Thursday, August 28, 2008

Man on Wire

Man on Wire, a beautiful, new documentary, is a film that examines the limitless passion that some men feel. Frenchman Philippe Petit was fascinated with wire walking since he was young. Stringing up a make-shift wire in a field, he practiced relentlessly to master his craft.

When he was young, he saw a picture of the World Trade Center’s under construction. He realized that they were not going to be far apart, and so began his dream. Practicing on structures like the Notre Dame, Petit spent his life working up to the big payoff.

Like the films of Errol Morris, Man on Wire is told using interviews, old footage and reenactments. The funny, dynamic crew talks about how they were stupid enough to even consider stringing up a wire between the two towers. During the interviews, the film cuts between the actual job itself and the leading up to the job.

With a great deal of luck, Petit and his grew managed to get to the top of the towers. They spent the night dragging the wire between the two, so come morning, Petit could walk on top of the world.

Some of the most breathtaking shots I have ever seen are the pictures of Petit, slowly making his way across the wire. His face one of blankless determination. It is awe inspiring to see a man live out his life goal right before your eyes. Director James Marsh does a very smart thing by letting these images speak for themselves. No zany narration from Petit needed. We know his passion, we feel his desire.

The images in this film represent so much more than what they appear. It’s impossible not to shed a tear in nostalgia, watching this loony man walk where it is no longer possible. In fact, Man on Wire ranks with Antwone Fisher as being one of the most inspirational films I’ve ever seen. When the credits began and the lights came up, not a single person in the audience moved or spoke. We were all holding onto the magic of the film. If you’re lucky, that infectious magic will stay with you long after you leave. A+

Transsiberian

Transsiberian is on of those great hole-in-the-wall thrillers. It’s a movie you likely haven’t heard of, but when sought out, it delivers way beyond your expectations.

The film explores one of our great American fears: a vacation gone wrong. Co-writer/director Brad Anderson takes the used plot of an innocent couple in danger and puts several refreshing twists on it.

The couple in question is Woody Harrelson (getting a career resurge after North Country and No Country for Old Men) and Emily Mortimer (one of the best working actresses right now), who have just finished up a volunteering project for their church in China and decide to take the Trans-Siberian railroad to Russia, then fly home. They’re roomed with a creepy couple, who we soon start to be weary about.

Needless to say, our heroes are thrown into some pretty dramatic circumstances, which include a shifty police officer played with steely remorse by an excellent Ben Kingsley.

Transsiberian is a thriller that delivers one thrill after another. It kept me on edge and guessing the entire time. Mortimer, so good in Match Point, Lars and the Real Girl and Redbelt, deserves an Oscar nomination for playing this character so well. Her Jessie goes through one arch after another, testing herself in ways a human being should never have to. Keep your eye on her; this British beauty is destined to be a star. A

Tropic Thunder


At first, you may not understand what the hell is going on, but pay close attention, the opening scenes to Tropic Thunder are some of the funniest screen moments you’ve seen in a while.

After our main characters are brilliantly introduced, we are thrown into an over the top action sequence being filmed for a huge Hollywood film (called Tropic Thunder). Co-writer and director Ben Stiller stars as chauvinistic, not so good actor Tugg Speedman. He’s supported by funny man Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and super-talented, five time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (a side-splitting Robert Downey Jr.).

The three are adapting the true story of Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), a Vietnam veteran who wrote a bestseller based on his time in the war. Before long, their in-over-his-head director (Steve Coogan) enlists his actors to go off in the jungle by themselves and film the movie “gorilla” style, with dozens of hidden cameras.

The actors are too dimwitted to realize that after a few minutes, they aren’t being filmed, but rather being chased by an army of heroin drug lords, who mistake the actors for the DEA. But enough with plot, lets get to the good stuff.

Tropic Thunder has been hit with a lot of controversy, mainly because of the “profane” way it talks about mentally handicapped people. The main conversation in question is when Downey Jr. explains to Stiller how you can never go “full retard” for a film role and expect to win an Oscar. The conversation is funny in and of itself, but made more so due to Downey’s hilarious antics. His character is an Australian who has dyed his skin black to portray an African American soldier, (more controversy).

The thing to keep in mind is that these offensive words are being spoken from complete morons. These are people who care only for themselves and have no hesitation to speak poorly about others. The screenplay, by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, doesn’t make these speeches hip. They are making the point that if you talk this way, you really aren’t that intelligent.

In terms of content and plot, Tropic Thunder is a ridiculous film, but the beauty of it is that it knows it’s absurd. And while Downey Jr. proves that he is at the top of his game with yet another hit this summer, there is a scene stealing performance in this film from an actor who has been down and out recently. If you don’t know, then don’t ask. Just look out for that fat, bald, dancing man. You’ll be stunned. B+

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Edge of Heaven

What a hidden little wonder. Here is a movie you likely haven’t heard of, and you’re likely not to see. But it’s my job to convince you to drive ridiculous distances to an independent theatre, or remember the name when the DVD comes out, because The Edge of Heaven is the best film I’ve seen so far this year.

First released at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (it won best screenplay) and considered for Best Foreign Film at last year’s Oscars (why it wasn’t nominated, I have no idea) this Turkish-German film is a fascinating character study of inter-looping characters who may or may not ever meet.

The beauty is in the characters. A Turkish man living in Germany, teaches German studies at a college. His widowed father offers a prostitute to live with him and keep him company. The prostitute, who is fleeing from thugs, is tempted by the old man’s offer. Her daughter, a political rebel in Turkey, longs to find her mother. The daughter’s lover, a female German student, meet by chance. The lover’s mother that disproves of the radical, new Turkish girl, and round and round.

All of these characters get their moments to shine, some of them share the screen, several of them never meet, but they are all connected. The film has a narrative similar to Amores perros or Babel; three distinct stories told in order. The first story plays out, then we go back to the second story and so on. I won’t even dare reveal the titles of two of the stories, because they tell you that two different characters will die. At first, this turned me off, but then I realized the significance of it. Writer-director Fatih Akin is giving us something before the characters know it, this way, we sympathize even more.

The plot is complicated, yet elegantly executed. One character accidently kills another. Then one of them goes and tries to find another character, while that character is trying to find another. Confused? You won’t be, I’m only being vague to keep the surprises fresh.

There are several moments when the characters come within seconds or feet from one another, yet never make contact. They’ve been looking for each other for months, and never knew that they had just missed them. The Edge of Heaven is a magical masterpiece, like nothing I’ve ever seen. I’m curious to know why it has such a small release, and why it wasn’t nominated for any Oscars.

There is a scene in this film that stands out among every other poignant one. Two characters speak to one another, one of them apologizes then the other looks confused and simply says that there is nothing to be sorry about and then explains how she is going to help the other one. By this point in the film, both characters have suffered insurmountable loss, they have not gotten along for the entire film, but in this moment, there is forgiveness, there is a longing to move forward. This 30 second scene is one of the most moving moments I’ve ever seen captured on film. It is heartbreaking, hopeful and completely real. Remember this film, seeing The Edge of Heaven will do you good, it will refresh your positive motives, and affirm that there is decency in human contact. A+

Tell No One

Tell No One, a new French thriller from actor turned director Guilaume Canet, is some kind of phenomenon. The film is a perfect blend of drama, suspense, thrill, humor, action, wits, twists and turns. You’ll feel like it is too much, you’ll look desperately to expose plot holes that don’t exist, you’ll be mad that you can’t figure it out, although you aren’t supposed to right away. And then slowly, but surely, you’ll fall madly in love with how well you’ve been deceived.

It’d be a sin to reveal too much of the plot, so I’ll briefly set it up. Alex (Francois Cluzet) is a successful doctor who is steadily recovering after his wife’s murder eight years ago. Soon enough he is the main suspect in the murder of two people and someone is e-mailing him, hinting that his wife is still alive. There’s the first ten minutes, and that’s plenty.

What’s brilliant about Tell No One is how it manages to successfully fuse several genres by using a vivid screenplay, sharp direction and pitch-perfect acting. Every single performance in this film is genuine, fierce and completely absorbing. Characters are thrown at you in rapid succession, some of them not only look alike, the have the same occupation, all in the fun of throwing you off. Cluzet has a scowl that is remarkably convincing; he looks like a ‘70s Dustin Hoffman, fearless yet terrified. His wife, seen mostly is flashbacks, is played by Marie-Josee Croze (the head nurse in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) who does a great job of imprinting her face in our heads for days.

The supporting cast delivers as well. There’s Alex’s sister, his sister’s lover (a fiery Kristen Scott Thomas), a street-thug who owes Alex, hitmen, creepily skinny female torturers, good cops, bad cops, good lawyers, bad lawyers, rich people, poor people and on and on. You may trust someone in one scene, then despise them the next.

Tell No One has suspenseful moments that rival Hitchcock, chase scenes that match the Bourne films, humor that makes you laugh out loud and a soundtrack that is uncontested. I’m a big fan of music in film, I think the right song can not only make a scene, but make a movie classic. Tell No One has its perfect song moment, when a breathtaking scene is scored to U2’s With or Without You. I’ve rarely seen a song used so expertly in a film, it’s simply stunning.

I’ve made this movie sound like a school project, like you have to devote too much attention to it, which is somewhat true. Although it is passionately entertaining, you do have to engage yourself more than most films. (But believe me, the payoff is worth it.) If you see that as a flaw, then go waste your time with Transformers. But if you want to venture out a little bit, then buy a ticket, read the subtitles and be completely blown away. This is one of the best films of the year, folks, impossible to forget. A+

American Teen

American Teen is one of the realist experiences you’ll have at the movies this year. That’s fitting for a number of reasons. One: it’s a documentary, so it should be real. Two: the five “characters” in the film are real people with real emotions and no censored expressions (i.e. The Hills, The Real World). This is far from “reality” TV. This is real life.

The film follows five teenagers through their senior year of high school in Warsaw, Indiana, a white, podunk town in middle America. The clichés are all there. There’s the popular, bitchy, backstabbing mean girl, Megan. The nice-guy, Jay Leno chinned jock, Colin. The good-looking, kind-hearted, Mitch. The self-described, nerdy band geek, Jake. And the rebellious daring, Hannah. Each character is presented acutely and fairly.

American Teen will expose your best and worst moments from high school. It’s effective because it’s accurate. I personally lived through some of the issues and experiences that the characters go through. The bad skin, the polarizing fear of being ridiculed, the lashing out to hide your real feelings, the breakups, the falling in love, the day to day battle that takes in the hellish hallways. Each character has down and out moments, and each character faces moments of extreme happiness.

The standout of the group is the dynamic Hannah Bailey, who cannot wait to escape Warsaw and explore a west coast life as a filmmaker. Even though her screen time is equal to the rest of the cast, Hannah’s buoyant personality is remarkably refreshing in a place where conservative ideals seem so etched in everyone’s head. I related to Hannah more than the other characters, I felt her pain because I experienced high school similar to how she did. But that isn’t to say you will too. Everyone who sees the film will compare themselves to one of the characters. And that’s part of American Teen’s fun… which one were you?

Director Nanette Burnstien (The Kid Stays in the Picture) shot over 1,000 hours of footage of the five teens, scrapping it down to two hours of narrative bliss. The film is fast, fierce and fun. You'll hate (or at least be frustrated with) each character at least once. You may be repulsed by Megan but sympathize with a story from her past. You may adore Mitch but despise him for what he writes in a text message.

The characters in American Teen each have an arch that most Hollywood films get wrong. It’s high school at it’s most honest. Brutally real. Inexplicably painful. Yet, at times, overwhelmingly joyful. I dare you not to ask yourself… which one were you? A

Pineapple Express

Here comes another one from Judd Apatow and company, I swear, the man must never sleep. For an Apatow film you can always count on articulate losers who get high and waste time by telling numerous dick jokes. Pineapple Express delivers up to those standards.

Directed by indie-God David Gordon Green (Snow Angels, Undertow), Pineapple Express is an action-comedy romp about process server Dale Denton (Seth Rogen, the same in every movie) and his drug dealer Saul Silver (James Franco, simply genius). Saul gets a hold of a new strand of weed, pineapple express, that he lets Dale sample. Before long, Dale has witnessed a murder by Ted Jones (Gary Cole) who also happens to be Saul’s boss. And before long Dale and Saul are being chased by Ted’s goons, all while a drug war between Ted and “the Asians” begins.

Pineapple Express is funny, don’t get me wrong. But quite frankly, I’m tired of movies with the same brand of humor. Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Apatow’s earlier summer release, was a refreshing comedy, one that made me laugh out loud. For the most part, Pineapple Express just feels old and drawn out. That being said, there are a few positives to touch on.

James Franco (who based his character on Brad Pitt’s hilariously dumbfounded stoner in True Romance), is a revelation. There have always been rumors to Franco’s comic wit (hinted at briefly in his cameo in Knocked Up), but here, he really gets to flex his funny bone. As Saul, he makes the most out of a familiar story by giving his character amusing quirks. Watch how, when in a rush, Franco runs with little-kid strides, his feet barely getting off the ground. Look at the headband he sports for most of the movie, where did he get that anyway? And in the film’s best scene, watch how he manages to escape from a cop with his foot stuck through the windshield.

The film moves from comedy to a violent action-thriller that isn’t all too thrilling. The final showdown scene is long, contrite and aimless. I understand that that was the point of the filmmakers, an over-the-top parody of action, but it’s just simply too much.

I’ll recommend Pineapples Express for its seldom funny moments, and Franco’s refreshing performance, but not for any other reason. C+

Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog, the great, visionary, German director is like a poet with a movie camera. He’s responsible for such classics as Aguirre the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, and Grizzly Man. He directs just as many feature films as documentaries, and he never lets a studio influence his vision. He is a true auteur.

Herzog is a filmmaker who continually looks for a challenge. He isn’t a thrill seeker, he is just a man who enjoys testing his limits, regardless of his age. He’s moved a 300 ton boat over a mountain, climbed into an active volcano, swam in the ferocious waters of Thailand, walked from Berlin to Paris barefoot, eaten his own shoe and so on. He has no problem fusing fiction in his documentaries and bringing truth to his features. When he had finished his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly he told his star, Dieter Dengler, that the story wasn’t over. Ten years later Herzog revisited the story with the fictional film, Rescue Dawn. Rescue Dawn is a better film that Little Dieter, even though it’s considered fiction, it’s the Herzog vision that propels it to a classic.

His latest venture into the unknown is the miraculous Encounters at the End of the World. Herzog was fascinated with the people who live in Antarctica, so he flew down, with only his cameraman, to get these people’s stories. While there, he comes across a village that looks like a small, mid-Western town with a lot of snow. They have a bowling alley, a grocery store, and an ice-cream machine. Herzog, no fan of commercialized intervention, is repulsed by this place, so he quickly makes the effort to travel farther, to find the real eccentrics.

The stories in this documentary film are heartbreaking. In one scene, Herzog talks with a man who cannot describe his past or why he left his country. He tries to speak, but he gets too choked up, tears flush from his eyes, “You don’t have to talk about it,” Herzog says with this tender voice, “Thank you,” the man says, and the scene ends.

There is a general theme from the people we meet in the film. Most of them were tired of the busy life, they are escaping to find themselves. These are people with Ph.D’s and very specific, academic skills that they now rarely use. Herzog fits right in.

The film is scored with Herzog passionate narration, and hauntingly fitting music that sounds like a grand German opera. When we go underwater to explore the vast glaciers and hidden sea creatures, Herzog lets the images speak for themselves. And believe me, these fluid images speak volumes (can a documentary be nominated for best cinematography?).

Encounters at the End of the World may be Herzog’s most poetic film yet, a bold statement seeing as how I am such an admired fan of his. Let this scene prove my point. Because this is Antarctica, Herzog dedicates a few moments to a flock of penguins. At one point, some of the flock decides to head in a new direction to gather food. One of them branches off and heads directly for a mountain, miles away. Herzog explains that he was told to never interfere with the life of a penguin. Although he has no idea, this lone penguin is walking to certain death,. He is just curious, wandering into the unknown. At one point, the penguin looks back at us, ready to turn. Instead he turns right back around and heads toward the mountain. The image is haunting, visceral and heartbreaking. I’d expect nothing less from one of cinema’s great creators. A

The Wackness

The Wackness presents itself as a new indie-hip dramedy with a cool soundtrack, but the truth is, The Wackness has no idea what kind of film it wants to be.

Writer and director Jonathan Levine gives us a story of a loner stoner high school graduate who deals weed to people out of the beat-up ice cream cart he pushes around. Luke (Josh Peck) is starting to realize that his only popularity comes from his dealing. In fact, he doesn’t have a single friend to count on. In comes his shrink, Dr. Squires (a zany Ben Kingsley) who trades his psycho-analytical services for Luke’s latest product.

Luke and Squires form an offbeat relationship that has them wandering the streets, getting high, making out with hippies, getting arrested, and doing it all over again. This is where The Wackness falters. The movie borrows from several, better, films that highlight a general theme. Luke walks around, aimless of life and authority (Kids), Luke and his shrink form unconventional relationship (Good Will Hunting), Luke falls for shrink’s stepdaughter, they form tender, romantic relationship (Say Anything-ish), and so on.

I enjoyed some aspects of The Wackness, such as the performances. Peck, a former Nickelodeon star, branches out from his tween roots and Kingsley has moments that nearly reach his full talent. But it’s Olivia Thirlby, as Luke’s love interest, that steals the show. You know Thirlby from Juno (as the wise-ass best friend), but this is the best work she’s done. Her Stephanie is a quick-witted, stress-wise chick who loves the wild life. Thirlby actually grew up in New York City, so it comes as no surprise that she feels like the most genuine presence in the film.

The Wackness is set in 1994 for no other reason that I can see, than for Levine to score his film with old-school rap music. Another film, 8 Mile, used this setting technique in a far more effective way. In fact, in one scene from The Wackness, Luke goes to get more product from his Jamaican hookup, played by real-life rapper Method Man. After they finish their business, the Jamaican goes over to a boom box and turns up the song. He starts telling Luke how good this artist is, how fresh the sound will become. The song is by, are you ready… Method Man. So what we have is a character, played by Method Man, listening to a musician, himself, and telling another character how good it is. This is a cheap trick that makes The Wackness well… whack. C-
Correction, dated 7/09.
It has come to my attention that "the music in the background (of my troubled scene) was Biggie's, not Method Man's. Meth's album didnt come out until 1995. He was on the track but it wasn't his song."

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

My Favorite Scene: Crash


Paul Haggis’ 2005 Best Picture winner is full of emotionally charged scenes. Take your pick: Thandie Newton stuck in a burning car, Beverly Todd telling Don Cheadle he killed her son, Matt Dillon informing rookie cop Ryan Phillippe of his inexperience on the job, Sandra Bullock bitching out her husband, and so on. I could write about any scene in the film as being the best and I wouldn’t be wrong. Each storyline is given its own depth and structure to fuel the basis of a modern-day film masterpiece.

By far the most engrossing scene is when Michael Peña’s young daughter gets mistakenly “shot” by Shaun Toub. But that sequence means next to nothing without the foundation of the characters, which is set in a previous moment.

Early in the film, shortly after Bullock dismisses Peña as a “tattooed gangbanger”, we get our first glimpse into the film’s underlying spirit. Crash was ingenious in the way it exposed racial discrimination and proved most of our assumptions involving race to be dead wrong. On the surface, it’s hard not to assume Peña’s locksmith character as a thugged-out, gun-totting gangster. But once we are invited into his home, we are exposed for our narrow-mindedness.
Peña, getting home late from a job, notices that his daughter’s light is still on. He goes in her room and finds her under the bed, resting peacefully in a makeshift space full of cozy blankets and stuffed animals. Peña lies down, facing her, and so begins Crash’s warmest and most enduring moment. Studio heads wanted Haggis to cut the scene down to a mere moment, only to highlight the significance of Peña as a family man.

Thankfully, Haggis fought and lobbied for this extended take.

Peña asks his daughter (the wondrous Ashlyn Sanchez) if she still thinks about the bullet that came through her window in the previous home they lived in. She says she does, and in an effort to comfort her, Peña tells an elaborate fantasy story of how he was supposed to give her an invisible, impenetrable cloak on her birthday. A cloak that cannot be breached by knives or bullets. The premise sounds silly, but my God if these two don’t pull it off.

Young Sanchez is a revelation. Her youthful charm matches Peña’s playful wisdom line-for-line; she conducts herself as well as any of the A-listers in the film. But it’s Peña (who should’ve received an Oscar nomination for his criminally underrated performance) that steals us.
As he slowly, with great specific detail, takes off his invisible cloak, his daughter watches with an insightfully curious eye. He wraps the imaginary cloak around his daughter, mindful of her hair and ties it snuggly around her neck. He tucks her into bed and as he quietly leaves her room, he looks back to see her smoothly stroking her new blanket of security. The actors are so natural and convincing that because they believe it, we believe it. Taking this moment to heart makes it a little less shocking that Crash beat out front-runner Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture (does this scene justify that? Well, that’s another story.)

There is no screaming, yelling, or racial slurs thrown around like most of the other scenes in the film. Instead, the doors are opened for the dramatic climax of the film. Later, when Peña clutches his daughter, silently screaming into the afternoon sky, devastated by the life that was just taken from him, we are moved beyond words with one sentence. “It’s okay,” Sanchez whispers into Peña’s ear, “I’ll protect you.”

The essence of Crash does not lie in the screaming matches and arguments. It lies in the innocence of a girl’s bedroom floor. A girl protected from the bounds of hatred by the impenetrable force of love. Love that has the power to shield us from the unnerving cycle of discrimination.