Friday, October 31, 2008

Das Leben Der Anderen (The Lives of Others) (2006)

I can't believe I put off watching this for so long. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Oscar-winning first (!) film gives insight into the voyeuristic world of the DDR's Secret Police, or Stasi. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a quiet and loyal member of the secret police is highly suspicious of East Germany's most lauded playwright, Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Koch). Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme), seeing this as an opportunity to get rid of Dreymann so he can move in on his girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), approves the motion to bug their apartment. Wiesler now spends his days in the attic of Dreymann's apartment building, listening in on his parties, conversations, arguments, and romantic moments. He uncovers no traitorous actions or discussions, but develops personal interest in Dreymann and Christa-Maria's doings. Hempf, impatient for Dreymann to be taken in, forces Christa-Maria to have an affair with him. Wiesler is disheartened at the realization that his monitoring is for the sake of a corrupt official's lustful desires. After a friend of his commits suicide, Dreymann is motivated to take action against the DDR's censorship and blacklisting in the form of a derisive poetic essay published in West Germany. Wiesler must choose between exposing or protecting the man who has opened his mind to art, music, and freedom of thought. Pressure on all three key players increases and escalates into a hearbreaking but appropriate conclusion.

I really loved this movie. Everything was just done so well, so subtly and beautifully. Character development was gradual but explosive. The use of music was spot-on. I am so impressed with the direction and writing, especially considering it is Henckel von Donnersmarck's first feature-length. I also really appreciated Mühe's characterization of Wiesler. He brought a lot of personal experience into the role, having lived in East Germany as a theater actor under surveillance, later to find out his wife was listed as an informant. My main complaint would be that it was a bit long, and could have been edited a bit, especially parts at the beginning. But really, just see this movie. It's that simple.


Also I've decided to add a 5-star-based rating to film discussions. Is this an ok thing to do?


Thursday, October 30, 2008

City of Ember (2008)

Call me a tool, but I guess I'll always be a sucker for post-apocalyptic children's tales with uncanny color schemes. Despite lackluster reviews, City of Ember looked like the kind of movie I'd get into and would definitely dig for its visuals. It takes place in the underground city of Ember, the "only light in the dark world" after unknown events caused the earth above ground to become uninhabitable. It was the original plan of the architects to have its citizens emerge after 200 years, but time has caused this knowledge and the exit strategy to be lost (parts of it were reminiscent of WALL-E). Now those centuries have elapsed and the city's massive generator is failing, causing increasingly frequent blackouts. Teenage Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) believes he can fix it, and tries to infiltrate the building where its contained through his new job working the pipes. Meanwhile his friend Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan), a descendent of one of the city's mayors, has just been arbitrarily assigned her adult job (sort of in The Giver style) as messenger and through it gets closer to the corrupt Mayor Cole (Bill Murray), believing he knows the mystery of a box she finds in her house that contains an inscribed glass token and a half-destroyed set of instructions. As the blackouts worsen, Doon and Lina team up to solve the city architects' puzzle so they can lead everyone out of Ember before it is completely submerged in darkness.

Ok so we all know steampunk is awesome. Like, seriously awesome. Not very popular in mainstream films though. But, much to my delight, I realized 20 minutes in that City of Ember was its own kind of steampunk... electricpunk, I'd call it! This stylization increased my enjoyment of the film immensely. Everything had a wonderful sense of clutter and decay. The costumes, the gadgets, the lighting, the architecture- it was all stunning, especially for a "family" film. Speaking of family films, I was really impressed with the overall dark tone of this movie and with many of the issues it dealt with. Lina was an orphan, and eventually left alone with her little sister. She and Doon were fighting against something people of every age in the city feared: darkness. They had little help from adults, finding many of them to be cowardly or in denial. It hearkened back to fairy tales of abandoned, self-sustaining kids like Hansel and Gretel or The Little Match Girl, or Roald Dahl's cynical anti-grownup books. I think many of today's TV shows and movies geared toward children and tweens are prone to coddling. Shit happens, and people have to deal with it despite their youth. Not that everything for kids should be depressing, I'm just glad a film can talk about some of these issues realistically while still providing entertainment and a happy ending. (Oh yea, spoiler alert, it's a kids' movie and there is a happey ending.) Overall I thought City of Ember had some interesting ideas, which were executed fairly well by Monster House director Gil Kenan, but its visual imagery and dark tone are what kept me engaged. Also Bill Murray was great.



Sunday, October 26, 2008

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

SMILES!: That is the main theme of and response to this movie. However, don't be deceived by the complete bounciness of the trailer; at its heart Happy-Go-Lucky is aware of the myriad problems everyone faces, it's just trying to bring some joy and hope to its cynical viewers despite how awful everything is. The movie focuses on Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a thirtysomething grade school teacher living with her best friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) in London. Her boundless optimism, baudy sense of humor, and love of fun rule her decisions as we follow her over a period of a several weeks through driving lessons with a prejudiced instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan), a student with anger issues in her class, back problems, a first date, and lots of small adventures with her friends and family. Despite the unpleasantness that can surround her or those around her, Poppy is convinced that things will work out in one way or another. However, despite smiling through her sister's condemnation of her unmarried life, the confused ramblings of a homeless man she meets, and a terrifying outburst from Scott, Poppy knows her joie de vivre is not contagious. Many of the problems she or those around her face are not solved or even bettered. She acknowledges this, and insists on maintaining her cheery outlook regardless.

Poppy is adorable and, while she would probably be really annoying as an actual person, as a character she shines. She is overly talkative and at times inappropriate but almost always to endearingly comedic effect. The dialogue of the film is quick and bantery, light-hearted without being empty. I loved the interactions between Poppy and Zoe: their ten-year friendship was often highlighted in their cuddly, affectionate, and mocking exchanges. These are two women who understand each other completely, happy to be with one another while half-heartedly pining for men to enter their lives.
Happy-Go-Lucky is optimistic without being completely unrealistic, meaning it is able to avoid being overly sappy. I really enjoyed watching it, plus everything was so colorful! There are a few uncomfortable moments, serving as reminders of the world outside Poppy's happiness bubble, but her good spirits keep the audience up throughout the film. A word of warning though: watch out for Eric's teeth. He is sort of hard to watch sometimes.


I've never seen any of Mike Leigh's other movies but I guess now I should, though I realize they lean more toward drama than comedy. Vera Drake is supposed to be good right? What about Secrets & Lies? Topsy-Turvy? Recommendations, please.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Ben X (2007)

One of the many advantages of knowing people who work in the media center at my school's library, is that awesome, fairly obscure films are uncovered and I get to see them! For free! And probably I never would have known about them otherwise! Anyway last week it was time for Ben X. This is Nic Balthazar's directing and writing debut, and according to the three sentences on his Wikipedia page, "in Flanders he is well known as a movie critic and television presenter". I'm certainly glad he chose to move behind the camera, because this film is wonderful. It follows Belgian high schooler Ben (Greg Timmermans) with Asperger's Syndrome as he deals with insensitive schoolmates as well as various inner conflicts arising from an inability to understand social interactions. His mother (Marijke Pinoy) is loving and supportive, but cannot relate to her son (nor he to her). His father left years ago, leaving her to care for Ben and his little brother. Ben spends most of his time at home playing a World of Warcraft-like game, finding comfort in the strength, anonymity, and non-physical relationships it gives him. He often views his regular life in terms of the video game, seeing bullies as brutish ogres, and himself as an armored warrior. He's fallen for his "healer" gaming partner, settling into conversations with her easily due to the lack of actual presence. She wants to meet with him in person, but attacks by his classmates coupled with his own retiscence to interact with anyone may hinder their meeting.

The sequencing of the film goes back and forth between Ben's self-narrated day-to-day life, parallels to the game, flashbacks describing the onset and discovery of his autism, and documentary-like interviews with his mother, schoolmates, and teachers. There is a well-paced build-up to the surprising but satisfying ending. The cinematography is interesting, with many hand-held shots and fuzzy or ultra-bright visuals to heighten Ben's feelings of alienation. It wasn't overdone or over-experimental, and I found it especially impressive for a debut feature. Greg Timmermans, while clearly older than a high school student, was really good in the role of Ben, conveying his confusion and aloofness without a lot of dialogue. The story is simple but very interesting and affecting. Personally I also really dug hearing them speak Flemish, a language I don't think I'd ever heard aloud. It's a lot like German, so I felt like I was on the brink of understanding it without actually understanding anything. Anyway, Ben X is a creative, engrossing film! Watch it!

Also: Balthazar is supposedly doing an American remake, Haneke-style, but there's no recent news. I have mixed feelings.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

An exciting day: I got to see an early screening of Synecdoche, New York AND see Charlie Kaufman! He was adorable and well-spoken, though seemed a little shy. Most of the people in the audience were sort of dumb but I couldn't think of any questions to ask so I guess I can't complain. Ok so before the synopsis, let's define some terms.

synecdoche. [si-nek-duh-kee], noun.
a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part, the special for the general or the general for the special, as in ten sail for ten ships or a Croesus for a rich man.

Schenectady. [skuh-nek-tuh-dee], noun.
a city in East New York, on the Mohawk River. 67, 972.

You see? It's like an extremely literate play on words! Awesome. Ok so explaining this movie is a bit outside my jurisdiction, but I'll do my best to supply a basic outline. The story follows Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) through decades of his adult life: various medical conditions, love affairs, disappointments, and one large-scale theater project. He starts off as a successful local director and is awarded a genius grant, but is plagued by the departure of his wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter for Berlin, for the former's miniature painting exhibition. While pining for them, specifically his daughter, he sees several other women but usually gets too caught up in himself to be a good companion. He endeavors to build a replica of New York City inside a spacious warehouse, which serves as the setting for his play, focusing on love and loss and everything life is about. The cast is the size of a town, rehearsing myriad simultaneous scenes prompted by little notes Caden gives them each day. Eventually the play and his life become more and more confused and linked, with his stalker Sammy (Tom Noonan) playing Caden, and other real-life connections constantly developing. Everything becomes more intricate and more involved; soon all that's left is the play, and ultimately nothing is left but Caden.

Synecdoche, New York is at once funny, heart-wrenching, and incredibly surreal. Nothing completely makes sense, but nothing needs to. Because so much time passes, it feels very long and drags a little, but remains interesting and affecting throughout. The dialogue is a bit theater-like, suitable for the subject matter. Despite the absurdity of the world Caden inhabits, his connections and troubles still feel very real. He's a jerk but he's sympathetic, and he's admirably dedicated to his craft. The cast is wonderful and largely female, including Emily Watson, Michelle Williams, Dianne Wiest, and Samantha Morton. Hope Davis is absolutely hilarious as Caden's psychiatrist. Even though I really enjoyed this movie and was definitely impacted by it, I think I need to see it a few more times to really appreciate it. It comes out in New York and Los Angeles on October 24, but I'm not sure when it's expanding, so keep an eye out for it!

Charlie Kaufman introducing the film at TIFF.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Imagine Me & You (2005)

Hey you! Check out the YAM Magazine LGBT Blogathon for a huge collection of great articles on LGBT film.

I always forget how much I love this movie until I am watching it. Imagine Me & You starts with the wedding of beautiful and smiley Rachel (Piper Perabo) to affable best-friend-turned-boyfriend Heck (Matthew Goode). Florist Luce (Lena Hedey), who has never met either, is there to check on all the arrangements, and there is a half second when her eyes meet Rachel's as she walks down the aisle. From then on, Rachel grapples with confusion over her marriage and her possible attraction to someone else. The women quickly become friends, as the newlyweds try to set Luce up with their playboy friend Cooper (Darren Boyd). However they soon find out Luce is a lesbian, and, while this doesn't stop Coop from trying to get her in bed, it does shake Rachel into realizing she may be falling for her. But, she can't bear to leave a good person like Heck and Luce is very against breaking up anyone's marriage. They go back and forth between acting on their feelings and acting on reason; it is fairly gut-wrenching for the viewer but don't worry, some things work out!

One of the things I dig about this movie is its general ignorance of gender in its discussion of love. Yes, Rachel has lived her life as a heterosexual but has suddenly found herself inextricably attached to a another woman. Her mother (Celia Imrie) harps on the same-sex thing but most of the other characters don't. For all intents and purposes it would be the same if she was attracted to another man.
Writer-Director Ol Parker actually intended it to be about a heterosexual affair to begin with, showing the adaptability of the theme to different genders. I think this is a refreshing take on love as well as gay relationships in movies- the driving force of the story doesn't have to be the fact that they are gay, but can instead be their feelings for each other and their effects on people around them. It's very realistic, with relatable characters and the ups and downs of their lives. It's a beautiful love story no matter what, with a wonderful, likeable cast. I especially enjoy Anthony Head's comic turn as Rachel's mumbling, apparently clueless father. Added bonuses: England! And you learn a bit about flowers and their meanings! Also, you might cry if you are affected by true romance!


Rachel Getting Married (2008)

I'll start off with saying how usually I am very against Anne Hathaway in any context. She's got that annoying nasally voice and weird lips and I haven't found her particularly talented in general. But I'd heard good things about this movie and what else am I going to do on a Friday afternoon?

From director Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia, The Silence of the Lambs, Stop Making Sense) and first-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet, Rachel Getting Married turned out to be pretty interesting and well-done overall. Shot in low-quality hand-held camera for a home video effect, it follows Kym (Anne Hathaway) during her leave of absence from rehab so she can be in her sister Rachel's (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding. We follow Kym as she enters the large, stately house of her childhood, fraught with pre-wedding bustle and musicians, moving through different rooms that each seem to contain special weight in her memory. Like a play, most of the plot is reliant on dialogue to expose and develop character backgrounds. Kym's interactions with her overprotective and doting father (Bill Irwin), her compassionate but fed-up sister, and her flighty mother (Debra Winger) all gradually dredge up tensions and grudges built up over the years, threatening to destabilize the entire family, not to mention the wedding. Rachel's ten-year in-and-out of rehab past is often touched upon, but not expanded. It is more about the relationships between the family members. The development of Kym herself is not so much about her drug addiction, but about her incredible guilt for something she did years ago, and how she craves attention from anyone to help take her mind off of it.

Well-paced and well-acted, this movie held my interest and presented characters I cared about and wanted to hear more from. The intimate atmosphere helped forge a personal connection between audience and screen. By not really focusing on drug addiction itself, but more on how a drug addict can affect the lives of those around him or her, it did something new (at least for me) with the concept. The multi-cultural wedding party also led to some fun musical scenes and cute moments. I liked Anne Hathaway in it, surprisingly, though I didn't feel she was Oscar-worthy or anything. It's a good role and she did a good job with it, but other people could have done just as well. And seeing the Bride Wars trailer last week didn't really make me rethink her in terms of a burgeoning dramatic actress. All that aside though, if you enjoy compelling, nuanced drama, Rachel Getting Married is for you!


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Appaloosa (2008)

So pretend you're Ed Harris: you are a pretty well-known and well-respected Oscar-nominated actor, who wants to try directing a second time (after 2000's Pollock) and writing for the first. Naturally, you will also star. You have the ability to make a successful movie, but decide to relegate your story to an unpopular, outdated genre so that despite its awesomeness, it probably won't be seen by too many people. This is fine in an "art for art's sake" kind of way, and I doubt the main people in this movie were interested in increasing their personal wealth, it's just too bad.

In Appaloosa, Ed Harris plays self-designated defender of the law Virgil Cole who, with his partner Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), rides into the town of Appaloosa with the intent of freeing it from the clutches of clever, amoral rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). He appoints himself marshal and lays down new laws for the sake of peace, killing some of Bragg's men in the process. His goal is to prove Bragg murdered the town's previous marshal and ultimately get him convicted. Tension runs high in the small, fairly isolated town, with both sides of the law simmering quietly. Meanwhile newcomer Allison French (Renee Zellweger), a jovial young widow, catches Cole's eye, but their budding relationship becomes rocky due to Cole's reserved and prudish nature, Ally's desperate need for attention, and the ever-present shadow of Bragg. Eventually the romantic and justice plots are fused, resulting in a long tug of war between Bragg and Cole. Both sides' ethics are questioned, and even Cole and Everett's steadfast friendship is strained.

Appaloosa is really good, but it has its ups and downs. There are some great, classic characters, from seemingly infallible Cole to solid, well-spoken Everett to fiendish Bragg to flaky, flirty Ally. They're archetypes, but they're done so well and given chances to develop. I was sort of confused and upset with Ally's character- Where did she come from? Why was she so needy to the point of being easy? Not much about her was explained, and she really just acted as a catalyst for the climactic event. But as basically the only woman in a very male-centered movie, I didn't really expect her character to be the focus. Also I felt the way Harris chose to tell the story was a little off. It was hard to tell how much time had passed for most of the film, and certain events were cut short and given no closure so that he could make it to the final scene. I understand not prioritizing every little thing, but it seemed he could have left some parts out, or just generally paced the movie better. Since it's his first screenplay, I won't harp on it, as overall it was an impressive writing debut. The film is very engaging and enjoyable, with striking visuals that include a beautiful hushed color palette and finely detailed costumes. Plus, it's all about friendship! And the tagline is "Feelings Get You Killed". Awesome.

I found something out about myself when watching this movie: I really like modern Westerns. It was a bit of a revelation, since aside from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, I hadn't really seen any westerns that kept my interest (although I guess I can't really have an informed opinion since I've never seen any of Sergio Leone's). But, I've really been digging more recent ones like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and 3:10 to Yuma and even 1999's The Jack Bull. I'm excited to start delving into this genre, starting with The Proposition and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Any other ideas?


Monday, October 13, 2008

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008)

Don't you love those movies that take place all in one crazy night, with characters finding love and friendship and music and hilarity along the way? Me too! Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is a pretty good example of exactly that kind of movie. Heartbroken Nick (Michael Cera), still pining after his air-headed ex Tris (Alexis Dziena), is convinced by his queercore band mates to leave the house and play a gig in New York opening for Bishop Allen. Snarky Norah goes to school with Tris, and knows Nick only through the mix CD's Tris throws away. Her favourite band, Where's Fluffy?, known for ultra-secret late-night shows in the city, is rumored to be playing that night so she and her best friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) plan to spend the night in New York looking for it. The two girls end up at Nick's show, where Caroline gets extremely drunk and Norah, in an attempt to keep her cool in front of condescending Tris, makes out with pretend-boyfriend Nick. After a mish mosh of interactions, Nick's matchmaking bandmates Thom (Aaron Yoo) and Dev (Rafi Gavron) and nameless friend (Jonathan B Wright from Spring Awakening) hoist Caroline into their van to take her home while Nick and Norah hop into his tiny yellow car to search for Where's Fluffy? (also Nick's favourite band). Nick's obsession with Tris frustrates Norah, while meeting her sort-of-boyfriend Tal (Jay Baruchel) is offputting for Nick. Thom and Dev lose Caroline, who wanders drunkenly around the city for most of the evening, while Tris stalks Nick. The pair switches cars and objectives as they hunt for Caroline while still keeping an eye out for Where's Fluffy? clues. All this and more is happening with pretty cool tunes playing in the background (I felt pretty hip for recognizing most of the songs), and at the end everything wraps up like it should. Great job everyone!

I just had a really good time watching this. The story was interesting, not too complicated, and held the promise of satisfaction at the end- of course Nick and Norah will eventually realize they're perfect for each other, the question is how much semi-sarcastic banter must first be exchanged? The cast is wonderful: Ari Graynor plays a hilarious drunk, Michael Cera is as always an adorable wit, Kat Dennings is very likeable and intelligent, and the bandmates were just great. I like that they talked so much about music- it didn't seem to be in a pretentious, "look how hipster my movie is" way, but more in a realistic, this-is-how-these-kids-would-actually-talk way. The movie didn't do anything very special but it did a good job updating the falling-in-love-in-one-night story for a young 2008 audience. I haven't read the book it's based on, but regardless of how true it is to the source material it's still a really fun, laid back movie.

"Middle Management"- Bishop Allen
"Lover"- Devendra Banhart (it's their "song" if you know what I mean; also he has a cameo)


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Slap Shot (1977)

Well, I guess it's time to catch up on all those Paul Newman movies I still haven't seen. Slap Shot is one that my dad and little brother talk about all the time, quoting it to me and aghast when I remind them I haven't seen it. So I finally saw it. And it was good, but I'm not about to reach their obsessive quoting status.

Slap Shot chronicles the descent of an unskilled, on-the-brink-of-termination minor league hockey team, the Charlestown Chiefs, into complete barbarity in order to secure enough interest and wins to be sold for profit to a different owner. The coach and oldest player, Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman), does his best to encourage violent games, incorporating the Hanson Brothers, newcomers with brutal methods, into the lineup. He also hunts down the elusive owner of the team, beseeching her to sell the them instead of completely disbanding them. The movie follows them through many games, but focuses more on the the players off the ice, especially Dunlop's fragile relationship with his ex-wife and growing attraction to/sympathy for teammate Ned Braden's (Michael Ontkean) wife Lily (Lindsay Crouse). Braden himself has a lot of problems with the way Dunlop has been playing the game, while simultaneously trying to smooth things over with Lily. Everything sort of works out, in true dramedy fashion.

This is a pretty good movie, but I guess I thought it would be more of a straight comedy. It was funny but not uproarious, and parts of it were a bit sad or hopeless. If I had gone into it with different expectations I might have liked it better. Or it might be one of those movies that grows on you after repeated viewings. Also I'm not that into sports. Anyway Paul Newman's there so there's really not much more to know about it! And it's kind of cool that it's mostly based on
(or inspired by) a true story. The writer, Nancy Dowd, had a brother on a team called the Johnstown Jets who played the game pretty rough. The Hanson brothers are based on the real Carlson Brothers and are played by two of the Carlson brothers themselves plus one other guy from the real team (the third brother couldn't make it). Most of the other characters are based on real people too.

I was surprised and excited when I saw the movie was written by a woman. Because it's so male character-centered and has the kind of humor that caters to my dad and brother, and a sports movie from the 70s, I guess I just wouldn't have expected it. Pretty cool though. She's penned or helped pen several other movies from the 70s and 80s (sometimes under male pseudonym Rob/Ernest Morton), written for a season of SNL, and won a screenwriting Oscar for Coming Home. What a cool lady! I can't find what she's up to now, if anything. Anyone have any information on Nancy Dowd? Or movies to recommend? I just added Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains to my Netflix queue, and I've already seen Ordinary People.

Here is a short article she wrote about Slap Shot and its origins.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Im Juli (2000)

As I am learning the German language and will be studying there next semester, it follows that I am a pretty big fan of German culture, particularly its movies! There are a lot of great ones out there, old and new, but none that I've seen are straight-up comedies. Im Juli, a comedic road trip through Eastern Europe, broke that mold for me. Most of the film is a frame story in which hitchhiker Daniel (Moritz Bleibtreu) tells driver-with-dead-body-in-his-trunk Isa (Mehmet Kurtulus) about how he came to be abandoned in Bulgaria. Daniel is a fairly conservative high school Physics teacher, ready to spend the spring holiday week alone at his house in Hamburg. Adventurous Juli (Christiane Paul) has the hots for him and in a scheme to get his attention she ends up sending him into the arms of another woman, Melek (Idil Üner), who is leaving for Istanbul to meet someone under the bridge on Friday at noon. Propelled by his instant fascination with her, Daniel decides to drive to Istanbul and declare his love, accompanied by hitchhiking Juli (who coincidentally is also going to Istanbul, well whaddaya know). As they get to know each other, they feel both frustration and attraction. They go through many changes of vehicle, lots of lost funds, a couple of problematic border crossings, and get separated more than once. And of course, they meet a lot of ca-razy people! In the end, everything comes full-circle as Daniel, Juli, Isa, and Melek all cross paths and everyone decides to continue their wandering ways together! With Love and Friendship!

Because of his Turkish heritage, director Fatih Akin often incorporates German-Turk relation issues into his films. I like the multi-national aspect of Im Juli, with locations in Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey (they went through Romania as well but weren't allowed to film there so it's shown as a series of photographs). I also like how the movie can acknowledge its own silliness: while getting high for the first time, Daniel literally floats; in an attempt to apply science to a car stunt, he fails miserably. And of course, Akin's passion for music shines throughout. Melek serenades beach campers with a Turkish ballad, Daniel and Juli croon "Blue Moon", and there are a couple cool club scenes. It's got pretty much everything you need for a good road movie, with pretty landscapes, near-death experiences, comedic side characters, lack of proper hygiene, and a focus on the development of a relationship. If you're looking for a German movie that doesn't relate to WWII, the DDR, or general unsolvable Problems, then you are in the right cinematic location!


"Suicide Swing"- J*Let (best song in the movie, from a great club scene where Daniel is hallucinating)


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

Oh, boy. Here's a movie that just has everything going for it! Remember all those funny guys from The State? Well, most of them are here! As well as a bunch of other funny people! Plus there's lots of making out, precocious children, montages, short shorts, and hijinks! And it was written by David Wain (who also directed) and Michael Showalter! Did I mention that icon for cute glasses-wearers everywhere, Janeane Garofalo? She's totally in this movie too.

It's 1981, it's the last day of camp, and there is a lot going on with a large number of wacky characters, from hormonal teenage camp counselors to romantically challenged adult leaders to the whiny campers themselves. Alright so Coop (Michael Showalter) is totally digging fellow counselor Katie (Marguerite Moreau), but she's dating asshole/stud Andy (Paul Rudd), who is lusting after Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks). Victor (Ken Marino) and Neil (Joe Lo Truglio) have to take a bunch of campers for an overnight river rafting trip, but Victor can't miss the opportunity to finally have sex with Abby (Marisa Ryan). Camp Director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) is crushing on camp neighbor Professor Henry Newman (David Hyde Pierce) but their mutual insecurities lead to problems. Counselor Gail (Molly Shannon) gains relationship advice and confidence from her arts and crafts campers. JJ (Zak Orth) and Gary (AD Miles) are worried their buddy McKinley (Michael Ian Black) isn't getting enough sex, while cafeteria worker Gene (Christopher Meloni) is dealing with fetish denial and a talking soup can (Jon Benjamin). While all of this and more is happening, there's the big talent show that night, and everyone's getting ready for it! Mostly, drama instructors Susie (Amy Poehler) and Ben (Bradley Cooper) have to deal with a group of talentless morons. Finally, maybe a falling meteor will destroy the camp?

The stories all intertwine and everything works out for better or worse, depending whose side you're on. A lot of ridiculous things happen and it is all fairly silly, in the best of ways. It could have felt like a bunch of sketches linked loosely together, but I think it all fits pretty well contextually. The large amount of characters can be a bit confusing but they're all so distinctive that you don't feel lost in any of their individual stories. Plus I love the whole movie-taking-place-in-one-day thing. Obviously, this is a must for any fan of The State or Stella or The Ten, but also it's for anyone who likes enjoyable, exciting, often-nonsensical comedy. Perfect for summer, but funny in any season!

Highlight: Training Montage (and lots of dancing) with Michael Showalter, AD Miles, and Christopher Meloni.

Highlight: Joe Lo Truglio and Janeane Garofalo really need to find the f***ing phone!


Choke (2008)

So there's this writer with an interestingly-spelt last name, Chuck Pahlaniuk. Maybe you've heard of him? No? Fight Club? Hello? Well anyway he also wrote a book called Choke, which is funny and enjoyable and in true attention-deficit, non-linear Pahlaniuk style. Not as good Survivor or Invisible Monsters but I guess someone out there thought it warranted a movie. That someone was mostly right.

First time director and second-time screenwriter (after What Lies Beneath) Clark Gregg, who also co-stars in the movie (his acting resume is quite large; I recognized him as the SHIELD guy in Iron Man) as Lord High Charlie, a colonial theme park employee, does an impressive job of taking the choppiness of the source material and making a fairly cohesive film. Choke is the story of sex addict Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) and various experiences/routines he goes through while struggling with his amnesiac, domineering mother (Angelica Houston). He goes to sex addict anonymous meetings to get picked up. He goes to restaurants so he can make himself choke and get saved by rich people who will get hero complexes and feel responsible for Victor for years to come (usually in the form of sending him periodic checks). He works in a colonial re-enactment town, where he mostly imagines visitors and co-workers naked (and often sleeps with them while on the job) and hangs out with best friend and recovering chronic masturbator Denny (Brad William Henke). He visits his mother in a mental ward, filled mostly with older women who have memory problems and assign Victor as the object of their frustrations (whether it's an older brother or former lover, etc). But every time he visits she usually thinks he's someone else and so wallows in the belief that he never actually visits. Her condition worsens, so Victor and new doctor Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald, you know, Carla Jean in No Country For Old Men, and Evangeline in Nanny McPhee) work on a sexy experimental procedure that will maybe save her. Scenes from Victor's highly idosyncratic childhood are shown throughout the movie, giving more depth to the character. Also, maybe he's the half-clone of Jesus. Oops, was that a spoiler?

I thought it was pretty darn enjoyable, and a surprisingly on-target adaptation. Sam Rockwell was perfectly cast, and he really drives the whole film. There probably could have been more sex in this story of a sex addict, but I guess ratings were a concern? Also I noticed (or at least, it is my opinion) that they made Victor's character more sympathetic. I haven't read the book in a few years, but I remember thinking he was very funny but pretty unlikeable. Here I found his character (or maybe it was just Rockwell's performance) much more touching, especially with the reminders of the shitshow that was his childhood. They focused more on the Paige-Victor relationship, which was ok and a very movie-ish thing to do. However, I felt that Kelly Macdonald was just awful as Paige. She was completely out of place, didn't seem to know what to do with the role, and ended up falling flat with every line she uttered. It's tolerable since she's not the star of the film, but she's in it enough to affect my opinion as a whole. Also there's this metaphorical thing Denny does that they touch upon in the film but is more meaningfully expanded in the book, and it's too bad it didn't get its due. I'd say Choke is good, not great, but still a lot of fun. Kind of like the book itself. If you want your fix of back-and-forth, sex-fixated, manly comedy/drama/mystery/seediness, then stop on by.


Saturday, October 4, 2008

Ukiyo Double Feature: Yojimbo (1961) and Sprited Away (2001)

For my "Ukiyo" class we had another film assignment: after watching both Yojimbo and Spirited Away, pick one that is conclusively "floating world" in its concept and themes, and participate in a group debate in class in which we defend our choice and shoot down the other film as not indicative of the time period we're studying. Before I even sat down to watch Yojimbo I knew I'd pick Spirited Away- it's got the hedonism, escapism, lush visuals, and fleeting aspects that defined "floating world" culture. The debates went well but my professor claims they were both draws. Hah.

Yojimbo tells the tale of a wandering ronin (Toshiro Mifune), aka a samurai who no longer has a lord, who finds himself in the middle of a small-town gang war. Disgusted by the feuding gangs' immorality and pettiness, he sets a plan to manipulate them into destroying themselves, thus freeing the townspeople from their reign. It's a good plan, but some problems happen, mostly in the form of Unosuke, an asshole gang member with a penchant for gunslinging. But then, some solutions happen in the form of sword fighting and fire-setting. It's a western for mid-nineteenth century Japan, and it's all pretty great. There are several comedic characters as well as a few scary/sadistic ones. The samurai himself is cool and gruff, with no reservations about hacking someone's arm off as long as it's someone he knows isn't very nice. He doesn't need the pleasures of a courtesan or the bribe of a corrupt silk-maker, all he needs is Justice. In case this is sounding familiar, Yojimbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, one of three Kurosawa movies to be turned into spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone (maybe that's common knowledge and I'm just being overly informative, but I didn't know about this before so... whatever).

Having never seen either a Kurosawa film or any of Sergio Leone's westerns, I had very few preconceptions about Yojimbo. I don't think I could have ever seen it coming, anyway! Everything about it was so... cool. The crisp black and white contrasts, the traditional-meets-hep jazz music, the mash-up outfits and punk-chōnin hairstyles: everything combines to create a wonderful, seemingly anachronistic mood. The face-offs between the gangs were awesome and bloody; why can't all westerns have swords instead of guns? Much more attention-grabbing. My main criticism is that there are way too many characters, and I had a hard time following who was on which side and who did what thing, etc. Could just have been me, though. Maybe if I watch it again I'll be able to follow it better. Otherwise, it's a really fun movie with a great protagonist, cool style, and pretty accurate depictions of small-town life and people in Japan on the eve of the Meiji Era (when it fully opened itself to the West). Unfortunately, the soundtrack is mad expensive.

Well, Spirited Away, what can I say that hasn't already been said? (Probably not much.) In this modern fairy tale, young Chihiro finds herself torn from her parents and thrown into a world of spirits, demons, witches, dragons, and lots of other things I wish we had in real life. Almost the entire narrative takes place in a large bath house where nature spirits come to rest and replenish. It's run by the large and squat witch Yubaba, who begrudgingly gives Chihiro a job helping with the baths. Haku, a young sorcerer's-apprentice-type, befriends her and helps her in her quest to save her parents (who've been turned into pigs) and return home. She meets a bunch of interesting and fantastical creatures, helping everybody out with her incorruptibility and stalwartness, and (spoiler alert) is eventually able to go home with her parents, safe and sound. Also, she falls in love.

It's beautiful and heart-warming, with some life-lessons thrown in. In just a few days, Chihiro grows from a whiny, scaredy-cat brat into a confident, enabled heroine. The stunning visuals and imaginative characters surround her transformation with fun and adventure. Miyazaki is a guy who can consistently make a good movie that's interesting to both kids and adults, plus he's given anime films some credibility in Western culture. This movie is great, no doubt about it, but I think Howl's Moving Castle is my favourite Miyazaki film (probably because it's more of a love story). I'm not sure what made Spirited Away his big thing in America, but I suspect it has something to do with our girl-caught-in-a-strange-land-just-trying-get-home fixation (eg The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland).


Thursday, October 2, 2008

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)

Well, I do so enjoy a movie that looks back to the fashionable- and which-boy-will-she-pick- and what-tune-will-she-sing- stories of a different time. Laden with high fashion (though I wasn't a fan of this hat), 30's slang, friendship, and Lee Pace, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day has a lot of things going for it. It tells the story of Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand), a newly homeless, unemployed governess who sneaks her way into the position of up-and-coming American stage actress Delysia Lafosse's (Amy Adams) social secretary. Immediately, she is swept up into Delysia's whirlwind triple love life: she is dating a young theater producer (Tom Payne) in hopes of scoring a lead role and a successful night club owner (Mark Strong) who funds her lifestyle, while simultaneously she strings along pianist Michael (Lee Pace), the man she loves. Guinevere feels very out of place and out of step in this fast-paced world of secrets and debauchery (the daughter of a minister, she had had a rather sheltered childhood), but her forthrightness, pragmatism, and quick-thinking become of indespensible use to the flighty actress. All in one day she is able to help Delysia sort out her career and romantic problems, give a lingerie designer (Ciaran Hinds) a new perspective on life, plus get a stylish makeover. A strong bond between Guinevere and Delysia is established early on, and the story is sort of told through the focus of female comraderie

Overall it is well-paced and well-acted, but unfortunately it wasn't as well-developed as it could have been. I go by what a friend said to me when he watched it: It should have been a musical. I felt things moved a bit too fast at parts, and certain characters could have been expanded upon. In musical format the story could have been adjusted and broadened to give more information on people's backgrounds, and everything would have just generally been better! More costumes, jazzy dance numbers, showing off Amy Adams' talents (she only sang briefly at the end). It could have been like Miss Pettigrew Is Caught In A Rich Person's Musical, with the high society folk she meets singing around her about how wonderful and hedonistic life can be, while she is thrown into a chair and looks around in fear and confusion, unsure why these people are singing at her. Yeah. Man what a good idea I just had.

Anyway it was very enjoyable, though nothing particularly special. I've never read the book so I don't know how it compares, but I've seen some comments online that the movie had a lot more war-related stuff (there's an air raid drill), and a generally darker mood than the very light-hearted novel. Also the whole "Let's have American actors star in a movie about British people" was a little weird, but most of the supporting cast was from the UK. Either way, good times for any fan of love stories, classic comedies, happy endings, and 30's fashion.