Saturday, January 17, 2009

Five Short Reviews #3

January 16, 2009

Man on Wire (2008) ****1/2

Directed by James Marsh

Man on Wire is a stylish documentary about one of the most unbelievable feats in recent American history. Philippe Petit recounts the morning in 1974 when he successfully walked a tight-rope between the two Twin Towers, crossing back and forth eight times. As amazing as that is, what really makes this event remarkable is the fact that months went into the planning of how they were going to set up the rope without getting caught since they didn’t actually have permission to do what Petit ultimately did. At the time, the Twin Towers had just been built and the top thirty or so floors weren’t being used yet. Their middle of the night sneaking around at one point forced Petit and his friend to hide under a tarp for hours in order to avoid capture by security.

Many people have praised Man on Wire because of the suspense that came across when Petit was shown on the wire itself. Personally, I didn’t feel any tension at all. I knew that he was going to succeed, and as such, there was no question in my mind that he would make it back safely. Also, after the deed is done and Petit spends the day in jail, there’s a sequence involving him sleeping with a groupie that comes off completely disjointed from everything that came before. Finally, I’ve got to admit that Petit’s ultra-frantic personality did get on my nerves at times.

Yet, what Petit did was extraordinary, and Marsh’s document of the event is a real treasure not only because of what it captures on film, but also because, without mentioning 9/11 at all, Man on Wire holds up as a profound tribute to a piece of America that was so tragically lost that fateful day.

Labels: 2008, Four and a Half Stars, Documentary

The Edge of Heaven (2008) *****

Directed by Fatih Akin

It takes guts and a trust in one’s own judgment for a filmmaker to tell us what characters are going to die before actually presenting the characters themselves. Akin’s glorious drama tells the story of three deaths and how they bring together people that ultimately need each other. Without the deaths, their paths would never have crossed. Yet, The Edge of Heaven still treats tragedy as such, except it paints a refreshingly optimistic portrait of fate and the inherent goodness that exists in reality itself. Filled with touching, powerful moments and fully realized relationships, this is one of those films that has and will continue to touch the hearts of many.

Labels: 2008, Five Stars, Drama, Foreign Film, German, Turkish

Enemy of the State (1998) **

Directed by Tony Scott

Man running from bad guys without knowing why. Man being chased by cops who think man is part of afore mentioned bad guys. Man outsmarts everyone while clearing his name. Man finds Gene Hackman. Man has no chemistry with Gene Hackman. Man is Will Smith. Last sentence means movie made lots of money. Man’s performance is charming. Movie is stupid and concept is tired. The end.

Labels: 1990s, Two Stars, Thriller, Wiseguy DB Marathon

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) ****1/2

Directed by Danny Boyle

Slumdog Millionaire is the most grandiose little movie I think I’ve ever seen. Danny Boyle shot many of the scenes on the streets of Mumbai which is apparently a true feat in itself considering the overcrowding, the poverty and the crime that exists there.

An ode to the breezy films of Bollywood, the “slumdog” is actually an eighteen year old boy named Jamal Malik who has the real possibility of becoming the title character when he appears on the Indian version of the American game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” The game show itself isn’t only about intelligence since there are a dozen or so questions that must be answered in order to win the grand prize. Therefore, luck is just as much a part of winning. If you’re lucky, you might receive questions based on subjects with which you are familiar. Jamal, perhaps because of the good karma he’s built up by remaining true to himself and his virtue, lucks out big time since each question corresponds to a very specific and often dramatic moment in his difficult upbringing.

As you can guess, the plot switches between the present game show and Jamal’s past experiences. Jamal, his brother Salim and Jamal’s love interest Latika are played by child actors of all different ages. While I don’t believe any of the actors give award worthy performances, I do believe that the film absolutely delivers in its quest to simply make the audience smile, similar to the thousands of pleasantly shallow Bollywood films released every year.

Yet, Boyle contrasts the joy that permeates Slumdog Millionaire with an often brutal exploration into the dark underbelly of the slums in India. This is where I think the film doesn’t completely work. Poverty is presented so convincingly and so disturbingly that it ought not to be used as a means to a light happy ending. Similar to Children of Heaven, I was put off by the use of poverty as a set piece, especially when truths about it are so profoundly revealed.

Otherwise, Slumdog Millionaire is one of the great accomplishments of the year. Boyle is at the very top of his game, never afraid to embrace the excesses that Bollywood is so well known for showcasing. Here is a film that works almost as an event more than anything else.

Labels: 2008, Four and a Half Stars, Drama, Best Picture Oscar Nominees

Frost/Nixon (2008) ***1/2

Directed by Ron Howard

Before award season began, Frost/Nixon was one of the most anticipated movies of 2008. Sadly, it does not live up to its buzz. Yes, there are moments of breathtaking filmmaking, and Frank Langella does something with his eyes at one point that had me completely in awe. Unfortunately, Frost/Nixon is ultimately held back by its stiff staginess, its peppering of unconvincing faux-documentary sequences and its overeager direction by Ron Howard.

Every single frame of Frost/Nixon screams that it is an important film about an important event. I’ll grant that the event itself is important. David Frost exceeded everyone’s low expectations, including Nixon’s and his own, by grilling the former president about his illegal actions and forcing him to confront the reality of what he did and what this will ultimately do to his legacy. The film Frost/Nixon, however, ought not to be described as anything more than simply enjoyable and interesting. You can tell that Howard desires stronger praise.

There’s a scene that involves Nixon calling Frost drunk in the middle of the night that’s so bizarre and over the top that I simply can’t believe that it’s anything other than a complete fabrication. Maybe the call itself may have allegedly happened, but there’s no way that anything resembling the content of that scene comes from anywhere other than the mind of playwright Peter Morgan.

Langella does a fine job overall, and like I said before, there are moments of such great acting that I literally whispered the word “wow” out loud. Yet, the real treat in Frost/Nixon for me was watching the great Michael Sheen play David Frost. His role isn’t as showy, and the character he plays comes off phony at times, which I worry has caused some to ascribe blame to Sheen himself. In my opinion, he hits all of the right notes and gives us a character much more complex that we initially think. Even though everyone knows how this story is going to end, Sheen and those that surround him, including characters played by Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell, do a remarkable job of almost convincing us that Frost is in fact way out of his league.

It’s too bad that something this good can be so disappointing. That’s what you get if your December movie has Oscar buzz as early as June which it never should have had at all.

Labels: 2008, Three and a Half Stars, Drama, Best Picture Oscar Nominees

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Spirit of the Beehive

January 13, 2009

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) *****

Directed by Victor Erice

The word “enigmatic” is now part of my working vocabulary. It means mysterious or perplexing, and before this review, I’m pretty sure that I’ve never used it before. After viewing The Spirit of the Beehive, I had to surf the message boards in order to attempt to fully grasp all facets of this bizarre avant-garde drama. It’s during my quest to gather information that I kept hearing the word “enigmatic” used over and over again to describe the movie. A character opens a letter at one point towards the end of the film which I couldn’t place within the narrative. Who sent it? Why? What does it say? How is it important to the narrative as a whole?

It’s only when I began to follow a lengthy debate on a message board about these very questions that I came to realize that there aren’t always going to be clear answers in a film like this one. Judging by their insights and their vocabularies, most of the people participating in the debate are probably much smarter than I will ever hope to be, and yet, there wasn’t anything resembling even the slightest consensus concerning the letter, or the monster at the lake, or the man from the train, etc. I will say that it was fun to read their interpretations of The Spirit of the Beehive, and some made arguments that were quite convincing. Interestingly enough, others made contradicting arguments that were just as convincing. Perhaps, then, like a great piece of art, there is no single way to read Erice’s haunting masterpiece.

The danger, of course, is that Erice could be criticized for jumping head first into chaos and meaninglessness. When a film plays by no rules at all, it is simply lazy; however, I argue that The Spirit of the Beehive does work within an established framework which is admittedly quite different than those of films with conventional narratives. The Spirit of the Beehive reminds me quite a bit of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, a similarly enigmatic exercise in visually impressive, patient filmmaking. Anyone who says the he or she totally understands Days of Heaven or The Spirit of the Beehive after one viewing is simply mistaken. Both films almost beg to be viewed and analyzed over and over again. Because of the glorious experience I had immersed in the world of The Spirit of the Beehive, I look forward to checking it out again someday soon.

There’s definitely a way to interpret this film as an argument against the injustices experienced by the people of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Personally, I don’t know enough about this historical event to appreciate it on that level.

Yes, it cannot be argued that The Spirit of the Beehive is almost painfully slow at times. Still, there is a lot to embrace, especially for a film buff like myself. The entire narrative is held together through the shared experience of two young sisters after they watch a film version of the horror classic Frankenstein from the 1930’s. One scene in particular resonates with both of them. The monster famously sits down to play with a little girl without realizing that his actions will ultimately result in her death.

That night, in bed, the younger Ana (Ana Torrent) asks her older sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria) if the monster is real. Isabel tells her that he is, and she can summon him in her dreams. Otherwise, he resides near an abandoned building on their land. Ana’s belief in this tale leads her to put herself into danger in order to be in the presence of the monster. Is she desiring his company in order to help him or to use him so he might take her away from the difficult circumstances in her life, similar to what he did to the little girl by the lake?

Symbolism abounds from beginning to end. First of all, there’s a smart scene in Ana and Isabel’s classroom in which the teacher asks for volunteers to put stick on organs onto a cardboard cutout of a human being. Ana is one of the students to do so, which of course connects with the Dr. Frankenstein inside her creating her own version of the monster. Their father is a beekeeper seen at the beginning of the film discussing the fact that there is a type of bee that thinks of itself as a protector but actually serves no pragmatic purpose at all. Within this family unit, that’s exactly how the father ought to be described.

Ana loses her childlike innocence after watching Frankenstein. Isabel, on the other hand, has clearly been fixated with death for quite a while. At one point, she fakes her own death which scares the crap out of Ana. Another sequence has her and her friends jumping over a bonfire. Ana simply watches from the side until she decides to jump right before the scene changes. Another allusion to innocence lost.

The most bizarre and difficult scene to watch involves Isabel strangling a cat on a bed. Erice ought to be glad that the ASPCA wasn’t on set that day because production would have been shut down permanently.

The film’s climax involves a stranger who jumps from a train only to hide out in the same building Ana believes the monster to reside in. It’s when she encounters the stranger that she realizes that the monster really does exist. Once he leaves the film, Ana runs away only to stop at a lakeside very similar to the one in Frankenstein. Here she has the choice to hold onto her own fate or give it over to the monster to do with it as he pleases. The Spirit of the Beehive’s “enigmatic” ending perfect concludes the rich storytelling that preceeds it.

There’s not a whole lot that I was able to find out about Victor Erice himself other than the fact that he only made three movies. He’s still alive, and one message board poster claims that he shifted careers when he couldn’t support himself financially as a filmmaker. There are moments of breathtaking cinematography and direction within The Spirit of the Beehive which makes the short length of his filmography a tragedy. I absolutely love camera shots that zoom in so slow that it’s possible for the viewer not to even notice that the shot is moving at all. There’s a great example of this which has the father looking out a door with glass on it showing beehive-like hexagons from top to bottom. At times throughout the film, Erice uses assymetrical framing devices which help add to its mysterious tone. The flute-heavy soundtrack produces an ethereal layer on top of an already provocative narrative.

Not only have I had the privledge of watching one of the richest and most profound films I’ve ever seen, but I also have a new twenty-five cent word that I can overuse in order to make myself look smart!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Golden Globe Winners

January 11, 2008

Golden Globe Winners

Nice job Hollywood Foreign Press Association! You recognized the ultimate lameness within the superficial greatness of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button! You awarded my favorite actress, Kate Winslet, though I think one award would have been enough! You trumpeted the brilliance of Mickey Rourke! You gave a really wonderful little film that could called Slumdog Millionaire much deserved accolades! My hat is off to you HFPA.

Song: The Wrestler- Bruce Springsteen
Score: Slumdog Millionaire
Foreign Language Film: Waltz with Bashir
Animated Film: WALL-E
Screenplay: Slumdog Millionaire
Supporting Actress: Kate Winslet- The Reader
Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger- The Dark Knight
Actress in a Musical or Comedy: Sally Hawkins- Happy-Go-Lucky
Actor in a Comedy or Musical: Colin Ferrell- In Bruges
Actress in a Drama: Kate Winslet- Revolutionary Road
Actor in a Drama: Mickey Rourke- The Wrestler
Director: Danny Boyle- Slumdog Millionaire
Comedy or Musical Picture: Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Drama Picture: Slumdog Millionaire