Film Essent Archive for December, 2008

You! Yes, you! Can Be a Superhero!

Is it just me, or is this whole thing an indie-superhero film waiting to happen?
My favorite bit is the motto of the Justice Society of Justice: The JUSTICE SOCIETY OF JUSTICE ™…offering twice the JUSTICE as the leading competitors!
Awesome.
Maybe we need to add a branch of the Justice Society of Justice for film critics and journalists who take on superhero identities to fight the crime of bad movies. Who wants to design superhero costumes for Manohla Dargis, Jeff Wells and Elvis Mitchell? Caveat: Wells’ costume must include a cowboy hat
Hat tip: Cinematical

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No Kidding.

News flash: Virginity pledges don’t work. Sheesh, we didn’t need a study to tell us that. Didn’t these people see Teeth?

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Roaring About Lyons

Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times finally sat up and took notice of the blight to film criticism that is Ben Lyons in a scathing piece enumerating the many film critics and bloggers who have disparaged the 27-year-old, celeb-mugging quote whore since he took over At the Movies with his onscreen counterpart, Ben Mankiewicz. (I hear LAT’s been sitting on this piece for a month … guess they decided to wait and run it as a special Christmas present). Back in my college days, I used to debate, and we often had to advocate for the side of an argument we disagreed with, as an exercise in learning to debate an issue regardless of what our actual beliefs were. I thought about writing a post defending Lyons, just to practice my skills at taking up an argument in which I don’t believe; unfortunately, Lyons doesn’t give one a whole lot to work with.

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Worst Doc of the Year?

Aaron Hillis has a nicely written piece up on the year’s documentaries that I mostly agree with, except for the part where he labels American Teen as the “worst documentary of the year.” Maybe Aaron hasn’t seen as many documentaries as I have this year (though I suspect that’s not the case), but I have to take umbrage with that assertion, having sat through many, many docs that were so much worse than American Teen as not to even warrant a remote comparison. It wasn’t even the worst doc I saw at Sundance this year, much less all the other fests I went to in 2008.

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Adapting Gatsby

I was just emailing back and forth with a friend at a studio the other day about how I’d love to see a really killer new adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and then today Variety reports that Baz Lurhmann has bought the rights to Gatsby and wants to direct. Much as I’ve enjoyed much of Luhrmann’s work, and like his visual style, he’s not really who I’d think of to direct an adaptation of the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
Honestly, you know who I’d love to see tackle Gatsby? Darren Aronofsky. For all that it was flawed, The Fountain was gorgeous to look at, and with The Wrestler he’s shown he can handle an intimate character story with subtlety and depth. Or I’d like to see Ramin Bahrani, whose indie films Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo have all been utterly superb. He’s one of our best upcoming young directors, his next film is a period drama set in the Gold Rush, and I’m curious to see how he handles that material. Bahrani gets character stories, he has a unique eye for finding what’s most compelling about the characters he explores, and he and his cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, do some beautiful visual work together.
While we’re talking about adaptations, I’d also love to see someone take on a remake of The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, which was made back in 1979 as Die Blechtrommel and won the Best Foreign Oscar. I’m immersed in reading the book now, and it’s so crazy, savage, but still beautiful. Not sure who I’d want to direct it for a remake, though … Tom Tykwer, maybe. Loved what he did with Perfume.

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Doubtful Design

Cinematical has an exclusive on the new final FINAL poster for Doubt, starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams up today … go look at it, I’ll wait …
Now, can I just vent for a second about how much I loathe this poster? I love Miramax, but this poster, to me, has completely the wrong tone for this film. Maybe it’s the starkness of the contrast created by the white background behind the cast, but it looks more like a poster advertising a satiric Catholic comedy than a film about a priest and a nun in a battle of wills over her accusations of improper behavior with a child. I get that they wanted to tout their highly regarded, Golden Globe nommed-film and emphasize the cast, but wow. Just not a great design, in my book.

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Review: Che

At its heart, Steven Soderbergh’s epic biopic Che is less an historically accurate account of the life of the Man Who Would be a Revolutionary, and more a case study in the hubris that led Che Guevara (Benecio del Toro, in a great performance) to cling to the mantle of revolutionary hero long after he had ceased to be one. In the first half of the film, formerly titled “The Argentine,” Soderbergh follows Che to the jungle where he, alongside then-rebel and eventual Cuban leader Fidel Castro, is leading a pack of bedraggled rebels fighting to overthrow the Cuban government. There are bloody battle sequences, moments of bleak despair and loss of hope, betrayal and love, all thrown together into a glorious cacophony of the gritty, dark reality of revolutionary war; it’s not pretty — war never is — but Soderbergh gives us a sense of the passion and purpose that drove Castro, Che and their pack of tattered revolutionaries to victory in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds.
The second, darker half of the film, formerly called “Guerrilla,” picks up some six years after the victorious final battle, shortly after Che, grown weary of his post-revolutionary duties and butting heads with Castro and the Soviet Union over his Maoist politics and the Bay of Pigs fiasco, delivered what would be his last public speech — wherein he publicly criticized the Soviet Union, Cuba’s key source of financial support –in Algiers. Guevara returned to Cuba briefly after Algiers, then disappeared two weeks later; by October of that year, Castro released an undated resignation letter (intended by Guevara to be released only after his death), in which Guevara pledged his continued support of the Cuban Revolution, but announced his intention to continue to fight for revolution elsewhere. Guevara was seen and heard from again only in vague rumors of his whereabouts until 1967, when he was caught and executed in Bolivia (ostensibly with the assistance of the CIA), where he had been working to help stage a Cuba-style revolution in yet another country that was not his own.

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2008 Top Ten List

Here, finally, is my Top Ten List for 2008 …
THE TOP TEN
1. Frozen River
2. A Christmas Tale
3. Happy-Go-Lucky
4. Slumdog Millionaire
5. Rachel Getting Married
6. Milk
7. The Visitor
8. In Bruges
9. Chop Shop
10. Adam Resurrected
I didn’t feel strongly enough about any of the docs this year to include them in my Top Ten overall, but here are my ten favorite docs of the year:
TOP DOCS

1. Man on Wire
2. Nerakhoon: The Betrayal
3. Trouble the Water
4. Up the Yanghtze
5. Dear Zachary
6. Pray the Devil Back to Hell
7. Encounters at the End of the World
8. American Teen
9. The Order of Myths
10. Young@Heart
There were also quite a few fest films I saw this year and liked very much, though they didn’t make the top ten above. Some have distribution, some don’t … all are worth watching, if you can find them.
GREAT FEST FILMS
Ballast
Everlasting Moments
Goodbye Solo
I’ve Loved You So Long
Mister Lonely
Momma’s Man
Wendy and Lucy
Son of Rambow
Tokyo Sonata
Two Lovers
Towelhead

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Keanu Reeves Takes on Cowboy Bebop? Say it Ain't So …

Good lord. Word over on the MTV Movies Blog is that Keanu Reeves is trying to do a big-screen adaptation of one of my favorite anime series, Cowboy Bebop. Can someone please invoke whatever movie gods may be listening to protect the marvelous role of Spike Spiegel from being butchered by Reeve’s one-note, one-facial expression acting style? Yes, I get that Reeves has the look for the part, and I actually quite liked him in the Matrix series, but please, could we have an actor who can bring some nuance to this role and not cast it just on physical appearance?
I realize this is all wishful thinking on my part. Larry Carroll, in his post about Reeves’ interest in the part, notes, “The flick is currently being put together by Erwin Stoff, a producer who has spent the last two decades working almost exclusively on Reeves projects, and recently set the film up at 20th Century Fox. “We’ve got the rights, we’ve got a writer,” Keanu explained. “He’s putting together a scene outline.”
Reeves further notes that to make Cowboy Bebop look great “you just need a good production designer.” Well, that, and a lead actor who can actually act. I’m having Johnny Mnemonic flashbacks here, people, and it’s terrifying. Somebody help the folks at Fox out with some better casting ideas.

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Review: The Reader

Directed by Stephen Daldry

One of the unfortunate things about numerous films on a given topic being released around the same time is that the cumulative effect of seeing what are perceived to be similar storylines tends to wear on the folks who review films for a living. We saw this effect over the past couple years with the seemingly endless parade of narratives and docs concerning the Iraq war; this year, we’re seeing a similar issue with Hitler-era-Germany themed films, with The Boy with the Striped PajamasDefiance, and Valkyrie all being released within a short span. Now we have The Reader, which was further burdened with a much-overblown brouhaha between Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein around whether the film would release in 2008 or 2009. And really, all of that is unfortunate when it comes to The Reader, which is really quite a good film featuring a solid performance by Kate Winslet.

Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, who, when we meet her in post-War, late 1950s West Germany, is working as a tram conductor when she happens upon a sick teenager in the entrance of her apartment building. Hanna cleans the boy up in a brisk, no-nonsense manner and sends him home; after several months recovering in bed from a nasty case of scarlet fever, the boy, Michael Berg (David Kross) returns to Hanna’s flat with flowers to thank her for her help. Michael’s 15 years old to Hanna’s 36; nonetheless, one thing leads to another, and before you can say, “hey, is sex between a teenage boy and an older woman … appropriate?” the two of them are entwined in a sexual relationship in which Hanna plays the dominant role, setting all the rules, while Michael plays the role of the submissive sexual partner, obediently stripping his clothes off to service Hanna the minute he walks in the door.

Before too long, things take a slightly different turn, with Hanna asking Michael to read to her before they have sex. He obliges, reading to her mostly from the literature he’s reading at school. Hanna listens to him read, enraptured, and when she’s had enough reading for the day, more randy sex ensues. As one might expect when a boy is immersed in an inappropriate relationship, his relationships with his schoolmates suffer, and he thwarts the advances of a girl his own age who expresses obvious interest in him.

Eventually, Hanna disappears into the ether, leaving Michael devastated. Several years later, as a law student, Michael attends a trial of six former female concentration camp guards — and one of the women on trial is Hanna Schmitz.

The way in which David Hare’s screenplay of The Reader is structured, jumping back and forth between the older Michael in the 1990s (played by Ralph Fiennes), the teenage Michael in the midst of his relationship with Hanna, and the slightly older law-student Michael at the trial, tends to make the story somewhat hard to follow. Underlying all the business of the long-term impact of inappropriate sexual affairs, though, The Reader is really a story about German guilt and shame over the horror that was the Holocaust, refracted through the lens of a story about of a young man who fell in love with a woman he later finds out was something of a monster. This theme is further evoked symbolically through Hanna’s other secret — illiteracy — the shame of which drives her to conceal her inability to read, even though that fact would have cleared her of the more serious of the charges against her as a guard who sent countless Jewish women and children to their deaths.

Another problem with the story overall (and this is more to do with the source material than the adaptation) is the way in which it deals with a sexual relationship between a teenage boy and an older woman. Were this a story about a 15-year-old girl falling in love and having a sexual relationship with a 36-year-old man who turned out to have been a concentration camp guard, I suspect there would have been much more throat-clearing judgment critically around the appropriateness of an older man seducing a teenage girl (witness the much more vocal outcries against Hounddog and Towelhead, both of which place young female characters in sexual situations). Flipping the relationships around and making it a relationship between a young boy and a woman almost lends it an air of pseudo-respectability, with an overt air of “boys will be boys” and it being more acceptable for an adolescent male to learn the sexual ropes from an experienced woman than for an older man to deflower a young girl.

That aside, though, there are some quite good performances in The Reader, most notably from Winslet, who, like Philip Seymour Hoffmann in Doubt, really should be considered for nomination in the “Best” rather than “Best Supporting” category. In every scene of The Reader, Winslet plays the puzzling character of Hanna to perfection. Hanna is an emotionally distant, rather simple-minded woman, and while it’s hard to get a handle on her motivations, this is more the result of a storyline that paints her in a deliberately ambivalent manner than the way in which Winslet portrays her. In the courtroom scenes in particular, Hanna — as many real-life concentration camp guards were during the various post-war trials — appears confused as to why this is happening to her. She views the events of the Holocaust from a very black-and-white perspective: she was hired to do a job, and she did the job; yes, the job involved sending Jewish women and children to their deaths, but hey, that was the job description.

When asked by one of the judges if she understood that when the six guards each month selected ten women apiece to send to the gas chamber, she appears confused by the question. More women were coming in each day, she tells the judge, and there was only so much room to house them all. The old prisoners simply had to be culled had to make way for the new, she says calmly, as if she had been working, perhaps, in a slaughterhouse killing cattle. “Well, what would you have done?” she asks in a genuinely befuddled manner.

This line, more than any other in the film, holds the truth of the how the Holocaust happened within all that it says and does not say. From ordinary people like Hanna who took jobs guarding prisoners that required them to kill them, to the evolution and justification of Hitler’s chilling “Final Solution” for the Jewish race in Europe, to the everyday folks who simply turned a blind eye to what was happening to their Jewish neighbors and believed that millions of people were somehow simply being relocated rather than exterminated, the myriad decisions and indecisions made by countless people allowed the Holocaust to happen. The Reader addresses the guilt and shame of the many for the Holocaust, through the particular story of how Michael assuages both his guilt for loving a monster and the conflicted sympathy he feels for Hanna, and for some people, the way in which the storyline handles these issues will feel rather cold and unemotional.

But the truth is, there were, and probably still are, a fair number of German citizens who, even after they became aware of all that Hitler’s Final Solution entailed, and perhaps felt some guilt over the whole business, still bought into the Nazi propaganda about the Jewish race enough that they viewed the concentration camps as a necessary evil to rid Germany of the Jews, even if that meant relocation devolving into mass genocide. Hanna as a character, therefore, represents this ambivalent faction of German society coming to terms with what the Nazism embraced by many Germans really represented, while Michael evokes those who have struggled with bearing the guilt and shame of those who were horrified by all that the Holocaust entailed.

As such, the story of Michael and Hanna plays better when viewed in its metaphorical sense than in the literal, but even so, it’s worth seeing for the strength of the Winslet’s performance in particular.

-Kim Voynar

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New Moon, New Director

Word is officially out now that New Moon, the sequel to Twilight, will be directed by Chris Weitz. Interesting choice, and not necessarily a bad one. Weitz previously The Golden Compass, which had heaps of special effects and a gorgeous visual look, in spite of its flaws. If he gets the story and characters such that he can bring New Moon to life effectively, we could end up with a sequel that’s much better than the first film overall.
New Moon is a much darker tale than Twilight, with a heavy emphasis on the relationship between Bella and Jacob, the Native American teen who morphs into a wolf. There will, no doubt, be some temporary bitching and moaning over Summit opting to go with a male director over a female, but so long as Weitz does the job effectively, in the long run that’s what will matter, both to the fans of the series and the studio footing the bill. I expect Summit will try to avoid or at least downplay there being any issue of going with a male director on a femme-focused property, and keep the emphasis on the desire to make the best film possible within the time constraints and budget they’re working within. Any thoughts on whether or not Weisz is a good choice to take over the helm on the Twilight series, feel free to weigh in.

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Twilight Shifts Direction

Word has finally broken on Catherine Hardwicke being canned by Summit from the next two Twilight movies. Apparently, this has been one of the best-kept secrets in Hollywood over the past couple weeks; one has to wonder whether Hardwicke herself knew this was coming, or if she was too heads-down on the press tour for Twilight to see the oncoming train. While Summit’s official statement is that Hardwicke and Summit are parting ways on the sequels over issues pertaining to Summit’s plan to shoot the sequels back-to-back and have New Moon ready for late 2009, buzz is also swirling around rumors of Hardwicke being difficult to work with, etc. Which, of course, could be equally said to apply to any number of male directors, but so it goes.

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Squabbling Over Docs

Over on SpoutBlog, Karina Longworth takes me to task over my recent column on documentaries, writing, in part:
This is the aspect of Voynar’s piece that I take issue with:
She goes on to make a four-point checklist of what she considers to be requirements “for a great theatrical documentary,” and then concludes that only four films on the 2008 Oscar shotlist fit those requirements: The Betrayal, Trouble The Water, Man on Wire, and Encounters at the End of the World. She concludes by offering the four films the following compliment: “All of these films are not only good documentaries, but great filmmaking.” Which implies that a film could be a “good documentary” while not exhibiting “great filmmaking,” which raises a question or three.
Shouldn’t the quality of the filmmaking be of primary concern, regardless of whether or not the film itself qualifies as a documentary? What good could come from a critic systematically holding one genre of film to a different standard than all others? If we’re going to make guidelines for the evaluation of documentaries, should we also do it for animation, or for foreign films, or for all those Zooey Deschanel films that premiere at Sundance and then disappear off the face of the planet? Where does it all end?

I responded over on the comments on Karina’s piece (there are some other good comments there, so check them out if you’re so inclined), but putting it over here as well:

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Sundance Goody-Bag

Color me (starting to get) hopeful and excited about Sundance. Oh, I know, I shouldn’t build my hopes up too much. God knows, everyone who’s been to Sundance — been to any fest, really — has seen at least as much unadulterated crap as they have really wonderful films. But, they do take some interesting chances at Sundance, and I’ve uncovered a gem or two there, even in the more experimental categories. Sundance announced its competition schedule today, and here are three films from each of the announced categories that I’m already excited about checking out (the non-comp categories will be announced tomorrow):

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Smarter, not Stronger

More from the never-ending discussion of why women don’t make more big-budget/big box office films: David posted on The Hot Blog about being surprised that Punisher: War Zone is directed by a “chick” and posits that more women should break into Hollywood by making guy-centric action flicks.
I don’t particularly agree with him on this, but it’s not the first time someone has suggested that women would do better in Hollywood by, well, being more like men, and it won’t be the last. Hey ladies, want to make it big in Hollywood? Blow more shit up in your films! Someone should have gotten the memo to Kelly Reichardt that she should have given Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy a big-ass gun to go around that small Oregon town shooting everyone who didn’t help her, starting with that kid who turned her in for shoplifting. And perhaps tossed in a couple scenes of Williams getting caught in a rainstorm bra-less in a white t-shirt, or leaning alluringly over her broken-down car, because what we need more of is smart women being objectified in movies. Yeah, that would have made Wendy and Lucy a hell of a film.

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Quote Unquotesee all »

“The purpose of film isn’t to present the kindness of the world.”
~ Isabelle Huppert

The Promised Land steers into the fact that the United States can mean whatever people want it to mean. You may not be able to be Elvis, but you can sure as shit impersonate him for a living. America, like its current President (at least as of this article’s publication), is so dangerous precisely because it’s a blank canvas on which anyone can project their dreams. Whatever it is that you see for yourself, there’s someone you can pay for the pleasure of believing that it’s possible. In his view, the pursuit of happiness is the ultimate con, a delusion that prevents us from seeing our circumstances for what they are.

“Forget the Matrix, it’s the invention of happiness that blinded us to the truth. The rich got richer and the poor help them do it. Jarecki doesn’t argue that the American Dream is dead; he argues that it was never alive in the first place — that we were all lobsters in a pot full of water that was boiling too slowly for any of us to notice. And now it’s time for dinner. Donald J. Trump is the President of the United States. Elvis has left the building.”
~ David Ehrlich