Thankful for World Cinema: Les Vampires

Louis Feuillade’s classic six hour plus serial Les Vampires had disappeared from DVD for a while, before it recently resurfaced. I was lucky to have purchased this title at Christmas when it was still readily available – it’s now back in full force.

Unfortunately, Feuillade’s films seem to have disappeared from public consciousness long ago and hence the demand for his titles is less, which is why a company like Criterion would be ideal to shed light upon his lost gems. However, in discussing Les Vampires I would like to illustrate his greatness. First, I do not tout the greatness of this film simply because it is aged enough to be a classic. I like neither old things because they’re old nor new things because they’re new.

The timelessness of this tale of Feuillade’s storytelling is in how captivating his plots tend to be. In both Les Vampires and Fantomas you will see some effects that for the time are very impressive but always keep in mind the era in which he worked. Narrative cinema was still in its infancy and audiences were not yet fluent in the language of film so things are overshot: shots are very wide and there are few close-ups. Very few menial movements are cut. For example, if someone enters a building today we would cut right to them arriving at the location in the building where they needed to be, without giving it a second thought. In the oughts and teens, however, audiences needed to see the protagonist in the lobby, getting on the elevator, and reaching his floor or they would be confused. Today such moments are only shot to build tension if needed.

Having said all that, Les Vampires has everything you could possibly want in a narrative sense. The aim is to always leaving you wanting more at the end of each episode and I always did. What was a little unusual in this one is that the cliffhanger wasn’t the end as it was in Fantomas but there was usually a little denouement just before the chapter closed.

However, the elements that kept me riveted and watching two and three installments at a time and the whole thing in less than two days were all there. The story concerns a journalist Philippe Guérande and his sidekick Oscar Mazamette. They are engaged in an epic battle against an organized crime unit of Vampires known simply as Les Vampires.

This story is full of twists, mistaken identity, seemingly unbeatable villains, chases, hiding places, surprises (seriously I was taken aback by the ingenuity of some), it will always leave you guessing; after a while as it seems the kingpin on Les Vampires is a mist that can never be caught.

The acting is superb and seldom, if ever, are you left wondering what a conversation is about for lack of a title. Few things if any are ever introduced solely by titles. The film tells its tale visually. Musidora, who plays Irma Vep, which is now an immortal anagram because she became a worldwide star after this serial, and you can easily see why.

This serial is the definition of classic storytelling, good versus evil battling it out with drama, suspense and excitement building throughout each episode. Each episode does have its own arc, and its own characters on occasion. You can watch them separately and it almost becomes a TV show you just need back-story and you’re good to go to the next episode, except this is so much better. On the version I watched I don’t believe the score is original, packaging usually isn’t good about removing those doubts, but the score does fit most of the time and it’s very good. If you have a chance check out this excellent film. If you haven’t seen Feuilllade’s work be sure to suggest it to Criterion. There is too little of this filmmaking legend’s work available to modern audiences.

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A Journey from Narrative to Documentary with Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog is a very interesting figure with whom the typical film enthusiast may not be familiar. However, if you believe that all films are run-of-the-mill, and that documentaries cannot compare to narrative fiction films, allow Herzog to demonstrate the opposite. With these titles you can become familiar with him and if you enjoy them can move on to his more challenging, esoteric works.  

Narrative

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

This tale is the perfect introduction to Werner Herzog, as it is the simplest and most transparent of his tales. It is also the perfect segue from his narrative work to his documentaries because it concerns a true story. It tells the tale of a mysterious foundling, Hauser, who appears as if from nowhere on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828. He can hardly speak, walk or write. Rather than interviewing historians and having them dispute the facts and various uncertainties regarding this strange and unusual case, Herzog presents us with a fictionalized depiction of this man’s life, mostly due to the fact that both its beginning and end are shrouded in mystery.

The mysteries of Hauser’s life are echoed throughout with a brilliant use of fragmental imagery and stories. One story Hauser only knows the beginning of, another being a shot of what looks like the hills in the distance as a Mysterious Caped Man freed him, this image is inconsistent and flickering seeming to indicate his spotty memory of his past, lastly in a near-death experience we see an awe-inspiring image of people climbing a pebbly crag in a heavy fog where at the top, remaining unseen, Kaspar says he sees Death. Foreshadowing his demise but as in reality we remain uncertain of the culprit’s identity.

The cinematography in this film is always simple in its framing and even in its lighting except where it needs to be fantastical, keeping a very true-to-life feel no dramatic contrast, or shafts of light to detract from the reality of the tale being told. Some takes are also quite long so that we see how the simplest task is labored for Kaspar when he is in his cellar.

Lastly, this movie will really keep you hooked due to the incredibly layered performance of Bruno S., which is absolutely spellbinding. He creates a wonderfully intriguing and surprisingly complex character which belies his seeming simplicity.

Documentary

Lessons of Darkness

The next logical step in the progression from narrative film to documentary would be Lessons of Darkness. What is amazing about this film, in part, is the cinematography with long tacking helicopter shots of oil fires and the destruction which Kuwait was left in following the Gulf War. However, starting with a quote from the Book of Revelation, a common theme in Herzog’s docs, Lessons of Darkness is much more an allegorical statement about the destructiveness of war in general than a commentary on the Gulf War itself. In fact, it is never identified as Kuwait in the narration of the film and no soldier discussed is ever identified as American. Herzog rendering the chaos more anonymous makes it then much more profound. For about an hour we travel across the countryside amidst oil lakes, fires and smoke and watch as the destruction remains, increases and regenerates.  There is little if any narration at all in this film because the images and the title cards say it all, as does the title of the film itself. This is a land that has been demolished and left in squalor and a cloud of smoke and it needn’t be identified because it could be anywhere next, due to these factors Lessons of Darkness toes the line between documentary and narrative film and it is also the rare documentary that increases the scope of the subject it is covering rather than decreasing it.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly

The progression should continue with this step because it also concerns war but in a much more concrete and traditionally documentarian fashion. This film tells the tale of Dieter Dengler, who grew up in Germany after World War II. The theme of a country decimated (in more ways than one) by war returns. As a child he has a dream to fly but has no means to do so in his homeland. He decides to immigrate to the US and become a citizen and join the Air Force. He goes off to Vietnam where he ends up a POW.

At this point in the tale is where Herzog’s talents really come into play. He does use some stills but he decides to re-enact certain events in Vietnam with Dengler, many years later, and with local volunteers making the experience much more immediate to all involved, the audience, Dengler and the Vietnamese. Certain parts of the jungle are crucial to his escape are also revisited with several incredible tales such as the retrieval of his wedding ring, loss of his comrade, spotting of a bear and being alone facing death.



Grizzly Man

Anyone who ever heard of Timothy Treadwell during his lifetime and dismissed him as crazy should watch this film. Here Herzog tells the tale of a man many simply called ‘The Grizzly Man’ due to the fact that he’d sojourn to Kodiak Island, Alaska every summer to live amongst the Grizzly Bears and ultimately met his demise there. Every decision a person makes especially one of this magnitude, involving this much risk, is made for a reason. In this tale the reasons unravel themselves. An intimate and complex portrait of a gentle tortured soul is painted beautifully by masterful filmmaker.

The range of emotions you feel watching this film run the gamut and they hit you hard and in succession. You’ll be astounded by the purity of his intent, think him crazy for something he did, feel nostalgic sadness hearing his parents speak, laugh because of something he said, be on the verge of tears feeling his friends loss and be remorseful that things didn’t go differently.

Grizzly Man is a complete cinematic experience in every sense and the fact that the film is a documentary is irrelevant. The structure and pacing of events gives you chills at times.

Grizzly Man just might be the best documentary I’ve seen in my limited experience, (barring my having seen Encounters at the End of the World because the idea of meeting those who work in Antarctica has always fascinated me) in part because of some things a documentary professor would dislike. Herzog remains the eminent auteur putting his stamp and occasionally his opinion in the film, which is technically verboten but I didn’t mind – it’s human, it’s being an artist. It was a film as seemingly simple but utterly complex as the man himself and to paraphrase Herzog as any man’s human struggle. Treadwell’s footage couldn’t have found better, more caring hands.

So now that you have a road map showing you how to go from Narrative to documentary by the great Herzog you can find all of these films on Netflix.

61 Days of Halloween- Village of the Damned (1960)

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Village of the Damned (1960)

The original Village of the Damned is an exercise in dealing with a lot of story with quick, precise strokes and keeping the pace moving. If one were to contrast it to its remake, what this film does it keeps a lot of the mystery about why these children are gifted and terrifying for as long as possible.

It examines aspects of mob mentality but addresses its central issue mostly with a few characters only. Its implications are far-reaching but it never gets bogged down or spreads itself too thin. Similar incidents elsewhere are alluded to in dialogue but not touched upon and the moralistic struggle, is rendered with the same tautness as the horrific concluding struggle is.

This film also excels in using the mind, mind-control and telepathy as its fear factors. The possibilities that it allows story-tellers are nearly endless and it set the stage for many other tales of the like to follow suit. The clandestine nature of the killings: the odd circumstances combined with the unproveable assumption of the children being responsible, are what give the film a lot of its drive.

The compromised nature and moralistic quagmire that the protagonist finds himself is aided not only by the fact that he is the man who knows the case of these mysterious simultaneous births, and supernaturally gifted children so well, but one of them is his own child.

George Sanders plays the lead and is perfectly sympathetic in this scenario. We see him as a man, husband, scientist and patriot; be challenged. He’s a man of reason, which allows for the situation and its ramifications to be debated intelligently and for his uncovering of the fact, those he does get to hit home harder and to make his battle that much more engaging.

The Village of the Damned does a lot with not much in terms of effects, techniques and outlandish production value. Its biggest boon is the successful and fully wrought implementation of its ideas in a brisk, efficient manner.

The Spirit of Little League

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ESPN’s series of documentaries 30 for 30 tackled the 30 biggest stories in sports since ESPN’s launch in 1979, and many acclaimed filmmakers took the helm. The ESPN Films brand have since spun off to further sports docs. While I have not been able to catch all of them I have seen many and the series of films has been even more fascinating and riveting than many anticipated (Note: many of these films now stream on Netflix).

Little Big Men,the tale of the Kirkland, Washington team that captured the 1982 Little League World Series title, originally aired, interestingly enough, after this 2011 tournament’s completion; which made sense since most of the film dealt with their lives after the championship was claimed, and how the sociopolitical climate was ripe for these kids to be put on a pedestal, which made them heroes and symbols to be looked up to, and then taken down.

As is typically the case, there are mixed emotions in this film. All the players loved the experience and were still glad to have won in spite of the unforeseeable hoopla that followed them.

They also drove home the point that they played, trained and strove for the title because they wanted it and no one forced it upon them, which in this day and age is a legitimate concern.
The Little League World Series is a great event, having been there several times, it seems that all the players take it as a great experience regardless of outcome. However, the sentiments of the Washington players do bear repeating as the notion of enjoyment of the game being paramount is one that needs to be cultivated and should not be taken for granted. Just as players and parents need to learn and practice sportsmanship, so are constant reminders needed about the joys of baseball.

Here are a list of some films that vary in their quality, but all remind us why the game is great and will bide the time between now and next year’s Little League World Series:

The Perfect Game

The true story of the 1957 Monterrey team that won it all.

The Bad News Bears Go to Japan

Both versions of the tale need acknowledging, so I figured I’d highlight the end of the trilogy.

The Bad News Bears (2005)

It’s one of those remakes that make you scratch your head…until you see it. My apologies again, Billy Bob.



Amazing Grace and Chuck

It’s only about baseball, and sports in a roundabout way, it’s really about nuclear disarmament and a movement; but it starts and ends on the diamond with one Little Leaguer and is one of the best examples of the power of sport.

Mickey

This is a film that was delayed and limited in many ways. Little League even assisted in the production, but I believe it began filming in an age when age fraud was largely fiction. Then the Almonte scandal broke. The film means well but is really a bad and misguided cautionary tale that does bad mentioning.

Small Ball: A Little League Story

This is a PBS documentary about a team from Aptos, CA that made the 2002 World Series that is a very balanced look at the process.

Review- Prom

Aimee Teegarden and Thomas McDonell in Prom (Disney)

This isn’t a review that’s easy to write and I’ll tell you why straight off the bat. It’s due to the duality of my feelings about the film in question. As I plotted it in my head it seemed appropriate that it be somewhat similar to the Win Win review, in as much as it would focus heavily on performance. The reason for that in this film is that I’m sad to say I didn’t walk away from this film liking it but in watching it and re-watching it I really did love the cast that was assembled for it and what they did with the material with which they were asked to work.

To get the negative out of the way first a lot of my dissatisfaction in the film can be attributed mainly to narrative and script. It’s a difficult task to juggle multiple storylines, especially in a romantic comedy. You’ll find varying degrees of success in this kind of film because it’s hard to balance the stories, tell enough of them, keep them fresh and make them equally compelling. A lot of the strands while they are engaging enough are all too easily predictable.

The film also struggles with believability as it does have a tendency to transpose Nova’s (Aimee Teegarden) pie-in-the-sky feelings about the prom to a few characters. In the beginning it’s contained just to her but it spreads. Aside from the strands being predictable none of them are really stories we haven’t seen: there’s the Triangle, the Jilted Girlfriend, The Presumably Imaginary Girlfriend, The College Split-Up, The Honor Student and the Bad Boy and so on. Again no inherently bad templates but there’s not enough of a twist to freshen these up and of course all these tales each have their own arc and thus we have to wait as each starts a little awkwardly and ends nicely in due course. The only truly refreshing end of any strand was Corey’s. Corey (Cameron Monaghan) being the friend who feels left behind when his friend Lucas (Nolan Sotillo) falls for Simone (Danielle Campbell).

In spite of all of this the cast does wonders with the material. The main thrust of the film is, of course, The Nova and Jesse (Thomas McDonnell) tale. It starts as love-hate as they are forced to work together to rebuild the ruined prom decorations. There is real chemistry in this pairing. Months ago I had read that McDonnell’s performance had created some pre-release buzz in the industry and it’s easy to see why. There’s a potential star in the making there. Teegarden overcomes some very clunky and awkward dialogue at times to deliver a very good performance that is a step above what she showed on Friday Night Lights and the flip-side of her Scream 4 turn.

The Triangle of the film is actually two, which is not an easy trick to pull off so the film does deserve credit for that. Tyler (DeVaughn Nixon) is dating Jordan (Kylie Bunbury) but he’s cheating on her and wants to be with Simone. Simone also gains the interest of Lucas and Lucas likes her. It’s this dynamic where you’ll find some of the better dramatic moments of the story. Nixon, while getting his comeuppance, does give a good portrayal of the guy who will never really get it and is just out for himself. Bunbury of the four probably has the least amount of screen time but she always exudes a nobody’s fool air and she’s waiting to catch Tyler in flagrante to unleash her claws. Danielle Campbell shines as she is consistently torn throughout the film once you see the crack in her facade she is a confused character pained by the situation she’s been placed in.

Nolan Sotillo and his frequent scene partner Cameron Monaghan frequently steal the show in this film. Their chemistry is great and they work really well off one another. They also bring some of the most genuine comedy to the film and genuine emotion in general. It’s that very word that popped into my head as Lucas was fighting for Simone’s affections and was getting swatted away, he and she are quite genuine in their emotion in those scenes. Furthermore, Sotillo adds a song to the soundtrack of the film which is fantastic, it’s just a shame that it’s buried as the second song in the end credits it really could’ve been a boon to the climactic moments of the film.

The next major pairing is that of Mae (Yin Chang) and Justin (Jared Kusnitz). It was in watching these scenes that I really realized the arduous task these actors were given, few if any of them deal with scenes that allowed their to be a rhythmic ebb and flow to their performance, they were either dealing in just one note or they were constantly at high tension. Yin Chang is constantly at high tension it’s just a matter of how much she shows it that changes and her performance is very good. It’s a shame, however, that the talents of these two are utilized in one of the least compelling narrative strands.

The loners of note are: Rolo (Joe Adler) who offers a necessary and perfectly offbeat dose of comic relief and Lloyd (Nicholas Braun) who is the nice guy desperately trying to find just one girl who can or wants to go out with him. As if that wasn’t enough story Lloyd also has a constant companion, his stepsister played wonderfully by Raini Rodriguez.

In the adults of this tale a few more issues are brought to the fore. Yes, of course, there has to be an obstacle to Nova and Jesse going to the prom but the machinations by which her awkwardly played father (Dean Norris) goes through to prevent it are hard to swallow. Not neglecting to mention that somehow this high school is big enough such that people can go there for four years and not speak to one another but Nova’s dad instantly knows who Jesse Richter is at the mention of his name.

Ultimately, I’d say if you want to see a group of young actors you’re likely going to want to see again in something else go out and see this film. If you’re all about narrative and don’t care about the acting, sadly I can’t recommend it and as much as I do like this cast and what they did with what they were given, sadly I can’t give this film a passing grade.

5/10

Review- Rio

Rio (20th Century Fox)

For any viewer, regardless of your experience, academic acumen or whatever other qualifications you may have, there will invariably be occasions where a film plays into a sensitive area for you where it’ll either excel with flying colors or fail miserably, perhaps to a greater degree than it would otherwise, due to your personal experience. In the case of Rio it was targeted on my radar early on for two reasons: first, and the lesser of the two reasons, for my love of birds and conversely my loathing of smuggling but it hit home more because it’s set in Brazil, a nation of which I am a dual citizen.

Having been one who grew up cinematically with only Carmen Miranda and the anti-Lambada propaganda film The Forbidden Dance as major reference of American interpretations of Brazil onscreen my apprehension is understandable. Not that there’s anything wrong with Carmen Miranda but any icon can be turned into a stereotype in the wrong hands.

Suffice it to say that most of my concerns are addressed by the fact that one of the film’s writers and its director is a Brazilian, Carlos Saldanha. Yet, you also do not get a Disney-fied Saludos Amigos or Three Cabelleros rendition of Latin America, you have in the narrative of this film a setting which actually plays a role, which is rare but also one that is presented without frills and bereft of commentary. You see the glitz and glamor of Rio, the natural beauty, the beach life, the skyline at night, carnaval but also the favelas and in a minor way, crime. It’s a subtle but accurate portrait that doesn’t impose itself above the story. It shows the good and the bad. So with that personal concern overcome I can begin to address the rest of the film.

When dealing with animation set overseas there are invariably headaches of logic. There’s always the minor bugaboo of when do you float a word in said foreign language that English speakers will readily recognize? How many Brazilians and/or actors of Hispanic descent do you include in the cast? Now, there’s only one Brazilian in the principal cast, however, considering that many Brazilian actors have recently been cast as either Hispanic or “Vaguely Foreign” characters (such as Rodrigo Santoro himself in Love Actually) it all comes out in the wash.

In fact, quite a lot the voice talent does quite well either toeing that line or just being convincing that it makes you forget. Jesse Eiesenberg conveys the stressed, caged bird in the wild well and also has the unexpected task of struggling/learning to embrace his newfound culture. Anne Hathaway, perhaps more than any other name actor in the cast, vanishes behind the veneer of her character. Thankfully she is given license to sing and the few seconds of Portuguese she’s asked to speak sounds good.

The rest of the voice cast does rather well as a whole also. One of the most distinctive and hardest voices to overcome is George Lopez’s but his shtick with his wife is funny enough such that you eventually forget. While Tracy Morgan always sounds like himself it works in tandem with his character so well that it doesn’t matter. Will i. am provides the most consistent comic relief and perhaps the most overlooked voice work belongs to Jake T. Austin, perhaps best known for his work on Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place, he convincingly comes across as not only a Brazilian kid but also one who’s younger than he is.

The story of this film resolves itself quite neatly. It gets just the right amount of complication what with the smuggling plots getting aided with a scene-stealing performance by a Cockatoo (Jemaine Clement, who thankfully is also allowed to sing). Events head for the collision course you hope they’ll have and while there are dueling love plots and a heist everything thing has its proper priority within the infrastructure of the narrative. There’s more going on here than meets the eye with many of the villains not willing to do their own dirty work, such that you can see how it may be described as a mess but it truly does all work towards one end.

And that end is truly one of the more graceful and visual I’ve seen in some time. You realize the film is all but over and there are at least three questions/open ends you’re wondering about that are addressed in a few shots and wordlessly, without any lengthy denouement. It’s a thing of beauty of behold.

Moreover, it’s a musical that’s actually musical, meaning there are a few musical numbers where characters breakout and sing but not once does it seem random and forced. The score is tremendous and very present and when it’s not there it’s replaced by source music, which is usually a new take on a Brazilian standard. It’s another example of the synergy of location. The score is indigenous without feeling forced or trite. Even incorporating Samba beats the score and source music still underscores the action tonally.

I typically leave the 3D commentary for near the end when I do see something in 3D. I did see it as such and my general feeling is that right now animation, specifically animation by the biggest studios (Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks, Fox/Blue Sky) is usually your best bet for getting the most bang for your buck 3D-wise.

The animated feature film has become more of a box office and aesthetic presence than it ever was. It has truly grown in leaps and bounds over the history of cinema as something that was virtually a one-studio specialty to a medium that has become, at long last, a bona fide Oscar category. Having said that the category has been virtually monopolized. It’ll be very hard to justify that this year with Rio entering the fray I think.

As I may have said before, I now treat sitting through the end credits like a standing ovation. Considering the fact that I was so apprehensive about seeing it in the first place, I truly did not expect to watch this film all the way to its literal conclusion. Rio is a tremendously effervescent film that actually manages to capture some of the spirit of the city in a very honest way.

10/10

Review- Soul Surfer

AnnaSophia Robb in Soul Surfer (Tristar Pictures)

Soul Surfer is an interesting film that may not yet have found its audience yet for a number of reasons but if I were a betting man, and there were bets on such things, I might be inclined to back this film as one that would find an audience through video over the years to come. It’s kind of a weird property looking at it from afar: a surfing film, which is also a biopic with a religious element to it being released in April. It’s essentially a summer film that didn’t want get buried amidst blockbusters and is trying to make some waves (yes, I can be punny, sue me) in a rather tranquil time.

None of the above is meant to sound like an indictment of the film. The fact of the matter is I truly enjoyed how multi-faceted I found the film to be. When you try and tackle too much in a film it can turn into a mess but when you can connect on disparate elements and tie them together then you’ve got something really good on your hands.

Looking at it from each perspective let’s see how the film works: firstly, there’s the surfing element under the larger umbrella of sports film. As has been said frequently, the best sports films aren’t really about the game, thus, they can hit home with the largest possible audience. However, it must be said that this movie is a sneaky good sports film. Due to the different things the film is trying to accomplish there isn’t a tremendous amount of time dedicated to the varying facets of a sports film but they get it spot on with the most important one: this film communicates in spades the love of the game and it’s mostly through cinematography, sound editing and a really well-written opening voice over, which stands head-and-shoulders above the voice over opening from the Best Picture nominee The Blind Side.

There’s also a sports rivalry, which as a subplot can either add depth or become an encumbrance on the narrative, it does the former and never gets in the way too much. As does the very chaste and timid love interest, just a little more humanity without over-complicating things. The ultimate example of its excelling in its sport movie mold is that it emphasizes, in the end, the joy of competing over that of victory better than most.

The personal journey works as well to fit the biopic mold. The stasis is well-established and then shattered and a new reality must be dealt with. There is also a very brief and practically perfect amount of time spent in the woe-is-me phase of her story. You also get a refreshingly good self-improvement montage and wonderful, if foreseeable, epiphany.

With regards to the religious aspect of the film it’s there, it’s a motivating factor in her recovery, it’s something Bethany questions and leans on. The film handles this very well not only in keeping it and making it a more true biography but adding some depth to the character and avoiding getting overly preachy and pedantic. Some films it seems can’t deal with any type of spirituality in it without it becoming a spiritual film. It’s an element that folds in very well.

If there’s anything that can be said against the narrative it’s just that there is a certain amount of evenness to it. The three facets while working well together allow you to stay on a rather even keel until the final competition. Yet it’s still a fun film to watch regardless of your investment level.

There is also some very impressive CG work done with the missing limb, it’s the best kind of CG work because it’s functional and doesn’t become the film. The sequence of the accident is also rather stunning and one of a few very well-handled and dramatically-rendered sequences in the film.

Much of the cast in this film does very well and the performances run rather deep down the line. You get three very strong performances just out of the family. AnnaSophia Robb has been mostly unseen since Race to Witch Mountain and before that Bridge to Terabithia but she shows here a rather seamless and graceful transformation to an adult role, and a leading one at that. It’s also wonderful to see Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid not just working but doing great and in a quality project. They each have their own moments to shine here. Ross Thomas and Chris Brochu play the usually jovial, supportive brothers but do have their dramatic moments. Kevin Sorbo also plays a refreshingly low-key and sympathetic character here and Jeremy Sumpter has a small part but plays one big scene wherein he shows flashes of greatness and how he is one of the most under-utilized young actors in films today.

Soul Surfer is a very enjoyable film that you should try to see on the big screen before it’s theatrical run ends.

8/10

Review- Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Geerasak Kuhlong in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Strand Releasing)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a film that first really came to my attention as a film that was picked as Cahiers du Cinema, the famous French film magazine which once was home to most of (if not all) the founding members of the French New Wave, as the best film of 2010. This film was named on all ballots. Then upon reading about it I found that it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, also worth noting that the Jury last year was headed by Tim Burton. These two facts are mentioned because the source is worth noting. Both Burton and the French are supporters of the notion that the unusual and lack of easy answers can be preferable to a transparent plot and easy escapism.

As is the case with any film I will endeavor to render, as clearly as possible, my opinion of the film. My best advice to you is to read up on Uncle Boonmee before you decide to seek it out at Art Houses or on home video. Many reviews will discuss the film with words like “opacity” and “paradoxical” but also have very positive things to say about it even without reaching very definitive conclusions.

I will not be too different than those. There is an absolute reverie in Magical Realism that abounds throughout this film. Ghosts and mythological beings weave their way into the tapestry of the story in a wonderfully unobtrusive way. Yet the weaving is something that is not so very apparent. Things are set up early on left aside and then revisited later.

It’s as if Weerasethakul were setting up a math equation, or four, and omitting the sum or at times even the operation. An example, is the Ghost Monkey. It is an image and a concept that is first made known to us with a very frightful closing shot, and moment of genuine horror, of the prologue. This is not fully explicated until the spirit world is introduced in full when a very casual dinner conversation is held with Huay, Boonmee’s dead wife. Similarly the Ghost Monkey also turns out to be a relation, however, those are examples of where the equation is laid out before you and all you have to do is add it up.

There are two more extended sequences in which the answers, if there are any, are much harder to decipher. Not that this necessarily makes the film less enjoyable but it is worth noting. In both cases it is possible to develop one’s own theory as to what the significance of the segment was. There is one case in which you have no time to decode within the film because the film ends immediately following it so you are asked to contemplate after its conclusion.

While these portions are slightly out of step with the narrative, such as it is, they do not run counter to the approach of the film. Even the few easily discernible plot points, in a more traditional sense, are disseminated in an unconventional way. At times they occur before the scene in question and off-screen. This is sort of a distanced approach to the narrative that invites the viewer to examine the surrounding environs of these people’s lives and examine possibilities that are not apparent or necessarily logical.

This narrative choice is also reflected in the visual approach of the film as well as it relies heavily on long takes and wide vistas rather than quick cuts and close-ups. The framing and lighting of these shots is typically meticulous and they are also generally well lit.

Uncle Boonmee is the kind of film that may or may not get better upon a second viewing but it seems to be inviting one too. While it doesn’t reward the viewer with overwhelming amounts of escapism it does provide much food for thought. It is the kind of film that will occupy the viewer’s mind long after its completion. It is one of the matter-of-fact and deftly handled interpretation of the Magical Realist cinema I’ve seen and that alone makes it worth viewing and is one of its redeeming qualities. Having these apparitions occur with characters incapable of dealing with it would’ve been insipid and trying of the audience’s patience.

7/10

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