will ever at some point have a child in public schools.  The film is best summed up by a quote from Michelle Rhee when she says, “We sacrifice what’s best for our children in the name of harmony for adults.”  A poignant and timely observation, no doubt.


12 Angry Men (1957)

So there’s this movie that takes place almost entirely in one room.  You know none of the characters’ names.  There is no action, only dialogue.  The only actors in it are white men. There’s no leading man and, in fact, it’s a movie that relies mostly on character acting. It’s not a crime drama, because the crime has already happened.  It’s not a courtroom drama because the trial is the verdict.  

I know.  It doesn’t sound like a promising premise but that’s exactly where 12 Angry Men takes you.  The film is based on a stage play by Reginald Rose who, as the story goes, wrote it after he served on a jury.  At the beginning, the jury is set to deliberate on a case where a teenager has been accused of stabbing his father.  A case that, if found guilty, would come with a mandatory death penalty.  The 12 men are all pretty satisfied to hand down a guilty verdict quickly, so they can get home and go about their business. But Henry Fonda (Juror #8) feels like if they are handing down the death penalty to a teenager, they at least owe it to him to discuss the case.  And that’s when the titular anger begins. In addition to the pressure of deciding a young man’s life, it’s hot in New York that day; very hot.  And as you’re watching the movie, you get hot too.

They go through all the evidence, the eye witnesses and the murder weapons and as this happens, each man comes to face his own prejudices and demons.  The movie almost feels like it was shot in real time, even though it’s not.  Director Sidney Lumet doesn’t have much to work with as far scenery.  But he makes the most of it: as the camera angles make the room appear smaller and smaller, the men sweat more and more making the viewer feel almost claustrophobic.  By the end, the viewer is as angry as the jury because you feel like you are there with them.  

This film forces us to take a look at our own narrow-mindedness without being preachy.  It’s political and patriotic, but in no way polarizing.  It’s realistic and simple.  12 Angry Men proves that movies don’t have to be over the top to be amazing.  It’s a pure classic that everyone should see.

Out of Africa (1985)

I’ve had Out of Africa on my Netflix queue for awhile and I was really excited about watching it.  In theory, it’s full of things I should love in a movie: Amazing scenery? Check. Meryl Streep? Check. Robert Redford? Check. Directed by Sydney Pollack? Check. Sweeping musical score? Check.  It’s my favorite movie genre (that being: People Who Have Romantic Problems During Wars A Long Time Ago).  

So the film has a lot going for it.  And the scenery and cinematography is truly wonderful.  It tells a somewhat autobiographical story of a Danish Baroness named Karen Blixen (Streep) who marries a crude, womanizer named Bror who brings her to Nairobi and then leaves her while he goes off on various hunting and war ventures.  She meets an independent and confident hunter named Denys (Redford) and forges a friendship with him that leads to a love affair after she kicks Bror out. Denys makes no secret of the fact that, while he loves Karen deeply, he has no intention of marrying or being tied down and ultimately, their love is destined to fail.

This is a long, drawn out movie.  I don’t mind a long movie but it’s the drawn out that made me dislike this movie so much.  About 30 percent of the movie could be done without.  Combine that with Streep and Redford’s completely aloof and somewhat dull performances, Streep’s heavy and sometimes inaudible accent and Redford’s total lack of one (the character is British) and you get a movie that tries really hard but just falls short of being interesting.  I know there are a lot of people that really love this movie but I found it was lacking many redeeming qualities and, quite frankly, boring.  I really struggled to stay interested enough to even finish it.  The genre will still catch my eye every time but this is one that might be better if you don’t waste your time.  All three hours of it.

5/10 (And all five points are awarded Africa, which is the most beautiful thing in the movie.)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Top 10 of 2010: Part II

If you missed it, check out my numbers 10-6 below.  Now, before unveiling my top-5, here are ten runners-up that just missed the cut, in no particular order:

Winter’s Bone
Easy A
The Kids Are All Right
Toy Story 3
True Grit
The Fighter
Inside Job

5.  Blue Valentine

So what if I have a man-crush on Gosling?
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams give two of the best performances of the year in this relationship drama directed by Derek Cianfrance.  The film starts off with a minor tragedy and from there it doesn’t really let in many glimmers of hope afterward.  It was honestly a little bit grittier than I was expecting, though that doesn’t take away from the film, but I’m not sure it really added anything, either (sure, I’d love to see an abortion performed!).  However, the reason that it works so well is because the director really allowed Gosling and Williams to stretch their acting legs; it was obvious that there was a healthy balance between adhering to the script and giving the actors the freedom to perform their own interpretations of the characters.

Why This One Stuck With Me:

It’s simple: anyone who is married that has seen this would agree that aspects of the relationship in this movie are painfully realistic, and if they don’t then they are lying.  Some things I didn’t identify with personally, but a lot of things I did.  There is a universal nature to the portrayal while keeping it specific enough to tell an entertaining story.

4.  Another Year

I wrote in no uncertain terms how I felt about this movie by Mike Leigh about six weeks ago here, and time has only strengthened my stance that for me this is an unforgettable movie, although I realize that it’s not a film for everyone, unlike, say, The King’s Speech is (and I know that statement sounded douchey but I really don’t mean it that way—one of my biggest movie pet peeves is when someone makes a dismissive statement like “you just didn’t get it,” that kind of thing makes me want to pour a scalding-hot latte in the lap of whoever says it.  All I mean is that I recognize that this particular type of slow moving story without much of a rising and falling action is not really everyone’s cup of’s not always my cup of tea, either, for that matter.). 

Anyway, as I stated in my review, the film follows a retirement-age couple, Tom & Gerri, and their various friends and family members that come around during the course of a literal year in their lives.  I read something interesting recently about how director Leigh crafts the script for his films: he makes rough outlines for each character in the film, and then spends a great deal of time working with each of the actors he casts in order to write the arc of each character.  Only then is the overall script of the film put together.  I found this to be very intriguing and it explains the amazing detail that each of the characters in his films typically have, and this film is no different. 

Why This One Stuck With Me:

Time plays a bittersweet character in this film.  For some of the characters, such as Mary and Ken, the passing of the year in the film reinforces their feelings of loneliness, their inability to attain the relationship that Tom & Gerri have.  But for some of the other characters, time is good: the birth of a child occurs, a new relationship is formed, brothers are reunited, etc. 

Tom & Gerri are able to push through some of the bad things that happen to them throughout the course of the year because of their love and respect for each other, and because they take the time to enjoy the blessings they have.  Happiness many times is a choice that we all must make in the face of both good and bad in our lives.  No other film this year gave me so much to reflect on inwardly and made me think for such a long time afterward.

3. Exit Through The Gift Shop

The mysterious Banksy.
The most unique and fresh film of the year, undoubtedly.  As I wrote about back in the summer, this follows an odd (see: borderline insane) French man, Guetta, who films everything in his life, and is particularly interested in LA street art.  As this interest turns to obsession, he finds out about Banksy, a famous British street artist and begins to document his work.

But the real fun and interesting part of the story comes when Banksy tells Guetta that he should be making his own art.  Guetta comes up with the moniker “Mr. Brainwash,” and begins selling completely unoriginal art at ridiculous prices just because he has the endorsement of Banksy behind him.  Banksy effectively turns the camera back around on Guetta and begins to document this transformation, and the result is basically a big “screw you” to not only the art community, but also, the public at large who gets duped by Mr. Brainwash’s somewhat worthless art.

Why This One Stuck With Me:

This was the year of the “fakeumentary”: Joaquin Phoenix’s I’m Still Here was admitted to be fake, while there are questions as to the events depicted in Catfish and this film.  For me, however, it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other whether or not this film is “real,” and perhaps even makes it better if it’s not.  I mean, what is the definition of “real” anyway when it comes to documentaries?  It’s not as if no documentary filmmaker has ever manipulated the facts of their subject in order to make a point (*cough* Michael Moore *cough).  And it’s even less of a big deal here than say, a film supporting a particular political viewpoint, because Gift Shop is really, at it’s core, just a commentary on society in general, and that point is made whether it’s completely real, completely fake, or somewhere in between. 

2.  Black Swan

One of the only films in my top-10 that I haven’t written about at some point.  From the first scene, as Nina (Natalie Portman) dances an oddly freaky duet in her dream with the Swan King, I knew that this was going to be unlike anything I had ever seen, and it absolutely was.  Nina is cast as the swan princess in “Swan Lake,” and goes through an unforgettable transformation as she tries to shed her sheltered, over-mothered persona in order to be able to play the role of the sexy and confident black swan. 

Portman’s performance was great, obviously, but the real star of the film for me is director Darren Aronofsky.  I love “director-centric” movies just in general, and Aronofksy’s style is ever-present--he never lets you forget that he is there, controlling every suspenseful, hallucinogenic moment as Nina tries desperately to set herself free from her own restraint.  Adding to the horror elements of the film is the score by Clint Mansell, which, for the most part uses Tchaikovsky’s score from the original ballet.  It is extremely effective. 

Why This One Stuck With Me:

Have you ever seen a ballet-centered horror film?  Kind of hard to forget, really.  On top of this, Aronofsky is one of maybe five modern directors that I would say is responsible for getting me into film, and he is definitely at the top of his game here in a fully-realized piece of cinema.  Black Swan doesn’t have the humanity of The Wrestler, or the visual beauty of The Fountain, or even the visceral grittiness of Requiem for a Dream, though it does have a little of each.  But what it does have is a story that grabs you by the scalp and doesn’t let go; beautiful, dark, and richly-layered cinematography and camera-work; amazing performances by Portman, Hershey, and Kunis; and a few unforgettable moments involving random body parts.

1.  The Social Network

Was there any doubt?

I haven’t been shy at any point about expressing my fanboy-esque love for this film by David Fincher.  When it came out, I wrote a review here proclaiming it as the best movie to come out in some two years, and 3(!) rewatches have only made it better.  Since I’ve already reviewed it extensively here and in a live-tweet session I had a few weeks ago, I’ll spare you more gushing and skip straight to the “why it stuck with me” section.

Why This One Stuck With Me:

Instead of looking at the film from a broad perspective, since most of you have seen it by now, there are several great details that I’ll point out instead:

1.  Acting: When Mark meets with the Winklevoss twins, they ask him about the mp3 software he created (that Microsoft apparently tried to purchase), and he says he uploaded it for free.  The Winklevii ask him why he did this, and he just shrugs his shoulders with a cold blank stare, as if to say, “why not.”  Perfect acting by Eisenberg. Perfect.

2.  Screenplay: During the first scene of the movie, Mark says that he needs to do something to get the attention of the clubs.  He wants to be a part of an exclusive group, which leads to parties, and “a better life.”  At the end of the film, while facebook employees are having a celebration for their 1 millionth user (or was it 10 million? Can’t remember), Mark stays behind at the office after betraying his friend, missing out on a party of the club that he essentially himself created.  Brilliant writing by Mr. Sorkin.

3.  Cinematography: After the breakup scene at the beginning, we follow Mark on the Harvard campus as he goes toward his dorm while the opening credits roll.  The dark and glossy sheen typically used by Fincher is very present during this scene.  His digital camera captures so much detail, as lampposts and moonlight reflect the wet streets and ivy-league cobblestone walkways.  All of this is made appropriately ominous through Trent Reznor’s score in this scene. 

4.  Direction: Of all the many possibilities that I could point out, the one that stands out (and I tweeted about this earlier) for me is the scene in the San Fran nightclub with Mark and Sean.  As Sean is manipulating Mark, the waving beams of light flash across his face—bright hues of red, purple, green, yellow, etc.  Conversely, when the camera shows Mark’s face, softer colors of white, and muted yellows and pinks are reflected (full disclosure--the wifey pointed this out to me the first time we saw it--she is infinitely more perceptive than I am).  

This is just one detail that director Fincher incorporated into the movie, and when you put every little detail together like this, there is no doubt that it is one of the most accomplished works of cinema this year.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Top 10 of 2010: Part I

Last Saturday night I convinced the wifey and a friend to go check out Biutiful, the Best Foreign Film-nominee from this year starring Javier Bardem.  It was the last on my list that I really wanted to see before the Oscars on Sunday.  It was a great film, in my opinion--certainly memorable in many respects, mostly because of Bardem's ridiculously good performance and for the gritty texture of the Barcelona underbelly that director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu incorporated into the film.  (FYI--it's really gave my wife a headache for the rest of the night (or did she just make that up for other reasons?  Did I just say that out loud?), so if you don't like watching grown men wearing diapers because they can't control themselves, or seeing red urine, or several dead bodies, or a movie that gives you a general feeling of hopelessness, then I wouldn't recommend it, even though I enjoyed it.)

Anyway, my point in bringing up this movie is this: I spent much of this winter and early spring prognosticating about the Oscars--I read blogs, saw any film I could that was nominated for anything, made my own predictions, etc., etc; but when I came home from a really great Oscar party at a friend's house, after all of the hooplah and hype of the Oscars ended, I didn't sit in my living room thinking about the results of the Oscars--I was still thinking about Biutiful, a film that won zero awards, and I didn't even care.

The Oscars can certainly validate a film, and obviously I think exceptional films deserve recognition.  But when it comes down to it for me, when I think about what films I really like, I don't think about it in terms of awards--I think about it in terms of why it stuck with me, why it was personal to me.  So, in each of the write-ups for my Top-10 of 2010, I tried to write a little about why the film stuck with me, because ultimately, that is what's important.

10.  The Ghost Writer

Roman Polanski’s most successful films follow the same, simple equation:  Atmosphere + Suspense.  It’s a winning combination.  Whether it’s the private-investigator thriller set in bleak, depression-era Los Angeles (Chinatown), or a Jewish man hiding out and fighting for his life in Nazi-occupied Poland (The Pianist), or a political-thriller set on a creepy and isolated New England island as in this film, the coupling of these two elements in his films build a beautiful crescendo resulting in an edge-of-your-seat experience.

Polanski: mastering the art of suspense, thrill, and subversion
of the American justice system.
Ewan MacGregor, who for my money is always worth the price of admission, gives a great performance as a cocky writer who gets in a little over his head on a gig to ghost write the memoirs of a recently ousted British Prime Minster (Pierce Brosnan).  Secrets surrounding the PM’s term have been locked up (literally), and MacGregor’s character begins to fear for his safety after he starts to suspect that something’s up. 

Why This One Stuck With Me:
It’s not that the story of political corruption was anything particularly new or groundbreaking, it’s more that the execution here from director Polanski was so tight and flawless that the whole thing was just a thrill-ride. 

(Yep, went through that whole review without making any statutory rape jokes about Polanski.  Ease off the man people! He made Chinatown for goodness sakes!!)

9.  Inception

Written about exhaustively on this blog, I’ve now had seven months to reflect and, recently, give it another watch.  My ultimate boil-it-down take on the film is this: it is a visionary, unique, yet flawed piece of filmmaking.  The entertainment value that Nolan brings to the table is enough to squeeze in here at #9.  The flaws come in the form of too much exposition in the writing and through what I think was horrible miscasting in Ellen Page (she really sticks out like a sore thumb). 

However, on my recent rewatch, I really upped my appreciation for many of Nolan’s shot selections and the general visual feast that the producers put together, not to mention Hans Zimmer’s Oscar-nominated score. 

(Okay, let’s get real though for one second: don’t we all know at least ONE person who thinks they’re really smart (even though they’re not) for liking this movie just because it seems smart to them, and doesn’t that really annoy you?  I can think of 5 people like that, right now.  Is that a mean thing to say?)

Why This One Stuck With Me:

The little things.  The zero-gravity/rotating hallway fight scene is good enough scene to cure many ills in the movie.  The beautiful design elements that made up Cobb/Mal’s dreamworld were pure art.  The inner-dream manipulation of Fisher was great writing by Nolan.  The look on Cobb’s face at the end when he (spoilers!) wakes up from limbo is a great piece of acting from DiCaprio. 

8.  127 Hours

Maybe Danny Boyle should have
directed the Academy Awards, too.
James Franco’s turn in this latest Danny Boyle film is undoubtedly better than his performance as host of the 83rd Academy Awards (seriously though, was he high? Or just nervous?  Both maybe? I’m not sure which was more sad—his lack of enthusiasm or Anne Hathaway’s desperate attempt to make up for it.  Please join my “J-Lake for Host Next Year” campaign.  Thanks.) 

Boyle & Franco do a great job at providing the energy needed to sustain a story set almost entirely in a claustrophobic environment (screenwriter Simon Beaufoy should also be credited for this), while keeping the character and the story tender enough that you care about every minor success and failure that happens to him.

Why This One Stuck With Me:

The various sounds effects, split-screens, frantic editing, camera shots through tubes and in a Nalgene bottle, and a couple of trippy dream-sequences all made for a memorable film that has a harder edge than Slumdog Millionaire without succumbing to as much sappiness, yet does have a message worth telling. 

7.   The King’s Speech

Unfortunately, this fine piece of cinema is already drawing comparisons to Shakespeare in Love, Ordinary People, and Rocky (Best Picture winners that beat out “clearly” superior films), which I find to be a little bit of an overreaction.  This film is still really good in its own right, despite whatever “better” films it may have beat out. 

As I tweeted after I saw it, Colin Firth gave the most dedicated performance of the year, even though it’s not my favorite.  The chemistry between him and Geoffrey Rush was pure gold, and Helena Bonham Carter was certainly worthy of her nomination as a comforting wife to Bertie. 

Why This One Stuck With Me:

I’ve found that in many British movies, especially period pieces, there is a certain cold, standoff-ish type quality to the style of the film, (see: Gosford Park) and perhaps this has as much to do with rigid British subject matter as anything.  However, Speech deals with some of the same material (royalty, family politics) but with a warmer and more inviting approach.  Say what you want about Tom Hooper’s Best Director win, but his first two films have each made my top-10 of the year lists (The Damned United in 2009, which I wrote about here), and I think he’s got a great career ahead of him.

6.  L'Illusioniste (animated)

The art in The Illusionist is simply breathtaking.  
Like in another certain Pixar animated film that came out in 2010 (which just missed my list, by the way), the central character in Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist is a man who begins to feel that his usefulness in society is decreasing considerably.  This gorgeously hand-drawn film follows an aging magician and his stowaway partner (a young girl) through various beautiful locales in England, Scotland and France. 

Chomet’s story touches on several thematic subjects, which is pretty impressive considering its 80-minute runtime, and the fact that there is maybe 2 lines of dialogue in the whole thing.  At its center, as I mentioned, is a man facing the changes and progress of the mid-20th century while trying desperately to hold on to his dignity, while his young friend is very much representative of that younger generation ushering in the change. 

Why This One Stuck With Me:

Because the Chaplin-esque nature of the film had me grinning ear to ear for much of it.   Because in my lifetime I can only hope to see such beautiful animation again.  Because the film’s story may intentionally allude to the demise of 2D animation—just as the magician in this story tries to work hard to provide shiny new things for his lady companion, but can’t quite give her all that she wants, so goes our society’s thirst for the new—whether it be computer-generated animation or 3D technology, or whatever the next new thing will be.

And because, despite this, for my money I find unequaled richness and depth in this most human of mediums. 

Side note: my last point is even further evidenced by the fact that this film played on exactly ONE screen for a measly two weeks in the 4th biggest city in the nation.  So, so sad. 

Check back early next week for the unveiling of my top 5 of the year!