My first midnight movie of this year’s festival and it almost worked out. The film feels like a fairly cheap ripoff of Rosemary’s Baby, except it isn’t a cinematic masterpiece and it completely goofs the ending. The first two-thirds of the movie are actually a pretty decent, albeit slow, atmospheric thriller. There is a pretty good mix of actual threat and creepy strange things that seems to be building towards something. And then it just seems like the director gives up in the last 20 minutes and it turns into a lame slasher-esque film. There was a clear moment where the film just stops being creepy and the audience just stopped caring. I was wavering between giving it a 3 or a 4 until the end, but the crap ending earned it a 2. Sad to see the potential go to waste.
Archive for April, 2009
French slice of life film, floating somewhere in the nebulous space between comedy and drama. Thankfully, unlike a lot of other French films in this genre, it is not mind-numbingly boring. But it isn’t particularly interesting. A middle-aged woman who works as a cleaning lady decides she wants to learn how to play chess as a way of feeling like the glamorous people staying in the hotel she works at. So she gets one of her clients (a grumpy recluse played by Kevin Kline) to teach her how to play. And then stuff happens. There is actually a story arc and a plot, which is always an iffy proposition when watching French movies. Gets a three out of five.
Documentary about child hip-hop phenom Priscilla Star and her father’s attempts to turn her into a star. It is a good documentary. The director got incredible access, spending over four years following the family and filming them in pretty much every situation, the good and the bad. While part of it focuses on the musical side of the family, a lot of it centers around the difficulties faced by a single father trying to raise two young girls. Obviously, though, it is the musical side where the film really comes to life, as you watch P-Star move from a nine year old performing at Harlem hip-hop clubs, to a child Latin music star, and then finally into a star on the PBS show The Electric Company. Her attitude and presence, the same things that made her a star on the stage, drive the film forward. This isn’t a bad time for the documentary to be coming out. P-Star is gearing up to release her latest record and the film is probably doing some nice front line publicity work. But it will hopefully also serve as something of a cautionary tale. As the film careens between the highs (the platinum latin album) and the lows (the record label folds and her father has to go back to work as a caterer to pay bills, since he didn’t manage to save any money) the overriding message seems to be, just cause things are going right, doesn’t mean they’re always going to. Don’t worry about the past, but make sure you can take care of the future. Four out of five for film, but P-Star gets a five out of five. She dropped a nice 16 on the audience after the film—stylewise sounded a bit like Macromantic—good stuff. Hopefully her new album is all that.
Shallow comedy/morality play movie set here in New York. The main character is a big-shot at a Wall Street trading desk with a lovely girlfriend, but who may or may not be still carrying things on with an ex. Into this mix is thrown the new guy at the office (the titular good guy), a Jane Austin reading computer geek fresh out of the Air Force. Love, betrayal, and anal sex jokes abound. The movie paints it characters with broad swathes of stereotypes and none of them ever rise above the trite and predictable. Ostensibly that is probably the point of the movie—these people are just living the stereotypes even as they think they’re better than they are. But it is hard to appreciate the rather heavy-handed nature of this film after seeing so many more deft comedies earlier in the week. Look, this isn’t a bad film. It is nicely diverting in a somewhat bland way and wasn’t a bad palette cleanser after the emotional impact of Departures. It just doesn’t stack-up so well to its competition. Three out of five for being average and nothing more.
As I was walking out of the film, I heard a woman say to her companion, “I wish I could take back the fives I gave to the other movies.” I understood her sentiment perfectly. I’ve seen some fantastic films this week and I fully expect to see quite a few more. But there are some films which transcend the medium to become something more. That doesn’t make other films, like City Island, any less enjoyable or well-crafted. And if given the choice, on most days I would probably prefer to watch something more fun and less demanding like a City Island. But Departures is one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
Its brilliance starts with its simplicity. I had an animation teacher in college whose favorite saying was, “Simplicity is beauty. That is, simplicity well done.” Departures is an embodiment of this principle. The story is very simple. A cello player in a Tokyo orchestra is set adrift when his orchestra is dissolved for lack of funds. Doubting his own ability to get a new job, he (and his wife) decide to move back to the town in northern Japan where he grew up. His mother had died and left him a small house there, so all that was left was for him to find a job to support them. The job he accidentally stumbles into is as a practitioner of a mostly unknown art of preparing corpses for burial, a profession that is regarded as strange and unclean by most of society. The rest of the film follows him as he comes to terms with his job, the reactions of his old friends to his new job, and trying to find some sort of closure with the fact his father abandoned him when he was six.
The movie itself is sparse. Only a handful of characters make up the principal cast. There are no visual effects or whiz-bang cinematic gadgetry. The photography is gorgeous, dealing well with the beautiful northern Japan countryside and the bodies of the dead. Departures is not without its humor: even in the most serious of situations, like the death of a loved one, the film shows that there are still small smiles to be had. Death is many things, the film says, but it is not exclusive an ending.
The music, both the original score and the traditional classic pieces, are centered around the cello. It wraps itself around the film, soaring at time, morning at others. Like every other piece of this film, it is crafted to fit seamlessly with the rest. The music, via the cello, comes from the story and then gives back to the story, amplifying and intensifying the emotional connection in viewers.
I cannot say enough good things about this film. Obviously it gets a five. It is worth going to see to the exclusion of anything else that I’ve seen at the festival.
It is actually pretty hard to write a review of this right now, since I was so overwhelmed by Departures and I really want to give Original its due. Quirky, very offbeat Scandinavian comedy about a young man with no focus who loses his job and has to figure out what to do with his life. His goal, he gradually decides, is to move to Spain and open a restaurant. Original wasn’t as funny as I expected it to be, but it was also much deeper than I expected it to be. While the characters are amusing, especially his angry-at-the-world-but-especially-men love interest, they are also far more true than the characters in most comedies. The ability to be both serious and funny is something I love in film and something that mainstream American film is terrible out. When a movie is a comedy, its a comedy. And when it is a drama, it is serious. International film, especially Eastern European and Scandinavian film seem to have mastered the art of the serious comedy. North definitely had this quality. Holiday Makers from 2006 definitely fits in this category. And Original fits right into the same sort of movie. It isn’t a perfect film, but it is a fun film (and, at times, a serious film). Four out of five.
Strong Argentinian Drama. An occasionally meandering, non-linear story about the daughter of a famous judge who falls in love with her family’s young housekeeper. The two young women make plans to run away together to Paraguay until reality intervenes and their lives start drifting out-of-control. The event that catalyzes the film is the death (presumed to be non-natural) of the judge, though the true impetus is revealed as the film unfolds. The layered nature of the story here is presented quite well, though it takes some time at the beginning to get the who’s and when’s firmly situated. The secondary level to the story–these two different women trying to overcome what life has done to them to find trust and love–is absolutely brilliantly done. There is so much said, but so little actually stated. Much credit has to be given to the director of the film, Lucia Puenzo, who not only wrote the screenplay, but also wrote the novel that she adapted the screenplay from. Her characters are fantastic at speaking without words but still saying volumes. Definitely someone to watch in the South American cinema world. Four out of five.
Israeli film about a bunch of fat dudes who get fed up with dieting and feeling bad about being overweight, so they decide to become sumo wrestlers. This is an absolutely delightful and heart-warming comedy. The point of the film, which isn’t anything revolutionary, is that people need to learn to be happy with who they are. Some people are fatter than others, some people are gay, etc., but if you spend your entire life trying to hide from who you are, you’re being dishonest to yourself and to others around you. It was interesting, listening to the directors talk afterwards, to hear how the production really mirrored the film. The star of the film initially refused to do the film because didn’t want to be in a ‘fat’ movie. Then he agreed to do the film, but didn’t want to have scenes with his shirt off. Finally, as production got rolling and the four main sumo guys started working together, he agreed to do his scenes topless. By the end, he wanted to do all his scenes in his mawahsi (the diaper like thing that sumo wrestlers wear). His metamorphosis in real life from uncomfortable to comfortable matches the transformation that all the main characters undergo during the film. Throw in an absolutely charming love story and lots of jokes and you’ve got a great film. I wasn’t expecting much of anything from this film—it was a film I added to the schedule only because I had free time where nothing else fit—but I’m so glad I saw it. Five out of five.
The film tries hard. Emma Caulfield is delightful and retains pretty much all the mannerisms of Anya from Buffy, while Michelle Borth does a pretty good Eliza Dushku as her sister (definitely a scooby-esque theme to the last couple days of my movies). The premise is somewhat laughable, but the film doesn’t spend too much time trying to explain it away. In TiMER land, a person can get a ’scientific’ clock implanted in their wrist that, as soon as their soul mate gets one, starts a countdown until the day the two meet and live happily ever after. Sort of Logan’s Run-esque, but without the shooting and the dying. Okay, so invoke a little suspension of disbelief for the premise and you’re left with a movie that is cute at times, pretty funny all around, and ultimately disappointing in the end. I can’t really get into exactly why the ending is so disappointing without spoilers, but I will say this: the movie makes it best point about 20 minutes from the end and then completely loses it. It gets a three out of five for trying hard, but it could have been much better if it actually found something to be true to in its ending.
I went to film school, so I recognize what a student film looks like. And this film is nothing more than a glorified student film, and not a good one at that. Why Tribeca let this film into the festival, I have no idea. There have be compromising pictures involved or something. Here is some advice, free of charge to aspiring film makers. Shooting your entire film handheld is not edgy. It looks like crap. You want viewers to pay attention to your film, not your inability to keep your subjects in frame. Invest in a tripod. Being unable to maintain focus when you zoom or truck isn’t cool. It just looks like you don’t know what you’re doing. Having atrocious sound quality on the character dialog is just sad. There is no excuse for that in this day and age (and even less excuse when the musical parts of your film demonstrate that you actually know what good sound is).
Your film should have a plot. I recognize that this is a big step for you, but please, if I’m going to devote ninety minutes to your film I’d like some small attempt made at having something interesting to watch. I’d even be willing to forgive a lot of your technical faults if you actually have something intriguing to say. But stretching twenty minutes of plot over 90 minutes? Not going to cut it. There is a single redeeming quality to this movie: the music. The jazz and broadway style production numbers are remarkably good. There is an obvious love of music infused through this entire film and that’s great. That’s what earned the film a two, instead of the one I was sorely tempted to saddle it with. But it isn’t a reason to go see the film. There really isn’t a reason to see this film.