Film Essent Archive for March, 2009

AFI Dallas: The Burning Plain

Last night at AFI Dallas we caught the Centerpiece screening of Guillermo Arriaga’s The Burning Plain, starring Charlize Theron. I first saw this film at Toronto, where I was a little lukewarm on the pacing of film, but liked the structure of the plot overall and the performances. I wrote back then that I wanted to see the film a second time, and this is the first chance I’ve had to catch it.
While I don’t believe the film has undergone any editing changes since I saw it last September, I did like it considerably more this time around, though I’m not sure if that’s because I was overly tired and festival-grumpy the first time I saw it, or because I already knew what was going to happen and was therefore able to focus more on the subtleties of the writing and the performances. Oh, and the cinematography by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton), who shot the Mexico sequences, and John Toll (Gone Baby Gone, Vanilla Sky) who shot in Portland, is completely stunning.
I thought the performances were strong the first time I saw The Burning Plain and now, after seeing it a second time, I’m even more impressed by both Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger. Theron never overplays her part; her eyes are haunted, vacant; her face is a carefully constructed blank slate, but there’s so much constrained emotion playing under the surface in every scene. She’s really a remarkable talent, and this is exactly the kind of role she shines in. As for Basinger, this is her best performance in years; she’s rock solid as the housewife whose affair spins the events of the story.
The storyline revolves around a convoluted plot structure in which Arriaga reveals only bits and pieces at a time before finally tying it all together in the third act. The first time I saw this film, it took me awhile to figure out how it all fit together, but on a second viewing it was more obvious to me early on where the reveals were. I’m sure there are plenty of people who figured things out much sooner than I did on a first viewing, but hey, it was Toronto, I was tired, and it truly did take me a while to figure out where the whole thing was going.
Arriaga is a brilliant writer, one of the best, and this is a solid directorial effort with some minor flaws here and there that don’t, overall, detract from the power of the film. Magnolia will release the film in September.

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Not Even Remotely Surprising

So, I’m just catching up with this whole non-issue of an initial NC-17 smackdown for Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno; sorry, but this is A) not news and B) not even remotely surprising to anyone who saw Borat, and certainly not to those of us who saw the 22-minute preview clips at SXSW recently. What we saw there was shocking and subversive and completely brilliant, and I have no idea how Cohen has managed to avoid being killed by some pissed-off redneck yet. He’s pushing the envelope far harder with Bruno (at least based on what we saw in the clips — I have no idea what he’s up to in the rest of the film we haven’t seen yet) than he did even with Borat, and I can’t wait to cringe through the entire thing.
Also, the studio folks are probably not completely stupid, and they know it’s going to have to be trimmed down to get it to an R. I want to see the uncut version eventually though, to see what gets excised out make way for the politics of the R rating.

Marley & Me

I finally got around to watching Marley & Me, which releases on DVD today. Maybe it’s partly because I’m a dog person who’s enormously attached to her own canine companion (a sweet, hyper little Jack Russell named Sophie), but I loved the hell out of this movie. Great performances by both Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson — Wilson sometimes gets on my nerves, but here he was perfect. I liked the use of this couple’s ongoing relationship with their crazy dog as a device to track the trajectory of a marriage from that blissful honeymoon optimism when all things seem possible, through the inevitable changes that life brings to all of us, both individually and in our partnerships — especially when children come along and we’re forced to assess our values and make hard choices.
I liked Marley & Me much, much more than expected to, even given the positive reviews I’d read; in fact, it may be my favorite family movie of the past several years. I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised, given that one of the screenwriters on it is Scott Frank, who’s penned some awesome films including The Lookout, Minority Report (yes, I did actually like that one), Out of Sight and Get Shorty. And it’s directed by David Frankel, who helmed The Devil Wears Prada, which I also liked.
My one quibble with the film is that I didn’t find it realistic that a family with kids living on the single income of a newspaper columnist (even with his salary doubled when he agrees to write the column daily) could possibly afford to buy the home they move to in Boca — not a mansion, sure, but it’s a newish home, large and very nice, with an inground pool. I poked around on Boca real estate sites and homes that look similar to the one they move to in the film look to go for around $1,000,000; is it at all realistic that a newspaper columnist, even before the layoffs hit hard, could have afforded a home like that? Seriously? I live in Seattle, and our family lives fairly decently on two incomes — mine as a film critic and editor and my husband’s as a tech writer working on a contract gig for a “major software company in Redmond, WA.” We make a decent living, but there’s no way in hell we could afford to buy that expensive a house on two incomes, much less one. I’m just saying.
Then again, when Aniston was on Friends, she and Courteney Cox lived in a remarkably spacious and well-appointed New York City apartment for what their income level was, so I suppose I should just let go of my tendency to obsess over the details and just appreciate that I liked the movie overall. Great family film with a lot more depth than I expected, and well-worth owning on DVD, whether or not you have kids to pretend to buy it for. It’s a good film to have on-hand for those morose, moody kind of nights when you just want to curl up under a quilt with a nice glass of wine, a good movie and a box of tissues, get your heart warmed up, and have a good cry. Because you will cry at the end –yes, even you, tough guy. So here, have a tissue.

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Cinema Eye Awards

The Cinema Eye Awards ceremony is this Sunday in New York City. I will be at AFI Dallas, so can’t make it myself, but if you’re in NYC and love documentary film, you might want to check it out.
The ceremony starts at 8PM at the TimesCenter Stage, tix are available through the Cinema Eye website, and your $75 ticket gets you into the ceremony and the afterparty.
Here’s the description of the ceremony from the Cinema Eye Awards website:

Documentary makers gather to celebrate excellence and innovation in the nonfiction films of 2008. Awards presenters include Laurie Anderson, Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker and Morgan Spurlock. The diverse array of nominated films include MAN ON WIRE, WALTZ WITH BASHIR, and MY WINNIPEG. More than a typical awards show, the night will feature music DJ-ed by composer and musician Ion Furjanic (composer of MANDA BALA and JESUS CAMP) and other surprises.
The ticket price includes a post-ceremony reception with hors d’oevres and an open bar at the nearby venue, ARENA (135 West 41st St).

You can check out the list of nominees right here.

Sex and the Movies

So I’m participating in this panel at AFI Dallas on sex in the movies. No demonstrations/re-enactments, so far as I know, so don’t get too excited about that bit.
Here’s the description:
Women in Film – Wednesday 4/1 5:30PM
Last year saw a blockbuster smash in TWILIGHT that featured a romance between a teenage girl and a young male vampire that was a chastity parable by a practicing Mormon. THE READER featured an affair that traumatizes one of the characters for years to come. Meanwhile, THE READER and TOWELHEAD held May/December romances as story lynchpins with typical negative reaction to the appropriateness of the older male/younger female version (TOWELHEAD), as opposed to the relative acceptance of the older female/younger male version (THE READER). So, have we progressed at all in the way we view these relationships? Traditionally, older man/younger girl = creepy and against the law, while older woman/younger guy = lucky young guy. Have things changed at all with how we view the boundaries of portraying romance and relationships on screen or are we dealing with age-old preconceptions and prejudices? And bottom line: Why are the movies so afraid of sex in the first place?

…If you were listening to this panel, what would you want to hear discussed? Toss me any ideas you have, or questions you’d be interested in hearing addressed, and I’ll try to work them in. And if you’re in Dallas for the fest, feel free to drop by for the discussion.

Who Wants to Go to North Korea for Spring Break? I do, I do!

I love things that make me laugh, especially if they make fun of countries led by crazy evil dictators. Heck, who doesn’t?
And if you love evil dictators who, among other things, kidnap filmmakers to force them to make bad movies, this article, titled, “6 Reasons North Korea is the Funniest Evil Dictatorship Ever” is a must read:
“A film buff himself, Kim Jong-il has actually authored a text-book on the subject, a title that is required reading for all film students who are actually CIA agents. Thus, Kim decided that he was just going to have to create great North Korean cinema himself. . .
The Ridiculous Solution:
. . .By kidnapping a famous director and his recently estranged actress wife from South Korea, and forcing them to make, amongst other things, the communist version of Godzilla.”

I once had a chance to see Pulgasari at some film festival (Seattle, maybe?) and missed it. Still kicking myself over that.
Go on, read the rest of the article, it’s all funny as hell … so long as you don’t have to live in North Korea. And don’t forget to go check out the official North Korea website, where, in addition to being dazzled by the amazing web design, you can learn all about how North Korea does not, in fact, oppress homosexuals and join the Korean Friendship Association!
All you need is 50 Euros … and a photocopy of your passport, so they know where to find you. Ahem. And don’t think you can beat the system by just printing your own membership card, either. You can’t fool them.
Oh, and hat tip to Ann Arbor Film Fest‘s Christen McArdle who, in spite of running an awesome fest that kicks off in two days, still found time to light up our gloomy lives by sharing this link.

Review: Knowing

It’s not often I come out of a movie hating it so much that I’m actually angered by how awful it is. I mean, studios finance, produce and market an awful lot of bad films every year, and moviegoers shell out millions at the box office (and millions more on concession stand buys) for the privilege of being insulted by 90 minutes or so of bad filmmaking. I get this. It’s pretty much a given, on any given weekend, that there will at least one really bad movie to plunk down $10 to see. And most of the time, I can say, okay, that was bad, but I can see how maybe certain audience segments would be drawn not only to see it, but even find the experience enjoyable. And then there’s a film like Knowing.
I don’t know if I can find words to adequately express just how bad Knowing is, but I’m going to try, in the hopes that perhaps I can save you spending your own hard-earned money in a tight economy on a truly wretched movie-going experience. Knowing is directed by Alex Proyas, who made a hell of a good movie with The Crow way back in 1994, so I wasn’t without hope that Knowing wouldn’t completely suck; the trailer even intrigued me, in spite of Nicolas Cage’s recent track record of making some spectacularly bad script choices. Unfortunately, it’s far, far worse than I could possibly have imagined.
And I don’t normally put spoilers in a review, but I’m making an exception this time, because the plot of this film is so horrendously stupid and contrived that it practically begs to be dissected and analyzed in the way a scientist might examine a particularly nasty strain of intestinal bacteria, in the hopes that one might find a cure for it, or better yet, a way to eliminate it from existence entirely. So you are forewarned that much of what is past the jump is spoiler heavy, but I’ll add that even if you’ve not see the film and for some reason this review fails to convince you to go see something else, it’s unlikely that the spoilers will have any impact on your enjoyment of the film, such as it is.

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There are some good independent films in theaters right now that I want to talk about, all of which are highly recommended.
First up, Steve McQueen’s Hunger, about Irish Republican Army hunger striker Bobby Sands. This film blew me away when I saw it at Cannes last year, and I really felt it should have won the Un Certain Regard category over Tulpan. The direction by Steve McQueen, making his theatrical directorial debut, is taut and remarkably assured, and the dramatic tension in the film kept me on the edge of my seat. Michael Fassbender’s performance as Bobby Sands is powerful, and while the film has been criticized in some quarters for only showing one side of the long-standing conflict that led to Sands and the other IRA members being in prison to begin with, Hunger isn’t an historical account about the IRA, it’s specifically about the human rights issues around how the prisoners were treated at that time.

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SXSW Award Winners

And the winners are …

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SXSW Review: Splinterheads

Splinterheads — which will, inevitably, be compared to Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, which also screened here at SXSW — is a generally entertaining film about Justin (Thomas Middleditch) a 20-something, directionless guy whose humdrum life of practicing karate moves and mowing lawns with his friend, Wayne Chung (Jason Rogel) is shaken up by the arrival of a traveling carnival and a beautiful con artist named Galaxy (Rachael Taylor). Justin first encounters Galaxy when she cons sixty bucks out of him at a gas station, and they don’t at first seem to be a great match, particularly given Galaxy’s possessive, bullying boyfriend, who works with her at the carnival.

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SXSW Dispatch: The Super-Secret Screening of Todd Haynes' "Superstar"

I was going to go back to my hotel and crash early after my final jury screening tonight, until I got a text message from a friend that the 9:30 TBA at the Alamo Ritz was something worth sticking around for — an exceedingly rare opportunity to see Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story on a 16mm print in a theater. Wow.
The film, one of Haynes’ earliest works, was made in 1987 and has been generally out of circulation (at least, outside of places like YouTube) since 1990, when Haynes lost a lawsuit for copyright infringement brought by Karen Carpenter’s brother and musical partner, Richard Carpenter. Superstar is both a re-telling of Karen Carpenter’s descent into anorexia and early death at the age of 32 in 1983, told through the use of Barbie dolls as the main players, and a darkly fascinating exploration of the perfectionism and cultural factors that lead young women to anorexia. What’s most tragic about the film, though, is that over 20 years later, we haven’t made much progress culturally with regard to the kinds of pressures — particularly in the media — that lead young women to starve themselves to death.

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Sam Raimi's "Drag Me to Hell" at SXSW


SXSW Dispatch: Brüno and Drag Me to Hell

Tonight at SXSW brought two treats: a sneak peek at Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film, Brüno — aka … “Brüno: Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt,” and a “work-in-progress” cut of Sam Raimi’s return to the horror genre with Drag Me to Hell, starring Alison Lohman and Justin Long.
With Brüno , Cohen continues to push boundaries in exposing the raw, honest societal truths through subversive comedy. Based on the twenty or so minutes of footage we saw tonight, it looks like Bruno could, perhaps, be even more shocking than Cohen’s previous film, Borat, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006, and once again it’s the responses of the people Cohen’s character interacts with that elicit reactions that are painful in their honesty.

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"Grace" at SXSW

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"Make Out with Violence" at SXSW

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Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon