Bob and Justin's Mad Movie Blog

My name is Bob. My friend Justin and I are aspiring filmmakers and we have pretty similar tastes in movies. This will include our take on what's going on in film and television today as well as updating you on the status of our own work.

Friday, November 24, 2006

"For Your Consideration" and "Babel"

For Your Consideration- The latest from director Christopher Guest ("Waiting For Guffman," "Best in Show") stars all of the usual Guest suspects. Unlike their previous collaborations however, this is not a mockumentary. Written by Guest and Eugene Levy, "For Your Consideration" is a satirical skewering of Hollywood's obsession with awards, entertainment news programs, and everything in between. It's very gentle humor. Like Albert Brooks, Guest never oversells a joke. He'd rather go the other way. This sort of subtlety doesn't work for everybody. In fact there were a number of times, particularly early in the film, where I was the only person laughing. As the film went on however, the audience seemed more and more to get in on the joke. I'm wondering how many of them had seen the other films, or "This is Spinal Tap" (one of the greatest movies ever made). I think maybe it's a style that takes some getting used to. For those of us who like this sort of thing though, "For Your Consideration" is anything but "a humorless romp."
The plot of "FYC" concerns Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara), star of the Sunfish Classics art house film, "Home For Purim." The movie is not even done being shot and yet there is already internet buzz around her performance. It seems that she's rumored to be nominated for an Oscar. The on-set mania that this sparks is made even funnier because we suspect that this sort of thing really happens. Soon her co-stars, Victor Allan Miller (Harry Shearer), most famous for dressing up as a hot dog, and Callie Webb (Parker Posey) are rumored to be in the Oscar running too. It's not a complicated plot, but this is not a movie to watch for its plot, it's a movie to watch for its characters and its comic subtlety. It's little moments like an interviewer asking the film's writers (played by Bob Balaban and Michael McKean), "Do you like writing?" Or Fred Willard and Jane Lynch playing the hosts of an "Entertainment Tonight"/"Access Hollywood" style show, that is only slightly more embarrassing than the real thing. Along the way, Guest also satirizes the self-importance of celebrities, agents, and film critics. It's also one of the only films I've seen to mock the art of film promotion, with the movie's stars going everywhere from "Charlie Rose" to "TRL," while doing very little in the way of actual promotion.
"For Your Consideration" is a movie that I expect will grow on me even more with subsequent viewings. The great script is brought to life by a stellar cast, which includes hilarious turns by John Michael Higgins (Wayne Jarvis on "Arrested Development") and Ricky Gervais (David Brent from the UK's "The Office"). If you enjoy Guest's films or Hollywood mockery in general, then you won't want to miss this. 9/10

Babel- Now for something completely different. "Babel" re-teams the writer (Guillermo Arriaga) and director (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) of 2003's "21 Grams," which was excellent, yet thoroughly depressing. This will probably be the final film they collaborate on for awhile, as they apparently had a falling out over it. This sort of thing is fairly common. Earlier this year, writer Frank Cotrell Boyce was so angry with director Michael Winterbottom that he had his name taken off of "Tristram Shandy" (one of my favorite films of 2006). Unlike that separation however, I'm thinking that it's about time that Arriaga and Inarritu had a break from each other.
That's not to say that "Babel" is bad. Far from it. It's just nothing terribly new. Like "Traffic," "Syriana," "City of God," "The Constant Gardener," their own "21 Grams," "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (written by Arriaga), and a host of others, it follows characters and story lines which seemingly have no connection, and weaves their stories together in a non-linear fashion. Just like all of those films, "Babel" is also very grim. Richard (Brad Pitt) is trying to save his wife Susan's (Cate Blanchett) life in Morocco. However, the language barrier proves a problem, and political issues slow the process down as well. Susan was accidentally shot on a tour bus by a young boy. He and his brother are too scared to come forward. Meanwhile, pieces of the story unfold in Mexico and Japan. Despite the fact that Pitt and Blanchett are "Babel's" two biggest stars, we go long periods of time without seeing either of them on screen. This actually ends up being one of the film's greatest accomplishments, because it emphasizes the fact that in the midst of everything that's happening, Susan is getting lost in the shuffle, even though in the end it's her life that is at stake. "Babel" is a very good movie and there are a lot of discoveries on the way that I will not deprive you of. Had it been made 6 or 7 years ago it would have blown me away. Now however, it feels just a little too familiar to consider it a truly great movie. 8/10

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

Just wanted to quickly say happy Thanksgiving and let you know that I recently saw "Babel" and "For Your Consideration." Both are very good and I'll try to do the reviews soon. My hot streak continues. I haven't seen a truely bad movie in the theater since "All the King's Men."
Anywho, if you're looking for a DVD to rent post Turkey I recommend the just released "Joyeux Noel," which tells the story of the Christmas Eve truce of 1914. I saw it in the one theater it played at in Seattle last March. Talk about a movie that deserved better. Check it out. Also, the new 2 Disc edition of "A Fish Called Wanda" finally came out after numerous delays. One of my favorite movies of all-time. Oh, forget the turkey, I want some live fish!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Robert Altman, 1925-2006

Well he may have been a bitter old crank, but he was a bitter old crank who made some great films. Like Peter O'Toole, he only received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his efforts. But films such as "The Player" and "Nashville" will live on long after Oscar statuettes have lost their shine. Robert Altman will be missed. He was a true original.

Edward Norton

Ya know we hear an awful lot about celebrities saying and doing outrageous things. Mel Gibson, just this past weekend, Michael Richards and OJ (thankfully his book and special have been cancelled). We also hear about a lot of celebrities trying to help out in the world, but am I alone in feeling like Bono and Angelina Jolie might be the two most self congratulatory people on the planet? As for Madonna, she needed some publicity.
But it's nice to hear this from Edward Norton. It's also nice to hear that the extravagant gift baskets at awards ceremonies are probably going to be done away with. This from IMDB:

Norton Urges Oscars To Banish Gift Baskets
Actor Edward Norton is leading a celebrity charge to banish lavishing gift baskets on presenters at top awards shows. The Illusionist star is appalled by the freebies celebrities pick up backstage at events like the Golden Globes and the Oscars, while many people watching the ceremonies at home are struggling to pay the rent and feed their kids. He says, "A lot of us have talked to the Academy Awards producers about this and I think they're actually going to scuttle the gift baskets and that kind of stuff. I mean the gift baskets, worth amounts of money that a low income family could live on for a year, (are given to) people who have so much already. It gets depressing. You sit there, going, 'This is an embarrassment.'"

Go Edward. No shameless self promotion. No patting himself on the back, just telling it like it is.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Casino Royale

Going back to the beginning has become a popular way to go in recent years. For some franchises it has been an incredible creative shot in the arm ("Smallville," "Batman Begins"). For others (the "Star Wars" prequels) it's made us wish they'd just left well enough alone. For James Bond, the most iconic figure in motion picture history, starting over from the beginning was the right way to go.
"Casino Royale" has been called a re-make. It's not. The 1967 film of the same name (LOOSELY based on Ian Fleming's first Bond novel) was a spy spoof that not even a stellar cast (Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Orson Welles) could raise above the level of mediocrity. It's been called a prequel. Again, no. This film is set in the present. The most accurate description I've heard to describe "Casino Royale" is from the Imdb poster who called it a "reboot."
The most commonly asked question with every new Bond is, does he stack up to Connery? The inherent problem with this question is that if you're asking it the answer is invariably going to be no. For some, there is only one Bond, and his name is Sean Connery. I agree with the consensus that Connery was the best, but Pierce Brosnan did a great job with the character as well. ("Die Another Day" was not his fault.)
Now we have Daniel Craig ("Road to Perdition," "Munich"), and he is spectacular. Granted, since I'm not a Bond obsessive (they've basically made a variation on the same movie 20 times) I was much more open minded to his being cast than many were. But only the most determined cynic will be unimpressed with his work here. His Bond is inexperienced, and while he is brash and arrogant, he is still unsure of himself. He's still earning his swagger. He makes mistakes, he gets his hands dirty, and he bleeds. He's human. This is a great look into the character of Bond because we're still seeing the moulding process. We know who he's going to become, but he's still figuring it out. I have a hard time imagining any of the previous Bond actors pulling this off, even Connery. Connery was an icon from frame one. Craig is showing us the icon in the making which, at least to me, is far more interesting, and probably a greater acting challenge.
The main Bond girl in this film, Vesper Lynd ("Kingdom of Heaven's" Eva Green), has a personality and a name that actually sounds real. Not showing up until an hour into the movie, she accomplishes what no one has done since Diana Rigg in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (very underrated movie)- she makes James Bond fall in love. She poses a challenge for him, something that we're not used to with Bond. The banter between the characters is well written and well executed. In most movies it would go without saying that this goes a long way towards making us buy into their relationship and becoming invested in it, but for a Bond movie it's worth mentioning.
Directed by Martin Campbell ("GoldenEye") and co-written by Paul Haggis (a busy man), "Casino Royale" is a great Bond film because it doesn't follow the Bond formula. We can't figure out exactly what scene is going to be next from following the James Bond Story Map. The puns and double entendres are virtually non-existent. I loved Desmond Llewellyn's Q in the previous films, but I did not miss the goofy sci-fi gadgets this time around. This is about as close to realistic as you can get with James Bond.
Campbell is in top form here, creating electric action sequences, balanced with intriguing character development. It's 2 hours and 24 minutes yet never drags. Sure it could be shorter, but unlike many poorly paced event films in recent years, it doesn't NEED to be. There are also some great in-jokes (apparently Bond could go either way on the shaken or stirred issue) and we are introduced to the new Felix Leiter ("Syriana's" Jeffrey Wright) during the poker game. I look forward to seeing more of him in the next installment.
Some critics have stated that they felt that the game takes too long and slows the movie down. Of course the poker game is going to take up a lot of screen time, the movie's called "Casino Royale" for a reason!
This movie is an absolute blast and is satisfying on virtually every level. Bond is back and it's comforting to have him around in this modern world. 9/10

Friday, November 17, 2006

Give This Man an Oscar Already!

Nominated seven times, Peter O'Toole has never won. The Lifetime Achievement Award (which he received in 2003) is nice, but it ain't the real thing.
The more I see him and the more I think about it, I really think O'Toole may be my favorite actor past or present. From "Lawrence of Arabia" and "How To Steal a Million," to "The Stunt Man" and "My Favorite Year," he is always a joy to watch. Here is the trailer for his new film, "Venus." Oscar buzz already abounds around his performance. The film looks as though it might be a little too cute for its own good, but O'Toole looks to be nothing short of brilliant once again. Richard Griffiths (Uncle Monty in "Withnail and I") co-stars.

And here's a little something from a recent episode of "Saturday Night Live." Not sure what the Colonel Sanders thing is about, but after the first thirty seconds we get a great O'Toole imitation from Bill Hader. Maybe I should actually start watching the show again...Nahhhh. When they actually do something worthwhile it shows up on YouTube so what's the point?

Give this man an Oscar...and another Scotch.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

"The Good German"- The Best Film of 1946?

This is ridiculously cool. I can't wait for this movie!

You Can Make ’Em Like They Used To
Published: November 12, 2006

IN 1989 an unknown 26-year-old filmmaker from Louisiana delivered what might have been the final blow to the shaky edifice known as the Hollywood studio system. Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” an independently financed tale of love and adultery, won the grand prize of the Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d’Or, as well as an acting prize for one of its stars, James Spader.

Acquired by the fledging distribution company Miramax, the film, made with a reported budget of $1.2 million, went on to gross almost $25 million in the United States, a spectacular figure that put Miramax on the map and established American independent film as a force to be reckoned with. As they watched their ancient hegemony crumble away, the studios rushed to establish their own “independent” divisions.

Now, 17 years later, Mr. Soderbergh is back with a movie that means to make amends. “I often think I would have been so happy to be Michael Curtiz,” Mr. Soderbergh said. Mr. Curtiz, the contract director, made more than 100 films for Warner Brothers, including “Casablanca” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” between his arrival in Hollywood from Hungary in 1926 and his death in 1962. “That would have been right up my alley,” Mr. Soderbergh said, “making a couple of movies a year of all different kinds, working with the best technicians. I would have been in heaven, just going in to work every day.”

“The Good German,” which Mr. Soderbergh directed for Warner Brothers, reimagines what it would be like to make a movie under the studio system of old. Based on the novel by Joseph Kanon — a thriller with a conscience about an American war correspondent (George Clooney) who returns to the rubble of postwar Berlin to find the German woman (Cate Blanchett) who was once his lover — the movie, which opens in limited release on Dec. 15, is both set in 1946 and, in a sense, filmed there as well.

During the production Mr. Soderbergh was committed to remaining as true as possible to the technique of the era. By reproducing the conditions of an actual studio shoot from the late 1940s, he hoped to enter the mind of a filmmaker like Mr. Curtiz, to explore the strengths and limitations of a classical style that has now largely been lost.

“For weeks, for all of us, it was like living in a time warp,” Mr. Soderbergh said by telephone from Los Angeles, where he was finishing filming “Ocean’s Thirteen,” the third in a series and an unabashedly commercial movie that will be one of Warner Brothers’ major summer releases.

There have been many attempts to recapture the look of old Hollywood over the years, most of them disappointingly superficial: films that begin in black and white but quickly bleed into color, while never straying far from a contemporary vocabulary of close-ups and meandering Steadicam shots. Not only does “The Good German” stick to its monochromatic principles throughout, it uses other elements of ’40s style that may not be apparent at first.

The strongly accented camera angles, the dramatic nonrealistic lighting, the way actors move against each other within the frame and the way the camera travels across the set — these are all elements of a vocabulary that has been lost in the post-television era. In “The Good German,” Mr. Soderbergh is trying to bring this vocabulary back.

“We set up our little guidelines,” he said. For one, he banned the sophisticated zoom lenses that make life easier for today’s cinematographers, returning to the fixed focal-length lenses of the past. “I did some research and found some script continuities for a couple of Michael Curtiz films,” he recalled, referring to records of the lens and exposure used in every shot, in case retakes were necessary. “I found that he restricted himself to at most five lenses, usually three or four. I talked to Panavision, and they happened to have some older lenses that they’d made that didn’t have all the new coatings on them and also were a focal length that isn’t really used anymore. One of them was a 32 millimeter, a wide-angle lens that nobody uses anymore but was one that Curtiz used a lot.”

For audiences the shorter lenses mean a wider field of vision, expanding the camera’s range beyond the tight close-ups and two-shots that define today’s television-influenced filmmaking. With the wider range, groups of three, four or more characters can appear together on screen, minimizing the need for cross-cutting, which creates a different kind of interaction among the actors and a more expressive sense of the fictional space they inhabit.

They also used only incandescent lights, Mr. Soderbergh said, and no wireless microphones at all. Where many, if not most, filmmakers use “body mikes” to capture the intimate whispers of dialogue, Mr. Soderbergh recorded his sound the old-fashioned way, through a boom microphone held just over the actors’ heads by a technician standing out of camera range.

“The rule was, if you can’t do it with a boom mike, then you can’t do it,” Mr. Soderbergh said. “Which was helpful to me because, in talking to the actors about this very externalized performance mode I was going to ask them to assume, it helped to be able to say, ‘You have to talk louder, you have to project more, because I’m not getting a good enough track.’ ”

Unlike the Method mumble currently in style in American movies, the dialogue in “The Good German” is spoken in crisp, clearly enunciated stage English, emphasizing presentation over interpretation.

“I don’t feel like I’m a real quiet actor in terms of my projection in the first place,” said Tobey Maguire, who plays a crucial supporting role as an American serviceman with sinister black-market connections. “So I didn’t really think much about that part of it. But what was fascinating to me is how he was cutting the movie in his head. There’s really no fat on the film. He really didn’t do ‘coverage.’ He only shot the parts of the scene he was going to use, and if he wasn’t going to use it, he didn’t shoot it.”

“The pace was unbelievably fast,” he added. “So that was great.”

If there is a single word that sums up the difference between filmmaking at the middle of the 20th century and the filmmaking of today, it is “coverage.” Derived from television, it refers to the increasingly common practice of using multiple cameras for a scene (just as television would cover a football game) and having the actors run through a complete sequence in a few different registers. The lighting tends to be bright and diffused, without shadows, which makes it easier for the different cameras to capture matching images.

The advantage for directors is that they no longer need to make hard and fast decisions about where the camera will go for a particular scene or how the performances will be pitched. The idea is to pump as much coverage as possible into the editing room, where the final decisions about what goes where will be made.

The danger for a director is that with so much material available, the original vision may be drowned or never really defined; and the sheer amount of exposed film makes it possible for executives to step in (after the director has completed his union-mandated first cut) and rearrange the material to follow the latest market-research reports.

During the studio era it was more typical for directors to arrive on the set, block out their shots and light them with the use of stand-ins; the actors were then summoned from their dressing rooms and, after a brief rehearsal, they would film the lines needed in the individual shot. The crew would then break down the camera and move it to the next setup, as determined by the director.

“That kind of staging is a lost art,” Mr. Soderbergh said, “which is too bad. The reason they no longer work that way is because it means making choices, real choices, and sticking to them. It means shooting things in a way that basically only cut together in one order. That’s not what people do now. They want all the options they can get in the editing room.”

While the editing process now routinely takes months, “I had a pretty polished cut of ‘The Good German’ two days after we wrapped,” Mr. Soderbergh said. “It was shot to go together very, very specifically.”

“The geography of the scene — to me, that’s the job,” Mr. Soderbergh added, “carrying all of that around in your mind. Sure, I’ve used multiple cameras on other pictures. On ‘Traffic,’ which was from the get-go designed to be a run-and-gun movie, we were using two cameras a lot, but even in those situations you can make choices in terms of the placement of the camera, and how you think the stuff will cut together.” And because Mr. Soderbergh works both as his own cinematographer (under the name Peter Andrews) and editor (as Mary Ann Bernard), he can make spontaneous decisions: “There’s no gap between figuring out what we want to do and executing it.”

“The Good German” has turned out, in its way, to be a highly experimental picture, but one that grew out of economic necessity. “They bought the novel in 2001, thinking the role of the reporter might make a good vehicle for George Clooney,” said the screenwriter, Paul Attanasio. “I got the novel in April of 2001, and I think we sat down for the first time in May. From the beginning Steven was talking about it as a film noir, which if you’ve read the novel, is not really what it is. The decision to make it as a film of the period came later, when he got down to deciding to make the movie.”

Mr. Soderbergh added: “For a while I thought about doing it normally. And then I realized that actually the most economical way to do it would be the way we ended up doing it, shooting it in black and white, so we could incorporate all of the stock footage we had found. Because if we’d shot it in color and tried to go to Germany, it would have cost two and a half times what it did. Luckily the studio went along with it. Our budget was for $32 million, and they felt the number was not dangerously high.”

Mr. Soderbergh’s team combed the studios for stock film of postwar Berlin; one trove was Paramount, where he found some of the background scenes used for “A Foreign Affair,” a Billy Wilder film set in Berlin in 1948. But it was left to Mr. Soderbergh’s longtime production designer, Philip Messina, to build the rest of Berlin in Hollywood — or Burbank, to be more precise, where they took over some standing sets on the Universal back lot and dressed them in appropriate rubble.

“There’s very little computer graphics used to extend the image, and mostly what you see on the screen is what we were able to accomplish practically,” Mr. Messina said. “The heaps of rubble were made from steel armatures with carved foam on top of them and rocks stuck on them. We moved them from the back lots to the sets and used them over and over, like a kit of parts we were constantly rearranging.”

Louise Frogley, who has worked as Mr. Soderbergh’s costume designer since “The Limey” in 1999, assembled the wardrobe much as it would have been done in the ’40s, first raiding the costume warehouses at Warner Brothers, and later traveling to the Sturm costume factory in East Berlin, where military uniforms of various periods are copied and reproduced for films.

“It’s in an old sugar factory, and each floor is a different army, a different military setup,” she said. “We found quite a lot of original police uniforms. All sorts of things came up: I didn’t realize that the uniforms the police wore were the same as they used under the Nazis, but they shaved off the swastikas.”

Ms Frogley continued: “The civilians were much easier to dress. George Clooney was great, because he really gets how people wore their trousers high during that period, instead of pushing them down to their hips like they do now.”

Both Mr. Messina and Ms. Frogley are already at work on Mr. Soderbergh’s next project, a two-part biography of Che Guevara that will star Benicio Del Toro and be shot entirely in Spanish (another notion unlikely to thrill the Hollywood establishment, which likes foreign-language films almost as much as it likes black-and-white ones). Such leapfrogging is typical of Mr. Soderbergh’s methods: he likes to keep working constantly and is happy to use the down time on one movie to get a head start on the next. In 2006 alone he has served as an executive producer on two films (Richard Linklater’s “Scanner Darkly” and Scott Z. Burns’ “The Half Life of Timofey Berezin”), completed and released “The Good German” and filmed “Ocean’s Thirteen.”

Studios may no longer be in the business of providing long-term employment for filmmakers, but Mr. Soderbergh seems to be functioning as a studio all by himself.

“You hope that there’s a way of putting a film like this across,” he said of “The Good German.” “And just not for yourself. If a movie like this can get made and actually bring in a little bit of money, it means that someone else can make one too. I’m just hoping that we can find a way to the audience so that the person in line behind me who’s trying to get Warners to do something off track can point to ‘The Good German’ and say, ‘You know, that worked, let’s try this now.’ ”

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

Last night I saw the most thoroughly enjoyable, engaging and entertaining movie of 2006. "Stranger Than Fiction" is the outstanding new film from director Marc Forster ("Finding Neverland," "Stay") and first-time screenwriter Zach Helm (this is a guy to watch). It tells the story of Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), whose life in fact happens to be a story. He's the main character of Karen Eiffel's new book. The wonderful opening sequence is narrated by Karen (Emma Thompson), as we see a typical day in the life of Harold. The extraordinary thing about Harold is how ordinary he appears to be in every conceivable way. Each day goes by the same way, like clock work. It only makes sense then that Karen gives Harold's watch more personality than Harold himself. One morning as Harold brushes his teeth he starts to hear Karen's voice in his head. Every word that she prints on her typewriter is transmitted to his brain. Needless to say, Harold has some trouble with this. To make matters worse, no one else can hear the voice, not even his one and only friend Dave (Tony Hale, Buster from "Arrested Development"). Meanwhile, his job as an auditor for the IRS brings him to a baker named Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Ana's initial disdain for Harold, coupled with his attraction to her, makes his life even more difficult. And just when things can't seem to get any worse, he hears Karen say the words, "Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would lead to his imminent death." All he'd done was reset his watch.
A now desperate Harold enlists the help of literary professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who tries to help him determine if Harold is in a comedy or a tragedy. Hilbert also encourages Harold to get closer to Ana to try to push the comedy angle in a bid to re-write Karen's ending.
Even if you don't care for Will Ferrell, do not let that deter you from seeing this film. He's completely toned down here. What makes his performance so terrific is how understated it is. He never forces anything in this film and he's spot on every step of the way. We sympathize with him and root for him as we watch him try to re-write his life story. Like Jim Carrey in "The Truman Show" and Adam Sandler in "Punch-Drunk Love," he really shows what he can do playing a realistic character. The rest of the cast is perfect as well. Emma Thompson is probably my favorite actress working today, and neurotic suicidal depression wouldn't be funny in anyone else's hands. Just like in "I Heart Huckabees," Hoffman is having an absolute blast, and his attitude is infectious. You can't help but enjoy yourself as much as he is.
Helm's screenplay is full of surprises and wonderfully imaginative touches. He and director Forster have created a film that is both artistically gratifying and completely accessible to a mass audience. A rare feat and something to be applauded. I laughed often during "Stranger Than Fiction," and when I wasn't laughing I was smiling from ear to ear. This is a truly great movie going experience. A unique look at life and death, comedy and tragedy. Put "Stranger Than Fiction" at the top of your Must See List. 10/10

Saturday, November 11, 2006

"Office Space" Redux

Here's the trailer for "Office Space" the way it was originally a white-knuckle thriller:

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Snow Cake Clip

The movie I've been plugging since seeing it at the Seattle International Film Festival in June came out in Britain a couple of months ago. They seem to love it too. The official US release is on Christmas Day. Limited of course, but at least it'll be here.
"Snow Cake" is written by Angela Pell and directed by Marc Evans. After a sudden tragedy, Alex Hughes (Alan Rickman) is taking care of Linda Freeman (Sigourney Weaver). Linda is autistic. No, this isn't "Rain Man 2."
The only trailer I can find is over 6 minutes long and essentially is the movie in pill form. I'm glad I saw the movie first and got to be surprised. Anyway, instead of posting that I put up this clip. I want you to want to see this movie but not know it beat for beat. This oughta do the trick. No one does annoyed like Alan Rickman:

Monday, November 06, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

One of the greatest truths I've ever learned is that people- A LOT of people- are jerks. You can be nice and hope they are too, but in the end, they're still jerks. For most of the rest of us, ya know, the ones who have to deal with them, it's tough. They push our buttons and sometimes it can be all we can do to hold it together. This is why "most of the rest of us" need to see "Borat." It's revenge.
Through the guise of a jovial TV reporter with from Kazakhstan, Sacha Baron Cohen pushes the buttons of the ones who push us. The real brilliance of it (taking a page out of John Cleese's guide on how to irritate people), is that he lets them believe it's completely unintentional. Borat just doesn't understand the American culture.
"Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" (come on, ya gotta say the whole title) begins as a special presented on Kazakhi television. Borat shows us his village, in which he is the sole owner of the latest technological advance, the clock radio. He explains that the government is sending him to "U.S. and A." to learn about American culture and thus improve Kazakhstan. These opening scenes are staged, but once he gets to New York City, he's interacting with real people who have no idea that this man is really a British Jew from the BBC. On the subway he tries to greet men with kisses. After all, it's a part of Borat's culture. He doesn't know any better and he just wants to be friendly. Does anyone politely try to explain that that isn't done here? No. Nearly all threaten him with physical violence. This continues on the street. It doesn't take long for Borat to realize that things are not going well. This is where the plot of "Borat" reveals itself. Coming across an episode of "Baywatch," he discovers Pamela Anderson and decides that he must find and marry her. Upon discovering that she lives in Los Angeles, he decides that this is where he must go. He convinces his producer, and sole travel companion Azamat (Ken Davitian), that they must drive to L.A. to see the real America. This sets up Borat's journey across the country, encountering all manner of racists, snobs, and well, jerks. The real brilliance of the film is that he doesn't expose these people for who they are. He lets them do it themselves. They believe they'll be on TV in Kazakhstan, not on movie screens all over the world. They couldn't be more open and honest about their prejudices, especially when Borat himself is a vocal anti-Semite. He does meet some nice people along the way. His driving instructor and etiquette coach come to mind. There are others, such as former presidential candidate Alan Keyes, who remain polite, but are clearly very uncomfortable. For the most part however, we don't like who he meets, and there's something immensely satisfying about seeing him push them until they go over the edge.
"Borat" is offensive at pretty much every turn, and it contains some of the grossest moments you will ever see projected onto a movie screen. But all of this is done with such cleverness and imagination that we can't help but laugh until it hurts. As I've said before, uncomfortable humor is my favorite kind ("Freaks and Geeks," Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy," etc.). Getting us to laugh and squirm at the same time is Cohen's way of making us a part of the film. More comedies should do that.
Go see this movie film! 10/10

Friday, November 03, 2006

Uncomfortable Humor- Why We Love Borat

I'm finding more and more that nothing is funnier than awkwardness. "Freaks and Geeks," the UK version of "The Office," George Michael on "Arrested Development." The more you squirm the funnier it is because you know it comes from someplace real. Sacha Baron Cohen, creator of Ali G and Borat, knows this. This is a very interesting article by David Edelstein of "New York Magazine." Bonus points for mentioning Albert Brooks:

Most clowns have a wide streak of sadism, but it’s tempting to think of Sacha Baron Cohen as a sadist with a wide streak of clownishness. In Borat (full title: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan), Baron Cohen embodies a Kazakh television journalist—a character he created for his HBO series, Da Ali G Show—who embarks on a cross-country American odyssey in the hopes of learning the Westerners’ secrets of civilization. A beanpole with a black Stalin brush mustache and a look of genial befuddlement, Borat poses earnest questions to his subjects that betray his minuscule IQ, cultural backwardness, rampant libido, sexism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. His clueless American interviewees-victims—actual people who think an actual Kazakh is actually quizzing them—do their best to tutor him in Our Ways, patiently explaining the etiquette of dating and dining, the underlying tenets of feminism, the fine points of law enforcement. When Borat, in his good-natured, upbeat way, says something grossly inappropriate about women or Jews, they attempt to overlook it: They understand that he’s from the Third World, that his grasp of our language and mores is shaky. We laugh at them for thinking that they are superior to him—for their noblesse oblige. We laugh at them when they let his outlandish interjections pass, and we laugh at them when they become visibly uptight. We laugh at them when they take offense, and we laugh at them when—like a group of frat-house slobs who give him a ride in their RV—they take no offense whatsoever. I stopped laughing when, at a formal southern dinner party with several older couples, Borat announced that two of the ladies would be considered very desirable in his country, then gestured to the plainer woman at the far end of the table and said, “Her, not so much.” As the preview audience roared, I put my head down; I didn’t want to see the face of that poor woman. And at that point, I guess, the joke was on me.

Underlying the above account is not a plea for a more civilized, courteous, or comfortable kind of comedy. Screw that. The comic imagination flowers on the dark-and-twisted end of the spectrum; in return for making you laugh, the artist has license to express rude truths in the rudest manner he or she can imagine. With her pipeline to the id of the solipsistic American female, Sarah Silverman generates breathtaking geysers of tastelessness. Television’s most trenchant satire is South Park. If you’re in the right, juvenile frame of mind, Jackass Number Two, a set of absurdly perilous stunts and practical jokes, can leave you exhausted from cackling and screaming simultaneously at a posse of overgrown 10-year-olds driven to push the boundaries of sense.

No, this is a cry of pain. As someone with an admittedly low tolerance for watching the humiliation of others—I find it hard to look at the faces of baseball players after they’ve struck out—I’m spending more and more time squirming, cringing, averting my eyes, and plugging my ears. It’s worse, obviously, when real people are getting burned—although on something like American Idol the contestants at least know what they’re in for. But even fictional works are becoming harder to endure. In both its British and American incarnations, The Office revolves around the relentless degradation of a cretinous middle manager who’s desperate to be liked. Its brilliant creator, Ricky Gervais, now plumbs the depths of his (apparent) self-hatred on Extras. Curb Your Enthusiasm requires you to identify with a man who shrinks might say has a narcissistic personality disorder, and whose sense of entitlement has a way of escalating the most casual negotiations of modern society into appalling confrontations. And we’re not talking about one scene per episode. It’s virtually every scene.

The squirm-und-drang genre has its forebears, among them Albert Brooks, but I would guess that it has caught on now because it’s grounded in a documentary (or mockumentary) aesthetic. As the jittery handheld camera has found a place in even the slickest commercial concoctions, audiences have developed an appetite for the sting of reality: real time, real pain. Not just liveness—live-wireness.

The Sultan of Squirm is surely Baron Cohen, a sublime caricaturist whose hairbreadth timing can make you gasp. As Ali G, whose black-rapper gesticulations border on Kabuki, he asks his (frequently right-wing) guests questions of such overbearing idiocy that he often shuts them down completely (a victory of sorts in this genre). But it’s his Borat who has the more righteously malicious agenda.

To understand what Baron Cohen’s Borat is up to in part, it helps to consider the most notorious scenes in Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour Holocaust documentary, Shoah, in which the director trains his camera on Polish peasants who lived near the Nazis’ most lethal concentration camps while they were in full swing. Under Lanzmann’s probing, these old men and women—some of them residing on property seized from the Jews—murmur that yes, it was a terrible thing, the exterminations. Just terrible. But of course, the Jews did bring it on themselves, didn’t they? I don’t know whether Baron Cohen saw Shoah, but Lanzmann’s gotcha journalism on untutored anti-Semites paved the way for what amounts to a (riotous) libel on Eastern Europe.

Baron Cohen grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home, speaks fluent Hebrew, and came of age with the punks and then the rappers. Several years ago, he met a doctor in the south of Russia whom he described (on the DVD of Da Ali G Show’s first season) as unintentionally hilarious. Now he identifies with the anti-Semite aggressor for the purposes of travestying him. The film begins in a small town in Kazakhstan —incestuous, inbred, where the local rapist is regarded as a colorful eccentric (“naughty, naughty”) and every year the citizens have the “running of the Jew” in which the masked, demonic figure attempts to “get the money.” For the role, Baron Cohen didn’t use deodorant or wash his one ugly pale-blue suit—so when he got in close to his subjects, they had to contend with his stench along with his stupidity. And so Borat spares no one: not the interviewees, not the interviewer.

I loved Borat in small doses on the TV show—his deferential affect was a nice change of tune after Ali G’s belligerence. But except for a screamingly funny climax in which he attempts to kidnap Pamela Anderson (who reportedly wasn’t in on the joke), I found the Borat feature (directed by Larry Charles, who does similar duties on Curb Your Enthusiasm) depressing; and the paroxysms of the audience reinforced the feeling that I was watching a bearbaiting or pigsticking. Baron Cohen is such an inspired comic actor that it’s a little disappointing when he jumps so quickly, so eagerly to offend the people he interviews; it would be more fun, I think, if he gave them some room to maneuver. But then, of course, we wouldn’t squirm or cringe. And then comedy wouldn’t be evolving in the way it is now—to the point that it bleeds into horror.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

"Marie Antoinette" and "Running With Scissors"

Marie Antoinette- There is a moment of absolute cinematic perfection about halfway through Sofia Coppola's third film. Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) is celebrating her birthday, romping through the countryside with her compatriates to watch the sunrise as we hear New Order's "Ceremony" (one of my top ten favorite songs). The camera hangs back observing, taking it all in. It reminds us of those rare moments in our lives where we realize that we are exactly where we want to be in that instant, where nothing else matters. It is a joyful moment, yet a haunting one because we know what awaits the young Queen.
Sofia Coppola's first two films, "The Virgin Suicides" and "Lost in Translation," were masterpieces. "Marie" is her most ambitious film yet, and while it is flawed, it is very very good. Historical purists and the Cannes crowd have little use for it, to which I say, good. As I noted, New Order is on the soundtrack, along with the Strokes, the Cure, Air, and other modern day bands. Yes, it's anachronistic. Yes, all the French people are American or British. Yes, at a glance this might look like "A Knight's Tale" had it been directed by Terrence Malick. Yes, it works.
Like Coppola's previous films, "Marie Antoinette" is sparse on dialogue and much of it is caught in pieces, heard in passing. This only makes sense because in her vision of Versailles in 1768 the people have little to do but gossip. Information spreads in whispers, the facts getting lost along the way. Did Marie Antoinette actually utter the words, "Let them eat cake"? This movie doesn't think so.
We meet Marie as a 14 year old girl leaving all things Austrian behind, even her beloved dog, and heading to France to marry the shy and withdrawn Louis XVI (Max Fischer himself, Jason Schwartzman). The night of their marriage they are seen off to bed by the entire royal court, including Louis' father (the always great Rip Torn, who's having a good time here). This is an awkward moment. It is to be the first of many for Marie. For the next few years the lack of an heir is the main subject of gossip amongst the French and Austrian peoples as Marie even gets letters from her mother about the as yet unconsummated marriage. Even after their children are born, there are problems for the young rulers of France after Louis XV's death.
This is not a plot heavy film, nor is it one in which we learn much about historical facts. Coppola's always been interested in creating mood and atmosphere, and through the stunning cinematography of Lance Acord and the use of energetic music, she brings this world to life.
The performances are all top notch. Dunst hasn't been this good since "The Virgin Suicides." Her eyes say more than a monologue ever could. Schwartzman is terrific as well. When the newlyweds are sitting to their first breakfast Marie asks, "Is it true that you make keys as a hobby?"
"Yes," he uncomfortably responds, not even pausing between bites.
"So you enjoy making keys?"
"Obviously," he says continuing to chew.
Also of note are Torn, Steve Coogan ("Tristram Shandy"), Shirley Henderson ("24 Hour Party People"), and Danny Huston ("The Constant Gardener"). It's not for everybody, but if you enjoyed Sofia Coppola's previous work or just enjoy atmospheric filmmaking, "Marie Antoinette" is not to be missed. 8.5/10

Running With Scissors- "Where would we be without our painful childhoods?" Dr. Finch (Brian Cox, "Rushmore") asks young Augusten Burroughs. When you look at what the real Burroughs has done with his life, it's a valid question. "Running With Scissors" would hardly be believable had it not actually been true. We meet Augusten in 1972, at age 7. His mother Deirdre (Annette Bening) has called the school saying that he can't come in because he's overconditioned his hair. Augusten hates school and is all too happy to play along. His father Norman (played by Alec Baldwin in perhaps his best performance to date) can only look on in defeat as he watches Augusten polish his allowance and be informed, "I'm more like my mother." Thankfully as Augusten gets older (now in 1978 and played by Joseph Cross, "Flags of Our Fathers"), we discover that this is not the case. Deirdre defines self-absorption, taking it so far that she actually gives her son away to her psychiatrist Dr. Finch, so she can concentrate on her poetry. The Finch household is in complete disarray, literally and figuratively, and the patriarch couldn't be more pleased about it. His wife Agnes (the terrific Jill Clayburgh) is barely hanging on while oldest daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a product of her father's pill-popping pre-New Age environment. Youngest daughter Natalie, (Evan Rachel Wood, "Thirteen," "Down in the Valley," outstanding as always) is the only one in the house that Augusten can relate to. Matters are not helped when Neil Bookman (the barely recognizable Joseph Fiennes) comes into their lives.
"Running With Scissors" is a bizarre film, but Burroughs had a bizarre childhood. Joseph Cross does a great job in the lead role, helping to ground us back into reality when we think we've stepped outside of it. Bening is being heaped with praise right now for her performance, and deservedly so. Her transformation and descent into pill-induced madness is mesmerizing. Everyone is great here (I love Brian Cox) and writer-director Ryan Murphy (who of course based the film on the book by Burroughs) does a very fine job as well. Dramedy may be the hardest thing for a director to pull off and he does it pretty well. Ignore the low rating on Rotten Tomatoes. "Running With Scissors" is an entertaining look at a life we're glad we did not have. 8/10

Also, I saw Kevin Macdonald's "The Last King of Scotland" a few weeks ago. I kept telling myself I'd write a review and yeah, it just didn't happen. Anyway, it's very good. It's in limited release but worth checking out if you can find it. Yes, Forest Whitaker is outstanding in it, but it's James McAvoy's performance as the young corruptible doctor that really makes the movie. 8/10