Comments on watching and making films.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

DVD - Broken English

Any film made by a Cassavetes is worth my time. Nick, Xan, and Zoe all grew up amongst filmmaking, with their mother, Gena Rowlands, being one of Americas best actresses, and their dad, John Cassavetes, being one of the best independent film writer/directors ever. Xan's only film, so far, is the incredibly charming and interesting Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, and Nick has been responsible for films like John Q, The Notebook, and Alpha Dog. Zoe had always been the hold out, having worked with people like Sofia Coppola on her films, and making an occasional short, but never anything of her own. Last year, though, she joined the ranks of her brother and sister with the "romantic comedy" Broken English.

If you can't tell by the fact that romantic comedy is in quotations, I use that term very loosely, since it is nothing like the Hollywood definition of Romantic Comedy. The film stars Parker Posey as Nora Wilder, a thirty something New Yorker who is yet to find true love. Her best friend, Audrey, along with her mother Vivien (played by Zoe's mother, Gena Rowlands), are trying to hook Nora up, so that she can find the last thing that is missing from her life. After a series of misfires, though, she ends up at a co-workers lame party, where, as she's leaving, she meets a suave frenchman, Julien, who cranks the charm up to 11. Nora is very passive aggressive towards Julien because she doesn't like the idea of getting involved with another man who is going to break her heart. She ends up making a fool out of herself, on numerous occasions, but Julien doesn't give up. She eventually succumbs to his charms, only to find out that he has to leave to go back to Paris the next day. He implores her to go with him, but she refuses, believing it will end in disaster. As time goes by, though, Nora becomes convinced she needs to go to Paris and reconnect with Julien, so she grabs her friend Audrey, and the adventure begins.

I didn't think this was supposed to be a comedy, and when I was watching the supplemental features, I was REALLY surprised to find out that that is what Zoe considers it. It comes off as more of a drama to me, with humorous moments in between. The directing is solid, though not anything that blew my socks off. The acting felt about the same. New York and Paris were both beautiful, and I wish we would have gotten to see wider shots of both cities.

Broken English was funded through HDNet films, and was, therefore, shot on HD (the Thompson Viper, not that anyone cares). This was probably the only thing that really bothered me, technically, about the film. It just... didn't look that good. Everything had this flatness and plainness about it.

All in all, a solid debut for Zoe Cassavetes, and I'm looking forward to the possibility of another film.

Friday, January 25, 2008

There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson hasn't made a film in a long time. His last was the, in my opinion, highly under appreciated, and often misunderstood, Punch Drunk Love. But Anderson waded through material and finally came across Upton Sinclair's Oil!, and decided that it was a good place to start. He couldn't have been more correct.

There Will Be Blood is like a modern marriage of two cinematic powerhouses. It features the amazing Mallick-esque cinematography (circa Days of Heaven), and engrossing story telling, like the best John Ford films. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, an independent oil man around the turn of the century, who, along with his young son H.W. Plainview, and a band of loyal workers, goes from area to area, buying up or leasing land and drilling for oil. Plainview is a hard man, a man who lives out of tents and shacks, willing to push himself to any extreme to get what he wants. He is an evil man. His character has some foundation in Day-Lewis' character of Bill Cutting from Gangs of New York. Both are bullies and proto-mob bosses at heart. Both want everything and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it. Both are willing to steam roll anyone in there way.

Plainview's business is chugging along when, one night, he gets a visit from a mysterious stranger identifying himself as Paul, and points Plainview to an area of land which he say's has oil on it, for a price, of course. When Plainview visits the Sunday ranch, to look at this prospect that Paul has sold him, he finds oil near the surface, along with a strange religious family that is lead by Paul's carbon copy brother Eli.

Plainview figures Eli for a rube whose religious fanaticism leaves him to naive to stop Plainview from taking what he wants. But this assumption leads them into a dangerous cat and mouse game which runs throughout the whole film, and will cost both of them dearly.

What can you say about this film? It was amazing. At two and a half hours long, it had me engrossed the whole time. I was amazed at Daniel Day-Lewis, as usual, and the epic nature of the film is something that you so rarely see in cinema these days. PT Anderson continues to grow in his genius and scope, and There Will Be Blood only leaves me wanting and waiting for his next film.

I also wanted to take a second to mention the amazing score by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead. The music was spare and simple, but every second of it was perfect.

Simply Amazing, all around.

The Orphanage

The Orphanage is a Spanish language horror film, helmed by Juan Antonio Bayona, and produced by Guillermo Del Torro, who everyone is fawning over since the success of Pan's Labyrinth. In fact, the film is being advertised as, literally, as "This year's Pan's Labyrinth". Before we get into anything else, I'd first like to say that that tag line is completely false, and will probably be a blatant slap in the face to anyone who is expecting a film like Pan's. The Orphanage is a straight up thriller. It knows exactly what it is, from start to finish, unlike  Pan's, which, in my opinion, never could seem to decide what it was. Was it a historical drama? Was it a fantasy thriller? Why couldn't it pick one or the other, and just be that thing.

But I digress. As you can tell, I was not impressed by Pan's Labyrinth, but The Orphanage does impress. And yes, all of those comparisons to Del Torro's earlier film, The Devil's Backbone, are absolutely right. I will say, though, that I enjoyed Orphanage a heck of a lot more than I enjoyed Backbone. Maybe I'm Del Torro hater, and I don't even know it...

Anyway, the story concerns Laura and her husband Carlos, and son Simon, who move into the house that was once Laura's orphanage. Laura was adopted as a little girl, and has now come back to revive the orphanage after it has been closed for decades. She hopes to open the house to children with mental and physical handicaps, and wants to fill her house with the same kind of love she felt while she was at the orphanage. Her son, though, is having problems adjusting, and his roster of invisible friends suddenly spikes, leaving Laura and Carlos worried about his mental condition.

On opening day of the orphanage, Simon disappears, causing Laura to freak out trying to find him, and causing the parents of the new attendees to pull them out. While trying to find Simon, she comes across the apparition of a child wearing a strange sack-cloth mask, who becomes all too real, when she is attacked by him. Days, weeks, and months go by, with no sign of Simon, when, suddenly Laura realizes that Simon's new invisible friends are ready to play a game with her. The prize? Simon.

The Orphanage offers a lot of atmosphere, something that is often times either lacking, or is poured on WAY to thick in American films. Although there are times in the film that I found myself saying "I get the point! It's spooky!", there were other times that, by the creak of a floor, or the sound of the wind, I found myself genuinely tensing up. Bayona delivers a well thought out thriller, one that could be compared to Amenabar's The Others, though, I think that Bayona was able to pull of the creepiness of the house and grounds considerably better than Amenabar was.

I can't really comment on the acting, because, often times, I found myself paying so much attention to the subtitles, that I wasn't paying full attention to the acting. It did keep me engrossed, though, and speaking of gross, if you are not a fan of blood and gore, I will tell you that there will be a few parts that might make you feel a little sick to your stomach. There is also at least one part that had me jumping out of my chair, and I haven't done that in quite some time.

The Orphanage was a surprise. It was lean, to the point, and unrelenting. It also would swing between horror and sentimentality in a way that was not bad, but would always knock you off guard. A great film for all you horror/thriller fans.

If that ain't creepy, I don't know what is...

Monday, January 21, 2008


Hype can be a horrible thing. So can shaky hand held camera work. Ever since The Blair Witch Project, people have tried to copy the success of that film by combining those elements, along with others. Cloverfield is no different. A viral marketing campaign started early, with trailers and websites, and only grew bigger as time went on, right up until it's release. I remember seeing the first teaser for it, probably six months or more before it was scheduled to open, and thinking - "I don't know whether this is going to be a complete piece of crap, or the greatest thing I've ever seen". 2006's Children of Men gave us a more formal disaster film, but in a slightly different way, in that the disaster had already happened, and the film focused on the aftermath (favorite film of 2006, by the way). Cloverfield struck me as a film with similar energy and conflict, but focusing on a much more compressed time frame.

The film opens with us meeting Rob and Beth, two people who appear to be a couple in love. We share a few moments with them, before the camera becomes the recording device for Rob's going away party (which occurs a month after the Rob/Beth events). We spend (way too much) time with Rob and his friends, as they all wish Rob a happy life with his new job in Japan. We meet Jason, Rob's brother, Jason's girlfriend Lily, his best friend Hud (who ends up being part of the reason that this movie is watchable on a continous basis, and who also serves as the camera operator for the majority of the film), and Beth shows up, a little late, and with another man. We find out that Rob and Beth were best friends that slept together, and then drifted apart afterwards (ahh... There had to be at least one semi-cheesy caveat to this whole story, didn't there?). We also meet Lilly's friend, Marlena, whom Hud has a serious crush on.

There's not much I can tell you that either isn't already in the trailer, or wouldn't give the movie away, so I'll just go at this from a more technical perspective. First off, Cloverfield rocked my balls off. Although the extended party sequence does get very old, very quick, once you hear the monster for the first time, the film DOES NOT STOP from there. It is a roller coaster ride for the next hour and fifteen minutes or so, and is very unapologetic about it. We are with Rob and his friends, as they try to navigate themselves out of the city, until the very end, following along with them in the most vicarious way we can - through there "home movie" of the events, as they actually happen.

Cloverfield looks like crap. Shot on a cheap, consumer camcorder, the film really does look like a home movie (if the amateur filmmaker behind it had a couple of million for CGI effects). The CGI was pretty incredible, except for the monster. I'm sorry folks, but they all look the same - Not Real. The CGI Statue of Liberty head, along with the CGI New York City, looked incredible, though, with such horrible resolution, and the film being made at night, it probably gave the effects folks a little easier time.

The acting, to the extent that people running around, scared out of their minds, could be called acting, was great. The actor who played Hud, especially, was spot on with his comedic lines, even if you barely see him in the film.

One thing that I give major props to the filmmakers on, though, was leaving so much open for the audience. By doing so, but NOT giving the audience answers, they are allowing us, as an audience, to experience everything exactly how Rob and his crew are experiencing it - in a state of shock, fear, and awe. Because of this, you end up feeling like you are the closest you can possibly be to actually being in the story. You feel connected to these characters, because your on the exact same level as them. You feel their horror, their sadness, their pain, because you experience it with them.

All in all, I would say Cloverfield is one of the few films of the past decade that is worth the massive amount of hype behind it. There isn't much of a story - a monster comes out of nowhere and starts leveling the city - but Cloverfield isn't about that. It's about the ride, and the ride was very fun.

DVD - Pierrepoint, The Last Hangman

Humanity is known for idolizing and demonizing people, and, occasionally, it's know for doing both to the same person. Pierrepoint, The Last Hangman, is the real life story of Albert Pierrepoint, a man who took on the solemn duty of an executioner, and formed it into a science. We meet Albert as a man who has just begun volunteering for the civic duty of hangman, and see his evolution, as he comes to define the job itself. Pierrepoint can look at a man, or woman, size them up, and know exactly how to hang a noose, so that his prisoners die instantly, and without pain. He does this secretly, often on weekends, while moonlighting during the week as his villages grocer.

When World War II comes to a close, Pierrepoint is asked by one of the top men in the British Army to come to Nuremberg and hang the Nazi's that will be found guilty and sentenced to death for war crimes. Pierrepoint accepts, still hiding his true profession from those around him. Upon his return from Nuremberg, however, a news reporter focuses an article on Pierrepoint and his job as the hangman of the most vilified men of the century, and Pierrepoint becomes a hero to the people of his village (people who were glad to see the Nazi's who were responsible for bombing England hang). Only a few years go by, though, before the tide turns on Pierrepoint, and the people want an end to executions in England. Suddenly, their hangman hero, is now one of the country's most reviled men, having attended to the hanging of some 600+ individuals.

Pierrepoint is a good film. A good film, but not a great film. Unlike most films, it would have been advantageous for the filmmakers to make it a little longer, and add in a little more detail of this man's life. The story takes place over, roughly, twenty years, and, at a lean and mean 90 minutes, we get the point, but not much else.  The film, in my opinion, would have benefitted from seeing an expansion of the storyline between Pierrepoint and his wife. Timothy Spall, as Albert Pierrepoint, plays the consumate English gentleman, a man who doesn't "kiss and tell" about his job, and believes in the sacred duty he is performing. Even when people are singing his praises, after the Nuremberg incident, he is still cautionary, and chooses not to revel in his new found glory.

Overall, Pierrepoint is worth a watch, but I wouldn't rush out to rent it.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Things are coming together

A little while back, I purchased a Reflex Bolex, and some lenses (a 25mm and a 10mm wide angle). Well, the lenses finally came in, and now it's time to start working. I already have two films I'm interested in shooting immediately - Indefinable Orbits and Denial By Fire. Orbits will be first, as I really would like to film it and submit it to festivals. Fire, I'll just have to wait and see on. It's one of those one's where your not really sure how good it's going to be until it's done.

There's also The Definers, my feature length script, which I'm hoping to shoot late this year/early next year. I'm also hoping that some money will turn up for it, but, we'll see. Money or not, it's going to happen.

Here's some pics of the camera. Please take note of the dentist office give-away Sponge Bob toothpaste I used to prop up the camera. Not for any particular reason, mind you, I just think it's funny.

DVD - The Pursuit of Happyness

Last years "feel good" holiday film, The Pursuit of Happyness, stars Will Smith as Chris Gardner, a man who is down on his luck, when his medical salesman job takes a dive, because no one wants to buy what he's selling. When his rough times don't seem to clear up, his wife/girlfriend (we're never really told which she is, though we do know he's the mother of his child), leaves for New York, leaving Chris with very little money, and a young child to take care of (played by Smith's real son, Jaden Smith).

Gardner is forced to move out of his apartment, and into a seedy hotel, because he is taking an unpaid internship with Dean Witter, to try and turn around his life. He uses his occasional sales of an X-Ray machine (that no one seems to be particularly interested in) to subsidize his life. But, when he runs out of machines to sell, almost two full months before his internship is over, his hand to mouth lifestyle is put in jeopardy. He even spends a night, with his son and all of his earthly possessions in a BART terminal bathroom, because he has nowhere else to stay. But Gardner's steely resolve keeps him moving ahead. he's at the bottom of the barrel, and he knows there's no lower to sink. He HAS to make this work, or he and his son are dead.

The Pursuit of Happyness is a true story, and, while I'm sure some of it has been slightly modified for drama, it is still an amazing story to witness. Will Smith is fantastic as a man at the end of his rope, trying to provide for his son, and keep his life together, all while trying to stay one step ahead of complete destitution. He really makes you feel the frustration of dealing with the crap that the world constantly piles on him, and, at times, I even found myself cheering him on when he would catch a break.

Smith has done a lot of stinkers lately. In fact, Ali and I Am Legend are, probably, the only two things he's done in a long time that I enjoyed. But Happyness is definitely joining that list. It's one of those "stand up and cheer" films, which are VERY difficult to do well.

DVD - Away From Her

Sarah Polley, one of indie films girls of choice, wrote and directed her debut feature last year, the film Away From Her.  Polley has been acting since the mid-80's, in both American and Canadian productions (she's a native of our neighbor to the north), and, in that time, has garnered a loyal following, both in the business and from audiences.

1960's sexpot Julie Christie stars as Fiona Anderson, an elderly woman who is showing signs of Alzheimer's. Her husband, Grant (played by Gordon Pinsent), is having to face the fact that the time is quickly coming, in which he will be unable to take care of her needs on a daily basis. Oddly enough, Fiona seems very excepting of the idea of going into a rest home, but the caveat for Grant is that she must be left alone for thirty days. No visitors, not even him, are allowed.

By the time the thirty days are up, Grant goes to visit his wife and finds a woman who, not only doesn't remember him, but has built a new relationship with a man who is in a similar position to her. Grant refuses to give up, though, and makes multiple attempts to get Fiona to recognize him and their relationship, only to find that those memories are gone.

Away From Her is, probably, one of the best films I have ever seen about Alzheimer's. Christie really makes you feel the confusion and pain that Fiona is going through, and you can't help but feel sympathy for Gordon, especially if you have ever had a relative who has suffered from Alzheimer's.

I will say that I felt this story was a lot simpler than I thought it would be, but I don't think that it's a handicap, per say, I was just a little surprised. Over all, though, Away From Her is a well crafted and heart-felt film. It's doesn't rip your heart out and spit on it, but it tugs hard at you, and makes you feel like a human being. And isn't that what great film does?

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A thought on filmmaking

Today, I had to go run some errands, and, as I was driving out of the neighborhood, I noticed a dead deer on the side of the road. This isn't thoroughly unusual, since lots of deer live around here, and we see them all the time. The dead one isn't unusual because people drive way to fast, and don't pay attention to what they're doing.

Anyways, when I saw it there, I really had a want to drive back to the house really quick, grab my Super 8 camera and a cartridge of film, and go back and document the carcass. I don't know why, I just have that urge inside of me sometimes, that documentarian's need to record things. 

You may think, but why roadkill? Well, this wasn't a squirrel or a possum. It was a deer. A huge deer at that, which is something you don't see everyday. But, it was also the fact that it was very obvious, by the way the deer was positioned on the side of the road, that someone had probably placed it there. It looked like it had been killed on the road, and then drug off to the side, to get it out of the way.

It was awful, don't get me wrong, and I, for one, do not revel in the sight or thought of a dead animal, but something about the way the deer had so obviously been hit, and had seemingly been drug off the road, made me want to record it. It made me feel like there was a statement to be made from all of that. But, I didn't do it. I hate exploiting things, especially that which deserves our respect and our reverence. I wish other people felt the same way, but, unfortunately, exploiting things has become VERY popular these days.

DVD - Resident Evil: Extinction

Okay, a little background on why I'm writing this. I saw the original Resident Evil on DVD, many years ago, and I liked it. I thought it was a fairly well made zombie movie that had me creeping and crawling. The gigantic mutant dog thing, at the end, lost it a little bit for me, but everything up to that point was pretty good. Then, they made Resident Evil:Apocalypse, which totally blew. I mean, what were they thinking when they made this movie? I don't care about the behind the scenes bad guys, or the dude who gets infected in the first movie, only to become a mutant killing machine for this one. I care about ZOMBIES. That's why I'm there. So, when I saw the first trailers for Extinction, the thought that immediately popped into my mind was - "Well, your stuck now. You've already watched the first two, so suck it up and put in the 90 minutes. Maybe they will have learned from their mistakes."

Well, I would say the filmmakers learned from the mistakes they made with Apocalypse, but, maybe they learned a little too well. It seemed like they took all of the mistakes made in Apocalypse, and just did the polar opposite of them, in turn creating more mistakes, but with lesser consequence. Extinction is a film that is riddled with bad choices by the filmmakers, but, none of these bad choices particularly make it a bad film, just INCREDIBLY mediocre. One of those films where, when it's over, you walk away empty handed, which is better than walking away feeling cheated, but definitely not as good as feeling you watched something truly amazing.

Extinction continues to follow Alice (reprised, yet again, by Milla Jovovich. Hey, what else is she doing these days?), only now, it is several years after the events of Apocalypse, and the T-virus has devastated the entire world. We meet Alice as she manuevers her way through a desert wasteland, Road Warrior style, looking for gas and supplies from whatever she can scrounge. After a series of early mishaps, she stumbles across a convoy, which includes her old buddies L.J. and Carlos (reprised, respectively, by Mike Epps and Oded Fehr. Hey, what else are they doing these days?). The convoy is under the leadership of Claire Redfield (Ali Larter, of Heroe's fame), and is pushing across the desert towards the coast. Alice reveals a journal she found to Carlos and Claire. Inside it is information about an infection free area in Alaska, which they decide to go to. Two problems - the convoy is almost out of gas and food (and being in Nevada, those two things are going to become pretty important if their going to make it to Alaska), and Two - Alice's old arch nemesis Dr. Isaacs is still after her, because he believes her blood holds the cure for infection. The convoy decides to try for gas and food in Vegas, but what they don't know is that Dr. Isaac's is tracking them, and waiting for them there with a few surprises up his sleeve.

Like I've said before, this movie was not particularly good, and it wasn't particularly bad either. At a lean and mean 90 minutes, the action goes so fast, I was actually very surprised when it was over. I assumed there would be more story to it. Milla Jovovich is in pure bad ass form as Alice, and, like I hinted at before, this movie owes a deep debt of gratitude to The Road Warrior. I almost expected Mad Max to pop up somewhere in the film, or at least a more overt reference to him (if the entire film wasn't an overt enough reference). The judgement? If your a Resident Evil fan, or, if your like me and you've already put your time in on the first two, even though they had their ups and downs, this film is worth your ninety minutes, just so you can say that you saw all three. If you're a casual watcher, wait until it comes on cable or something and watch it that way. I guarantee you that whatever content they edit out, is not going to save the movie from it's own lacklusterness.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

When Mike Nichols makes a film, these days, it tends to be an event for film lovers. He is one of the old masters, who is still able to consistently turn out quality material, even after forty years in the industry. Although I didn't care too much for his last film, 2004's Closer, it is certainly a rare bump on the road for a man who has given us so many cinematic classics.

Charlie Wilson's War concerns a congressman from Texas who gets mixed up in the plight of the Afghan people after the invasion of Afghanistan, by Communist Russia. It starts out as a small, side interest, but, after visiting the Afghan people, stuck in refugee camps in Pakistan, he realizes that only money and weapons will solve the conflict that the Afghans face. The U.S. has been providing both, but in very minuscule amounts (nowhere near what the people need to even make a dent in the Soviet forces). Enlisting the help of millionaire Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), for initial fundraising, and CIA agent Gust Avrakatos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to set up weapons manifests, get the weapons to the Afghans, and track their progress, Wilson is able to fight a covert war, with little attention or deterrence from the US government, and considerable success.

Nichols direction, as well as the tightly written script by Aaron Sorkin, brings the story of the boozing, womanizing congressman from Texas alive. Tom Hanks, who plays Charlie Wilson, is so good at what he does, you forget that it's Tom Hanks that you're watching. Philip Seymour Hoffman is on the ball, as usual. He hits his performance out of the park, portraying Gust as an incredibly intelligent loser, who doesn't get enough credit. The only weak link among the top players is Julia Roberts, but that is probably a personal issue for me. I just can't see her as anything other than Julia Roberts, and, I think, that takes away from her ability to wow me as an actress.

What is most important about this film, though, is exactly what well made films do best - it delivers a message within its entertainment, and the message is so poignant right now - If you start something, you have to finish it.  Wilson managed to flood the Afghans with money and modern weaponry to fight off the Soviets, but when the war was over, America was no longer interested in supporting the Afghans. This left them with little to go back home to, and a society to rebuild themselves. Is it any wonder that, a little over ten years later, Afghanistan would be a hot bed of anti-American terrorist activity. What the film say's to me, is clear - No one wants to be in Iraq anymore. It sucks. People are dying. But, we started something, and if we don't finish it, it's going to come back and bite us, just like the Afghan situation did.

Go see this film. It's storytelling at its best.