Wednesday, February 23, 2005
Told you I'd be back. I got a couple new ones for you all to look at. Keep checking back for more later.
Review by Jon Waterman
A young jazz dancer meets up with some street dancers. After seein’ them perform, she’s convinced that this is the way to go. But first she has to be accepted into the culture. After that, it’s just a matter of learnin’ the moves, so the bad guys (and gal) of Electro Rock will be defeated in dance battle by the good guys of TKO, once and for all – hopefully. But that’s not the only reason for joinin’ up with the break-dancers. She’s hopin’ this will be her ticket to makin’ it big time. And just maybe, her agent will help her out with some serious representin’.
I have a few problems with the whole creation of the project. It’s obviously meant to exploit this urban trend to a suburban audience. How else could you explain the main character being this delicate, seemingly sheltered white girl who dreams of being a classically trained jazz dancer? Or the fact that the movie is directed by Joel Silberg, whose previous work had been entirely made in Israel? Very street. So very street. Also, at the end, they’re already promoting the release of the sequel.
Notice that I didn’t mention the whole lame premise of break dancin’ being a driving force as a negative. I don’t really care that much. Goin’ in you sort of expect that to be a large part of its campy appeal. It’s even funnier when you consider the writin’ force. Conceivin’ the story and writin’ the screenplay are two first and last time scribes in Charles Parker and Allen DeBevoise. Gerald Scaife, whose only prior credit is as production assistant on “The Big Chill,” joins them on the script. Can you believe it took three people to churn out such a disjointed screenplay? There’s a rivalry, but not really. There’s supposed to be this huge drive to make it as dancers, but whatever. There’s something of a love story, but it’s hardly explored past crush territory.
The only redeemin’ quality would have to be the dancing. There are a pretty good variety of moves on display here. I don’t know all the technical terms, but you get plenty of floor spinnin’, tons of poppin’ and lockin’, some Kung Fu-like stuff, and of course the poetic graceful jazz. The battle scenes were pretty lame, not because the dancin’ was bad, but because both groups looked virtually identical. I couldn’t tell what made one team the winner other than the dejected looks of the losers. The audio for the movie didn’t contain any crowd reactions to help us out, either. Instead we’re given a barely audible Ice-T spoutin’ off some whack rhymes old school style.
This movie is all cheese. It’s hard for me to say this, but the unavoidable trainin’ montage didn’t capture my interest. It went on for far too long, and I didn’t see the progression that should have been there. The film is the type that’s fun to watch for the incredibly poor actin’ and the weak, unbelievable yet predictable storyline, and most importantly for the dancin’. Those kids really put on a show, especially the little kids. I’ve never seen a five year old move like that before. If you’re a fan of break dancin’, you’ll want to check it out for that and that alone.
Touching the Void
Review by Jon Waterman
This documentary tells the amazing story of Simon Yates and Joe Simpson. In 1985, they climbed up the Siula Grande (located in the Peruvian region of the Andes), something that no one else had previously accomplished. They climbed nearly four miles straight up with little unforeseen difficulty. The hard part was getting back down. Everything that could go wrong does. A nasty fall leaves Joe with a severely broken leg. Several times, Simon is faced with the unbearable decision to leave Joe to die and carry on alone (which may certainly mean death for himself if climbing without a partner), or to stay together and hope for a miracle.
Kevin Macdonald (“One Day in September”) directed this amazing tale with subtle brilliance. When you hear the word “reenactment,” I bet the first thing that pops in the mind is some cheesy forensic files show on cable or an “Unsolved Mysteries” type of situation. Yeah, me too. But I swear this time, it’s actually really really good. So good that it left me mesmerized enough to not be able to form grammatically accurate sentences to describe it. Step by step, the story plays out on screen with actors playing the roles of Joe and Simon as the real Joe and Simon tells us all about what’s going on. Sound repetitive? Well it’s not. Think of it as reading a book in class along with the teacher – except the story is actually interesting.
You get to see the whole thing transpire in front of your eyes. It’s an amazing blend of documentary style storytelling and gripping narrative visuals. Without the added punch you get from seeing these events, the story would be astonishing, but not nearly as harrowing or as exhilarating. The scenes are recreated with precise detail by cinematographers Mike Eley and Keith Partridge. You get lost in that landscape and that recreation to the point where it feels like you’re watching the events actually unfold (instead of them being copied).
The film deals with some tough issues along the way, ones that most people would never have to face. When talking about such things, Simon and Joe are sincere, analytical and blunt. That says more about their character than any of the actions taken during that ordeal. Neither of them are monsters. Neither of them are heroes. They are climbers and they did what needed to be done. This is easily one of the best documentaries to come along in a while. The story is magnificently engrossing, and you’ll be glued to your seat until the end. I’m ready to watch it again.
Monday, February 21, 2005
Well, coming soon you'll find an interesting array of films being reviewed. On deck, I have Touching the Void, The Ring, Birth of a Nation, Breakin' and more. I'm covering all bases, eras, genres, etc.. You'll never know what I'll see next. So, keep coming back.
Review by Jon Waterman
While Viktor Navorski was on a plane heading to New York City, his native land of Krakozhia begins a civil war. The political coup that happened overnight left Navorski without a valid passport or visa, since the country in turmoil is not recognized by the United States during the unrest. Viktor is not allowed to enter NYC, nor is he allowed to fly back to his home. Instead he’s left to live inside the airport’s international terminal until things get resolved, however long that may be.
The idea sounds pretty far-fetched, but it’s based on a true story of a man that still resides in an airport terminal. What’s more contrived is the reason that Viktor comes to New York. I’m a little surprised the writing team couldn’t think of anything better, something less tacked on. However, it is a Steven Spielberg picture, so cheap sentimentality isn’t out of the question. Otherwise, the story/script isn’t terrible, but it hardly addresses everything it probably should. Jeff Nathanson (who did “Catch Me If You Can,” but also “Speed 2” and “Rush Hour 2”…) wrote the script with Sacha Gervasi based on the story Sacha conceived with Andrew Niccol (who did “Gattaca,” but also “S1m0ne”…). They produce a strange amalgam of virtually every family-friendly sub-genre possible that verges on being too much, but somehow stays within the borders of watchability. It draws too heavily on self-referencing conversations. That means, too often a character brings back some bit of dialogue from earlier in the movie that should have been left alone. And the whole bad guy thread went from non-existent to lame duck. There were also side stories galore, some of which should have been cut.
Speaking of cut, did Viktor find a buddy with some scissors, because I swear that in all that time, his hair doesn’t grow an inch. That’s a minor point. A major one is that superstar actor, All-American boy Tom Hanks is playing the foreign “immigrant.” I realize that the movie wouldn’t have had the box office impact were he not attached. But, as charming and likable as he was in the role, I can’t help but think that more authenticity would have been better.
The movie is somewhat interesting at first, but rather quickly loses steam when you realize that they essentially ditch the concept in favor of more conventional stories, such as the romantic threads. Overall, I could say that it’s cute, but over two hours of that makes the films wings a little heavy. Like Viktor, this film just never really goes anywhere.
Coffee and Cigarettes
Review by Jon Waterman
There really isn’t a plot to this movie, so I can’t give my usual paragraph synopsis. What I can say is that the film is comprised of eleven self-serving (no pun intended) segments where people sit at various locales while drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. That’s about it. It’s a limited menu, and non-smoking’s all filled up. Still want to stay?
What a horrible collection this turned out to be. Basically the movie takes these short films that writer/director Jim Jarmusch did on his spare time and clumps them together. They all deal with coffee and cigarettes. They almost all have big name stars. They all take place in a diner/restaurant. Aside from a couple late references to earlier segments, that’s about all the vignettes have in common.
Well, that’s not entirely true. They’re all incredibly awkward to watch. Most also suffer from being unbearably slow moving. Let’s get something straight right now. Awkward pauses in conversations usually are not funny. Reaction shots to awkward dialogue can be. Unfortunately, everyone in this movie plays it completely straight. They are lifeless beyond belief. Why not call the dang thing “Robots and Cigarettes?” Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni star in the first short, which is surprisingly devoid of laughs or any sort of reasonable pace, thus crushing the chance for any momentum to be built up as the picture moved along.
I don’t know. I must be missing something. I’m not seeing what the point is of making this compilation film. There doesn’t seem to be any real statement made about coffee, cigarettes, diners, or these social situations. None of the segments capture anything relatable, either, because they mostly deal with first meetings between two celebrities. Oh, and the cinematography and editing were incredibly bad. Jump cuts abound. I don’t need to see the top of the table so often, either. Thanks. Honestly, most of the shorts give off this poorly executed student film vibe. Instead of covering the story, Jarmusch covered the scene. That’s the wrong way to go about it. This doesn’t really matter, but couldn’t one of the stories have happened at someone’s home? People still drink coffee at home, right? Why not make a segment about a couple in the morning? Just an idea. I’m probably way off base with whatever is the purpose of the piece.
A couple of the segments would work very well on their own as quirky short films. However, once they’re balled up with the rest of the movie, the life is virtually sucked out of them. Bill Murray with Gza and Rza of the Wu-Tang was fantastic; Tom Waits with Iggy Pop had their moments – mostly thanks to Waits’ great acting; and the final chapter starring William Rice and Taylor Mead should charm the hell out of anyone watching. But three (really two and a half) out of eleven isn’t enough to make it worthwhile.
No refill for me, thanks. Just the check. Don’t expect a big tip, either. Service was terrible.
Thursday, February 17, 2005
I've been busy watching movies, and I'll continue to be busy watching movies (for a little while at least). You can expect to see reviews of such random choices as Coffee and Cigarettes, The Terminal and Touching the Void. You don't want to miss those fresh-on-the-rental-shelves-for-a-while-now reviews. Check back often.
Inside Deep Throat
Review by Jon Waterman
You’ve probably heard of the movie. Perhaps you’ve even seen it. Maybe you just know of the act (possibly from personal experience). It could be that you simply think of the Watergate scandal when you hear the words “Deep Throat.” That pornographic film did more than just influence the naming of the anonymous informant that helped take down Nixon. It influenced the culture and opened society’s eyes. It helped change the tides of perception and the production of the adult film industry. But that’s just the tip of the…well, let’s say “iceberg.” Don’t blow this one off as just a simple in and out story.
Here we have the latest effort from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato who are coming back to documentary work after the abysmal and painful failure of a narrative “Party Monster.” Non-fiction is where they should stay, because this is their best yet. It seems as if their style is really coming along, slightly reminiscent of Errol Morris’ work or of Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar’s “Manufacturing Consent” except with more interviews and solid, informative, non-redundant narration (by Dennis Hopper). Aside from all that, what really separates it is the natural humor that comes about. The major players are hilarious (usually through their mannerisms and personality quirks rather than by what they say). The supplemental celebrity interviews provide some of the more straightforward jokes (I’m looking at you Dick Cavett).
The celebrities also help round out the analysis, as they talk more about the movie as a pop culture phenomenon as outside observers. All the people have some connection to the era, the pornography industry, the sex trade, or smutty cult status – and usually a combination of these. You won’t hear me say this very often, but I felt they were underused. There were too many big names to go through. Dr. Ruth was heard from once. Larry Flynt and Al Goldstein only got a couple lines as well. Basically all of them got spread out too thin.
On the other hand, the main thread dealing with the fate of “Deep Throat” by itself was greatly represented. I walked out of the theater with a clear understanding of what happened and shocked at how some of the events took place. The film covered all the angles, the pros and the cons (double meaning intended). You get to know the people involved better and learn to like the good “smut peddlers” like director Gerard Damiano (who later in his career made the epic “Let My Puppets Come”) while still dismissing the more sleazy members of the production. One could make an argument that it didn’t cover the current industry and its relation to its groundbreaking predecessor enough. Although it does glance over the last twenty years or so within the industry, it pretty accurately shows the true impact that “Deep Throat” had, as well as the limitations of that impact.
Not too many people take pornography seriously, nor should they. This documentary shows that although it’s not a vital aspect of society, it’s still important and can have a great impact. You can still have an earnest discussion about the topic while making the snide remarks or witty comments. There’s a lot to laugh at. There’s a lot to marvel at. There’s a lot of nudity to look at [and a tiny bit of hardcore action (come on, you have to see the deep throat in a movie about a movie about it)]. This most likely won’t change your viewpoint on pornography, but it’s a fascinating story to watch anyway. Unless you’re easily offended, see it with friends and strike up a conversation afterwards.
The Cheat (1915)
Review by Jon Waterman
Money hungry Edith Hardy keeps spending and spending all of her husband’s investment cash. He’s working on something huge, and wants her to cut back for a very short time while he waits for his stock to explode. But, of course she can’t go without money and still maintain her regal spot in society. So, as Treasurer, she takes the money from the Red Cross fund and invests it into another stock, which fails. With the money gone, the only thing she can do to remake the cash is to beg her admirer friend.
Cecil B. DeMille proves himself a great director here by pulling together all the right elements to tell an effective story. Wilfred Buckland’s art direction is nothing short of amazing. The set designs are elaborate and prove to be multi-faceted when combined with Alvin Wyckoff’s cinematography. The lighting is surprisingly atmospheric. Instead of simply always lighting for exposure, the scene is lit to reflect the mood of the scene. Backgrounds are cloaked in darkness and a faint glow hovers around the key objects within the room. In addition, the film itself is tinted to further convey the emotions of the scene (but mostly used to distinguish between different times of day and between interior and exterior scenes). However, this tinting is a little unnerving and off-putting when two tones are cut together. In general, the composition is better than average, but the film contains one great shot. It’s of the admirer, Haka Arakau (played by Sessue Hayakawa) in the courtroom watching the proceedings while book-ended by his cohorts.
What’s not as great is the acting. Hayakawa is functional at best and Jack Dean (playing the husband Dick Hardy – get your giggles out now, sicko) overcompensates for the lack of spoken words with exaggerated movements. Fannie Ward (Edith) does a little of the same, but mostly it’s in the eyes. She rolls them peepers all over the place. They’re big enough to make it work to some extent, and I much prefer a roaming eye to wildly moving body parts (well…on film at least).
The job gets done, nonetheless. The actors are able to convey the story quite well without the aide of audible dialogue and minimal title cards. Writers Jeanie Macpherson (formerly a prolific actress who played miniscule parts in over 100 films) and Hector Turnbull (a writer) have given us a story with a couple twists and turns. I can honestly say I didn’t expect the film to turn out the way it did. There are some problems. Obviously the stock market worked much differently back then, if you can lose the entire ten thousand dollar investment in one night. The stock didn’t just go down a little? Isn’t it still on the market at all? Also, I didn’t have much sympathy for Edith, because her husband’s request was quite reasonable. You don’t get to know the husband well enough to root for him, either, so there’s no real hero to keep it going. Despite these flaws, the movie still works. It’s what’s not on the title cards that’s most important, and the interchanges your mind makes up will probably be better than what would have been written anyway.
The movie isn’t very flattering towards Asians or towards women at all. But if you can look past the negative implications and any potential racial stereotyping by considering the time period in which it was made and it shouldn’t be too hard to enjoy.
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
In addition to these two reviews today, I'm also introducing a new part of the website. Look on the main reviews page for the most ambitious (read idiotic) project I've taken on for this job.
Born Into Brothels
Review by Jon Waterman
A British photographer heads to Calcutta for her latest project. She has lived with the women of the red light district for some time now, getting to know them artistically and personally. She’s also gotten to know their children. Determined to give these children, who are doomed to life as a prostitute (if female) or black market merchant (if male), some semblance of hope. She begins teaching them photography. It soon becomes apparent how truly different the world can look through the eyes of a child.
Zana Briski (the kids call her Auntie) and behind the camera only Ross Kauffman collaborate to bring you this interesting documentary. What come across better than anything else are the personality traits of all the children. For the most part, all of them are given equal screen time, because their individual plights and experiences are varied enough to warrant that, despite coming from the same destitute area. The movie does a wonderful job of showing us the individual rather than just an individual in a particular situation. I didn’t see enough of that on Zana’s side. It always seemed like a project. So much time was devoted to the kids that her personality didn’t shine through enough to complete the circle. Also, I didn’t see as much group cohesion as I would have liked. Maybe the camaraderie between the kids just wasn’t there to capture to begin with.
Unfortunately, the parents and grandparents are largely absent in the film, despite the massive impact they have in real life. There are plenty of insightful interviews with the children. There has to be equally poignant material that could be derived from talking to their parents. That shouldn’t be such a hard request to fill considering how close the filmmaker is with them.
Lastly, I want to mention the photography. Just like with everyone, some of it’s good and some of it’s not. Perhaps this is harsh, but I think some of the screen time devoted to showcasing the photography in stills with musical accompaniment should be cut – especially since we’ve seen most of the photographs prior to that during the class session discussions and when the work is exhibited at galleries. Overall, they know how to work the camera and produce some pretty amazing shots.
I suppose my biggest problem is that the movie is only 85 minutes long and it deserves to be a mini-series. There are so many avenues and so many factors that go into what ultimately happens to the kids that deserve to be explored, but can’t due to time constraints. Plus, who after watching this film wouldn’t want to see regular progress reports and updates? Ultimately, the documentary is too unwieldy and too broad for such a short time span. I want more.
Review by Jon Waterman
Hank works as a Corrections Officer just as his father did and just as his son does. But the career isn’t the only thing that’s been passed down through the generations. There’s also a legacy of hardness and abuse. This is a legacy that leads the “weak” Sonny to kill himself. Leticia works as a waitress. Her husband was sentenced to death and executed by the state (at Hank’s hand). She can’t afford rent or desperately needed car repairs. When these two paths of turmoil cross, the winds of change could produce a devastating tornado.
Sorry about the stupid imagery and obvious metaphors, but I figure if the film thinks it can get away with it, then so can I. Ya know, the movie was going along fine (not superbly or amazingly, but fine) until those stupid little shots of the birdcage pops in. Marc Forster’s direction was edging on pretentious as it stood. This was just icing on the cake. The editing of that particular scene was too frantic for it’s own good as well. Jump cuts in that situation are fine (again, only fine), but the rapidity in which they occur made the scene more disjointed than it should have been.
I’m not sure if it’s the script (by first timers Milo Addica and Will Rokos) or just the acting – probably both – but the whole thing didn’t seem all that believable to me. Hank’s (Billy Bob Thornton) character development is contingent on him being such a horrid person during the first half or so. He did some terrible things to be sure, but it always appeared like his father drove him to that. I never got the sense that he was the evil person that was spelled out for us. So, as such, his character never really made much of an impact. The rest of the characters were rather stiff, too. Heath Ledger (Sonny) needs to pick an accent. Peter Boyle (Hank’s dad) drives the story somewhat, but it feels like his only real purpose is to make the audience hiss and boo. Sean Combs (Leticia’s death row husband) could not be drier. Halle Berry (Leticia) plays the grief card pretty well, but the performance shows little nuance or tact.
The story itself works. It’s functional and smooth. The pacing is good. However, the overall execution (no pun intended) makes any positives on the plot side of things ineffective. The whole film just left sort of a bad taste in my mouth. It was okay, but it probably should have been great. If the film dared to go farther and ask more questions and confront more issues, it would have been more satisfying. Nothing seemed to be accomplished, unfortunately. But hey. You get to see boobies.
Sunday, February 13, 2005
Here I am, continuing my quest to bring you classic films reviewed. I bring you two movies that are not only classics, but also Oscar winners. Both deal with race relations in very different, yet fascinating ways. I'll be back with some more Black History Month (or African-American Heritage Month -- whichever you prefer) appropriate titles as well as a look at some current films and some random movies as well. On tap: Monster's Ball, the Academy Award Nominated documentary Born Into Brothels, Inside Deep Throat and more. Check back often.
Driving Miss Daisy
Review by Jon Waterman
When Daisy Werthan crashes her car while backing out of the driveway, her son begins to worry. She’s getting up in age and perhaps it’s not the best idea in the world that she drives anymore. So, being that he’s one of the premiere businessmen in town, Boolie can afford to hire her a chauffeur. And that’s just what he does. Enter Hoke. He’s an honest, hard-working man, who’s actually getting on in age himself. But he can still see well enough and is in desperate need of a job. That’s all well and good, but Miss Daisy doesn’t really want a driver. Will Hoke ever get a chance to actually earn his money?
This is a surprisingly interesting story. Alfred Uhry wrote the screenplay based on his own play. What’s unusual about the whole thing is that there’s very little conflict. You have two strong willed people butting heads, three when the son gets involved, but after the first half hour or so, that all really calms down. And even though race is an issue in the film (Hoke is black and Miss Daisy is white), it seems like it’s related to the period in which the story is set than the character’s motivations. It’s not that Daisy doesn’t want Hoke driving her because he’s black; it’s that she doesn’t want anyone driving her period. Thus she becomes the ultimate backseat driver. If anything, the story shows that the entire country didn’t have the same segregating mindset. That doesn’t mean that Daisy doesn’t act stupidly sometimes or say things or assume things. However, those flaws are confronted and dealt with in a logical, understanding manner than really helps build the believable relationships within the film.
That’s not to say that the script doesn’t have its flaws. It borders on over-sentimentality. The son isn’t really fleshed out as much as he probably should be and his wife doesn’t even need to be in the picture. The shortcomings are overcome by the acting. Morgan Freeman (Hoke) plays the role of the patronizing hired hand so well, because you can’t always tell if he’s being sincere or if he’s secretly mocking. Sometimes you can’t help but snicker yourself. Jessica Tandy (Miss Daisy) is also fantastic. Her faux strength never falters, even after being defeated time and time again. It’s great watching her scramble while still pretending to be in control of the situation. Tandy provides some incredible reaction shots. Dan Aykroyd proves he can handle a more serious role (as well as an accent) while playing Boolie.
If you add to all this Hans Zimmer’s score, then you really have something. The recurring theme is bouncy and infectious, yet multi-purpose. Toned down in a more somber form, it can still carry the emotional weight of the scene. However, it’s primarily used to add that little comical punch that comes in at just the right time to provide a bigger smile. The film will leave you smiling with its unorthodox storytelling and its ripe, likeable characters. This is something the whole family could watch and enjoy.
In the Heat of the Night
Review by Jon Waterman
When the man who planned to build a giant factory turns up murdered in the streets, the police of Sparta, Mississippi are up in arms. They bring in Virgil Tibbs, who was in the small southern town visiting his mother, assuming he committed the crime simply because he’s black. Police Chief Bill Gillespie discovers that Tibbs is a homicide detective up in Philadelphia. Now the two are stuck together, because Mr. Tibbs is assigned to help solve this murder case that the locals are so quick to close.
The key to the film lies in the relationship between the two top cops. Everything follows their line of progression. As their relationship moves from Tibbs and Gillespie to Virgil and Bill, so do the atmosphere and the cinematography. Surprisingly, as the two become more accustomed to one another, the tension within the film increases. For one, the murder puzzle gets more complex and closer to fruition. Also, the overtly racist town gets more and more anxious for this hot shot black detective to git – and if’n he don’, well, then they’s about to fix that thar problem theyselves. Tibbs has no real intention on leaving until the job gets done, however, because his pride is on the line.
Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (who also worked on the television series “Perry Mason”) adapts John Ball’s novel brilliantly. Not only is the murder mystery interesting, it’d probably be good enough to stand the movie up on its own without the help of the intense characterization. There are plenty of unforeseen events and turns to keep you guessing until the end if you wanted. However, you may be too distracted by the inner workings of the characters. This screenplay is very sharp and couldn’t be executed better. It shows a side of bigotry not often seen: that intolerance does not always equal ignorance. The film is a battle of two egos. Neither lead is completely good, or inherently bad. The culture clash that they experience forces them to revaluate their thinking and sparks a lot of heated exchanges. This is all punctuated by the outstanding acting by Sidney Poitier (Tibbs) and Rod Steiger (Gillespie). Poitier at times seems pretty uncomfortable on screen, which I’d like to attribute to as part of his role rather than an acting misstep. Either way, he doesn’t quite own the part the way Steiger does. Rod shows incredible range and depth full of emotions that get turned on like a light switch. It all just flows out in one of the most incredibly natural performances I’ve seen.
The cinematography by Haskell Wexler (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) is nothing short of genius. Immediately in the film, you can see the sharp contrast (read conflict) conveyed in the visuals with harsh rim lights providing the brightest spots on the screen. As the movie progresses, this distinguishable difference between light and dark lessens and we get a more neutral and natural look. The looks and the feels of the scenes vary widely, depending on what’s being depicted. The frantic chase scene with handheld running camerawork smoothly cuts together with the lingering scenes at the station. This is also a credit to editor Hal Ashby who’s impeccable pacing proves that a deathly slow sequence can be not only watchable, but also fascinating.
There are a couple of musical missteps in the form of inappropriate cues and out of place songs, but otherwise the film is near perfect. Director Norman Jewison has assembled a poignant, thought-provoking piece of art that warrants not only watching but analyzing and studying.
Friday, February 11, 2005
Okay. I'm back. I have a couple of older films to review (including In the Heat of the Night, Driving Miss Daisy and Monster's Ball) and I will get those up in the next few days. I'm really starting to look towards getting more and more reviews of classic films up. Don't worry. I'll still be reviewing the latest and greatest and the latest and not-so greatest the theaters have to offer. In the meantime, check out the last review I did before compiling my delayed top ten list (found on the main reviews page).
In the Realms of the Unreal
Review by Jon Waterman
When Henry Darger died, he didn’t just leave this world; he left his own as well. Darger grew up shy and reclusive, which got him sent away to a special home. Upon his return he obtained a job as a janitor. He would leave his room only to go to work and to attend church daily. On his off time, he constructed a vast epic novel of 15,000 pages. To accompany this story of a children-led rebellion, were countless illustrations, some ten feet wide on canvases he created himself. Oh, and by the way, he taught himself how to draw. The world he created only surfaced after he was unable to live unassisted. He has since become known as one of the greatest outsider artists of all time.
So, now that you pretty much know about the guy’s life, why should you go see this documentary? There are a few reasons, actually. The most important one is so you can even slightly begin to grasp what kind of brain thought this up. Not a whole lot is told to us about Darger (besides what he writes himself in his diligently kept journal). His former neighbors can’t even agree on how to pronounce his last name (consensus is a hard G sound). That’s how withdrawn he was.
Director Jessica Yu does a good job of showing that mystique as well as the isolation (with nearly claustrophobic cinematography). Close-ups of his living space (which was preserved by his landlord until 2000) abound. Hardly anything is mentioned without the accompanying visual. Part of that is to support the narration and part of that is because Darger created so much that could be and was meant to be used to supplement the text. Yu goes the extra mile and with David Wigforss animates some of Henry’s drawings in an appropriate and eye-catching way.
The narrators help drive the chronological narrative along. Yu wisely chose a young girl to act as the main narrator. Even wiser, she chose wunderkind actress Dakota Fanning. Fanning truly understands what the project is all about and she proves that not only can she act, but she can also read some mean copy. I’ve heard many lifeless, monotone narrators in my day and this isn’t one of them. Equal praise belongs to Larry Pine who brilliantly voices Darger in his journal and his novel.
Darger’s artistic style is an interesting one. I don’t pretend to be a critic of paintings, so I won’t get into mechanics and technique for something I don’t know about it. But I can tell you that I found it appealing and slightly repulsive at the same time. Some of the work was quite unsophisticated and in normal circumstances would be considered overload. Here, those qualities draw you closer to investigate the works and to understand the motivations behind them. Jessica Yu’s film accomplishes the same goal of wanting to delve deeper into the mind, but without the crude technique. The problems I have with it coming out of the theater is that the film seems to drag at a surprisingly long 81 minutes. Also, I didn’t feel I understood the artist any better than when I went in. Even if that was the point, a little help would have been better.
Tuesday, February 08, 2005
Finally. I told you I'd review all the Ocean films and I did. Check back later for my thoughts on the documentary In the Realms of the Unreal. On the main site, also, keep checking for my soon to be released top ten list. You can see Joe's favorites listed on the front page right now, so be sure to give that a look. More classic film reviews will be on the way. Plenty is happening here at filmbrats. You don't want to miss it.
Review by Jon Waterman
Danny Ocean and his boys are at it again. Well, actually, Terry Benedict is at it, forcing the old crew of eleven to be at said “it.” You see, Terry wants all the money that was stolen from his casinos back. He has been in contact with a mastermind thief to track everyone down. If the money isn’t repaid in full, with interest, Mr. Benedict is going to the authorities. Well, the guys already spent the majority of the cash on various things. So, how will they come up with the tens of millions needed to square up the bill? Why, by stealing of course. What else?
With “Ocean’s Eleven” I was in. This time, count me out. For starters, once again it takes far too long to get into anything. We spend a good half hour or more catching up with everyone and reintroducing the characters. I could honestly care less what they’ve been up to, or how they spent the money. It didn’t mean anything to the storyline or to the audience. So, by the time any sort of actual plot line comes along, the interest in gone. Screenwriter George Nolfi (who’s only previous work is the sure-to-be-classic, “Timeline”) doesn’t get things moving any better once the heist starts up. The first job they pull was too uncomplicated, and the major one was complex beyond comprehension. All the twists and turns couldn’t be predicted, but they also couldn’t be believed (even for a movie that requires so much suspension of reality as this). It makes this whole escapade rather lifeless.
The characters aren’t as fun as they were, either. A big problem is the addition of the other thief, the Night Fox (played by Vincent Cassel from “Irreversible”). He’s out to one-up everyone and prove that he’s the best in the world, and so he sabotages their efforts. The movie probably didn’t need two enemies (three if you count the FBI agent played by Catherine Zeta-Jones). That’s a bit of overkill. He wasn’t even a good character to begin with.
The visual aspect suffers from the same type of overload. Director Steven Soderbergh shoots most of his own stuff (under an alias). This time, he also brought in another cinematographer in Chris Connier. Even though he worked on “Angela’s Ashes,” I think having the two working like this created too much of a mish-mash, stylistically. It tried to accomplish everything and hit the eyes with all sorts of tricks and maneuvers and whatnot, which made it all fail.
I have a problem with the name, too. I know that’s the easiest way to indicate a sequel and everything. But they didn’t really add another person. Sure, an argument could be made that they did, but look at the big picture of the movie and you’ll see that the twelve is essentially meaningless. The hokeyness of the script verged on insulting, especially at the end. But for the most part, the big problem is that it just wasn’t fun or interesting or exciting.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Review by Jon Waterman
Straight out of prison, Danny Ocean has a plan. He’s looking to pull off one of the most complicated heists ever attempted. Cash from three casinos are kept in one single vault. The only problem is that it’s the most impenetrable vault ever created. Danny’s going to need a little help. So, he calls on his fellow robber friends and assembles a crack team full of professional, shysters, heisters, and cheats. The take is huge, but so is the risk. Are you in or are you out?
I’d have to say that I’m in. Director Steven Soderbergh and writer Ted Griffin collaborate to bring the original movie starring Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack back and update it for the forty-year gap. Boy, was it updated. This time, the job requires much more intelligence, foresight and myriad skill sets to pull off. You also get a love story tacked on in a certain roundabout way. It’s not central, nor is it distracting, but it’s much more evident and carries more weight than in the old one.
The characters interact better here, as well. One key difference is that professional actors are used in every role, rather than a bunch of friends. Also, each character actually has something worthwhile to do – a defined roll, so it becomes the ensemble effort it should be. Although there may not have been an established group prior to filming, you can still sense a nice cohesion amongst them. They play off of each other brilliantly and keep the great jovial attitude with them as the actually act their parts.
The movie isn’t perfect. The opening once again takes too long to introduce everyone, even though each introduction has a purpose. The film itself, running at almost two hours, could have been shortened. A couple of the side quests ultimately add nothing significant (like getting the “pinch” to blow the electrical system). There are also several plot holes and unexplained factors that could distract you or leave you wondering. The ending doesn’t sit as well with me as the original did, either.
But ultimately, this new version is so different from the original that it hardly seems like a remake. Even if it were a more straight-on rehashing, just adding Steven Soderbergh’s visual touch would make it better than the 1960 film. It’s smart, funny, charming, tricky and exciting. Where as that version was campy fun, this is actual, legitimate fun with no guilty pleasure aftertaste.
Saturday, February 05, 2005
Welcome to February. It's the month full of Oscar hype and black history pride (so far, virtually mutually exclusive). To start off the month, I'm coming to you with neither to offer. I bring you a little seen documentary and that old Ocean's 11 look I've been promising for so long. The contemporary versions are on the way. I'll also be looking at some past Oscar contenders all month long (and hopefully all year long) as well as some films that could maybe be considered for the latter (if you stretch your imagination). So, check back often.
Ocean’s Eleven (1960)
Review by Jon Waterman
Danny Ocean and his buddies from the 82nd Airborne are getting together for a little reunion. This isn’t a time for them to sit back and talk about their days in the war. No, instead they’re gathering to go on one last mission. The plan is to use their combined expertise to pull off the biggest heist in history. On New Years Eve, five Las Vegas casinos will be hit simultaneously. But can they pull it off? Will they get caught? Forget that. First they have to worry about whether or not they can get the whole crew back and in on the deal.
You can’t accurately describe this movie without mentioning the Rat Pack. You got the whole gang here, along with many other supporting characters including Henry Silva, Norman Fell, and Cesar Romero (just to name a select few). The attitude that comes with the established camaraderie is a very light-hearted, easy-going one. It looks like all the characters/actors are having a lot of fun and that translates back to the audience. However, it does not make for very good performances. Even the more seasoned actors in the Pack, like Frank Sinatra (an Oscar Winner for “From Here to Eternity”) and Peter Lawford just go about their time on screen as if it’ll never be shown to the public.
The whole relationship aspect of the film also hurts the story, in a sense. Too much time is spent locating and convincing the army buddies to join up. It would be nice if there were a way to handle two or three at a time, instead of just one. You almost get to the point where you wonder if the heist aspect of the movie will ever actually happen. After the heist, you have an insanely long resolution period, too. Director Lewis Milestone (“All Quiet on the Western Front”) must have felt the urge to include everything that happened at every location in the film, when it really wasn’t necessary. The point is there’s not enough meat on the plate. At slightly over two hours, some of that fat should have been trimmed, or maybe even made into a sequel.
The film tries to be funnier than it should be. Most of the time, the humor is very flat and dryly delivered. They are oddly placed, as well. In the middle of a key sequence, there will be a pause for some comedic attempt, then go right back to the narrative. Sometimes, they just needed to let go and allow the scene to play out naturally. Like I said, the cast is obviously having fun with the film; there’s no need to go overboard with corny one-liners.
I wish I could say this film was “a thrilling adventure,” or “a magnificent, daring caper.” Instead, I have to tell it straight and say this is just a movie where the Rat Pack got together and had some fun in Vegas. Assign characters, add a couple of so-so songs, put it on film and there you go. It’s still fun, just in a campy way.
Masters of the Pillow
Yellowcaust: A Patriot Act
Reviews by Jon Waterman
MotP – *1/2
Y: APA – *
Dr. Darrell Y. Hamamoto, Professor at the University of California, Davis, wrote a paper concerning Asian Americans’ place in society – sexually speaking. He believes that the severe lack of Asian-American representation in the adult film industry is hurting the perception of the Asian male. If a change were made, and more Asian males were to penetrate the market – as it were – then they would be seen in a more favorable light and be more desirable to the opposite sex. If you want change, you have to do it yourself. So, Dr. Hamamoto sets out on a quest to shoot his own pornographic film.
The documentary, by James Hou, provides good insight about the topic. It’s filled with interviews of mostly famous Asian Americans from various walks of life. Each gives his or her opinion on the good doctor’s project and its potential repercussions. The discussions are varied, and it’s clear that the perceived ramifications are anything but. A couple of senior citizen males also say their piece on the matter (as well as provide the best and most hilarious sound bytes), but there isn’t enough variance in the participants. I’d like to hear from a fuller spectrum. It should cover all ages of Asian Americans and hit the streets to get the reaction from the general public. See what other races think of the idea. I doubt a clearer consensus would be formed, but if nothing else, it would inform them that this potential revolution is in the works.
Intertwined with the interviews is Hou’s quest to get his movie made. We see a very little bit about the casting process, which should have been a more formative, substantially important chunk. I’d rather hear the phone conversations with candidates than see the chosen one get picked up at the airport. The real meat (sorry) of the section is the day of the shoot. We essentially see everything that’s going on – kept in softcore mode for the easily offended or weak, etc. that shouldn’t be watching the movie to begin with. There’s some decent behind the scenes footage here, but mostly it’s us looking at a camera that’s looking at the sexual activity.
Just like Hamamoto’s concept, it’s an interesting idea, but there’s not much to it other than that. I guess the best way to sum up the movie is to say that there should be more of it. I’d like to hear from more people. I’d like to see more of the filmmaking process. I certainly want to know what happened after the movie was released.
However, if it’s the short film that accompanied this feature, “Yellowcaust: A Patriot Act,” I can already assure you that no impact was made. This is Dr. Hamamoto’s video. You can see all the full-fledged action between the two Asian American stars. The reason I know it will do nothing to sway society’s opinion is because it is made too artistically. That’s not to say the production value is high, because it’s not even close to being good. It’s to say that the sound mix and the applied message come off as too pretentious. If he really wants to see Asian American’s make it in porn, he needs to show that the pornographic work can stand on its own as such. His short hides in the guise of pornography. I’m not sure the best way to approach the problem is to have two Asian Americans on screen together. If you really want to boost the perception of the Asian-American male as a sexual creature, he should be paired with women of a different race. Two Asians can be seen all over the place. The fact that they might also be American, I don’t believe, would resonate with any new impact or importance.