Archive for February, 2009

The Man Who Loved Yngve

February 28, 2009

The Man Who Loved Yngve is a Norwegian film (note that I tend to like Norwegian films) set in 1989, around the time when the Berlin wall comes down. The main character is Jarle, a high school student. He’s the singer in a band with his best friend, and he has a great girlfriend, Katrine.

But when a new boy named Yngve shows up in class, Jarle is drawn to him. With Ynvge, Jarle learns to like music he’s never heard before and even to play tennis. But he doesn’t seem to be as devoted to the band, his family, or his girlfriend as he was before.

This is billed as a drama in the Cinequest program, and it definitely fits that description, though it certainly has many funny moments as well. I really liked it, though the fact that it had an excellent 1980’s soundtrack definitely didn’t hurt. The style reminded me a bit of the lighter moments in some early Danny Boyle movies, which is also a good thing. I’ll give it 3.5 stars out of 4 stars.

One minor point that I can’t bear to leave out. One of the local bands that they really admire is called Mighty Dogfood.

Seen on 2/27/2009 at Cinequest.

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The Market and Dancers

February 28, 2009

The Market: A Tale of Trade is about Mihram, an uneducated trader in Turkey in the 1990’s. When the film opens he’s selling a telephone cable to someone who had theirs stolen–and perhaps the one he’s selling is the exact same one that was stolen. Mihram will buy or sell anything there’s a market in, and when business is good the profits tend to go into alcohol and gambling. His wife is surprisingly understanding, and she actually reminded me a little of that famous National Geographic cover picture.

The film is well done, and the characters (other than perhaps the uncle) seem real. The feeling is fairly tense, because when life is hard you’re always close to the edge. I’m not sure if there is a particular message, other than getting a feeling for life in a very different part of the world. I’ll give it 3 stars out of 4 stars.

Dancers is listed in the Cinequest program as a romantic drama, which is about right. The main characters are Annika, a 30-something dance instructor, and Lasse, an electrician. Annika lives in an apartment attached to the dance studio, which has serious power problems, which is why she and Lasse meet. She is outgoing and cheerful, while he seems very shy and emotionless.

Shortly after they meet, Lasse confesses out of the blue that he’s been in prison for fraud. Annika is taken aback, but still seems drawn to Lasse.

I won’t go into more of the story to avoid spoiling it. This is a Danish film, so I shouldn’t been surprised that it was more intense than the program made it sound. But that it is a Danish film is pretty much the reason I wanted to see it. And that rule seems to still be a good one, because I thought it was quite good. It reminded me in some ways (but far from all ways, so don’t read too much into this) The Piano Teacher. It isn’t quite as good as that film, but I will still give it 3.5 stars out of 4 stars.

I’ve been wondering what the title means. On the surface, it obviously refers to all of the dance students we see at the studio. But I wonder if it also refers to the dance that Annika and Lasse do as they figure out if they should be in a relationship. There is also be a dance between Annika and her mother. Speaking of which, my favorite line of the film is when Annika tells her mother, ”I’m not you.”

I looked up the actor who played Lasse. He’s Anders W. Berthelsen, and it turns out he was in We Shall Overcome from Cinequest two years ago (and was my favorite film there), as well as Italian for Beginners. The actresses who played Annika and her mother were both in the excellent The Celebration.

Both seen on 2/26/2009 at Cinequest.

Cinequest 19 opening night: Wake

February 26, 2009

Wake was the opening night (2/25/2009) film at this year’s Cinequest film festival. Before the film there were the usual opening night speeches and thanking of sponsors, though the four models pushing the designer Hewlett-Packard “digital clutch” were a bit odd. But all of that and a brief introduction of the film by the director only took us to about 25 minutes after the official start time, which wasn’t too bad.

The film opens in a mortuary, with a young woman on the table having makeup applied. She’s Carys (Bijou Phillips), and she turns out to be alive. Her friend Shane is the undertaker applying the makeup. Carys wants Shane to tell her a good funeral to crash—one where she might actually feel some emotions. She does in fact attend a funeral, where she meets Tyler and attempts to fake her way through explaining how she knows the deceased.

This is a movie high on the “I Love Lucy” quotient, which means that you see the main character doing stupid things that will sooner or later cause them serious problems. Such things are generally uncomfortable to watch, since you can’t tell the people on the screen that they’re being foolish. At least not productively.

To be honest, I had heard from someone that this movie wasn’t very good, so my expectations were low. The good news is that it substantially exceeded those expectations. The acting was usually okay, with only occasional clunky lines. The plot actually did have a few interesting moments rather than being 100% predictable. It even had a semi-ambiguous ending, which I like. So it’s far from the worst Cinequest opening night film, though that’s not hard. I’ll give it 2.5 stars out of 4 stars.

Afterwards the director, writer, producers, and a few stars were there to answer questions. Here’s some answers that I wrote down (there may be spoilers below):

  • They started working on it about a year before shooting, shot for four weeks, and there was three months of post production
  • Bijou Philips wanted to do the film because it was different from what she had done before, and it was funny
  • It was filmed in and around Los Angeles
  • The interior of the cabin was a set
  • Tyler’s house had about 20 cats, so most of the crew was glad not to have to go into it
  • This was the world premiere
  • The writer started with someone who’s broken inside and goes to funerals to try to feel something, and then tried to figure out what would be the worst thing that could happen
  • The writer wrote this in film school, and had not seen Harold and Maude before writing it
  • One scene in the cabin was shot at 2am, with everyone really tired
  • The director’s next film will be one that her husband wrote, and is called Bitter

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

February 26, 2009

This is my last review to catch up, just in time for this year’s Cinequest film festival to start (well, almost—it started last night). And it was also the last of the Best Picture nominees that I needed to see before the Oscar® ceremony.

I really wasn’t looking forward to seeing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It’s long (2:46), and the reviews were only good. I’m not a big follower of David Fincher (Fight Club is the only other one of his films I’ve seen). Brad Pitt neither adds nor subtracts from my interest, though I do like Cate Blanchett. So I went mostly to keep my streak of seeing all the Best Picture nominees alive (for 14 years now).

The story is basically about the life of Benjamin Button (Pitt), who is born looking like an infant-sized very old man, and who grows younger looking over time. I won’t say anything more about the plot, as I don’t think it’s the primary point of the film in any case.

I’m glad I saw it, but I can’t say I loved it. It kept my interest even though I was tired that night, and I thought about it a bit the next day. The visual effects seemed well done in that they did not draw attention to themselves, and the makeup was very good. The performances were fine, and I thought Taraji P. Henson was a reasonable person to give a nomination to (Pitt did not seem like he deserved his, though at least he wasn’t bad). One sequence, showing the series of small events that led to a big event in the film, seemed out of place, but other than that it seemed well constructed. And I liked that Benjamin’s reverse aging was treated as unusual but not remarkable by the other characters in the film.

So overall I think I would give it 3 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 2/18/2009.

Milk

February 25, 2009

Milk covers the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold public office in California. It starts just before Milk (played by Sean Penn) turns 40, when he meets Scott Smith (James Franco) and they move to San Francisco. It covers Milk’s rise as a political activist in the Castro district, and various runs for public office. Other key people include Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) and Dan White (a creepy Josh Brolin).

The film is very good. While I lived in the Bay Area during the period this film covers, and I had heard of Harvey Milk and Dan White, I did not know much about Milk himself or anything about the other people shown in the film. I didn’t know what groups he befriended beyond the homosexual community in his journey to elected office. All of this is shown in a straightforward yet highly engaging way by director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, both of whom received Oscar® nominations for their work here (the latter won).

But the real key to how well this film works is in the performances, and in particular Penn’s performance. He brings Milk alive on screen, but in an organic, less showy way than you might expect. You find yourself wishing even more than you might have expected that Milk could still be alive now, both from a political and a human perspective.

I’ll give this a strong 3.5 stars out of 4 stars. It would have been my pick of the five choices for Best Picture, if I had had a vote.

Seen 2/16/2009.

Alien Trespass

February 25, 2009

Alien Trespass opens with some 1950’s newsreel footage, including some talking about a movie that was made but never released, and in fact destroyed. You are given the impression that you are about to see this long lost film. But something seems off, including at least some of the people in the footage looking a little too familiar.

Instead what we have here is a spoof, or maybe a tribute, to the science fiction movies of the 1950’s. A space ship crashes in the Mojave Desert and people think it was a meteor, especially since the Perseid meteor shower is in full swing. Astronomer Ted Lewis (Eric McCormack) is one of the first to the scene of the crash…

I could say more, but I would summarize the movie as frequently funny, but pretty lightweight. I didn’t see this last year’s remake of 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, but from the reviews of that remake, it occurred to me while watching this movie that it is probably better. Note that I am in no way saying this is better than the 1951 film, but probably better than the 2008 remake. At least this one is intentionally funny. I would give it a strong 2.5 stars out of 4 stars.

Oh, and one more thing, the waitress (Tammy, played by Jenni Baird, who I am surprised to learn is Australian) proves that blonds are not always dumb. Or at least not as dumb as others around them.

I saw the movie at the Camera Cinema Club in Campbell, CA on 2/15/2009. The director/producer R.W. Goodwin was at the screening to answer questions afterwards (there are likely to be some mild to medium spoilers below):

  • Goodwin was an executive producer on many episodes of “The X-Files,” and directed the season finales for the first five seasons
  • His partner came up with the idea–both are big fans of 1950’s science fiction
  • They tried to make an escapist movie–there was nothing to worry about in the 1950’s (except instant nuclear annihilation, he joked)
  • He had the actors watch many of the 1950’s films–mostly the best ones, but they did imitate some of the bad ones too (e.g., the light dims well after a candle is blown out)
  • He told everyone that they were in 1957, and to make the best film they could have then–but they did use green screen instead of true rear projection
  • The monster (called a ghota) was rubber and not CGI, and was described by the director as a 7′ high penis with an eye–they added a tentacle on the forehead to diminish that effect a little
  • The first three stories in the newsreel were real
  • The exteriors was shot in British Columbia, including the desert
  • The score was written by someone who had studied the music of 1950’s science fiction, and the Theremin player (Rob Schwimmer) is probably the world’s best (according to Goodwin anyway)
  • The movie opens April 3 in 24 markets
  • They had more fun making this than should be legal
  • Robert Patrick is actually very funny

Frost/Nixon

February 23, 2009

I’m old enough to remember the Watergate hearings on television. A few years later, I took a Watergate class in high school, so I read books like “All the President’s Men” and “Blind Ambition.” So when I heard about Frost/Nixon, I was very interested.

The film tells the story of David Frost (Michael Sheen), whose career is going through some challenges, deciding to interview Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), and following through the difficulties of making that happen and then actually doing it. It is adapted from a play, which starred the same two actors.

The film is good, and the performances are as well. Langella got an Oscar® nomination, though I think perhaps Sheen had the harder (albeit less flashy) role. But somehow I never really felt all that engaged. The film kept my attention, but didn’t live up to my hopes and expectations. Perhaps I was more interested in the real Watergate story, and less in the story of how the interviews themselves were put together.

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

Seen 2/8/2009.

Oscar® Predictions

February 21, 2009

I had hoped to finish catching up on my movie reviews first, but I need to get this post done before the ceremony. So without further ado, here are my Oscar® predictions for this year (for films from 2008):

  • Picture: Slumdog Millionaire (Milk would by my personal vote)
  • Director: Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire
  • Actor: Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler
  • Actress: Kate Winslet for The Reader
  • Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight
  • Supporting Actress: Penélope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona
  • Original Screenplay: Milk
  • Adapted Screenplay: Slumdog Millionaire
  • Cinematography: Slumdog Millionaire
  • Editing: Slumdog Millionaire
  • Animated Feature: WALL·E
  • Documentary Feature: Man on Wire
  • Foreign Language Feature: Waltz with Bashir
  • Art Direction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Costumes: The Duchess
  • Makeup: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Score: Slumdog Millionaire
  • Song: “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire
  • Sound: The Dark Knight
  • Sound Editing: The Dark Knight
  • Visual Effects: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Animated Short: Presto
  • Documentary Short: The Witness from the Balcony of Room 306
  • Live Action Short: The Pig (Grisen)

I credit Awards Daily for most of my data. I only diverged from their consensus picks in two cases, though I considered it in two more (Foreign Language Feature and Sound Editing).

The Reader

February 19, 2009

All I knew going into The Reader was that 1) it was nominated for Best Picture, 2) Kate Winslet was also nominated for Best Actress for her performance, and 3) it involved Nazis and/or the Holocaust in some way. The critics reviews were mixed, so I had planned on skipping it unless it got a Best Picture nomination (I have a tradition of seeing all of those before the ceremony, going back 13 years). If you don’t want to know anything more than that, I’ll just say now that I give it a strong 3 stars out of 4 stars.

Winslet plays Hanna, a German trolley toll-taker who sees Michael when he is quite ill, and helps him get home safely. When months later he goes back to thank her, they quickly end up in a sexual relationship. Did I mention that Hanna is 30-something and Michael is 15?

Again, if you don’t want to know too much, you should stop reading here. What follows includes most definite spoilers.

Eventually we find out that Hanna doesn’t know how to read. We suspect this relatively early, when she insists on having Michael read to her before they have sex, but it’s not confirmed until substantially later.

After a while, Hanna disappears. Years later, Michael is coincidentally on a field trip with his law school class when Hanna is being tried for crimes against humanity committed during the time when she was a German prison guard. Admitting that she cannot read would reduce the charges against her, but she does not. Michael also stays silent, at least in any way that would affect the case.

The film is controversial because Hanna seems like a real person who is at least sometimes nice, and Holocaust guards are not supposed to be depicted that way. I do not fault the film for this.

But there is another angle that does have some merit. Specifically, would an illiterate person like Hanna really be able to become a guard, especially one with some level of authority over other guards? Perhaps not.

Winslet does give a very good performance, and not only because she’s often naked in the earlier parts of the film. I’m not convinced that she deserves to win the Oscar®, but combined with her earlier nominations, perhaps this is her year.

Seen 1/25/2009.

Rachel Getting Married

February 19, 2009

I saw Rachel Getting Married the same day I happened to listen to the screenwriter (Jenny Lumet, the daughter of director Sidney Lumet) interviewed on The Treatment. Perhaps that colored my perception, but I really liked this film. It’s just the kind of small independent film that I love, with diverse and interesting characters who feel real, and a story that doesn’t necessarily tie everything up with a neat little bow at the end.

Anne Hathaway plays Kym, who is just getting out of rehab as the film opens. Her sister Rachel is, not surprisingly given the film’s title, getting married. The wedding is happening at the family’s home in the country of Connecticut, with two families that seem very different on the surface but less so once you get to know them. I won’t say much more, except that there is a scene about loading the dishwasher that was practically worth the price of admission by itself.

Hathaway has been nominated for an Oscar® for her performance, and while she is very good here, that might be a bit of a stretch, at least to win. I was surprised that there wasn’t also a nomination for the screenplay, but at least Lumet has won some critics awards for her excellent work. The look is low budget, and I have heard some complain about the shaky camera style, but it did not bother me. On the whole I’ll give it a lower 4 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 1/1/2009.