Dec 06

The Queen

There’s something a little strange about sitting in a large movie theatre on a Saturday night with only nine other people. And when the film is one of the year’s best reviewed it’s also rather sad. Maybe other showings had better turnouts?

I found myself wondering how much of The Queen made sense to those in the US audience who haven’t kept a close watch on British politics over the past decade. Much of the humour seemed to rest on pre-existing knowledge of the Royals and of Blair’s team, and in such an empty room it was tough to get a sense of how anyone else was responding.

But overall I was very impressed. It took far less time to suspend disbelief in the characters despite the fact that they all had the look of caricatures. Helen Mirren‘s much raved about performance deserves the attention it has received and the overall tone and rhythm of the film is well played out.

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Oct 06

Half Nelson

It’s been a slow few months for films at UICA, but the schedule seems to be picking up and we made our first visit in a while to see Half Nelson, a film I’d been looking forward to since reading about it in Andrew O’Hehir’s compelling but all too often frustrating (given how few of the films he mentions make it here) column for Salon, Beyond The Multiplex.

As O’Hehir makes clear, this is most definitely not another “inspirational-teacher flick” in the vein of To Sir With Love. As befits a film with quite this much indie-cred, its tale is far more ambiguous. Ryan Gosling’s teacher certainly has his moments of inspirational teaching (and his decision to teach history to these disenfranchised minority kids through Marxist influenced dialectics is a daring decision in an America that has yet to get past the Red Scare) but his life is anything but inspiring.

Meanwhile Anthony Mackie’s Frank, a notorious criminal looking out for one of Gosling’s students in gratitude for her incarcerated brother having taken the rap for him, is a similarly complex character and it’s hard to come to a judgement about his role in her life. We’ve spent a lot of time lately watching HBO’s The Wire and this film plays well as a companion to that show, digging into the complex social structures that have been built around the drugs trade in many otherwise impoverished communities.

The middle acts of the film have a few moments where the pace could have picked up, but Half Nelson deserves the praise it’s receiving.

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Oct 06

Marie Antoinette

Having very much enjoyed The Virgin Suicides and loved Lost In Translation, I tried to ignore the negative buzz around Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. It may have been booed in Cannes, but it wasn’t too hard to believe that those reports were overplayed and that some of the response had come from French critics who shared their nation’s resentment towards that most controversial of queens.

The film’s scenes are as luscious as was to be expected, the choice and use of music impeccable, the performances are strong, and the timing gives a good sense of the emotional ups and downs we are led to believe Marie Antoinette was experiencing as she negotiated life in the last days of the French court. But overall, it felt like a film of ‘moments’. There are many good pieces but they didn’t come together to form a compelling movie.

A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times is one of the better ones out there. Where too many reviews focus on the reception at Cannes, or choose between the style or substance of the film, his review covers both and makes me want even more to have liked the whole. Certainly the film is an interesting exercise in empathy, a great portrait of Versailles (that made me want to revisit the palace’s grounds), and possibly a clever work of social criticism.

I just wish it had lived up to its trailer.

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Aug 06

Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine feels like a more mainstream sibling of films from last year like The Squid And The Whale and Me and You and Everyone We Know and unsurprisingly given the film’s wider distribution it doesn’t have the same psychological weight, deadpan humour, or dysfunction as those films.

That may be just as well as several parents seemed to have chosen the film’s title above its ‘R’ rating and brought small children along to see it. Hopefully those children were able to enjoy the soundtrack—so well put together by DeVotchKa—and ignore the less appropriate scenes and language.

The fact that the film didn’t appeal to me quite so much two of my favourite films of 2005 is not to say this film doesn’t have its fair share of humour—or dysfunction—and it definitely provides an enjoyable couple of hours of movie viewing. It’s worth seeing for the last ten minutes alone, which demonstrate perhaps the only reasonable response to their setting.

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Dec 05

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Following our usual pattern of catching big releases on a Sunday night to avoid the hordes of children and teenagers who might otherwise fill the theatre, we saw The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe this past weekend.

My expectations had been cautiously optimistic, but just as with the Lord of the Rings movies, this first viewing was almost entirely taken up with cautiously observing discrepancies with the books. That prevented any real assessment of the film in its own right, but I was impressed with the casting and performances of the children, and generally enjoyed it.

Laurence’s entry on the film got me thinking about it some more yesterday, and reminded me of perhaps the weakest aspect of the adaptation. While a number of changes were made for the better, the filmmakers seemed to rip much of the mythical aspect of the story out. Without the full scene in the Beavers’ house, the context in which the Narnians would give their lives for these children is never established, and the whole piece lacks motivation.

That chimes with Steven Greydanus’ excellent review, which operates not only as an assessment of the film, but also as a reminder of why the book works so well. Hopefully any adaptations of later films in the series will focus more on the integrity of the storytelling and less on appeasing the many interests competing for attention.

Nov 05

Good Night, and Good Luck

Watching Good Night, and Good Luck a couple of weeks ago was something of a cathartic experience. George Clooney’s writing and directorial skills came as a pleasant surprise, but the film’s main draw for this viewer was the way it tapped into an ongoing frustration with the self-censorship of much of the mainstream media, particularly in the USA. While direct links between the McCarthyism that is the film’s conflict and modern times should only be drawn cautiously, that period offers a historical lesson that has been forgotten all too quickly.

But those planning to watch the film would do well to subsequently read this two part piece at slate.com. The writer raises many questions about Clooney’s choice of material and structure, leaving an impression that the filmmaker’s approach was to use a similar cut and paste technique to that Edward Murrow utilised in his programs about McCarthy. The film stands despite the criticism, but probably shouldn’t be taken without some awareness of it.

Aug 05

Parrots and Penguins

It’s been quite a year for documentary film making. While long tail providers such as Netflix have made it easier for interested parties to get hold of minority-interest films on DVD, a number of documentaries have made box office waves. In Grand Rapids the rejuvenation of Wealthy Theatre has provided an additional venue for documentary screenings. Six of the nineteen films we’ve seen in the cinema so far this year have been documentaries.

The latest of those is the box office favourite, March of the Penguins. Reminiscent of Winged Migration in its surprising scope and magificent visuals, the film is enjoying a second consecutive week in the US box office top 10, and if the response of the audience around us is anything to go by, could be set for a lengthy run. It’s an engaging tale, not entirely ignoring but certainly not lingering on the more grizzly aspects of penguin life, but like all too many wildlife documentaries falls heavily into the trap of anthropomorphism.

The seemingly “human” penguin traits portrayed help the audience begin to engage with the animals, but at times I felt robbed of any sense of their “otherness.” When talking of the way the father’s care for the unhatched eggs the narrator talks of “role reversal” which relies on a very particular understanding of parental roles and seemed to rest too heavily on the human comparison — can it really be role reversal to do what your species has done without change for thousands of years?

I found myself comparing this film with the other bird-focussed documentary we’ve seen of late: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. The scale of the two films is quite different, and the birds they display are similarly distict, but I realised that Wild Parrots feels the more honest of the two films. Purportedly an exploration of the behaviour of wild parrots in San Francisco, it becomes an portrait of a man whose life work has been to nurture that parrot population. Certainly there is anthropomorphic behaviour, but that issue is tackled head on, and by bringing herself into the story, the filmmaker makes explicit the editorial process that has taken place.

No documentary can ever be objective, but they can establish trust by being upfront about the process they are part of. March of the Penguins invites us to marvel, while Wild Parrots shows us its gaps and invites us into its questions. Both are worthwhile, but one is certainly more helpful.

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