Saturday, January 8, 2011

The (Pretty Much) Final Five Films from 2009 I'll See

January 8, 2011

Walt & El Grupo (2009) **1/2
Directed by Theodore Thomas

My tweet:

Walt & El Grupo (2009)- Should have been a short doc. This story showcasing three months is languidly stretched out. **1/2 out of 5

Other thoughts:

One of the things I needed Walt & El Grupo to prove to me is the benefit of "good will" excursions. It didn't. By the end of this documentary about the three months Walt Disney and friends spent in South America as World War II was in its early stages, there's a flimsy argument made that this trip helped deliver an image of South Americans as fun and friendly back to the United States while also showing those in South America that the United States truly cared about them and their interests. Another somewhat irrelevant point was made as well. After the labor strike at Disney following the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney himself was going through a very difficult time, and it was this trip which got him through, allowing him to continue one of the all time great careers in Hollywood history. I'm not buying the truth of either argument, especially because they're presented in the most one-sided way possible. This movie feels like something produced solely for the Disney family archives, showcasing Walt Disney as a singularly jovial ambassador finding glee within other cultures. Worse even than all the patronizing on display is the fact that this documentary is so damn boring, and this is coming from someone who absolutely loves learning about the history of film. Letters are read, and montages of photographs with Latin music are doled out. Little time is given to the cartoons that resulted from Disney's experiences on this trip, the most notable one being The Three Caballeros. There's not enough insight from the talking heads who mostly consist of children and grandchildren of Disney and his diplomatic posse. There's simply not enough importance for this stuff to work as a two hour long documentary. The subject matter of Walt & El Grupo is exactly the sort for which the short documentary genre exists.

Afterschool (2009) ***
Directed by Antonio Cam
pos

My tweet:

Afterschool (2009)- Despite jejune moments and a cynical naivety, there are enough thought provoking questions to carry this film. ***/5

Other thoughts:

Afterschool is too much like Paranoid Park, and considering that Paranoid Park was my favorite movie of 2008, the fact that it's not nearly as good is especially troublesome for me. Campos employs experimental editing and cinematography in order to try and capture the hell that is high school. In that vein, Afterschool is also similar to Gus Van Sant's Elephant, another better film. All three films deal with young people responsible for brutal deaths, and with Paranoid Park and Afterschool specifically, these deaths allow adult audiences to connect with the elevated stakes with which all of adolescence is imbued. Again, had I not felt like I have seen this exact sort of thing before in Paranoid Park, I might have appreciated Afterschool that much more, considering the appropriateness of the allegory. Afterschool focuses on an angry and troubled young high school boy in a boarding prep school administered by adults that care only about the image of the school and not about the students. Herein lies another problem with Afterschool. The cynicism of the screenplay comes through all too loud and clear, making the characterizations of the adults especially naive. The boy must deal with his internal struggles with sex and violence while he's trapped in a world where he's experiencing both for the first time without being equipped to handle any of it. He's asked to edit a memorial video for twin senior girls who seemingly died of drug overdoses. To make matters worse, the boy was the only one in the room when they died. He deals with disappointment after disappointment until he finally acts out and we're left to wonder whether or not he's moved beyond the point of no return into a world where innocence is truly a thing of the past. There are enough interesting sequences at play that I do recommend the film on its artistic value alone, but I'm still troubled by the fact that Afterschool is biting off the innovations of Paranoid Park. If you're going to copy the blueprint of another film, at least match its quality. Next time, Campos better come up with his own voice. I think he has it in him.

(Untitled) (2009) ***
Directed by Jonathan Parker

My tweet:

(Untitled) (2009)- Well-acted with some great laughs, but it never really rises above the intellectual-lite that it parodies. *** out of 5

Other thoughts:

(Untitled) is a comedy that elicits huge laughs when the experimental non-tonal band plays a brutal, pretentious cacophony and calls it art. It's the sort of "art" that's so jarring and discordant that just about everyone will see it as worthless. Unfortunately, the rest of the film relies less on visual and aural gags, instead focusing on droopy dialogue and pseudo-philosophizing on the meaning of art to keep us invested and entertained. (Untitled) certainly isn't bad. It's just not nearly as smart as it think it is or needs to be to really sell the subject matter.

A Christmas Carol (2009) ***
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

My tweet:

A Christmas Carol (2009)- Classic story told well, but technology still washes out emotions. Too many chase sequences for Dickens. *** of 5

Other thoughts:

My biggest problem with Zemeckis' CGI follow up to A Christmas Carol is the fact that there are way too many chase scenes for a film based on a Charles Dickens' novel. When whole sequences are included just to show off 3D technology, then we know that a better job could have been done with the film's narrative. Though he's able to contort his face in impressive ways, Jim Carrey's vocal work is perhaps a bit too earnest for its own good, and the technology still leaves a lot to be desired especially if we're expected to care whether or not characters are actually emoting. Overall, though, A Christmas Carol is still one of the great morality tales ever written, and Zemeckis provides some truly gorgeous and frightening moments. There are better adaptations of Dickens' classic out there; however, this one (just barely) gets a pass.

Paris 36 (2009) ****
Directed by Christophe Barratier

My tweet:

Paris 36 (2009)- A wonderfully rich story with likable characters. Visually stunning. Historical metaphor doesn't quite work though. ****/5

Other thoughts:

Paris 36 is trying to be both a backstage drama and a political allegory for France right before World War II. As a look at a group of underdogs reviving a theater called Paris 36, this movie is really pretty wonderful; however, as a metaphor of politics and history, not so much. It's the story of an out of work father who loses custody of his accordion-playing son to his estranged wife. In order to prove that he can be a stable father, he attempts to revive a run down vaudevillian theater to its splendor. Of course, with no money, it's not an easy task. He's accompanied in his mission by some loyal performers who unfortunately have troubles of their own. Add into the equation the fact that the Paris 36 posse is not on the good side of a local Nazi who runs the town like the head of the mob, and the road to theatrical success is not an easy one to navigate. With everything awful going on in the world, though, people need escape, and thus, the charming staging of some of the musical numbers and the talent of the performers are enough to fill the seats slowly but surely. The song "Lion de Paname" was nominated for an Oscar, and though no single song stands out, this is a backstage movie that I prefer over both La Vie en Rose and Me and Orson Welles. Paris 36 deserves to find a bigger audience.

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