Tuesday, March 20, 2007

300 Blows So Turn To Some New Release DVD Relief

So, I made it out to see the #1 movie in the US of A earlier tonight. I knew going in that it wasn't really my genre (so keep that in mind - obviously I'm in the minority as the box office indicates) but I gave it a whirl. Now I'll take a stab at a review: 

300 (Dir. Zach Snyder, 2006)

"This isn't going to be over quickly and you will not enjoy it." - Theron (Dominic West) My sentiments exactly. The Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. is told in tortuously tedious terms here. Based on Frank Miller's graphic novel, 300 is relentlessly stylised beyond any level of actual human connection. Much of the time it resembles a vacous video game or a glib expensive TV or historically themed magazine ad with it's artificial gold or silver-hued grainy surface. 

A passionless sex scene early in the film is shot just like a Calvin Klein Obsession commercial. King Leonidas (a mightily melodramatic Gerald Butler) leads the obsessively dedicated but small army of 300 Spartans, who with their red capes and bare chiseled chests march through the hills looking like the scariest Chippendales review ever. In this gallant Kamikaze mission they take on waves of thousands of attacking Persians in stop/start MATRIX-ish methods like frozen in mid-air assault positions and slo-mo floating droplets of blood all done as CGI composition on top of blue-screen backgrounds. None of it feels or looks real, and I know that's precisely the point but I never felt anything for any of the characters and none of the countless deaths - many by spear - pierced through my bored indifference. With none of the soul of the best action war epics 300 dies just as dreary a death as the heroes it depicts. 

Now some more new Release DVD reviews. 

 TIDELAND (Dir. Terry Gilliam, 2006) Only film fans who haven't been paying attention would be unaware of Terry Gilliam's near complete ostracisation from the world of commercial film. 

The ex-Monty Python member is notorious for ferociously fighting major studio heads, plentiful production problems, and wildly going over budget leaving numerous projects stalled in development hell and making him ineligible to direct movies he would be perfect for - like one or two of the HARRY POTTER movies for example. 

If one were to put on the DVD for TIDELAND having not read anything about it (and with little to no promotion that's very possible) they may be surprised to see Gilliam at the beginning of the film giving a disclaimer/introduction. In a shadowy grainy black and white headshot that's almost as scary an image as anything in TIDELAND Gilliam states : "Many of you are not going to like this film. Many of you luckily are going to love it. And then there are many of you who won't know what to think when the film finishes but hopefully you will be thinking." 

Gilliam goes on to explain that the film is seen through the eyes of an innocent child and that while viewing it one should forget what they know as a cynical adult. Easier said than done but once TIDELAND gets going it casts a long lasting spell as potent as one's most fantastical child-hood day dream (or nightmare). The child in question in this adaptation of Mitch Cullin's 2000 novel is Jeliza-Rose (10 year old Jodelle Ferland) who has a SHINING-like habit of talking to her index finger alternately wearing 5 different doll-heads who each have bitchy personalities and voices of their own only heard by her. 

When her junkie mother Queen Gunhilda (a typically crazy Jennifer Tilly) dies early on from a heroin overdose, Jeliza -Rose's father Noah (Jeff Bridges doing what appears to be a Kris Kristofferson impression to ward off comparisons with "The Dude") buses them out to the middle of nowhere (actually Saskatchewan) to hide out in his long deceased Mother's abandoned farmhouse. Then things start to get weird. Before long Jeliza-Rose meets her neighbors - the one-eyed witchy Dell (Janet McTeer) and the epileptic Dickens (Brendan Fletcher) who excitedely plots destruction by way of dynamite derailing a passing passenger train that he thinks is a monster shark. 

Noah also dies of an overdose, from a fix prepared by his dutiful daughter no less and Dell performs taxidermy on his corpse so it can still join them at a place at the dinner table come mealtimes - "he looks like a burrito" Jeliza-Rose exclaims. It's all seen in tilted camera angles and wide panoramic shots that enhance the orange wheat field landscape. 

The stark reality that originally grounds the film continually threatens to escape into Jeliza-Rose's Alice In Wonderland-influenced dementia. The scenes between Fletcher and Ferland come close to having inappropriate sexual overtones but remembering Gilliam's warning and sensing the true tone should eliminate any uncomfortable tension.

TIDELAND appears to be the worst reviewed movie Gilliam has ever made. 
It has a 26% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.com (the site that tailies up the major critic's ratings) and the words "ugly", "pointless", "murky" and especially "unwatchable" come up in just about every review. Well I'm going against the tide here - this is a moving and darkly beautiful masterpiece. Ferland wonderfully carries the movie with even her doll’s head’s (and one squirrel) voices playing the right heartbreaking notes and every scene is perversely perfect in it’s construction. So as Giliam predicted I am luckily among the few who loved it. 

HALF NELSON (Dir. Ryan Fleck, 2006) 

A young African American female student named Drey (Shareeka Epps) at an inner-city high school walks in on her white 20-something-year old teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) smoking crack in the girl's locker room. They form an unlikely friendship and get worrisome windows into each other's troubled lives. 

Epps is growing up too fast in a world of dealers and street crime while Gosling (Oscar nominated though everyone knew he wouldn't win) is in a state of stunted growth muddling his conviction for teaching Civil rights history and coaching the girl's soccer team. More tension arrives in the form of Anthony Mackie as the impeccably smooth Frank - a pusher and family friend of Drey's that Dunne warns Drey to stay away from. A stilted confrontation between the 2 men occurs but the level of conflict is low and surprisingly speech-free. 

Purposely gritty and well acted HALF NELSON works as an exercise in realism with no sappy wrap-ups or enforced morals. Well acted with a sober intensity throughout makes one feel that they've spent an hour and 40-something minutes with some real people and that's very rare these days. 

(Dir. Richard Linklater, 2006)

It would be easy to label this a brother or sister film to THANK YOU FOR SMOKING as a dramatized indictment of big corrupt corporations and their consequences on everyday people but FAST FOOD NATION contains none of that film's semi-successful sense of satire, cynicism or exaggerated allegory.

Taking Eric Schlosser's best selling muckraking non-fiction book and throwing out all but the title and it's central issues, Linklater gives us several tangled narratives - unfortunately none compelling enough to really have impact. In one thread that is dropped half-way through a Mickey's (a fictional McDonald's type chain) exec. 

Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) investigates claims that manure may be in the beef. In another, Mexican immigrants (Wilmer Valderrama, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ana Claudia Talancn) work at an incredibly unsavory meat proccessing plant and have their lives compromised at every turn. 

Then there's also Amber (Ashley Johnson) - a teenage employee of a Mickey's that is developing activist ideals while her co-workers plot a possible robbery of their own establishment. Not to forget the pointed cameo by Bruce Willis or the pointless cameo by Linklater regular Ethan Hawke.

The strong cast (including Kris Kristofferson, Luis Guzman, Patricia Arquette, and Avril Lavigne!) and Linklater's mastery of dialogue driven scenes is what this movie has got going for it but the overall unpleasantness and lack of new insight into this material makes it unappetizing in a different way than it set out to be. 

Seeing the factory killing floor in action in any context is disturbing and eye-opening, here though it doesn't have the intended effect of enhancing all the loose threads. FAST FOOD NATION has its civil conscience in the right place, sad that it's cinematic heart isn't.

Correction : In a post earlier this year I listed INDIANA JONES 4 as a movie to look forward to in 2007. It's reported release date is actually May 22nd, 2008. Also I was told by a loyal film babble reader that the last time Harrison Ford portrayed Indiana Jones was not in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989) but here.

More later...

Saturday, March 10, 2007

STRANGER THAN FICTION & Charlie Kaufman's Curse

“Dramatic irony - it’ll fuck you every time.” 

Now out on DVD:

(Dir. Marc Forster, 2006)

When bland by-the-book IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) hears a disconnected voice narrating the mundane moments of his daily routine then foretelling his death, naturally a modern movie-goer would expect a full-out Ferrell freak-out. 

Well, despite some yelling at the Heavens what we get is a questioning rational note-taking far-from-frantic Ferrell. The voice he hears belongs to Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) a frazzled chain-smoking acclaimed author suffering writer’s block on how to kill off her latest main character that she is unaware actually exists. As a prisoner of an enforced narrative Ferrell enlists Literary professor Dr. Jules Hibbert’s (Dustin Hoffman) help. Hibbert breaks it down to purely a question of whether Crick is a character in a comedy or tragedy. 

At its core it’s a wake up and realize that you’re alive movie with Crick coming out of his self-created shell to declare his love for abrasive tattooed bakery shop owner Maggie Gyllenhall, shake off his dull routines, and even take up the guitar while trying to get to the heart of his daunting dilemma. 

Three years after David O. Russell’s I HEART HUCKABEES (that also featured Hoffman) was billed as an “existential comedy,” and accused of ripping off the work of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (see below), STRANGER THAN FICTION pushes the existential envelope and the Kaufmanesque approach a little further. 

It’s not a case of “life imitating art” or vice versa – it’s more like life challenging art to a duel but eventually agreeing to a stalemate. The look of the film is fitting - white-washed bare backgrounds of Ferrell’s sterile hotel room-looking apartment and his fluorescent lit workplace with cubicles and filing cabinets reaching back to infinity are contrasted with the clutter of Gyllenhall’s punk bakery and Hoffman’s wood-grain ragged book-filled university office. 

Spoon songs fill the soundtrack with the welcome exception of Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World,” which Ferrell woos Gyllenhall with as the first song he learns on the guitar. 

The supporting cast is spot-on as well – Queen Latifah as Thompson’s assistant, Tony Hale (Arrested Development - TV-series 2003-2006), Linda Hunt, and an almost unrecognizable Tom Hulce (AMADEUS, ANIMAL HOUSE, PARENTHOOD) as Ferrell’s chubby bearded touchy-feely office counselor. STRANGER THAN FICTION is a fine film but one that never really gets airborne. 

It’s highly likable even as it lumbers in a state of subdued surrealism but maybe, just maybe it should have freaked out a bit.

KAUFMAN’S CURSE: Nearly every review of STRANGER THAN FICTION calls attention to the influence of writer, producer, and soon to be director Charlie Kaufman who apparently is widely acknowledged as modern cinema’s reigning meta-movie master for his films BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
One particular phrase really stands out : “Charlie Kaufman Lite” – Richard Corliss (TIME Magazine) 

“Zach Helm's Kaufman Lite script...” - Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) “A cutesy, Charlie Kaufman-lite exercise in magic unrealism.” - Peter Canavese (GROUCHO Reviews) 

“Charlie Kaufman-lite but enjoyable nevertheless” – Bina007 Movie Reviews Also in the same vein : “a charming though problematic meta-movie in Charlie Kaufman mode” – Scott Tobias (Onion AV Club) 

“Zach Helm's screenplay has flagrant Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation") overtones rocketing out of it that are impossible to ignore.” – Brian Ordoff (FilmJerk.com) 

“Owes a considerable debt to the dual-reality-plane excursions of Charlie Kaufman” - Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune)

“Finally, a Charlie Kaufman movie for people who are too stupid to understand Charlie Kaufman movies.” - Sean Burns (Philadelphia Weekly) Congratulations Charlie Kaufman! You are now officially critical short-hand.

More later...


Now out on DVD:

WELCOME TO DURHAM (Dir. Teddy Jacobs, 2006) 

This film isn’t listed on the IMDB (hence the lack of linkage here) and apparently Netflix doesn’t have many copies because after weeks of it being in my queue they informed me that it wasn’t available at their local shipping center and had to be sent from Worcester, MA. Funny since it’s a local interest documentary. Despite reading negative reviews I was anxious to watch this film because I lived in Durham albeit briefly.

A very cheap production with harsh hissy sound and clumsy cuts, WELCOME TO DURHAM unfortunately dissolves from a history and social political lesson into hip-hop propaganda. Hard to understand interviews (a drinking game could be made out of all the times “y’know what I’m sayin’” is said) with gang members that show off their gun shot wounds as proudly as their tattoos dominate the overlong poorly structured narrative making for little balance.

Only one white person is interviewed, and he’s a cop. One segment segues from recording studio footage to interviews with senior residents at the Imperial Barber Shop in the Hayti district with voice over narration by Christopher "Play" Martin (from rap duo Kid N Play) guiding us - “while the young cats in the hood are pushing ghetto music, the older cats in the hood are wondering what went wrong.”

What’s wrong in this production is that the music from the preceding scene continues and the rap backing track detracts from the old timer’s facts and that’s just whacked! Sorry, all the free style in the film made me bust out that lame rhyme. An earnest effort is within and obviously Jacobs cares passionately about his subject but the implied premise that hip-hop can save Durham from itself is hardly convincing. Y’know what I’m sayin’?

More later...

Monday, March 05, 2007

ZODIAC: A New Film Babble Blog Favorite

“No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” - Roger Ebert 

I fully agree with Mr. Ebert. Many are grumbling about the length and density of the movie in question below but you won't find any grumbling here:

ZODIAC (Dir. David Fincher, 2007) 

A murderer clothed in darkness exterminating make-out parking or picnicking young couples, police and press continuously taunted by letters and cards sent by a serial killer at large, and an obsession with solving a perplexing nightmare of a mystery that derails the lives and careers of investigators and reporters and alienates the ones closest to them, these are all thriller genre elements that have arguably been done to death before, sure. 

But David Fincher’s sixth film ZODIAC, beautifully builds upon those frameworks with excruciating attention to detail and a sense of personal purpose that can be felt long after the film is over. The film is based upon the infamous string of Northern Californian murders in the late '60s and early '70s by a man who identified himself as Zodiac and who was never caught.

Our protagonist and guide through this is Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhall) a ex-Eagle Scout turned San Fransisco Chronicle editorial cartoonist who while not assigned to the story immerses himself in the chilling codes and cryptic pronouncements that his paper and the authorities receive from the Zodiac. 

The Inspectors on the case David Toshi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) follow every possible lead, dissect every single angle, and interview every single suspect but still come up severely short on the crucial conclusive evidence needed. As time goes on with a long silence by the Zodiac – the trail grows cold leaving our heroes spiritually stumped and forever floored by the lack of closure. 

With few of the stylistic flashy touches of Fincher’s previous work (SE7EN, THE GAME, FIGHT CLUB, PANIC ROOM) ZODIAC is a meticulously mesmerizing masterpiece. Despite it’s over 2 and half hour running time not a scene is wasted and it’s admirable that '70s period piece cliches aren’t exploited, they're convincingly inhabited. 

Couldn’t be any better cast as joining the principles are Robert Downey Jr, Brian Cox, ChloĆ« Sevigny, Phillip Baker Hall, Dermot Mulroney, and John Carroll Lynch, all playing the right notes with even incidental characters given sharp memorable turns by reliable bit-players (Donal Logue, Charles Fleisher, Ione Skye *, John Ennis, Adam Goldberg). 

Eerily effective and extremely absorbing with its “histories of ages past” and “unenlightened shadows cast” as Donovan's * "Hurdy Gurdy Man" (the song that book-ends the film) playfully but darkly suggests, ZODIAC deserves the oft quoted critic line this season never lives without: it’s truly the first great movie of the year. 

* Donovan has both a song and a daughter in this film. Good for him.

More later...