Sunday, January 31, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Sundance Review)

Modern street art and film have cooperated for decades now. Ever since people have been tagging walls, filmmakers have been there to chronicle their work. Graffiti documentaries such as Style Wars (1983) and Bomb It (2007) educate those who are interested in not only the artwork itself but also in the culture that produces this art. Narrative features such as Bomb the System (2002) illustrate the lifestyles of graffiti artists, often focusing on the rebelliousness and illegality of their art. Together, as a body of work, these films explore the global impact of graffiti and attempt to exemplify and validate the movement. As an addition to this canon, Exit Through the Gift Shop earns its place not only for the story it tells but also for who’s telling that story. Using one-of-a-kind hand-held footage and featuring exclusive interviews with the world’s most prolific and inexhaustible street artists, Gift Shop provides insights into the graffiti world like no other film before it. This first-person, undercover, sociologic, personal narrative not only provides an essential history of the movement but offers a unique perspective on a specific subset of that movement.

Exit Through the Gift Shop marks the directorial debut from prolific street artist Banksy. For those unfamiliar with Banksy, he hails from Britain and is responsible for countless iconographic art pieces around the world. His work includes stickers, murals, sculptures, and even installations. He often utilizes satirical imagery to speak on any number of topics from consumerism to living conditions to the idea of celebrity. Other than the work he produces, little is known about the mysterious artist. Banksy has gone to great lengths throughout his career to conceal his identity. A majority of his work is technically illegal as it’s constructed on public property and as street art laws continue to harshen, his decision to remain anonymous is easy to understand. His interviews in the film are done from behind shadows and through a voice-modification system. This is the first time Bansky has given video interviews for a film like this.

With his first feature-length documentary, Bansky decided to construct the project from the boxes of tapes stacked in his videographer’s garage. For years before Terry Guetta, an L.A. eccentric with a video camera permanently attached to his hand, began filming Banksy’s nighttime raids, he filmed a number of other infamous artists such as Shepard Fairey, Invader, and Ron English as they gave Los Angeles their own special brand of decoration. This massive collection of footage was originally turned into an “unwatchable” film (according to Banksy) called Life Remote Control. After realizing that this amazing footage shouldn’t go to such waste, he decided to make Gift Shop in an attempt to tell the story of a new age in street art through the life story of Guetta (a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash). The result is a must-see for anyone even remotely interested in art of any kind. It’ll be especially helpful for those wondering about Andre the Giant’s posse.

Blue Valentine (Sundance Review)

Blue Valentine is an affective film that uniquely tells a familiar Boy Meets Girl Then Loses Girl story. Director Derek Cianfrance (Brother Tied) supplies the viewer with two sections of his characters’ relationship: the hopeful beginnings and the beaten down endings. The years in the middle are left up to one’s imagination. At one time, Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) were a young, happy couple. As their lives progess, they aren’t as young and they definitely aren’t as happy. And so their story goes. The film cuts back and forth between two couples who, minus hairline recession and facial expressions, are seemingly the same people. But a lot has happened since the days of clever pickup lines and ukulele dance parties. Now there’s a child to raise, bills to pay, and a missing dog to find. Their bright eyes, the kind that are bron from naivety, are all but faded out by the time we meet up with them later on.

Both Gosling and Williams play their roles to perfection. Everything about their interactions, both physical and verbal, is completely believable. That's even more impressive considering that Dean and Cindy’s struggles are so relateable and painful that, for the viewer, poking holes in the performances might seem like a viable self-defense mechanism. But there aren’t any holes to poke. As conflicts arise, both characters continue to develop and their portrayals become well-rounded. The film’s nonlinear style is used to deliver new layers in Dean and Cindy and does so with effectively. Watching Dean's attempts at levity and Cindy's annoyed looks of disapproval is like a getting punched in the gut. Their actions never seem unnatural and that’s saying so much for a story whose content practically asks for melodrama.

Andrij Parekh’s (Half Nelson) cinematography is just as responsible as the writing and the performances for the frustration and agony illustrated onscreen. It’s easy to know which couple (past or present) is on screen just by paying attention to the use of contrasting colors. While it’d be simpler to say that Parekh uses brighter and happier colors during the couple’s brighter and happier years, that'd not only be inaccurate but also insulting to the work that went into creating Valentine’s visual makeup.

One of the film’s most insightful scenes takes place in a dingy, cheesy, science-fiction-themed hotel room. Parekh’s use of lighting and colors not only captures exactly what a room like that would look like but also comments on what would cause a good looking, non-trashy couple in their late-20s to book that room. The answer: desperation. Valentine seems to say that the hardest thing to fix is a marriage. And even with a clear image of what built that marriage’s foundation, it’s still difficult to see what should have been done differently.

Celebrities I Met at Sundance: Roger Ebert

Does anyone reading this really need background info on Roger Ebert? He's only one half of the world's most famous film critic duo. In 1967, he began writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, a publication that he still writes for to this day. Eight years later, he and the late Gene Siskel started a television show called Sneak Previews which gained popularity until At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert and eventually Siskel & Ebert & The Movies were formed. The latter would prove to be the duo's most successful and longest running television show which aired until Siskel's death in 1999. Richard Roeper eventually filled the empty seat and the new duo pressed on.

What some readers might not know is that, in 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer and after a long struggle, the famed critic eventually had to have a section of his jaw removed. Today, Ebert can no longer audibly speak, eat, or drink without a feeding tube, but he continues to view films, write reviews, and uses a computer to communicate both through typed words and through two electronic voices, the first, a British accent he named "Lawrence," and the second, an American accent he named "Alex." Despite his hardships, he still travels the world to do what he loves, watch movies. How badass is that? I've often said that if I had 24 hours to live, I'd spend it watching movies. Well, Ebert has a lot longer to live and he's got the fame and resources to see any movie he pleases.

The movie he chose to see that day was The Duplass Brothers' new comedy Cyrus where he sat just two seats down from Whitney and I and a couple friends we met at the festival. He sat with his wife, Chaz. After the film, he was sitting in the lobby where I waved and said "hi" and he slightly nodded. That was my entire encounter with one of the world's most famous movie critics. I give it a Thumbs Up.

Celebrities I Met at Sundance: Adam Kempenaar

A good friend of mine introduced me to Cinecast, a film podcast from Chicago, back in August of 2005. My two biggest celebrity crushes (Diane Lane & John Cusack) had made their first movie together (Must Love Dogs) and the Cinecast hosts, Adam Kempenar and Sam "Soon to be Van" Hallgren, decided not to review MLD or either of the other two big movies coming out that week (Stealth and Sky High, both of which I saw in theaters, F.Y.Information). After some convincing, I decided to look past their grievous mistake of not reviewing every project Diane Lane's even remotely involved in, I started downloading each new episode as it came out. It's been five years and I still love Cinecast (which is now Filmspotting).

[This is what a hero looks like to me.]

Whitney and I were picking up our Sundance tickets from the press office when someone I didn't recognize walked up to where we were standing. He was there to talk to us but once I read the name on his press pass, I knew I had to talk to him. It was Adam Kempenaar! I asked him if he were the Adam Kempenaar which was silly because his name is "Adam Kempenaar" and he was picking up press tickets at Sundance. What are the odds that a different "Adam Kempenaar" would be attending the country's most prestigious film festival as press? STUPID, SCOTT! HOW COULD YOU BE SO STUPID?

Adam looked past my stupid question and I told him how long I'd listened to the podcast and that I was a huge fan. He said he was only sticking around for a few days and then heading back home. He was mostly there to catch a screening of A Prophet, a film I didn't get the chance to see while at Sundance. We spoke for a couple minutes and both went on our way. It was better than the time I met Bobcat Goldthwait.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Perfect Host (Sundance Review)

It’s wonderful when talented actors take roles in projects they really believe in rather than aiming for the biggest box office dollars or guaranteed Oscar nominations. Robin Williams has World’s Greatest Dad. Nicole Kidman has Birth. Even James Franco has “General Hospital.” When these world-famous celebrities and gifted performers take a chance on a smaller project (or a forty-seven-year-old soap), that’s when real film fans start to get excited. They get excited because they know that whatever these projects are, they must be special because convincing actors to turn down millions of dollars for a mainstream blockbuster can’t be easy.

And aside from the occasional disaster (Hounddog, anyone?), a lot of these projects turn out to be successes, some monetarily, others in fan and critic praise. But what they all do is remind the world that mainstream Hollywood isn’t the only moviemaking game in town, even if they are reminding us from the Wal-Mart bargain bin. Effective storytelling is what it’s all about and the last time I checked, it doesn’t take 20 million dollars to tell a story.

David Hyde Pierce, who is best known for his work on TV’s “Frasier” and more recently in Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy in which he performed the voice work for a blue, sea-dwelling creature named Abe Sapien, takes on a more intimate roll in Nick Tomnay’s The Perfect Host. Pierce plays Warwick Wilson, a mild-mannered L.A. resident who has his home invaded by John Taylor, a clever bank robber (Clayne Crawford).

Expecting guests for a dinner party, Warwick allows the fast-talking scam artist into his house only to find himself at the wrong end of a long knife. Without wanting to give anything away, it should just be said that of all films that are labeled as “psychological thrillers,” The Perfect Host is one of the most deserving. The film evolves into a clever cat-and-mouse game between Warick, his captor, and a police detective (Nathaniel Parker) who’s closing in on solving that bank robbery. Tomnay, who wrote and directed both this film and the short it was based on, really gets into his characters’ heads and brings the viewer along for the ride.

A unique twist on the home invasion genre, Host starts out and ends a little rocky but the movie’s delicious creamy center completely makes up for it. Warwick Wilson is not a character you’ll easily forget. From his distinctive walk to his unique friendships, Warwick illuminates the screen, even when he’s not on it. Sure to make a number of Cult Classics lists, The Perfect Host is the best kind of project for big-name actors looking for something different. Host is different and in all the best ways.

Winter's Bone (Sundance Review)

Deep in the Ozark Mountains, there’s a culture that’s often misrepresented in film, if represented at all. Countless films feature Backwoods Hillbilly characters that are known more for their empty brains and chainsaw massacres than for anything that accurately represents the culture that they’re supposed to hail from. With Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik (Down to the Bone, 2004) set out to capture the people portrayed in Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same name. Of Woodrell’s novel, Granik has been quoted as saying that “we had something really beautiful to start with.”

The film crew set up in Southern Missouri and immediately went to work getting to know the locals. They studied Ozark linguistics, music, dress, hunting techniques, food preparation, and other elements of their cultural composition. The result of their preparation is a vigorous film with many strengths and very few weaknesses. The portrayals of its subjects are well developed, balanced, and far from Backwoods Hillbilly. It’s clear that filmmakers paid attention to even the area’s smallest details and carefully molded each one into the film. If they started out with something beautiful, rest assured that they ended up with something even more beautiful.

Casting was held both locally and around the country until the production team decided a unique blend of professional and non-professional actors to make up the cast. Professional actress, Jennifer Lawrence, who will appear next in Jodie Foster’s The Beaver, landed the lead role of Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year-old who’s forced to take care of her mentally-ill mother and two younger siblings when her meth-baking father, Jessup, goes missing before his court date. Ree later finds out that her father has put up their house as bond collateral and that she’s got to find him before their home is taken away. Standing in Ree’s way is the community that surrounds her. In a population where everyone seems to know each one another, either through business or blood relation, lips remain sealed and tensions stay high when Ree starts asking all the questions that no one wants asked.

Ree’s determination serves as the film’s driving force and draws its strength from the intensity of the conflict. Lawrence’s performance as the unapologetic teen is undeniably forceful. Through her own determination, she encapsulates the multi-faceted character and seamlessly transforms back and forth between Caring Sister/Daughter and Relentless Woman on a Mission. The film features a number of noteworthy performances but another that really stands out is Dale Dickey’s (Domino) exceptional depiction of Merab, the female ringleader who warns Ree of the danger that comes from uprooting other people’s business. The scenes which Lawrence and Dickey share together are electrifying. All at once, these scenes highlight the strengths of Woodrell’s writing, Granik’s directing, and the capabilities of both actresses.

Winter’s Bone should not be missed. Just ask Parker Posey, who presented the Granik with the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Dramatic Films. At the ceremony, Posey said, “If [Winter’s Bone] doesn’t get the respect it deserves, I’m going to stab myself.” So, if for no other reason than Parker Posey’s well-being, watch Winter’s Bone.

Friday, January 29, 2010

HIGH School (Sundance Review)

When a straight-A student named Henry (Matt Bush) smokes his first doobie only to find out that his school’s starting mandatory drug testing the next day, he’s left with only one choice: to get the entire school to fail that test.

When you go see a movie with a really ‘pitchable’ premise, you always run the risk of watching something that doesn’t live up to its potential. Perhaps the filmmaker just rested on his laurels or maybe investors paid for the film without bothering to read the script. I’m positive that most teen slasher flicks fall into this category. That’s why it was a relief when John Stalberg’s soon to be stoner-classic turned out to be funny, really funny.

According to the director, the script’s jokes were enough to hook Academy Award-winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist) to immediately sign on. Brody plays Psycho Ed, a tattoo-covered drug dealer who, along with his friends Hippie Dude and Paranoid, serves as one half of the film’s antagonistic force. I’m not giving anything away by saying that when you take something from Psycho Ed, Psycho Ed’s going to want it back.

The other half comes from Henry’s school principal, Mr. Gordon (who’s played by an almost unrecognizable Michael Chiklis), who instates the drug tests as a way to weed out the miscreants. So with a disgruntled drug dealer and a pissed off principal coming after him, Henry and Travis (Sean Marquette), his back-in-the-day buddy who gets him into this whole mess, have to act fast to avoid getting murdered, or even worse, expelled.

Stuffed with a talented ensemble cast (Julia Ling, Colin Hanks, and Andrew Wilson, just to name a few), HIGH School heads out of the gate at full speed with a Phucing funny opening scene and doesn’t stop making the audience laugh until half way through the ending credits. This movie isn’t rocket science. It isn’t even Rocket Science. It’s an over-the-top stoner comedy that would probably be even funnier after a few bong hits. I mean, come on, it’s called HIGH School.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Celebrities I Met at Sundance: Harvey Weinstein

After attending a public screening and Q&A session for 12th & Delaware, a fantastic documentary about the war over abortion, I had to run from the Yarrow to the Holiday to make a press screening for Ryan Gosling/Michelle Williams movie, Blue Valentine. When I entered the theater, most of the seats were filled. In the front, a whole row of seats were marked off as "RESERVED." And of course, it was the row with the bars you can put your feet up on! Injustice!

Standing next to me were a group of men also looking for seats. One was an older man talking on the phone and the other appeared to be his assistant. While he was on the phone, the man kept saying exciting things like "Only call me if there's a crisis!" He then hung up the phone and told his assistant to secure three of the reserved seats for them. That's when I noticed who I was standing next to. Harvey Weinstein!

Weinstein founded Miramax Studios with his brother Bob in 1979. Since then, Miramax has produced a couple movies you might have heard of, like: Pulp Fiction, Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Crying Game, Reservoir Dogs, The Piano, Bullets Over Broadway, Clerks, The Crow, Kids, Il Postino, Mighty Aphrodite, Trainspotting, From Dusk Till Dawn, The English Patient, Chasing Amy, Good Will Hunting, Jackie Brown, The Big One, Life is Beautiful, Shakespeare in Love, Velvet Goldmine, Dogma, She's All That, The Cider Houser Rules, The Talented Mr. Ripley, All the Pretty Horses, Bridget Jones' Diary, Chocolat, Amelie, The Shipping News, Frida, Gangs of New York, Tadpole, Chicago, Cold Mountain, Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2, Master & Commander, The Aviator, Ella Enchanged, Garden State, Hero, Jersey Girl, Finding Neverland, Kinky Boots, The Queen, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, City of Men, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Doubt, Adventureland, and Air Bud: Golden Receiver.

So, it's clear that Harvey is a great producer and a great businessman. But if I had remembered that so many people consider him as a tyrant (anyone remember Entourage's send-up to Harvey???), I might have made a different decision. But I didn't so I didn't. I just walked up to him and:

Me: Hi there.
Harvey: Hey.
Me: How's your festival going?
Harvey: It's good.
Me: Well, I'm just a big fan.
*I stick my hand out. He shakes it.*
Harvey: Thanks.

So, that went a lot better than it could have. He was a perfectly nice guy. And thus concludes my first 2010 Sundance Celebrity Encounter.

The Extra Man (Sundance Review)

Kevin Kline is one of Hollywood’s most talented actors and Paul Dano is on his way towards becoming one as well. Both of these statements are wholly supported by their performances in The Extra Man, an enthralling feature from co-directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Bergman (American Splendor). Set in present day New York, the film centers around two men who seem out of place in their time periods.

The first, Louis (Dano), is a young literature teacher and struggling writer who dreams of a life in the days of “The Great Gatsby” but copes with being stuck in the 21st century by throwing himself into books. Henry (Kline) is an unknown playwright and lower-level socialite who positions himself as Louis’ mentor when Louis rents a spare room in his apartment. His selfish motives are more than slightly obvious. While Henry gets along alright in the two-thousand-aughts, it’s his ideals which conflict with present day society. He’s an open sexist, racist, and classist whose opinions on just about everything, including literature, have been unpopular for decades.

Together, these two gentlemen impose themselves on New York’s upper class society, either by sneaking into the opera or performing favors in return for allowed attendance as gallery openings or fancy dinner parties. Henry teaches Louis about the life of an Extra Man (or “gigolo,” as they’re more commonly referred as) even though the young writer’s interests lie elsewhere, more specifically, in wearing women’s lingerie and dating an environmentalist (Katie Holmes).

The Extra Man certainly bears substance but where the film really stands out is in its style. It’s dripping in style; it oozes style, from the dress of the gentlemen to the bowl of shiny Christmas balls prominently displayed in their apartment’s living room. Everything to see in The Extra Man is a little bit different from everything you’ve ever seen before. The wallpaper, the city streets, they all contribute to this world where inhabitants are stuck between classes, stuck between ages, and at times, stuck in their own bodies. Even the film’s use of irises serves to speak to this notion of claustrophobia. And if the visuals weren’t enough, in keeping with his everyday struggle of not living within the pages of a classic novel, Louis has his very own narrator who dictates the inner thoughts of the film’s timid protagonist. Stylistically, Pulcini and Bergman left nothing up to chance and the result is a well-crafted film that’s thoroughly enjoyable and serves as a strong vehicle for the two exceptional performers.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cyrus (Sundance Review)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or just watching mainstream fare) for the past five years than name “Duplass” probably sounds familiar. Mark and Jay Duplass have spent the last half a decade directing and acting in high-quality films with rather low budgets. Involved in the mumblecore movement, their films The Puffy Chair (2005) and Baghead (2008) were shot on handheld digital cameras and featured non-actors who improvised most of their dialogue. Word quickly spread that the Duplass Brothers were two filmmakers to watch. Mark’s leading role in Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, which won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, didn’t hurt their cause either. When word was released that The Duplass Brothers were making a film with John C. Riley and Jonah Hill, both of whom have a history in mainstream comedies such as Talladega Nights: The Story of Ricky Bobby and Superbad, respectively, the question as to whether the indie filmmakers would stay true to their low-budget aesthetic or would they transform their style into something mainstream audiences were used to seeing?

Cyrus tells the story of a man named John who’s still struggling with his 7-year divorce to Jamie (Catherine Keener) who recently announced that she’s getting remarried. And while she doesn’t want to be with John anymore, she does want him to be happy. So she forces him to put on pants (a chore for any depressed divorcee) and drags him to a party. There, he discovers Vodka and Red Bull, champions The Human League, and meets a beautiful 40-something named Molly (Marisa Tomei). Things heat up between John and Molly, as things often do in movies like this, and just as John’s world starts to look a little less bleak, Cyrus (Jonah Hill) enters the picture.

There’s nothing that’ll cramp a man’s style a 22-year-old kid still living at home. That’s exactly what John finds himself up against. Cyrus is a seemingly mature product of a broken home whose bond with his mother is not to be tested. As John tries to move things forward with Molly it becomes increasingly aware to John (and, of course, not to Molly who believes John’s imagining things, as characters often do in movies like these) that there are going to be problems getting past her kin.

So, with a mainstream premise, mainstream actors, and a mainstream budget (as least compared to their previous work), have the Duplass brothers created a “mainstream movie?” Are there any signs of the style, humor, and charm that made The Puffy Chair and Baghead must-see films for Indy Cine lovers? The answer to both questions is “yes.” They’ve done both. Each and every performance is wonderful. The comedy is spot-on. Even the handheld cinema-verite style is intact. As if by magic, the two writers/directors have done what so many independent filmmakers before them have tried to do: they’ve crossed over while maintaining exactly what made them unique. Wherever Mark and Jay are right now, be sure that they’re having their cake and eating it too, maybe literally.

While Cyrus has a lot of great aspects worth noting, one technique that’s sure to be “borrowed” for years to come is its voiceover/montage work. John and Molly fall in love on camera. They laugh, they cuddle, and they say all of the sappy things people say to one another when love happens to them. But instead of having to watch the actors declare these cheesy lines to one another (as audiences usually have to do when watching movies like this) the lucky viewers are treated to an engaging series of shots with overlying dialogue that’s much more effective than clichéd “close-up; overdramatic line delivery; reaction shot” formula. This technique is just one part of the most refreshing romantic comedy in years. And that’s exactly what Cyrus is, refreshing.

Directed by: Mark and Jay Duplass
Written by: Mark and Jay Duplass
Starring: John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill, Catherine Keener
U.S.A., 92 min.

Waiting for Superman (Sundance Review)

Hollywood loves them some ghetto school movies. Ever since Blackboard Jungle introduced white American moviegoers to rock ‘n’ roll and urban education, they haven’t been able to get enough of either. Films like Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, and Up the Down Staircase have celebrated the struggle and triumphs of inner city teachers dealing with all that the roughest cities have to offer. Many of these movies are based on real-life teachers and while it’s great that praise has been given to these select few, there are so many other great teachers waiting for any form of extolment from the school system hierarchy. The same lack of attention that good teachers must deal with is the same force that allows subpar teachers to stay in classrooms.

Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) has known about the country’s failing public schools system for a while now. In 2001, he directed a film named The First Year which followed five teachers for one school year. Each of these teachers were new to the field and all found out, firsthand, just what kinds of hardships both educators and their students have to deal with. Almost a decade later, Guggenheim returns to subject of public education in an attempt to get at the root of whatever it was that was turning schools into “dropout factories” and leaving many students without viable options for their futures.

Instead of following five teachers, the director follows five students as they and their parents fight to get them the best public education possible. And they definitely have to fight because there’s a lot standing in their way, especially for students from lower-income neighborhoods. The film sheds a lot of light on issues such as teacher unions, tenure, and how money and geography limit educational opportunities for students. The five young subjects are vying for spots in charter schools, which receive government money but are allowed to function outside of the unions that leave bad teachers immune from being fired. These charter schools have been proven to raise test scores in mathematics, reading, science, and every other subject but what keeps students like Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily, and Francisco in failing schools is a limited number of spots in each program.

While the students certainly give a face to the statistics, Guggenheim spends a great deal of time with the statistics themselves. Waiting for Superman traces the problems plaguing public education from the bottom to the top. And while it’s possible to learn a lot from Guggenheim’s film, the film misses its mark by labeling its Lex Luthor (the unions) too soon and displaying a one-sided argument without letting the alleged supervillains tell their sides of the story. Then the film plays the sympathy card by spending its last twenty minutes covering charter school lottos in which the five children, whose stories we’ve been following up to this point, are assigned random numbers and watch as bingo balls decide their fate. The film ends on a down note, an uninspiring note, in fact, which plays off of the titular metaphor (one of the film’s many unnecessary metaphors) where America’s children are still waiting for someone to save them. And if Guggenheim’s conclusion is accurate, Superman’s not coming. A solution for public schools still hasn’t been found and finding one looks just as hopeless as the schools themselves. The only hope seems to be that if enough people begin to demand change, then maybe, someday, someone will figure out how to get change.

Kick in Iran (Sundance Review)

Sara Khoshjamal qualified to compete in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Her sport: kickboxing. Her country: Iran. Her “something extra”: she was the first to ever do it.

Following Khoshjamal from her training sessions until her post-Games homeland reception, this enlightening documentary says a lot about its subject and tries to give context as to her position within her country. The nineteen year old athlete follows the laws of her country and competes wearing her hijab (head scarf). Uniform regulations aren’t the only difference between Khoshjamal and her opponents. For example, in Iran, female athletes aren’t allowed male coaches, while in most other countries, most female kickboxers are trained by men. Khoshjamal’s trainer, who the girls respectively call “Master,” comes across as a stern yet knowledgeable coach. After the revolution, she and a small group of women were trained in Tae Kwon Do by male relatives (which is allowed) and once travelling abroad for sporting competitions was allowed, she pushed her pupils towards earning medals.

Making a documentary in Iran requires a lot of patience and even more paperwork. Getting permits and clearances to shoot Kick in Iran in its titular country would be an overwhelming job even for those experienced in the processes. That being said, one of the film’s major weaknesses is its incessant need to include unnatural scenes in which the subjects perform everyday tasks or have ordinary conversations which were clearly staged and performed for the rolling camera. Examples include Khoshjamal walking into the house and checking her answering machine to find that the only message is from an adorable little girl who would like to read her a message. Another sits the athlete and her coach in a collection of bright red chairs while they have a seemingly normal conversation about training schedules. These attempts at outside style are distracting and don’t make the film any more intriguing.

In the end, Kick in Iran is effective as a chronicle of Khoshjamal’s journey through her first Olympic Games but examinations of bigger picture issues in Iran trickle out past the first twenty minutes. The result is a simple documentary about a female pioneer. By the film’s end, Khoshjamal’s athletic career will be well documented but the treatment of Iran and its treatment of women will be lacking any substantial weight.

Directed and Written by: Fatima Geza Abdollahyan
Germany, 2009, 82 min.

Frozen (Sundance Review)

It’s hard to watch someone fight for something that you know is going to turn out badly. In Frozen, which hits theaters in February, three mid-twentians (handsome boy, hot girlfriend, and equally handsome best friend) bribe their way on a ski lift.

Before I get too far, there’s something I have to ask you, readers. Does it cost $250 dollars to ride a ski lift? That’s what they pay. Even split three ways, that’s far more than I’d ever pay to fall down a mountain. So either skiing prices have gone up since my last time on the slopes (which was never) or this was some special mountain that was actually covered with pure, Columbian nosecandy. Either way, they overpaid.

Back to my original point. Watching someone push, shove, sneak, overpay, or flirt their way into danger is borderline infuriating. That’s exactly what happens to these three. For those who haven’t seen the trailer, heard about the plot from a friend, or couldn’t picture what could possibly go wrong on a ski lift, they get stuck. For a week.

Minimalist thrillers like Open Water, The Blair Witch Project, and Open Water 2: Adrift have gained enough popularity over the last few years to pave the way for flicks like Frozen. This second generation (see also: Buried) have larger budgets, bigger stars, and in this film’s case, more gruesome deaths. What’s great about these lost/stuck thrillers is how their premises alone automatically get you thinking of how you’d get out were you to find yourself in that situation. And you speak with such confidence! I’d tie my clothes together and make a rope. I’d repel across the wire. I’d just jump. But don’t think for a minute that the filmmakers didn’t think of all of these options before principle photography began. That wire is sharp! That ski lift is high! They cover them all. And did I mention that there are wolves? Mean ones!

Being stuck on a ski lift in the middle of winter with no one coming to save you is a terrifying concept by itself. The wolves aren’t necessary and in Frozen they distract from just how messed up the situation is. If you jump down, the wolves will eat you. At least it’s quick. But what about jumping down, hurting yourself, and then dying slowly in the snow? That’s messed up.

Overall, the film serves its purpose. You won’t ever look at ski lifts in the same way. The dialogue is just as sloppy, clichéd, and poorly delivered as you’d expect it to be but the frostbite scenes are even grosser than you imagined. You know why you want to see Frozen. So go see Frozen.

Directed by: Adam Green
Written by: Adam Green
Starring: Shawn Ashmore, Emma Bell, and Kevin Zegers.
U.S.A., 93 min.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Jack Goes Boating (Sundance Review)

Philip Seymour Hoffman debuts his directing skills with a story about a limo driver whose life isn’t as prosperous as it should be. Hoffman also performs in the film’s lead role, the titular Jack. Jack doesn’t have a bad life but it’s obvious to everyone around him that it could be better. When he’s introduced to a peculiar but sweet woman named Connie (Amy Ryan), the drive he otherwise lacked gets put into motion. He learns how to swim, how to cook, and even how to date for her. And while he remains the same man he was before, by the end, he’s exactly what he set out to be: a better version of himself.

When every single character wishes Jack success and happiness in life, it’s hard not to want the same for him. His friends, his boss, strangers, acquaintances, and even his best friend’s enemy all do whatever they can to help Jack succeed. Somehow, this slovenly slug has formed a world around himself which, in every respect, wishes to help him out. However, what’s unclear is how Jack, with this colossal support system, ended up living in his uncle’s basement without ever learning how to swim, cook, or date. Did the world suddenly decide to go easy on Jack just because he meets a nice girl? What’s more probable is that Jack decided to go easy on himself, stepped out of his own way, and allowed himself to finally see the version of Jack that his friends had been seeing all along. The story’s been told before but where Boating really succeeds is in the characters the story is being told about.

Jack has two friends, Clyde and Lucy, a childless couple with a beat up marriage. Jack’s blooming connection with Connie is mirrored by their maturely fucked-up view of relationships. Clyde is also a limo driver whose persistent smile serves a shield for life’s shit. Clyde’s the leader of Jack’s morale boosters. Always willing to sacrifice his own wants and needs for his friend, Clyde does all he can to help his friend. While each performance in Boating is noteworthy, John Ortiz, who plays Clyde, steals the show each time he’s on screen. Ortiz emanates an energy and a likability that shines through his dreary surroundings and situations. Daphne-Rubin Vega holds her own as Lucy, a complex character who tries to prepare Jack for the less glamorous things that relationships will bring.

There are a lot of things to like about Jack Goes Boating. The performances are strong, the depiction of New York City shows a whole different New York than audiences will be used to seeing, and the music (mostly performed by indie rock group Grizzly Bear) holds all of the pieces together. Having performed in Bob Glaudini’s play, which Glaudini later adapted for the screen, Hoffman and his cohorts arrived to the film with a deep understanding of the material. This preparation is visible on-screen. Boating is a well-constructed film with a lot of heart. Its sympathetic characters and commanding performances make up for its worn-out story.

Directed: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Written: Bob Glaudini
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Ryan, John Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega
U.S.A., 89 min.

Monday, January 25, 2010

His & Hers (Sundance Review)

What’s the best way to learn about women? Some would say it's by listening to women. Documentarian Ken Wardrop constructed his first feature-length film, His & Hers, by doing just that. Opening with a beautiful infant as she rolls around in her crib, the filmmaker compiles bits and pieces of interviews and stories and advice and complaints from seventy-six women from the Irish midlands. The youngest girls talk about their fathers and how cleaning your room is such a bother, especially when your sister can’t be bothered to help. The young women talk about boys. Those new to adulthood talk about wedding plans, pregnancies, and independence. As the film progresses, so do the ages of the subjects. Once a woman’s shown on camera, she’s never shown again. Each interview builds on those preceding. The result is seventy-six women, telling a single story, both separately and together, about life.

Surprisingly, the formula never grows tiresome. Staying with each woman for no longer than a few minutes, the film hits a rhythm where an interesting aspect or insight about a woman’s life is revealed, discussed, and/or observed and the narrative continues. These insights range from marital advice to revelations about coping and loss. With the exception of a couple women, the narrative primarily sticks to women and the opposite sex. Tales of fathers, boyfriends, and husbands, both living and passed on, are interwoven to create a powerful love story with all the pieces intact. Girl meets boy, girl falls in love with boy, etc. And while each woman contributes to the same story, the film’s purpose isn’t to show how similar women are to one another. His & Hers highlights the connectivity that people have with one another. These women can help tell the same story, not because they are the same person, or even the same type of person, but because this is a story that almost all people can tell.

Also, a quick side note: if the woman on the big blue tractor somehow happens to read this review, you should know that my wife and I think you’re rad.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Splice (Sundance Review) (Spoliers)

I know what you’re thinking. “Science-Fiction? BOR-ING. Science is boring by itself and fiction? No thank you. I prefer my disciplines to be fact-based and set in reality.” See, I did know what you were thinking. But like the Weather Girls, have I got news for you! Science is so much more than debating Pluto’s planet status and building pinwheels. Take Splice for example. Vincenzo Natali’s riveting documentary about two scientists (who are SO MUCH better looking than most scientists I know) who spliced together a whole bunch of animal DNA (a.k.a. blood) and human DNA (a.k.a. blood) and made a species which they call DREN but which I would have called Animan or Manimal.

Anyway, this director is really good because, unlike most documentaries, he really tried to stay away from the dreaded “floating heads” style of movie. For the most part, he really just lets the people tell their own story (except for DREN) who can’t speak English. There weren’t any subtitles but after a while you get used to it.

Anyway, these scientists have to hide their DREN because the government would NOT like the fact that these two made a creature of their own. Especially since the DREN is creepy looking. It was a pretty good thing that people didn’t know DREN existed at the time when they were making the movie or they would have freaked out. I almost freaked out and I had a movie screen in between me and the DREN! Needless to say, things start going wrong and quick! Turns out, DREN has a tail with a spike in it (I think it came from either the scorpion DNA (a.k.a. blood) or the human DNA (a.k.a. blood).

Anyway, the DREN’S face reminded me of this.

What was really incredible about the movie was how close the filmmaker could get to the creature without it ever attacking him. I mean, the DREN jumped at the camera a lot but the story kept going on so I guess he was always alright. One part that made me sad was when the boy scientist and the girl scientist were having relationship problems.

And then Adrian Brody fucked his creature-daughter.

The End.

7 Days (Sundance Review)

What would you do if someone hurt your family? For those without faith in the court systems, there’s another option. Some call it “vigilante justice,” others simply call it “justice.” In Daniel Grou’s debut feature, a successful doctor takes vengeance into his own hands when he abducts his daughter’s murderer. What follows is an ever-intensifying display of violence. Starting somewhere around Tarantino levels of brutality, 7 Days quickly ups the ante and rushes towards Takashi Miike territory. To some, parents torturing pedophiles might sound like a just punishment, especially towards the more sadistic offenders. But there’s just something about raw sadism that makes you rethink your values. In other words, you’re not going to like watching this guy get tortured. 7 Days is so brutal that you keep telling yourself “It’s just a movie. It’s just a movie.” But even then, it doesn’t really help.

The film’s strengths lie in its unwavering drive to shock. There’s nothing like watching someone have to choose whether or not to eat his/her own bodily organs to make you appreciate Subway’s Five Dollar Footlongs. The visuals are nothing short of bleak and graphic. Remember Passion of the Christ? Pretty grisly, right? Well, for 7 Days, imagine that Jesus was a fiendish pedophile. You still with me? Now imagine that PedoChrist received a torture session about five times as worse than the regular savior. (Note: It’s also important to subtract any of the good things that Christ did in the Bible and replace it with more child rape.) 7 Days pushes limits in attempt to drag viewers away from their preconceived notions about violence. MESSAGE: ALL VIOLENCE HAS CONSEQUENCES! The director practically beats you over the head with it (har har har). The film’s strengths can be found in the filmmaker’s methods but its weaknesses are found in his own preconceived notions about the audience. From the first disturbing sledgehammer-human body encounter, most viewers are convinced. Torture is torture is torture. If that’s where it ended, instead of where it began, the message would have been explicitly clear. Instead, the entire second and third acts are coated in these “how do I turn it off?” displays of gruesomeness and the message is muddled down beneath the distinct feeling that the filmmaker was enjoying making your squirm more than making you think.