A Week in the Life of a Film Geek (April 5-11, 2010)
I want to get back in the habit of posting more frequently, and the combination of a busy schedule and a lack of motivation are making full length reviews very difficult to regularly churn out, so I decided that every Sunday evening (with exception of course), I'll begin to type out some of my thoughts about the films that I saw over the week. As always, please feel free to comment on this or any other post. I promise from here on in to respond to every single reasonable comment.
Greenberg (2010) ****1/2
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Greenberg- Brutally honest meditation on being 40. Baumbach's not afraid to be unlikable in his successful quest for truth. ****1/2 of 5
I cannot express enough how much I despised Baumbach's nasty, pointless and above all misanthropic 2007 release Margot at the Wedding. Read my review of that film here. Margot sat quite comfortably atop my Worst of 2007 list, and because of that flick's total nefariousness, I wasn't completely looking forward to watching Greenberg, which on paper has quite a bit in common with Margot. Both deal with a profoundly insecure malcontent in the lead role and neither aims to portray humanity in a glowing light. Thankfully, Greenberg is a very good movie for many reasons, though most importantly because it consistently presents truthful characters and situations, unlike Margot at the Wedding, which creates unlikable characters that never once feel real. They instead come off like manufactured creations of a deeply angered and depressed screenwriter. Baumbach may have also been angered and depressed while writing Greenberg, but this time the plot and characters aren't buried in an abyss of suffocating repugnance.
Ben Stiller, who is such a talented and interesting actor, commits completely to showing his title character in a candid light. It's hard to like the man Greenberg, and, on the one hand, Stiller doesn't shy away from appearing disagreeable, yet he doesn't judge his character in his performance. Further, unlike some other comic actors who try out dramatic roles, Stiller doesn't attempt to underact. There are moments of huge eruptions of anger and frustration, and never once does Stiller come across as someone trying to be taken seriously as an actor by dialing down the intensity.
The entire movie plays both as a character study of a borderline unhinged man trying to navigate his way into the beginnings of middle age when nothing in his past has proven fulfilling. Yet, Greenberg isn't a man that we must contemplate from an emotional distance. Baumbach tackles some tough issues about being in one's forties that audiences can examine either from the past, present or future depending on one's age. It's around the age of 40 when life settles down, and the idealism of youth and young adulthood almost completely disappears. I can imagine that people start intensely judging the values of their past accomplishments in order to assess how satisfied they are in the present which understandably affects their temperaments in the future.
I can't say I enjoyed a lot of what I saw in Greenberg significantly better than the goings on in Margot at the Wedding. Both films aren't afraid to get unabashedly ugly. Though I haven't yet seen Baumbach's much celebrated The Squid and the Whale, I think it's safe to say that it's probably a rare occurrence when someone leaves a Noah Baumbach film feeling good about being a member of the human race. This is perfectly okay with me as long as a film of his actually has something to say that's rooted in truth, despite its level of animus.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) ****1/2
Directed by Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)- Overstuffed, sure, but I can't recall too many films that are so damn entertaining. ****1/2 out of 5
I was pleased to finally catch a Spaghetti Western, a term which refers to a genre of westerns made in Italy by Italian directors in the mid-sixties through the seventies which starred American actors, most notably Clint Eastwood. Films such as A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West are staple films on Internet Movie Database's Top 250 Films List. In general, the western isn't my favorite genre, but as a self-proclaimed film geek, it's inexcusable not to have seen even one Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western.
From its opening scene spoofing High Noon to its overblown confrontation between Charles Bronson's "The Man with No Name" and Henry Fonda's villainous Frank. I was completely mesmerized by Leone's one of a kind, operatic style more so than the film's plot, which really isn't all that much more than a collection of familiar western tropes (reformed bad guy seeking salvation, man seeking revenge for a family's murder, bad guy vs. good guy in a small town setting, etc.). Leone loves framing his sweaty, weather-beaten actors (and actresses) in extreme close ups capturing slight twitches or snarls meant for histrionic punctuation.
Is Once Upon a Time in the West perfect? Far from it. If one was to meticulously dissect and critique this over two and a half hour epic, it would be easy to come up with a pretty long list of flaws (Henry Fonda, for example, is way too old for the role he's in). Ultimately, however, Leone strove to captivate audiences in order to give them their money's worth. As such, without a doubt, Once Upon a Time in the West deserves a place on a list of the Top 250 Films for being so richly entertaining.
Afghan Star (2009) ***
Directed by Havana Marking
Afghan Star (2009)- Putting aside its desire to be a competition show itself, this doc showcases a country's struggles w/ transition. ***/5
Afghan Star falls into a trap that's becoming all-too-familiar with documentaries that showcase some kind of competition. Another example is Chris Rock's Good Hair, a doc also released last year which splits its focus between examining the billion dollar industry built around the hair of African-American women and a competition for best hair designer at a hair care convention. Marking's documentary Afghan Star, about Afghanistan's equivalent to American Idol, is structured like a season of the reality competition itself. Throughout the film, we watch as singers get eliminated one by one, so that at the end, we learn who earned that season's title of being the Afghan Star. Perhaps I'm disappointed that Marking took the easy way out by utilizing the most expected and obvious organizational pattern; however, even more so, the most interesting subplots are about singers who didn't make it all the way to the end so that by the time we reach the final two, the best elements of the film are already behind us.
That being said, Afghan Star certainly has quite a lot to say about a country desiring to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of its popular culture. After decades of being dominated by other, larger entities, including the Taliban, who outlawed secular singing and all dancing in the 1990's, a singing competition on a low budget television station with production values that would make Soul Train scoff in superiority is exactly what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately, there's still a great deal of tension in this Islamic fundamentalist country. For example, in the season spotlighted in the doc, there are women competing for the first time. The two female contestants are very different, not only coming from different tribes, but also because one is much more traditional than the other. The most powerful story centers around the backlash that occurs after one of the women starts to dance around on stage the day she's eliminated. Women who dance, according to a certain interpretation of Islam adhered to by many Afghans, are bad. Things spiral out of control resulting in this contestant not returning home to her village because of death threats directed toward her and her family.
In order for lasting modernization to permeate a country like Afghanistan, the acceptance of popular culture and artistic expression is crucial. Though the television show Afghan Star is so amateurish that it's almost unwatchable to those of us used to the pomp of American Idol, it potentially has the power to bring a country into the twentieth century. Yes, I know it's the twenty-first century right now, but after watching this documentary, you'll realize that it might be best to temper expectations regarding Afghanistan's cultural evolution.
The Ghost Writer (2010) ***
Directed by Roman Polanski
The Ghost Writer- A well-crafted beach read of a movie that's fun despite how shallow and at times ridiculous its plot is. *** of 5
Beach reads by definition refer to books that don't require a whole lot of thought but are entertaining nonetheless. They're not aiming to win Pulitzer Prizes, but they are meant to absorb the reader in plot that's engrossing though undeniably shallow. John Grisham is perhaps my favorite beach read author. His novels are a whole lot of fun, though I don't really feel like I accomplished much when I finish one.
Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer plays out like a John Grisham beach read. It's a little silly, completely manufactured and one hundred percent watchable. Ewan McGregor, who has certainly had his share of bad performances lately with films like The Men Who Stare at Goats and Amelia, is cast well as a British ghost writer offered the opportunity to write about an exiled former Prime Minister played by a scenery munching Pierce Bronsan. Things spin out of control when McGregor's character, for almost no real reason whatsoever, begins to investigate the suspicious death of the man he was hired to replace, thereby placing himself in serious danger. Corruption, scandal, suspicion and sex all come into play until we're left with a final sequence that's satisfying while also being completely ludicrous.
One can certainly understand why Polanski found himself attracted to this material. He's been dealing with his own self-imposed exile. He's recently found himself under house arrest awaiting possible extradition to the United States to face child abuse charges. Like a disgraced Prime Minister, Polanski must struggle with his own tarnished reputation and questionable legacy. You'd expect this man making this movie at this time to result in something provocative and memorable. Sadly, once one is finished watching The Ghost Writer, I'd be hard pressed to believe that it will stay with the viewer for very long. There are also none too subtle critiques of Tony Blair and the Bush administration. To really do something interesting with all this material, The Ghost Writer needed to have trusted its audience to be willing to think. Instead, it's absolutely possible to leave your brain on standby while watching.
The Secret of Kells (2010) ***
Directed by Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey
The Secret of Kells- A fuzzy story and a blend of mostly 2D animation w/ a peppering of computer generated 3D make for an okay movie. ***/5
There was a worldwide audible gasp within the film community when The Secret of Kells was announced as a nominee for Best Animated Film at this year's Academy Awards, beating out Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo which was expected by many to be in the running. I follow the pulse of the film world as much as anyone, and yet, I had never heard of The Secret of Kells, and once I got home to read the Twitter buzz over the Oscars, almost everyone I followed was similarly perplexed and intrigued. I did a little digging and found that the Irish import based on the Celtic book of Kells only played at an animated film festival in Los Angeles in 2009. There were no plans at the time for an official release in the United States.
I would have loved to have seen The Secret of Kells before the Oscars. I was impressed with this little movie that could, and I posited that a film with such little exposure must be pretty damn good for Academy members to cast enough votes for a nomination. Though everyone agreed that Up was the hands down favorite to win, there was a little part of me that was rooting for the underdog. Had I seen Kells before the Oscars, I would have been able to dismiss it as stale and boring, not deserving to be mentioned in the same category as Up and Coraline.
The animation is similar to Sita Sings the Blues; it's like a collage on screen where illuminated cutouts are layered on a backdrop. I didn't love Sita, but at least that film had a sense of whimsy and imagination regarding its animation style that kept momentum going from beginning to end. Sure, there are sequences in Kells that are truly wonderful and magical, and these alone make the film worth seeing. Yet, there are whole sequences that literally lay there with such flatness that I felt tempted to disengage completely with its pretty lackluster plot about a boy in a monastery who betrays his abbot by venturing out into the magical woods to help out a traveling monk who believes that the boy could save the enclosed town from violent attack.
The magic could have been a lot more magical; the story could have been a lot more compelling; the voice characterizations could have had a lot more character; the animation could have been a lot more animated. There are a handful of computer generated 3D animation sequences that are pretty awesome to watch but feel completely disconnected with the 2D pallet that runs throughout. I was ready to completely write off The Secret of Kells as a failure when the story and the visuals take a disturbing turn which finally give the film some energy which had been lacking desperately. By the end, I was impressed enough to recommend The Secret of Kells, though personally, I wouldn't have voted to nominate it for anything.