Comments on watching and making films.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

It's been on everyone's "best of" list for the year, and has been heaped with praise. Now, Danny Boyle, in my opinion, is one of the most underrated director's working right now. He seems to get very little attention or credit for his amazing body of work. Almost everything he's done has been great, from the 90's drug staple Trainspotting, to the movie that rebooted the zombie genre 28 Days Later, to the (in my opinion) SEVERELY underrated sci-fi thriller Sunshine. Boyle continues to amaze in everything he does, and while Slumdog Millionaire is an enjoyable film, it is, in my opinion, one of the least of his films, and definitely not worth the massive amounts of praise that is heaped on it.

The story concerns the life of Jamal, a young man who gets a chance to make a million dollars on India's version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. He makes it to the final round, but before he can take the stage, he is abducted by local police who try to torture him into confessing that he is cheating. Instead, he recounts his childhood, and how (almost) every question that is asked of him has some sort of personal story from his life attached to it, and how, ultimately, he is only trying to win the game so that he can rescue the love of his life, Latika, from a ruthless gangster. Jamal's stories range from when he was a young boy, with his brother Salim, to his current situation as a "lowest man on the totem pole" at a customer service call in center.

Don't take me the wrong way, Slumdog Millionaire is a great film. Although it's destiny driven message is, at times, a little heavy handed, ultimately it is an uplifting film about humanity and the power of love. That being said, I think there are a lot of other BETTER films that have come out this year that deserve to be called the best of the year. Boyle delivers something entertaining, but not amazing. Personally, I think Millions was just as good, or possibly better, but that's probably just a personal thing (seeing as how everyone seems to hate Millions but me...)


Gus Van Sant has been one of the most consistently good filmmakers of the last twenty plus years. From his breakout film Drugstore Cowboy, to his Oscar winner Good Will Hunting, to his critically acclaimed trilogy about death (Gerry, Elephant,  and Last Days), Van Sant has made a lot of great films on a small, independent scale. Milk is probably the closest he's ever really gotten to making a mainstream movie, and may be the closest he will ever get.

Milk is the story of Harvey Milk, San Francisco's first openly gay city official. It picks up Harvey's story on the night of his fortieth birthday in New York City, when he meets Scott Smith(played by James Franco), the man who will, effectively, become the great love of Harvey's life. Harvey and Scott eventually migrate to San Francisco to be a part of a more gay-friendly environment, and settle in the Castro district. As time goes on, Harvey see's so many things about his environment that he wants to change, but, in order to do so, he must gain the power to do so. In order to do this, he runs for a city supervisor position and loses. Every few years he runs again and again, and loses again and again. By this time, he has become famous in his community, but when he decides to run one more time, he loses Scott, who walks out on him, sick of having to deal with Harvey giving all of himself to politics. It is then that Harvey wins the position. When he takes his seat, he meets, and tries to allign with another newly elected supervisor - Dan White(played by Josh Brolin). Harvey tries to support Dan, but eventually begins to become more and more famous, and more and more adamant about changing the city's laws and treatment towards the homosexual population. This causes friction between Dan and Harvey, and eventually, after losing his job, Dan comes back to City Hall for Harvey, with a gun.

Milk is an interesting film from a historical perspective. It made me realize that the homosexual population, especially in America, have there own history, their own hero's and villian's. All of the actor's did an exceptional job, though sometimes it feels like Sean Penn's Harvey Milk seemed to be schizophrenically flamboyant. One moment he would be the serious politician looking to change things, and the next he came off as almost a Hollywood stereotype (though I do stand by the fact that stereotypes are born out of truth, and therefore there may have been truth to Penn's flamboyance). Ultimately, though, the film suffered the fate of many recent biopics - it was just kind of boring. I mean, Van Sant did all the right things - used period news reel footage, included the most interesting and relevant parts, and gave us characters we could cheer for but, still, something was just missing. I think that, ultimately, the biopic (in general) suffers from the fact that, ultimately, you know what the outcome is. It's so hard to find a story to tell that someone either doesn't know the outcome of, or couldn't hit up wikipedia or google to find every last ounce of relevant information to. Milk is a good film, and certainly a good addition to Van Sant's resume, but I found myself, at the end, saying "Alright", getting out of my seat, walking out of the theater and not caring about anything I saw for the last two hours just like I have with almost every biopic I've seen in the last couple of years.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

David Fincher is one of the great director's of his generation. Although he hasn't made that many films, as compared to the filmmakers that started coming out around his time (Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith), all of his films (short of the studio cannibalised  Alien 3) have been amazing works of art. He has made countless television commercials and music videos, and continues to expand his visual grammar. With The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, though, he's brought a softer edged humanity to his story telling, with the help of source material by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Button is the story of one man's life, lived physically in reverse. He is born the average weight and size of a new born, but with all of the characteristics of a man well into his eighties. He spends his early life fighting geriatric ailments, living in an old folks home, and believing himself to be just like those around him. As he grows older, though, he grows physically younger, feeling constantly out of place as he maneuvers his way through an ever changing world. He constantly opens himself up to new encounters, and new loves, but is always forced to give up those things which he loves the most.

And that is the key to Button. If there is a single message in the film it is that death, and letting go of the things you love the most in life, is a natural part of life. It happens to everyone, and can not be controlled. Button is a heartbreaking film, and, as the title character, Brad Pitt brings an unbelievable earnestness to Benjamin, a simple man who always seems to be happy to simply experience life. Fincher puts on an incredible patina to the entire film, making you feel, more than almost any other film I've ever seen, that you are right there in that moment with Benjamin. Cate Blanchett plays Daisy, Benjamin's life long love interest with absolute honesty and clarity. She is the person you fall in love with, and lose, but you never really lose them in your heart. Benjamin is lucky enough, though, that he and Daisy always seem to find each other.

I think the one thing that surprised me the most about Button, though, was the importance of women in Benjamin's life. You never seem him have any guy friends. There is no real father figure (even his real father never really gets to act the part). The film is, in fact, completely about the women in Benjamin's life - Queenie, the woman who becomes his mother after he's abandoned at birth, Daisy, his life long love, and Elizabeth, a relationship he has while working as a sailor in Russia. Love, in this film, whether familial or romantic, is the number one message of this film - You may get only one chance to seize your moment with someone. If your lucky, and you screw up the first one, you might get a second, but its best to take the chance when you have it. Life doesn't last forever, and whether your young or old, you WILL lose everything and everyone you love in the end. Love them while you have them. Make today the day.

I want to end this review with this phrase that Benjamin writes to his daughter - "If you find yourself living a life your not proud of, I hope you have the strength to start over".

Friday, December 26, 2008

New Film - Matt

This is my new film, Matt. It's a sort of moving portrait of an old friend of mine who I was able to visit with while going home for a friends wedding. Shot on Tri-X Super 8. Music by Tchaikovsky. Hope you like it, and please feel free to leave feedback - 

Matt from Stewart Schuster on Vimeo.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Thoughts on Dexter, Season 3

Well, I recently finished watching the final episodes of Dexter, season 3. All I can say is - WOW! Scott Buck, who executive produced Six Feet Under is one of the exec producers on this show as well, and I can honestly say that, while Dexter isn't as good as Six Feet Under was, it is VERY close.

One of the best things about this season was also the thing that was the biggest surprise to me - Jimmy Smits. Not that I don't like Jimmy Smits, but, to be honest, I never had much of a feeling for him either way. LA Law was before my time, and he's always popped up in more supporting roles in all of the stuff I've ever seen him in. I was a little worried, I have to admit. Bringing in a bigger name actor like Smits into a show like Dexter can be a way of saying "We're in trouble" without saying it. But Smits fit perfectly into his role, never trying to be bigger than what he was, and, though he was an integral part of the story line for this season, the writers made sure to always make sure that his character was only used when necessary. Smits inhabited his role like it was a second skin (no pun intended to those who have seen the season), and REALLY vanquished any and all doubts I had about him.

Lot's of kudo's need to go to Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter, as well, for their performances. Hall is one of the best actors around, and I'm a little surprised that he's not better known. Julie Benz, who plays Rita, also kicked it up a notch in this season (or maybe the writers just gave her a little more to work with, who knows?). 

My only complaint would have to be something that the writers seemed to do last season as well, which was start the show in a very intense way, lull in the middle, and then hit it again at the end. I don't know if that's purposeful or not, but it is definitely felt. I also didn't care for Quinn. I don't know whether it was the actor I didn't like, or the character, or both. The character seemed really one dimensional and flat, and whenever they did try to breath a little bit of life into him, it was sort of like "who cares?". Ultimately, though, in a show like that, I suppose they need a few one sided characters every once in a while, just to keep the plot moving along.

Monday, December 15, 2008

DVD - Son of Rambow

Son of Rambow is the hilarious story of a young boy, Will, who's family belongs to a sect of the Christian religion, almost Amish like, in England. One day, while sitting in the hall because he's not allowed to watch documentary's with his classmates (TV is apparently considered wrong in his religion, even though they drive cars and use other various forms of modern technology), he meets another young boy, Lee Carter, a trouble maker who quickly begins taking advantage of the young and impressionable Will. Lee Carter doesn't have any friends to speak of, so he soon enlists Will to help him make a film to enter into a BBC contest. Son of Rambow takes place in the 80's, right after the release of First Blood in England, and the boy's, taken by Rambo, decide to make their own Rambo film.

This film was really funny, and a lot of it was because of the perfect chemistry between Will and Lee Carter (played by Bill Millner and Will Poulter respectively). Millner has a perfect innocence about him, and Poulter plays the bully/opportunist very well. Another great part of this film was the graphical work done in it, that helped bring Will's day dreams to life. In this film, we saw Will's thought process in a way that seemed more authentic than anything I've ever seen in a film portraying kids. The script, and direction, by Garth Jennings was great, and I really look forward to seeing whatever is next from him.

DVD - White Dog

White Dog is something of a legend in the film world. In the early eighties, Paramount Pictures tapped legendary director Sam Fuller, just of his recent success with The Big Red One, to direct a film based off of the novella about a young couple who take in a stray dog, only to find out that the dog has been trained to attack and kill black people. Fuller made the film, having made several anit-rascism pictures in the 1950's before equal rights and de-segregation were even seriously being considered. Upon initial viewing of the film, however, Paramount executives thought it to inflammatory, and shelved the project except for a short release in France. This was a slap in the face to Fuller, and all who worked on the film, and Fuller never saw the film released in his lifetime. This month, though, Criterion put White Dog out for the first time, as far as I know, on home video.

The story of White Dog is fairly simple - A young actress in Hollywood comes across a stray dog while driving through the Hollywood Hills to her home. She takes the dog home with her, and seeks to find the owner. When no owner shows up, and the dog saves her from being raped (by a white man), the girl, who's name is Julie, decides to keep the dog. Little does she know, though, that the dog wasn't just trained to attack those that would put someone like Julie in jeopardy, but was also trained to attack and kill black people, which she first finds out when the dog attacks and maims one of her friends. Feeling like she has developed a real bond with the dog, she tries to avoid having it put down by taking it to a black animal trainer named Keys, who is looking for a challenge. But can Keys break the dog of its ways? or will it kill again?

White Dog is alright, but it FEELS very 80's. And, I don't know, maybe I'm just a product of a different era, but watching the movie now doesn't seem like its as impactful as it probably should be or might have been back in the day. I know people are rascist, I know people do horrible, unspeakable things to animals, and I know animals can be made into dangerous weapons... Ultimately what I was left feeling about the film was that we got good performances by Kristy McNichol, as the optimistic Julie, and by Paul Winfield, as the animal trainer Keys, but the story itself really didn't draw me in the way I wanted it to, and it didn't really impact me the way I thought it would. White Dog is good, but its not life changing. For me, a film like Shock Corridor, Fuller's 1963 film about mental illness and asylum's was much more interesting as a "topical" film.

I have been working

I know I always say I'm working on this or that, but I am actually working on stuff, it's just slow going. As proof, I offer some stills from a recent transfer I did of 16mm and Super 8. The 16 stuff is for Indefinable Orbits and the Super 8 (black and white) stuff is for an as of yet untitled film.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Rachel Getting Married

Jonathan Demme seems to have kept himself fairly busy these past couple of years doing a lot of documentary work, including films about Neil Young and Jimmy Carter, but he's decided to saddle back up to the narrative in Rachel Getting Married, though he brings with him a lot of what he must have learned while making said documentary's.  Rachel... is the story of the titular character's wedding, and the homecoming of her sister, Kim, from a rehab facility. Kim is released so that she may attend, and, of course, when Kim, who has been in and out of rehab and, for various reasons you learn in the film, has been a thorn in the side of the family, shows up, things get REALLY intense right before the big day.

Anne Hathaway finally gets  to show us she can act outside of Disney movies and chick flicks, and actually does an amazing job as Kim. Rosemarie DeWitt is radiant as Rachel, and Tunde Adebimpe, who I first saw in Jump Tomorrow, was great as Rachel's soon to be husband Sidney. Great performances by Bill Irwin and Debra Winger as the divorced parents of Rachel and Kim round out the group. Rachel Getting Married is less a fiction film done in documentary style, and more a documentary of actors putting on the show of this wedding. Demme gives you an almost God's eye view of all the significant going's on, and makes you feel like you're not just seeing some Hollywood film about a dysfunctional family, but actually witnessing said family have a complete melt down. I ceased to see these people as individuals playing a part and completely sunk into the concept of these actors as actually being the people they portrayed. Demme and his team get massive props for bringing Jenny Lumet's story to the screen in such a seamless way. Truly, truly masterful filmmaking.

Synecdoche, New York

I don't know how to describe this film. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director who receives a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and decides to use it to create a massive stage play that he spends twenty years of his life trying to create. That's about the best I can do. The film, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, is... amazing. That being said, its almost impossible to do it justice in a paragraph. It's just one of those movies you have to see. It's, basically, Cotard's life, from shortly before he receives the grant, into his very old age. It is funny, awkward, truthful, and far out all at the same time. Kaufman really creates his own world, going way beyond the strangeness of his previous writing efforts like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Just see it. That's all I can say. You'll either like it, or you won't, but you'll never forget it.

Let The Right One In

When I think of Swedish film, I think of Ingmar Bergman - dark, brooding meditations of life and love. With Let The Right One In, I'm seeing a whole new aspect of Swedish filmmaking. ...Right One... is about a young boy, Oscar, who is bullied at school, and for all intents and purposes, ignored at home. His parents are divorced, and he lives with his mom, but she doesn't pay that much attention to him. One night, a young woman, about his age, moves into the apartment next door, with an older man, who we presume is her father. Over time, Oscar gets to know the young girl, who only comes out at night, and never seems to get cold in the freezing Swedish winters. But when the old man she was living with passes on, Oscar finds out the frightening truth of Eli, the young girl he's fallen in love with - She's a vampire.

Let The Right One In is an amazing film. I loved it through and through. The two young actors who play Oscar and Eli, Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson respectively, are amazing and really disappear into their roles. The director, Tomas Alfredson, seems to have worked hard to get the chemistry just right between them, and between Oscar and the boys who torture him. It amazes me that this team was able to take such a relatively tired genre (sans the recent 30 Days of Night, which was really good), and breath some new life into it. I loved the idea, as well, that Eli was not just some creature who loved the thrill of the hunt and kill, but that she only did what she did because it was for her survival. Just as we kill and eat a cow or a pig, she must kill a human being to survive. Instead of the whole Underworld style of Vampire, Let The Right One In has the most human vampire I have ever seen - like you and I in every way, except for her need for human blood to feed on.

Quantum of Solace

It's really late by this point. Quantum of Solace has already been out for a month or so, but I thought I'd chime in anyway. In the newest installment of the Daniel Craig series of Bond films, Bond is still pissed off about the death of the woman he loved, Vesper, at the hands of a mysterious enemy. The film opens with a daring car chase, which we learn, is Bond getting away from henchman of this organization, while he holds captive (in his trunk) one of the top ranking officials of said super secret organization. What ensues, throughout the film, is a cat and mouse game, with Bond trying to expose the inner workings of the people who killed his woman and have been pulling strings all around the world to get their way.

I enjoyed Quantum of Solace a lot, but, ultimately, I liked Casino Royale a lot better. It felt like a much more well rounded film, where as Quantum of Solace felt like a Bond film that had been written for Charles Bronson. It felt like it could have been a Bond version of Death Wish. The action sequences were really incredible, but, sometimes it felt like they were trying to shove a little bit too much of it in there. The Bond girls, Gemma Arterton and Olga Kurylenko, were tight, but... they were a little one sided. The best Bond girls have been relatively three dimensional, and a little more developed. It's all a little disappointing, because Marc Forster is truly one of my favorite directors of this generation. I think the man is talented beyond belief, but... Quantum of Solace just didn't do it for me the way I was hoping it would. It's a great film, but their are other Bond's that were better. interview - Kelly Reichardt

Karina Longworth, formerly of Cinematical, now writes for, and recently interviewed Kelly Reichardt, the auteur of such films as Old Joy, and the all new Wendy and Lucy, starring Michelle Williams as a broke twenty something, trying to make her way to Alaska to work in the lucrative cannery's. It's a great read. I really enjoyed Old Joy and have River of Grass on my Netflix queue (now that its on DVD).

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Top Whatever

The Documentary Blog has posted a list of its Top 25  Documentary's of all time. It's a pretty good list, though I find it hard to believe that Paradise Lost 2: Revelations is on the list, as opposed to its predecessor Paradise Lost, which I felt was a much better made film. I feel like the second part simply rehashed a lot of the information that was already known, while including a little bit of new info. I also feel like The Up-Series should be higher on the list, as its one of the most important film documents of modern society.

On the other hand Empire Magazine has released its list of the 100 Greatest Characters of all time, which, to me, is proof of why lists like this are completely pointless. When you pick out the most obvious things you can, it sort of ceases to have a point, don't you think?