Review- Bad Teacher

Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher (Columbia Pictures)

Bad Teacher is a weird little film. The further removed I’ve gotten from seeing it the less I’ve liked it though there are definitely issues I had with it right from the start. If anything that just goes to show you how disposable it is. While it takes a few pot shots at education that anyone who reads on occasion can take it doesn’t go there enough to be considered a satire and what it does decide to do is not well-executed enough to be memorable.

The level of funniness in a comedy is the ultimate barometer. This film did have me laughing consistently throughout but as opposed to something like Bridesmaids where my two friends and I each had favorite scenes nothing stands out tremendously. Aside from that a truly successful comedy is a rather mindless affair on its first viewing if you’re thinking about the plot or consequences of things the film is usually in trouble and that’s what happened here.

When the filmmakers decided to call this film Bad Teacher they weren’t kidding. The problem is she’s not just comedically inept at her profession she’s criminally inept at it that and she’s so inept that even if at the worst school it’s hard to believe she’d get away with these kinds of transgressions for that long.

The phrase minimal attempt can be applied to this film on more than one occasion. Firstly, there is a minimal attempt made by the Bad Teacher to fly right and get these kids to actually learn in pursuit of her goal: breast implants. Then there’s also a minimal attempt to establish her character aside from her suckishness at her job. Her marriage ends because she is a suspected gold-digger and nothing is done to dissuade us.

While she talks about getting into teaching for the wrong reasons perhaps that backstory should’ve been shown not said as well.

Now for the Tits McGuffin. It’s one of the longest McGuffin’s I could remember and while it makes perfect sense why she makes the decision she does I’d liked to have seen that decision not just the evidence. Furthermore her change in vocation is something I like but while it’s conveyed visually perhaps it could be set up with a short conversation with the principal.

The pace of the film overall is quick, however, some parts seem glossed over that shouldn’t and others that need expanding remain thin.

Fair warning that there is a good deal of impunity in this film and that’s something moralistically that you have to sort out on your own. However, one thing I will say is that this is the kind of film that maybe would benefit from a more modernistic approach to comedy with a bit more character-building. However, it is funny enough for me to pass it with a marginal grade of…

6/10

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Review- Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer

Garrett Ryan and Jordana Beatty in Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer (Relativity Media)

The first thing I have to say and I mean this in all honesty is that this film is nowhere near as bad as I feared it would be, however, it’s still not very good at all sadly. It’s not the worst film in the history of the medium and not even of the year, however, a lot of its issues were so correctable it makes it quite a frustrating venture.

Secondly, I feel I should state that my dislike for this film does not stem, as it seems to for some, from the mere fact that it’s a children’s film. I have frequently had films from the genre in my year-end best films list and some have had staying power like Max Keeble’s Big Move. So I can accept a film with a younger target audience if done properly. This isn’t.

The characterization across the board is rather thin. It’s acceptable, in my mind, to have parents be something of a caricature in a children’s film so long as they at certain points reflect actual parents. In their limited screen time Judy’s parents get a rare chuckle but have the aloofness of glue sniffers about them and more parenting, though not quite enough, is done by “crazy” Aunt Opal.

Then there’s Judy, of course, with the not-so-subtle surname of Moody. She is beyond moody, however, and rather a pain in the posterior.

The universe of this film is a very strange one wherein Judy, while not the “popular girl” does have her own cabal of friends yet she has her own distinct vocabulary that no one really adopts despite the fact that she’s clearly the alpha of the group. She leads a club and the only thing we really see her impress on her friends is the concept of a thrill points race to try and make summer “less boring.”

After one attempt to earn thrill points you quickly see what the resolution of the film will be and what she needs more than anything is an attitude adjustment. However, this uptightness is not called out for far too long and when one of her friends does call her out she doesn’t come to realize the error of her ways herself or get the nudge from her loci parentis. Instead the epiphany comes in a photo montage accompanied by lazy voice over.

Granted some of her feelings of inadequacy are exacerbated by the fact that two of her best friends are far off having a thrill a minute but still the singularity of her focus gets a bit annoying without more challenges to her perception.

However, the singularity is preferable to shoehorned subplots. The Bigfoot subplot works and gives Stink, her brother, his own obsession and plays into her modus operandi just fine. The one that doesn’t is that of the teacher, Mr. Todd (Jaleel White, yes, from Family Matters, who is difficult to accept in any other role). The issue with this subplot is how it is thrown in the mix. It starts with an awkward last day of school scene where his summer plans are made mysterious and hints are dropped through an even more awkward and ill-fitting sing-along. It also dovetails very annoyingly at the climax, so annoyingly that I could go on about that alone for quite some time.

There is an excessive use of animated graphics and titles in the film but while some actually work few do and none are as awkward as the sing-along.

My feelings about the parents as characters is lower than my opinion of their performance. Heather Graham does a lot to keep this film from wallowing into oblivion. Paradoxically by being a comedic oddball character she keeps it grounded and fun as much as she can. Judy’s brother (Parris Mosteller) and friends (Preston Bailey, Garrett Ryan and Taylar Hender) all contribute greatly and do quite well in their parts especially Bailey, whose fight with Judy is the best scene such that it’s almost as if it was taken from another film.

The most impressive thing Jordana Beatty does is lose her Australian accent. Her task is a difficult one in as much as she has to be annoying yet sympathetic and that doesn’t come across. I will grant that she was handcuffed by the script in some regards but the end result is insufficient.

This film is based on a series of books and considering that there’s much material to pull from I wouldn’t rule out Judy’s big screen return, pending its box office, I also wouldn’t write the films off. Yes, this film failed and miserably so but the parts of there in terms of concept and most of the cast but the vehicle was wrong. The actors given a different script may yield different results.

3/10

Review- Mr. Popper’s Penguins

Carla Gugino, Maxwell Perry Cotton, Madeline Carroll and Jim Carrey in Mr. Popper's Penguins (20th Century Fox)

You may not be expecting much when walking into a film like Mr. Popper’s Penguins. While it certainly won’t blow anyone away it does have some surprises in store and it really is quite good.

There is a quick backstory montage with some flashes that establishes who our protagonist is and what his relationship with his father was like. This sets up our expectations for what he will be like as a grown man. While this set up can have us assuming certain things how they come about is a bit unexpected.

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is Jim Carrey’s performance. Here you get what I call a hybrid of his two very distinctive styles, both of which I like. It’s a homogenization of his over-the-top comedy and his dramatic persona much more so than Liar Liar, which is very much the former.

This film also sets up several standard situations but avoids trapping the film in overly-familiar gags and goes about things differently. There are Needing to be Two Places at Once, Apparent Defeat and Ulterior Complications that are to an extent necessary and accepted handled briskly and with a twist such that they’re not stale.

This film by doing those stock things in a slightly more inventive, fresher way does end up being rather funny. There is a good dose of slapstick and verbal comedy thrown into the mix such that it’s balanced.

Comedy aside it is a family film and so the family unit has to be strong in terms of performance and chemistry and this film does that perfectly. Aside from Carrey you have Carla Gugino as his ex-wife and Madeline Carroll and Maxwell Perry Cotton as his children. Though she’s played other roles Gugino since Spy Kids is the prototypical uber-mom charming and appealing to all ages. The kids have very different tasks and handle them brilliantly: Carroll as a teenage girl whose emotions are always teetering on the edge and Cotton who plays the younger brother wise beyond his years. They make fantastic foils and allow Carrey to play drama and comedy at times simultaneously.

The children and the family story ultimately bring out the biggest surprise in that while packaged as a goofy animal film it is a sweet, heartfelt story.

While his dialogue does get a bit repetitive the film does adequately turn the man from the zoo into a serviceable villain. There are also secondary threats to the penguins conditions that never over-intrude but make their presence known.

The CG work that’s done, when it’s needed, in this film is also well-rendered and never too obvious.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins is one of the better surprises I’ve had at the movies in while. Which just goes to show that just as you can’t judge a book by its cover you can’t judge a film by its trailer (or its poster for that matter).

7/10

Review- Midnight in Paris

Carla Bruni and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris (Sony Pictures Classics)

I always feel it a necessity to state my general stance on Woody Allen prior to getting into a review of any of his works. I feel this is appropriate so you know where I am coming from and thus so you can take my review with a grain of salt should you need to. Fans of Woody Allen seem to come in two camps: First, those who believe he’s slipping and hasn’t done anything really worthwhile in the past 15 to 20 years and blind followers, while I skew more towards the latter I believe I am somewhere in the middle. I believe Allen has peaks and valleys like many prolific filmmakers but I have really enjoyed his recent works.

Lately, Allen has been globetrotting a bit and he writes and shoots frequently enough such that there are threads of philosophy and narrative choices that run through many of his films but conversely he has periods akin to painters. His break from being tethered to New York City in and of itself has breathed some new life into his recent works.

As you familiarize yourself with a filmmaker you expect certain things, with Allen it had been New York, art deco, Jazz (or another genre whose heyday is past), plain title cards, longing of some kind, etc. When minor changes to the formula are applied to the same voice it can be rather interesting.

What is perhaps most interesting in Midnight in Paris is that Allen attacks head on an issue which many of his detractors (at least of his recent work) cite him for, which is his nostalgic love affair with the past. Rather than having it be an idiosyncrasy of a character (or group of them) that we must either accept or reject it becomes central to the protagonist’s, Gil (Owen Wilson), struggle and part of why he is not understood.

By openly addressing this and applying it to a younger character one of Allen’s motifs is revitalized because he can’t be cited as someone whose “lost touch” with modernity. He’s found here a new way to funnel his voice into a modern setting. Another one of the frequent attacks on Allen’s work is that his scripts are in lieu of therapy. Truth be told it is for a lot of people and it’s more identifiable with him because he’s a personality and is more known. He’s always been a personal filmmaker and this may be his best and most coherent addressing of any hang-up he’s covered.

While I don’t think it’s on par with things like Manhattan or Annie Hall this film does have the inventiveness and flair from that era of his career. A majority of the reason why is that in this film he embraces Magical Realism and allows for facile time travel and creates time-space paradoxes and is not concerned about factual truths but emotional ones which affect his characters.

In a film where a slew of historical figures, who we all have preconceived notions about, appear the casting has to be spot on and it’s nailed on the head repeatedly whether it be Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Picasso, Dali and so on. Even funnier are how Allen writes these personalities and how they perform the parts.

It’s without question one of his best concepts in quite some time. Though not running any longer than most of his films the episodes in the past do get a tad lengthy and there is a bit of drag in the second act but not enough that it hurts the film greatly.

It’s also, clearly as the concept implies, one of Allen’s more visual recent ventures. The dialogue is strong while not being audaciously witty. The conclusion is expected but earned and sweet.

You can say what you will about Allen’s recent track record but I have nothing but admiration for an artist who continuously pushes himself to new horizons regardless of their results. However, Midnight in Paris is an unqualified success and a bold new step for this auteur and is therefore highly recommended.

9/10

Review- The Art of Getting By

Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts in The Art of Getting By (Fox Searchlight)

When I first saw a trailer for The Art of Getting By my initial reaction was that Freddie Highmore is back with a vengeance. This film, and the previously reviewed Toast, definitely bear that out. Highmore does some pretty difficult work in this film as he’s asked to make a character likable who is not very likable at a distance and who a lesser actor may make detestable.

However, the film establishes his philosophy on life and why he approaches it the way he does right off the bat through voice-over. The voice-over is used sparingly afterward but the “We’re going to die, so what’s the point?” attitude is not hard to wrap one’s head around it’s just that he takes it to an extreme level. However, I have no qualms with it because part of cinema is about living vicariously through others.

Of course, what does snap him out of that in part is a girl played by Emma Roberts. Hers is a task that’s also not very easy because in this film she plays perhaps the most enigmatic female lead I’ve seen since Emily Blunt in Wild Target. I believe I have cracked her as her behavior does seem strange and I think a lot of her subconscious motivation is that she really is a carbon copy of her mother but she fears admitting it and thus a lot of the irrational behavior you’ll see form her is explained.

While George (Highmore) is getting to know and like Sally (Roberts) the tension at home starts to bubble to the surface and he also is forced to come to grips with his slacking off at school and either make his work up or he’ll be expelled. Slowly and perceptibly he starts to change and the straw breaks the camel’s back you know he’ll make it up. A lot of the unexpected comes in his relationship.

What this film does well is that it manages intertwine several uncertain outcomes towards the end such that your focus isn’t entirely on one so even though things, to an extent, work out as expected there’s still that tension about which will be resolved when and how. One thing it keeps you waiting on is to see his one art project. It should also be noted that due to Sally’s enigmatic nature what she does at the end is by no means a sure thing.

While much of what you need resolved to have what can typically be considered a full filmic experience does get resolved there are a few things that are left open to interpretation. This openness was something I realized afterward where some events were viewed differently by myself and a friend.

For the most part this film does a fine job of carving out its universe and establishing who these people are and how their world functions. What never did jibe was the drinking. The leads are portraying high school seniors, eighteen-year-olds, yet they seem to be able to get alcohol by simply buying it (18 obviously being underage in New York City). This isn’t a prudish complaint, kids drink, if that factors in the story; fine. However, something as incongruous as getting served in a bar is something that cannot go unmentioned in the dialogue.

Despite a few unfortunate enigmas in the storytelling I believe that this film effectively created a narrative of the modern slacker and how he is snapped out of it and finds things to live for. The larger (or smaller) the world grows the more we can feel isolated at times so an occasional reminder about what makes it worth it is welcome.

7/10

Mini-Review Round-Up #1

This is something I’m going to do periodically. Basically, I will employ many means to qualify films for the BAM Awards be it either seeing the film theatrically acquiring a DVD either through purchase or on Netflix. This could lead to an influx of several new titles being seen in a short span of time which would be difficult to write full reviews for. At least this way the film gets some of its deserved attention and you get some notion of my thoughts on them.

If you have questions or comments feel free to respond. I always get back.

As always please refer to My Rating Scale for an indication of what the scores indicate and if you’re curious where these films might make a dent in my personal awards please check my BAM Considerations.

The Films

The Human Resources Manager

Papil Panduru, Mark Ivanir, Noah Silver and Irina Petrescu in The Human Resources Manager (Film Movement)

This was a film I was fortunate enough to win from Film Movement in a Facebook contest. Film Movement is akin to a book-of-the-month club for films. They send you award-winning foreign/indies usually before they’re released and that you can’t find near you. If you want to get a sampling of their films they stream many of their titles. The discs include a short as well.

This is an Israeli film about an HR man who faces a bit of a firestorm after one of his employees has been killed in a car bombing and he through a bureaucratic mix-up was unaware of her employment status at the time. Much of the film deals with how he tries to make amends for it and then becomes a journey as he returns her to her native Romania and struggles to get her buried.

The story is rather well told and moves along at a good clip. There are some surprises in store. A lot of the acting is quite good, however, the character and performance of the journalist very annoying.

8/10

Brotherhood

Jon Foster and Trevor Morgan in Brotherhood (Phase 4 Films)

This is a film about a fraternity initiation ritual gone terribly wrong.

This is one that starts off very strangely but do stick with it. There are surprising and intriguing plot twists in store and in a situation that’s extremely tense throughout there’s some really great acting especially the performance by Trevor Morgan who has the talent to become a breakout star but just hasn’t had that one project yet.

I got this film from Netflix and actually watched it twice in two days. It’s the standout of the bunch.

10/10

Even the Rain

Juan Carlos Adiviri and Gael Garcia Bernal in Even the Rain (Vitagraph Films)

This is an interesting tale about a Spanish film about Columbus in the New World being shot in Bolivia during civil unrest regarding price gouging for public water.

The film-within-the-film does fade into the background but there is a fantastic moment of symbiosis. There are some fantastic performances in this film and when the most notable one isn’t by Gael Garcia Bernal you’ve got a pretty good film on your hands.

Political sentiment pervades this film in a way that are not detrimental to enjoying it but rather necessary.

9/10

I Saw the Devil

Byung-hun Lee in I Saw the Devil (Magnet Releasing)

This is a tale of a man who seeks to avenge his girlfriend’s death at the hands of a ruthless serial killer.

There is a lot to this film that is done well in terms of cinematic technique and in terms of structure as well, however, there is a moment when my suspension of disbelief explodes and it turned my opinion on its ear. That happens about one hour in and there’s 90 minutes of film to follow and my sympathies don’t change they dissipate entirely and I’m left just watching the carnage and at the end I’m supposed to feel gutted but I don’t. Sorry.

5/10

Black Death

Eddie Redmayne and Sean Bean in Black Death (Magnet Releasing)

This is a tale of knights in England during the outbreak of the Bubonic plague seeking a village in which the plague has not come yet and there are rumors of necromancy.

The time of the Black Death always has been and I believe always will be an era which is rife with story possibilities and has to this date been under utilized. This film not only features stellar performances but takes even-handed swipes at all religions and uses their precepts very astutely in building this tale. It’s very intelligently done.

9/10

Hobo with a Shotgun

Rutger Hauer in Hobo with a Shotgun (Magnet Releasing)

I can’t say it better than a newspaper headline in the film does: Hobo stops asking, demands change.

There’s a lot to love in this film and the first thing you have to realize going in is that it’s outlandish grindhouse to the nth degree. If that redundancy didn’t make it sink in nothing will. The dialogue is frequently absurd and well-delivered. The cinematography is fantastic and the images are brilliant and saturated. There’s just one major story element which just didn’t work for me at all but I’ll leave it at that. Standout performances by Rutger Hauer, Molly Dunsworth, Gregory Smith and Jeremy Akerman, who will always be Mr. Frawley from Pit Pony to me.

9/10

Trollhunter

Trollhunter (Magnet Releasing)

It’s a found-footage mockumentary about a group of college students who meet a real-life troll hunter and follow him on his exploits.

There are some very smart things and concepts in this film that are never fully realized. There’s a silly, short tag to the entire mess. At some point the pace just never picks and it galumphs along at an agonizingly slow rate and then no real payoff to boot. It’s hard to quantify this but it may have been the most boring cinematic experience I’ve had this year.

4/10

The Other Woman

Natalie Portman and Charlie Tahan in The Other Woman (IFC Films)

A young woman deals with the difficulty of the loss of a child, a relationship with her stepson and being newly married.

This is a film which is interesting structurally and gives Portman a chance to really shine. When I saw the trailer it smacked of Stepmom but what I was hoping for was a lack schmaltzy melodrama. I got that but it was replaced by a lot of armchair psychology. There are some surprises and also good performances by Scott Cohen, Charlie Tahan and Lisa Kudrow, who for the first time made me forget about Friends entirely until it was over. It just left me wanting a little but it was enjoyable.

7/10

So that’s the first round-up. I’ll try and get it up sooner next time maybe after five films if possible.

Review- Green Lantern

Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern (Warner Bros./DC)

Note: Some spoilers within.

Of the rash of comic book films that are due out this year I’d put Green Lantern near the bottom of the list with regards to how much prior knowledge I had about him going in (As opposed to The X-Men with which I am quite familiar or the upcoming Captain America, which would rank lowest). Thus, the expectations might not be as great but the onus would be squarely on the film to convey who this guy is what the rules of this particular universe and his abilities are. It’s serviceable but it could’ve been handled better. A lot of information about who the Lanterns are and what they do is disseminated immediately in a voice-over and considering that there will be more information to absorb later along with a lot of flashy fight sequences that don’t require thought it’s a risky strategy and there was some debate of the finer points amongst my party after the film.

Having said all that for the most part the foundation is laid and laid well not only in establishing Hal, his world and how it changes when he is summoned but also going forward should the films continue. A factor this film benefits from is that it’s not a super-being tale but rather gifts endowed to a regular person, which makes identification somewhat easier. While typically I am more drawn to the vigilante-type a la Batman, this film does do enough well to be considered better than The Green Hornet, who is of the vigilante mold, especially when you consider that this film managed to incorporate comedy with making it one, which is a tribute to the casting choice of Ryan Reynolds.

One of the decisions that didn’t work as well for this film is that in essence it contained dueling antagonists. On the one hand you have Parallax who is essentially a personification of fear that grows more dangerous and violent the more it defeats and consumes, which was pretty cool and different from what you typically get, and on the other you have Hector Hammond. Hammond is a scientist who gets infected by contact with one of Parallax’s victims and that creates a psychic link. Part of the problem with devoting so much time to Hammond is that he’s essentially a tool. It does give us a good performance from Peter Sarsgaard but his narrative ends rather unceremoniously.

Not to say Hammond was unnecessary but it just feels certain aspects of the film are short-changed in the interests of keeping the running time manageable. While Hammond’s being developed, I wanted more Hal, while Hal’s having his doubts I wondered what was happening on Oa. It seems as if in the interest of trying to get a lot covered the whole wasn’t all it could’ve been. On the positive, I thought the sequence with the requisite backstory regarding Hal’s father was very well-handled as was the introduction of what relationship all these characters had to one another. It’s just that plotting and pacing suffered after a while when trying to do too much all at once.

There are then with two antagonists and two climactic battle sequences; little fish then big fish. While I’ll be the first to complain when one seems far too long these were oddly truncated and anti-climatic. They each have their “Oh, that was cool” moments but also have that “Oh, it’s over?” moment as well.

The animation was rather good considering that there was a lot of it but definitely could’ve been improved further. For the record I did not see this film in 3D as I saw no need to as it is a post-converted film and I try to avoid those.

Lastly, don’t leave as soon as the credits start rolling as there is a little teaser at the end. Or you could leave because it really bugged the hell out of me. Can we knock it off with the teasers already? I recognize that running time begins at fanfare and ends when the credits stop rolling but more often than not these tacked on scenes leave you scratching your head or rolling your eyes rather than giving you anything you’re actually glad you stuck around and watched. Any superhero film has a built-in “excuse” for a sequel: it’s about a superhero. There’s always a bad guy. You don’t need to bend over backwards for it.

Anyway, having said all that I do want to stress that I think this film does more well than it does poorly it just sometimes that the latter is easier to expound upon. It’s a fair indoctrination to the character and the Green Lantern concept as a whole and is enjoyable popcorn-fare.

6/10

Review- The Tree of Life

Brad Pitt and Laramie Eppler in The Tree of Life (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

In a recent review, I forget which, I was tempted to discuss the importance a title can play in a film but I didn’t because I thought in that case it’d be a bit too trite. Specifically mentioning how a title can pull everything together and put it all in focus when things seem a bit disparate. This is quite true of The Tree of Life. Before having seen this film I actually hadn’t heard (or recorded to memory) that this was a notion in many philosophies and religions and about the interconnection of all living things. However, even if you walk in without that knowledge, as I did, the film makes that very clear in its shots and edits.

Which leads to the editing of this film, I believe that aesthetically and technologically we’re approaching an edited film that can more accurately reflect the inner-workings of the mind than ever before. In some cases better than novels if you think about it because novels capture inner-monologue and describe in an abundance of words what a quick series of images can convey. This is brought up because this film is essentially a mindplay and it’s the closest to seeing thoughts projected on a screen as I’ve seen. You really go on a journey through these disjointed images and while it does take a while to get into it there will come a point when it clicks.

You can truly experience this film and more so in the front row. Yes, it’s where I normally sit and many have an aversion to it but this is where the images are bigger and the film really does feel like it’s thoughts happening in front of your eyes at times.

The reason it takes a little time to get into is that in the beginning of the film no scene starts in a conventional way and dialogue is chasing imagery left, right and center. This is the scatter-brained portion of the film once the protagonist starts to ruminate on the film’s central question: “What’s my place in this world?” it gets less scattered.

There are two extended sequences that break out of the box and go through time and space from The Big Bang to evolution to vistas of the world as it is today, along with a frame of the very Beginning I believe. These sequences are what draw this film comparisons to 2001, which aren’t unwarranted but aside from these episodes it’s a much more grounded, soul-searching and personal tale than Kubrick weaved.

After the first such episode the flashbacks get less choppy and more contiguous and aside from the editing style the narrative gets rather straight forward and very interesting. As is true with memory this film calls up things that are highlights but not all of them and leaves room to speculate and reflect on what we didn’t focus on the first time, which makes this film a prime candidate to be re-viewed.

It’s this personal approach throughout that connects you to the film. Even with the unusual structure and editing and amazingly ambitious scope it’s still about one man, and thus all men and we learn about him and his upbringing and see what torments him and what he’s seeking to reconcile.

There has been an awful lot written about the fact that this film uses religion as a story element like that’s akin to having plot holes or no conflict, in other words, it was reported as a negative coming out of Cannes. Don’t worry I’m not about to soapbox my religious views on anyone; people doing that is one of my pet peeves. What I am going to say that it’s a bit ridiculous that it’s practically verboten for a character in a piece of fiction to have religious views according to some. This is a story about a man who is having an existential crisis and is trying to figure out what his role is and his mind wanders from the dawn of creation to everywhere in between. It’s perfectly natural for him or his mother to be asking God “Why this or that?” Furthermore, if you still need a little more justification I’ve got it: not only is our protagonist a child of the 50s but this is a person who has found no answers yet, no peace at some point, no matter how devout he is or isn’t he might’ve turned to faith.

The bottom line is artists do put their views and ideas into their films but they’re not always literal. So just because a film mentions God or invokes religion in anyway does not make it preachy. This is ultimately a film about coming to terms with your past and those you’ve lost. I’d almost go so far as to say this movie is as much about preaching Christianity as The Exorcist is. So enough.

As is to be expected the cinematography in this film is absolutely breathtaking. So many of the shots look like paintings almost and all are beautifully composed. This is a must-see for students of the craft.

The acting in this film is also very strong. As an audience member it takes a while for you to feel it but as more pieces of the narrative fall into place you really start to see how wonderfully everyone did. Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt’s characters are as different as night and day but they play them equally well. Hopefully, Fox/Fox Searchlight push for Brad Pitt come awards season. He’s one of Hollywood’s biggest names and he’s proven he’ll take a risk and go out on a limb and this might get him his statue. Equally compelling but more surprising are the performances of the three newcomers as the kids particularly Hunter McCracken who plays our protagonist Jack as a boy. His burn is the slowest and most explosive in the bunch and his performance rivals that of Pitt.

It’s hard to sum up or rate a film like this. One thing I will say for sure is that while I despise the notion of “important” films in theory but I cannot deny them when I see them regardless of proclivities. Having gotten that out of the way I do like this film and I do consider it important. Would the flow of it work better for me if I saw it again? Perhaps. Would the story hit home harder with all the puzzles solved? Maybe. It’s hard to gauge a film when you’re in awe of so many achievements on a technical and structural level but in a narrative are left to ponder where it falls on the scale. So I will caveat this, pending re-view I rate this film:

9/10

However, please note that even without being re-seen time is the ultimate judge and I have had films rated 9 slide up before.

Review- In a Better World

Markus Rygaard and William Jøhnk Nielsen in In A Better World (Sony Pictures Classics)

In a Better World is a Danish film which won Best Foreign Language Film at the most recent Academy Awards and that is a moniker which can carry a stigma for many. The two that come foremost to mind are that either it’s an inaccessible by the masses art film or that it’s essentially an American film transplanted and taking place overseas. None of these notions apply to this film at all.

However, this film did vaguely bring to mind the Best Picture winner The King’s Speech in as much as its accessibility and relatability are part of its appeal. However, there is still an artistry and at times poetry in the way the simple subject of this film is handled that makes it excel just beyond being something passable and there’s still that European sensibility to it that’s just a little more deft even when handling things in a very straightforward manner.

This film is really telling two stories most of the time: it tells of Elias’s struggle to deal with bullying (which is quite relevant to the current climate) and his father Anton’s struggle as a doctor working in Africa who has to treat a malicious man who has sent many women to his hospital tent clinging to life and the locals beg him not to. These narratives only truly intersect once, otherwise the film shifts, as Anton does, from location to location.

The third factor, one who starts on his own but becomes involved in Elias’s story and dominates that, is Christian. After the initial images of Africa grace the screen, Christian is heard reciting a poem in English (this is one of the longest L-Cuts I’ve ever seen). As the film frequently does it conveys information visually showing us he is at his mother’s funeral. Following her death he moves from London back to Denmark and meets Elias. He has a very different, more confrontational way of dealing with bullies and sticks up for Elias who gets picked on about his teeth and anything else they can think of. Eventually Christian’s way of seeing the world catches on with Elias and his father Anton struggles to show both of them otherwise.

This is the kind of narrative that could get quite preachy and pedantic but it doesn’t do so. It does take the opportunity and has the narrative to serve as a teachable moment but the characters never talk at us but to each other and each of them throughout prove themselves to be far too imperfect to be self-righteous. In the past employing children in meaty dramatic roles had been the sole purview of the foreign film, specifically those from Europe, while there are are now more opportunities here there’s still something a bit more genuine in the portrayal of the positive and negative aspects of youths overseas.

With the themes and plots that this film has it makes doubly sure to make all of its characters engaging, interesting and human and yet also makes most of them likable as well. In doing so these simple struggles which balloon to massive issues with each decision carry more and more weight due to the investment we’ve made in each of them and their well-being. While dealing in the philosophical it still has that emotional pull we need.

This identification made all the more easy by the cast which is nothing short of superb. The kids, of course, deserve first mention. Between the two of them they shoulder a lot of the burden of bringing this tale to life and each one of them has their own journey, and aside from one hiccup which I’ll attribute to willful misdirection, they make nary a misstep. What that misstep is doesn’t bear mentioning beyond the above. The bottom line is both Markus Rygaard as Elias and William Jøhnk Nielsen as Christian are fabulous in it and I was not surprised to learn that the latter was nominated as Best Actor in Denmark’s national film award (Zulu) and may factor greatly in mine (BAMs).

Furthermore, you have supporting them the very talented actors who play Elias’ parents: Mikael Persbrandt, whose own moral dilemma occupies much of our time and he shows the great range to be both tremendously sensitive and caring and extremely enraged and Trine Dyrholm whose despair drives this movie into your core and makes you feel it if you haven’t already.

The only thing I thought was consistently off was one theme from the score, which played quite frequently and seemed the most discordant of all the pieces. This is a shame because many sections were quite effective but are rendered less memorable by the repetition of the most unpleasant section.

In a Better World is certainly the kind of film which could improve with a second viewing and was most definitely worth not only of its awards but of your viewership.

9/10

Review- Toast

Victoria Hamilton and Oliver Kennedy in Toast (W2 Media)

In seeing Toast a very fundamental question occurred to me because this film gave me the answer more purely than most do. The question being: “Why do we go to the movies?” The answer: “For the unexpected.” I never expected from Toast one of the most surpassingly beautiful scenes I’ve seen in a while.

This is just one of the many surprises this film has in store. Granted I knew next to nothing about this film going in but even taking that into account there are some wonderful surprises in store. This film is about the upbringing of famed British chef/personality Nigel Slater. What you get, however, is something more intimate and vibrant than appearances would have you believe.

Aside from a scene of surpassing beauty which is one of the great instant tear-jerkers ever, which features a wonderful selection of source music there is also within this film a great montage and a creative display of the passage of time. Throughout there are some wonderfully lit shots and creative camera angles which are used to great effect.

To not give too much away I will not describe the above scene in too much detail to keep the surprise fresh. It is the kind of scene, however, that many can make effective but few can make that effective. Moreover, it is followed up by a scene rendered emotional that few can make work. This film manages to make the simple act of eating toast an emotional experience.

Of course, a lot of this should not be considered a surprise when you note it’s Lee Hall, writer of Billy Elliot (stage and screen), who brought Nigel Slater’s story from memoir to script. Not only do you have in Hall a man who can depict children truthfully (or their perspective on things) but also one who has rendered dramas in this socio-economic milieu before and can weave a character discovering one’s sexuality into a plot without making it the film’s sole focus.

While being tremendously moving at times this film also balances itself with a good dose of comedy. Comedy is also inherent to a narrative wherein a protagonist develops a love for food and cooking despite frequently having an abnormal relationship with it, whether eating bad canned food or using it to seek attention or affection. Yet even the comedy is always met with high stakes. As funny as it can be at times you realize things are serious because of who his competition is.

This film is made even stronger by having a small but incredibly able cast. First and foremost is Oliver Kennedy who plays Young Nigel and carries the film for two acts before being aged. He was found through a long and slightly unorthodox search, which tested personality and instinct more than honed acting chops and it truly paid off. A natural, diamond in the rough was found. Typically when you have a character portrayed at two different ages you see him younger for less screen time. That is not the case here, however, Freddie Highmore’s section, where Nigel is 16 and has been in his current living situation for some time is no less compelling. Furthermore, it’s where he gets to follow through on his lifelong interest. Highmore was, of course, one of the biggest child actors of his time and is yet another one making a wonderful transition to more adult roles.

If you’ve not yet gotten an indication of how good this film is take this as a hint: I am only now mentioning Helena Bonham Carter’s involvement as Mrs. Potter, the cleaning woman who sidles into the home. She is both funny and dastardly and at times a sympathetic figure but always a bit immature and misguided, even while being so complex she manages to be an effective antagonist. Then you have the curmudgeonly father Ken Stott who is equal parts hilarious and infuriating.

This film was presented at my local theatre through the From Britain With Love series which is showcasing six British independent films in art houses across the US. This particular screening was accompanied by a post-screening Q & A where director S.J. Clarkson took questions not only from audience-members at Lincoln Center in New York but had some relayed to her from the web. My question, whether by relay or repetition, did make it through to her. It was this: Did Freddie Highmore and Oliver Kennedy compare notes on playing the same character at different ages? The answer was a similar one to Tom Hanks’ approach to playing Forrest Gump in as much as Highmore merely imitated Kennedy’s accent.

Amongst many other things this film made me rethink my aversion, in certain instances, to lens-spiking. Towards the end of each section the actor playing Nigel knowingly spikes the lens. However, on further thought considering it’s narrated by a disembodied older version of Nigel, it’s his perception and he knows he’s talking to us, it doesn’t bother me as much. We as an audience through the voice-over acknowledge that the story is being told to us in hindsight and that there’s some filtering and artifice involved.

Toast is a moving film in every sense of the word and one that I’d gladly see again. I’ve said it a lot recently but it’s not less true here, that it’s one the best films I’ve seen this year thus far and I can see it standing tall at the end of the year.

10/10