Friday, January 30, 2009

Taking Chance

2009 Sundance Film Festival ★ ★ ★ ★

Immediately after watching Taking Chance I was struck by a singular thought: I do not recall having ever seen a movie with a simpler plot, other than a few experimental or distinctly non-commercial efforts. The story line consists almost entirely of a United States Marine Corps officer, played by Kevin Bacon, escorting the body of a Marine soldier, Chance Phelps, who was killed in action in Iraq. Their journey takes them from the military mortuary in Delaware to his home in Montana, with little more than obligation to duty and simple encounters along the way.

Impressively, director Ross Katz keeps the emotional tone of the film within a narrow range. He shows remarkable discipline in avoiding any deviations of comic relief, flashback action sequences, romance, etc. that might break up the emotional crescendo that slowly builds.

It’s an extraordinary film that has a powerful effect on viewers. Regardless of your political stance on the war, or even the military, it is impossible not to be moved by way the Marines as well as civil Americans honor those that have sacrificed their lives for their country. If you don’t have a military background, it will likely change the way you view ceremony and tradition.

Based on the actual experiences of co-writer Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl, and enlisting the support of expert advisors as well as the cooperation of the military, the careful depictions rings true to life. In fact, much of the beauty of the film is in the detail, the little things that are meticulously and reverently cared for out of respect for the fallen soldier. There is beauty in the tireless repetition of salutes that follow Corporal Chance all the way to his burial. It suggests an unwavering discipline that will forever honor the sacrifice, even as the world moves on.

Some critics might dismiss Taking Chance as a one-dimensional film, but that would be missing the point. The unwavering focus is instead a powerful symbol of the USMC motto: Semper Fidelis—always faithful.

Notes from Sundance
Katz said he wanted to make an apolitical film, although he left little room for debate about where he stands on the war in Iraq. In fact, he said that if someone told him three years ago he would make a movie about the Marines he would have called them crazy. He’d never been in the military and never known anyone that was. However, it was clear that the experience of making the movie affected him, not necessarily politically, but by appreciating the respect, reverence and devotion that honor the sacrifices of these young men.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009


2009 Sundance Film Festival ★ ★
You won’t find traditional romantic comedies at Sundance. But quirky romantic comedies were in this year. And how much quirkier can you get than Adam, where the male lead (Hugh Dancy) has Asperger’s Syndrome (like a mild, high-functional form of autism) and the female lead (Rose Byrne) is a hot and seemingly normal babe? And that’s the movie—Adam is very nice but extremely weird, socially awkward, prone to erratic behavior and a societal misfit, and Beth is everything you’d want in a woman.

(This should provide a ray of hope for all the geeky guys fantasizing about a beautiful, charming and good-hearted woman falling in love with them one day. I can hear it now: “If Beth can fall for Adam, then why not me? After all, he has Asperger’s and all I’ve got is this little hygiene problem, plus my two-room Star Wars collection.”)

The movie opens with the death of Adam’s father. We follow him to work, where he is writing microchip software for toys and fixated on creating interesting functionality while his boss simply wants to cut costs. He stays in the apartment he had shared with his dad, eating the same meals every day, sitting in the same chair, and following his established routines until Rose moves into the building. Adam falls in love, in his obsessive way. Rose is attracted to Adam, but naturally wary. And things proceed from there, as they work out their relationship while enduring painfully awkward physical contacts and even more pain and awkwardness meeting the friends and parents, and ultimately … well, you’ve got to see the film. But for my money, the ending was the best part.

Adam is a cute, mildly entertaining movie, with laughs and smiles despite a less than polished script. Both Dancy and Byrne give fine performances, and Peter Gallagher and Amy Irving are quite good as Beth's parents. Written and directed by Max Mayer, it was picked up at Sundance by Fox Searchlight and will likely be released in 2009

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Sunday, January 25, 2009


2009 Sundance Film Festival ★ ★ ★ ★

I’m not surprised that Push won both the Grand Jury and Audience Award at Sundance this year. Director Lee Daniels (Shadowboxer) has created a very powerful film that manages to entertain while evoking a broad spectrum of emotions, from anger and heartbreaking pity to optimism, joy and hope.

Clareece “Precious” Jones is a fat 16-year-old illiterate black girl that lives in Harlem with her welfare-dependent, abusive mother. She has an autistic daughter who lives with her grandmother and is pregnant with another child, both from her mother’s boyfriend who is also Clareece’s father. Her mother repeatedly tells her how stupid and worthless she is while other kids make fun of her obesity. She has become hardened and heartless, lacking education and social skills. She spends her time cooking for her mother and fantasizing unrealistically about a glamorous life. Based on a novel by Sapphire, this is some pretty bleak stuff.

But good things can happen, and Precious is blessed with an indomitable spirit that refuses to believe what others tell her. Through her efforts, and despite resistance from her mother, she finds an alternative school. It is staffed by a caring teacher and classmates who, although anything but perfect, possess enough compassion to become supportive friends. It turn out that the world can be a pretty good place.

First-time actress Gabby Sidibe is extraordinary as Precious. Equally good are talented actress Mo’Nique, who plays the mother, and Paula Patton as the teacher. Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey also have minor roles, giving the film a little star power.

Daniels conveys a Harlem existence that is profane, hard-edged and brutal, but with rays of humanity and compassion that leave room for hope. It is at once both a message to the poor in spirit not to despair, and to the rest of us make the time and effort to reach out where we can. Push is an inspiring message that will fill you with optimism and joy.



2009 Sundance Film Festival ★ ★ ★

I like a documentary that makes me angry. I appreciate the experience of discovering an injustice that kindles inside me the passionate flames of outrage and the urge to take action. And if you’re a documentary filmmaker looking for an easy mark these days, try Big Oil.

Crude is about a 13-year-old lawsuit by 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorans against Chevron, one of the world’s petroleum giants. The plaintiffs, Indians from the Cofan tribe, claim that for about 30 years Texaco (which was acquired by Chevron) willfully employed irresponsible drilling practices that had a devastating effect on the river, the environment and the health of the native people. There is enough evidence and testimony presented in the movie to convince viewers that this is a massive environmental tragedy that, if not for corporate greed, could easily have been prevented.

(For those with deeper than a cinematic interest, when oil comes from a drilled well it is mixed with water. These must be separated, leaving a highly toxic watery byproduct. Standard practice is to return this residue to the hole from whence it came. In the Ecuadoran jungle, where oversight was nonexistent, it is alleged that Chevron took the easier and cheaper route and simply discharged the sledge into the river water.)

Perhaps the only hero of the conflict is Pablo Fajardo, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. A native Ecuadoran and former manual laborer, Fajardo put himself through school, never dreaming he would be on center stage for the largest environmental lawsuit in history (the current recommendation is $27 billion in damages).

Director Joe Berlinger manages to tell this compelling story while still maintaining balance. This is not simply a story of bad Chevron and good natives. There are plenty of other players that muddy the water, including a slick class action law firm that stands to realize an extraordinary payday, Ecuador President Rafael Correa, rock star Sting and his wife and scientists from both sides. Throw into the mix some unusual legal venues and staged publicity stunts at Chevron shareholder meetings and there are sufficient theatrics to hold your attention.

There are two problems with Crude. The first is that there is little an average guy can do once the movies makes him upset. I sent an email to Chevron ([email protected]). Pretty lame effort, I admit. The other glaring weakness of the film is that there is no conclusion to the story. In fact, the legal conflict may not even be half over. For perspective, even after a judgment was rendered it took 17 years for the Exxon Valdez payments to be made—and at a fraction of the judgment price. This Chevron case, which was first filed in 1993, may take decades to reach its final conclusion. And so the movie simply ends, although with fitting imagery of the Cofan Indians drifting down the river, their future uncertain.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Cove

2009 Sundance Film Festival ★ ★ ★ ★
One of the often overlooked pleasures of Sundance is taking a flyer on an unknown and unpublicized movie and entering with no expectations. That’s how I stumbled into The Cove, a documentary about the dolphin market, which is centered in Japan.

Funded by internet billionaire Jim Clark (Netscape, Web MD) and helmed by veteran National Geographic photographer and first-time movie director Louie Psihoyos, The Cove is a multi-dimensional movie that defies a simple description (which may be its biggest weakness). We learn about the intelligence and beauty of dolphins. We are introduced to Richard O’Barry, the former trainer of Flipper, who is now an eco-activist who is committed to protecting dolphins around the world and returning them to the oceans. We are exposed to the center of the international market in Taiji, Japan, where every year 23,000 dolphins are captured and sold, some to be trained for entertainment venues and the rest brutally and secretly slaughtered and sold for meat (usually mislabeled as whale meat, since there is little demand for dolphin meat). We learn about the toxic nature of dolphin meat due to high mercury levels, a fact that is covered up by the Japanese government despite the severe health risks, including ghastly birth defects.

And finally, we tag along on a dangerous and clandestine mission by a small Mission Impossible like force, led by Psihoyos, to provide the first recorded evidence of what is happening in Taiji. At this point, the movie takes on the feel of a real-life thriller, as the group is followed and repeatedly questioned by police (O’Barry is well known there and universally hated in the town and by the industry), and harassed by the local fisherman, who follow them around, get in their faces, aim cameras at them and aggressively herd them away from restricted areas. It would feel like an intense drama if it wasn’t so very real. There are world-class free divers (down as low as 88 meters on one breath!), night-vision goggles, thermal-activated cameras camouflaged in rocks, underwater microphones, night-time chase scenes and more.

The net effect is a very compelling film that is both disturbing and beautiful, entertaining and arresting. It is one small element in the depletion of worldwide oceans, but a noble effort to raise awareness at how we are failing as stewards of a precious resource, and how international politics allows this to continue.

We should seek after movies that force us to deal with the ethics of our actions. The Cove is such a movie. For more information, go to (Oceanic Preservations Society) and It would be good to get involved.

Notes from Sundance
Psihoyos, O’Barry and others from the team attended the screening. They spoke passionately about the tenuous fate of the oceans and how this resource which feeds 70% of the world’s population is rapidly being depleted. O’Barry said that he felt responsible for what has happened to dolphins, since the Flipper series from the 60’s started the craze which has led to dolphin entertainment (including swimming with them) becoming a billion-dollar industry. O’Barry sees his actions as civil disobedience and he has been arrested countless times while freeing dolphins. One cast member gave me a helpful Seafood Watch card, which tells which types of seafood are ocean-friendly and which are not. Cards are also available at



Billy Bob Thornton and Tea Leoni at Sundance
2009 Sundance Film Festival ★ ★
Anyone that has seen a movie by Mark and Michael Polish should come to expect something unusual. Their latest film, Manure, delivers in spades (yeah, that was a pun). Actually, this movie might best be seen under the influence of drugs. Being straight and sober, I’m not sure I appreciated it. Or understood it. Or perhaps I fell asleep and dreamt this.

Starring Billy Bob Thornton and Tea Leoni, the story is about a woman living in New York (Rosemary Rose) who inherits her father’s manure company after his untimely passing. Thornton is the lead salesman (Patrick Kirkpatrick). Together they try to save the company from bankruptcy. That’s the sane part.

Here’s the silly stuff: Unfortunately, making Rose Manure profitable involves selling a lot of s___ (only one of maybe 200 excrement jokes and puns in the movie). And there’s no better bulls____ than Patrick (they never stop).

No, no, that was the sane part. This is what’s zany: Turns out there’s new competition in the form of a chemical fertilizer company entering the market, actually by parachuting in countless crates of chemical fertilizers as well as black-suited salesmen who land carrying briefcases.

Hold it, that’s still pretty tame compared to the psychedelic mushrooms they eat which causes them to vomit voluminously onto one another and hallucinate, or dressing up the Rose salesmen as Indians to burn at the stake, or the 44 Triple-D breasts one of the salesmen grows when he eats some fertilizer. And there’s plenty more where that came from.

The plot is as silly as you can imagine, and like all the acting (except Thornton), way over the top. The sets typically include backdrops, with everything (EVERYTHING) in various shades of brown. You could not conceive of a more ridiculous movie. Which would be perfect if you were in the right mood (know what I mean?). But passing joints is not allowed at Sundance screenings, so most of the crowd was left shaking their heads and wondering what it was they just witnessed.

Notes from Sundance
The cast was all present on opening night. Thornton and Leoni were sitting right in front of me. They were both very gracious with fans, allowing their photos to be taken and being great sports. After the movie, Thornton was very funny and clever. But the Q&A quickly fizzled. The audience was too shell-shocked to think of intelligent questions. And no one had the audacity to ask Mark and Michael Polish what was on everyone’s mind: “What the heck were you guys thinking?!!!”

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

2009 Sundance Film Festival ★

Steven Soderbergh gave a Sundance audience a sneak preview of his nearly-completed movie The Girlfriend Experience. For the uninitiated, a “girlfriend experience” is a service provided by prostitutes, and includes kissing and other considerations. So as you might guess, this film is about a female escort—a high-priced New York call girl. To his credit, Soderbergh resists the temptation to be graphic and explicit. Nor does he either glamorize or degrade the profession. Like in the 2005 movie Bubble, he is aiming for unadorned realism, a glimpse into a life.

And so we watch Chelsea (Sasha Grey) making appointments, working on her marketing, dealing with self-doubt, courting reviews, taking notes, struggling with her boyfriend, confiding with friends and generally trying to find a slice of happiness in the world she has chosen. The cumulative effect on me was a sense of sadness and pity for her life of quiet desperation, for the inevitable psychological pain and emotional barriers that result from her lifestyle.

But that’s not all. The Girlfriend Experience is much more than that. It’s experimental film. It’s art. It’s pushing the envelope. To wit:

• It’s not linear. This has become a popular approach ever since Pulp Fiction. But generally it seems contrived—with Chris Nolan’s Memento being a notable exception. I kept scratching my head wondering why it was used in The Girlfriend Experience.
• The actors were mostly amateurs. The notable exception was the star, 20-year-old Sasha Grey, whose previous acting experience includes 150 porn films. (Yeah, I know, very sad deal.) The rest of the cast was chosen based on how their lives aligned with the characters in the film. Cool idea. Innovative approach. But not good for acting.
• The script was mostly improvised, making for some pretty flat dialogue.

The cold hard truth was that the story was slow and confusing and it was hard to empathize with any of the characters. The Girlfriend Experience had neither the cohesiveness of a drama nor the insight of a documentary. It was a make-believe life laid bare. Now to be fair, Soderbergh admitted that the movie wasn’t quite finished, although it sounded like film quality was the biggest issue. And for me and others in the audience, it felt like he was more concerned about the format and the lighting and the camera work than creating an engaging story. Good for film schools. Not so much for audiences.

Notes from Sundance
Steven Soderbergh is a Sundance icon and was involved in a special 20th anniversary reshowing of his Sex, Lies and Videotape. He opened the follow-up Q&A by quoting an Alec Baldwin line from State and Main: “Well, that happened.” Soderbergh told the audience he shot the movie over 16 days in October of last year on a $1.6 million budget. He said he was interested in Ms. Grey after reading an interview with her in the newspaper. The film was shot chronologically, then edited. Recognizing that the film wouldn’t please all tastes, he commented on the unusual improvisational approach: “It was kind of fun to watch … when you’re making it.”


Once More with Feeling

2009 Sundance Film Festival ★ ★

I wish I would have enjoyed Once More with Feeling more than I did. It’s a light-hearted story (I like light-hearted). It’s got an unusual premise: a mid-life crisis brought on by karaoke (unusual is good). And the ending was surprisingly … satisfactory (I could have imagined many worse alternatives). But the script is flat, the movie dull and the characters lack depth. Too bad.

Chaz Palminteri plays Frank Gregorio, a 62-year-old shrink who at one time wanted to be a crooner like his father. He has a loving and affectionate relationship with his wife (Maria Tucci—see Law & Order, and Broadway). Life is pretty good until he discovers karaoke as a way to practice for singing at his daughter’s wedding. One thing leads to another as he dreams of being a singer and meets a younger woman (Linda Fiorentino) who inspires him and encourages his karaoke ambitions.

Naturally, this drives a wedge into his marriage and forces him to make some difficult life choices. At the same time, his daughter Theresa (Susan Misner) is going through her own crisis, feeling overwhelmed by her two young children, underappreciated by her husband and dissatisfied with what has become of her body. So we have two kicks at the same can, which proves to be one kick too many, and the two story lines never really reconcile.

Palminteri is quite good as Frank, and Maria Tucci even better as his wife. In fact, the movie is at its best when these two interact on the screen, whether holding hands or arguing. The other performances are uninspired, although the script leaves the actors little to work with. It was a surprise to see Fiorentino again. I haven’t seen her in a film in nearly ten years. She no longer has the, uh, build to play her sexy steamy roles, but she did demonstrate some very impressive chops in her single song. Palmienteri’s singing was also very strong, although that shouldn’t come as such a surprise since he began his career as a singer. None of the performances in the movie were dubbed. That’s very cool.

But despite the delightful music and a few funny lines, Once More with Feeling simply can’t be rescued.

Notes from Sundance
The movie opened in the afternoon at the Prospector Square venue, which isn’t a good sign. Director Jeff Lipsky was very sincere and gracious. He called it a love story, and choked up a bit as he dedicated it to (if I heard right) Simon Channing Williams, his executive producer on Flannel Pajamas.

Monday, January 19, 2009

500 Days of Summer

2009 Sundance Film Festival ★ ★ ★ ★
What a delightful film. From the opening screen, which offers a very funny disclaimer, it is clear that 500 Days of Summer dares to be different. And as the opening sequence clearly states, it is not a love story. Except that’s only a technicality. It really is. Sort of.

Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Webber, along with director Marc Webber, have put together a charming, fresh and very funny romantic comedy. Summer (Zooey Deschanel) and Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) start an office romance when Summer comes to LA from Michigan for an internship at a greeting card company. Tom writes cards, although he quietly aspires to be an architect. Tom is a romantic idealist who has never found his soul mate. Summer is a disillusioned pragmatist who doesn’t believe in love. But Summer immediately takes to Tom, Tom is smitten with Summer and their relationship proceeds as so many do in the movies.

Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt play their roles well, although it occurred to me more than once that they lacked chemistry. But remember, this is not a love story, which is what makes 500 Days of Summer more realistic and poignant than what we have come to expect from the movies. But it is a refreshing and thought-provoking take on what we often describe as being in love—about taking risks, dealing with disappointments, finding yourself and bumping into fate when you least expect it.

The film includes a couple of moviemaking devices that some might find distracting. It uses a timeline to tell the story, but jumps forward and back, which still manages to effectively provide a narrative without feeling like a contrivance. In contrast, the film also pays homage to a number of classic movies, including several clips and snippets, which feels out of place and doesn’t quite fit.

As currently constructed, 500 Days of Summer will get an R rating. If they can edit it to a PG-13, which would be quite easily done, it could do nicely at the box office.

Notes from Sundance: At opening night at the Eccles Center, Deschanel commented on how attracted she was to the script. Director Marc Webber made the point that he wanted to shoot on location in LA, but show a bit of the city’s architectural heritage, which did very subtly separate 500 Days from typical Hollywood-Indie fare.

The Greatest

2009 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★

Anyone that has ever lost a child has plumbed the depths of grief. And while numerous movies have tried to depict that paralyzing depression, most fall well short of the mark. (I recall In the Bedroom from Sundance 2001, starring Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson and Marissa Tomei—it was good, but couldn’t fully expose the raw nerve laid bare with the passing of a child.)

The Greatest provides a powerful glimpse into the depths of a family’s grief. Writer-Director Shana Feste delivers a finely-honed script and very capable direction to give the actors plenty of room to deal with their emotional burdens while still keeping the story moving along. One reason is the deft interlacing of the backstsory that led to 18-year-old Bennett Brewer’s death—a violent collision while his car sat in the middle of the road and he spoke fervently to Rose (British actress Carey Mulligan). Bennett’s parents, played by Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon, find Rose thrust into their lives, and along with brother Sean (Miles Robbins—son of Sarandon and Tim Robbins) they all deal with their loss.

While the script is tight, the acting is even better. Brosnan gives the performance of his life as the mathematics professor who is emotionally devastated but can’t let it out. And Sarandon is equally impressive as the obsessive mother whose grief is pushing the borders of her sanity. But the real find may be Mulligan, who has an Audrey Tautou (Amelie) innocent vibrancy that declares a star is born.

As one might expect, this is an emotionally wrenching movie, but not an entirely depressing one. There is a message of hope, even though it might come in a package too conveniently wrapped and delivered. And while its theme may be a problem at the box office, those that take it in will be rewarded for their investment.

Sundance Moment: Director Feste told the audience she wrote the script while she was a nanny. Sarandon said she didn’t like seeing the movie, but never revealed why. Perhaps because it dealt so vividly with a painful subject. But maybe because the movie made her look old, haggard and an emotional wreck. Props to her for taking the role.

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The Thriller in Manilla

2009 Sundance Film Festival ★ ★ ★

In 1975, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier staged their third and final battle in the capital of the Philippines. Ali, in his infamous promoting of himself and ticket sales, dubbed it “The Thriller in Manilla.” They had split their first two fights, and by this time Ali was considered the heavy favorite, with many (including Ali’s camp) believing Frazier was washed up. It turned out to be an epic contest, one of the greatest heavyweight bouts of all time. Ali won when Frazier’s camp threw in the towel after the 14th round, although witnesses reveal that Ali was perhaps even less able to answer the bell for the 15th round.

Ali went on to become a mythic figure, the public believing his self-proclaimed title “The greatest fighter of all time.” Later, stricken by Parkinson’s disease, he became universally beloved, virtually worshipped across the globe. In contrast, Joe Frazier has been almost forgotten, the victim of Ali’s public insults and degradations, as well as two-out-of-three losses against Ali. The Thriller in Manilla examines the fight and the events leading up to it from Smokin’ Joe’s perspective. It’s a tale that has never really been told, but was commissioned by the BBC and is likely to show on HBO this year.

It’s a fascinating story. Frazier at his prime was every bit the match for Ali, as the record shows. Further, the fight in Manilla was so close that it could easily have gone either way. Yet Ali is an icon and Frazier lives in an apartment above his old gym in the roughest section of North Philadelphia.

Director John Dower admitted to the Sundance crowd he approached the film with an agenda—a project sympathetic to Joe and willing to take a few politically incorrect shots at Ali (who , as expected, refused the offer to be involved). Gen X and Y moviegoers unfamiliar with the participants may find the subject matter lacks relevance. But for those of us old enough to remember, this was more than a boxing rivalry, and Thriller in Manilla provides a fascinating perspective into one of the most politically charged athletic events in American history. As the movie accurately depicts, Ali vs. Frazier was ideological warfare—the cocky anti-war Muslim who claimed to speak for Black America against (Ali’s words) the ignorant negro Uncle Tom who looked like a gorilla and did the white man’s bidding. And unfortunately for Mr. Frazier, Ali made the labels stick. Frazier has never forgiven Ali for that. And he has never recovered from it.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Missing Person

2009 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★
The last great film noir was A Touch of Evil, made 51 years ago. But the genre has never lost its allure and every now and then a filmmaker attempts a neo-noir, some succeeding famously (Chinatown, Body Heat) but most lacking the soul of the classic noirs from the 40’s and 50’s.

In The Missing Person, director Noah Buschel tries valiantly to recreate the original genre. First, the classic protagonist: Hot star Michael Shannon (Reservation Road) plays John Rosow, a chain-smoking, gin-soaked private detective living in a run-down apartment next to the Chicago L. Then the familiar set-up. A stranger calls and offers way too much money to do what sounds like a simple job. And finally, the twisted tale: Rosow, a former street-smart New York cop, smells something rotten, but is spurred by the money and the conviction that he will be able to outplay the other players.

Shannon makes an intriguing protagonist, grizzled and degenerate but with just enough heart and humanity to make him sympathetic. Unfortunately, the weight of the movie falls entirely on his shoulders. The plot winds its way, with a steady stream of surprises and revelations, but none of them particularly compelling. The secondary characters, especially the perfunctory love-interest, are underdeveloped. And so, despite Shannon’s heroic efforts, the film stumbles, and ultimately is tripped up by incredulity and apathy.

Despite these criticisms, film noir lovers will still find enough to enjoy in The Missing Person to make it worth watching. Just don’t expect Orson Welles.

Sundance Note: I saw Michael Shannon in two Sundance movies in one day. Unexpectedly, he also played a relatively minor role in The Greatest.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Good Night (2008)

A Guest Review - Sent to us from Philip Arlington:

'Good Night', directed by Geetika Narang wins half the battle with the first shot of the film itelf. On the strains of a soft song playing in the background, we see a hand that stretches into the camera and stubs a cigarette out into a transparent glass ashtray. It's an ingenious shot and it has us hooked for things to come. The story is about a cranky old man Khullar (Vinod Nagpal) who lives with his servant ratan (Shivam Pradhan), a cheeky young boy who is not very discreet about his displeasure at Khullar's eccentricities. From the banter between the two, we come to know that Khullar leads a rather disorganized life. Piqued at the kid's insolence, and perhaps nudged by his own conscience, Khullar decides to change his erratic way of life from the subsequent morning. As he slips into his bed, smug in his achievement of going to sleep on time, catastrophe strikes! All of a sudden he realizes that he doesn't know the lyrics of the song that he has been humming for !
some time! Now, faced with this quandry, he can't sleep till he figures out the song. Very soon he realizes the unfeasibility of the task as his house is overflowing with music tapes and it's impracticable to go through his entire collection of music. To distract himself from the deadlock, he decides to listen to radio but the decision proves to be a disaster as all the stations play absurd music. Restless, he is up and about in his house watching television, enjoying a drink, and finally enjoying music of his liking. At a time when Khullar is perhaps the happiest he has been in the entire eventful night, he comes face-to-face with his solitude. What happens henceforth cannot be divulged as it would ruin it for people who'll see the film. Shortly after, the film winds up, with some rapid twists to conclude the otherwise leisurely paced narrative. It's a charming end, where all the threads are tied together and all the dilemmas resolved (well, almost!).

It's a wonderful debut by Geetika Narang, who is also the writer of the film. There are times when in terms of the plot, there is not too much significant movement, but Narang utilizes those moments as asides to build up the situation and the characters. The treatment is fairly realistic and the attention to detailing is commendable. Vinod Nagpal performs Khullar with restrained precision. His pitching of the character is bang-on, as he makes the gradual shift from the quirky Khullar to the sensitive one and then back to the quirky one with perfection. The character is an oddball, yet a warm one and Nagpal essays it with admirable ease. Special mention also has to be made of Shivam Pradhan who turns up with a fine performance as the outspoken Ratan. The cinematography by Yasir Abbasi is exquisite. As mentioned earlier, right from the first shot of the film, it is an exercise in visual brilliance. It is one of those films where the camera becomes a character itself, and the e!
xecution is impeccable. Background score by Ashhar Farooqui augments the mood of the story and the fact that it is minimalist adds up to the silence/loneliness of the central character. Mukesh Saini and Manoj Shrivastava have done a competent job with the editing. The film has been edited involving the simple cut-to-cut technique and steers clear of the trappings of the modern edit patterns, and that works, as the fancy effects used nowadays are more often than not a cover-up for a bad product. 'Good Night' does prove it once again that there is no substitute for a simple telling of a simpler story. It's a sweet little gem of a movie and is highly recommended.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

Casual moviegoers usually pay a price for foreign films which are immersed in distant cultures. We sometimes have to put on our film student hats, enduring a less than enthralling night at the movies in exchange for a broader world view. Slumdog Millionaire is a surprising exception, even more entertaining than it is educational.

Slumdog opens with a young lower-class Hindi, Jamal, in the midst of a remarkable string of successful responses on India's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. This range of obscure knowledge is either the mark of an exceptional mind, an extraordinary stroke of fortune or inside information. The authorities suspect the latter, and use all manner of persuasive techniques to elicit a confession.

Cleverly written and edited, we move back and forth from the interrogation to Jamal's past. He recounts his story of growing up on the streets with his older brother, finding ingenious ways to make money and escape both the law and other predators, while maintaining the quest to one day be reunited with his childhood love. Woven throughout this tale of trials and resilience is a glimpse of urban life in India over the past twenty years, a world that rarely receives scant attention from most of us.

The story moves along briskly, never dragging, and we are engaged in both the current game-show story line as well as Jamal's history. Much of this is due to Jamal's character, which captures our sympathy, admiration and interest from the beginning, and is played ably by three different actors.

Director Danny Boyle has eclectic tastes and his choices in the past suggest enormous range. Slumdog Millionaire is perhaps in between his hard-edged Trainspotting (1996) and his whimsically inspiring Millions (2004). As a result, it will appeal to a broad audience. While it has opened relatively slow, a little Oscar buzz should improve prospects through the first half of 2009.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Mongol has been out in film festivals for some time and saw limited release last year, even picking up an Academy Award nom (Best Foreign Film), but just recently found its way to my local arthouse theatre.

The movie tells the story of a young Genghis Khan, the great 12-century Mongolian warlord. Admittedly, this is history with an asterisk. Most of the story is based on The Secret History of the Mongols, the oldest Mongolian literature extant, written as a tribute to Ghengis Khan after his death, and probably as much heroic poetry as historical fact. Despite these blurry lines, it is as good a foundation as any to tell the beginnings of the greatest conqueror in the world's history and one of its most intriguing leaders. It also makes for a great story.

Mongol follows the young Temudjin (his given name) from birth through an extraordinarily challenging childhood, despite his favorable heritage (his father was a minor tribal chief). We see a surprisingly mature 10-year-old choose his wife (or, vice-versa really), witness his father's murder, and survive the most extreme trials, tribulations and torture with stoic determination and fortitude.

Growing into manhood, Temudjin uses his natural leadership talent and skill in combat to reap his revenge and begin assembling the army that would eventually conquer most of Asia, Russia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

This is an engaging film, beautifully crafted by veteran Russian director Sergei Bodrov. Shot on location in China, there is a rich, verdant oppressiveness to the settings, befitting the rugged outdoor life of the nomadic tribes. Spoken in Mongol with subtitles (and using Mongolian and Chinese actors), the films feels strangely authentic. The battles are orchestrated with grandeur and realism (and plenty of gore), reminiscent of Braveheart, giving the production a big-budget feel.

Rumor has it that this is the first of a trilogy Bodrov is planning on the life of Genghis Khan. That would be an ambitious undertaking and an extraordinary product. In any event, Mongol certainly is a painless way to take your history.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Young at Heart

Ever since I saw the trailer a few months ago, I have wanted to see the documentary Young at Heart. So the other night we headed to our local arthouse theater The Broadway and were treated to one of the more entertaining documentaries I have ever seen. Young at Heart is a geriatric rock 'n roll singing group out of Northampton, Massachusetts which you've got to see (and hear) to believe. Really. Until you've seen a 92-year-old woman steady herself with her cane as she walks to the microphone and belts out "I Wanna Be Sedated" from The Ramones, well, you haven't seen the full potential of Punk.

Young at Heart is thoroughly enjoyable, filled with humor, affection, irony, fascination and toe-tapping music. But more than anything, it is hard not be profoundly affected by the twist in your perspective, realizing that great-grandma might get into ColdPlay better than you. They change the nature of the songs, making them much more lyric-driven, and often with more feeling and emotion. Very, very cool and inspiring. Especially one of my favorite songs of all time: Forever Young. They gave it a whole new meaning.

But there was more. I knew the group would be performing the next night at a local auditorium, but were surprised and delighted that several of the cast showed up after our movie for a Q&A, including founder and director Bob Cilman (a kid at 53!). We chatted with them afterwards. But one exchange really struck me. I asked them how being in the group had impacted their lives. Profoundly, for all of them, they said. But an 80-year-old retired doctor told how important it was that he had someplace to be, something to do, songs to learn, cadences to master, an important sense of purpose and an appreciation for what he was doing. Definitely something to think about as we move into those ... Golden Years, whop-whop-whop Gold ... Don't let me hear you say life's takin' you nowhere ... Angel ...

Friday, February 08, 2008

U2 at Sundance


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sundance 2008 Wrap-Up

The two questions I’m always asked after Sundance:

1. What did you see that you liked?

★ ★ ★ ★ The Visitor
★ ★ ★ ★ Diminished Capacity
★ ★ ★ ★ Transsiberian
★ ★ ★ ★ A Raisin in the Sun
★ ★ ★ ★ Birds of America
★ ★ ★ Made in America
★ ★ ★ The Merry Gentleman
★ ★ ★ The Deal
★ ★ ★ U2 3D
★ ★ ★ Henry Poole is Here
★ ★ ★ The Yellow Handkerchief
★ ★ ★ Red
★ ★ ★ CSNY Déjà Vu
★ ★ ★ Baghead
★ ★ The Last Word
★ ★ Incendiary
★ ★ The Year of Getting to Know Us
★ ★ Sleepwalking
★ ★ Time Crimes
Pretty Bird
Savage Grace
Unrated: Death in Love

Other movies that got very good word-of-mouth, but that I didn’t see:
In Bruges (Colin Farrell, brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes)
The Great Buck Howard (Tom Hanks, John Malkovich, Steve Zahn, Colin Hanks)
Sunshine Cleaning (Amy Adams, Jason Spevack, Steve Zahn)
Phoebe in Wonderland (Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Pullman)
Frozen River (Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott)
What Just Happened? (Robert DeNiro, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn)
The Wind and the Water (Spanish)

2. What stars did you see? I always hesitate to answer that. Perhaps the better questions would be:

What big stars did you meet personally, get to know, and plan to vacation with in the future? Uhhhh ... none.

What big stars did you make small talk with and exchange email addresses? Let me think. OK. None again.

What big stars did your wife bump into in the bathroom and you exchange a sentence with? Finally, one--Glenn Close. My sources tell me she did wash her hands after doing her business.

What big stars did you see as they walked by on their way to the podium to talk about their movies? Such a deeply personal connection. My new-found friends include David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Neil Young, Bono, The Edge, U2, Sharon Stone, Jimmy Fallon, Tom Arnold, Luke Wilson, Eddy Redmayne, Wes Bentley, William Macy, Meg Ryan, Stacy Peralta, Jason Ritter, Matthew Broderick, Alan Alda, Virginia Madsen, Michael Keaton, Kelley Macdonald, P. Diddy, Phylicia Rashad, Woody Harrelson, Glenn Close, Charlize Theron, Dennis Hopper, Maria Bello, Ben Kingsley, Eduardo Noriega, Kate Mara and William Hurt, among others.

Which of these were most impressive? Ben Kingsley, Jimmy Fallon, Stacy Peralta, Alan Alda and Phylicia Rashad.

For most of us mere mortals, the big stars are very inaccessible at Sundance. Maybe you see them here and there, but it would be inappropriate to intrude, even if you could. On the other hand, there are plenty of people involved in the movies, e.g. directors, producers, writers and actors, who are passionate about their work and more than eager to talk about their films. They haven’t become big yet (and maybe never will) and they are very excited to be at Sundance. I always meet and talk to quite a few of these, and it is one of my favorite parts of the festival.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Made in America

2008 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★

When I saw that Stacy Peralta had another documentary at this year’s Sundance, I put it at the top of my list. Both Riding Giants (surfing) and Dogtown and Z-Boys (skateboarding) were extraordinary peeks into unique and fascinating American cultures. Made in America shifts it's focus to another less romantic section of Southern California, and promised a more somber experience, taking a penetrating look at the gangs of South Central Los Angeles, one of the most deadly areas in the United States.

Like his other docs, this one takes a historical perspective. How did these gangs start? What cultural forces propagated their beginnings and fueled their growth? Who are these people? What are they really like, and why do they do what they do? I think Peralta’s gift is that he manages to really connect with his subjects and gain their trust, which turns out to be absolutely critical in the South Central neighborhoods. He also manages to tell a story with interest and compassion, but primarily through the perspective of those that have lived and shaped the experience.

Financed by South Central native and Golden State Warriors star Baron Davis, as well as an anonymous interested party in Hollywood, Made in America tells a story about a part of America we have chosen to ignore, despite the small-scale war that rages there every day. Seeing this movie will make you think a little differently about gang warfare, change your perspective, maybe add a little empathy to your world view. And for a filmmaker, that's perhaps the highest form of the art.

Sundance Moment
I saw this movie at the last day of Sundance down in Salt Lake City, far away from the glitz and glamor and stars in Park City. I heard Stacy Peralta was sick and probably wouldn't make it. But he did come, and not just for the introduction, but stayed for the Q&A as well, and talked with passion about how make this movie had changed him, and how important it is that we realize that teenagers are killing each other, something that would absolutely not be tolerated by society in any suburban area of our country, but goes virtually unnoticed in South Central.


Pretty Bird

2008 Sundance Film Festival

I think Pretty Bird is meant as a symbol of the dotcom era, or at least of dreamy-eyed entrepreneurs with a love for money, an endless supply of chutzpah, and not much else. But if the business plan for their new technology company is filled with holes, it is positively bulletproof when compared to Paul Schneider’s script. This is a film that didn’t just struggle to find its voice, but rather walked onto the stage with a bad case of laryngitis, which only went from bad to worse.

Curtis (Billy Cruddup) is a good-looking, charismatic schemer who waltzes into old friend Kenny’s mattress store one day with a brilliant idea. Kenny (David Hornsby), who is gay, is infatuated with Curtis and has great faith in him, although we never really understand why. Curtis convinces Kenny to fund their enterprise, which involves building a personal flying machine. Curtis, who is a complete idiot (and knows it, but uses his charm to hide the fact), hires Paul Giamatti, an unemployed rocket scientist with misanthropic tendencies and an anger management problem. While Giamatti is surprisingly successful at building the machine from Curtis’ plans, the enterprise never gets off the ground, and the movie flounders among creepy capitalists, disintegrating relationships, ridiculously bad management and preposterous antics.

Too bad, because Cruddup and Hornsby are both very good in their roles, while Giamatti is something less than inspired. In the end, Pretty Bird is less a symbol of the shallowness of business than it is of self-indulgent and poorly-conceived filmmaking.

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