Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Marie Antoinette

Sofia Coppola | 2006 | 123 min | US

Remember when self indulgent filmmakers made movies that looked gorgeous? I know there have been a flurry of poor reviews for this one, but I don't get it. Aside from the critics who were forced to watch Marie Antoinette in their tour of duty, what were people expecting from a Sophia Coppola joint about pre-revolutionary France? I expected to see the most lushly photographed teen story ever filmed. I think I got it.

M.A. follows the life of Antoinette (Kirstin Dunst) from her young marriage to the dauphin of France (Jason Schwartzman) until shortly before her death. Her life is an exercise in beautiful excess + the film soon descends (ascends?) into galette + gown porn as she grows more frustrated by her husband's denial of affection. The seasons change, Antoinette grows as a woman, we sigh at how everything seems to glow gold. Especially the gold.

This is a New Wave film. Not in the Godard/ Truffaut vein; in the Adam/ Ants vein. And make no mistake, this movie owes a lot more to Adam + The Ants + their ilk than soundtrack contributions. The fashion + general feel of this film comes far more from the regal music videos of the early nineteen-eighties than to actual historic fashion. History is only a distant consideration in M.A. It really is a pure coming-of-age story which only happens to be set in Versailles (though with an admittedly dour third act). One of the quick nods to this takes the form of a pair of purple Converse high tops on the floor of a dressing room during the second trying-on-clothes-and-eating montage. There are also several scenes that crib straight from a proud genus of movies where the free spirited girl breezes into Dullsville to teach the squares how to LIVE, man! Also look for appearances by seemingly every cult actor of the last forty years.

If any of this foolish disregard for proud French antiquity sounds at all appealing to you, I recommend this one whole heartedly. It's a lot of fun, but don't expect to rent this in lieu of studying for the final of that lofty History 101 course. I haven't seen a good, fun coming-of-age story in a long time. I certainly haven't seen one so beautiful before. And here's more good news for you: I am currently scripting a sequel entitled Kirstin Dunst in Sheer Clothing.

Oh, how I long for a return to summer's parties!

Black Fist

Timothy Galfas + Richard Kaye | 1975 | 87 min | USA

It takes about three minutes for this film to give us our first fight. It's between our hero, Leroy Fisk, + what seems to be a moustachioed weightlifter from the 1920s carnival circuit. Fisk gets his ass kicked, which seems to be good enough for our promoter friend in the white slacks + velvet smoking jacket to bring him into his stable of prize fighters. Fisk is soon treated to a training montage where he is initiated into the Dirty Brawling Arts, with a major in Ball Grabbing. The training seems to pay off + Fisk enjoys several bike rides + shopping trips with his old lady thanks to the piles of street fight winnings. Unfortunately, into this fantasy life comes a dark cloud in the form of Detective Heineken (played by Dabney Coleman). This crooked cop starts shaking Fisk down in exchange for keeping his illegal fights out of the police spotlight. His dream deferred, Fisk decides he needs to take Heineken out of the picture. Through reasons unexplained, a homeless wino friend of Fisk's obtains a damning book recording payoffs + scores in Heineken's own hand! Boring, nonsensical action + revenge ensue. Fuck this fucking movie.

Vera Drake

Mike Leigh | 2004 | 125 min | UK

Vera Drake's title character is a woman who spends most of her time caring for her husband, two grown children, ill mother, + most of the neighbourhood, it seems. She acts selflessly to aid those around her when they find themselves in a difficult circumstance. In Britain in 1950, sometimes aiding those around her includes performing illegal abortions for women too poor to be able to jump through the hoops necessary for a clinical abortion. When one of her young patients falls ill, the police come knocking on Vera's door + change the lives of all around her.

Mike Leigh is a director who does simply that. He directs the flow of action, but lets his actors decide what their characters would do, think, say. Vera Drake was shot without any real script. When the film received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay for the 2005 Oscars it was only because Leigh sent them a verbative script of the finished film's dialogue. The dialogue is sometimes clumsy, uncomfortable, or overquiet. In short, it feels like you are eavesdropping on a conversation between real friends + family.

There are no stars here, only solid character actors. You may recognize several faces, but would be hard pressed to come up with a name. Probably the most recognizable of the bunch, lead Imelda Staunton plays her role wonderfully, as does her whole family. Apparently, every member of the cast was forbidden to discuss the storyline during shooting, + none of the cast members save for Staunton knew the film was about abortion until the reveal on camera.

The results of Leigh's process are very natural, unglamourous, + often devastating portraits of Britain's underclasses. This film is no different. Those familiar with Leigh's other work, including the fantastic films Naked + All or Nothing, will know better than to expect a happy ending in this one. Still, when this film faded to black, I thought, 'Is that the end? No, that can't be the end.' Credits. 'FUCK!' For a very long time movies have programmed us to expect everything to wrap up with miracles + joy despite all evidence to the contrary. The reason why Leigh's film are so affecting is because they never lie to you. If you can handle the dark tone, this is a terrific historical drama. It would be wonderful if this film didn't resonate so much with audiences today, but for reasons both good + bad, it does.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Inside Man

Spike Lee | 2006 | 129 min | USA

I do enjoy a good heist movie, but maybe I'm the only one. People just don't make them anymore. Perhaps that is because it's exceedingly hard to come up with the movie-making clever getaway climax. I went into this latest Spike Lee Joint knowing this, hoping he wouldn't completely fuck this up like several of his recent features. I kept my fingers crossed the entire length of the film that I wouldn't have to watch CGI sperm with Denzel Washington's face superimposed upon them racing towards a giant egg. Am I the only one who saw She Hate Me?

Inside Man owes a lot to cop shows of the seventies. The tone, the (mostly) conservative direction, + the sound design all owe a great deal to the golden age of TV detectives. Denzel Washington does a good job with the cool swagger. His Detective Frazier is clearly cut from the cloth of that era + the leftover cloth was used to craft the white fedora he sports throughout. This is the kind of character Washington does effortlessly, which makes it a touch tired. Well done, but hardly new. The real joy to watch is Clive Owen. He plays the leader of a gang robbing a bank in downtown New York, taking command of close to fifty hostages during the attempt. Owen is intelligent, commanding, + makes excellent work of a script that demands he stay cryptic enough to never reveal what his character will do in the next moment. Basically, he makes me want to rob the shit out of a bank. Guy is cool. The dialogue between Owen + Washington is the highlight of this movie. The script does have a few clumsy moments of comedy in the script that don't quite work, but Owen even manages to get off a couple of funny lines when the material is in his hands.

As I said, I enjoy a good heist movie + thats just what this is. Not a great heist movie; a good one. It is intricately written + I found myself going back over a few early scenes to look at character introductions + such. Inside Man runs into problems when it tries to be bigger than the story demands. There are a few things that kept me from loving this film, most notably Jodie Foster. Her character seems unnecessary at best + her acting is grating at worst. Foster seems to have taken a few grad classes at the School Of Haughty Annunciation since we last saw her. There are also few clumsy swipes at the state of contemporary race relations in the US. The commentary is neither insightful nor unique. I found those moments took me out of the movie quickly. Likewise for a conversation late in the film that coincidentally occurs in front of a giant American flag billboard. Clever. The movie drags for a bit too long after the climax, as well. We are fed too many clues about the ending along the way, so waiting for the credits becomes a test of patience and little else. Once the big reveal is made, I didn't really need to see if the mayor would get any comeuppance or where Detective Frazier's relationship was going to go. I did not care. And one final note to Lee: please stop trying to show us 'sexy.'

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Black Six

Matt Cimber | 1975 | 94 min | USA

Seemingly conceived as an NFL in-joke, each of this film's title stars was a pro football player + identified by their team in the opening credits. The Black Six follows a group of zinger-trading black bikers wandering the country after returning from Vietnam, dispensing both assistance to old ladies and casual nihilism ("There is no tomorrow."). When one of them learns of his little brother being killed by a white bike gang , the Six return to Cracker Country to exact some linebacker vengeance. Vengeance that quickly gives way to a biker race war.

The tag line for this film was, "See the 6 biggest, baddest and best waste 150 motorcycle dudes!" Nice. Although I probably would have gone with, "Mean Joe Greene kills a bunch of guys with a rock!" The closing shot consists of a field of fire, plenty of ambiguity as to whether anyone survived, + a warning to honky.

And I hope you enjoy the opening theme song, because you'll be hearing it for about a cumulative half hour over several enthralling shots of motorcycles in well below regulation speed action.

Bonus Feature: BROTHER THOR!

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Chris Robinson | 2006 | 105 min | USA

I don't know what I was expecting to get from ATL, but it sure as hell wasn't a coming of age story about roller skating crews. Are roller skating crews really an actual thing that exists in Atlanta? Apparently so. This movie follows four friends through their senior year in high school. They live, they love, they roller skate. And when they don't roller skate, they talk about roller skating. Boy, they love roller skating.

Stylistically, ATL is all over the place, both visually and story-wise. It moves from comedy to coming of age drama to crime drama and back, without any real knack for blending the ideas. It is apparent that the director and cinematographer come from music video backgrounds, but their mash of images works against them. There are some great visual ideas in this film. Unfortunately, not even a single style sticks around for long and some of my favourite graphic themes were quickly abandoned in favour of conventional tricks like (often worthless) title cards.

The young actors in this film do decent jobs with the material, and they excel at the scenes that display casual jokes and back and forth conversation. I would have loved for ATL to have stayed along those lines. Strangely, it veers off into a cliched 'little brother caught up dealing drugs' story well into the picture. Not a moment of that subplot is new or interesting and Robinson would have been smart to have left it alone. After a clumsy climax featuring exciting black violence, the wrap up at film's end feels truncated and stupidly cheery, attempting to recapture the tone it began with. The film starts out unexpectedly light, giving a fresh glimpse into black youth culture in Atlanta; a flip side to the countless stories of black inner city kids everyone is familiar with. Why oh why did it have to tread on to such banal territory?

Little Children

Todd Field | 2006 | 130 min | USA

I recognized the director's name as the credits rolled, but didn't realize until after the showing that he had done In The Bedroom, as well. I loved that film and Little Children is in a similar vein, looking at the fragile relationships behind the veneer of polite suburbia. The film centers on the tense friendship between two stay-at-home parents of young children. The friendship soon gives way to an affair, and we follow how this relationship affects those around them, from their spouses to casual neighbourhood acquaintances. Very affecting, realist story, and really good performances all around. Why does Kate Winslet do so many awful movies? Is she that terrible at choosing jobs? This film is a reminder that she's capable of doing amazing work. She and Patrick Wilson, as her lover Brad, both give us sympathetic, cruel, caring, and sexually charged turns.

The film employs a narrator throughout, and the choice of voices was brilliant. I had my suspicions when I was watching, but I had to look him up when I got home. My suspicions were confirmed when I found the voice was indeed that of the longtime narrator of the PBS documentary series Frontline.

A friend mentioned to me that he thought Jane Adams essentially did a retread of her character from Happiness. That's a valid complaint. She almost always plays neurotic weirdos and I could have done with someone else in that part, but she did a very good job in a very difficult couple of scenes. I had a similar complaint about the actor who played Ronnie. I would have preferred an actor who looked like less of an evil molester cliche, but again, he did a great job and those are minor issues.

Finally, I was happy to see the ending avoid any 'poetic tragedy' or ridiculous coincidences a la Crash that I was worried it was coming to.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Kirby Dick | 2006 | 97 min | USA

This documentary is a look at the clandestine world of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings board which establishes content ratings for feature films in the US. Several controversial filmmakers who have butted heads with the ratings board are interviewed, and even more interesting, several clips that were excised from their films to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating are featured. This Film looks closely at how gay and lesbian material seems to be specifically targeted by the board for cuts. The most remarkable moments of the doc show several famous hetero-friendly sex scenes from Hollywood films in diptych with comparable queer scenes that were censored.

Dick also spends a great deal of the film following a pair of private investigators who are hired to uncover the identities of ratings board and appeals board members. The investigations are amusing, but are the least captivating scenes of the film. I think the doc would have been much better served spending more time with the filmmaker interviews. The final quarter of the film follows Dick's journey through the bizarre appeals process with an early cut of the movie we are watching. The payoff for following the private investigation scenes comes at this point as he reveals the identities of the appeals board members. Their positions as some of the most powerful film buyers for theater chains, studio heads, and even clergymen reveal the amazing hypocrisy in the ranks of a supposedly independent board operating purely to inform the public of film content.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated is clever and should be interesting to cinema buffs. I enjoyed the NC-17 clips and accompanying commentary a great deal. It also has a nice design and editing style, which is lacking in all too many documentaries of any stripe. It's a fun film, but I found it is a little too meandering and shallow for me to recommend paying the big bucks to see in a theatre. It will be considerably easier to find this one on video in a couple months, anyway.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro | 2006 | 112 min | Mexico + Spain

A fantastic fairytale that is distinctly not for children, Pan's Labyrinth is set near the close of the Second World War in Spain. Ofelia and her mother Carmen travel to a military outpost in the Spanish countryside to stay with Carmen's new husband, a captain in Franco's army charged with quelling local rebels. Ofelia quickly retreats further into her love of fantasy as the world around her grows increasingly violent, giving way to stunning visuals and characters.

Pan's Labyrinth most obviously reminds one of fantasies like Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, or the Narnia books, but this film never shies away from the outside cruelty that makes Ofelia's fantasies so rich. There are moments of surprising brutality in this film. No matter what the content of his films, it seems that del Toro never strays too far from his horror roots. This is not a film I would expose any children too, but the savagery of the fascist soldiers is what makes Ofelia's experience so gorgeous. If you can endure no small amount of gore you will be rewarded by following her in an incredible experience. This film is basically perfect.

The Devil's Backbone

Guillermo del Toro | 2001 | 106 min | Mexico + Spain

An older del Toro film that I finally got around to watching this week. This one is set approximately in the same period as Pan's Labyrinth, this time showing young boys living in an orphanage school against the backdrop of the Spanish civil war in 1939. The film follows a ten year old boy named Carlos upon arriving at the school. The few staff remaining at the school struggle to care for the children and aid the faltering Republican cause fighting Franco. As Carlo tries to adjust to his new life, navigating bullies and classes, he also finds himself being visited nightly by a ghost the other children call 'the one who sighs.'

This is horror more of the 'bump in the night' variety rather than the crop of gross-out films that Hollywood has been trying to pimp. That is to say, Devil's Backbone actually has moments that chill you rather than simply coating the lens in red. Aside from the genuine creepiness of the movie, we are also treated to an ensemble of interesting characters and a story that is more than just time filler until the next appearance of the ghost. This film is considerably more modest in scale (and budget) than Pan's or del Toro's fantastic 1993 film Cronos, but it is a very good watch nonetheless.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Half Nelson

Ryan Fleck | 2006 | 106 min | USA

Ryan Gosling plays an inner city high school teacher who develops a friendship with one of his students after she discovers him overdosing in the school washroom. Based on what id heard of the story i wasnt expecting anything quite so nuanced. It is a melodrama, but every aspect of it is played out in a way that is very affecting. This film shows its characters looking awkward, ugly, + sometimes unlikable. It plays against a lot of stereotypes, while both the acting + direction are sharply realist. As I said to friend after we saw the film, who the fuck would have predicted Ryan Gosling would become the most remarkable actor of our generation? The young girl, Shareeka Epps, was amazing as well. I look forward to seeing more of her, + I am excited to find out what both Gosling + Fleck will be doing next.

Monday, January 22, 2007

In the Shadow of Kilimanjaro

Raju Patel | 1986 | 97 min | UK + Kenya

Why do so many films that begin with a card saying 'Based on a True Story' seem like exploitive monster movies? I am not entirely sure, but I can say that this film delivered exactly what I asked of it. Shadow is 'based on' incidents during a 1984 drought in Kenya. During that drought over 90,000 baboons went on a crazed, starving rampage. These baboons hunted in packs, turning to cannibalism as well as attacking humans. Timothy Bottoms stars as brave, bearded Jack Ringtree. He is the area game warden and he'll be god damned if some bureaucrats are going to kill his babboons, drought or no! That is until baboons start killing fucking everyone. The game wardens attitude towards the glory of nature sours considerably once he has to hole up in a hotel with a few miners, even less ammunition, + a bunch of frightened villagers as baboon hell descends upon them.

Oh, and when I say the film delivered exactly what I asked of it, I was of course referring to several scenes of baboons ripping off dudes' faces.

Bonus Feature: BABOON ON A PLANE!

The Fountain

Darren Aronofsky | 2006 | 96 min | USA

Hugh Jackman stars as a conquistador/ research scientist/ yoga instructor from the future who's love for queen/ cancer patient/ tree Rachel Weisz knows no bounds. This film slips back + forth between three different stories according to certain visual cues. The flipping between time periods may be a little tough for some viewers to get into, but letting yourself be absorbed by the story + slowly find the place of the characters is very rewarding. The technique, + indeed the entire film, is hypnotic. I cannot remember ever seeing a major studio picture as visually striking as The Fountain. It is gorgeous. Visually astounding + self referential to a point that will be familiar to audiences of the Cremaster cycle, but few else. The performances are spare, but wonderful. The sound of the world the characters occupy frequently give more clues to their feelings than any of the dialogue. After seeing this film, it's not at all surprising to me that it was a box office bomb; it's surprising to me that it was made at all.

Between this film + Children of Men, 2006 was an amazing year for intelligent science fiction. Even though The Fountain did terribly in theatres, CoM seems to be doing quiet well. I would be thrilled to see more films like these being made.