Film Essent Archive for May, 2009

SIFF 2009 Dispatch: Ein! Zwei! Die!

I’ve caught a few films at SIFF that are “hold review” films, meaning although they may have played at earlier fests (and been reviewed from those fests) they now have distribution, so we can’t write full reviews on them at SIFF. I can, however, write briefly about them, so here’s a roundup of three of them.
In the Loop, the festival opener, is a sharp, funny political comedy that’s been called something akin to the love child of The West Wing and The Office. As the Brits and the Americans bicker over starting a war or stopping one, the political tug-of-war among the players keeps up a frenetic pace, with rapid-fire dialogue that’s often completely politically incorrect; insults are hurled back and forth like hand grenades so quickly it can be hard to keep up with it all through the laughter of the audience. James Gandolfini is particularly good as a peace-loving general, but all the players in In the Loop, including his, have alliances and hidden agendas, and the film is biting and often very funny (though when you mull over much of the plot after seeing it, and ponder how close to the truth it likely is, it’s actually kind of scary).

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SIFF 2009 Dispatch: The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle and Burma VJ

Catching up, at long last, with some SIFF updating. I had a busy weekend family-wise, so wasn’t able to enjoy the fest much of its opening weekend, but I did make it to the fest opener last Thursday night: the gala screening of In the Loop, followed by the fest’s always-hotly-anticipated opening night bash, which spilled out from the lovely Paramount Theater and out onto the street. Many popular city restaurants provided appetizer-sized portions of yummy fare, and there was live music and lots of excitement in the air. I, being old and a wimp, knocked off rather early, but I heard from friends who stayed late that it was a great time.
Sunday Night my husband and I got out for a late-night screening of The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle at The Egyptian (quick, raise your hand if you live in a major city that doesn’t have a theater called “Egyptian”). Things got off to an interesting start as director and Seattle-native David Russo kicked off his introduction by telling the audience that he’d been upset when he learned his film was screening at The Egyptian because it has such a awful (f-bomb) sound system by way of thanking the sound crew for making it as good as it could be, under the circumstances. In all fairness, he’s right on the sound quality at the Egyptian but, uh … thanks?

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Dearly Departed

Wow, Amazon really does sell everything. If you’re in the market for a new coffin (or you’ve just seen a crappy film and are pondering burying the director) and don’t want to spend a lot, given the economy, this may be for you.
The reviews on this are priceless. An excerpt:

I’ve easily spent ten times this much on a coffin that ended up being not even half as comfortable. I may be dead, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be picky about the conditions in which I lay. I find this all wood coffin kit is really classy and yet understated. Occasionally, this bad boy gets me some hot looks from the dead chicks who see me laying in it.

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Think Ink


I saw this film INK at its Santa Barbara premiere and was pretty darn impressed with it. It’s not perfect — there are some minor flow issues with the storyline and it could use a bit of tightening … BUT … it’s visually stunning, especially for an indie film with what had to be a small budget. It’s daring and imaginative, and a solid fantasy-type film, and I’ll be curious to see more from its director, Jamin Winans.
The film has its Los Angeles premiere on June 10 at The Egyptian. Not sure how long it will be around, but if you live in LA, check it out. It’s a fun late-night date kind of movie.

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Why Cannes Matters

indieWIRE’s Eugene Hernandez has an excellent mid-fest diary up titled “Yes, Cannes Matters,” which appears to be his personal response to the more objective piece up the other day on whether Cannes is still important, in which Hernandez polled numerous film biz folks on their thoughts (including MCN’s David Poland) on the lauded fest.
It’s a good read, check it out. All I have to add on it is … amen.

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Review: Angels and Demons

I love how Brown has to make his female characters — Audrey Tautou’s detective in Da Vinci, Zurer’s Vittoria here — both brainy and uncommonly sexy. Not that there aren’t attractive female whatever-physicists in existence, but, come on! Out of all the chick super-brain physicists out there, the one who happens to complete this momentously important scientific quest is also built like a supermodel and gorgeous, too? What are the odds of that?
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Terra?

This afternoon I was on IMdb fact-checking something on Battle for Terra. I clicked on a link to one of the actors, then a couple seconds later went back to the main page, and suddenly, the film had been renamed “Terra.” WTF? Was the “Battle” part of the title scaring away the kiddie demographic, or at least their parents?
When did this happen?

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Review: Star Trek

Directed by J.J. Abrams

Spoiler warning: This review contains some minor spoilers.

Did we really need another Star Trek movie? I confess that when I first heard about this planned reboot of the Star Trek franchise, I was unconvinced. What more could there possibly be to explore about Kirk, Spock and the old Star Trek gang? Weren’t the last couple of attempts at Trek films enough to convince anyone in their right mind that the series has had its day, and it’s past time to move on?

Having seen the new Star Trek now, I must admit that I was wrong, because J.J. Abrams, boldly going where others have gone before (and frequently failed), successfully reboots the franchise in this action-packed tweaking of the Trek universe.

In the process of making everything old new again and opening the door for more exploration of characters many of us saw very little reason to take another look at, Abrams ably accomplishes what was surely the mission of the new Star Trek — which is less a prequel than a re-set: a re-imagining of an alternate path for the original characters that would allow for continued exploration of Kirk and crew without retreading the same paths.

For the most part, it works. The script plays around with ideas of time travel to create an alternate lifeline for James T. Kirk (William Shatner in the original series, reimagined here by Chris Pine) — one in which his father died minutes after baby Kirk was born, thus altering the trajectory of Kirk’s life. Once things get rolling, all the old familiar Star Trek crew come into play, played by a new set of actors who generally do a solid job breathing new life into old characters.

This is the biggest weakness of the storyline (and, not coincidentally, with any story that mucks around with the murky ideas of time travel and parallel universes): if we’re now in an alternate timeline because of the events that conspired to eliminate Kirk’s dad just as Kirk is being born, it’s reasonable to argue that any premise that still puts all the old familiar names — Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, Chekov and Uhura — back together with Kirk on the bridge of the Enterprise must be overtly contrived.

The screenwriters take the most sensible approach to this conundrum: up to the point that Kirk enters the Academy, there’s no reason to assume that everyone else’s life paths would have been affected by Kirk’s father dying — in fact, what we see of young Spock in scenes that alternate with young Kirk is actually prequel and not reboot, because Spock’s story doesn’t get the shift that changes his own storyline until later in the film.

Ergo, all that’s left to do is make sure Kirk ends up in the Academy at the same time as everyone else, and trust in the serendipity of the Universe to bring them all together. The writers handle that bit by putting the rowdy Kirk in a bar full of Starfleet Academy students and starting a fight that has to be broken up by an officer, who in turn goads Kirk into taking up the Starfleet gauntlet by invoking the ghost of his father.

It would have been interesting to see the screenplay draw more on the differences between this Kirk, who lost his father, and old Kirk, who did not, but then again, Abrams and the writing team were also trying to walk the line between attracting new fans and not pissing off the Old Guard too much, and it’s reasonable to expect they didn’t want to muck about too much with established personalities.

At any rate, we never get to see any real conflict from Kirk around why he resents the idea of going into Starfleet, other than (we assume) his resentment of Starfleet taking his father from him and this, too, weakens the story, though I’ll hold out hope that future sequels will better explore those possibilities.

I actually liked the casting of the new actors in old parts very much. I realize this will be seen as blasphemy by some old Star Trek fans, but I never much cared for William Shatner‘s Kirk; I’m much more a fan of Patrick Stewart‘s Jean-Luc Picard. So it’s perhaps not surprising that within a very few minutes of screen time, I already liked Chris Pine‘s take on the Horatio Hornblower-inspired future starship captain.

Pine plays Kirk as a young man shadowed by his father’s death within moments of his own birth, and the inevitable sense of guilt the young Kirk must have grown up with knowing that his father died, in part, to allow him and his mother to survive. There’s still much there of the original Kirk in how Pine plays him, but this Kirk is less the cocky would-be hero and more reckless rebel without a cause  — at least until he finds, through Starfleet,  a more constructive path to follow than wrecking his stepdad’s classic car. Pine has great leading-man charisma, and he smartly chooses not to play Kirk as an imitation of Shatner, but to give the character his own stamp and style. And it works.

Zachary Quinto makes a believable conflicted young Spock, and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman draw on the emotional conflict in the half human-half Vulcan, using schoolyard bullying and the contrast between Spock’s demonstrative, loving human mother Amanda (here, played by Winona Ryder) and his cooly logical ambassador father Sarek (Ben Cross) to build the tension in Spock to an explosive and emotional moment in the third act.

The implications of this storyline for Spock are intriguing, in particular how the earlier loss of his mother will affect his desire to be more Vulcan than human. It’s going to be interesting to see how this plot point plays out in affecting the character of Spock over time. Will this new Spock be more willing to embrace his emotional human side than the old Spock, who was driven largely by his complicated relationship with his father? Time will tell, but the possibilities are delicious to ponder.

As for the rest of the old Trek gang, Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) shows great comedic timing as Scotty (though I could have done without his dorky alien friend, to be honest), and Karl UrbanJohn Cho and Anton Yelchin —  as Bones McCoy, Sulu and the excitable Chekov, respectively, nail their parts. Leonard Nimoy even gets a chance to reappear, as the older Spock from the future.

My one complaint around the characters has to do with Zoe Saldana as Uhura — since we’re rebooting the series and all, and given that the story is set in this idealized version of the future and not, say, the early 1960s, couldn’t we give a chick as smart as Uhura more to do? Yes, she’s presented here as a very smart female character and she’s promoted quickly in a crisis because she knows several dialects of Romulan, but she still spends half the movie making cow eyes at Spock while Kirk pines for her.

I like Spock and all, and I get the dramatic tension of a romantic triangle, but can’t we have a strong female character in a Trek film who doesn’t spend half her time mooning after some guy? Maybe down the road they can find a way to use the time travel device to bring in Ensign Ro from ST:TNG to kick some ass here and there, because one thing this Star Trek still lacks is some tough-as-nails female characters.

The script sets Kirk and Spock at odds with each other, creating a level of conflict that often felt missing from the original series, set as it was in a Utopian future world where hunger and poverty have been eliminated and we are all one. Even the conflicts and debates between McCoy and Spock on the old series served more to allow the characters to serve as dueling sides of Kirk’s conscience, rather than feeling character-driven in and of themselves. I like the Trek ideal — it’s one of the things that’s always drawn me to the series — but I also like having the main characters have this conflict between them that becomes what almost gets in the way of saving the day.

Eric Bana rocks as the bad-ass Romulan Nero, who’s become so consumed by pain and anger over lost love that he can’t see anything but revenge. Is Nero rational? Of course not. Is he right to do what he does? No. But revenge as a dramatic device is seldom purely rational, driven as it is by unfettered emotion, and the writers use this to good effect both in driving Nero as the bad guy who keeps coming back and, in a nice play on the ongoing intellectual-emotional conflict between the Romulans and Vulcans, using Nero’s hunger for revenge as the reason he targets the  cooly logical Vulcans — one of whom he blames for the searing pain that burns his soul — in the most hot-headed and irrational of ways.

Star Trek looks and sounds great, both in the bigger, shoot-’em-up battles and the tighter hand-to-hand combat sequences. No, the bridge of the Enterprise doesn’t look like it did on the old series. It looks better. And complaints about Abrams filming too close to the action aside, the action sequences are pretty damn stunning. The battle sequences in the first seven or so minutes of opening sequence, with Kirk’s mother laboring to bring him into the world while his father fights to buy enough time to save everyone, are worth the price of admission alone.

If I sound more enthused about the possibilities this reboot creates for future Trek films than for this film in and of itself, that’s largely because this particular story, much as it’s positioned to be about Kirk and Spock, doesn’t quite dare to think through the implications of alternate realities enough to delve deeply into the inherent issues of personality and character development that the time-travel storyline offered, instead opting to focus on battle scenes and special effects. And those are all cool, and fun, and it’s an enjoyable movie overall, but I’m more excited about how a new series of Trek movies picking up from this point could explore those ideas — if they’ll go there.

This Star Trek does, at least, reinvent these familiar characters and open the door to following them down paths previously uncharted; Abrams has done a good job in setting the stage, and I’m willing to bet that a lot of old Trek fans, along with new ones picked up by this film, will be eager to follow the adventures of this new Kirk, Spock and crew. Bring on the sequels.

-by Kim Voynar

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Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Directed by Gavin Hood

Although I’ve seen the three installments of the X-Men series, I wouldn’t say I’m a die-hard fan of the franchise, and I certainly wasn’t overly enamored of the last X-Men entry, X-Men: Last Stand. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by the choice to back things up a bit and examine the origins story of one of the more popular characters, Wolverine, in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

I found Wolverine to be one of the more interesting “good guy” characters in the previous X-Men films, mostly because he’s so tormented and conflicted, and there’s this whole air of mystery around who is, and who he was before we met him in the earlier films. (This is largely because Wolverine has amnesia, and no one, including him, knows what exactly happened to him prior to how he forgot everything.)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine takes us back to the beginning of Wolverine’s history to show us how he came to have those killer retractable claws and that endearingly bitchy attitude. Director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Rendition), for the most part, delivers what one would expect any movie in the X-Men franchise to have: some back story, much of it convoluted; lots of battle scenes enhanced by cool CGI effects, heaps of explosions, lots of characters to keep track of, and some bad guys for the good guys to fight.

First, we meet Wolverine/Logan back when he was a little boy in the Northwest Territories of Canada way back in 1840. He’s in a sick bed, being kept company by his best friend, Victor, and in short order events conspire to reveal that the two boys are actually half brothers and mutants. You have to imagine that it’s enough for a small boy to process the news that his father isn’t his father, but on top of that, the poor kid also has to deal with the sudden ability of his hands to grow and retract wickedly killer claws. It could give a boy some issues; actually, how the young Logan deals with all that would have been pretty interesting, but we don’t really get to see that story.

The boys take off into the night together, and then we gallop through a fast-forward-history-lesson opening montage that puts the brothers (now played by Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber) in various military battles throughout the years leading up to the present. This back-to-the-past-that-determined-the-present montage opening scene (which kind of reminded me of the opening of Watchmen, actually, though I liked it better in the latter) has lots of slow-motion moments to make sure we get the point that Logan is, at heart, a conflicted good guy who finds it harder and harder to deal with his badder-than-bad brother’s unpleasant taste for blood, rape and violence.

When the brothers take things too far, they’re executed by firing squad. Or not. The “or not” part interests a military commander, William Stryker(Danny Huston) in the unusual sibs, and before you can say “Um, maybe this isn’t such a good idea …” Logan and Victor have been recruited by Stryker to join an elite force of mutants, including the overly chatty, duel-sword bearing Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand) and the vanishing-and-reappearing John Wraith (Will.I.Am) in executing secret (and perhaps secretly nefarious) missions on behalf of Stryker. Victor takes to the game of military-sanctioned violence like a duck to water, while Logan, being the good guy, is conflicted — and ultimately abandons the group to make his own way.

Of course, everything up to this point is really just setting the stage for how Stryker connives to get Logan back and turn him into the virtually indestructible Wolverine. The excellent Huston plays a wicked bad guy, but I was left more than once wondering why all these mutants-with-superpowers couldn’t just take down this man who is, after all, simply a mere mortal. I know, I know, there’s the whole philosophical “if we kill you, we’re just as bad as you” thing, but still.

At times the CGI special effects get over-the-top and Hollywood-stereotypical — and, more concerning, in the way of the actual story — but for the most part, the film holds your attention while you’re there. The storyline is interesting enough, filled with plot twists and betrayals, and the conflict between the brothers is, oddly enough, reminiscent of a similar good brother-bad brother setup in last year’s Defiance, in which Schreiber played the part of the more violence-prone of a pair of brothers fighting Nazis opposite good-brother Daniel Craig.

Schreiber may end up getting typecast in this kind of role, because he’s very, very good at playing men prone to violent outbursts and love of the shedding of other people’s blood. The conflict between the brothers in Wolverine never quite reaches the level of heartfelt honesty of the brother-betrayal conflict in Defiance, though it’s hard to say it that’s because Schreiber’s character in Defiance was flawed but redeemable, whereas Victor/Sabretooth seems less so.

In any case, Schreiber is certainly a fiercely powerful force on-screen, and it’s nice to see him continue to exercise his considerable skills as an actor off the stage, although I’d rather see him in something more compelling and dramatic than a comic-book film.

It’s simplifying things to say that Wolverine lacks conflict — he’s so chock full o’ conflict, it radiates from him, even during the brief lull when he’s trying to live a normal life as an underpaid lumberjack, but the script doesn’t always allow the intriguing possibilities of that to fully come to fruition. Further, although we know from the future X-Men stories that Wolverine has amnesia and hence, won’t remember anything that happens in this film, it’s interesting to ponder how the events that unfold might still be affecting his later choices on a subconscious level, and what might happen should he ever gain full memory of the love, hate and betrayal so heaped upon his broad, manly shoulders here.

Jackman, fresh off a nice turn as the host of this year’s Oscars, is as buff and studly as any woman dragged to see Wolverine by her husband or boyfriend might hope (and, like Doctor Manhattan’s wilder, more animalistic younger brother, he appears nude in the film, though thankfully sans any adamantium-enhanced dangling bits), but it’s the skill he brings to playing this conflicted hero that allows the film to rise somewhat above the mere CGI spectacle it might have been.

-Kim Voynar

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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