Category Archives: Capsule Reviews

AFI Fest 2011: Day Seven (Thursday)

And this completes the festival for another year. All told, I saw 21 features and about the same number of shorts, which is probably my highest festival total ever. A few of them will likely be on my best-of year lists, a few are hovering way down at the bottom of my Flickchart lists, and that’s the way a festival should be. Overall, I judge it a major success, and I’m already looking forward to the next time I can gorge on films to the point of exhaustion (likely to be April’s TCM Classic Film Festival). Until then, I return to the ranks of ordinary cinemagoer.

The Kid with a Bike

I’ve never seen a film from the Dardenne brothers before, but I know them by reputation, and they seem to often do stories that deal with unwanted or unwelcome children. In this case, the main character is an eleven-year-old kid whose dad puts him in an orphanage (“temporarily”) but then ends up abandoning him totally. A kind neighbor takes him in, despite a rather inauspicious meeting, but they’ve got several bumps in the road left to go, not least of them the kid’s temptation to fall in with a bad crowd. It’s a bit on the sweet side, but doesn’t stray too far into saccharine territory – really good turns from Doret and De France help a lot, making an unlikely relationship realistic and meaningful. There’s not enough in the film to really push it over the edge into “loved” territory for me, but it’s solid for what it is. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.
2011 Belgium. Directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Starring: Thomas Doret, Cécile De France, Jérémie Renier.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

This is one I went into with really no quality expectations whatsoever. I chose it because I’d never seen a Turkish film, and because I like slow burn procedural films – to a point. I was a bit concerned that this would go past that point, because it is very long and I was perfectly prepared to be bored stiff. But even though it is very slow, it is never boring, and I ended up liking the film a whole lot more than I thought I would. A caravan of police and army officers are escorting a pair of suspects in the middle of nowhere, trying to find a body that one suspect says is out there, but can’t remember exactly where. This odyssey takes all night, and along the way, different groupings of the police and suspects talk. The topics of conversation are as mundane as anything, but over time, this mundanity becomes the real focus, and takes on in importance even greater than the body they seek. It’s a narrative subversion that only works because of a really solid script and believable acting turns by the whole cast, and it’s a welcome one – by the end, you care more about these people’s individual lives than the mystery itself. There’s a lot more dry humor in it than I expected, too, which actually made the nearly three-hour runtime go by rather quickly. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.
2011 Turkey. Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel.

The Loneliest Planet

I’m not entirely sure what to say about this film, even after having had a few weeks to think about it. It’s an extremely slowly-paced film, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that – unless it’s 10pm the last day of an exhausting festival, which, oh wait, it was. It was difficult to stay awake in the film, but again, that’s not the film’s fault, and though I struggled while watching it, thinking back about it has made me appreciate a lot of what it was doing more. Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garcia Bernal play a couple about to be married who are vacationing in the mountains of Georgia (the country, not the state), backpacking and camping along with a mountain guide. A lot of the film is just them walking around, maybe taking a few minutes to wander around an abandoned house or interacting with village locals before heading out into the wilds. They converse some, trying to learn about their guide (who is actually played by one of the premier mountaineers in the world) and practicing bits of Spanish, but a lot of it is also wordless. Somewhere in the middle a traumatizing event causes Furstenberg’s character to start distrusting Bernal’s, which leads to some darker places in the rest of the film. A lot of this is pretty subtle, and I was frankly too sleepy to catch all the acting nuances all the time, but the Q&A and thinking over the film in the subsequent days has definitely made me want a rewatch at some point. Reaction: LIKED.
2011 Germany/USA. Director: Julia Loktev. Starring: Hani Furstenberg, Gael García Bernal, Bidzina Gujabidze.

AFI Fest 2011: Day Five (Tuesday)

Tuesday was almost a day full of shorts (it could’ve been – they ran all four shorts programs back to back in the same theatre without reticketing, a very tempting prospect), but I punctuated it with a quiet little feature from Korean director Hong Sang-soo. Unfortunately both that and some of the shorts in the later program suffered a little due to my own tiredness. By this point in the festival, it was getting hard to ignore. But I still had a great time and saw some fantastic shorts. Next year I may just plan to see all the shorts programs. I enjoy them a whole lot.

Shorts Program 2

This shorts program turned out to be one of mostly long shorts – 25-30 minutes each. That’s longer than most shorts I’ve seen at festivals, but these were all really strong. Really, I wish more filmmakers would just make shorts like this instead of features a lot of the time – a lot of indie features are stretched longer than they need to be just to attain feature length. I realize shorts longer than 10 minutes are often difficult to place at festivals, so I’m really glad AFI stepped up and made room for shorts of this length. These all have the production values of theatrical-release features, just at a shorter length. Clearly I’m not the only one who appreciated them, either, as several of the shorts from this section featured in the audience and jury awards at the end of the festival.

Unmanned – A young Air Force drone pilot blows up enemy targets remotely by day, then returns home to his wife and son in sunny LA at night – a pretty good gig for the former video game addict until a few events transpire to make him rethink how easy it is to blow up the wrong target from thousands of miles away. The film isn’t preachy, though – it’s obvious, but sincere in the way it makes its points. Very high quality production all around, too, from the cinematography and direction t to the screenplay and acting. This was a senior project for AFI conservatory students, and these students are definitely ready. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.
Broken Night – A Korean film balanced between tragedy and comedy, as a man who practices insurance fraud (getting into planned fender-benders with accomplices in order to get insurance payouts) ends up trapped by his own game when a pair of motorcycling kids pull the same trick on him – except things get bloodier and more effed up as the night goes on. Some really solid acting, especially from the main actor, and a lot of “whoa, holy crap!” moments. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.
Frozen Stories – A droll Polish comedy, as dry as dry can be, about a pair of bored and lackluster grocery store employees (declared by the manager as “worst employees of the month”) who join forces to try to win a spot on the TV program “Who is the World’s Most Unhappy Person.” The whole store pitches in to help them (assigning them the worst tasks, refusing to help them get things done, etc, to make them more unhappy), at the behest of the manager, who hopes that having a goal, any goal, will help them out. Shot in a very bright, overexposed style that only increases the bleakness of the situation, this film turned out to be one of my favorite shorts of the festival. Reaction: LOVED.
Babyland – At first I thought this was going to be another abortion drama (like Another Bullet Dodged from Shorts Program #3, which I didn’t care for very much), but there’s a lot more to it. The main character isn’t pregnant, but she wants to be, and pretends she is to try to hold on her (married) boyfriend. She’s kinda messed up, but believably so once you see her home life. There’s one overly convenient twist, but it works for the narrative, and the end is a total shock, in a good way. It genre-hops more than you’d expect in a 25-minute film, but I really enjoyed how it approached its story. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.
Infinite Moments – A circular story, which I always like, showing a bunch of hospital workers and what they’re doing at a specific moment in time – so you see/hear the same events from about six or eight different perspectives. I don’t think the timing actually works to bring it back around at the end, but it’s still a lot of fun to see pieces you only vaguely knew about from previous perspectives fall into place later in the film. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.

The Day He Arrives

This one has been at the top of my must-see list for the festival since it was announced, since Hong Sang-soo’s film HaHaHa was my favorite film of last year’s AFIFest. And I did see it, but I’m disappointed to say that I was exhausted and zoning in and out throughout it. As such, I can’t really justify reviewing it fully, but here’s a few bits about it from my half-remembered daze. It’s got a lot less story than HaHaHa did, but similar to that film (and other Hong films, from what I’ve heard), a lot of it involves people conversing over drinks. In fact, that’s mostly what this film is, but Hong is so good at sussing out great little moments and character interactions in social situations like this that it remains enjoyable to watch, and I expect would be really good if I had been awake enough to catch more nuances. The main character is a filmmaker who arrives in a small town, intending to meet up with a friend, but he gets waylaid by a fan first, then a bunch of film students, then visits a former girlfriend (awesome awkward conversation there), then ends up killing some time with a friend of his friend, since his friend isn’t home. Eventually there are four of them, hanging out over drinks and chatting – this stuff is great, and seems to come really easily to Hong. This basically feels like a recharge film, a quickly produced affair maybe as he’s working on something more complicated. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There are some really interesting conversational tacks, all carried out with aplomb by the charismatic cast. There’s also some timey-wimey stuff going on – one section of the film is repeated almost verbatim twice, but with slight differences, and the end is basically the beginning, except his friend turns out to be home. I’m dying to see it again to connect that stuff up properly, but I can’t, having dozed off enough to make deciphering timey-wimey stuff impossible. The worst part is I have no idea when, if ever, I’ll get a chance to rewatch this – Hong’s stuff is not easy to find in the US. Reaction: LIKED, might improve on rewatch

2011 South Korea. Director: Hong Sang-soo. Starring: Jun-Sang Yu, Sang Jung Kim, Bo-kyung Kim, Seon-mi Song.

Shorts Program 1

I’d planned to see Shorts Program 1 because I knew it included The Eagleman Stag, which I’d already seen at the LA Film Festival but have been dying to see again, but was thrilled to discover the whole program was animation. I LOVE animated shorts. They’re probably the most creative and innovative films out there right now, and I always look forward to seeing what people can come up with. This program had a ton of variety, in animation technique, tone, and length. It was a great way to end the evening.

Maska – Okay, I basically slept through this one, a rather long (25 minutes or so) Polish stop-motion version of a Stanislaw Lem short story. That all sounds great, and Polish stop-motion is definitely freaky (think of Czech stop motion and then think of Polish movie posters, and you’ll have the general idea), but it was a little slow and quiet for my amount of energy. Reaction: NONE
Night Hunter – Another relatively long one, but this one held my interest a little better, largely because I was fascinated that it’s basically a horror story starring Lillian Gish, as the animator used film still cutouts from Gish’s 1910s and 1920s films to create the character. It’s fairly on the experimental side, with a lot of creepy sound design and unusual animation techniques filling in for a sparse story. Reaction: LIKED.
To Die By Your Side – This one perked me up, and I was fully alert for the rest of the program. :) Co-directed by Spike Jonze, this is a jaunty stop-motion affair with a bunch of figures off book covers (in Shakespeare & Co.!) carousing after the shop is closed, with a skeleton and a girl falling in love and trying to figure out (delightfully) how to manage that given their different states of, uh, aliveness. Reaction: LOVED.
Once It Started It Could Not Have Ended Otherwise – Much more intriguing in concept than execution, this film uses cut-out yearbook photos to suggest the underlying sinister aspects of this particular high school. The idea is great, and a lot of individual elements work really well, but the script just doesn’t go far enough. Reaction: LIKED.
The Eagleman Stag – I’ve already stated above that I loved this short at LAFF. It’s basically paper cut-out stop-motion, but with an all-white aesthetic that’s really unique and lovely, but it also has an incredible script, with the main character musing on the nature of time. It’s very philosophical, but moves very quickly – the second time watching it was actually better, because I was able to concentrate on the voiceover much more. The film won the Best Short award at both LAFF and AFI, and I’m pretty sure it would’ve won an Oscar, but apparently it didn’t get submitted in time or something. Bummer. The whole film is not online, but you can see a trailer that gives a good idea of its style and tone here. Reaction: LOVED.
Libertas – This very personal film is about the animator’s childhood moving from Singapore to Australia, done in a very low-fi and scruffy hand-drawn style. There’s not a lot to it (it’s only 3 minutes long), but it was a nice and different addition to the line-up. Reaction: LIKED.
Zergüt – Part high-speed photography, part stop-motion, exploration of the insides of a refrigerator. Basically, food pr0n, but with really stylish slow-motion photography. Lots of smashing things. No real story or anything, but some nice visuals. Reaction: LIKED.
One Minute Puberty – One of the shortest films here (though slightly longer than a minute), a fast-moving hand-drawn look at a boy’s growth through adolescence. It’s fun and funny. And it’s right here. Reaction: LIKED.
Dr. Breakfast – A man gets breakfast ready then his soul gets super-excited and jumps out his eye, gobbling up the breakfast and then whizzing around the world after more breakfast, leaving the man’s catatonic body behind to be cared for by a pair of talking deer. Sound absurd? Yes. And AWESOME. This short is hilarious, bizarre, and fantastic – great high to leave the fest that night. And you can see it right here! Reaction: LOVED.

Scorecard: August 2011

A long time ago I used to do a monthly round-up of films I saw during the month. I stopped doing it when I started writing for Row Three, but I don’t really have time to write up full reviews for everything over there. Some capsules go into our joint Movies We Watched series, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to do a quick little overview of everything I watched over here as well, if only because so many films seem to be getting by without me voicing my opinion on them at all, and I don’t like that. Note that if I DID write a capsule in Movies We Watched, I’ll likely copy it over here with only slight modifications.

So here’s everything I saw in August – not a very long list; I’ve been missing my 15-movies-a-month goal lately, but film festival months (in which I often watch 25 or more) make up for it. You can always see the latest films I’ve watched listed on my Watching page, and my running Best list on my Best of This Year page.

What I Loved

Attack the Block

After hearing about this film from all the geek and fanboy blogs for months, I went into it interested, but wary; these things get overhyped easily. But all the praise for Attack the Block is fully warranted. In a summer of costumed superheroes, this movie has hoodie thugs from South London. In a summer of flashy CGI, this movie has barely-seen yet terrifying alien creatures. In a summer of fun but relatively shallow action films, this movie has a raft of fully-developed characters, each with their own arc. It manages to successfully blend high-octane thrills with social commentary, the way good sci-fi/horror should, without ever condescending. I had a great time with this film, and it’ll stick with me for a while.
2011 UK. Director: Joe Cornish. Starring: John Bogeya, Jodie Whittaker, Luke Treadaway, Nick Frost.
Seen August 13 at an AMC multiplex.

The Grapes of Wrath

This is one that has been on my List of Shame (great films that I SHOULD’VE seen by now) for ten or fifteen years now. Literally. I’m not sure why I’ve put it off so long, other than it rather seemed like a film that would be more message-y and depressing than I prefer. I should’ve known better. Photographed by Gregg Toland, the low light, high-contrast look of the film makes it almost a proto-noir. That Expressionist surrealism lends an unearthly quality to the otherwise very earthy and mundane story of Oklahoma farmers pushed off their land in the Dust Bowl. The journey is at times excruciating, but in grand Old Hollywood style, it never fails to be gripping, and the suspense surrounding Fonda’s fugitive status was a welcome surprise for me. That said, it’s definitely Darwell who steals the show, getting the most poignant moments of all as Fonda’s long-suffering mother.
1940 USA. Director: John Ford. Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine.
Seen August 6 on Netflix Instant Watch.

Batman: The Movie

From The Grapes of Wrath to Batman, eh? That’s how I roll. Look, this movie is ridiculous. It has a ridiculous script, filled with preposterous circumstances, idiotic line readings, he most inscrutable riddles ever, and not just one, but THREE villains after Batman and Robin. Oh, and an exploding shark. It’s at least five times campier even than the Adam West TV show. And I loved every second of it.
1966 USA. Director: Leslie H. Martinson. Starring: Adam West, Burt Ward, Frank Gorshin, Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero.
Seen August 29 on Netflix Instant Watch.

What I Liked

For a Few Dollars More

I finally finished Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy this month, having watched them all out of order. Thankfully, it’s only a loose trilogy, so it doesn’t much matter what order you see them in. This middle chapter takes a robbery/revenge plot involving Lee van Cleef, a bounty hunter who competes with laconic Clint Eastwood for a bounty on a notorious outlaw in the midst of a plan to rob a bank. The central robbery itself is pretty cool to watch in planning and execution, and it’s interesting for a western to spend so much time with both the “good guys” and “bad guys”. The audacity of the daylight robbery fits right in with the visual flair of the film in general and the (as always) epic score from Ennio Morricone. Perhaps most interesting is how much of a side seat Eastwood takes to the main drive of the plot, even standing aside while van Cleef stands off with his lifelong nemesis.
1965 Italy. Director: Sergio Leone. Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee van Cleef, Gian Maria Volonté.
Seen August 20 on Blu-ray.


And another from my List of Shame, one that many many people have been nagging me to watch for a very long time. I had put it off after being less than enthused with the first film when I saw it ages ago (but I do want to rewatch it now), but I ended up quite enjoying it. It’s a great example of how to build a good and suspenseful action story; it stays full throttle for most of the time, but it never loses sight of Ripley, and it allows her to gradually build into the action heroine she is at the end by using traits and skills established early on. The emotional throughline involving Newt is predictable, but effective. My one complaint with the film is the over-determined machismo of the marines – I got the point, but some of those early boasting scenes went on far too long. Overall, though, a more than solid film that more sci-fi actioners should learn from.
1986 USA. Director: James Cameron. Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Paul Resier, Bill Paxton.
Seen August 27 on DVD.

Taking Off

I went into this not knowing anything about it other than it was directed by Milos Forman. Turns out it was his first film in the United States, the story of a teenager “taking off” to live with her hippie friends and leaving her parents to search for her plays out in a combination of wistful musical numbers (by such up and comers as Carly Simon and Kathy Bates; Ike and Tina Turner show up for a more rousing tune) and dryly absurd scenarios involving the parents. In fact, we spend most of our time with the parents as they stumble around trying to figure out what to do and how to make sense of the changing world – a scene where they go to a meeting of parents of runaway children and learn to smoke marijuana is priceless. But infused in all the hilarity and absurdity is a very real sense of yearning, a need to connect both across generations and within your own. It’s a fascinating film – often ridiculous, but just as often genuinely moving.
1971 USA. Director: Milos Forman. Starring: Buck Henry, Lynn Carlin, Linnea Hitchcock, Georgia Engel.
Seen August 24 at Cinefamily.

Scarlet Street

I watched The Woman in the Window a few weeks ago liked it enough to want to check out this film, made the year later with the same director and lead cast. It begins with a similar setup, with Robinson as a mild-mannered middle-aged man who bonds with some peers while wondering whether he could ever be attractive to a young woman. When he saves damsel in distress Joan Bennett from an apparent attacker, it seems the answer might be yes, but Bennett somehow gathers from his discussion of the amateur art he does that he makes a lot of money from it and she and her boyfriend set out to swindle him out of it, playing on his gullible infatuation with her. The plotting in The Woman in the Window is a bit stronger overall, but this one has the advantage of not copping out the ending.
1945 USA. Director: Fritz Lang. Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea.
Seen August 15 on Netflix Instant Watch.

Zazie dans le metro

I’ve been looking forward to seeing this for YEARS, ever since I first heard of it and learned that it wasn’t available in the US basically at all. The combination of New Wave era Louis Malle and playfully postmodern writer Raymond Queneau attracted me greatly, so when Criterion announced the disc, I knew it’d be a blind buy. And now that I’ve seen it, I’m not entirely sure what I make of it. I enjoyed watching it, but it is much more non-linear and absurdist than I expected, with Zazie’s trip to Paris to stay with her uncle pretty much going every which way. There are probably satirical themes under the surface that I simply didn’t get on a single viewing (or may not at all, with my almost wholly-cinematically based knowledge of the era). Yet, even superficially it’s an awfully fun ride, akin to Tati’s Playtime, but with more obscure themes.
1960 France. Director: Louis Malle. Starring: Philippe Noiret, Catherine Demongeot, Hubert Deschamps, Carla Marlier.
Seen August 13 on Blu-ray.

What I Thought Was Okay

The Barker

I didn’t realize until I saw the list of characters in the credits that this is the same story as Hoop-la, Clara Bow’s final film (1933) which I saw at the TCM Festival this year. There are some notable differences, especially that this film stays focused on the older title character, a carnival barker. The Bow film is slightly rewritten (more than slightly toward the end) to focus on her character, who is decidedly secondary here. Unfortunately, this film is pretty rote without the luminous presence of Bow, and it’s difficult to refrain from comparing them. The one major interesting thing about The Barker is that it’s right on the cusp of the sound revolution, and has several sequences in full synchronized sound, while others remain fully silent, with title cards and everything. For that bit of historical curiosity alone it’s worth checking out.
1928 USA. Director: George Fitzmaurice. Starring: Milton Sills, Dorothy Mackaill, Betty Compson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Seen August 3 at Cinefamily.

Bonnie’s Kids

It’s hard to know where to put movies like this, a soft-core exploitation film from the 1970s. I tend to find these films laughably fun, and that’s pretty much where Bonnie’s Kids fell, but it’s by no means an actual good film. Tiffany Bolling and Robin Mattson are the two kids, but Bonnie has already died before the picture starts, leaving her young daughters (one in her early 20s, the other about 15) with a potentially abusive stepfather in a town of apparent statutory rapists in waiting. They skedaddle to Hollywood where their uncle lives, and get embroiled in some sort of thievery plot he’s got going on. Part crime, part T&A, not particularly memorable nor absurd enough to be up there with Batman, but a fun bad movie to watch.
1973 USA. Director: Arthur Marks. Starring: Tiffany Bolling, Steve Sandor, Robin Mattson.
Seen August 13 on DVD.

Films seen in August: 10
Films seen in theatres in August: 3
List of Shame films seen in August: 3
2011 films seen in August: 1
1980s films seen in August: 1
1970s films seen in August: 2
1960s films seen in August: 3
1940s films seen in August: 2
1920s films seen in August: 1
American films seen in August: 7
French films seen in August: 1
British films seen in August: 1
Italian films seen in August: 1

Independent and World Cinema: Catch-Up Post

I’m being arbitrary once again with my definition of “independent.” In this category, I’m going to include a) indie or non-mainstream films that are not new releases, like the first two films below, and b) new release films that are truly small films, i.e., did not get a lot of studio publicity and a wide release, and probably were not financed by a major studio, even their speciality arms. I don’t always know about the financing side, though, so I don’t want to use that as an absolute standard, even though it should be. Basically, this means that films like Juno or No Country for Old Men would appear in the New on DVD category rather than here. When in doubt, my logic goes “if a moviegoer who only goes to multiplexes knows about the film, it doesn’t go in the independent category.” I want to use it to highlight lesser-known films.

When I start writing on a film-by-film basis, Indie Cinema and World Cinema will be separate categories; I just threw them together here because there weren’t too many of either one.

Kicking and Screaming
NOT the Will Ferrell soccer movie. :) No, this is an early film from the guy who did The Squid and the Whale, one of my favorite movies from a couple of years ago. And this one is similarly excellent, though with much less plot. Basically take Slacker, throw in some Metropolitan, and then maybe a dash of Wes Anderson. The nominal plot follows a group of recent college graduates trying to figure out what to do next with their lives (a concept that hit very close to home among our group of grad students; after all, why else were we getting graduate degrees in English if not because we were unable to figure out what to do after college?). The story falls off a bit toward the end, but the characters are so identifiable and the script so outstanding that it comes very close to Richard Linklater’s best, which is a high compliment from me. Also, the cover of the Criterion edition is quite possibly the most awesome DVD cover ever, so I’m using it in lieu of the poster. Click on it to see it bigger and read the quotes, which are good in context, but perhaps even better out of context. ;)
Well Above Average
USA 1995; dir: Noah Baumbach; starring: Chris Eigeman, Samuel Gould, Olivia d’Abo
IMDb | The Frame

Dazed and Confused
My experience with other Linklater films had me anticipating this one to a possibly unhealthy degree, and it didn’t live up to my expectations. I think he does better with college and later than with high school, because Dazed and Confused was all right, but not great. Basically it follows a couple of freshmen as they try to survive the hazing given them by the older students and ingratiate themselves into the booze-and-drug ridden high school world. Yay! *eyeroll* It’s not that that story couldn’t work, it’s just that it doesn’t – it doesn’t go anywhere, and in a much less satisfying way than the way, say, Slacker didn’t go anywhere. I think because it felt like it was meant to go somewhere, whereas Slacker fit the meandering style much better. Plus, any movie wherein Matthew McConaughey (who I usually can’t stand) is the most entertaining part? Yeah.
USA 1993; dir: Richard Linklater; starring: Jason London, Rory Cochrane, Wiley Wiggins
IMDb | The Frame

Wristcutters: A Love Story
While the opening credits run, Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) slits his wrists. Soon he finds himself in a limbo-esque place, full of other suicides who all go about relatively normal lives – working dead-end (no pun intended) jobs and wandering around aimlessly. It sort of reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s hell in The Great Divorce; just a dismal, grey place characterized more by depression and boredom than pain. Anyway, Shannyn Sossamon shows up one day, claiming that she’s not supposed to be there because she didn’t commit suicide. She snags Fugit and another friend and they start seeking whoever runs the place to fix the apparent administrative mix-up. Oh, and they’re also looking for Fugit’s ex-girlfriend, who committed suicide a few weeks after he did. I could go on with the plot; there’s a commune at one point, and a guy with Jesus delusions (played by the guy who played Gob on Arrested Development; I have such a hard time disassociating him with that role enough to see him in anything else), etc. Even though the story gets fairly unbelievable at times, even for a film that’s about suicide-limbo, it remains quirkily engaging.
Above Average
USA 2006; dir: Goran Dukic; starring: Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon, Will Arnett
IMDb | The Frame

Hannah Takes the Stairs
I’m not wholly against considering films like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno as indie films, despite the fact that they had financing from specialty divisions of major studios and clearly straddle the line between mainstream and indie, but sometimes I’m tempted to just point at films like Hannah Takes the Stairs and say “Now THIS is an independent film.” Swanberg, Gerwig, and a group of other filmmakers including Ronald and Mary Bronstein, Mark and Jay Duplass (whose Baghead is in limited release now), and Andrew Bujalsi have made a number of films at this point loosely grouped together by critics under the name “Mumblecore.” Hannah got wider distribution than most of the others, but still was hardly seen outside of New York, Los Angeles, and Austin. Following a largely improvised script, Hannah is a twenty-something struggling through a failing relationship with her boyfriend and the possibility of relationships with two of her coworkers. There isn’t much more plot to mention, and the film comes under perhaps deserved criticism for its lack of development and the frustrating uncertainty of its heroine. On the other hand, there’s a rawness here that feels more real than most films, a rawness that gets polished away by the mainstream, a rawness I found quite refreshing. I certainly wouldn’t say that all films should be more like Hannah, but I think it’s important that there’s a space in the filmmaking/distribution world for these willfully non-mainstream films that push the envelope by refusing to play by the rules.
Above Average
USA 2007; dir: Joe Swanberg; starring: Greta Gerwig, Mark Duplass, Andrew Bujalski
IMDb | The Frame

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Fabulous. But then, you pretty much have to call any half-way decent film about three drag queens driving a bus (the eponymous Priscilla) through the Australian outback in outlandish costumes (and sometimes lipsynching to opera while sitting in an enormous shoe strapped on top of the bus) fabulous. Hugo Weaving is the one with the secret former marriage and son, Terence Stamp the aging one who tends to be somewhat bitter but can also be the consummate lady, and Guy Pearce is the flamboyant youth. As they move through the Outback toward their next proposed gig as lipsynching dancers, they run into mechanical difficulties, bigotry, and interpersonal conflicts. Ultimately, though, it’s a fun journey, at least for the audience if not necessarily for the three guys. Let me just say, though, that Hugo Weaving makes one ugly woman. Also interesting to see Guy Pearce before his big Hollywood roles – as my Australian friend Anna pointed out, I wonder who saw this film and thought, “you know what, I bet he’d be perfect for that straight-laced cop in L.A. Confidential!”
Above Average
Australia 1994; dir: Stephan Elliott; starring: Hugo Weaving, Terence Stamp, Guy Pearce
IMDb | The Frame

I’m working on my appreciation for Japanese film. I’m getting there with anime, especially Miyazaki, but even Kurosawa I often don’t connect to on the level I would like. My friend Kat suggested I try Kwaidan, since she feels roughly the same way and now places Kwaidan among her all-time favorite films. Unfortunately, I don’t know whether it’s because I watched it during a time of moving stress or what, but it didn’t have the same effect on me. Basically, it’s a collection of unrelated ghost stories, none of which are particularly scary. Or memorable, to me. Well, there was one I quite liked, about a blind monk who gets drawn away from the monastery at night to recite poems to a mystical court which only he can see. Honestly, most of the others I don’t remember. Given my level of distraction, though, I’ll put it on the rewatch list.
Japan 1966; dir: Masaki Kobayashi; starring: Katsuo Nakamura, Rentaro Mikuni, Tatsuyo Nakadai
IMDb | The Frame

New Releases: Catch-Up Reviews

I’m going to stop doing the monthly recap posts and instead try to write reviews/reactions more consistently throughout the month. Since I haven’t actually posted on anything I’ve watched since February, I need to do a few catch-up posts, which I’ve decided to separate into film categories (New Releases, New DVDs, World Cinema, Great Directors, etc.) rather than by month. Honestly, the monthly format was more useful for me than it was for any of you – after all, you don’t care when I saw a film, so keeping everything as strictly chronological as I used to do is fairly pointless. A thematic arrangement makes more sense.

So with no further ado, here’s the first of several catch-up posts; this contains all the theatrical new releases I’ve seen since February: Penelope, Leatherheads, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Iron Man, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

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