Comments on watching and making films.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Diary of the Dead

George Romero has made a career off of zombies, whether he wanted to or not. Starting with his first zombie film, and debut feature, Night of the Living Dead, Romero invented the entire genre, laying down rules that would be closely followed by almost every zombie filmmaker afterwards. Romero, throughout the years, has heartily attempted to break free from the world that defined him, but to little or not avail. His biggest outside success was probably the Stephen King authored Creepshow, though many of his other films were hardly a blip on the radar.

Previous to Diary, Romero had made four zombie films - Night of the Living Dead (a cinema classic in every sense of the word), Dawn of the Dead (an AMAZING 70's film that is as good, or possibly better, than its predecessor), the debatable Day of the Dead (a film whose script was supposedly pillaged before they were able to start shooting), and the respectable Land of the Dead. Each film got bigger and more expensive, though, not particularly better. With Diary of the Dead, Romero is trying to kick-start the series that he felt had gotten away from him. He's trying to bring it back to it's origins of a small, homemade film. Well, he succeeds at that, if only at that.

The story follows a group of art school students who witness the birth of the zombie invasion first hand, with filmmaker Jason recording the events, to show a "true", "unbiased" view of the events. We follow them as they pack into an RV (which I find incredibly odd, and way to convenient that they have access to such a vehicle), to drive from Pittsburgh to, eventually, one of their fellow students houses in the country. Along the way, they run into zombies, crazed military officers, lots of people with guns, and more zombies.

My major problem with this film is its first person point of view. The concept of someone being so obsessed with shooting footage of everything around them, to the point where they don't even step in when someone is in danger of being killed, is ridiculous. If Jason is that lost in what he's doing, I find it hard to believe that he would be able to hold down friends, much less a girlfriend. Romero has always made his characters as smart as the average "real-life" person, instead of dumbing them down like so many horror film director's do, but, in Diary, these kids come off as cliche idiots, more at home in a Friday the 13th, than in a Romero zombie film.

I understand Romero's point, about how we are so media obsessed that we can't even break ourselves away from it, but the story is so ridiculous that one has to wonder what he was thinking when he wrote it (or was it a situation of - "Hey George Romero, here's a bag of cash. Go out and make us a zombie film!").

I didn't enjoy this film at all. Thee acting was bad, the story was ridiculous, and the zombies were not interesting in any way. Apparently, the days of Dawn of the Dead's "personality" zombie's are long gone. It's a shame, too. I see Diary as the worst, by far, of a line of films that started out on an incredibly strong note. I hope that if Romero makes another zombie film, he'll find a way to look past the painfully obvious, and make something that reflects the skills and ability that he should have gained in a forty year career.

DVD - This Is England

Shane Meadows has crept into the consciousness of the American cinema goer like a wolf waiting to strike. For those of us who have been lucky enough to witness even one of his films, we are left feeling like we have witnessed the birth of something very special in the world of film and art. Including This Is England, I have only seen one other Meadows film, the amazing and beautiful revenge drama Dead Man's Shoe's, so, it may be safe to say that I am not the most qualified person to make the above statement, but, I feel like I can make it since, if Meadows simply keeps up that level of filmmaking, he will go down as one of the greats of world cinema, and a powerhouse of English cinema.

This Is England concerns the 1983 world of a young boy named Shaun, who's father has recently passed away in the Faulkland's war. He finds himself alone in a world that is imploding around him. His mother has no clue how to raise him alone, which leads him to act out when people make fun of him, or give him a hard time. One day, on a walk home, Shaun thinks he's picking a fight with a young (traditional) skinhead and his gang. When the skin, Woody, ends up diffusing the argument, Shaun realizes that Woody isn't interested in making fun of him, but, maybe, being his friend. He begins hanging out with a group of traditional skinheads (they differ from Nazi skinheads in that they are not rascists, nor are they, generally, violent), and these folks become his new family.

When one of Woody's old friends, Combo, is released from jail, though, it begins to slice a rift in the group. Combo is a proto-nazi skinhead, a "nationalist", who feels his hate towards the immigrant population is warranted because they are stealing jobs, housing, and "destroying the country". While Woody and much of the rest of the group want nothing to do with Combo, Shaun, young and still upset over the loss of his dad in a war that many felt was pointless, decides to channel his anger into Combo's cause.

This Is England is not just an incredible time capsule of a very interesting time in English history, it can also be seen as a statement on the current situation in the United States. Their are a lot of parallels in the film and what America is going through right now - a war that much of its population doesn't understand, tension about immigration, a disaffected youth culture, and leadership whose popularity is tanking more and more every moment of every day.

Meadows uses his camera to really explore the worlds of his characters, and with seemingly little or no production design, Meadows is able to pull out the very simple world of twenty plus years ago. Of course, with such an established sub-culture as the skins, you don' have to worry about clothes or looks, since they haven't really changed since the late 60's.

Thomas Turgoose gives an incredible performance for such a young kid, and is anchored by great actors, including Stephen Graham, who does an amazing job at portraying the emotional subtleties of the character Combo. Neither Meadows, nor Graham, allow Combo to simply be a one sided, hate-filled character. Meadows finds ways to show how Combo is capable of expressing intricate emotions, and Graham paints them on screen with the soft brush of a master.

If you've never seen Dead Man's Shoes, I wholeheartedly recommend it. This Is England is an incredible follow-up to that film, and, like I said before, if Meadows keeps this up, he will go down as an incredibly skilled artisan.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sweeney Todd:The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

If I could sum up my reaction to Sweeney Todd in a simple gesture, it would be this - Picture me holding my nose with one hand, sticking my tongue out, and, with the other hand, starting in a thumbs up position, and then my hand moving in a counter-clockwise motion into a thumbs down position (trust me, it's a simple gesture when its acted out. Writing it takes a lot more effort).

Not a fan of the Todd (and there may actually be some Scrubs fans who get the inside joke in that statement). The film is about a man named Benjamin Barker, who is falsely accused of a crime and  sent to jail for life. The judge who accuses him and sentences him, then takes his wife and daughter and forces them under his care. Fast forward, roughly, twenty years or so, and Barker breaks out of prison and returns to England, seeking vengeance on Judge Turpin, the man who destroyed his life. Now, though, Barker is older and filled with piss and vinegar, and with a new hair-do and some fancy black duds, he is "reborn" as Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Todd resurrects Barkers old barber shop with the help of the buildings owner (and proprietor of the restaurant downstairs), Mrs. Lovett, but his plans aren't to rebuild his life, only to seek vengeance on the man who destroyed it. I'm not going to say too much else, or it feels like giving the plot away.

As you may have been able to tell from the opening paragraph, I wasn't exactly impressed by the film. Tim Burton, in general, has been on my bad side for a while. I just don't enjoy his work anymore. And the one thing I probably enjoyed the most, The Nightmare Before Christmas, isn't even really a Tim Burton film. It's just a "Tim Burton presents".

What was my issue with Sweeney Todd? Well, I can sum it up, mostly, in one word - Musical. I don't like musicals. Never have. If people are singing more than 25% of the time in a film, I'm pretty much out. If I wanted to sit and listen to people sing for 2 hours, I would go to live theater. On film, though, musicals are often boring and flat. They often times come off as pretentious, or lacking relevance, and there is very little anyone can do to fix this (on a personal note, I can't believe they made Mamma Mia! into a film. That looks like the most pointless piece of cinema this year).

It seems like Burton made this film so that he could fill in the blanks of that which was missing from the stage show, but, when you see the kinds of things he does with it, you're left to wonder if we, as an audience, need any of that stuff in the first place. Is the CGI London any more real because you can see a little more of it? Or because they do that fancy (computer generated) shot at the beginning? Are Todd's acts any more gruesome because, as a film, Burton can have a sliced throat spew blood almost endlessly? You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that when a straight razor is dragged across someone's neck, it's probably going to cut them open, and they'll probably die. What I'm trying to say is - Burton's over the top, gothic  imagination, in my opinion, lends nothing to the story. 

All told, though, it wasn't a complete wash. The film is worth watching, at least on the big screen, just to see it. I wish I hadn't paid full price for it, though.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Pure Moments

Today has been great, so far. I went to see Julian Schnabel's film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (which was AMAZING, review to come soon), and when I got home, my Bolex test footage was waiting for me. I can't express how awesome it was for me, personally to open up the little black box, pull out the spool, thread up the projector, and see the footage that I shot come to life before my very eyes. I mean, it was just test footage, basically stuff I shot in and around my parents house, but still... I can't wait to get started on Indefinable Orbits now.

Monday, February 4, 2008

She... She screams in silence...

That line, from an old Green Day song, gave me an idea this morning. One that may be another film to make with my Bolex.

I sent off my Plus-X test roll last week, and I should be getting it back this week, along with a couple of cartridges of Vision 2 Super 8 film for Steve's wedding (nothing but the best for the Crawford clan!). I'm looking forward to see how the Plus-X turned out, and, if everything is cool, it will be time to start shooting on Indefinable Orbits.

I'm piecing together ideas for Raccoon Head right now, which I am hoping to shoot on and off over the next year/year and a half. I'm trying to make it a comedy, but, it feels like it keeps pushing more towards drama. Since I don't have a script draft, I guess I shouldn't worry too much about it, for now. We'll let it be what it is.

I watched the commentary for Linklater's You Can't Learn To Plow By Reading A Book, and it really got me psyched up to do The Definers on Super 8. I want to take a chance and make the film EXACTLY how I want to make it (of course, sans the professional actors, which I can't afford). But after having listened to Linklater talking about just going out and doing it, and experimenting, and telling the story you want to tell, how you want to tell it, everyone else be damned, it really got me hyped up. I'm gonna take the chance. It's time to start finalizing the script, and do the pre-production on it.

Also, I've made it my goal to finish With/Without and submit it to festivals for the upcoming season. It deserves to have a chance to live outside of the Watkins student screening and a couple of DVD's with rough cuts on them. I've put in the final sound effects that it was missing, and am re-doing the credits, and... I think that's it. It will be ready to go. 

Wish me luck with everything.

The Savages

It's safe to say that Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney are both amazing actors, but, sometimes, even when you put amazing actors into a script that doesn't really deliver what you expect of it, not even they can save it for you. 

The Savages is the story of Jon and Wendy Savage, a brother and sister, who are facing the reality of losing the father they never really knew that well, to dementia and old age. Both Jon and Wendy are struggling writers, Jon is a professor working on a book about Brecht, while Wendy is a playwright. After his "girlfriend" dies, their father Lenny is forced to move out of her house, and Jon and Wendy have to figure out what to do with him. It complicates things that they really have no idea who this man is, having had little or no contact with him for 20+ years. It doesn't help, either, that he suffers from dementia, a disease similar to Alzheimer's, which causes him to be irritable and difficult to deal with.

The Savages is marketed as one of those smart, funny indy comedy's, but, unfortunately, it's just not that funny. It's doesn't even pull laughs from absurd realities, which are abundant in the film. That's the saddest part. When a film is so dry that you can't even laugh at the ridiculous realities... you know you're in trouble. Linney and Hoffman play their roles well, but, still... I kept expecting the laughs, and they just never came. Had this film been marketed as a serious film about aging, dementia, etc., I probably would have looked at it through different eyes, and taken away something else from it. Who knows, I might have even thought it was amazing, but, the trailer say's comedy, and there was none. Because of that, I'm gonna have to say that The Savages was a big disappointment for me.

The Kite Runner

It is my belief that, right now, Marc Forster is truly one of the best film directors we have. His films, which have included Monsters Ball, Finding Neverland, and Stranger Than Fiction, are of the highest quality, and almost all of his films have been successful, despite tackling subject matter that is not always broad enough for the general viewing audience. With The Kite Runner, Forster tackles a very heart felt, and omni-present issue - Religious persecution and fundamentalism in the Middle East, particularly Afghanistan.

The Kite Runner is the story of two boyhood friends, Amir and Hassan, who have a somewhat odd relationship, due to the fact that Hassan is the son of Amir's father's servant, therefore making Hassan a servant of Amir, as well. The two fit together well, until Hassan's act of devotion to Amir causes him to be assaulted while Amir watches helplessly from a distance (without anyone knowing he's there). The two become separated right before Khabul falls to the Russians, when Amir and his father escape to America.

Fast forward a decade, or so, and Amir receives a phone call from a mutual friend, Rahim, in Pakistan, who tells him the sad news of Hassan's death. Hassan has a son, though, and Rahim begs Amir to come to Pakistan, gain entry into Afghanistan, and risk his life to rescue the boy from the radical Islamic fundamentalists who have kidnapped him, and killed his family.

The Kite Runner is an epic story, without a doubt. Taking place over a long period of time, throughout many countries, and dealing with very real and relatable issues, the film is a testament to author Khaled Hosseini's understanding of growing up and being a man in that part of the world. Forster uses Amir's story to explore concepts of bravery and tradition which are, often times, forgotten in western films when it comes to the Middle Eastern culture, or are simply portrayed as cliche's.

What can you really say about a film like this, other than that it is pitch perfect. The Kite Runner is an amazingly well-realized film that brings to life so many things about a culture that many of us don't understand, because we just don't have very in depth or accurate representations of it. The fact that, in Khabul in the 70's, society was much like America or parts of Europe, is something I never would have known, but, historically, it was. Before the Soviet invasion of the area, it was an incredibly bustling place. To see it, currently, and feel like your stepping back in time a hundred years, because of the destruction and terror that the Soviet's and Radical Islam has brought to that area of the world... It really makes you feel bad for the people who are subject to that kind of tyranny.

The Kite Runner didn't jerk a tear out of me, but it was still an incredible film, and left me feeling like there is hope in the world, and that, even though tyranny and terrorism are still very real things in our society, good CAN prevail.

DVD - The Motel

Every once in a while, a writer/director comes along that makes a movie that manages to put everything into perspective for you. It takes some aspect of your present or past, and slides it into focus, combining the perfect amount of reality and empathy, without delving into sappiness, or trying to tap into undeserved sympathy. Michael Kang does exactly that in The Motel.

The Motel is the story of Ernest (played, brilliantly, by first time actor Jeffrey Chyau), and his family (A hilariously horrible mother, a spunky sister, and a grandfather), who live in, and run, a motel outside of "the city". Ernest's life consists, primarily, of going to school, hanging out behind an Asian restaurant to try and sneak some time with the girl he likes, Christine, and dealing with his crazy mother, who runs the Motel with an iron fist (and a baseball bat). One day, a man named Sam shows up, and moves into the Motel. He takes a liking to Ernest, whom he feels is like a little brother, and decides to try and "help" Ernest achieve his dreams of happiness. But Sam can't find his own happiness in the first place, and though his advice seems to bring some temporary joy to Ernest, it always ends up in disaster.

The Motel is a hilarious comedy about what it means to grow up as a young teen, when very few people believe in you, or care about you. Ernest is like most thirteen year olds - Everyone has plans for him, but no one really seems to care what he thinks. The fact that he grows up and lives at a seedy motel that's well travelled by hookers and johns, druggies, and low life's, doesn't help matters at all.

What's great about this film is that it's everything that a great independent film should be - it's subtle in it's humor, yet still hilarious, it has note-perfect acting (thanks to fantastic directing), and, for its tiny budget, is very well put together technically.

Jade Wu, as Ernest's mother, deserves special mention for her amazing performance as the neurotic mom. Whenever she's interacting with Ernest, you immediately start feeling sorry for him. Sung Kang also delivers a great performance as Sam, the man who has made it his mission to help Ernest find happiness, despite the fact that he has lost all of his.

Simply put, The Motel is what great indy film SHOULD be. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone!