Archive for March, 2010

The Orange Girl

March 13, 2010

The Orange Girl is a Norwegian romantic drama, though it’s pretty light for a drama. It follows two generations: Jan Olav and his son Georg. It moves around in time between when Jan was young man and sees a striking girl on the streetcar with a bag of oranges, and when Georg is a similar age. The film is structured around some letters that Jan wrote to Georg shortly before Jan died, which happened when Georg was a young boy. As Georg reads the letters, we see on screen the scenes that Jan is describing.

The film is kind of corny, but it really worked for me. I cared about the characters, and the message was a good one. The performances are good but not showy, and the production values are excellent. I’ll give it a low out of . An earlier showing at the festival was the U.S. premiere.

Seen on 3/5/2010 at Cinequest.

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The Escape

March 13, 2010

The Escape is a Danish thriller. It seems like it’s going to be similar to A Mighty Heart, in that it opens with a journalist being kidnapped in the same part of the world (Afghanistan here vs. Pakistan in the other film). The journalist is a Danish woman named Rikke. But the film goes a different direction, and I would rather not give away any of the details.

The film is pretty tense, but it almost all fits together well (the exception being one or two minor inconsistencies). The performances are good, though not great and definitely less intense than in most Danish films. I thought it was quite good, and from what I could tell I was not alone. I’ll give it a weak  out of .

Seen on 3/4/2010 at Cinequest.

The Exploding Girl and Friction

March 13, 2010

The Exploding Girl is an extremely small film. The title character is a girl named Ivy (Zoe Kazan, who had a small but memorable part in Me and Orson Welles and is Elia Kazan‘s granddaughter). She is home from college for a short break, staying with her mother somewhere in New York. Her boyfriend stayed behind at school, but her longtime friend Al is around. The film title is due to Ivy’s epilepsy, though it is well controlled with medication.

The film moves very slowly, and sometimes doesn’t move at all. But it feels real, reminding me a bit of Charlotte Sometimes. I’ll give it a low out of .

Friction is, so far as I can tell, a narrative film about a documentary about a failed narrative film that starred actors playing characters very close to themselves and with their real names. The director, Cullen Hoback, plays a director named Cullen Hoback, who agrees to teach film at an arts camp in New Hampshire in exchange for being allowed to use the students to make a film. The three main characters are the couple who run the camp (Jeremy and Amy Mathison, played by Jeremy and Amy Mathison) and one of the students (August Thompson, played by August Thompson). The director creates a story about a love triangle involving August and the Mathisons, which appears to spill over into real life. Or does it?

By all of my usual measures, this is not a good film. The acting seems forced and unreal. The camera shakes and frequently loses focus. But the Möbius strip-like structure keeps it engaging and extremely entertaining. I have to give it out of . An earlier showing at the festival was the world premiere.

The director (who was also the writer, producer, cinematographer, and editor) was at the screening to answer questions (there are definitely spoilers below):

  • He wants us to remember what we are feeling right after the film, because most people who see the film won’t have a chance to hear a Q&A afterwards.
  • How close was it to what he wanted when he started? Very close. It took 9 months to edit. All of the rehearsal scenes that were included as replacements for the “real” scenes were intended to be the way they are.
  • Amy and August didn’t actually stay overnight in the hotel room together.
  • Everything in the film is either true or one step removed. The famous father is not Grammy award winner, but was instead the Oscar winning writer of On Golden Pond.
  • The film was written in 6 days and shot in 12. Then he waited 1½ years to edit it, after the kids turned 18.
  • The camp was really only 7 kids.
  • They had a safe word on set (“banana”), and they would stop filming when someone said it. That way they knew that the word “cut” didn’t really mean cut.
  • The kids really did get confused between the story and reality at times.
  • The couple isn’t really divorced.
  • The parts were written for the specific kids who were there.
  • The actual total production cost was $52, for coffee.
  • Some scenes only had a structure, with improvised dialog, though most did have scripted dialog.
  • Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, and Wes Anderson are significant influences on him.

Both seen on 3/2/2010 at Cinequest.

House of Fools

March 13, 2010

House of Fools opens with Aina having what appears to be a panic attack. There are images of falling glass. When she wakes up, she has many wounds on her face, arms, etc., and she figures out that she’s in a mental hospital.

This Norwegian drama is kind of similar to Manic, with a variety of characters in a mental institution, each working on their own issues and their own path, but also struggling to find a group dynamic. It’s not quite as good as I recall that earlier film to be, but looking at the resumes of the actors, I see that most of them have been in other films that I have liked. Most notably, Thorbjørn Harr (playing Stetson, one the staff) was the male lead in Mars & Venus, and Rolf Lassgård (playing Dr. Freiner) was a key supporting character in After the Wedding. The lead actress, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, is new to me, and at first she just seemed to play everything as if she was drugged (which, to be fair, is probably what would be true for her character). Later she showed more range, and seemed good though probably not great.

Overall I’ll give it out of . An earlier showing was the Unites States premiere.

Seen on 3/1/2010 at Cinequest.

No Tomorrow, Heiran, The Sonosopher, The Greatest, and Starring Maja

March 13, 2010

No Tomorrow is kind of a documentary about the death penalty, but the directors only came to this material since their previous documentary, Aging Out (also shown at Cinequest) was an important part of the trial. One of the primary subjects of that earlier film, who had done well despite being a product of the foster care system, was murdered in an alley. The prosecutor for the case saw the earlier film as a way to show the victim as a whole person, and to show the potential that was lost when she was killed.

I found the film was a little more about the filmmakers than it really needed to be, and perhaps less about the pros and cons of the death penalty than I expected. With the caveat that I was sleepy and missed some parts, I’ll give the film  out of . Note that some friends I talked to afterwards liked it much better.

An earlier showing at Cinequest was the world premiere. The filmmakers had intended to be at the screening, but were snowed in in New York. A short message from them was read before the film.

Heiran is an Iranian film about an Iranian girl who sees a boy (named Heiran) on the bus home from school (not a school bus–he’s not a student). There’s a spark, and they find other ways to meet. The problem, at least from her parents’ point of view, is that he’s Afghan.

I liked the Iranian scenery that I would never have expected to be in Iran. I thought the lead actress was good, albeit rather melodramatic (which seems to be standard practice for Iranian films). And the grandfather was great. The sound was muffled, but that was only a minor problem since I don’t speak Persian. Overall I’ll give it a low  out of . Note that a film teacher who I’ve taken some classes from was at the screening, and liked it significantly less than I did.

The Sonosopher is a low budget documentary about Alex Caldiero, who is some combination of poet, vocal artist, philosopher, and performance artist. He seems to emphasize his points by opening his eyes wider.

He’s pretty out there, which makes it surprising that he’s a Mormon. Apparently he was attracted to some historical mystical aspects of the religion that are not a mainstream part of the religion these days.

I found it hard to get into the film except in a few short segments. His philosophical ramblings reminded me a bit of the film Waking Life, in that the thoughts expressed are far more interesting to the speaker than to the audience (to me, anyway). And the generally low image quality and rapid editing were distracting to me. I’ll give it a high  out of . This was the world premiere.

The two filmmakers were at the screening to answer questions:

  • Alex was their teacher in Utah
  • They spent two years following him everywhere, recording all of his performances and going with him to Sicily and New York
  • The fast cut sections were not his idea, but he confirmed that they are a good visual representation of his mind
  • There is a very wide variety of reactions to his work
  • They took over 100 hours of footage, plus archival materials–then they just dove in to find a focus for the film
  • The non-word text on the screen was really his text, and he is able to reproduce performances quite closely
  • Even Alex would say he doesn’t completely understand what he’s doing

The film was preceded by the short Grande Dame, starring a transvestite quoting Shakespeare. I definitely enjoyed it. out of .

The Greatest is an as yet unreleased film with Susan Sarandon, Pierce Brosnan, and Carey Mulligan. It opens with Mulligan and a boy all over each other, taking off their clothes, dot dot dot. What happens not long after that is early enough that it shouldn’t be considered a spoiler, but I would rather not say more. I will say that I was reminded of Moonlight Mile.

The performances all seem very good, with Brosnan slightly out of his depth, Sarandon being as good as you would expect, and Mulligan showing that An Education was not a fluke. The writing is generally good, though there were a few moments that rang false. The production values are top notch. I’ll give it out of .

Starring Maja is a Norwegian film that is kind of hard to watch. The title character is a teenage student who is overweight but really wants to be an actress. At a wedding she attends, she talks to the videographer (Erika) about being an actress. Through a thought process that I still don’t completely understand, Erika decides to start filming Maja round the clock. Maja makes a fool of herself, and often doesn’t realize she’s anything but a star. Like I said before, it was mostly hard to watch.

That said, there were some moments that felt real and even on the edge of touching, raising it up to a solid out of . An earlier showing an Cinequest was the North American premiere.

All seen on 2/28/2010 at Cinequest.

Applause and Upperdog

March 13, 2010

Applause is definitely a Danish film. It stars Paprika Steen as an alcoholic actress starring in a stage performance of (apparently) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She’s not very patient with the “normal people” around her, chewing out her assistant for not leaving her red lipstick out, even after it becomes obvious that she did.

The real-life drama is that she’s divorced, doesn’t have custody, and hasn’t seen her two young sons for many months. Her star power doesn’t work so well in that realm.

The film doesn’t follow any standard structure, at least that I could discern. Despite of that, or perhaps partly because of it, I was glad I saw it. The performances were all excellent, especially by Steen. The look is grainy and desaturated. I’ll give it a strong  out of .

Upperdog is a Norwegian film, created in the many inter-related characters style. There’s a soldier who fired on an oncoming car, killing an innocent victim, and a news photographer who got an iconic image of him. There’s a Polish maid visiting and working for her friend. There’s a man who tested his girlfriend’s fidelity. I won’t reveal the all the connections, but one key one felt too improbable for me to suspend my disbelief.

From looking several of the actors up on IMDb, it appears that most but not all of the primary actors here are first time film actors. While none of them was great, I was surprised by that. The actress who played the Polish maid has more experience, and in fact she was in Warsaw, which I saw at an earlier Cinequest.  And the same writer/director also made Kissed by Winter, which I saw at an earlier Cinequest and liked better than this film.

Overall, I found the film to be a mix of good scenes and so-so scenes, connected by a script that strained my credibility. I’ll give it a weak out of .

Seen on 2/24/2010 at Cinequest.

Cinequest 20 Opening Night: The Good Heart

March 13, 2010

Cinequest 20 is my 10th Cinequest, since I first attended in 2001. Back then the opening and closing films were at the Camera 3, whereas now they are at the gorgeous California Theater. This year the introductory time was spent more on prepared clips (pretty good) than on local celebrities trying to make comments relevant to the festival (usually a waste of time). I also liked how they brought out the filmmakers and/or stars for a few films that will be showing at the festival.

The Good Heart was the opening film, and this was its U.S. premiere. The main two characters are Jacques (Brian Cox) and Lucas (Paul Dano). Jacques owns a bar, though he doesn’t seem to have ever bought into that whole “the customer is always right” thing—in fact, he’s almost 180° from that philosophy. Lucas is a man who lives in an improvised shelter on the streets under some overpasses, who has taken in a pet kitten in the opening scenes of the film. They meet in the hospital, and Jacques decides Lucas should help him at the bar. Both comedy and drama ensue.

The people around me who were talking after the film all seemed to think the film was good, but to me the characters seemed cartoonish. Since Cox and Dano have been excellent before, I blame this on the writing and maybe a little on the directing. Since the director was the writer, I guess it doesn’t matter which. Interestingly, the director is Icelandic and also directed Noi the Albino, which I saw in late 2003, and liked better than this one.

In Adaptation., Cox played real-life author Robert McKee. According to IMDb, in that film McKee says “Your characters must change, and the change must come from them.” In this film, the characters do change, but I didn’t get any sense that the change came from them. And that’s the biggest problem. I’ll give it a weak out of , mostly for the entertainment of watching Cox.

Seen on 2/23/2010 at Cinequest.

Precious, The Blind Side, and An Education

March 13, 2010

These were the last 3 Best Picture nominees I needed to see this year, after having previously seen 3 in theaters (Inglourious Basterds, Up in the Air, and Avatar) and 4 at home (Up, The Hurt Locker, A Serious Man, and District 9). With Cinequest about to start and the Oscars happening immediately afterwards, this was absolutely the last minute.

To make my schedule work, I actually drove over to Santa Cruz to see Precious (official title: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire). This was the Best Picture nominee I was looking forward to the least. While I heard it was good, it didn’t sound at all pleasant to watch. Well, it mostly wasn’t, but it was good enough to make me glad I was “forced” to see it (this is the 15th year I’ve seen all of the Best Picture nominees before the Oscars). Precious (Gabourey Sidibe, Oscar-nominated for this role) is a very overweight teenager who is failing in school, due in large part to a home life that makes the word “dysfunctional” seem like an extreme understatement. She’s pregnant, for the second time, both times due to being raped by her own father. Her mother (Mo’Nique, also Oscar-nominated here) is only slightly less abusive. This is one of those films where when it’s hard to imagine things getting any worse, they do. And yet somehow it isn’t as much of a downer as, say, Requiem for a Dream. The performances are outstanding. I would give it a solid  out of .

The Blind Side is a pretty traditional Hollywood movie based on a true story. Sandra Bullock (Oscar-nominated for her performance here) plays Leigh Anne Tuoy, a very wealthy mother of two in Mississippi. She sees a homeless black teen named Michael Oher and takes him in, at least for one night. Her family wonders if it’s a good idea, and her friends are sure it isn’t, but Leigh Anne doesn’t much worry about what other people think. Heartwarming results ensue. Actually, the movie is somewhat better than I expected, and seeing photos of the real people depicted in the movie during the closing credits was pretty cool. Bullock’s performance is good, though I probably wouldn’t have singled her out for an Oscar nomination for it. Overall I’ll give it a strong  out of .

The buzz about An Education is all about the lead performance of newcomer Carey Mulligan, which is pretty impressive in a film that also includes Emma Thompson, Alfred Molina, and Peter Sarsgaard. Mulligan, 24, plays Jenny, a 16-year-old British schoolgirl in the 1960’s. She wants to get into Oxford, though not quite as single-mindedly as her parents (especially her father, played by Molina) want it. Her social life, especially with boys, is pretty minimal, until she meets David (Sarsgaard), a 30-something man with a flashy sports car and an appreciation for her quick wit. He gives her a chance to see a cosmopolitan life that her working-class parents cannot possibly offer her, even if they were so inclined, which they’re not. You can probably guess some of the places the film goes, but very likely not all, and I definitely won’t be the one to spoil the journey for you.

I loved this film, ranking it at the top of the 10 Best Picture nominees. The bulk of the credit does go to Mulligan, who has been compared by many to Audrey Hepburn, though frankly I liked Mulligan slightly better than I’ve liked Hepburn, though I think I’ve only seen about four of her films. I’ll also give credit to the screenwriter Nick Hornby (adapting a memoir, so this was a real story) and Danish director Lone Scherfig (making her first English language film). I’ll obviously give it a full out of .

Seen on 2/21/2010, 2/21/2010, and 2/22/2010, respectively.

Avatar

March 9, 2010

It seemed like everyone on the planet saw Avatar before I did, most of them more than once. A review seems sort of superfluous, so I’ll keep it very brief and to the point. It was visually stunning, but the story was predictable, the dialog often clunky (sometimes Star Wars prequel level clunky), and the performances were merely okay. But it was still enjoyable, and the breakthrough technology makes it worth about  out of .

Seen on 2/14/2010.

The Most Dangerous Man in America

March 9, 2010

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is a documentary about, surprise, Daniel Ellsberg. He went from being an insider in the Pentagon to leaking documents that proved that five Presidents lied to the American people about the Vietnam war. The shift started when “he met a girl.”

I actually took a Watergate class in high school in the late 1970’s, and I had heard of Ellsberg, but most of the details were new to me. The film is probably a little biased, seeing as how it is narrated by Ellsberg, but not badly so. I found it quite engaging, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of that era. I’ll give it a strong  out of . It was nominated for an Oscar® for best documentary feature.

I saw it on 2/14/2010 at the Camera Cinema Club. Judith Ehrlich, who along with Rick Goldsmith wrote, directed, and produced the film, was at the screening to answer questions (there may be spoilers below):

  • Their goal was to make an exciting film, like a political thriller
  • She was teaching in northern Vermont, and didn’t know much about it at the time
  • The Nixon tapes are public domain–she used interns to transcribe them, and went through 300+ hours of tapes (which isn’t all of them by any means)
  • Did the relevance to current events affect this film? They started four years ago, during the Bush years
  • They do try to keep the story in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with a brief part at the end in the current time
  • Comment that Presidents like to get us into wars to keep the machine going, and really don’t like to get us out
  • They showed the film to 1000 high school kids in Palm Springs
  • A Vietnam veteran read the papers while in Vietnam–the soldiers were already convinced that the public was being lied to, so the details didn’t matter that much to them
  • Would the press do this today? Would they take those risks? Perhaps not with their corporate ownership
  • Ellsberg now self-publishes some additional documents on the internet
  • The animation is there to try to create a slightly lighter moment
  • Ellsberg refers to “Vietnamistan”
  • Ellsberg is not 100% a pacifist
  • His wife inherited a fair amount of money, so he hasn’t had to work much
  • Having lost his Top Secret clearance was hard for him–he liked knowing those secrets
  • This was the most important court decision on free speech in history, and it was done in 10 days
  • Ellsberg remains optimistic–he thinks information will solve problems