High School Record

February 25, 2010

Supremely lo-fi film affair featuring Dean Spunt of No Age alongside a brief moment with Mike Watt. This kind of micro-financed film usually suffers from some bad acting and formlessness and that’s no exception here, but the earnestness and excellent music helped carry me to the end. The few films I’ve seen that are lumped into the category of mumblecore in general tend toward the brand of preciousness that reminds me a little of Calvin Johnson in his most influential years. It’s a little exclusive, cute and contrived in its embrace of hipsters masquerading as outsiders. High School Record has some of this going on, though I’m not entirely certain that it would be considered a part of that scene because I’m not sure that it has actually been defined.

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Percy Jackson – The Lightning Thief

February 24, 2010

My son is a big fan of these books and was excited to go see this in the theatres. It is Harry Potter steeped in Greek mythology rather than magic and if it weren’t nearly as good. There is a school for demigods instead of magic kids at the center, etc. I love my son, so I saw this, so I’m obliged to jot down something thanks to my self-imposed rules. I’ve now met this obligation.

One bonus thought; I’m a little shocked at the level of violence in the film considering just how young much of the audience was and that the thing was rated PG. If you’ve got enough power and money, the MPAA obviously has many different packages for sale.

Forest Gump

February 24, 2010

Following on the recent heels of another Zemeckis/Hanks film, I rented the BR release of their first collaboration. Wow how the times change quickly when it comes to CG work. FG has a lot of CG and practical effects going on and the majority of it holds up. Those scenes inserting Hanks into historically legitimate footage aren’t in that majority and truly are pretty distracting. This is made more acceptable given that this isn’t a movie that you are likely to find yourself genuinely lost inside of, rather one where the viewer is expected to step outside in specific moments and to know how recent American history is being tinkered with in order to enjoy it. Still, it does make one feel a little queasy/embarrassed seeing the mouths historical figures flopping around like marionettes with horse teeth to speak the dialogue being inserted into those toothy holes. A quick viewing of Look Who’s Talking should make me feel better/terrible.

I don’t really love this movie, but I think there is a lot of clever filmmaking going on despite that fact. Previous problems aside, I admire how Zemeckis would use technology less for show and more for story, but I’ve already said this stuff in my Castaway thing. What is impressive about this release for the tech nerd is the amount of HD content included in the 2 disc set. It is irritating to me that so many BR releases these days present low quality SD special features (what a bourgeois complaint from the proletariat class, but that’s America!). The studio (and presumably Zemeckis) went all out to provide plenty of special features that take advantage of the new format. If you are a fan of this film, this is a quality re-release worth picking up. If you are the rest of the world, my apologies for the most boring post possible.

Cocksucker Blues

February 24, 2010

Robert Frank’s much mythologized Rolling Stones tour film is a real oddity. The details about the legal battles over the work vary from source to source, but it is generally agreed that the film cannot be casually put on public display (some claim it can be shown but once a year and only with the director in attendance) and has not and cannot receive a home format release as of this time. The rarer the artifact, the more highly sought after it is, even it isn’t really a gem. This film has become much easier to acquire through modern digital distribution methods and I highly doubt that the Rolling Stones care for the same reasons they originally did. At the time this film was edited and presumably on the eve of its release, some of the Rolling Stones had run afoul of the law pertaining to drugs (and other things? – I’m not their biographer and I find them a bit of a bore). The release of a film containing semi-staged acts of sexual aggression, non-staged consensual sexually explicit acts (even more so for the times, I should mention not directly involving the band) and drug abuse/advocacy all while on tour in the United States, might have had unfortunate consequences on their ability to launch future tours and acquire the proper travel and work permits in this country. Now it seems more likely to me that the band would have more of a problem with there being free, though inferior, performance footage available at the click of a button. (They are some seriously hardcore money whores – nice work free-love generation!)

Ultimately Frank has a bit of a mess on his hands, but it’s kind of an interesting mess. He had the rather forward idea of leaving loaded film cameras laying around while accompanying the band and crew on the tour and encouraging anyone to pick up and shoot the ensuing diluted mess/boredom. The film lacks much of a structure, but that seems like a valid approach. It suffers where it falls into the hands of some advocate for the times and ways of the band and the culture/drug bubble that they lived in. When a junkie thinks they are being profound, they are usually just being the worst. Observing the near conundrum of some of the crew being part blue collar worker/artist/technician/junkie in a mild position of power could prove interesting if it wasn’t so goddamned boring. Human initiative and actualization tends to settle toward the state of least excitement. The band is glimpsed in the full grip of road monotony with a clichéd, predictable television launched off of a hotel room balcony. No insight outside of boredom and hangers on is truly glimpsed during the film and it eventually meanders to some closing credits. Given that this was shot during the first U.S. tour following the infamous Altamont incident and following in the longer shadow cast by the Maysles brothers more narrative document of those events in Gimme Shelter, the formless nature of the film makes even more sense. It’s worth a cursory glance for those interested in the human condition as it can manifest inside of a vacuum, but is hardly required viewing for fans of the band outside of a need to say they have been there and done that.

Zombieland

February 24, 2010

This film started life as a television pilot and it shows. Part of the reason so many people enjoyed this film relates to the voice-over and graphical vignettes outlining the rules of surviving a zombie apocalypse. In fact, I’ve read and heard so much proselytizing of a lot of recent devotees trying to inch it closer to instant/cult classic status, I was a little surprised at what I found. I wish that the filmmakers had been a little less precious about some of the conceits dreamt up for a serialized television version of this story because they actually do harm to the film. The clearest example of this is the Zombie Kill of the Week segment, which makes a lot of sense for a weekly television series and absolutely none for a feature film. The film also finds the lead character running through the first several rules of surviving said zombie apocalypse with humorous accompanying footage of uninfected humans falling prey to a failure to observe these rules. These are a lot of the fun of the movie, but have been too clunkily adapted from the show and are a little puzzling when they skip over more than a dozen rules in the course of the film to get to the newly observed rules playing out as the film does.

I realize that the last ten years have ushered in the first real opportunity for such a television premise to have a chance to come to fruition, and I think that the creators really had something fun in mind. I can also appreciate that the producers fought to see the project come to light, despite the many television studios that passed on the project. This feels like a Showtime series akin to Dead Like Me, though I think the scale of the show would have suffered next to the movie at that studio. I also think the film cast aids in elevating the material above what the likely cast options would have been able to offer on a televised version. Despite my sympathies with the filmmakers at the studio oversight and the subsequent dogged determination to see this come to light, we don’t have a comedy classic here. Thankfully the writers did have the clarity of mind to hit fast-forward in the third act rather than suffering the common fate of dragging out false ending after false ending in an attempt to deliver maximum excitement. The charm of the film is in fact heavily biased toward the comedy, despite having some pretty respectable zombie film carnage and tension. The film is enjoyable and has a pretty great middle portion that I don’t want to ruin for those who haven’t yet seen it, but I think the movie’s failure to adapt to its form, lets it down. For those expecting a longtime film companion from Zombieland, I think you’ve got a mild disappointment waiting for you in the next five or six years. Shaun of the Dead should be there to comfort you on that day.

Rabbit-Proof Fence

February 24, 2010

Phillip Noyce’s 2002 biographical story explores the shameful Aborigine Acts in Australia through the story of Molly Craig, a bi-racial early-teen age girl in the 1930’s. This series of Parliamentary acts over the 19th and much of the 20th century were racially motivated legislation intended to strip the rights and segregate the population of the Aboriginal population in Australia. Specifically, the film deals with “half-caste” children (it’s Australian for racist!), and the government policy that separated them from their Aboriginal homes in an effort to assimilate them into white society (in the form of varying degrees of servitude and educational assimilation dependent upon the lightness or darkness of the child’s skin). This is also Molly Craig’s true story of escape from one of these camps/schools and a 1500 mile journey by foot across the farmlands and deserts of Australia, following the rabbit-proof fence line to return home.

Having known very little about this piece of Australian history, I found the film managed to illuminate the subject without getting bogged down in too much of a civics lesson. The production feels modest, given that this was filmed in one of the most brutal climates on earth, and gives the film a personal feel. Noyce is able to avoid making a cloying message film as well as navigating through a story centered on an unlikely child(ren)’s journey without dipping into the tone of a Disney adventure film. It doesn’t rise to the level of Carroll Ballard’s Black Stallion, Peter Collinson’s sadly overlooked The Earthling or Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, three films that also deal with the isolation and journey of children, but this is still a fine film (and to be fair, two out of three of those films left their initial and deep impressions on me at a very early age). Through this film, I have found my interests piqued on the topic of Australia’s political history and treatment of their indigenous population. Given my own country’s regrettable position and treatment of our own indigenous population, not to mention our inequitable civil rights issues both past and present, I found the film interesting and further illuminating on the darker side of the human condition as it manifests outside of these borders. (That deeply conservative streak in Australia is starting to make more sense to me now.) I think Noyce found an interesting story through which to explore his own feelings about the issue and did an admirable job in telling it. I am on the lookout for some good texts and films on the subject if anyone has any recommendations.

Hollywood Uncensored

February 24, 2010

The topic of the Hays Code and the creation of the MPAA can be interesting material to the movie nerd crowd. This release has a corny, but obviously newer piece of cover art disguising the poor 1980’s production value revealing when this was originally released. If you’re already deeply interested in the subject, there are a couple of high points where some clips that were filmed exclusively for foreign market release prints of American films are shown, though the quality is tremendously poor for those clips (really almost all of the clips, including those from existing film elements, look pretty bad). This is more of a clip style cursory glance at the subject hosted by Douglas Fairbanks Jr and for a minute by the typically embarrassing Peter Fonda. Strangely, this feels like a made for broadcast television “special”, but then features violence and nudity that clearly demonstrates that this couldn’t have been the intent. Kirby Dick’s This Film Is Not Yet Rated and TCM’s Forbidden Hollywood collection are better and more interesting reference points for the subject.

Surrogates

February 8, 2010

I just saw this a few days ago and I have already forgotten the details of how the story unfolds. This seems to be a film attempting to grab some of the viewers interested in I Robot from a few years ago. That guy from Moonlighting is in it (or boat cop from The Color of Night as I prefer to call him) and he sometimes has hair in the movie. I’d speak to it a little more but I really barely remember it, which says enough. I pondered what I would say about Pandorum that I wouldn’t say about this. The truth is I said a lot more because I at least remembered it a little bit. It really wasn’t much better though. Skip this or watch it out of sheer boredom on TNT in a year. But really, come plenty bored.

Pandorum

February 8, 2010

What can I say about Pandorum that I won’t be saying in a minute about Surrogates? These films run together in my mind and fit easily into the failed sci-fi collection of films that are so prevalent since the Matrix surprised Hollywood. Watch Moon if you want to see one of the best sci-fi movies of the past 20 years (and then watch Primer for another one).

Pandorum stars Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster as two crew members of an arc-like space ship transporting thousands of passengers to a hospitable replacement planet for a destroyed Earth. The film begins with them waking from a long stasis sleep expecting to take their rotation in commanding the ship as part of a many years journey. This is not a peaceful emergence from sleep and the film centers on their attempts to discover what has gone wrong on the ship during their absence from consciousness and the post stasis memory loss they struggle to shake. This is the sort of premise where success or failure is all about script and execution. The script can best be described as lacking clarity and clumsy and the execution is pedestrian in the end. The action-horror sequences are probably the best part of the film, harkening back very much to the claustrophobia of the Alien films. Ultimately, this film just never quite comes to life and the ideas aren’t communicated clearly enough or explored interestingly enough to really matter. There are even some logic problems with the timeline that I wasn’t willing to go back and attempt to clarify.

I believe this was originally slated to be a small budget independent film and was written so that it could be filmed in a single location for a meager sum. In trying to imagine how that might have panned out I cannot help but think it would have been even less successful as a project. Ben Foster has shown some promise in previous films and I hope he can get involved with more interesting scripts and projects than I have seen him working in for the past couple of years.

Up In The Air

February 8, 2010

It’s a prerequisite that I should say something negative about Reitman’s last film Juno, but to be honest, I thought it was decent. Definitely cutesy, but decent. His latest offering is neither adorable or what I was expecting and I must be amongst the last people in America to finally see it. What really surprised me about UITA was the willingness of the film to be a downer and the success that the film has had despite it. Perhaps my fellow Midwesterners were willing to accept disappointment heaped upon a man more handsome than themselves, who has never sought to entangle himself into familial circumstances, and who makes a living ending others ability to do so themselves. But unlike the more obviously and comically transgressive tobacco lobbyist Aaron Eckhart played in Reitman’s first feature Thank You For Smoking, Clooney plays a far more sensitive and sympathetic character from the outset of this film. His particular career isn’t one that he specifically relishes; it merely suits the lifestyle he chooses to pursue when he is not on the clock. He is a man with a code he attempts to work from and actively fights a more cynical approach to what it is that he does for more than merely selfish reasons.

I expected for the film to show some caution in approaching the presently sensitive and very real issue of job loss in this country, and it did. I also expected that they would touch on that at the beginning and at the end and the rest of the film would be more comical in tone. Ultimately though, this is a drama with black comedy elements and not the other way around. It’s a much better movie than I anticipated because of that design. While I won’t get into the specifics here for fear of spoiling any details for those who haven’t seen it, this film uses job loss, travel, idiosyncratic tangents and the specific choice of career for the leads very successfully as a setting only, while it explores the more interesting and subtle themes of identity, coping mechanisms and regret. I didn’t see that coming in the increasingly snarky trailers and I was happy to have it sneak up on me in the theatre.