Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Made of Honor

This movie squeaks by on charm and Michelle Monaghan is hot especially after exemplary work in Gone, Baby Gone as well as just keeping a straight face in Heartbreak Kid. I kept feeling that Patrick Dempsey was upstaged in Enchanted by James Marsden, but in Made of Honor there is no upstaging his role because all the other parts are written on the level of a thinly sketched sit com. There are good romantic comedies in 2008 (Definitely Maybe) - but Made isn't one.
Made of Honor has two good leads only everything from their friends to the situations are so lame and stereotypic that you feel the filmmakers just quit trying well before this idea was polished. It's about a guy and girl who are real friends and have been for years. Only now, of course, the guy has sewn his oats and wants to marry the woman of his dreams, who happens to be his best friend. She, in turn, meets Scottish royalty (okay, he's a Duke) and wants her buddy, the lovelorn guy, to be her maid of honor.
Yes, they get together at the end but not before the plot gets so ridiculous you want to break off the engagement. I could tell you more but it would just ruin whatever sense of mystery remains about the actual film, which will do a whirlwind of initial date movie business. Suffice it to say that the naive grandmother finds a string of anal love beads and wears them as a necklace.


Filmmaking tips for the new millennium

I read this in Movie Maker magazine the other day. It's a way to make your cell phone movies and pics look rad. At a hardware store get a peep-hole lens for doors, only attach it onto your cell phone camera. Now your images will have a fish eye wide angle look.

Iron Man




Pace yourself because there's a lot more coming down the pike than one superhero. In other words if you rush to see Iron Man because you think it'll be great you could be rushing to judgement. In a movie shot in late 1967 and early 1968, Le Gai Savoir, Jean-Luc Godard's "return to zero" film he has a pretty woman reading a poem in front of a wall adorned with large images of the following: Batman, the Hulk, and Spiderman. None of those mutated heroes were well known outside culture mongers and kids reading comics in that era. Flash forward about 40 years. Those iconic images are what sell current movies, in fact they're all present this summer if you replace Peter Parker with Tony Stark. Name a filmmaker working now with a film that has a single frame that identifies the zeitgeist of 2048.
No, films now aren't as heavy (there are always exceptions). Just as the Iron Man that had his genesis in the 60s was far more complex (drug addiction) than the "family friendly" version played by Robert Downey, Jr. in the film opening Friday. For today's Iron Man the deepest it gets is a kind of spiritual epiphany that allows him to justify killing people with his weapons. Industrialist Stark (Downey) could be a bastard combination of Shaw's Andrew Undershaft and pop spy Matt Helm the way he profits from arms and dispatches evil doers. Maybe in the sequel (Downey has signed for three) Stark donates his profits to Greenpeace.
Here is my main problem with Iron Man other than it's lack of cinematic hoopla (Where is Sam Raimi when you need him?) Other superbeings are legend (Thor) or atomic mutations (Spiderman, Hulk, Fantastic Four). The reality of their powers is more sci-fi than attached to the physics of our present world. But Iron Man lives in the world of real science and his powers are all inventions in a lab, or cave as the case may be. So when Iron Man files from Malibu to Afghanistan the reality is it took him a day to fly at jet speeds, yet the film makes it look as exhausting as driving down the street to the store. Iron Man makes a small ring out of the element palladium that he uses to power his suit. Fine, only the entire movie seems constructed out of voodoo science.
I didn't have a bad time at Iron Man, but the seen it done that attitude I left the theater with bemoans ever wanting to see this on DVD or care about sequels. Stan Lee turns up in a cameo where he's transformed into Hugh Hefner.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Baby Mama vs. Harold & Kumar

The SNL vibe you might think resides within Baby Mama is there in full force and sequelitis explains many things about Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay but perhaps not Neil Patrick Harris playing himself and getting shot to death by Beverly D'Angelo. There are Iranian films that share more of an esthetic ideology with American films than Baby Mama and H&KEFGB.; Unless the new zeitgeist centers on pubes and the ability to deliver a baby being a prerequisite for graduating high school.
Harold and Kumar escape from a skit-com version of Guantanamo Bay in the first part but before the end of the film they are smoking a fattie with W in his Me Room at his Texas ranch. Everything is bottomless, turned to 11 on the fluid scale and even occasionally funny. Like when H&K; are busted while hiding out at a Klan rally. "They're Mexicans," yells one redneck. Plainly speaking the movie is 50-50 on laughs that connect but John Cho and Kal Penn have at least the chemistry of Chris Farley and David Spade. Since this film comes at the end of the New Line era it will be interesting to see if further sequels bear the WB logo.
Baby Mama has equal laughs and equal groans and one might be tempted to write off the entire thing especially when wasting talent like Greg Kinnear and Dax Shephard on non-dimensional characters. It's like the filmmakers wanted to exceed their grasp but they were content to just get the thing off the ground. At least this is a film with PG-13 temerity to refer to the perineum as the taint, a term you couldn't even imagine being used outside of the bedroom.

Free Wesley



Let me give you a word of advice - always bet on black. A three year prison sentence for not filing income tax returns seems a bit steep. Willie Nelson didn't go to jail and he owed the IRS millions too. But so it goes for Wesley Snipes. Just a word of praise for Wesley dominating the air thriller genre of the 90s with such films as Passenger 57, and Drop Zone. The latter film may not be great, or even as good as Point Break, but its parachute (or lack of parachute) action sequences have never been surpassed cinematically.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bear bites dude


Rocky, the bear that played a small part in the movie Semi-Pro, where it wrestles Will Ferrell, or more likely his stunt double seen in the video above, killed one of its trainers yesterday. Accidents happen, although Rocky has nowhere near the credits of Bart the Bear (last seen in Into the Wild).

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Young @ Heart

If you're talking about spring chickens in this choral group you'd be referring to someone 73 years of age. Young at Heart chronicles a singing group of seniors who find inspiration in rock and soul poetry: Sonic Youth, James Brown, The Clash, and Talking Heads provide just some of the songs covered. Only this movie is froth, there may've been more substance further down the glass but all we get is the froth on top.
Young at Heart satisfies the masses and you rapidly fall into its groove. What's not to like about oldsters singing "I Wanna Be Sedated" by The Ramones, shot with a high contrast look to further emphasize the polarity. Although I suppose that even someone currently in their 90s would've been in their 50s or 60s during the period of time the songs used in Young at Heart were written, and I know plenty of people with gray hair who like to rock steady. However the film makes its central spine the fact that these kind souls, these once strong voices just like to sing. Yet none of them seem familiar with standards like "I Feel Good" when it's introduced by the leader and musical director, himself in his 50s and a baby to all concerned.
Where Young at Heart lost me was in the third act. The way it's edited creates peaks and valleys revolving around the death of two of the members. From that time on the film felt manipulative in a condescending way. The film doesn't need that kind of twist to be a crowd pleaser but that's the route it takes.

Where in the world is ... oh, nevermind


Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? is the second docu feature from Morgan Spurlock. His first film Super Size Me was a film with a place and time. But WITWIOBL feels like a dollar short and a day late with its whimsical light tone and brief snippets of actual humor, especially after such hard hitting Iraqi related docus as No End in Sight, Taxi From the Dark Side and upcoming Standard Operating Procedure.
WITWIOBL takes the viewer with Spurlock as he travels to the Middle East. The plot wavers on whether he will find Bin Laden before his wife has a baby. The one thing that makes sense in the film is when Spurlock asks a relative of one of the 9/11 hijackers about the video of the hijacker in question saying, yes, he did it. The relative merely states that in America we have the technology to digitally make an image have words coming out of its mouth that weren't originally there. His example is the talking pig in Babe. At least that barnyard tale traveled well.
88 Minutes is the kind of potboiler that gets bad reviews in principal, believe me when I say that there were news reports of how bad this film was from reporters who hadn't seen it. It's the kind of film that if Clint Eastwood had done it, and he has (think Blood Work), it would get a pass. But with Al Pacino the wolves bare their teeth. 88 Minutes came out in Europe a year ago and is already on DVD in many countries.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall would stand own its own two legs if it wasn't associated with Judd Apatow. But there's no way this film compares to Superbad. Save the "A film from the producer/director of ..." for classics and sell this film for what it is. A pretty competent mix of genitalia humor and bedroom tomfoolery. Apatow (the film's producer) has a strong ensemble of talent that follow him on project after project. In other words, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill and Bill Hader pop up often enough to help Forgetting Sarah Marshall surf over the rough spots.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Tom McCarthy on The Visitor

Tom McCarthy may be one of your favorite actors and you don’t realize it. Take a look at his credits – Syriana, Flags of Our Fathers, Good Night and Good Luck, the reporter from season five of The Wire – and a sense of recognition awakens.
Then McCarthy blindsides you by also being the writer-director of The Station Agent and now The Visitor. The Station Agent (well reviewed in 2003) showed that McCarthy understands pacing and character and the film boosted the career of Peter Dinklage playing the moody lead character. For The Visitor McCarthy took another veteran supporting actor, one that everyone would remember, Richard Jenkins, and put him up front, playing a moody New England professor who befriends a Syrian man about to be deported.
Jenkins plays Walter Vale. “He’s worldly, a guy who’s derailed in life,” McCarthy tells FPH in a phone interview. “He makes no apologies and is a tough teacher.”
Vale’s such a prig he nearly makes one student cry and you begin to feel a kind of hatred for his character no matter what the cause of his pessimism. When Vale has to go to New York City to deliver a paper a series of events team him up with an immigrant couple. Given his previous behavior you expect Vale to have a glass of wine and forget about them, but a spark of humanity can be seen flickering in his heart. The glow of The Visitor shows people becoming true friends in a place away from borders. McCarthy spent time in the Middle East (Lebanon in particular) and researched the ramped up immigration policies in place since the end of 2001.
Vale tries to help the couple find an apartment when Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) gets picked up by INS. At this point Vale makes it a kind of mission to get Tarek a lawyer and deal with his detention. Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) shows up out of the blue and the sub-text seems to suggest that Vale might emerge from his self-imposed isolation.
McCarthy was clear to the actors on “understanding the boundaries,” between Vale and Mouna and their relation grows stronger even as Tarek’s case looks bleaker.
“Being a character actor is hard work,” notes McCarthy about Jenkins an actor who has constant credits in television and film going back to the 70s. Yes, trained actors know how to properly hit their cues but as McCarthy points out “they command respect from other actors.”
For McCarthy the process of writing is “creating the tempo on the page.” Then when shooting McCarthy intuitively knew when to “play out the scene in a two-shot.” Partially shot in New York the film captures a drum circle in Central Park that plays into the story. Like the beat that Vale and Tarek pound on the djembe, The Visitor moves at its own tempo.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom


You would have to be a misanthrope to find fault with The Forbidden Kingdom. It represents everything that the 21st century represents - the merging of American narrative and Chinese myth.
Yes, this film pairs Jackie Chan and Jet Li and the chemistry is worthy of De Niro - Pacino pontification. But the main character is an American lad who (does he) daydreams the whole scenario. Michael Angarano may not be a household name but he's the poor man's Shia LaBeouf, and he holds his own against Li and Chan, themselves making their first movie appearance together. When Li and Chan face off in their first fight it takes the viewer to the place where happy movie memories reside. Angarano played the young guy in Almost Famous, but his recent work in this film and Snow Angels bears notice.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Wong Kar Wai slows time


Real movie fans appreciate the delicate nuances of their favorite directors while the media at large (film blogs, daily newspaper reviews) tend to negatively grade films if the helmer stays true to his form. Think Wes Anderson with Darjeeling Limited and now Wong Kar Wai with My Blueberry Nights.
Instead of celebrating the cinematic glee with which such directors explore their own space within commercial movie making they complain that the person is in a creative rut or that they are not advancing as artists. Honestly I would rather watch any film from an accomplished director than a year’s worth of programmers that litter the multiplexes with new titles every weekend.
Kar Wai Wong, the way his name is stated in his home country, pronounced the reverse way in domestic nomenclature, was born July 17, 1958 in China, but grew up in Hong Kong. American audiences have seen his work regularly distributed on the art house circuit since 1994’s Chungking Express. Kar Wai’s films lean not so much towards the non-linear as they bow in the direction of dreamy memories. Breaking up regular rhythm with slow motion is a visual motif oft repeated in his films. While Kar Wai had used Christopher Doyle as his regular DP (and their collaborations are visual explorations in breaking up space and time, just see In The Mood For Love) for most of his career with My Blueberry Nights Kar Wai worked with Darius Khondji a noted cinematographer in his own right with the atmospheric thriller Se7en to his credit.
“My communication with the DP is simple,” Kar Wai told Free Press Houston in a phone interview. “With Doyle it was a collaboration of 15 years. We would try to surprise each other.
“Darius is different. Instead of talking we took a trip to understand the journey of the characters. We talked about how we see their space. The choice of the director is how to frame a shot, the rest I leave to the DP.”
My Blueberry Nights follows Norah Jones (in her acting debut) as she walks in and out of the lives of customers of the various bars and cafes where she works. The locales include Las Vegas, Memphis and New York. In particular Jude Law works in Gotham cafeteria that serves desert late at night and keeps a bowl of keys that have been abandoned by departing lovers.
“There's nothing wrong with the Blueberry Pie, just people make other choices. You can't blame the Blueberry Pie, it's just ... no one wants it,” Law’s character tells Jones early on. She falls asleep at the counter with a bit of crème on her lips. As Law leans over to kiss the crumbs off, Kar Wai changes angles. “That first kiss is like an eclipse, a surprise,” notes Kar Wai. Later in the film the shot is repeated, only on the reverse cut the camera is directly overhead looking down on the couple. “The top shot deals with the distance between the characters,” explains Kar Wai.
Many of the set-ups emphasize the surroundings of the actors. For instance Law has a sequence where he fiddles with the store’s security camera, seen from a high angle, while he’s standing on a ladder. At the bottom of the frame we can see his security monitor, which is really one of the video replay monitors (marked with tape for the film’s aspect ratio) so common on movie sets. As is his style Kar Wai shoots this scene at 4 frames-a-second resulting in a stop-and-go motion. Other scenes were shot at 12 or 8 frames-per-second. (Regular motion is 24 f.p.s.). “With a bigger aperture you use less light, it creates a dream feeling,” continues Kar Wai. Choosing his shots he maintains that cinema has produced 100 years of movie rules and frankly he “doesn’t care about eyelines.”
My Blueberry Nights also stars Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn, Natalie Portman and Cat Power (Chan Marshall).
The film had secured rights to a couple of Cat Power songs and indeed in another signature motif Kar Wai keeps reintroducing one track, “The Greatest” over and over not unlike the way a Nat King Cole warbler was used repeatedly during In The Mood For Love. The film was on location in New York and Cat Power was playing in town. “I heard she was shy,” remarks Kar Wai about meeting her backstage for the first time. One speaking role had yet to be cast and Kar Wai felt her understated manner would be right. The scene plays out in brownish hues late at night when she shows up at Law’s place to get back her keys.
Kar Wai may have found a relation between singers (Jones, Marshall) and his mode of motion, his motivation for actors and the general sense of coolness and atmosphere that his films exude. My Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar Wai’s first film in English, opens at the Angelika this Friday.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

On the set



... found these on the set videos on You Tube ...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Street Kings

A cop is turning in this tense and somewhat insider's view of L.A. police. An excellent line-up of writers including James Ellroy provide director David Ayers with corruption, crime and even a little redemption. Ayers has written some well heeled police dramas himself and the tone of Training Day, Dark Blue and Harsh Times is not lost on the characters scrambling to stay alive in Street Kings.
Keanu Reeves takes the lead and never lets go despite worthy turns by Forest Whitaker in alpha mode, a smarmy Jay Mohr (where has he been?), Chris Conner showing he can walk the walk with Keanu and even a non-comic role for Cedric the Entertainer. Hugh Laurie and Terry Crews round out a suspect list that includes internal affairs and turncoat rat finks. It's easily Reeves' most confident role since the Matrix.
Street Kings starts with an adrenaline fueled set piece where Reeves dispatches a house full of Korean gang members who've kidnapped children in addition to their other petty crimes. Reeves and his immediate boss, Whitaker, cover up this bit of Dirty Harry action within the confines of their vice squad activities. Instantly internal affairs is all over the incident and a string of cops in other divisions (Crews, Conner) become involved in both a cover-up as well as other rotten to the core activities that form the basis of a powerful third act. Before the screen goes black all the pieces fall into place. Ayers directs with plenty of violence but it's not the kind of Antione Fuqua honed violence that made Training Day so over the top. Street Kings is level in that aspect.
Don't get me wrong, this is a violent film - the hook in the cheek scene will leave you cottonmouth. But the film makes a point in starting with big face offs only to conclude in one on one stand downs.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Smart Movies


There's a bit of sluggishness at the cinema, and it's the movement of misconceived films unreeling. If I had to choose a couple of hours to idle by the day with a movie that entertains without losing track of its place in the pedigree of coolness I would be likely to choose Married Life or Nim's Island over Leatherheads, Run Fat Boy Run, Smart People and Snow Angels. Sure the nimster is a kid's film and Married Life a slow paced period piece, but like Geritol they do exactly what they set out to do. The others were hardly duds, they just failed to elevate the experience of going to the movies into something that cannot be duplicated in front of your television.
The failings of the films I dislike can be directly traced to their decision to divert from the reality they display. In other words when Smart People chooses to be a realistic dramedy dealing with human relations but then tries to make us believe Sarah Jessica Parker is playing a woman in her late 20s all bets are off. When Leatherheads trots at a screwball comedy pace but without the chuckles the game is over. Snow Angels revels in its depiction of regular people going through various spiritual and domestic crisis but the third act asks the audience to take a leap of faith above and beyond what the established characters would be capable of - you just know the shark has jumped. Run Fat Boy Run while providing some grins and a gross out blister gag to end all blister gags can't compare to Hot Fuzz the last film that Simon Pegg wowed us in. Of course, Hot Fuzz was directed by Edgar Wright a truly talented new director to watch, and Run Fat Boy Run was helmed by David Schwimmer a talent to be sure but one whose directorial leanings need more simmering.
However Nim's Island provides a lesson in staying the course. The film revolves around little girl fantasy fullfillment and unlike last year's The Game Plan actually stars a little girl (Abigail Breslin, destined for greatness) not an adult (Dwayne Johnson). From 20th Century Fox and Walden Media, an entity that's rapidly putting a face on quality kid's flicks (think Bridge to Terabithia), Nim's Island has a CGI lizard that sits on Breslin's shoulder and comments on the action by meowing lizard grunts. You can't ask for more than that amount of cuteness, and throw in Jodie Foster (better here than in Brave One of Flightplan) hamming it up as a wacky agoraphobic writer who travels to Breslin's tropical island and there's not much down time. For the record "nimrod" is defined as a great hunter and the phrase is used quite well by Bugs Bunny. Nim is a weird name to give a girl.
Married Life depicts aduldtry in upscale environments in post-WWII 1940s. Pierce Brosnan, Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson and Rachel McAdams all turn in stunning performances. The film moves at its own pace, not unlike the unharried world the actors live in, but that's the milieu of a pre-internet, pre me-generation era. The feelings expressed are genuine. Married Life is like delicately putting on a coat that fits perfectly.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Heston RIP - Soylent Green is People dude


Charlton Heston (right) with Sidney Poitier (left) and Harry Belafonte during the 1963 march on Washington, D.C.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Shine A Light


Rolling Stones fans will eat Shine A Light up, especially in the IMAX version. Definitely on a par above typical Stones performance films with its deft attention to close-ups and instrumentation and somewhat below such Stones docus such as Gimme Shelter and CS Blues, this Martin Scorsese helmed effort finds the best of the best being finely manipulated by the best.
Perhaps not oddly the rock acolytes drawn to this film, like the type of fans attracted to Stones concerts, will vary from those who want to rock out at full volume to those prone to discomfort because someone is standing or tapping their foot too loudly on the floor.
A prologue reduced in screen size and mostly in black and white shows Scorsese and Jagger sparring over the phone as to whether Scorsese can have access to the set list well before the concert, the amount of lights to be used, and even a meet and greet with Bill, Hillary and Hillary’s mom. Just when this behind the scenes conceit seems about to run out of steam the show begins to start, a running production assistant hands the set list to Scorsese and the screen image explodes to full screen as the Stones launch into Jumpin’ Jack Flash.
The next two songs, Shattered and She Was Hot, find the band missing a cylinder but this is a film that allows the good and the bad. Clinton next to Champagne and Reefer and cherubic Mick next to aged Mick. The songs bounce back with All Down the Line, slow down for an acoustic As Tears Go By, and raise eyebrows with the less known Some Girls. Three songs feature guests: Jack White, Christina Aguilera, and Buddy Guy. All the songs are heard and seen in their entirety with the exception of Connection, part of a Keith Richards two-fer that starts with You Got the Silver. Connection cuts between a laughing angel-faced Richards in 60s newsreel interviews and the present day Richards. His face, etched two stories tall in cinematic glory, looks stone chiseled with wrinkles. One great shot captures Richards in a spotlight silhouette as he spats out a cigarette butt, the spit and ashes twinkling around his form like a halo. A few times during the film Scorsese cuts to prime 1960s and 70s interviews (BBC, Japanese and Australian television) that show a exuberant side of the glimmer twins people under 35 might not be familiar with. With one newscaster Jagger sports the kind of mischievous grin one would associate with Eddie Murphey in wise acre mode.
The show seems over before you know it although Start Me Up is always an indication things are coming to an end. After the concert there’s a brief segment where a tracking shot of Mick leaving the stage merges into the Goodfellas tracking shot, through more than one backstage door and finally spilling out to the street where the camera is greeted by flashbulbs (King of Comedy) and Scorsese himself directing the camera up and away until the image shows the complete lower part of nighttime Manhattan glittering under a full moon.
If there’s any doubt to the integrity of the production look at the list of cinematographers (a few of them award winners) who manned the various cameras. Concert rock films have evolved into outer space since the terrestrial days of The Doors Live at the Hollywood Bowl.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

SXSW Film 08 wrap


Home entertainment will never replace the experience of going to the movies. Likewise going to the movies will never replace the experience of going to film festivals. At the SXSW Film Festival and Conference, which unrolled in Austin last month, important documentaries played next to stoner midnight flicks. Mainstream studio fare unwound besides obscure indie films themselves seeing light for perhaps the first and only time.
SWSX was recently referred to in a trade publication as the film festival that Slamdance (an unofficial companion to the Sundance FF) hoped to become. The buzz (not including the smoke in the air at the premiere of Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay) was created evenly across eight different categories.
Recounting the 17 films I saw (I counted 112 feature length titles in the program), there are some whose images remain in my mind. Then there are the films I missed yet cannot wait to catch up with, like an Alex Gibney docu on Hunter S. Thompson or a new film from Julian Schnabel called Lou Reed’s Berlin.
Here are some thoughts on films that found me a willing captive, organized by SXSW category. Of the 16 films listed in competition The Lost Coast was the only one I caught. The story takes place overnight during Halloween in San Francisco and the digital lensing accentuates washed out colors – in fact the film looks black and white at times (evidently due to perfectly overcast skies during production). Another entire sequence was shot during a celebration involving thousands of people in the Castro district, a feat logistically impossible with a studio film. A group of friends come to terms with repressed issues of sexuality but more importantly the filmmakers use their actual locations, and how they affect the character’s emotions, to great effect.
In the Emerging Visions category the mocumentary A Necessary Death played it straight for the world premiere. The film works, even though you know it’s a faux documentary, because the chain of events follows a true path. The filmmakers would have us believe they posted an internet ad looking for potential suicides, then interviewed several people before coming up with the most likely candidate. The ending catches you off guard. Will you believe it? Hey, people with degrees were telling me Blair Witch was real.
Six films in the Spotlight Premieres section, out of 35 total, ran the gamut from important documentaries making their world premiere to genre films getting small to wide releases in the next month. 21 (Sony/Columbia) and Stop Loss (Paramount) were received with cheers by their respective festival audiences if only because of attendance from the various stars and directors. Both films tell familiar stories with some of today’s hottest actors. In other words Sony’s release of 21 has a lot to do with them positioning Jim Sturgess as their new It Boy. Sturgess was great in Across the Universe and miscast in The Other Boleyn Girl. 21 never registers strong enough on the richter scale of coolness to give it raves, but the first half where they explain the technique of card counting at blackjack was fascinating. Stop Loss saw a heavy push with plenty of media placement (MTV Films) and appearance by writer-director Kimberly Peirce in both Austin and Houston.
Peirce noted during a chat with Free Press Houston that it had taken over seven years to get this film in theaters since her debut Boys Don’t Cry. After that film she’d tried to get the go word on a film about the murder of William Desmond Taylor (the most famous Hollywood murder of the then young 20th century) and had Robert Towne writing and Rachel Evan Wood starring. Obviously the film was never made and when Peirce cut her deal for Stop Loss it was as a green-lit movie from the beginning.
Stop Loss never overwhelmed me like In the Valley of Elah, the film I consider the benchmark for current Iraq themed films, yet there are solid performances from the likes of Ryan Phillippe (good accent) and Abbie Cornish, the latter an Australian actress who will find a following in America down the road.
Then She Found Me finds Helen Hunt in the director’s seat and also in the lead. Film follows her relationship with a lady (Bette Midler) who arrives in the midst of crisis and claims to be her biological mother. Hunt has some good comic moves and overall Then She Found Me takes delight in playing against the grain.
Spotlight Premieres also offered two documentaries that bridged the history of documentary filmmaking domestically for the last two generations. Wild Blue Yonder tells the story of documentarian David Mayles from the viewpoint of David’s daughter Celia. With interviews featuring the likes of D. A. Pennebaker, Lois Wright (who lived at Grey Gardens), Susan Froemke (who worked on Grey Gardens), and brief clips or photos from Salesman and Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter the film plays like a greatest hits record of images from a more turbulent era. Rather than incriminating or vengeful Wild Blue Yonder offers a salute to the documentary vision that set the current standard, even while resembling the documentary sub-genre of the search for one’s parents experience epitomized by My Architect.
Steve James could arguably, along with Michael Moore, be called the leading American documentarian. Unlike Moore, James makes his polemic points (think Stevie) without polarizing his audience. The case of Carlos De Luna bookends At the Death House Door. James found out about De Luna through two Chicago Tribune reporters who believe that De Luna was wrongfully executed. This led James to Carroll Pickett the prison chaplain on Texas death row in Huntsville from 1982, when the death penalty was reinstituted, to 1995. Pickett’s job was to counsel the condemned on the day of their execution. James’ special gift as a filmmaker is the way the whole thing occurs in front of your eyes organically, like you had just lived the experience over a period of years.
While the De Luna case is front and center, much of the power of At the Death House Door comes from its exhaustive overview of the Texas prison system from the 1974 Huntsville siege by prison inmate Fred Carasco (two of the hostages killed were from Pickett’s congregation) to the present day. With At the Death House Door James has made such a well balanced, tolerant and at times disturbingly honest film about the death penalty. You feel like you’ve watched something important, something that needed to be said.
SXSW Film has always leaned towards musical documentaries and this year had its share of treats in the 24 Beats Per Second and Special Screenings categories. Wesley Willis’s Joyride answers some much forgotten questions about this iconic and deceased Chicago musician. Joy Division tells essentially the same story as the film Control with the actual participants (except Deborah Curtis). The film is very well paced and edited with rare live footage. Ditto for The Sweet Lady With the Nasty Voice, a tribute to Wanda Jackson. When you hear her sing in vintage footage, and watch her recount her life in the film’s main set piece you’ll believe she’s the original female rocker who influenced and charmed Elvis before he was the King. An Irish docu Heavy Load found grace in the story of a garage level band, some of whose members are physically challenged. Rock is rock the world over. These last music related films will probably never pop up in theaters but are worth seeking in whatever eventual disc release is deemed righteous by the film gods.