Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Aurora: The Ordinary Day of a Psychopath

Written and Directed By: Cristi Puiu
Starring: Cristi Puiu
Director of Photography: Viorel Sergovici, Editor: Ion Ioachim Stroe
Rated: Unrated, but a brief shock of violence within three hours of otherwise nothing.

        I counted three moments where the protagonist of Aurora, played by writer-director Cristi Puiu, seems to be staring back at the camera, almost with a menacing smile on his face. As this three hour epic drags on, Puiu seems to be mocking his audience. Go on, he dares, walk out on me. Of course, like any good film critic who trusts the director of the very funny The Death of Mr. Lazerescu, one of the harbingers of the Romanian New Wave, I waited, and waited, and waited for not just for something to happen, but to have something to have a stake in.

            However,  Puiu instead mocks us, almost with more contempt than Lars Von Trier at a press conference. Aurora might be hailed by some as the culmination of what Romanian filmmakers have been getting at with their neo-realistic approach that some have described as “slow cinema,” but it’s actually a major step in the wrong direction, where the style has become as pointless as its narrative.

Cars 2: From America With a Turbo V8 Engine

Cars 2
Directed By: John Lasseter
Written By: Ben Queen
Starring (The Voices of) Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, and John Turturo
Art Director: Jay Shuster, Original Music: Michael Giacchino
Rated: G, though some explosions may frighten the smallest of children.

            There is something unique about the Cars franchise that separates it from almost every other film in Pixar’s history. While Toy Story, Monster’s Inc., and A Bug’s Life among other present mini-universes within our own universe that we just don’t know about, Cars is a world onto its own. There are no humans turned around, unaware that their vehicle is a sentient being (that story is left to Michael Bay). Instead, the Cars live in their own alternate universe, where they eat oil and feel sick when breaking down. Would President Obama show up as a long slick limo?

            Cars and now its sequel, Cars 2, are also known in certain circles with distain as simply cash-cows for the Disney-Pixar brand. While Cars was the least profitable film for the animation giant at the box office, it has also made the most green in toys and merchandising. But such conversations are irrelevant, and make it too easy to attack the Pixar franchise for what is likely to be agreed upon its least successful film to date. John Lasseter, the Pixar founder and current CEO, shows a lot of admiration for the idea of Cars in his directorial style (he passed on directing Toy Story 3 to do this film, after all). And while never as transcendent as Pixar’s other films, Cars 2 zooms its way around a cleverly inspired plot to keep things moving too fast that you won’t mind.

Bad Teacher: Every Child Left Behind

Bad Teacher
Directed By: Jake Kasdan
Written By: Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Lucy Punch, Justin Timberlake, Jason Segel, Phyllis Smith, and John Michael Higgins
Director of Photography: Alar Kivilo, Editor: Tara Timpone, Production Designer: Jefferson Sage, Original Music: Michael Andrews
Rated: R for sex humor, sex, language, drugs, and well, at least there’s no violence.

            Cameron Diaz is the type of actress who will get down and dirty for anything. When we first discovered her in There’s Something About Mary, she played ball with the raunchiest of humor, showing there was no low she wouldn’t go. Then she became a sweetheart, a title that never fit her. Flop after flop, such as the Charlie’s Angels reboot or Knight and Day tried to cast her as the pretty girl, and more serious pictures like Gangs of New York tried to place her as an Oscar contender. But Ms. Diaz has always been best at being crass, rude, and low, a talent that too few actresses have, or are too afraid to do (unless it also involves Nazis).

            That is why watching Ms. Diaz smash through the Gates of Hell in Bad Teacher is so appealing. The film is more or less summed up by its title—Ms. Diaz plays a very, very bad person, who is shaping America’s youth in the worse way possible. Under the direction of Jake Kasdan, known for his cult hit Orange County and the very ridiculous and funny Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Bad Teacher is a bit of a narrative mess, dropping scenes and subplots like a blind WWII bomber. But Ms. Diaz, as well as her fellow co-stars, sell this ridiculous and very funny movie.

Friday, June 24, 2011

EXCLUSIVE: Subject of New Errol Morris Film Claims Fabrication

Joyce McKinney, in blue, talks about Errol Morris's Tabloid
UPDATE (6/28/2011): Mark Lipson, a producer for Tabloid (as well as a few other Errol Moris films, including The Thin Blue Line), has responded to the story as told below. Lipson notes that Showtime is indeed a partner on the film, remarking, "Showtime is in fact a partner in the enterprise of Tabloid." As for the other allegations, Lipson prefered to stay on the sidelines for now. "I agree at some point it would be worth addressing all the various questions. But for now.. certainly for the next couple of months, I would like the movie to speak for itself."

Does this mean that some of the movie is in fact fabricated? My gut says if yes, only by a small bit, as Morris' film is about the impossibility of ever reaching the truth. My take on the story is that McKinney simply beleived that having seen how Morris has created sympathetic portraits of people like Robert McNamara in The Fog of War or the soldiers from Abu Ghraid in Standard Operating Procedure that she would get off with the same sort of nice light on her. The film is somewhat sympathetic in the end anyways, though it certainly allows the other side to have its way as well. Thus, only time will tell if McKinney will have her way.


            Audiences were in laughter and applause tonight at the Museum of Modern Art for an early screening of Errol Morris’s latest film, Tabloid, but they got a second story after the film had ended. Tabloid is the latest documentary from the filmmaker behind The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War. It follows the strange story of Joyce McKinney, who snuck into tonight’s screening in New York, lambasting the film’s validity during the credits and beyond tonight.

Tabloid recounts the story of McKinney, who followed her Mormon boyfriend from Utah, who she believed had been brainwashed by the Mormon Church and sent to the United Kingdom. The girl went with a couple companions to England and stole him back, and then claimed to have three days of passionate sex in a Southern English cottage, some of which included ropes and chains. But Morris shows the sides from others involved in the story, including the reporters that made her a tabloid sensation, which instead reveal kidnap, rape, and other kinky stuff. McKinney escaped charges in court by fleeing to the United States while on bail, but remains a tabloid sensation for years to come.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Page One: A Peek Underneath the Grey Lady

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times
Directed By: Andrew Rossi
Written By: Kate Novak and Andrew Rossi
Featuring: David Carr, Bill Keller, Brian Stetler, and Bruce Headlam
Director of Photography: Andrew Rossi, Editors: Chad Beck, Christopher Branca, and Sarah Devorkin, Original Music: Paul Brill
Rated: R for newspaper speak

            I don’t read the newspaper.I get all my content from online, or from podcasts. When I was in high school in Minnesota, I read the Pioneer Press each day, but as college rolled around, it came much easier to check a number of free websites than *gasp* pay for journalism and information. Who needs a paper when you can have a Kindle or an iPad? And thus the crisis of journalism continues to this day and whether online advertising and new media can emerge victorious over the place for all the news fit to print.

            If I were to subscribe, however, which I probably will find myself doing when my free online trial runs out, it would be of course to the New York Times, a newspaper I’m more fond of for their arts section than their news, though mainly because I follow those subjects more closely day-to-day. But the Times is an establishment that is more American than apple pie, and Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One asks the important question, “What would happen if there was no New York Times?” Unfortunately, Mr. Rossi thinks it’s important to really get to the heart of this subject and continue to pose and answer the question again and again, ruining an amazing opportunity to show why the Times continues to be the best at what it does.

The Trip: Five Course Meal, Hold the Pleasanty

The Trip
Directed By: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon
Director of Photography: Ben Smithard
Rated: Not Rated, but plenty of foul language.

            The Trip is the latest collaboration between director Michael Winterbottom and British comedian Steve Coogan. The duo have been perfect compliments for each other in the past—Mr. Winterbottom has a ironic and meta-textual obseesion with his humor, which Mr. Coogan matches with his under the breath jabs and self-deprecating tone. But it’s always been Mr. Winterbottom that drives the films. 24 Hour Party People would not be as memorable without his strange collision of history and fantasy, and his adaptation of Tristram Shandy perfectly encapsulates the tone of the novel by using a narrative structure similar to a set of Russian dolls.

            And that’s the main difference in The Trip, a mostly improvised comedy starring Mr. Coogan, as well as Rob Brydon, who starred with him in Tristram Shandy. The film’s narrative is paper thin, but Mr. Coogan and Mr. Brydon are natural together that they don’t really care for one, and Mr. Winterbotton has no agenda here but to capture their absurdity. And while The Trip never breaks ground in terms of really exploring these characters, the comedians are so deliciously fun it’s hard not to turn away.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Super 8: Dreams of a Bygone Monster Movie Era

Super 8
Written and Directed By: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, and Noah Emmerich
Director of Photography: Larry Fong, Editors: Maryann Brandon and Mary Joe Markey, Production Designer: Martin Whist, Original Music: Michael Giacchino
Rated: PG-13 for a scary monster and explosions

            Growing up anywhere outside of the big metropolis, a child’s imagination can truly grow wild. Mine certainly did, and I spend plenty of days in a sandbox where I would be flying spaceships, searching for hidden treasures, or fighting gigantic monsters. This of course was aided by the films of Steven Spielberg, who knew how to make the fantastic seem rather personal. In films like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the extraordinary was not just spectacle. It was a way to illuminate the ordinary as well.

            It also gave birth to a wave of filmmakers—some who understood his craft, others who just liked the aliens—that wanted to capture that same spirit of ambition, freedom, and innocence. The latest filmmaker to jump into that land is the notorious J.J. Abrams, best known for producing Lost and directing 2009’s reboot of Star Trek. Mr. Abrams certainly has the kinetics of Mr. Spielberg in bringing together spectacular special effects, but the question is does he have a heart as well? With Mr. Spielberg serving as a producer, Super 8 attempts to grab that nostalgic magic of the young ambition of children who see the sky at the only the beginning, and Mr. Abrams has attempted to collide his mystery-box world into that. It’s not an entirely successful film, and won’t sit on the cannon with E.T. or my personal favorite, The Goonies, but it shows a lot more heart than any blockbuster will this summer.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

X-Men: First Class: Back to Basics

X-Men: First Class
Directed By: Matthew Vaughn
Written By: Matthew Vaughn, Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, and Jane Goldman, from a story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer. Based on the Marvel Comic by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Zoe Kravitz, Lucas Till, and Oliver Platt
Director of Photography: John Mathieson, Editors: Lee Smith and Eddie Hamilton, Production Designer: Chris Seagers, Original Music: Henry Jackman
Rated: PG-13 for comic book violence and a clever use of bad language.

            When it was first announced that 20th Century Fox, in their attempts to continue a franchise, would do another origin story of the X-Men, many alarms went off. Would this be X-Men: Tiny Tykes with a bunch of kids with powers, or would it even be worse, similar to the Hugh Jackman led Wolverine film? X-Men as a series and as a cash cow for Fox plays a difficult balance, as the universe is simply so grand, and finding the right story to tell within that world is often the issue the writers and creators of X-Men face, as opposed to Superman or Batman, where the main character and dichotomy is always in place.

            But besides the apparently badass Wolverine (those claws!), two characters really made the X-Men series the first great comic book film: Charles Xavier, aka the telepathic Professor X, and Erik Lehnsherr, aka the metal controller Magneto. As played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, watching these two play off each other like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X became the central core of the film’s first trilogy, with openly gay director Bryan Singer infusing the similarities of gay rights activism toward the comic book franchise, with the appropriate amount of entertaining ass kicking ass well.

Critics on The Tree of Life: Ideas Growing in All Directions

The Tree of Life

This is the second part in my three-part exploration of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. It should be noted that this part does indeed include numerous spoilers. Part I can be read here.

            Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival,  Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life has garnered unique attention by film critics, who have produced some of their most thought provoking writing on any film in some time. In a way, Malick’s film has reaffirmed the need for criticism, as the film, whether a masterpiece or a disaster, is a film that demands interpretation, philosophical musings, and cinematic theories to be explored.

            Less of a look at whether The Tree of Life should be considered a successful work (though that will be explored slightly), I instead have taken a handful of critics who have written thoughtful on the meaning of the film instead. The goal of this is not to come to any sort of a conclusion, but simply expand on some of the different pillars of thought that seem to be towering over other critics as they debate this intensely personal as well as cosmological film.

Film Socialisme: New Cinema; Little Sense

Film Socialisme
Written and Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Directors of Photography: Fabrice Aragno and Paul Grivas
Rated: Not Rated, but the only offense is one of comprehensibility.

            When I attended last year’s New York Film Festival public screening of Film Socialisme, Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, and perhaps final statement, on cinema, I counted about fifty walk outs. These people weren’t walking out because the violence was too graphic, or the characters too misogynistic, or its political statements. They walked because of the form. Since 1968, Mr. Godard, director of Breathless, perhaps the most important film in the second half of the medium’s history, has become increasingly more abstract, fighting against normative traditions of not only Hollywood but also all of cinema. A staunch Marxist, who rarely gives interviews (and skipped the film’s Cannes premiere in 2010, providing an ambiguous statement about the political situation in Greece), Mr. Godard has gone from riding the top of the new wave and landed somewhere in land so far that no one is sure where he is.

            Certainly, one can’t even begin to describe Film Socialisme, which has no narrative to even begin to speak of, and instead is a collection of scenes, footage, sounds, ideas, and themes that are simply clashed onto each other. To add to that difficulty, the film’s characters speak mostly in French (though there is some German, Russian, Yiddish, and Arabic), and the subtitles are not translations, but a few chosen words used to represent the possible meaning, or as Mr. Godard has stated, “Navajo English,” a reference to the poor English spoken by Native Americans in Hollywood Westerns (film critic Glen Kenny pointed out they resemble Twitter hashtags).

            Now it would be easy—quite easy—to have joined those walk outs. The film isn’t fun per say, it’s an academic experience, where one must be constantly interpreting image and sound placement in order to create ideas. So when I sat down (pen and paper ready), I took on Mr. Godard’s challenge, to understand what he was trying to say—about politics, cinema, history, philosophy, you name it. To create my enjoyment, I wrote down a number of observations on what was going on, and then looked over those notes to try and create meaning. Film Socialisme is full of academic references that will go over even the most astute viewers’ heads, and thus a full explanation could only be made by Mr. Godard. So in my own “fuck you” to Film Socialisme (as Mr. Godard has no plans on making anyone actually enjoy watching his films), I present THE interpretation of the film. It’s not the right one, but it’s the only one that matters to me, because Mr. Godard has created this film and wants me to respond. So if I am wrong, he can make another film telling me how I am wrong.

Beginners: Coming to Terms With Dad's Coming Out

Written and Directed By: Mike Mills
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Vinsijc, and Mary Page Keller
Director of Photography: Kasper Tuxen, Editor: Oliver Bugge Coutte, Production Designer: Shane Valentino, Music: Roger Neill, David Palmer, and Brian Reitzell
Rated: R for a little language and some situations only adults will enjoy

            Beginners, a new film from Mike Mills and starring Ewan McGregor, is in no rush to get anywhere, while jumping all over the place at the time. The film’s narrative zooms back and forth in time, from childhood, to middle age, to a slightly older middle age of its protagonist, the sad but lovable Oliver, but does so in a casual business. This is the same way that Mr. Mills approaches the quirk side to his film—a series of Wes Anderson-styled cutout shots, a dog that talks through subtitles, and a manic pixie dream girl played by Melanie Laurent—but without calling attention to itself.

            What separates Mr. Mills, whose last film Thumbsucker was a bottle of quirk mixed in with teenage angst that came out as a mess, from other quirk directors is the melancholy he brings to Beginners. With its autobiographical touches, the film reaches out with a slight hand to grab you into its narrative, but it never forces you into a world of farce. It instead soothes you into its story of a man essentially trying to find himself and connect to others in the process.

Tuesday After Christmas: Cheating the Holidays

Tuesday After Christmas
Directed By: Radu Muntean
Written By: Alexandru Baciu, Radu Muntean, and Razvan Radulescu
Starring: Mimi Branescu, Maria Popistasu, and Mierela Oprisor
Director of Photography: Tudor Lucaciu, Editor: Alma Cazacu
Rated: Not Rated, but some nudity

            In the latest film from the Romanian New Wave, that ever-prevalent cinema from East Europe that has brought us gem after gem, we get a little morality tale. The story is simple. Paul is middle-aged and living a pretty typical life, except that when we first meet him, he is with a younger woman named Raluca instead of his wife. Director Radu Muntean lets us watch them in their post-coital moments, joking and laughing, with some kisses and physicality, as we see what attracts these people. Instead of giving us their first moment when they locked eyes, or perhaps their intense love-making, we instead see this smaller moment, which plays in real time in a single, maybe 10 minute shot. What Mr. Muntean is able to do is allow us to really understand what drives these two people toward each other, which is what Tuesday After Christmas is all about.

            I had the privilege of seeing Mr. Muntean’s last film, Boogie, a few years back. The film never ran theatrically in the United States, and the version I saw was without subtitles, but it demonstrated another story of a man in a mid-life crisis, and effectively did it through the camera and visual playfulness instead of relying on the dialogue, which I couldn’t understand a single word. Tuesday After Christmas is another work of minimalist genius by the Romanian filmmaker, a taut but often subtle work on the little things that keep us going in our relationships, and how fragile those can be.