Archive for February, 2008

Bitter Sweetheart and Commit.

February 29, 2008

Bitter Sweetheart is a Swedish coming of age comedy/drama. The main character is Lina, who tells us in the opening voice over that she’s “not” a lot of things, like pretty or popular. She also worries about dying a virgin.

She’s 15 years old. Right…

The other key characters are her two girlfriends and a couple of very different boys. I hate to say much more about the plot, but I will say that I loved the message that the film left me with. Someone else reminded me that there’s also a great scene with Lina and her mother, and that the cinematography is also quite nice.

If you have a chance to see this film, I definitely recommend it. Just look past the slightly too frequent vomiting scenes.

I’ll give it a weak 3.5 stars out of 4 stars.

Commit. (the title does include the period) is a very low budget, very talky drama. “Sylvia” and “Steiner” met online, and as the film opens they meet in person for the first time in a coffee shop. They quickly learn far more about each other than you would expect two people to reveal on a first date. Or is this a first date?

The film appears to have been made very cheaply. It looks to have been filmed on standard definition video, with persistent SpastiCam™ and very long takes (only three for the entire film, with one for each act). The lead actress is the writer/director’s wife, in her feature debut. The lead actor is also in his acting debut.

Considering the participant’s lack of prior experience and the low budget, the film isn’t bad. The long take gimmick is kind of cool, so long as the shaky camera isn’t a problem for you. But the performances only seem real about half the time, and too often are pretty amateur. I can only marginally recommend it.

I’ll give it 2.5 stars out of 4 stars. Lower for those prone to nausea.

Both seen 2/28/2008 at Cinequest.

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Cinequest 18 opening night: Eden Court

February 28, 2008

Cinequest 18, the San Jose film festival, opened last night. The head of the festival started things off with the usual thanking of the sponsors and pumping up the importance of what is coming up over the next week and a half. He introduced a local TV guy, which had me quietly groaning because usually that is a painfully useless part of the evening. But this guy, whose name I forget, actually had some film memories to share that were worth the time.

Then he introduced the director, Paul Leuer, of the opening night film, which was the world premiere of Eden Court. The first-time director said that one person in a million really lives their dream, and that this is a “dark romantic comedy” about the other 999,999.

The main characters are Shroeder and Bonnie. He had a shot at a professional baseball career but now cuts the grass at a minor league ball park and lives in a trailer park. He thinks there can be more.

Well, I sure hope there’s more to Cinequest than this film. The acting was horrible and the writing was mostly not much better, though it had a few good moments that made the rest of the sitcomesque story seem even worse in contrast. There were a few laughs, though mostly of the guilty pleasure variety. The production values were reasonable, with Peter Biagi (infamous from “Project Greenlight”) as the director of photography.

I’ll give it 2 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 2/27/2008 at the California Theater in San Jose, CA.

Oscar® Reactions, 2008

February 27, 2008

In the big 8 categories, I was 6 out of 8, missing both of the female acting categories. I haven’t seen La Vie En Rose (which won) or I’m Not There (which I predicted but which did not win), so it’s hard to say if the Academy® got these right or not.

In the remaining categories I missed another 6. The biggest surprises to me were Elizabeth: The Golden Age winning for costumes, since films that are poorly reviewed rarely win anything, and Taxi to the Dark Side winning for documentary feature over both No End in Sight and Sicko. I was glad to be wrong on Taxi, since it’s a film that should be more widely seen (IMDb shows it having made under $100,000 through February 17th).

And poor Kevin O’Connell, who still has zero wins out of 20 nominations.

Juno

February 25, 2008

This was the last of the Oscar® best picture nominees I saw. For any who are keeping track, I didn’t review Michael Clayton here on the blog since I watched it at home on DVD.

I expected Juno to be a very well made comedy with hyper-witty (and possibly annoying) dialog. What I got was all that plus a lot more. As they say on my favorite podcast, it got “a little dusty” in the theater a couple of times—it touched me.

The performances are almost all great. Ellen Page continues to impress, and I wouldn’t have been upset if she had pulled off an upset in the lead actress category last night. But the rest of the primary cast, from unexpected father-to-be Michael Cera, to parents J.K Simmons and Allison Janney, and even would-be adoptive parents Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, were all really good. While I found the dialog mostly fun, I’ll give first time screenwriter (and Oscar® winner as of last night) Diablo Cody even more credit for the overall arc of the story. And director Jason Reitman also gets credit for keeping things simple and classic, and for letting his great actors shine.

I’ll give it 4 stars out of 4 stars, and I’ll even name it my favorite of the best picture nominees.

Seen 2/22/2008.

Atonement

February 24, 2008

If it hadn’t been nominated for a best picture Oscar®, I might not have seen Atonement. Like last year’s Dreamgirls, it had huge buzz before it came out, but mixed reviews when it eventually did. But this was a much better film than I expected.

The main characters are Cecilia Talis (Keira Knightley), her 13-year-old sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan), and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the housekeeper’s son. Briony starts the film finishing a play that she intends to stage using the other children staying at the huge country house during World War II. The sound of manual typewriters are featured prominently, and the literate, intelligent sense permeates the film, in a good way.

The early parts of the film are a standard but engaging period piece, but the later parts of the film are what really made it for me. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll stop there. I will say that Ronan deserves her supporting nomination, and I hope she gets more good parts in the future.

I’ll give it 4 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 2/16/2008.

Shotgun Stories

February 23, 2008

Shotgun Stories is a tense film about family and revenge with a deliberate pace, a good soundtrack, and the confidence to keep things a bit ambiguous. The main characters are Son, Boy, and Kid Hayes, and their half brothers, whose common father’s funeral occurs early in the film. Its rural setting and feeling reminded me a bit of Tully, though I liked Tully better.

I saw it at the Camera Cinema Club on 2/10/2008. The writer/director answered questions by phone, and I wrote down these notes, which may include a few small spoilers:

  • There is no victory in revenge
  • The film is a meditation on conflict resolution
  • The outcome of revenge is either that one side decimates the other, or that both sides decide to stop—both sides are most vulnerable at that moment
  • Most revenge stories start with the act that needs revenge very early and ends with the revenge—what if the structure is entirely different, so that the audience wants there not to be revenge?
  • The director had the title before he had the story
  • There is ambiguity about how Son got the wounds that we see very early in the film—people tell stories
  • The director wanted to turn conventions on their head, and still wanted to make a good movie
  • The funeral scene sets the stage early
  • The music prepares the audience for something bad coming, but they’re not sure how or when
  • The names Son, Kid, and Boy show that no one cares about them—but the director makes sure no one explicitly talks about it
  • The film is shot in Little Rock and nearby (including England, AR)—the director used his parents’ house, father’s delivery van, etc.
  • The director has no accent—he says it depends how much he’s had to drink
  • The film is shot in 2.35:1 anamorphic with little camera movement
  • The director always knew his first film would be set in this landscape
  • The main characters are blue collar southern men, who do not wear their emotions on their sleeves
  • The director went to college with producer David Gordon Green in North Carolina—Green didn’t see this film until it was all edited—he came on as a producer to get the film out of anonymity, find finishing funds, and so on
  • Henry Smackers (the dog) was not trained—they had to rub peanut butter on things
  • The film opened in Berlin a year ago—the director has been talking about it for all that time but considers it an honor
  • There was a scene where the wounds were explained but it sounded like bad movie dialog because the brothers all knew already—so the director took the shotgun story out of Shotgun Stories
  • He does have a new film (Goat) where someone is car jacked and traumatized at the start
  • This film opens in April in the Bay Area, or at least in San Francisco

I’ll give it about 3 stars out of 4 stars.

There Will Be Oscars!

February 23, 2008

’tis the day before Oscars®, and I just finished seeing the Best Picture nominees last night.

Disclosure: I had extensive influence from Awards Daily and their big chart.

Best Picture: I could actually see almost any of the nominees winning, and my top three would probably be Juno, Atonement, and There Will Be Blood. But the consensus is overwhelmingly clear that Old Country for Old Men will win, or at least is expected to.

Best director: Ethan and Joel Coen for No Country for Old Men.

Best actor: Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood.

Best actress: Julie Christie for Away from Her. I could imagine Ellen Page pulling an upset here, and some are predicting Marion Cotillard, though that seems even less likely to me.

Best supporting actor: Javier Bardem for No Country for Old Men.

Best supporting actress: This is one of the least clear categories, with four of the nominees having a real chance (Saoirse Ronan doesn’t). I’ll go with Cate Blanchett for I’m Not There.

Best original screenplay: Some of the other nominees have a chance, but the consensus is that it will go to Diablo Cody for Juno.

Best adapted screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen for No Country for Old Men.

Documentary feature: It wouldn’t surprise me to see Sicko win, but I’ll go with No End in Sight.

Foreign language film: I haven’t seen any of them this year, so I’ll rely on the experts and predict that The Counterfeiters will win.

Animated film: Pixar does it again… Ratatouille.

Cinematography: There Will Be Blood, partly because Roger Deakins is nominated for two films and so his votes will be split.

Editing: The Coens could win another award here, but I’ll go with The Bourne Ultimatum.

Art direction: There Will Be Blood.

Costumes: This one seems to be a toss-up, but I’ll predict Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Makeup: La Vie En Rose.

Score: Atonement.

Song: “Falling Slowly” from Once. See the movie and buy the soundtrack. Really.

Sound: Transformers. The 20th time might be the charm for Kevin O’Connell.

Sound editing: Transformers.

Visual Effects: Transformers.

Animated short: For the short categories I’m going with Scott Feinberg’s predictions (from And the Winner Is…) since his record on these obscure categories is unusually good. For this one he’s predicting Peter & the Wolf.

Documentary short: Freeheld.

Live action short: The Mozart of Pickpockets.

There Will Be Blood

February 19, 2008

I’m not really sure how to write a review for There Will Be Blood. I had a really good time watching it, admiring the writing, the structure, the images, the pace, the performances, and more. But I have found it very difficult to put words to why I thought it was so good. Perhaps it’s simply because the director is Paul Thomas Anderson, whose films I have universally liked (though I still haven’t seen Hard Eight).

The main characters are Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a self-made oil man, and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the evangelical preacher son of the owner of some land that Plainview wants to drill on. That may already be saying too much, so I won’t describe more about the plot.

The most likely award that the film will get at the Oscar® ceremony, out of its eight nominations, is a best actor trophy for Day-Lewis. Is he over the top? Yes. But he totally sells it, and I would not be disappointed to see him win (though sadly his is the only one of the five nominated performances I have seen to date).

Perhaps I’ll sum it up this way: You may have seen advertisements for the film where Day-Lewis utters the line, “I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!” That seemed ridiculous before I saw the film. It’s still funny, but it worked for me 100% in context.

I’ll give it an uncertain 4 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 2/4/2008.

Spirit of the Marathon

February 19, 2008

Spirit of the Marathon is a movie with a very unusual distribution. It was shown in a large number of places on 1/24/2008, and there is an encore screening on 2/21/2008. I presume it was distributed digitally, because making a large number of film prints for a couple of screenings each would be cost prohibitive.

The film is a documentary about six people preparing for and running the 2005 Chicago Marathon. Two are world-class marathoners, and the other four range from first timers to one trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

While I was glad I saw it, the structure is very simple, and one would expect an average PBS documentary to be as good as this one. If you’re an experienced marathoner, I would expect you might get even less out of it than I did. I’ll give it 3 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 1/24/2008, of course.

Taxi to the Dark Side

February 19, 2008

[Warning: Conservatives who believe that the Iraq war is going well should probably not read this review.]

There have been quite a few documentaries about the ongoing “war on terror,” and I’ve seen many of them. But Taxi to the Dark Side made me more angry than any of the others. I came out thinking that impeachment would be way too kind, and that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld should be tried and (probably) convicted of war crimes.

The subject matter is the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the United States since 9/11, starting with a specific case of an innocent man who was tortured to death, and showing how this is indicative of a pattern driven from the upper reaches of the command chain, and not just a few bad apples on the night shift.

I should definitely warn anyone considering seeing this film that it includes some very disturbing images, but the subject matter is too important to ignore. The soul of our country is at stake. I’ll give it 3.5 stars out of 4 stars.

I saw this on 1/13/2008 at the Camera Cinema Club, where we heard a pre-recorded interview with the director, who also directed Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. I wrote down a few notes:

  • There is a grand manipulation of the public going on, through fear
  • This shows how useless torture is, unless your goal is to hear what you want to hear, even if it is not true
  • The torture also drives al Queda’s thirst for revenge
  • No trials have occurred
  • The director’s father, who was an interrogator after World War II, says this has got to stop
  • We need to show those in power how angry we are
  • Even the Democrats are complicit; for example, Nancy Pelosi know about this and did not act

We also heard a little more background on the director’s father. He interrogated kamikazees, and unlike present-day interrogators, he knew their culture and their language. The whole process took a year or more, but it was effective.

The film is nominated for an Oscar®, and the nomination is very much deserved.