Review- Waiting for ‘Superman’

Geoffrey Canada in Waiting for 'Superman'

Waiting for ‘Superman’ comes out on video today

When I was about 14 years old the film Hoop Dreams came out. At the end of that year Roger Ebert cited it as one of, if not the best movies of the year. This is not an Ebert rant but a point shall be made. At the time being young, naive and having not seen it I didn’t know how that could be possible for a documentary to earn that kind of praise. I have become enlightened since then and this film is proof that it can indeed happen and is likely to stand amongst the best films of the year.

Another reason that anecdote was relayed is that this is a personal film. It is personal in many ways not only in that it focuses on individual children while examining the system as a whole but also because as you watch it you’d be hard pressed not to think back to your public schooling experience and either remember something very reminiscent from your own past or come to some greater understanding of the monstrous machine in which you were raised.

Which brings me to my next point: this film is not propagandist. There are several statistics illustrated and cited (if you look close you can see sources). So there is support for the film’s claim that the system is broken and what a bulk of the information is trying to discover factors that lead to that and what possible solutions are.

It is most jarring especially if you were public schooled but were perhaps not well-versed in the politics of the system and some of the terminology. By highlighting a nauseating systemic issue with the individual struggles of children today in our educational system it does become a very emotional experience indeed.

Not to give much away but there are many issues that will be examined like Tracking, The Lemon Dance, The Rubber Room, Tenure and Union Dysfunction. Hearkening back to an earlier point, aside from humorous and creative use of archival footage there is nothing done in the edit to paint anyone in a worse light than they are painting themselves.

Documentaries are a tough business. You have to go where the facts and the footage take you despite what you set out believing. What Guggenheim does well is not only personalize his subject matter but pick topics for which there is overwhelming statistical data to support his hypothesis.

The film shows you the odds these kids are facing as they are trying to get into a school that will give them a better chance, one that won’t allow them to get lost in the shuffle. They are odds that seem insurmountable and surely the results aren’t always great but the film does allow for a glimmer of hope.

First, it is creating a dialogue much like his previous film An Inconvenient Truth did for global climate change. However, in another great piece of marketing from the folks at Paramount it is allowing people to make a difference, even more than the Pledge to see this film which is similar to the Demand to see Paranormal Activity campaign. Everyone who purchases a ticket gets a $15 voucher to donate to their favorite educational program. Details are available here.

Davis Guggenheim was last in the news for backing out of the Justin Bieber 3D film due to the need to promote this film. It was the right choice. John Chu is more than capable of handling that and this film needs its director supporting and publicizing it much as we need it seen and it needed being made.

10/10

Review- Valentine’s Day

Taylor Swift and Jennifer Garner in Valentine's Day (New Line Cinema)

This is a re-post.

Valentine’s Day is decent, expendable funny, romantic fare that could have used some more judicious editing both before and after principal photography to make it a little better.

This is a film chock full of actors who have name recognition, such that several times leading up to and perhaps even during the movie, you are likely to forget one or two names who make up the all-star cast.
In a cast that features Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Kathy Bates, Bradley Cooper, Eric Dane, Patrick Dempsey, Hector Elizondo, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Topher Grace, Anne Hathaway, Carter Jenkins, Ashton Kutcher, Queen Latifah, Taylor Lautner, George Lopez, Shirley Maclaine, Emma Roberts and Julia Roberts to discuss every single individual performance would be redundant and pedantic. Overall the ensemble was good with the exception of Lopez and Alba who were milquetoast and easily replaceable and were seemingly only there for demographic-reaching purposes. If three standouts had to be picked they’d be a little surprising they’d likely be Shirley Maclaine, no surprise; she’s great, Jamie Foxx, it’s been a while since he’s been this funny and sang without taking himself too seriously and lastly, and surprisingly, Taylor Swift her portrayal of a goofy high school airhead was a very necessary antidote to a film full of plotlines where the sky was falling.

The two biggest issues with this film are the similarities in plotlines and the edit. If the film had ended up being tighter perhaps the former would not have been such an issue, however, considering the fact that there were so many couples and stories it’s amazing how many of them had to do with infidelity. There are as many relationship issues as there are people and to boil it all down to that is a little weak. Despite that the plot lines seemed interesting enough, after a certain point the movie doesn’t seem to move quickly enough. Jennifer Garner takes the longest car drive in the world; Biel and Foxx are obviously attracted to each other but they play cat-and-mouse; when Garner and Kutcher get together we see them awkward-talk twice before fixing their kiss. Oddly enough, despite her hilarious performance, and her music aiding the score and feel of the film, Taylor Swift’s character and her boyfriend weren’t completely necessary because they brought no conflict to the film.

Conversely, the film is sewn together by a perceived to be fictitious radio deejay named Romeo Midnight who epitomizes randomness. These voice-over snippets usually accompanied by random acts of Valentine’s Day and PDA’s that have no bearing on the story but just give us an interlude before resuming all the stories.

Even though the film isn’t as tight, or perhaps as interconnected as Love Actually, or as joyous, there are a few very good surprises in the proceedings. There are many, many laughs to be had and a few rare scenes that will tug at your heart strings.

It is a decent addressing of a day in need of a film and it also does the important task of establishing the actual origin of the day, which has been obscured in the Hallmark-ization of America. A good way to spend a few hours and a good date movie.

6/10

Monochromatic Monday #2

Now for this week’s installment I will continue with my 31 Days of Oscar theme.

The first film is…

Gaslight (1944)

Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (MGM)

For the record this film won two Academy Awards: one for Ingrid Bergman for Best Actress (her first) and another for Art Design (Black & White). It was nominated for 5 others: Best Picture, Best Actor (Charles Boyer), Best Supporting Actress (Angela Lansbury- her first film role at 19), Best Black-and-White Cinematography and Best Screenplay.

This is a film that I had already seen so this is where some films get a real litmus tests. Most films diminish upon a second viewing, some stay the same, others, and this is rare, get better. Gaslight falls into the middle category which is not meant as a slight at all. It is still a tremendously effective piece of work. This is for the most part a chamber drama wherein a villain gets firmly established and he and our heroine face-off throughout the rest of the film.

What differentiates Gaslight somewhat is the amount of psychology that is employed. By the time we the audience realize Gregory (Boyer) is up to no good Paula (Bergman) already doubts herself and her sanity such that we never question why she doesn’t catch on. Boyer plays such a devilish role it’ll make your blood curdle.

This is a film that hinges on subtleties: footsteps in a locked room, the gaslight going down, the odd way the servants sometimes behave around their mistress. The final confrontation between husband and wife is not one of bombast but of anger tinged with lingering doubt. Bergman truly plays many notes in this performance perhaps her best moment is when she confronts her husband and tries to get back at him. The conclusion is marvelous as Joseph Cotten, a man who lies about the periphery of the tale and slowly takes center stage, moves in.

To discuss too many plot details would be to do this film a disservice. You should see it for yourself.

I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang was nominated for three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor (Paul Muni) and Best Sound Recording. Now this film does have a few things going for it aside form one of the most awesome titles in the history of cinema and a couple of major hindrances too.

Paul Muni is absolutely fantastic in this part. He brings to this part a humanity and cynicism that is needed to add an extra dimension to what may otherwise have been just another social issue film of the 1930s. Now one of the more inconsistent pieces of the puzzle is the writing. For example, for the good James Allen (Muni) is a character who is poised to be sort of an American Jean Valjean. He is arrested for being forced, at gunpoint, by a man he just met to assist in a robbery. He tried to flee and is caught. For that five dollars he stole he is sentenced to 10 years on the chain gang.

Some of the negatives of the writing are certain parts of his escape are just too easy after one really close call. The suspense as to whether or not he’ll make it is somewhat drained. Then there’s the biggest issue is when he is found out he willingly goes back. Now granted this sets up a tremendous last line in which you can’t even see Muni saying it as he has drifted back into the darkness but the tragedy which is impending is undermined by this acquiescence because it’s quite clear that the assurance that are being made are false. It’s terribly transparent and the decision happens fast. If he’d given a little thought something that the edit and the screenplay should’ve accounted for on more than one occasion it might’ve been easier to swallow.

The film ends up being not so much an expose as a very tightly would circle that should really pack more punch than it does but it is still very much worth a watch.

Oscar Nominated Short Films, Animated

The Lost Thing (Passion Films)

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to attend my first ever screening of Oscar Nominated short films. The live action shorts will screen next weekend for more information you can visit the official site.

Madagascar, a Journey Diary (2010): Bastien Dubois (France)

While this is a very interesting film in terms of technique narrative-wise its nothing much to write home about. In fact, it plays sort of like a documentary except without disseminating nearly enough information.

Let’s Pollute (2009): Geefwee Boedoe (USA)

This film is truly a hysterical one. It’s in the format of an educational video in which it instructs the audience how to pollute and further degrade the environment. Of course, while you’re laughing the effect is that of reverse psychology and you start thinking about how you can better conserve resources.

The Gruffalo (2009) (TV): Jakob Schuh, Max Lang (UK/Germany)

There are two standout reasons that garnered this film its nomination: the first is the voice cast. There are a lot of recognizable names attached such Helena Bonham Carter and Robbie Coltrane. However, what is even more impressive is the animation. it’s perhaps the most impressive 3D animation I’ve ever seen (it’s not projected as such I’m talking technique). Having said that the story is far to simplistic, repetitive and downright redundant to be as long as it is. It could’ve have used some tightening up.

The Lost Thing (2010): Shaun Tan, Andrew Ruhemann (Australia/UK)

This would be my second choice as winner. It is without question the most subtle of the candidate films. There is some creativity in technique as well as story-telling here, principally in storytelling it tells of odd creatures showing up and no one knows where they belong. There is definitely a non-blatant parallel to humanity drawn which is just great.

Day & Night (2010): Teddy Newton

I have linked above to a full review of this film I was prompted to view upon its release. This screening reiterated my belief that it should win. Not only is it a truly smart idea but it’s classical Disney which is what draws people to Pixar. This film plays like the old free flowing montages Disney was famous for such as those in Alice and Wonderland and Dumbo. While it’s not as subtle as the above film its message may have even more resonance and is not so on the head such that it detracts from the film.

Review- You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

This film will be released on video tomorrow.

Naomi Watts and Anthony Hopkins in You Will Meet a Tall Stranger (Sony Pictures Classics)

I, unlike many, will attest to the fact that reports of Woody Allen’s demise are greatly exaggerated. While last year’s reviews for Whatever Works were greatly mixed it does not seem like the kind of film that you can use to illustrate that someone had “lost it.”

In You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger you can see why people would say that, however, the way I see it is that you get in the film a pastiche of what’s both great and not so great about Allen. At the risk of sounding like a stereotypical fan who likes the “early, funny movies” it must be stated for the record that this film is a drama before all else.

Moreover, it examines some similar questions as both Whatever Works and Vicky Cristina Barcelona examined. It’s principally about life and love but to paraphrase Allen’s idol Ingmar Bergman “What else is there?” Where the film is somewhat lacking is that it could dig deeper.

What really holds the film back is that fears that were caused by the trailer are realized and it’s the voice over. It is perhaps the worst-delivered most poorly-acted voice over narration that I’ve been privy to listen to. Zak Orth’s delivery could not be be drier if he tried. The only thing that helps this film overcome it is the fact that there’s not a whole lot of it and he’s speaking Allen’s words. Sadly, it also unnecessarily spoon-feeds a relatively simple film and by speaking the film’s conclusion to its hypothesis this renders it more banal than it otherwise would’ve been.

The Bergman reference above is not totally misplaced as this is another examination by Allen of a subject that obsessed Bergman: death. Through these intertwining tales Allen not only examines how we deal with mortality but conversely, of course, with life and what the point to all of it is.

Barring the aforementioned narration the acting is good across the board. The characters are actually a bit less neurotic than Allen’s usual dramatis personnae and feel more like well-rounded, less erudite types. While these characters can come across as more flat it is a tribute to the actors in this film that they breathed life into them.

Another problem the film battled was the edit. The film is a bit too methodical. It never quite gets slow but it could quicken its step through the second and into the third act. True there are four interconnected storylines to resolve but they all end up more or less where we expect them to when we expect them to such that not as much time need be devoted to each to make the point that each segment is trying to make.
While the valid point that sometimes “delusion works better than medicine” is well-made and ties up the film nicely albeit heavy-handedly there is a surprise that develops towards the end that is never really resolved. Now while we can surmise what will happen and the dilemma the character in question is left with it would still have been nice to add a little more closure to that chapter than we get.

Although not a great work and not a minor work, Woody Allen’s films are still vital because he is not overly-concerned with genre or the trappings therein. He through his writing and his cinema is still one of the few American auteurs who is willing to ask real and serious questions with every film he takes on and for that reason his audience should spring eternal and not age with the great cineaste.

6/10

Mini-Review- Day & Night

Day and Night (Pixar)

This article is a repost.

As has become standard with Pixar releases they whet the audience’s appetite for Toy Story 3 with its rendition of what is in danger of becoming a lost art form: the animated short. Pixar, however, does more than its share to preserve this artform by not only producing these shorts but proliferating them on television and on DVD. 
 
The short that preceded Up, called Partly Cloudy was one of the best films of 2009 and Day & Night which precedes Toy Story 3 is even better. 
 
What you get in this tale is an even more ingenious tale than offered previously but with execution that is of surpassing genius. Day & Night are represented in the tale by specter-like beings with sky-scenes appearing through their seemingly transparent person. 
 
The fact that they are Day and Night is introduced wordlessly in a temporarily dislocating and fantastic pull out. In fact, the only words uttered in the film are picked up when they pass a radio station and highlights why these two, and thus we also, should get along. 
 
This short is so good its worth the price of admission and obviously earned itself its own review. Do yourself a favor and show up early to watch Toy Story 3 so you don’t miss it (or watch it on the DVD should you get it). 
 
10/10

Film History Friday #1


Better late than never I always say.

So for Film History Friday my goal is to look back at a filmmaker, event, or whatever in the annals of the history of film that has had a profound impact on the course of the artform. Aiding me greatly in this quest will be the wonderful website known at The Internet Archive this is a fantastic site that archives all sorts of content online, from old web pages, to books, music and films in the public domain.

It’s all well and good to talk about films but the best way to learn about them is to see them so there will be some video links below. My subject for this particular installment is the magnificent Georges Méliès. He is frequently referred to as the first wizard of cinema. A magician at heart, Méliès truly was the first man that demonstrated the boundlessness that film has in its ability to enchant and amaze. The first two films below feature wonderfully blocked, I dare say choreographed, shots wherein cuts that are nearly invisible create the most wondrous illusions. Truly now the tact of cutting and making an object vanish is old hat but keep in mid the era, the lack of sophistication of audiences and also it must be said that Méliès performs these illusion with such a deft hand, with such aplomb that it brought a smile to my face. There’s such unabashed joy in many of these films that it is likely to communicate to audiences even more than a century later.

This first film shows you a very basic demonstration of what Méliès is about. It’s a short simple tale of a many being driven slowly mad by a mischievous imp playing tricks on him.

The Black Imp (1905)

Video

Here we see Méliès upping his game. While this film was made just two years later you must take into account the fact that he is credited on the IMDb with having directed 555 films between 1896 and 1913. Even dealing mostly in shorts that’s a ridiculous output. The point is the learning curve was high and he can tell a simple story in one film knowing he’d get to push the envelope in another. If you liked the first film you’ll love this one.

Satan In Prison (1907)

Video

The video posted below is a fragment. It’s a piece of an adaptation of Robinson Crusoe that he did. It seems to be all that remains. Many of his films its sad to say are lost. The fact remains that a lot of silents are gone and we only know of them because the text for titles was copyrighted. Film preservation combined with the short-shelf life and combustible nature of of silver nitrate stock made things difficult. It’s also interesting to note that the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and the forthcoming film, deals with Méliès in a fictional sense and his lost films also.

Robinson Crusoe -fragment- (1902)

Video

I was only going to post three but since that was a fragment I think one more is in order. This is the film that made me fall in love with him. Even 108 years later this is still amazing stuff.

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Video

Theme Thursday #1

OK, here I go again late again.

In watching films in rapid succession at time whether by design or purely by accident you’ll find themes whether they be narrative, visual or otherwise. For my first sojourn I decided to be rather clear and picked a narrative theme, while the films are very different: one is a modern French film and the other an American film made at the dawn of the sound era, they both to extent deal with death.

The French film is François Ozon’s Time to Leave. The American film is the 1935 cinematic rendition of Louisa May Alcott‘s Little Men, her much interpreted follow-up to Little Women in which Jo runs a boys’ school with her husband. Now the importance of death in each film and how it is handled is drastically different.

Ozon’s film has the occasional moment of truly striking beauty, which is undermined by the fact that our protagonist, Romain (Melvil Poupaud), who is diagnosed with a terminal case of cancer almost immediately never really lets his guard down, which is fine, however, the story could’ve had even more resonance than it does if we were allowed to see the family’s reaction to his death that they didn’t see coming. Aside from that it is a well-made film with some very great touches in it. The flashbacks are particularly strong. The theme of Romain wanting to take pictures of things and people he’s seeing for the last time is effective. Jeanne Moureau’s scenes are also quite good. However, in the end this film ends up being more impressive in its dealing with death than its American counterpart.

Now the indirectness and hastiness with which the death, which I won’t talk about in great detail to avoid spoilers, in Little Men (1935) has little to do with when it was made. Some of the all time great tragedies and tear-jerkers of cinema come from the Golden Age. However, there were some films back then who briskly rushed through their endings to get to happy resolution to shave minutes off running time to squeeze more showings in per day. This is one good thing that multiplexes have brought on, you can stretch your film out if needed and not worry as much about lost opportunity for profit.

The death here is quickly dealt with and bypassed and we rush toward the ending. Not to say that this is a horrible adaptation of the story. It’s just not quite up to snuff with the 1997 version starring Mariel Hemingway which I attribute mostly to direction and writing as the cast assembled amongst the kids anyway should be able to rival if not trump the modern rendition. Soon I will check out the 1940 version online but I think 97s will stand strong in my eyes as the best cinematic rendition- if you are already familiar with this tale, or even if you’re not I strongly recommend the TV series as well.

Review- Never Say Never

Justin Bieber in Never Say Never (Paramount Pictures)

If there was one thing that was most frustrating about watching Step Up 3 last year, whether it be the 3D version or otherwise, was the fact that there were moments that were magic about it that were almost immediately contradicted or overwhelmed. You could see that Jon Chu had latched onto something at least for a fleeting moment that was like catching lightning in a bottle but there just wasn’t quite enough in the story to propel the film past a few moments of grace and charm.

While I typically avoid any sort of comparative analysis in a review of a single film I mention this to begin the case for Never Say Never and may need to resort to it again to make a point. Chu is, in fact, the perfect candidate for this project because while prior it was like he was wringing a dry sponge here the story existed and it’s the kind of thing you can’t make up and he absolutely nailed it as far a making it a piece of narrative cinema.

Absolutely stripping away any notions you may have pre-conceived or otherwise about the music this film is quite amazing and exhilarating and that has every bit as much to do with the crafting of the film as it does with the narrative it tells.

So far as the crafting is concerned: the edit of this film great and rather impressive and, of course, it interlinks with the narrative. While the story is framed as a countdown to one show, Madison Square Garden, it is told neither chronologically nor does a majority of it take place there.

As the production team had protested for months most of the film is not a concert, hence it’s a little misleading to label it a concert film. There is footage, of course, but rarely is a full song used but what’s most incredible is that all the songs are placed perfectly just watch and listen to the tempo and the lyrics in conjunction with the flow of the film.

As much show footage as there is it doesn’t end up being about the show but about the journey but it’s not a one-sided tale. It tells things both from the perspective of Bieber and his team and with man-on-the-street interviews with his fans. So it makes sense that in a tale as someone who has been launched to astronomical heights thanks to the fervent devotion of his fans that both tales be told as they truly are one.

That is where this film truly separates itself from the other two recent teen sensation films (Miley Cyrus and The Jonas Brothers): this is a personal chronicle and the concert is not the thrust of the film but used as peaks and the big show is used as the climax. Whereas, you saw some goofy-we’re-trying-to-show-how-we’re-like-the-Beatles interstitial scenes in the Jonas Brothers film you didn’t learn anything about them or their journey. This film puts you both in the position of the performer and the audience almost simultaneously, which is quite a feat.

As if further evidence is needed that this film isn’t about the concert there is a star-studded line-up of guest performers, including Miley Cyrus herself in a duet, and it doesn’t detract or elevate things it just fits right into the mix.

It’s not a completely skewed depiction of the performer either. There is a part of the film, which propels the film towards its climax with stakes raised and plays almost like it was scripted, wherein Bieber is fighting off a throat infection and swollen vocal chords just before the MSG show, and his vocal coach asks him if he’d been straining his voice outside the performances. He, of course, responds “No” and then there is a quick montage hearkening back to a short layover he had in a hometown where he’s yelling and gallivanting with his friends that is quite funny.

Like almost anything he does, the film doesn’t take itself or its subject, too seriously and just shows things as they are. In showing him, as much as a film can in this format, as a real person there it can establish its dual connection to both performer and audience.

In the end, many quick flashes of home video and YouTube clips that started off the tale are quickly spliced into the last musical performance of the film and hint at the completion of the journey. The journey concludes in a frame wherein an anonymous user is linking their friends to his videos and hence the viral machine starts. There is also some very creative use of graphics displaying YouTube comments, tweets, subtitles and titles that also gave the film a little more cinematic leverage.

Watching this film, again based on comparison with the other two, was like being at a concert. It was virtually the same atmosphere. That alone should say something. It’s easy enough to dismiss this film as a crass money-grab if you want to but if you watch this and see it as anything less than a sincere depiction and a thank you to those who got Bieber where he is you’re not watching closely enough.

This is a film that is exciting and exhilarating cinematically if you give it an unbiased look and watch it as film, which is what it is. It’s not a concert film because there’s so much more to it than that. It’s the full story of this phenomenon about as well as it can be told. Kudos to Jon Chu and Paramount.

10/10

Weird Wednesday #1- Jan Svankmajer

Once again, I am aware of what day it actually is for this week anyway I will likely be late with these themes as I get my footing with them: as things progress I may stagger them.

Here we go.

Weird Wednesday

Weird Wednesday is one of the blankest canvases I am likely to give myself as a cinematic theme. After all the word weird despite its connotation merely means outside the norm and many things can fall into that category.

Yesterday, I chose to watch most of the films on the collection of Jan Svankmajer short films called The Ossuary and Other Tales.

I have been familiar with Svankmajer for quite some time but haven’t seen him in a long time. Milos Forman astutely asserts that “Disney + Buñuel= Svankmajer.” He is an artist that seamlessly goes from puppetry to stop-motion to conventional animation to live action and every way in between.

The Films

The Last Trick

This first tale, if it is the first one you watch in your version of the collection. Is likely to be your litmus test as to whether or not you like Svankmajer. There is a seamless and effortless surrealism to his narratives that provokes thought and seeks to make no explanation. While deceptively simple there are many conclusions that can be drawn from watching this dialogue-free short.

Historia Naturae

Despite how ponderous some of his films may be and how odd they are I’ve always felt a certain kinship with Svankmajer and this proves I’m not crazy. Below you will see both his film where skeletons and illustrations of animals are made to do different dances through the edit. And below that a project I did in an editing class in college which I made with no prior knowledge to Svankmajer’s film. There is a certain similarity. Mine is set to a samba which is a dance he does not include but his waltz is fabulous.

Johann Sebastian Bach

One of his pieces that cuts to the music. Very well done.

Don Juan

A shocking and horrific version of the tale told with puppets.

The Garden

A brilliant and fascinating surrealist live-action film about a man who has unusual gardening practices to say the least.

The Castle of Otranto

A wondrous mockumentary that splices live-action in with an animated story. The live action purports to report on the events that inspired Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the animation tells the story within the book in painstaking detail.

The Ossuary

A kaleiodoscopic tour of the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic.

I will finish these films today. These films are available to stream on Netflix to stream.