Friday, November 23, 2007

I'm Not There (2007)


So, I caught this one last night, and it was really an odd experience. I still haven't quite solidified all of my thoughts on this one, but in part, that's a big reason why I like it. It's because I'm still thinking of it today. While there are so many films that come out and are just.... fucking worthless, for a lack of a more tasteful way of stating it, there are far more that are fine, but just roll off my back. I feel like I can mark it off the list of films I've seen and then I forget about it.

And for better or for worse, this isn't one of those films. This is a film that you either dig or you don't. And I definitely dug it. Now, this isn't to say that it's the best film I've ever seen or that it'll make my year-end top 10. Hell, it wasn't even the best film I saw this week (No Country For Old Men takes that honor), but it's just a rare film that really challenged me, and I appreciate that.

When going into movies, I try not to read on too much plotwise on a film. I'd rather be surprised, even with the most basic of plot developments. So, in approaching this movie, I anticipated a Palindromes-like take on a Bob Dylan biopic, which isn't what I got. Even though they are billing it as such, the six principal actors aren't representing Bob Dylan at all, but rather six fictionalized characters that are sort of "inspired by" Bob Dylan. And their stories are interspersed to form a very non-linear film that is alternately fascinating and frustrating.

My best advice is to sit back, take it as it comes, and not analyze or try to construct something out of it. For me, it just seems futile to even try. It's too all over the place, and there's very little through which to link these stories. Yet somehow, despite liking some segments more than others, I found it to be a pretty interesting film as a whole, even though impatience set in at times.

While this film is probably most notable in the pop culture right now for the gimmick of having Cate Blanchett play "Bob Dylan," I was more impressed with others. In particular, Marcus Carl Franklin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Julianne Moore in a brief, but memorable, featured turn during the Christian Bale segment.

It's actually a pretty beautifully filmed piece as well, especially during Franklin's segment and Richard Gere's segment (although his is the most "WTF?" of them all). The film falters a little bit by overstaying its welcome by a good half hour and occasionally going off on to limbs that can't support it at times, but even in its failures, it's spectacularly interesting. So, it's flawed as hell, but quite fascinating too.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Cineworld: The Good, The Bad, and The In-Between

I finally wrapped up the Cineworld Film Festival, so here are some advanced thoughts on some of the films that may or may not be coming to a theater near you. I'll turn the titles of each of the films into links for the trailers (where available) for handy reference.

The first film was called Chronicle of an Escape. It's a solid little film, but nothing I would encourage you to go out of your way for. It's about a group of political prisoners in Argentina during the late 70s, and stars Rodrigo de la Serna, who you may remember from The Motorcycle Diaries. I liked it just fine, and I wasn't bored while watching it, but nothing terribly earthshattering going on here, so I'd probably Netflix it. (All I can find is a French trailer at the moment).

The following film, The Betrayal, was quite good, though it's been languishing for years without distribution. It's about the Franco-Algerian conflict, and specifically about the conflicts at play within a military regiment with several Algerian soliders. It was one of those films that left you with a lot to chew on afterward. (No trailer available)

The first day concluded with Persepolis, which at this stage in the game, is my favorite film of 2007 so far. I just absolutely loved this film. It's animated, but it's most definitely an adult film about a young girl growing up in Iran amid the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Despite so many heavy things going on, it's imbued with a healthy sense of humor, and I really enjoyed this film like nothing else I've seen this year. And France has submitted this one for the foreign language Oscar, and I hope this one wins.

The following day, I saw what is being billed as this year's "little indie that could" a la Little Miss Sunshine. And I'm pleased to say that with Juno... believe the hype. It's great. I haven't laughed this hard in a film in quite some time. The writing is sharp, it's quick witted, but also very sweet at times too. One of my favorite comedies in a long time. I've read that this will be opening locally in Tampa on Christmas Day.

That film was followed by Son of Rambow, which will be opening next summer. It's a cute film, but a little too geared toward kids than I care for. So, there's some requisite silliness and corniness to it, so while I might not recommend it, if you have kids, they might appreciate it.

Finally, Day 2 closed with The Band's Visit (click on "Media" for the trailer). The trailer for the film isn't that great, but it's a charming film that I really enjoyed a lot. And I appreciated that for a film with Israeli and Arab characters, there was no politicizing their various issues in the film. Just a very sweet natured film that I'd recommend.

The third day started out with yet another high note with The Savages. It stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as a pair of siblings who are forced to deal with their estranged father after his girlfriend dies, and the writing is on the wall that he's gotten to a place where he can no longer take care of himself and that he's slipping into dementia, and with it, a lot of sibling rivalries and uncomfortable topics from their past comes bubbling back to the surface. Exceptionally well acted and written.

After that, I saw The Counterfeiters, which on the surface may seem like "just another Holocaust movie," but it's so much more. A very different story with a lot of unique moral dilemmas. Austria submitted this for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, and I think it would be a very deserving nominee. So, I was glad to begin end the first weekend on a high note.

And while the first weekend ended with a bang, the second weekend opened with a thud. Barbet Schroeder's documentary, Terror's Advocate, was an absolute disaster. And it's a shame, because the material he had to work with was there. It's a documentary about a criminal attorney named Jacques Verges, who has represented some of the most vile, reprehensible characters in modern history. But you'd never know that these stories were of any interest based on the film. It's tedious, convoluted, and pretty uninteresting film, and Verges is such a smug, arrogant ass that I really lost interest in hearing him speak. And while I might chalk this up to a personal issue with the film, I have never seen more people get up and leave a film in my life.

Fortunately, I followed this film with The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, which was far better. Pretentious title aside, this was a remarkable true story that, like director Julian Schnabel's previous films Basquiat and Before Night Falls, sidesteps the Hollywood biopic template that is often seen in films like Ray and Walk The Line, and highlights a life of which I knew nothing about. In this case, it is the life of Jean-Dominique Bauby, an editor for Elle magazine in France, who suffers a stroke, damaging his brain stem so that all he can move is his left eyelid. And by reciting the alphabet using a chart that orgainzes the letters in terms of frequency of usage, he is able to blink out his entire memoirs by having someone recite the letters and blinking on the correct letter.

The film largely takes place in Bauby's mind through memory and imagination since those are the only things he has left. It's visually stunning and well done. Very well worth your time.

On the final day, I started with They Turned Our Desert Into Fire, which will not be hitting a theater near you. The director, Mark Brecke, is traveling around with it at film festivals and college lectures, and it appears to be PBS-bound. But it was a well told film about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. What is happeninig now, what led to it, and the political entanglements that are preventing much of anything from happening. Brecke is a photographer more than he is a filmmaker, but he has been covering Darfur and using his photos to do almost a grassroots version of An Inconvenient Truth by showing these photos and telling the stories to passengers on an Amtrack train and recording their reactions to it all. There are also some activists and politicos who weigh in with tremendous insight as well.

While I had a passing understanding of what was happening in Darfur and with the Sudanese refugees, I think I have a better understanding of the whole picture now, and if you can catch it, I recommend checking it out.

The festival concluded, for me at least, with Sidney Lumet's Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, which didn't work as well as I'd hoped. The acting is all fine and the story is there, but some of the directorial choices sort of sank it for me. Lumet employed some irritating tactics to make it needlessly repetitive and it's just a film where Lumet doesn't give the audience enough credit for being able to read between the lines and figure things out on their own. Instead, he has to go back and spell things out for you, and it's usually done to make sure you got it and remove any possible ambiguity, where I don't feel it existed in the first place. It's not horrible, but I think it could have been a far better movie than what I saw on screen.

I love going down for the festival, and would encourage you to go, if even for an afternoon if you can make it. And I'm glad I went this year since it was mostly a strong line up. But right now, in the comforts of home, I'm also kind of glad that it's all over for this year.

Monday, November 5, 2007

60 Films in 6 Months

No matter how big of a cinephile one might consider themselves, we all have some big, gaping, black holes of films we "should have" seen, but for whatever reason never did. And I'm no different. While I think I'm more well versed in cinema than the average moviegoer, and I certainly have no qualms about tackling different kinds of film, there are some major films I've just never seen.

Over the past few years, I've created lists of films that I promise myself that I'm going to see, generally taking the approach that if I catch one per week, I could feasibly tackle 52 films. And while that doesn't seem that daunting, I never quite got the motivation to do finish the task in years gone by.

So, this year, what I decided to do is to make a list of directors that interested me and take that approach, and it clicked. I started on the list I set out for myself in May, and actually expanded upon it to come up with 60. Each of the directors were chosen for a reason: Some were directors I knew I needed to see at least something from. Others were directors from whom I'd only seen a couple and wanted a firmer grasp on their work. And others still were ones that I'd seen the bulk of their work, but I wanted to fill in the big blanks. And I finished last night. So, here are the ones I caught, first listing the director, and then the particular films I watched, and the grades I assigned them.

Prior to expanding upon his fiomography, I saw one incredible film (Time To Leave), and two interesting films where one ultimately worked (Under The Sand) and one ultimately didn't (Swimming Pool).
I watched:
5x2: B
Water Drops on Burning Rocks: C-
8 Women: B+

I'd only seen Le Cercle Rouge, and found it to be a movie that just oozed this cool as hell vibe. And with Army of Shadows finally getting released in America, the time was right.
I watched:
Le Samourai: B+
Army of Shadows: A-
Bob le Flambeur: B-

He was an interesting case becuase I'd seen two of his films: Cache, which is one of the best films this decade has had to offer, and The Piano Teacher, which, despite an amazing performance by Isabelle Huppert, is one of my most despised films of the decade. So I needed to see more, and I'm so happy I did.
I watched:
Funny Games: A-
Code Unknown: C+
Time of the Wolf: A-

I'd seen only two of his films as well before coming into this. Damage, which I loved when I saw it, but it has admittedly been awhile, and Vanya on 42nd Street, which is also good, but I can't say I love it.
I watched:
Elevator to the Gallows: A-
Au Revoir Les Enfants: B
Atlantic City: C+

Now, it's worth mentioning that when I was hitting my cinematic awakenings as a teen, Allen was in a creative lowpoint. So I just never bothered to go back and check out his earlier works. Now, I did love Bullets Over Broadway, but those was surrounded by years and years of garbage. But after falling in love (well, maybe just a crush) with Match Point, I figured it was time:
I watched:
Crimes & Misdemeanors: A-
The Purple Rose of Cairo: A
Hannah and Her Sisters: B-
Annie Hall: A
Interiors: B+
Manhattan: C
Husbands & Wives: A-

I'd never really seen Fassbinder before. I tried to catch The Marriage of Maria Braun before, but it was a disastrous experience, and I'll just refrain from elaborating further. So, I caught only a part of that film. But his films were among the ones I really wanted to catch up on.
I watched:
The Marriage of Maria Braun: B+
Veronika Voss: A-
Lola: C
Ali: Fear Eats The Soul: A
Chinese Roulette: C-
In A Year With 13 Moons: B-
The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant: C

I'd seen most of the "big dogs" from his filmography, and even most of the minor ones. But there were a handful of earlier films I never caught, so I basically saw everything I need to now:
I watched:
The King of Comedy: B+
After Hours: A-
The Last Temptation of Christ: B
Mean Streets: B-
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore: B

I've really loved some of his films, and I can't think of any I flat out hated. But there were some big gaps in what I missed, so I added him mostly out of having caught a lot of his 70s, 90s, and 00s, films, but not the 80s.
I watched:
Gallipoli: B+
The Year of Living Dangerously: A-
The Mosquito Coast: B+

I wanted to see more, becuase, I think he is a fucking amazing director for the most part. And sorry if I jump on a soapbox here, but I think he is so unfairly maligned because of the statutory rape issue. Was it wrong? Sure, of course it was. But I also bear in mind the fact that, say had my pregnant wife been butchered by the Manson Family, I might lapse into a period of self-destruction and I might make the wrong decisions as well. The girl doesn't hold a grudge, and even publicly stated so. Why do people have such a hard time letting go of this shit? Anyway... the man has directed some of the classics of the past 50 years, from Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown all the way up to The Pianist. But there were a few I wanted to catch:
I watched:
Repulsion: A-
Bitter Moon: B+
The Tenant: D

I've never been overly impressed with his work, but I had to watch The Up Series. It consists of 7 films, and I've elaborated on it previously. But for this, I won't elaborate on a specific segment, but I give the series an A+

Ok... so here comes the most embarrassing admission. I never saw The Godfather movies until now. I'm not a huge mafia film kind of guy, and they weren't available on DVD for so long. I'd seen some later shit, but shit was basically the operative word there. And, rather than waste anytime on the third installment, which seemed to me to be a desperate attempt to reclaim his glory days, I watched a replacement that I saw when I was way too young, and it was time to revisit.
I watched:
The Godfather: A-
The Godfather Part II: B
Apocalypse Now: A

I managed to see most of the films from the later years, but the earlier films never quite happened until now. So...

I watched:
M*A*S*H: B+
Nashville: B+
Three Women: B

I'd never seen anything, and though I picked him prior to his passing this year, his death made it seem more urgent that I see his films.
I watched:
L'Avventura: A-
L'Eclisse: C+
L'Notte: B+
Blow Up: B

Again, another I never saw anything from. But I love Spanish cinema, and his relationship with Salvador Dali further intrigued me.
I watched:
Un Chien Andelou: B
L'Age D'Or: B-
Diary of a Chambermaid: B+
Belle De Jour: A-
The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie: C+
That Obscure Object of Desire: B+

I was originally thinking I'd elaborate further on the films, but there are just too many. So, the letter grades can suffice for now.