Saturday, August 16, 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS (Dave Filoni, 2008)

Arriving in the dog days of the summer movie season and with considerably less hype than usual for a new STAR WARS film, the computer-animated STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS wears its lowered expectations like armor to protect against the swords of jilted fanboys who feel like each new chapter in George Lucas' saga delivers further indignities to their childhood memories.

No wonder. Fans built up impossible standards during the long wait between RETURN OF THE JEDI and EPISODES I through III, and Lucas was susceptible to his worst impulses for writing stiff dialogue and directing stilted performances. Removed from the hothouse of their original release dates, perhaps the prequels can now be viewed on their own terms as flawed but entertaining movies incapable of ever living up to the versions of the original trilogy that exist moreso in the minds of a generation than on celluloid.

Or maybe not. Diminished expectations notwithstanding, at best STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS is unlikely to convince the disappointed faithful that the space opera is back on course. THE CLONE WARS elicits some pangs of nostalgia with its grand battles, alien landscapes, and beloved characters but yields little more than fuzzy thoughts of what used to be.

At worst it could reinforce fanbase beliefs that Lucas is motivated by an easy cash grab. The film functions as a feature-length teaser for the upcoming Cartoon Network series, and the introduction of the feisty female character Ahsoka comes off as a way of selling more ancillary products to girls. Lucas also continues to juvenilize the franchise, a move that has singlehandedly dropped him from the graces of his most ardent supporters.

Set between ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENGE OF THE SITH, THE CLONE WARS follows Anakin Skywalker and his young protégé Ahsoka as they search for Jabba the Hutt's kidnapped son. Why bother looking for a baby slug during the middle of a war? Jabba controls key trade routes through which armies can be moved. Winning his favor could be a determining factor in the fight's outcome, but doing so is far trickier than the Jedi realize. The duplicitous Count Dooku has orchestrated blame for the abduction and rescue to fall on the Jedi, thus paving the way for his separatist forces and Jabba to sign a treaty regarding those important shipping lanes.

Dave Filoni handles directorial duties, and three screenwriters are listed for THE CLONE WARS. Still, who else but Lucas, who gets producer and story credits, could be responsible for the familiar problems that mar this latest STAR WARS film? The ins and outs of intergalactic politics are as uninteresting and confusing as ever. Why Lucas insists on devoting so much time to these matters is especially baffling for a film even more kid-centric than the others.

The unwieldy dialogue becomes like the cacophonous honks associated with Charlie Brown's teacher. Most of the prequel performers have been replaced for the voiceover work, likely a budget-conscious move that neither adds nor detracts, but what in the world is going on with the voice of Jabba's uncle Ziro the Hutt? He sounds like The Lady Chablis.

Since the CGI-heavy prequels were practically cartoons anyway, the switch to full computer-animation for THE CLONE WARS should seem like a natural evolution for STAR WARS. The big miscalculation, though, is the plasticky design of flesh and blood characters. With faces like inexpressive rubber masks and immovable hair like that found on action figures, the characters have an unappealing look that puts them a few steps backwards technology-wise.

The plentiful battle scenes impress with their visual and aural assault and couldn't be pulled off better than being rendered in zeroes and ones. The gunships capable of vertical climbs up cliffs make cool additions to the Republic's armada. Although repetitive, the emphasis on action compensates for the film's deficiencies to a point.

THE CLONE WARS reveals that all the copying in the universe can reproduce a semblance of past greatness. It's the original inspiration that can't be duplicated. THE CLONE WARS isn't a bad movie but a faded version of what preceded.

Grade: C

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Google Me

GOOGLE ME (Jim Killeen, 2007)

Chances are everyone has done it at least once even if it isn't something likely to be admitted: the vanity Google search. Plug your name into the popular search engine and see what results it produces.

Filmmaker Jim Killeen was so curious about the people he found who shared his name that he decided to meet as many as he could and make a film about the experience. The documentary GOOGLE ME takes him around the world to meet six other Jim Killeens. His namesakes include an Irish priest, a former New York City cop, and a swinger.

With all of the horror stories reported about meetings arranged over the internet, it's nice to see a film that shows the positive nature of the web to connect strangers. Killeen's desire to get to know these men seems genuine and not just a good idea for a movie. The director recognizes that everyone has a story and makes a solid effort to tell them in ways befitting their subjects. These are ordinary people who aren't often depicted on screen, so it's enjoyable to get to know them.

Surprisingly, the Jim Killeen making this personality-driven documentary is the one we become acquainted with the least. GOOGLE ME starts to go off the rails when Killeen explores his background and family. Rather than focusing on himself, he devotes an inordinate amount of time training the camera on his mentally ill siblings and being critical of psychiatrists and the medications they prescribe. It's a weird interlude whose inclusion becomes clearer later on although it is still out of place in the film.

As a first-time director, Killeen is to be commended for choosing this interesting topic and making a small, independent documentary with good production values. He has a tendency, though, to get in the way of the primary story and become sidetracked. He cuts in reaction shots of himself too frequently during the interviews, which distract from the others' narratives, and shows an abundance of footage of him and the Jims goofing around. Some late potshots taken at the Bush administration and the war in Iraq may have felt good to express, but the sentiments don't really have any bearing on anything else in GOOGLE ME.

Killeen also spends far too many minutes detailing the production process, the project's financial crises, rejected interview requests, and legal issues regarding the Google seal of approval for the film. The making of the movie is not nearly as compelling as the central purpose of it.

GOOGLE ME clicks when director Jim Killeen allows others with the same name to reveal themselves and what they have in common, but too much of the film is filled with material better served for the behind-the-scenes section on the electronic press kit.

Grade: C+

(In keeping with its web roots, GOOGLE ME can currently be viewed online.)

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ebertfest 2008: Day 3

Sleep deprivation is part of every festival, and I'm starting to hit the wall here at Ebertfest. This entry is going to have to be short and sweet.

-Skipped the morning panel to grab an extra hour of sleep and hopefully obtain a good spot in line for getting preferred seats in theater for myself and friends.

-SHOTGUN STORIES: David Gordon Green lent his name as a producer to give an assist to fellow film school classmate Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed SHOTGUN STORIES. This lyrical Arkansas drama about two sets of feuding half-brothers bears some similarities to Green's work--strong sense of place, empathy for the characters--but Nichols' handsome and well-acted film differs in that it takes on a mythic quality. Ancient stories tell of quarrels between bloodlines. This one is no different, really, and just as tragic in its exploration of unarticulated emotions and male rage.

-UNDERWORLD: No, it's not the Kate Beckinsale movie with werewolves and vampires battling but the Josef von Sternberg silent gangster pic. The Alloy Orchestra returned to the festival to provide live musical accompaniment, which is always an Ebertfest highlight. The story and love triangle seem slight on this side of the passage of time, but von Sternberg populates the film with many wonderful visual flourishes--the party marking an evening of armistice among the city's gangsters, most notably--to stimulate.

-THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN: This documentary about an Illinois farmer who overcomes business failures and vicious community rumors deals with some of the same internal struggles regarding family property as the excellent film SWEET LAND, a drama that could be comfortably programmed at a future Ebertfest. THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN enjoys introducting viewers to this colorful individual as well as touching upon issues plaguing small family farms. It's an entertaining doc, but considering the plentiful home movies and videotape of Peterson, the film seems to reveal more about his personal philosophies than who he really is. The film wouldn't have been made if Peterson's longtime friend hadn't been behind the camera, but a more objective viewpoint likely would have helped in the areas where the film selectively leaves out information.

-MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS: Paul Schrader's biopic of the Japanese author Yukio Mishima was a challenging selection for the fourth film of the day, let alone one beginning after 10 p.m. I was not entirely up to the challenge as fatigue set in thirty minutes into the picture. I stayed awake for the most part, which allowed me to enjoy the exquisite production design, but I had a rough go of it trying to penetrate a movie about someone I knew nothing about. Schrader was here for the film and mentioned that Criterion is putting the film out on DVD. Purists can get ready to go into a tizzy because the director has inserted alternate skies for the home video version. He said that he wasn't satisfied with the more naturalistic look and that this change keeps those moments consistent with the heightened reality in the scenes from Mishima's novels.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Ebertfest 2008: Day 2

The first full day of Ebertfest '08 events included a morning panel discussion at the Illini Union and three features and one short at the Virginia Theatre. My morning began with a prematurely early wake up call that cut short an already abbreviated night of sleep, so I'm going to allow photos to do some heavy lifting and scratch down a few thoughts before I slump over the keyboard.

Timothy Spall and Shotgun Stories director Jeff Nichols

Chaz Ebert delivered the news that no one wished to hear but which came as no surprise: Roger has decided to focus on improving his health and will not be attending this year's festival. That he would even consider making a three-hour ride with a recently fractured hip should tell you how much he desired to join his festival family.


Housekeeping director Bill Forsyth and Delirious director Tom DiCillo

Film-wise the day for me could be summed up as muted enthusiasm. I liked Sally Potter's YES when I saw it during its original theatrical run, but I admire and appreciate the craft and technique rather than adore the film overall. The iambic pentameter dialogue is an interesting innovation but can be a bit distracting. Potter plays with the dichotomies of attraction/repulsion and God/nothingness in stimulating ways, yet I engage with the film intellectually much more than I do with the heart.

Rufus Sewell and Richard Roeper

I was less taken on both levels with DELIRIOUS, the day's first film. Tom DiCillo's satire about fame took six years to be realized, but it already feels dated in how it presents the chase for the next hot celebrity photo. (The internet is a non-factor in the film.) Steve Buscemi's scummy paparazzo and Michael Pitt's good-hearted homeless character build a friendship that strains under the pressure of Pitt's nascent stardom. The basic problem I have with DELIRIOUS is that its jaded attitude is not anywhere near as savage (or funny) enough about the absurdity of this high stakes publicity and fame game.

David Bordwell interviews the Canvas team (Joey Pantoliano, far right)

Prior to the third feature, the short film CITIZEN COHL: THE UNTOLD STORY honored the life of Dusty Cohl, a friend of Ebert and the festival. Cohl began the Toronto Film Festival and Floating Film Festival, but the smiling bearded man with the cowboy hat was remembered in the short as someone who brought people together. He was a fixture at Ebertfest, and this year's event is dedicated to him. He died this January, but from the testimonies of those at Ebertfest, his spirit lives on at places like this.

Thursday wrapped with CANVAS, a drama in which Joey Pantoliano and his son struggle to cope with Marcia Gay Harden's schizophrenia. The subject matter and filmmaking approach are of a piece with TV movies-of-the-week, but writer-director Joseph Greco earns a pass by dealing with mental illness in a straightforward manner light on actorly theatrics. In many respects this is a children's film. It's told from the boy's perspective and explores how his mother's illness affects his relationship with her as well as his dad. CANVAS is based on Greco's childhood, which may explain why this angle feels so honest.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ebertfest 2008: Opening Night

Ed Tracy, David Bordwell, Rufus Sewell, and Timothy Spall

Tonight marked the beginning of the 10th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival--"overlooked" has been officially excised from the event's name--but it didn't feel quite the same without his presence on stage at the Virginia Theatre before and after the opening night film. The room felt more subdued. Roger's wife Chaz greeted the audience and left open the possibility that he might make it before all is said and done. I wouldn't bet against him showing up in Champaign-Urbana, but fracturing a hip is serious business. We'll see how things unfold.

Opening night tradition has been the presentation of a film in 70mm, and if I'm being completely honest, as good as the other festival films can be, it's often downhill after the first evening. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, PLAYTIME...these are giant films in cinema history, so it's no wonder that everything that follows cannot reach such lofty peaks.

Kenneth Branagh's four-hour version of HAMLET--the last movie shot in 65mm, I believe, and the only filmed version without any cuts to Shakespeare's text--received the honor this year. I saw it in early 1997 with intermission and all. That 35mm presentation made an impression on me--it made my top ten for the rudimentary year in review/pilot episode of Now Playing-- but it had nothing on the screening of the pristine print that unspooled at the Virginia.

One of the marvelous things about Branagh's film is how well he communicates everything that is going on. It isn't critical to understand every word or mythological reference; the performances and direction keep the audience in tune with the machinations and mental states of the characters. I read the play in high school and have seen at least two film versions about the Danish prince, but it is after tonight's viewing that I feel like I've scratched the surface a bit more than I ever have before. One could make a career of studying HAMLET. I was pleased to gain greater insight into it than I ever have.

Branagh's performance stands out, obviously. His Hamlet is funnier than the brooding Dane is usually remembered being, and he's also less mad. Rather, Branagh plays him as a man in control of his faculties and putting on the countenance of lunacy to advance his plans.

Richard Briers' Polonius is very funny as well and seems to me to be the great underappreciated performance in the film. Charlton Heston brings gravitas to the Player King. I actually thought Billy Crystal's shtick served the First Gravedigger role well. Robin Williams' hammy Osric doesn't feel right, and the less said about Jack Lemmon's Marcellus, the better.

HAMLET is also a terrific visual film. The great mirrored hall where so much of the action takes place is an outstanding piece of set design, not to mention a camera operator's nightmare. On a technical level the film is a rigorous piece of work, whether it's managing the scope or keeping momentum for one of the longest Hollywood films ever made.

After the film, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's HAMLET review from their syndicated show was projected on-screen. It sounds as though this will be a recurring feature at the festival. It's a nice way of letting Ebert speak, even though he's currently unable to do so.

Timothy Spall, who plays Rosencrantz, and Rufus Sewell, who appears as Fortinbras, were on hand for the post-film Q&A. With the late start and 30-minute intermission, they didn't take to the stage until shortly after midnight, but their hour-long discussion flowed well. I didn't take notes during the Q&A, but one item of potential interest is that Sewell mentioned a director's cut of DARK CITY is forthcoming on DVD.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pre-Ebertfest news

As I've been preparing to head out the door for my eighth trip to Roger Ebert's Film Festival, I saw the news that the host will not be able to attend this year.

It's unfortunate, to say the least, that Ebert will be in the hospital rather than his regular spot at the back of the Virginia Theatre. His triumphant entrance at last year's festival was an inspiring sight. The man loves what he does, and the people love him for it.

Film critics are stereotypically perceived as being elitist and standoffish--killjoys who fashion themselves superior to who and what they write about and those reading them. From my observations of Ebert at his festival, no one could make such charges about the most famous film critic in America, if not the world. He has time for those who wish to speak to him about their shared love for film.

Fifteen hundred people or so will fill the Virginia over the next five days, but there will be one empty seat. Without a doubt, Ebert will be missed at the fest bearing his name, but his love for movies and his hometown will be felt as the rest of us settle in for his tenth festival. Get well soon, Roger.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom

THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM (Rob Minkoff, 2008)

Kung fu movie-obsessed teenager Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) gets to emulate his cinematic heroes when he is magically transported to ancient China in THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. Pawn shop owner Old Hop (Jackie Chan) entrusts Jason with a bowstaff and a promise to return the weapon to its rightful possessor. The next thing he knows, Jason is no longer in south Boston but in a foreign land.

His first acquaintance is Lu Yan (also played by Chan), an immortal who remains as such by imbibing a special wine. He tells Jason that the staff belongs to The Monkey King (Jet Li), a playful warrior turned to stone almost five hundred years ago by the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). With his mission identified, Jason and Lu Yan set out for Five Elements Mountain to deliver the staff and bring about the downfall of the Jade Warlord and his fearsome army.

Joining them on the quest are The Silent Monk (Li, again) and Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu), a revenge-driven orphan who refers to herself in the third person. The Silent Monk and Lu Yan squabble over how best to train Jason, but together they sculpt him into a worthy fighter for the battle ahead of them.

A slapdash but amiable crossbreed of THE KARATE KID and THE WIZARD OF OZ, THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM functions as a martial arts cinema primer for American youth. References to better films abound, but for any youngster not old enough to be well-versed in the Shaw brothers, not to mention Chan and Li's best works, this is a decent introduction that may encourage curiosity in boys who identify with Angarano's character.

THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM pairs Chan and Li for the first time on-screen, yet this is far from an ideal showcase for the top martial arts stars of their generations. Hong Kong legend Yuen Woo-ping choreographs some good fights combining Chan and Li's styles, most notably their temple showdown, but in the grand scheme of things they are relegated to supporting roles despite receiving top billing. Even if they weren't intended to be the primary players, the film could have had more fun with them as they train their eager pupil. Audiences and the stars deserved more than one brief scene of the mentors' differing fight philosophies.

John Fusco's screenplay devotes inordinate time to convoluted backstory that ultimately doesn't matter, and director Rob Minkoff, whose family-friendly filmography includes STUART LITTLE and its sequel, seems more comfortable with the fantasy elements than the action. Still, amid the thin characterization, cliché-ridden dialogue, and uneven presentation of the fight scenes, one's inner adolescent thrills at the acrobatic fisticuffs and ignores the flaws. THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM doesn't live up to its mythic story or the potential in Chan and Li's momentous meeting, but the boys emulating their moves in the backyard will probably think it's cool anyway.

Grade: C+

Friday, April 18, 2008

Zombie Strippers

ZOMBIE STRIPPERS (Jay Lee, 2008)

George W. Bush, topping a ticket with Arnold Schwarzenegger, is reelected to a fourth term as President, albeit with some well-placed assistance from faulty Florida voting machines and Supreme Court justice Jenna Bush. Congress is dissolved. American war expansion rivals McDonald's franchises for global ubiquity. Public nudity is declared illegal. What a future. And then there are the undead pole dancers that give ZOMBIE STRIPPERS its title.

With wars being waged on so many fronts, the number of available soldiers is dwindling. To combat the problem scientists develop a chemo virus that will reanimate troops killed in action. This battlefield technology enters the general public when an infected soldier escapes from the research lab to an underground Sartre, Nebraska strip club.

Headlining and Nietzsche-reading stripper Kat (Jenna Jameson) becomes his first victim, but as it goes for more reputable artists, dying is a terrific career move for the topless dancer. Kat's zombie stripper act drives the men crazy and rakes in the money. Seeing how successful it is when the undead can dance, club owner Ian Essko (Robert Englund) chooses to keep her around while many of her fellow strippers also opt for this latest biological enhancement.

As if the title ZOMBIE STRIPPERS isn't enough of a tip-off, lead performances by a porn star and the guy who played Freddy Krueger let it be known that this is Z-grade schlock usually sent straight to video, even though the film is getting a limited theatrical run. True to the title, there's plenty of brain and viscera munching and an abundance of stripping. Neither will get pulses racing despite the second act being almost nonstop stripper routines. The bigger question is whether there's more latex covering skin or silicone underneath it in the film. It's probably a toss-up.

Like so many exploitation movies, the name of the film is more enjoyable and memorable than the actual product. Unsurprisingly ZOMBIE STRIPPERS is poorly acted, written, directed, edited, and lit, but it is so tedious to watch that this might be the first movie that would be improved if Uwe Boll were calling the shots. At least the oft-derided director would have dropped the pretense of shoehorning in political subtext in an attempt to bring class to such a trashy film.

Writer-director-cinematographer Jay Lee strains to make a statement about the Bush administration, but his clumsily integrated rants are as politically and intellectually juvenile as those of an anonymous blog commenter. Zombie movies, particularly George A. Romero's, may function as mirrors of current events, but just because something is an allegory doesn't mean it has anything to say. Using the word "ontological" in dialogue doesn't make it smart either.

ZOMBIE STRIPPERS is also plagued with excessive self-awareness of its campy qualities. When the film isn't annoying with its pseudo-braniac act, it's irritating with the nudge-nudge acknowledgement of its intentional badness.


Forget high art. Assessed on its own terms, ZOMBIE STRIPPERS takes it all off only to reveal nothing's there.

Grade: F

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Shine a Light


SHINE A LIGHT (Martin Scorsese, 2008)

Martin Scorsese, one of the most important directors of his generation, and The Rolling Stones, one of its defining bands, combine talents for SHINE A LIGHT, a concert film documenting the group's performance at New York City's Beacon Theater in 2006. Special guests Buddy Guy and The White Stripes' Jack White appear, connecting the band with their roots in American blues and perhaps passing the torch to one of today's most notable practitioners of the tradition. Christina Aguilera also drops by for a duet with Mick Jagger, although how she fits into this is less clear.

As one of the editors on WOODSTOCK and director of films about The Band and Bob Dylan, Scorsese knows his way around a rock doc. Filmed by Jean-Luc Godard, the Maysles brothers, and Hal Ashby, the Stones have been no strangers to cinema during their storied career. SHINE A LIGHT doesn't break any new ground for Scorsese or the Stones, but it's an enjoyable showcase for the prodigious skills the director and band have.

Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson draft a camera-operating dream team consisting of many of the best lensers in the business, including Robert Elswit, Ellen Kuras, and John Toll. Whether fixed on flamboyant frontman Jagger or catching winded drummer Charlie Watts after tearing through EXILE ON MAIN ST.'S "All Down the Line", the cameras always appear to be in the perfect spots to capture the dynamics on stage and between the performers and crowd.

After decades of playing stadiums, the band is accustomed to performances writ large to reach the back rows. Although playing a comparatively small room in SHINE A LIGHT, the IMAX version of the film brings intimacy and enormity to the concert. The closeness of the cameras and enhanced image resolution catch details invisible even from the front row while the bigger frame makes Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Watts tower over the audience like the rock giants they are.

The Rolling Stones have been playing rock and roll since the early 1960s. Although not now as artistically or commercially relevant as in their heyday, they are still going strong more than forty years later. Probably for close to half that time the band has been asked how long they will stay at it.

The once smooth cheeks and rebellious swagger have given way to relief map-like faces and institutional approval--the concert was a benefit for the Clinton Foundation--but in crosscutting yesteryear's news clips questioning their staying power with a still energetic live show, SHINE A LIGHT celebrates the Stones' music and longevity with a mischievous wink of the eye. They've probably played "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" thousands of times, but the Stones attack it like a brand-new song. Time is on their side after all.

Grade: B

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Ruins

THE RUINS (Carter Smith, 2008)

In THE RUINS best friends Amy (Jena Malone) and Stacy (Laura Ramsey) are enjoying a sun-soaked vacation in Cancun with their boyfriends Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and Eric (Shawn Ashmore). They might be up for a little adventure if it presents itself, but otherwise the couples are content to lay on the beach and by the pool the entire time.

Along comes Mathias (Joe Anderson), a German tourist who tells them about an archeological dig at some Mayan ruins off the beaten path. Mathias plans to visit the site to find his brother, who ran off to the jungle location with a girl he met during their time in Mexico. He tells the four Americans that they're welcome to join him. Jeff, a medical student who sort of acts as though he knows what is best for everyone, has been trying to convince the others that they should see something beyond their oceanside hotel during their stay. A visit to the ruins sounds like a nice way to cap their trip, so they all agree to meet up with Mathias the next day.

Dimitri (Dimitri Baveas), a Greek tourist who ditches his drunken friends sleeping on the beach, is added to the group Mathias leads to the ruins. They hop on a bus and then pile into the back of a pickup truck that takes them several miles from town to the jungle. The entrance to the final part of the path to the ruins is obscured, but Mathias finds the way. Soon enough they are basking in the large, vine-covered structure before them; however, their architectural awe doesn't last long.

Residents of a nearby village approach them in what appears to be a theatening manner. Before they can realize what is happening, one member of the group is dead, and the remaining scramble to the top of the ruins. More villagers emerge to surround them. The natives keep a reasonable distance and do not ascend the ruins, but it is clear they will not allow the captive tourists to leave.

THE RUINS explores how people react when placed in dire circumstances. For Jeff, the thing to do is to take on the leadership role. He urges agreement to conserve their minimal supplies of food and water as much as possible. While the group panics, Jeff assures everyone that Dimitri's friends, who were given a copy of the map to the ruins, will surely come looking for them in a day's time when he doesn't return. They just have to wait out the situation for a night. He reminds them that this sort of thing doesn't happen to Americans; however, like any leader's words without standing, Jeff's are cold comfort to them as bad developments tip over like a line of dominoes.

The nifty thing about THE RUINS is that Jeff may be less inhibited when it comes to making choices, but it doesn't mean his actions are correct. His response to fear is commonly accepted as heroic and decisive, but his pigheaded boldness may be as responsible for multiplying the group's problems as anything. Sometimes not having an answer is less dangerous.

Scott B. Smith wrote the novel and screenplay for THE RUINS. He also did the same for A SIMPLE PLAN, the fine Sam Raimi-directed thriller in which bad decisions snowball. Where A SIMPLE PLAN focused on whether a victimless crime is moral, THE RUINS tests the characters' mettle when confronted with fear of the unknown. Although THE RUINS isn't explicity about post-9/11 issues, it can function as a potent statement of how collective fear leads to enormous damage to individuals and society as a whole.

Subtext aside, THE RUINS is a stripped down genre exercise that goes about its business with brutal efficiency. Dread hovers over the situation like cumulonimbus clouds. Director Carter Smith extracts tension by virtue of permitting the tension to sit there unabated. No relief is in sight, especially with the violent scenes that induce frequent squirms.

A better film would have fleshed out the characters more. As it is, all behave about the same except for Jeff. The lack of explanations in THE RUINS may prove unsatisfying to some, but the unknown is often more terrifying than the tangible. Such are the wages of fear.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A Conversation with David Gordon Green

With GEORGE WASHINGTON, ALL THE REAL GIRLS, and UNDERTOW, writer-director David Gordon Green has built a strong body of work that shows him to be a keen observer of human interaction and, along with cinematographer Tim Orr, a crafter of some of the decade's most beautiful films. SNOW ANGELS, his fourth feature, is no exception. The film stars Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale in a lyrical exploration of love and tragedy.

Green visited Columbus on March 28 to introduce SNOW ANGELS for its local premiere at the Wexner Center. (The film will begin a commercial run at the Drexel Theatre on April 4.) I met with him to discuss SNOW ANGELS, his methods and collaborators, and what the future holds for his career.

Mark Pfeiffer: SNOW ANGELS features your first adapted screenplay. How did that come about?

David Gordon Green: It was a book that was brought to me by another director that was interested in having someone develop a project with him. So I started as a writer and was excited about the idea, the experience, the experiment of adapting a book. I started with page one and started writing it.

MP: How was it different working with material that you didn't generate first?

DGG: One thing with anything that I write, I try to find characters that I emotionally relate to, and if they're not on the page, then I evolve them to be so. I personalized it, but the architecture was there. It was a really great book by Stewart O'Nan. I felt like the structure was in place so that it just was up to me to try to bring a little emotional authenticity and personal spin on it.

MP: The subject matter of the film is heavy, which is true of your other movies as well, yet there's a sense of hopefulness and optimism in spite of the tragedies. Is it fair to say you see the world in that way?

DGG: Yeah, that's definitely how I am from my personal perspective on life. That's how I deal with rougher situations, but I think in this particular movie it was an experiment in emotion and having a shared experience by people going to a theater, seeing it together, witnessing it with people they know and people that are stranger, and, at arm's length, being able to digest the cautionary tale. At the same time it's being shown through the perspective of a young, hopeful high school relationship of two people that are going through the invitation and imperfections of their own connection.

MP: Sense of place is something you do really well in your movies. What I really admired about SNOW ANGELS is that it seemed to understand what life is like in a small town, the people that are there, the connections that are made, and even how the homes look inside and out. Are these places familiar to you from your background, or is this something that you've picked up along the way?

DGG: Both. I've spent a lot of time of my life in small towns and find a real genuine sincerity to my affection for those cultures. There's a beauty in places that people don't see the obvious beauty, and it's not in the sterilized, Hollywoodized version of it. It's in the rust and the cracks and the shadows and the areas that people aren't always looking that I find the beauty in small towns and rural existence.

With this movie I wanted it to be universally appealing. Everything from the casting to the art direction to the selection of locations, I wanted to make sure that it was vague enough where everyone could relate to it. It could be anywhere, and it could be down the street. It could be you and me. By being in a cold environment it kept people indoors. A lot of this movie for me was about opening up the doors and seeing what the secrets were behind them.

MP: Is there anything you learned making this movie that you didn't on the others?

DGG: I learn things every day. I try not to set up a situation during production that is so preconceived and planned and designed that it's not open to the evolution of a project, and once you have a great sense of artistic and technical collaborators, you just let it loose. So I learned a lot about working with actors.

It was the first film that I'd worked in that wasn't crewed by all of my friends. I brought all my department heads, and we went up to Nova Scotia. There was us and there was them. It was trying to communicate with them so they could become us and we could all work together and form that kind of unity that a true collaboration advances from. It was an experience in communication and working with bigger name actors that are experienced professionals. They demand discipline, trust, and energy from directors and all of us. We just brought our best plan and most open minds to the table every day.

MP: You've worked really well with kids in your movies. Obviously GEORGE WASHINGTON comes to mind, but even the little girl in SNOW ANGELS come across unlike the typical child performance. If anything, it feels like it documented how she is on the set that day. What's your method working with kids to get that out of them?

DGG: My method working with kids is exactly what you said, documenting the kids as they are that day, not telling them what to say. Grace Hudson was three-years-old, and that's a really fun age to work with kids for me because they're not self-conscious. A lot of times you'll work with actors that have some degree of experience. They're seven-years-old and can smile at the camera and mug for you and be cute as a button, but that's not as interesting to me as some kid that's not trained and comes from a good, supportive place of family where you can trust emotionally they're not going to be damaged by the experience. I'm not going to lie. It can be a pretty challenging thing to go through emotionally.

As far as lines and working with her, there was one line where I needed her to say, "I want to go play outside." That was essential to the plot of the movie, and I needed her to say that, but I just gave her a Skittle and said, "Say this twenty times." (laughs) It was pretty easy. But then there would be situations when the little girl has to cry. The camera was there, she was crying, and we worked it into the scene. We filmed it and it plays to the emotional authenticity of what was going on in the scene, but it wasn't something that we had the agenda of filming.

MP: Do you use a lot of non-professional actors in the smaller roles? I get a sense that the people seem more authentic, that you're not necessarily having actors dealing with other trained actors on a lot of occasions.

DGG: I love two kinds of actors. Well, three kinds. I love all of them. What am I going to say? I love non-actors that are just charismatic, confident, crazy, or whatever they bring to the table, they're just characters. I love who they are, and I want to film it and have them say what they're going to say. I also love the extraordinarily talented, gifted, trained performers like Sam and Kate and Griffin Dunne and Jeanetta Arnette and the actors in the movie that brought more resume to the table. I love putting the extremes of those two together.

I was talking a little earlier about making it feel universal. In the casting too, I wanted to cast every one of the little bit parts with an ethnicity. So we've got a Croatian Chinese restaurant owner, we've got a Russian photographer, we've got an Australian carpet store owner. I really tried to find people within the local community of where we were filming in Halifax that weren't from there that brought an accent. It's another good way to dodge a Canadian accent when you're trying to make an American movie in our northern friends' country. There's a lot of effort in that. I love the idea of just having people be who they are and not telling them what to say but giving them a guideline of what the scene's about. If you set up the right environment, it can be really believable.

MP: It's interesting you say that because one of the things I think that you do well as far as, I don't know if you'd even say it so much as dialogue, but characters in your movies seem to have a lot of trouble articulating what it is inside them. I think it's really difficult from a filmmaker's perspective to be able to write that and to get that out of actors because otherwise it would seem rather unformed or lazy if you just say to them, "Well, go in front of the camera and not express yourself."

DGG: Right.

MP: But in your films it seems much more refined to where I think of ALL THE REAL GIRLS where you've got these two people who are falling in love but also really don't know how to communicate. Of course, that's all over SNOW ANGELS as well. In the case of Rockwell's character, it's how he is saying one thing and he's putting on this mask of having redeemed himself and become a new man, but you can see the desperation leaking out. That's not something that really comes through in the words so much. I guess the question with that is how do you write that? How do you get that out of the actors because it's not something really that you can put on the page?

DGG: It's not. It's weird because for me the perfect is the imperfect and that's what we go for. Sometimes that's the first take when they don't know what they're going to say, and you have those awkward pauses and imperfections of speech. Sometimes it's more rehearsed. So, depending on who the character is and what the specific instance of it is, it's always different, but in the editing room I find myself so drawn to those moments of vulnerability and awkward silence and two actors that are genuinely listening. You can see such a wonderful rhythm that feels believable. If I'm in a situation, especially of any drama or intensity, the last thing I am is eloquent. You see a lot of really amazing Oscar-nominated performers that go in there and always look cool and know the right thing to say, but how often do we really, especially when there's tension and emotion at stake? So I try to capture how would it really be.

MP: How much is improvised? How much do you stick to the script, and how much do you let them do on the set?

DGG: I don't know percentage-wise. I haven't read the script since before we shot it if that gives you any sort of indication of my possessiveness of a script. I can just say a substantial amount of it is improvised. A lot of it is taken from the book. The actors had copies of the book and would take things from that.

But there would also be something like a scene when a detective comes up to Sam Rockwell when he's beginning his investigation. It's kind of a confrontational scene. It was cool. The detective was in a trench coat as he stereotypically would be, and we're kind of playing to the clichés. When we rehearsed it, I said, "It's missing something." While we were talking about what it might be, the actor dropped his pen that he was taking notes with. I said, "That's what you do. You come in there, and you have a confrontational scene, an aggressive scene. You approach. You drop your pen, and you have to pick it up. And that takes all the tension out of it. And then we're going to zoom into it as if that dropping the pen is the most important thing of this whole movie. That becomes what it's about." The scene is now not about two guys confronting each other. It's about a guy walking into an intimidating situation and dropping his pen. That never would have happened if we weren't just bullshitting about what makes it interesting and there was that happy accident.

MP: You've worked with cinematographer Tim Orr and composer David Wingo since the beginning of your career. How did you all meet, and what keeps you continuing the collaboration with them?

DGG: I met Wingo, who I happen to be conveniently wearing the shirt for his band Ola Podrida, I met him in the third grade when I was seeing THE KARATE KID and he was there too. We were the only kids in the third grade that went to movies by ourselves, so we became friends. He works musically in a way that I work in movies, so it has always been a very quiet partnership where you read each others' minds, and that's been really awesome to have that. Then, depending on the project, we determine who his collaborator on the project might be. Sometimes it's bringing in electronic musicians, like in SNOW ANGELS we brought Jeff McIlwain, who we met at freshman orientation at college. So the two of them collaborated on the score.

With Tim Orr and a lot of my crew on the movie, we went to film school together. We were assigned to work on a documentary project together, so he shot a documentary I did about the artificial insemination of cattle. Driving to and from set, which was an hour away, we were listening to music and talking and quickly realized that we liked each other and became friends. Then when I was looking at the dailies, I said, "Whoa, this is a DP I don't have to look over his shoulder and question the composition. I really trust his instincts in lighting. When he says we should shoot over here, he's right." So, he's a guy who literally, in a good way, I don't have to worry about the camera department. I just let him do his thing, and it always falls into line with my taste. There's a communication and a discussion sometimes, but in a bad way, I've lost all the vernacular and education and some of the insight I had to the camera department because he's so good that I don't study that. I just leave it up to him. It's been a great relief so I can work a hundred percent with the actors and the other elements of moviemaking.

MP: Is that your favorite part, working with the actors?

DGG: My favorite part is actually casting a movie, which is working with actors and discovering who these characters could be. Everybody that you audition brings some new insight and love or repulsion of these characters. To me every moment is a discovery. Ultimately I guess that translates into working with actors. It's the most fun because you're in a room asking people to behave in ways that you want to see them behave, and how often in life can you play God like that?

MP: You've made smaller films up to this point. The action comedy PINEAPPLE EXPRESS is coming out this summer. Certainly in scale or release pattern it's a much bigger film for you. Do you see yourself continuing to do those sorts of movies, going back to the smaller ones, or alternating between the two?

DGG: Literally I don't try to put that expectation on myself. By working with a group of people that I trust--department heads, friends that I've made, and actors--I look to them when I have an idea of what might be the next move. They really help me guide my own instincts and come up with what's unusual, what pushes me, what educates me, what's more of an adventure but also what maintains some degree of soul and intimacy that rings with a truth that says yeah, invest the next year of your life in this project, because you don't want to do that for nothing.

Something like PINEAPPLE EXPRESS was a blast, it was a fun project that was made in a really wonderful way with an extraordinary, inspiring group of collaborators. And yet it can be a popcorn movie that people bring their friends to and have a great time at the movies. So I like to not put that expectation or that burden of what's next or where I come from or what makes sense and literally just follow my gut and bring the band.

MP: What haven't you done yet that you'd like to do?

DGG: A ton of things. The difficulty is that I have a lot of professional ambition, and to be healthy that has to be balanced with my personal life outside of movies. I get pretty excited. It's easy to get aggressive and take advantage of opportunities, but it's important to maintain and make sure you're walking your own beat and picking up stories that aren't just regurgitations of books or other people's screenplays, that they come from a real place. I'd love the opportunity of working in the genre of horror or making a western or science fiction movie. Right now I'm adapting a John Grishman book that's about a guy on death row, so I've been researching and hanging out in pretty interesting places and meeting some characters.

I'm interested in anything that is a path to other worlds. A lot of people use movies as escapism, as entertainment. I feel really fortunate to work in an industry that says, hey, go and invest, research, learn, occupy, and then entertain.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Drillbit Taylor

DRILLBIT TAYLOR (Steven Brill, 2008)

Gangly Wade (Nate Hartley) and chubby Ryan (Troy Gentile) are stoked for the first day of high school. They can carve out new, cool identities for themselves, that is until they show up wearing the same shirt and stand up for tiny, bullied Emmit (David Dorfman). These fashion and social blunders put them on the radar of Filkins (Alex Frost), the school's most fearsome bully. Filkins is emancipated from his Hong Kong-dwelling parents and snookers Principal Doppler (Stephen Root) with his Eddie Haskell act, meaning he is answerable to no one.

In DRILLBIT TAYLOR the boys determine that their only means for survival is to hire a bodyguard. They interview many but can only afford the curiously named Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson). Claiming to have been discharged from the Army for going beyond the permissible limits of heroism, Drillbit talks up his fighting and covert ops expertise to earn their trust. Whether he is telling the truth is beside the point. The homeless beggar is only interested in scrounging up a few hundred dollars to get him to the better life he believes is waiting in Canada.

Drillbit intends for the bodyguard arrangement to provide a quick monetary gain but discovers that he can string along the boys for much more. He holds impromptu self-defense lessons that he makes up as he goes along. To keep their suspicions down, Drillbit infiltrates their school using a substitute teacher's guise, which has the side benefit of attracting a pretty English teacher (Leslie Mann).

Produced by Judd Apatow and co-written by Seth Rogen, DRILLBIT TAYLOR has a been there, done that quality reminiscent of SUPERBAD if it were much tamer and less funnier. The character names may be different, but these types are mirror images of Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. It's very easy to envision those actors' younger selves as Wade, Ryan, and Emmit. Although not a prequel in any way, DRILLBIT TAYLOR is essentially the unofficial bookend SUPERBAD: FRESHMAN YEAR and a sign of diminishing returns from the Apatow brand.

Ultimately DRILLBIT TAYLOR lacks enough fresh material with the boys to sustain interest for the stretches when their bodyguard is bumming around off-screen. Nothing distinguishes their ordeals from the zillion other teen comedies in decades past. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising since John Hughes gets a story credit under the pseudonym Edmond Dantes.

Yet for as overly familiar much of DRILLBIT TAYLOR is, Wilson salvages a good deal of it with his trademarked space case shtick. The lines he delivers aren't inherently funny; it's how sunnily and seriously he speaks them in his lilting voice that makes the words humorous. The Zen cowboy/mystic surfer routine is fitting for a script that doesn't tether the character to the world or this particular cinematic one. Drillbit floats in and away when the spirit moves him, leaving the bulk of a film named after him to the three boys he's supposed to be protecting.

Where Wilson struggles, though, is in defining a character that the writers don't see clearly. Is Drillbit looking to exploit the kids, or does he truly like them and take their safety to heart? Is there something darker spinning in his head, or is he an amiable bum with a severe lack of motivation? DRILLBIT TAYLOR suggests all of these as it flip-flops to an ending that opts for the softest landing. The film could have cut loose more if the writers decided Drillbit doesn't care at all or is a mother hen. It's safer in the school hallways to stay neutral, but in comedy a side needs to be picked.

Grade: C

Run Fatboy Run


RUN FATBOY RUN (David Schwimmer, 2007)

In a fit of last minute panic in RUN FATBOY RUN, Dennis (Simon Pegg) sprints from his own wedding, leaving behind his pregnant fiancée Libby (Thandie Newton). Five years later Dennis is wasting away as a potbellied lingerie store security guard on the verge of being evicted from his apartment. He finally realizes the magnitude of his mistake but is incapable of correcting it.

Libby allows Dennis to spend time with their son Jake (Matthew Fenton), but she's moved past thoughts of romantic reconciliation, not that she's seeking it. Plus, American financial executive Whit (Hank Azaria) is actively wooing her. He's a kind, thoughtful, and rich marathon runner. It doesn't take a genius to see that even if Dennis were to turn things around, he doesn't stack up to the competition.

Still, Dennis bristles when he sees Whit taking what he views as his still rightful place among Libby and Jake. In an irrational moment of macho posturing to diminish Whit and impress Libby, Dennis announces that he too is running in the charity marathon along the Thames in three weeks. Never mind that he's an overweight smoker who can barely jog a block without huffing and puffing.

Making his feature film directing debut, David Schwimmer paces the film well for the most part; however, like a runner, he and the movie hit the wall in the latter third. The jokes land softly, but RUN FATBOY RUN moves at a sitcom-like clip that keeps it watchable even when it isn't especially funny.

Schwimmer proves to be anonymous behind the camera the first time out. With better material, though, he could become a reliable for-hire director. He gets game performances from his cast, and Richard Greatrex's warm cinematography gives the film a rich look contrary to the cheap, washed out visuals that mar so many of today's comedies.

The screenplay is credited to Michael Ian Black, a member of the defunct sketch comedy troupe The State, and SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ co-writer Pegg. Despite their edgy credentials, RUN FATBOY RUN is a highly conventional comedy. Pegg punctured movie formulas for big laughs when collaborating with SHAUN and FUZZ writer-director Edgar Wright. RUN FATBOY RUN trots out the kind of tired clichés they mocked, and the film can't help but feel restrained because of it.

The uplifting sports film sequences, particularly the marathon that drags out the final third, are ripe for parody but presented in a straightforward manner. Romantic comedy tropes are lazily employed. Whit flips from great guy to conniving boyfriend because custom demands it, not due to anything developed in the screenplay.

Sometimes RUN FATBOY RUN follows the blueprint for the novel-to-film adaptations of Nick Hornby's character-driven work (HIGH FIDELITY, ABOUT A BOY), but too often it reaches for easy laughs and ignores personality and heart. At worst RUN FATBOY RUN is derivative and passably amusing. The same is true for the film at its best.

Grade: C

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Snow Angels

SNOW ANGELS (David Gordon Green, 2007)

Two nearby pops of a shotgun interrupt band practice in a small town in SNOW ANGELS. The echoing blasts don't signify hunting season but the tragic consequences of broken hearts and shattered illusions.

Interweaving stories of burgeoning and disintegrating love, SNOW ANGELS follows three couples in uncertain relationships. The most damaged one exists between Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and Glenn Marchand (Sam Rockwell). The longtime sweethearts are separated and do not appear to have a chance of reconciling their marriage. Glenn attempted to kill himself after Annie first rejected him. Now he's giving born-again Christianity and newfound but weak sobriety a whirl in hopes of repairing the rift.

Glenn aims to be a better man for his wife and daughter, but his new job and outlook on life don't seem to be making much of an impression on Annie. She has found comfort in the arms of Nate Petite (Nicky Katt), the husband of Barb (Amy Sedaris), a friend and co-worker at the Chinese restaurant. The more Glenn's efforts are ignored, the more he backslides.

High school trombone player Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angarano) works alongside Annie at the Chinese place. He once harbored a crush on his former babysitter, but as an observer of her marital difficulties, she has lost much of her fantasy mystique. With his parents (Griffin Dunne and Jeanetta Arnette) freshly split, Arthur is discovering that love is more complicated than it might seem. While he is cautious around Lila Raybern (Olivia Thirlby), a quirky new girl who takes an immediate shine to him, Arthur finds that he can't help but fall for her.

Although SNOW ANGELS has some of the trappings of a suburban hell film--think AMERICAN BEAUTY and LITTLE CHILDREN--writer-director David Gordon Green embraces the characters in his rurally located movie rather than keeping them at arm's length with snarkiness and irony. Viewing these often unlikeable people with empathy, and sometimes humor, instead of judgment and condescension makes all the difference in what could have otherwise been a miserabilist tour of a rocky relationship landscape.

The opening scene, in which the band director takes his young charges to task for a sloppy rendition of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer", explicitly lays out Green's opinion of the damaged souls we will come to know: every person matters. At first glance the moment plays as a comedic remembrance of too-serious instructors making impassioned pleas to jaded students, but by the end it becomes obvious that this is the director's way of asking the audience to respect the humanity of characters who may be beyond the understanding of most viewers.

Clearly, the character Green has most in mind is Glenn. Rockwell's high wire act of a performance teeters from humorous to harrowing. The charm that Glenn once exhibited has given way to desperation that, while with its funny qualities, can be all too frightening. Glenn tends to be quick to abuse himself to show seriousness and penance. The trait can produce comic effects until it becomes apparent that he's near another breaking point.

Rockwell puts on a friendly face and acts like a man who is trying to get his life together, but in reality this is a rickety facade Glenn has tacked up to cover the truth that he's working frantically not to fall apart. His nervous body language, forced smiles, and blindly upbeat talk reveal him as the emotionally fragile man he wants to hide. Glenn makes others uneasy, yet Rockwell's jittery performance and Green's devotion to telling his story humanize him in spite of it.

The darkness of the Glenn and Annie thread in SNOW ANGELS is lightened with Arthur and Lila's tender and tentative romance, although the separated couple's carefree high school days linger in the distant horizon too. As he demonstrated in the excellent ALL THE REAL GIRLS, Green has a knack for articulating what his characters can't, especially when it comes to love. With Angarano and Thirlby gracefully conveying awkwardness, Arthur and Lila fumble their way into a sweet, realistic relationship in which sharing one's artistic photographs is a better indicator of trust and affection than mere words.

Likewise, Green often prefers longtime cinematographer Tim Orr's poetic images to tell as much of the story as possible over the dialogue. SNOW ANGELS may be the director's most plot-driven film, but it's still very much a mood piece that establishes place with an unerring eye and ear.

Whereas many filmmakers condescend in presenting working class people and their environment--either through sentimentalized small town fantasies or the outsider's pitiable view--Green respects the stolid folk and rugged beauty, both natural and man-made, by showing everyone and everything for what they are instead of putting them in scare quotes. The impassive people behave in familiar manners, and home interiors dressed with quilts and country knickknacks feel lived in. It's a major part of driving home Green's insistence to value these characters.

In retracing the steps that led to the opening shots fired, Green's adaptation of Stewart O'Nan's novel provides the context rarely found in news reports or fictional films about common tragedies. SNOW ANGELS can painfully burrow into one's heart, but such is the cost of empathy, or any human connection for that matter.

Grade: B+

(For more on SNOW ANGELS and the director, read my interview with David Gordon Green.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Ebertfest 2008 speculating

The official Ebertfest website states that this year's line-up will be announced in March, but so far the lists of titles and guests have not materialized. A little information has trickled out, though, which confirms the opening night film and allows for some speculating about other selections.

Traditionally a film in 70mm has kicked off the festival, and this year the slot goes to Kenneth Branagh's HAMLET. Very cool.

The news article lists filmmakers Sally Potter, Paul Schrader, and Fred Schepisi as panelists for the event, so it's fair to assume that each will have a film playing Ebertfest. What might they be? YES and ICEMAN both received four star reviews from Roger Ebert. Schrader's most recent film, THE WALKER, got a positive review and was mostly off the cinematic radar, so I think there's a good chance it will be on the slate.

The event was previously known as Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, but the way the fest has developed has led to "Overlooked" being dropped from the name. It's probably just as well, although perhaps it would apply more to this year's movies. The Reuters article mentions that the critic "is in the process of finalizing the remainder of this year's lineup, which will include several low-budget projects."

As long as I'm tossing out guesses, I wouldn't be stunned if ACROSS THE UNIVERSE turned out to be the closing film. A musical has tended to round out the event, and Ebert loved it. Will the Alloy Orchestra be back? They've played Ebertfest many times, although not last year, so it stands to reason that they might return with something from their current touring repetoire.

We'll find out soon enough as the 10th annual Ebertfest takes place from April 23-27, 2008 in Champaign, Illinois.

Monday, March 17, 2008

10,000 BC

10,000 BC (Roland Emmerich, 2008)

Pity mammoth hunter D'Leh (Steven Strait) in 10,000 BC. When he was a boy, his father left for the good of the tribe. Now a young man, dreadlocked D'Leh can't relish his crowning achievement making the kill on the big hunt because it was more or less an accident. Feeling as though he is not worthy of his rewards--the white spear and his longtime crush Evolet (Camilla Belle)--D'Leh returns what he does not believe he has earned.

Another chance arrives for D'Leh to prove his mettle when Evolet is among those taken from the tribe by four-legged demons, which is the prehistoric people's scarier way of describing men on horses. During his epic journey to save his true love from enslavement D'Leh encounters terrifying beasts and slowly builds an army to fight back against a god.

Omar Sharif's grave and too-frequent narration suggests that 10,000 BC is to be taken seriously, but it's hard to avoid laughing when not struggling to stay awake during the countless continent-traversing scenes. Better to show D'Leh and his men walking than having them talk, though. The dialogue can be pretty idiotic even by the standards of pre-civilized mankind's usual film depictions.

The prehistorical inaccuracies are glaring even to this untrained observer. Mammoths as domesticated service animals for transporting materials to build pyramids? Really? Look, no one expects to be educated from a Roland Emmerich film. If he didn't want to put the effort into being true to the era, he should have gone entirely in a fantasy direction. Otherwise the result plays as unintended comedy.

One wonders how Mel Gibson, star of Emmerich's THE PATRIOT, might have been able to improve this material. Emmerich borrows from BRAVEHEART and APOCALYPTO, so such conjecture has a basis in what turns up on screen. 10,000 BC'S director lacks Gibson's visual acumen and anthropological curiosity. Emmerich stages the so-so CGI setpieces and plodding tribal camp scenes with little sense of awe or danger, something Gibson would have instilled in every frame. Even if Gibson weren't behind the camera, the film desperately needs his (or someone's) star power for the hero role. Strait is found lacking in every way.

Technology has made it possible to recreate anything in the movies, but rendering saber-toothed tigers and a bygone time and making it all come alive are not the same thing. With a dreadfully dull story and performances as petrified as 12,000-year-old wooden artifacts, 10,000 BC shambles along as if on a march to its own extinction.

Grade: D

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Bank Job

THE BANK JOB (Roger Donaldson, 2008)

The 1971 robbery of Lloyds Bank on Baker Street in London is considered to be one of the biggest heists in England's history, yet no money was recovered nor any arrests made. Perhaps even more stunning is that this tantalizing story was reported in the media for just a few days because of a government request not to publish or broadcast information about the matter. THE BANK JOB, a fictionalized account of the event, purports to reveal untold truths about what happened.

Struggling car dealer Terry Leather (Jason Statham) has been known to be involved with unsavory characters and enterprises, but he is strictly a small-time crook. He admits as much when longtime acquaintance Martine Love (Saffron Burrows) presents him with a tempting opportunity to make a quick killing. She claims inside knowledge of a bank whose security system will be out of commission temporarily, leaving a vault full of safe deposit boxes vulnerable to thieving hands.

The prospects sound too promising to turn down, so Terry assembles a team of amateur criminals to assist with pulling off the robbery. They acquire a shop two doors down from the bank and go about the arduous tunneling so they can break into the vault from below.

This is not an ordinary heist, though. Black militant Michael X (Peter De Jersey) is storing scandalous photographs of a Royal Family member in this particular bank. He uses the threat of the pictures going public as a means of keeping the authorities at bay. MI5 is determined to get the photos. Using Martine's legal troubles as leverage, the government agency concocts the plan for her to carry out. Ideally MI5 gets the compromising pictures, Martine escapes prosecution on drug charges, and Terry and his oblivious crew go away with a fortune.

Undoubtedly director Roger Donaldson and screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais have taken liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes. THE BANK JOB doesn't get its juice from being based on real events, though. The truthful element is simply a sweet bonus. Densely plotted and briskly paced, the film weaves a fascinating story of cops and robbers and sex scandals and police corruption.

The fun really begins after the heist has concluded. Storylines converge so that Terry and his buddies are put in a seemingly unwinnable position. Turning over the pictures to MI5 gets them free and clear with the government, but doing so puts them at risk with the underground porn king who had a ledger documenting his police bribes stolen from his safe deposit box. He also has ties with Michael X and a vested interest in holding onto his damaging photographic evidence. The crooked policemen aren't keen about being found out either, yet stiffing the intelligence agency is obviously a losing proposition.

Watching Terry finagle out of the jam is as satisfying as any of the break-in's particulars. Cool and collected as ever, Statham plays an outlaw capable of capturing the public's favor.

Executed with machine-like precision, THE BANK JOB is a ripping good caper with plenty of interesting twists. Ultimately, how much of it is true is secondary to its entertaining nature.

Grade: B

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Cleveland Film Festival 2008: There Will Be Snow

As is to be expected, there has not been much time to write while shuttling between films. I'd hoped to do some quick write-ups this morning, but with the weather being what it is, I ought to get out to clear off my car and drive the less than a mile to Tower City Center to gear up for another full day of movies.

Yesterday's slate included:

-Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock'n'Roll
-The Brother from Another Planet
-Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story
-What We Do is Secret
-Timecrimes (Los Cronoscrimenes)

I was going to see The International (Beynelmilel), but I punted the first session of the day while dithering over whether to make the trek north. I planned to watch Stiletto, but all screenings of it have been cancelled. The attendees are still showing up for the 32nd Cleveland International Film Festival, although numbers appear to be down for obvious reasons.

The highs weren't too high and lows not too low, so it was a decent moviegoing day. Spine Tingler! was my favorite of the bunch, but I'll save specific thoughts on these films for later.

Today's screenings include new films from Hou Hsiao-hsien and Christophe Honoré.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Cleveland Film Festival 2008: And so it begins

If you live in Ohio, you probably expect that I listened to the gloom and doom in the local weather forecasts and stayed parked at home. A foot of snow! Possible blizzard-like conditions!

I am, without a doubt, an idiot, but I wanted to attend this weekend. So here I am in Tower City Center ready to begin watching movies. I've switched my hotel to one much closer, so at least if the snow becomes a problem, I will still have relatively easy access to the theater.

More later...

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY (Bharat Nalluri, 2008)

Dismissed from yet another governess job, Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is no longer considered fit for assignments from the employment office. Without even two pence to her name, this drab vicar's daughter is nothing if not industrious in pre-World War II London. Miss Pettigrew swipes the card of club singer Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), who seeks a social secretary, and allows herself to be mistaken for the woman who previously assisted Carole Lombard.

Like many pretty young women, Delysia aspires to be an actress, and she's not above juggling three men to make her dream a reality. She is in crisis mode when Miss Pettigrew rings her bell. Theater producer's son Phil Goldman (Tom Payne), who is almost ready to cast the lead role in a West End play, is still in bed from the previous night's persuasion. Nick (Mark Strong), the club owner whose penthouse Delysia is staying in, is on his way home. Miss Pettigrew deftly manages the situation, earning Delysia's immediate trust and a request to help save her from herself for the day.

Also in the picture is Delysia's piano player Michael (Lee Pace), who has just been released from prison. He loves her but wants a commitment. Michael asks Delysia to marry him, a choice she will have little time to ponder since he has two tickets for a boat that departs for New York the next morning.

Further complicating the scenario in MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY is the duplicitous Edythe Dubarry (Shirley Henderson). She recognizes Miss Pettigrew from the soup kitchen and is willing to reveal her true identity unless she can repair Edythe's broken engagement to lingerie designer Joe (Ciarán Hinds).

That's a lot of set-up for a farce that is otherwise as careful in rationing plot details and character introductions as a down-on-their-luck resident of 1939 England would be with the staples of life. Director Bharat Nalluri can be slack in pacing the story's wind-up and unraveling. Shot in widescreen, all the better to appreciate the swanky art deco sets, MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY can feel static, like a stage play brought to the screen despite its origin as a Winifred Watson novel, but the wonderful lead actresses provide the momentum that the composition and editing fail to provide.

McDormand's Miss Pettigrew is the moral outsider plunked into debauched high society, yet she plays her not as a scold or judge but as a compassionate witness and adviser. This characteristic permits her to be funnier as she rolls along with every eyebrow-raising development. Still, McDormand gives regular reminders of the bittersweet nature of Miss Pettigrew's plight. After all, this is a woman desperate enough to eat the cucumber slices placed over her eyes during a facial and who hungrily eyes a half-eaten apple on the train station floor. As written, Miss Pettigrew is not a three-dimensional character, but McDormand's firm presence and subtle emoting fill in the gaps.

As a sweet ditz Adams receives the juicier part and savors every bit of it. Delysia's manner is highly affected, as if she believes she lives in a screwball comedy. She has a lot of fun playing up Delysia's perception of how she thinks men want her to behave, including a slightly naughty side absent in Adams' pure-hearted previous roles. She delivers a bright, bouncy performance that makes one wish a producer would pair Adams, who radiates timeless movie star qualities, and George Clooney for a modern screwball picture.

Old Hollywood glamour and filmmaking sensibilities are resurrected in this slight but appealing comedy. The sets, period fashions, and soundtrack standards in MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY add old-fashioned elegance and dazzle. The film as a whole is less than the sum of its parts. Despite its pacing weaknesses and thin characterization, it builds to an unexpectedly satisfying conclusion. The final scenes are completely predictable, but it's a testament to McDormand and Adams that nothing less than Hollywood endings are desired for these charming ladies.

Grade: B-

College Road Trip

COLLEGE ROAD TRIP (Roger Kumble, 2008)

Woe to the uninformed moviegoer who wanders into COLLEGE ROAD TRIP expecting a sequel to the raunchy 2000 comedy ROAD TRIP. Instead of seeing frat parties, bare breasts, and Tom Green, such a mistaken person will get a G-rated Disney family film with Donny Osmond in the scene-stealing supporting role.

Police chief James Porter (Martin Lawrence) is the typical overprotective dad who doesn't realize that he's smothering his daughter Melanie (Raven-Symoné). Dad already has her college plan mapped out. She will attend Northwestern, which is only forty miles (and twenty-eight minutes) away, so he can be nearby in case the slightest thing goes wrong.

Of course, Melanie has a different idea. She wants to go to Georgetown and participate in a program that will send her to Japan for a term. Her dad's predicted objection notwithstanding, Melanie's dream seems unlikely until a judge impressed with her skills at mock trial puts in a good word with an old friend in the admissions office. He gets Melanie an interview that will take place in three days.

Rather than have his little girl travel to Washington, D.C. with two high school friends, which is to include an overnight stay in a University of Pittsburgh sorority house, James insists on driving Melanie so they can spend some father-daughter quality time together. If they happen to visit a fine school in Evanston along the way, well, whoever could have expected it?

COLLEGE ROAD TRIP finds Lawrence trying on the bumbling dad role in what has been Tim Allen's family movie domain. He draws a couple chuckles from how he plays James' paranoia regarding how his son's pet pig looks at him and his jealousy over the parent-child bond between super-chipper Doug (Osmond) and his daughter. Comedy-wise, though, there's little for Lawrence to do other than being in a perpetual state of exaggerated exasperation.

Although COLLEGE ROAD TRIP deals with entering young adulthood and starting to break away from parents while still needing them, the movie is aimed squarely at tweens and younger with half-formed ideas of campus life. As depicted here, college seems like a fantasy cobbled together from old movies. One half expects to see youngsters wearing raccoon coats as they cheer on their dear alma mater.

While the film allows kids to have safely scrubbed visions of the collegiate experience, it's primary purpose appears to be assuaging the fears of their moms and dads. COLLEGE ROAD TRIP plays like an instructional video shown at orientation to ease sheltering parents afraid to let their children leave the nest.

The film has a lot of high-pitched teenage girl shrieking in it, enough that a passerby could be forgiven for thinking COLLEGE ROAD TRIP is a horror movie. Otherwise this is harmless stuff that isn't particularly funny or original but manages to be relatively painless watch.

Grade: C-

Sunday, February 24, 2008

2008 Oscars predictions

I didn't have the date for the Oscars filed away in my brain, so I ended up making other plans for this evening. While the little gold men are being handed out, I'll be seeing St. Vincent in concert. I'll be recording the 80th annual Academy Awards on the DVR, so I may get the best of both worlds in this deal: going to a concert and watching the Oscars with all the commercials and boring parts fast forwarded.

Everyone and their mother have made predictions for how this year's awards will go, so I might as well join the pile.

Picture
Will win: No Country for Old Men
If I voted: There Will Be Blood

Honestly, I'll be satisfied with any of the nominees winning except for Juno. I liked the upstart comedy, but I think it's been overrated to a ridiculous degree.

Director
Will win: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, No Country for Old Men
If I voted: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood

Actor
Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
If I voted: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood

He has to have this sewn up, right? If he doesn't, ten bucks says George Clooney says something about drinking Day-Lewis' milkshake.

Actress
Will win: Ellen Page, Juno
If I voted: Laura Linney, The Savages

I'm not buying the Julie Christie frontrunner status, and I don't think the other nominees are formidable enough. Linney should have won a Best Actress Oscar by now and deserves it tonight, but it isn't going to happen.

Supporting Actor
Will win: Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
If I voted: Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

What a loaded category.

Supporting Actress
Will win: Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
If I voted: Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There

The Academy loves Cate--they must if they nominated her for that lousy Elizabeth sequel--but my gut tells me that Todd Haynes' film may have been a turn-off to enough people to counteract their affection for her. Plus, since I'm working from the assumption that each Picture nominee needs to take home something, this seems like a good place for Michael Clayton to snag a win. Nothing against Ruby Dee, who may very will win, but her tiny, tiny part doesn't merit inclusion here.

Adapted Screenplay
Will win: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, No Country for Old Men
If I voted: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood

An upset for Picture could be in the works if the vote goes the way I'd prefer it.

Animated Feature
Will win: Ratatouille
If I voted: Ratatouille

I liked Persepolis and Surf's Up, but they aren't in the same league as Ratatouille.

Animated Short Film
Will win: I Met the Walrus

It's what Entertainment Weekly is picking.

Art Direction
Will win: Atonement
If I voted: There Will Be Blood

This is the kind of award tailor-made for films like Atonement.

Cinematography
Will win: Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood
If I voted: Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood

Congratulations to Roger Deakins for two nominations. Condolences to Roger Deakins for likely having his votes divided.

Costume Design
Will win: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
If I voted: Atonement

Documentary Feature
Will win: Sicko
If I voted: No End in Sight

I'm going with Michael Moore's film to win because this looks like a classic instance of similarly-themed films splitting votes. For what it's worth, I've only seen the two above films from this category, which is why I'd vote that way.

Documentary Short
Will win: Sari's Mother

Like I have any clue...

Film Editing
Will win: No Country for Old Men
If I voted: There Will Be Blood

Should be an indicator of Picture winner.

Foreign Language Film
Will win: The Counterfeiters

Haven't seen any of them.

Live Action Short Film
Will win: The Tonto Woman

Your guess is as good as mine.

Makeup
Will win: La Vie en Rose
If I voted: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

If I voted, I'd be more likely to abstain. I couldn't bring myself to watch 140 minutes about Edith Piaf, and there's no way I'd vote for Norbit.

Original Score
Will win: Atonement
If I voted: Ratatouille

No gripes if my preferred nominee loses to Atonement.

Original Screenplay
Will win: Diablo Cody, Juno
If I voted: Brad Bird; story by Bird, Jim Capobianco, and Jan Pinkava, Ratatouille

Anything but Juno here would likely be the most pleasant surprise of the night.

Original Song
Will win: "Falling Slowly", Once
If I voted: "Falling Slowly", Once

Call this prediction a bit of wishful thinking and practicality. Three Enchanted songs, and no obvious favorite, would seem to cancel out one another.

Sound Editing
Will win: Transformers
If I voted: There Will Be Blood

Sound Mixing
Will win: Transformers
If I voted: The Bourne Ultimatum

The biggest, noisiest films usually win the sound categories, don't they?

Visual Effects
Will win: Transformers
If I voted: Transformers

The film was a mess, but the visual effects work is pretty spectacular.