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Best performances since "Doubt"
The title Conviction has two meanings. The first and most obvious is in reference to the conviction of Kenneth Waters (Sam Rockwell) on an account of murder in the first degree. The second refers to his sister's conviction. Her conviction that her brother is innocent and her conviction to help him win his freedom at all costs. Conviction tells the story of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) who spent nearly twenty years of her lifetime becoming an attorney in an attempt to prove her brother's innocence. At times her devotion to this cause seems dangerously obsessive, but a little insight into these two loving siblings' rough and underprivileged past helps us understand Betty Anne's commitment to her brother. Conviction reels us into this true-life saga and into its dynamic and wonderfully realized characters and keeps us hooked for the tale's duration. The result turns out to be an ultimately satisfying and emotionally rich motion picture, full of spot-on characterization and sporting a well-wrought screenplay by one Pamela Gray.
Conviction succeeds as one of those rare movies about people and people alonea truly character driven story. This is as much a movie about loyalty and devotion as it is a courtroom drama, deriving its power from the characters who inhabit it. Each character is fully realized as a person, a true human being, not just a pawn in some story arch. As an audience member, these characters really fooled me. Never once were they unbelievable or inhuman. Of course this wonderful characterization is due in no small part to the fantastic performances found all over this film. Hilary Swank as Betty Anne Waters is right back on her game. I was a little worried about her after her dreary over-performance in last year's Amelia, but this is some of her best work to date. The key to Swank's performance is not in the emotion she exerts outwardly or in her strong and telling facial expression, but rather in the way she may arch an eyebrow or purse her lips. The performance lives not in the choice of words, but in the way the words are spoken as they role out of the mouth.
But here I am goggling on about Hilary Swank when really I could highlight almost half a dozen actors worthy of recognition. The strength of this movie is in the performances by the actors if nowhere else. Minnie Driver in an important supporting role is strong and audacious and she creates a human being out of it, rather than just being a sidekick to Betty Anne. Sam Rockwell as the accused Kenneth is also perfectly cast. The acting in this movie is some of the best I've seen in a few years. It doesn't get much stronger than this. Not only are the main actors and supporting actors brilliant, but every single little tiny insignificant actor is excellent. The cop that first arrests Kenny, one Officer Nancy Taylor, inhabits about five minutes of screen time, but the actress's (Melissa Leo's) performance is so convincing and so believable and perfect that it's a role I'll never forget. Juliette Lewis plays a drunk former lover of Kenneth's who testifies against him. She's delivered one of he best performances of the year in my opinion but she was only given maybe ten minutes of screen time. This is really top-notch acting. It's rare when an ensemble is this good not only in the main cast but also among the supporting and even bit roles. As I was watching it, I kept thinking, "Wow, this is full of absolutely gang-buster performances." As Betty Anne progresses through law school, nearly dropping out several times, she's tried not only in the classroom but in her personal life as well. Her sons leave her to live with their father, she practically alienates her best friend, not to mention that she begins to look like she hasn't slept in a couple of years. There's a particular scene in which she goes to visit a woman who testified against Kenneth, and instead of acting belligerent and nasty to her, she remains tactful and quiet to her, although we all know that she thinks this woman is as sleazy as it gets.
Once Betty Anne begins to shape up in law school and finally passes the bar, she annexes the aid of her new found attorney friend Abra Rice (Minnie Driver). Abra serves as a slightly more gutsy and strong-willed shoulder to lean on as Betty Anne continues on through this torment. Her words are sharp and often painful, but full of wisdom. Minnie Driver handles this all carefully (which isn't surprising because she's one of the most talented yet underrated actresses of the new century). Near the end of the film, most of the loose ends are tied up and the conflict is resolved. One of the final shots of the movie features Kenny holding his dear sister Betty Anne in his arms while sitting on a bench together on the shores of a lake. It's a beautiful shot that pretty much sums up the theme of the whole movie: that when a person is that loyal and loves another that much, they will be willing to do anything for them, whatever the costs. Even if this means loosing their husband and their family. The film is a hurricane of emotions, but in the eye of the storm is the simple principles of love and loyalty and that's what fuels this fire of a movie. It doesn't make profound statements and no proverbs emit from the mouths of these characters. Instead, the message is put across in an almost equivocating way, but ultimately crystal clear as a bell. And what a message it is!
It just keeps going and going and going . . .
Since the trans-continental railroad was constructed in the 1800s, there have been countless accidents and mishaps in the railroad industry. Some were more severe than others. Of course this is inevitable in any business. Things are bound to go wrong. Once steam locomotives went the way of the dinosaur and were replaced by big monster diesel engines, the railroading business opened itself up to more problems. Unstoppable is the dramatized account of one potentially disastrous problem that took place in mid-Ohio some years ago. The plot of the film (though mostly fictional) goes something like this: It seems that through an unfortunate series of events involving stupidity and bad luck, a monstrous, half-mile long power train carrying tanks of highly toxic and flammable substances was let loose unmanned onto the mainline of a Pennsylvania railroad. The train quickly reached dangerous speeds of up to eighty miles per hour and soon the media, the citizens, and especially railroad personnel realized they had a serious situation on their hands. Out of all this chaos, two railroad workers (played by Washington and Pine) took it upon themselves to track down and stop this monster before it crashed and spread its toxic waste everywhere. Here is the story of the battle to stop this thing.
Tony Scott's fast editing / action movie approach to the material is effective to say the least. The pacing of the film is just perfect and although it's not going to win any awards, Unstoppable is a pleasing and suspenseful motion picture that I'm certainly glad I went to see. While this isn't an action film per Se, it certainly puts us on the edge of our seat waiting to see what happens next like any good action film would. In some of the final scenes of the movie I found myself leaning forward in my seat, hoping to God Washington and Pine would pull the rescue off. Now of course I knew what would happen and I'm sure so did you. Even if you didn't watch the news coverage of this disaster you know that if certain things don't happen there would be no point in making the picture. However, this does not harm the film in any way. Although it can't exactly be considered a suspense masterpiece in any way shape or form, the movie effectively creates an appropriate amount of anxiety for us (the audience) to enjoy. Sometimes the movie makes you squirm in some of the more action packed scenes. Not once in this picture did I ever find myself bored or counting ceiling panels. It's an intriguing and dynamic movie that captured my attention and never let it go. Now perhaps it's forgettable to a certain extent, but for the ninety-eight minutes in which this movie inhabited my life, I was interested although not completely immersed in it.
Of course this is quite the Hollywood production, full of big stunts and grandiose special effects (praise God this wasn't in 3D!), but I enjoyed it well enough to be happy about it. There wasn't a scene I didn't see coming, but did it matter? Did it lessen my enjoyment of the movie? Not in the least. Now, the story works well and the plot is exciting, but the story filler is typical Hollywood. We never connect with the characters and whether they live or die doesn't really make much of a difference. They just inhabit this world that's only about getting from point A to point B. All of the characters are from the "character bank" of the screenwriters' guild. This is the place where all of the generic Hollywood screenwriters go to pick up characters when they can't think of anything new to do. In this movie they picked up Mr. Down-and-Out, Sir I'm Old so I'm Better, Madame Strong Woman, Corporate Imbecile Guy, and the Gilbert Gottfried Character and through them all together to inhabit this screenplay. They don't say anything original or insightful; they just keep the movie alive. But what the movie looses in dull characters and generic dialog, it makes up in great pacing and a wonderful feeling of suspense.
Really I think that this movie is just about as good as it could have been. It's a perfect popcorn flick if I ever saw one, but it's still just a popcorn flick. If there could only be one flaw to diagnose this film with it would be found in the source material and the screenplay which is generic, yet fortunately well-paced. Although the movie certainly inhabits the world of "same old, same old" stories, it's not off-putting. I liked it. In fact I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. The movie filled its quota, and that's good enough for me. Simply put: this motion picture is a great thrill that won't stick in your mind very long. In fifty years I'll probably not remember three minutes of this movie and it certainly won't be any sort of classic. But as an afternoon of thrilling escapism and Hollywood illusion, the movie succeeds very well. Anyway, I was very pleased with Unstoppable, perhaps more than I should be.
Waiting for 'Superman' (2010)
The unions are to the schools as krypton is to "Superman"
In the 1950s, public schools were great. They were a product of the American dream. Back then, a public school gave its students top of the line, American education just as well as a smaller private school would have. Somehow in the past fifty years, the American public school system has gone to hell in a hand basket and isn't showing any signs of coming back. At many, many public schools these days, teachers don't teach, don't teach well, or are so wrapped up in themselves that the students cannot understand what they are teaching. "Well," you ask, "why don't parents just send their kids to private schools?" I'll tell you why: because many private schools are too expensive for the average American family to afford. So families are left with two options. Either send your child to public school where he or she will receive a toilet bowl's education, or send them to private school and go broke doing it. Neither situation is very nice to think about but we sure know we don't want them in public schools. I go to a nice, private school that costs a pretty penny in tuition, so I don't really know first hand what public schools are like. Davis Guggenheim's new documentary, Waiting for "Superman" doesn't deal much with private schools at all. No, this film is made for those who recognize the problem with public schools, but can't afford private schools. What are they going to do? Davis Guggenheim's film is quick, straightforward, and to the point. He has no qualms about exposing exactly what the problem is in schools: the teachers' unions. Now I am a supporter of unions. They protect our workers from fraud and greedy businessmen, but the teachers' unions have taken it too far in demanding tenure and making it virtually impossible for a teacher to be fired. "Superman" follows four or five children who fortunately have a third option: charter schools. Schools run by public funding but not in the "School District" system of contracts and tenure. These schools can fire teachers, approve their own curriculum, and give students the education of a private school for the price of public school. It's a brilliant and effective alternative. But the movie doesn't simply idolize charter schools, it also effectively illustrates steps taken by such educators as Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada in improving the public school system. These people have fought and tried to beat the union system, and hopefully at some point will be successful.
The thing that is most compelling about Waiting for "Superman" is that it seems like a very personal project for Guggenheim. The opening minutes of the film describe his former enthusiasm for the public school system, his disappointment in them, and his guilt as he takes his children every morning to a private school. We can tell that he wants to send them to public school, where he will be supporting his country and the American dream, but of course he cannot do that without knowing that his children will be getting a crappy education. Here, he shows us what the alternative could be if strong willed people could just beat the system. If you can't afford private schools, charter schools are the next best thing, and that is basically the message of the film. Personally, I don't like movies riddled with ideological gumbo-jumbo, but Waiting for "Superman" is more than that. It is a film made by a man who is deeply concerned trying to inform us about an ever-growing problem in America.
To all of you right-wingers out there who are concerned that this will pour left-wing propaganda down your throat (seeing that Davis Guggenheim also directed An Inconvenient Truth), let not your heart be troubled because this movie is purely a personal piece, neither left nor right, but simply an eye-opening look at a deeply troubling subject made by someone who cares. I'm going to keep this review short, for I think it will serve you (the audience) better if you go in knowing as little about it as possible. What I have done is to give you the basics, now you do the rest. Be a good person, be an American, and go see this film to make a difference. You won't be disappointed.
Horse Movies: and other enjoyable clichés
Horse racing (and horses in general) has never really interested me. Really, when a horse and Disney come together, we can be sure we're in for a feel good, slightly clichéd film with lots of "life lessons" along the way. Now this may sound cynical (which I suppose it is), but you can't say that I'm wrong. There's nothing intrinsically wrong about the use of clichés and riddling a film with life lessons, but it can be sticky. There have also been a lot, and I mean a lot! of horse racing movies involving the unbelievable odds against the horse and the unshaken perseverance of the owner. Now for some reason, these horse movies usually turn out as enjoyable, fun (if not new) experiences. Can Secretariat bring anything new whatsoever to the dusty, yet still well-varnished table of horse racing movies? No. Does Secretariat fall into unfortunate horse racing clichés such as slow motion, intrusive music, anthropomorphic animals, and dumb "wise sayings" for the main character? Yes. It does all of these things. However, like its tired old predecessors, Secretariat succeeds for the most part in being a shallow yet enjoyable and cute movie.
We all know the story. After Penny Tweedy's father dies, she takes over his farm and raises a horse named Big Red, who goes on to become "the greatest racing horse that ever lived", so we don't need to get into that. Diane Lane plays the aforementioned Mrs. Tweedy, and her performance is acceptable if not a little contrived. John Malkovich plays Lucien Laurin, the horse's trainer. Laurin wears bright and tactless colors along with unfashionable hats. His whole demeanor celebrates the eccentric. Malkovich was probably the only actor who could have done this role with such zaniness and subtlety. The first shots of Malkovich feature him attempting to hit golf balls on the driving range. His swing teeters on the edge of hopelessness and we can tell immediately that he has no business in "retirement". This man should be out training horses. Penny comes to him offering a job, and Laurin has no business saying "No", but of course he does. After much deliberation on his part, he finally agrees to take the job and the so the story begins. Malkovich is as wonderful as ever, and the film wouldn't be nearly as entertaining without him. John Malkovich is a treasured performer.
Now this is a perfectly harmless film that is meant for escapism purposes only. The film never gets to deep, and doesn't explore in depth the dynamics of horse racing or the psyche of our main character, Mrs. Tweedy, and what motivates her. The film strives to be nothing but a fell good movie and it accomplishes just that. While we're watching it, we fell good for the most part. This movie makes no boasts about being deep or intellectual or thought provoking. Secretariat lives to entertain its audience and for the most part it does. I was entertained. People in the theater around me seemed entertained. Truth be told, it is not a great movie, nor can we expect it to be. Sometimes pure feel good movies do become great movies, but for the most part they ignite the shallowest of human emotions such as love, hate, and sorrow. All of these thrive in Secretariat as they should. It tells a sweet and gentle, typically Disney story that just keeps us lightly amused and entertained throughout its two hours and three minutes. I think this generic formula works pretty well. So, is the movie good? Yes. Is it original? Big fat NO!
My main problems with the movie are more technical. I hated the musical score. I just wish that for once Hollywood would cut out the dramatic, intrusive, invasive music at climax points and stop telling us how to feel! We shouldn't have to be told how to feel by big booming and thunderous musical notes. If a movie can't do this without such a pretentious score then it is not succeeding. The incidental musical score was also a big problem for me in this years Inception, a film I liked very much except for this small point. I also can't stand slow motion. Every film since Chariots of Fire has insisted on slowing down the final moments of a race to show the winner run like molasses threw the finish line. This has become a ridiculously overused cliché in film making and it must be stopped NOW! The next slow runner I see on screen will cause convulsion to seize my body. I am so sick and tired of slow motion in racing movies. Haven't we had enough? End rant . . . Other flaws in the film include the anthropomorphism of the horse. Look, the horse doesn't know what's really going on, and horses don't pose, and their owner can't peer deep into their "souls" by looking quietly into their eyes. This is another horse movie cliché that unfortunately Secretariat revels in. I assure all of you animists out there that no horse has ever had a reasonable thought, and it certainly has no soul. That's just a fact of life. Why Hollywood (and Disney in particular) insists on making these animals as human as possible baffles me. I have not ever, do not now, and will not ever understand this folly of animal movies. Maybe it's to get the audience to cry!
Anyway, despite its many flaws, Secretariat wants to entertain us and succeeds most of the time. A few clichés could have been avoided along with some technical errors, and perhaps the film takes a little too long to finish, but for the most part I liked the movie. I think most people will like the movie unless they're really, really curmudgeons. And a note to Randall Wallace: you are a talented man who makes good, wholesome, well-meaning, spiritual movies. Yes, I include Braveheart here as well.
Oh! He's a psychic . . . so what?
Is there an afterlife? If so, where is it? What is it like? Is it the same for everybody, or is each experience different? These are all questions we should be asking when we walk out of Clint Eastwood's new psycho-drama. Now I assure you that none of these questions remotely entered the back of my brain after seeing Hereafter. Instead of the meaningful questions we should be asking coming out of the theater, we ask ourselves, "Why? Why does this movie exist? For what purpose is this movie place on this earth? Why in the world would she do that and for what reason did he not do this? What ever did I do to deserve this movie?" The plot of this endless ghost story goes something like this: some people die, some people survive, a guy goes to bed, a guy goes to cooking school, a kid brushes his teeth, a girl drives a car, a woman cries, a woman gets in her car and drive to Switzerland, everyone goes to England, and then it end! Now of course, those are the Minor, Minor plot points, but you wouldn't know it from how long this movie takes to cover them. The second scene had me counting ceiling panels. I wanted to shout, "Get to the punch line already!" But of course I'm to disciplined to do that. Now, here is the plot the way it's supposed to be: George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is a factory worker who is recovering from his old, abandoned life as a psychic. It sounds bizarre, but you must understand that while most psychics are fakers and con-men, George really has the "gift". But of course George doesn't want the gift. Meanwhile on the shores of the Indian Ocean, a woman walks the streets when an enormous tsunami strikes the shore. She gets swept away by the rushing water and while being carried by the wave, she passes out and drowns. While in her unconscious (possibly dead state), she sees visions of people long dead and people she once knew. When she wakes up, she sets about trying to prove that there is an afterlife. There also exists a third plot that I won't get into just yet.
Now, like any dutiful film goer would do, I assumed that these stories would all converge and come together, and then there would be a story about it. I proved correct about the first point (they do all converge), but no story comes of it. The reason no story comes of it is simply this: it happens way down at the end of the movie. We wait two hours and nine minutes for something to happen and it never does. I think the screenplay possibly wanted to be a romantic French film in which all the different lives and unconnected stories converge and become one, meaningful and powerful story of love and hate. Well, leave that to the French, because us Americans have no talent for that whatsoever.
The first scene of the movie (the tsunami scene) captured my attention immediately. I thought, "What an excellent set-up). Well, this was the only good scene in the film. After the tsunami scene lives one long, drawn out, stupefying, boring scene after another. There is a scene about mid-way through the film in which George agrees to do a "reading" for a person. He takes her hands, gets a connection, and begins to tell her what he sees. He describes her mother who has just passed on, and then her father, also recently dead. But Daddy has a message, "I'm sorry for what I did all of those years ago." Then the person, with tears in their eyes, gets up and leaves, never to be seen again. Don't we get any kind of pay-off at all? There's no elaboration, there's no soul searching of any kind, just "Boo-hoo! Good bye!" That sort of beating around the bush infects the entire film. By the half an hour mark I was thinking, "Good God! Get to the golly dang point!" The film plods along at a snail's pace, never speeding up, never even starting. The whole film becomes one long beginning after another. I kept waiting for it to start and become an intriguing psycho-drama about psychics and the afterlife. But at about the two hour mark, I realized that there would never be a middle or end. It's just one strung out beginning. I was counting ceiling panels in the first thirty minutes. Eventually the utter shock of how bored I felt went away, and I found myself laughing at the absolutely ridiculous things the script came up with to show to us. Finally I gave up trying to understand or see where this awful clunker was headed and just sat back and laughed audibly at every stupid, psycho-babble phrase that came out of these characters' mouths. "I'm loosing him! I'm loosing him!!" got a big laugh out of me.
Finally the credits started to role and I said, "Praise God and all his angels! He is merciful!" I don't know how I sat through this endless clunker, but I did. I was aching with boredom by the time I got out of that theater. I can't believe they drug this movie out to two hours and nine minutes. It's way too long for what it does, which is practically nothing. To be glued to my seat, watching this drivel for that long was torturous. But most of all, the story is just God-awful. Here is a perfect example of film where nothing makes sense, nothing happens, and nothing is supposed to happen. The movie is so bad for so long that it just puts us in a dreary and miserable mood the rest of the night. Well, after this I have a lot of flossing to do. What boring, pointless slop this film turned out to be!
The Social Network (2010)
Today's answer to "Citizen Kane"
We all know the affect that Facebook has had on the world. Who knows whether for good or bad, but there has been an affect. People can connect with others like never before. It's a party online. Everyone is invited, but only the people who know how to use it right have a good time. If Facebook were to suddenly disappear off the face of the earth, then many, many people would be left sitting with nothing to do, wondering what hit them. If Facebook somehow left us, there would be an implosion in business, in social traffic, in personality, in life as we know it. Facebook is its own universe with its own physics and its own natural laws. The God of this universe and the creator of its natural order is young Mark Zuckerberg, who is currently the youngest billionaire in the world. His rise to fame and fortune is a sad parable about friendship and trust and ultimately, loss. The Social Network is a sharp and bitter movie made of bits and pieces of Facebook legend and historical fact. The very first scene of the film introduces Zuckerberg as an insanely intelligent, zealous, genius who is obsessed with himself and getting into the finals club. He is truly and utterly and a narcissistic jerk. His one and only motivation is to elevate his social status. When he cannot manage to get into the final clubs and his track record with women gets increasingly worse, he starts an exclusive network for Harvard undergrads called "The Facebook". Ultimately he succeeds in elevating his social status , but the question the film poses is whether it was worth screwing ten people (one of whom was your best friend) just to become "popular". Zuckerberg (at least as he's portrayed here) would say that is was certainly worth it.
Right from the start, we identify Zuckerberg as one who is out for his own interests. But is he willing to alienate everyone close to him in order to gain the applause of the world? Although the main character is completely detestable and despicable, we can identify with his ambitions. In some respects, Mark is admirable in that he will stop at nothing to achieve his goal; however his modus operandi is dark and disgusting. His ruthless determination leads him to two law suits, hatred by uncounted numbers of people, and most painfully the loss of his only true friends. By the end of the film he is no longer human, but rather the shell of one. Inside is an empty vacuum of emotion where Facebook is all that is left to keep him company. It doesn't matter if one knows the end of the film, so I'll give it away now. The final scene depicts Mark alone with his laptop in a conference room. On the screen is the Facebook that he started. All he can think of to do after the arduous journey he's just been on is to invite his former girlfriend to join his friend list on Facebook. She is the only person who he hasn't completely lost yet. As he sits there, he refreshes the site every few seconds to see if there is a response. Will she say "yes" or "no"? Perhaps we'll never no. He may be still waiting.
Aaron Sorkin has crafted a masterful screenplay full of greed, revenge, and solitude. It's a fable about the dangers of worldwide recognition. Is it worth the toll on our humanity? Perhaps not. Like Lady Gaga's song "LoveGame" asks: Do you want love or do you want fame? It's a Sophie's Choice of a question and it has no real answer. Both are hard to get and easy to loose. One thing that is for sure is that we can't have them both. Zuckerman's fatal misconception is that love will come along once fame is achieved. Once he does find his fame, he is left wondering, "Where is the love?" The screenplay's strength is not only in its message and its structure, but also in the words spoken by its characters. The dialog is sharp and sarcastic, even witty at times. There is a constant banter between the humans in the movie. Zuckerberg is sharp-tongued and straightforward. If he doesn't like someone, he'll tell them so. Sometimes the manner in which he goes about it is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Still, even with the liberal doses of humor sprinkled without, at the film's heart is a deep and dark sense of loss. Mark Zuckerberg is Charles Foster Kane by the end of the film. He is a man who worked hard enough to gain everything, and in the process lost everything. Sad, to be sure, but true.
David Fincher has also left his mark on the film. The cinematography is dark and haunting, much like his previous film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Fincher has a distinctive style that is identifiably from the first shot. The film is underexposed to a certain degree, capturing the darkness of the subject matter perfectly. In essence, the look of the movie is somewhat of a portrait of Mark's soul by the end of the film. It's dark, mean, and subtle. You have the feeling that there is some demon lurking in the shadows of each shot. Despite the ominous nature of the film, it's a beautiful movie to look at, just like Benjamin Button, but ultimately more satisfying after it's all over and done with. Benjamin Button left me cold, and fortunately this left me thinking. Left me thinking about my own humanity, and how easy it would be to loose it. The Social Network will become a classic to be sure. I can't say that about many movies. In fifty years this will be remembered well. It's a modern day Citizen Kane; a parable about love on our own terms. Those are the only terms we ever knowour own.
Winter's Bone (2010)
"Never ask for something that ought to be offered" - Ree Dolly
This is perhaps the grimmest, darkest, and most sombre tale of the passed few years. It is deeply stirring and thought-provoking, dishing out for its audience an immensely sad slice of life. Probably the main theme of this film is hopelessness and how we deal with it. Its characters are hopeless and hopelessly lost in this surreal world of poverty, drugs, and brutality. The audience is hopeless that its characters could possibly live happily ever after. Even the dark, almost colorless cinematography carries an air of hopelessness with it. It is a truly bleak and grizzly fable that plays before our eyes like nothing we've ever seen. I have seen many a motion picture, but none I've seen is at all like this one. It is a truly original movie, even thought it was based on a book. Neither the story, nor the characters, nor the oddly unsettling vibes radiating from the screen have ever really been presented before.
Because it is like nothing I've ever seen, I had no idea in which direction the film would go next. I kept expecting specific things to happen, but they never did. And certain things that did happen caught me completely off guard. Finally I realized that this film wasn't built on plot points. It was built on a whole. They picture can't be examined scene by scene like most can because the scene flow together seamlessly like real life. There is no telling where one event begins and the next ends. This could be the most relentlessly realistic film I've seen in a while. Instead of following a formula like even the greatest movies do, Winter's Bone takes its own path in telling the audience what it needs to know, and it takes its time getting there.
The premise is basically this: Jessup Dolly is a meth cooker who signs off his entire property as a bond for his bail after he is arrested. Once he is released on bail, he runs and pretty soon the law comes knocking on the Dolly family's door telling them that they will loose their house unless Jessup can be found. Jessup's daughter, Ree, looks around at her brother and sister and her emotionally distant mother and wonders what to do without a house. Then, without batting an eye, she firmly tells the county sheriff that she will find him herself. So begins her journey into a dangerous world inhabited mostly by other meth cooking relatives who are often both scary and sympathetic at the same moment. No one wants to help Ree maybe because they're just mean and hostile hillbillies, or maybe because they are afraid of what they may discover if they do help her. The thing I love most about the story is that there are no heroes and no villains. There are just people. People who for some reason known but to God, have been sentenced to live out their life in total ignorance and despair. Every character has numerous flaws, and every character has some qualities. Our "heroine", Ree, is hardly perfect. She is often mean and cruel and terribly cold when it comes to her emotions. She is often unlikable, but for some reason we identify with her. The rest of the people in this desolate backwoods universe are equally as cruel and determined as she. The one and only relative who is willing to even remotely help Ree is her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes). Although he can be just as evil and scary as the rest of the family, there is a streak of nobility in him that stops him form alienating Ree the way the rest of these dark souls do. So together, Ree and Teardrop do their best to find Jessup, but what waits down the road may be even more horrific and painful than being thrown off their property.
The film is a subtle, quiet, and utterly satisfying film with numerous unidentifiable themes. Perhaps the highlight of the production is Jennifer Lawrence's performance as the aforementioned Ree. In a role where most actresses would have gone wrong (either by over acting or becoming too emotional in their performance), Lawrence plays this poor girl to perfection. I can't really find a flaw here. She is not over-emotional in any way, nor is she too detached so as to become aloof to the audience. She travels through this bleak and dark film in a way that many other actresses would envy. In short, perfection. I would be surprised if there isn't an Oscar nomination for her. Of course the film is also beautifully shot. The cinematography by Michael McDonough is absolutely breath taking. It is dark and gray, and often times we can't hardly see anything. Some of the shots are so bleak and grim, evoking strong emotional responses form the audience. Every frame is so meaningful, and the spare use of colors only defines the meaning even more. The visual style is poignant and beautiful, giving the film a mood like no other.
I have to say, I loved this movie. It is probably the best of the year so far and I doubt it will be topped. The film is so well-executed in every way. Its performances are subtle and moving, the story though grim and violent at times is utterly thought provoking. This is one of those rare gems of a movie that comes along every now and then to really wow an audience. If you are a smart person, do yourself a favor and go see this. You will not be sorry. Winter's Bone is a stunning, beautiful, and grizzly depiction of the dark side of America. It is perhaps the darkest movie out this year. Nonetheless, it is truly a great movie in every sense. Nothing is wrong with it. If I could name a flaw, don't you think I would? Fabulous.
Bran Nue Dae (2009)
The Revival Continues
The past decade has seen the revival of the American musical. We've had Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera, and of course Sweeney Todd. Now here we are in a new decade, and musicals are still going strong. I loved this movie. Bran Nue Dae is an absolutely pointless film with an over-the-top plot and useless characters. But it's just so much fun. How could anybody not like this film? Rocky McKenzie is Willie, an aborigine boy in the late 1960s who is made to leave his home town of Broome to go to boarding school in Perth. The school is a Catholic School that trains its students to be priests. Willie is highly favoured by the school's headmaster, Father Benedictus (an eccentric "villain" played wonderfully by Geoffrey Rush), until he is caught stealing Coca-Cola from the school's kitchen. When Father Benedictus tries to punish Willie, he runs away on a journey back home to Broome. But Father Benedictus is hot on his heels, and Willie must then team up with some want-to-be hippies and an alcoholic old man to reach his goal.
This is a film much in the style of 1976's Bugsy Malone, a film that I absolutely adored. The story is pretty week and the plot has no point whatsoever. But it's just a wild, fun roller-coaster of a movie. The songs and comedic and catchy (especially a number called "Nothing I Would Rather Be" which takes place in the school's chapel), and the film moves along at a swift but pleasurable pace. It's a pretty corny movie, but then again, why shouldn't it be? It's a musical, and a pretty good one at that. Every scene is filled with an exciting dance number, a tender romance, or some loopy and hilarious joke of some sort. Of course, the story can't hold up to much scrutiny, but it's not supposed to. This film isn't interested in deep spiritual ideas or commentary on the human condition. It exists for no other reason but to entertain you, which I'm sure it will.
While I was watching this, I wasn't thinking about the convenience that almost everybody in this movie is heading to Broome, or that most of the characters (except maybe for the old man) are pretty shallow, or that for some reason when one person starts singing and dancing, everyone else somehow knows exactly what to do and organizes themselves into neat little dancing lines. I was just taken along for the ride, and I was loving every minute of it. I loved watching numerous Aborigines dancing on Church pews and somersaulting over the altar. I loved watching Geoffrey Rush attempt to do dance steps while disciplining people in a rather ridiculous German accent. I loved watching all these corny and ridiculous stereotypes interact before my eyes. And by the way, this film is filled with stereotypes. Stereotypes of Germans, Aborigines, old men, prostitutes, Priests, preachers, and hippies. Even so, this is far form a stereotypical film. It's one of the most original I've seen in a long time. There isn't one scene here that you would find in another film in the same context. It's goofy and weird and illogical, but who cares? We're having a great time.
Now, this isn't one of those musicals where the singing and dancing flow seamlessly together with the dialogue. In fact, sometimes when the characters suddenly start singing it's laugh-out-loud ridiculous. The musical numbers are in no way subtle. They stick out like a sore thumb. But does it really matter. Did we come to see this for an opera of some sort? No! We came to see Aborigines dance and Geoffrey Rush try to fake a German accent. And if we came expecting just that, you'll be more than impressed. However, if for some reason you want this film to explore some deep meanings, search elsewhere. This is not for you. At no point in this rather short movie was I bored. I was always waiting to see what happens next and what crazy misadventure young Willie will encounter. This movie entertains. That's what it does. It entertained me like I haven't been entertained in a while. Now I'm not saying I don't like serious films. I probably even prefer them to this sort of thing. But every once in a while, I just want to be entertained. That's what I got from Bran Nue Dae.
From a technical standpoint, the film is also pretty impressive. I am extremely fond of the photography in this film. Every shot has a meaning to it. There is one particular scene in which two lovers are swimming with each other under water. It's so perfect and simple. There isn't a flaw in that scene. The colours in the movie are rich and the shots memorable. Andrew Lesney (The Lord of the Rings, King Kong) has outdone himself this time. The overall colour scheme of the film seems to be yellow orange and blue, and it works exceptionally well. It's a shame that this film won't get much notice up here in America. I find it extremely unfortunate that we must search clear over to Australia to find descent entertainment these days. American films form Hollywood are becoming more dumb and generic every year, while the independent and foreign films make a come-back. Unfortunately, the general public will hardly see any of these alternatives, but instead will continue to go to these mind-numbing, Hollywood CGI fests. Last year's Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker, only received a fraction of the recognition it deserved. Well, enough of these sentiments.
In a decade full of new and exciting musicals, Bran Nue Dae is one of the most original and creative. The songs are catchy and the characters witty and the photography striking. I liked this movie a lot, and I wish it the best of luck when the awards season comes around later this year.
The Wildest Dream (2010)
I Dreamed About Walking Out of This Movie
In 1924, English mountain climber George Mallory attempted (for the third time) to be the first man to climb Mount Everestthe highest point on Earth. It was a daunting challenge of a magnificent kind. As he and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine made their way up the slopes and the sheer cliffs, one has to wonder, why? Why would a man attempt such a thing. What would posses a man with a wife (with whom he was madly in love) and three children at home to attempt a feat unknown to man at that time? Whatever the reason, Mallory pursued this wildest dream of his, even to his death upon the mountain side. He went up, and never came down. Nobody really knows if he reached the top or not. But one thing is for certain, had Mallory failed and survived, passion would have sent him up there again.
Unfortunately Anthony Geffen's documentary about this man is much less passionate. It is somewhat of a half-hearted attempt at an emotional connection with the audience. The film itself tells two stories. The first is a weak and dull documentation of Mallory's home life and his conquest of the mountain. The second is the true yet still preposterous story of Conrad Anker's attempt to climb the mountain using the same gear as Mallory (Anker was the man who finally found George Mallory's body upon the mountainside in 1999). And then of course the film also explores Anker's feelings and his compulsion to climb mountains. Now Mr. Anker must be as passionate about climbing Everest as Mallory certainly was, but he comes off as more of a sideshow that one wants to laugh at. The film makes no attempt to be poetic or emotionally insightful. Instead it is completely naked, laying the story out in front of you without the slightest bit of artistry or professionalism. The end result is a bland and uninteresting hour and a half of counting ceiling panels in the theater. I know for certain that a movie is disappointing if I begin counting the ceiling panels at the top of the theater. I've seen documentaries about the life and times of Barney the Dinosaur that were more compelling than this loaf of bread. The inspiration that fueled Mallory and that must have also fueled Anker is hardly evident in this clunker.
Perhaps the film's biggest problem is not its difficulty in connecting to the audience, but perhaps the fact that it is just plain boring. You would think that any story about people risking their lives to achieve glory would be suspenseful and intriguing, but, alas this is not the case. There is not an ounce of tension anywhere to be found. The film begins with a particularly uninteresting static shot of the mountain and most of the other shots follow suit. The most interesting any single frame of film gets is an obviously computer generated shot that swoops through the valleys and up onto the side of the mountain. From there we get a pleasing vista of the snow. It is unfortunate that, given such great subject matter, this film utterly fails in capturing the interest or emotional excitement of its audience. And I kid you not, this is the only picture I've ever seen in which the credits were more interesting than the film. As soon as the first ten minutes I was counting the seconds until it was over.
Of course, the film has a few redeeming qualities. The first and most obvious is the voice actors who narrate. The narrator is the great Liam Neeson, who can make any role seem worthwhile, even stupid ones. The voice of George Mallory as he reads his letters is the ever-welcome Ralph Fienneswho has worked with Liam Neeson before as the evil Amon Goethe in Schindler's List. Mallory's wife Ruth is voiced by the late Natasha Richardson (who also happened to be married to Neeson before her untimely death). The voices make up for some of the drag in the picture, but of course not all. The other element that saves this form being a total flop is its often stunning pictures of the Mountain in all its glory and magnificence. But other than this, the picture has little going for it. Perhaps I am being too harsh on it, but then again I always go into a film expecting it to be good. Not that I always truly think it will be good, but if I go to a movie, I demand a good experience. This film did not give me that. The story, although very compelling and fascinating, was not executed well at all. Instead it seems as though it has fermented too long and gone sour. It is like a soda that has lost its carbonation. It just lays there in front of you, and once you start drinking, you have to finish, but it is an unpleasant experience. Just like the soda, this film has gone flat. If this was the last film I saw before I died, I would demand that I be sent back to Earth to watch something even remotely better than this.
But here I am again, taking a movie apart that no doubt many people will find interesting. But as for me, I was bored beyond belief (except in the scenes where the narrators chime in). Perhaps the problem is mine and I was the one who didn't connect. But of course we can never know, so for now I am blaming the film. It didn't affect me in any way, and I just felt dull and indifferent after leaving the theater. Oh well, every director lays an egg every now and again, although I don't see any hope for Geffen. If only he could add a little art and poetry to this film, it would have been much more intriguing and enthralling. Thus concludes my review of The Wildest Dreamhappy movie hunting!
Black Narcissus (1947)
Feast Your Eyes . . . Live the Dream
If not the most beautiful Technicolor film ever made (yes I say "ever") then certainly the most ambitious. Shot entirely at Pinewood Studios in England, the film features some of the most stunning and convincing matte paintings ever produced. The entire Himalayan setting is a falsehood, but such a luscious and beautiful falsehood it is. This is the epitome of movie trickeryand all done without the help of a computer.
A ridged, yet inexperienced Anglican nun called Sister Clodaugh, played mercilessly by Deborah Kerr, is appointed Sister Superior of a new convent high in the Himalayan Mountains at a sight known as St. Faith. So off she and her other five or six sisters go into this forbidden palace. But there's something in the air up there; how the wind blows day and night, and how the air is so clean and crystal clear, and how an unnerving Holy Man sits upon the mountain perpetually staring into the intimidating white hills. Almost at once, Sister Clodaugh senses something is not quite right. At first she blames it upon the local nuisance, a carefree Englishman played by David Farrar, but soon she learns something far more enigmatic and sinister haunts the mountains, and neither she nor her companions have any power to stop it. It is a wonderfully atmospheric tale of the struggle to control the world around us. In many cases we may succeed, but ultimately there is always something greater than ourselves willing to beat us.
I have to say, I'm not exactly sure what Black Narcissus is about. It is about many things. It's about faith, and how fragile it is. It's about the struggle of life and death. It is about the dangers of worldly pleasures, and the risk we take when we indulge them. But still, it is hard to pinpoint the ultimate theme of the film. Maybe it is meant to be like the mountains in which the Sisters dwellalways beautiful and alluring, but also sinister and twisted. It's a delectable film, full of rich characters and stunning photography. There is a particular scene in which Sister Clodaugh is ringing the morning bell to announce that the convent is "open for business". The bell stands directly on the face of a cliff, just before a sheer, possibly thousand-foot drop into the wilderness below. Of course absolutely none of it is real. There's no drop, no dizzying fall. Yet the matte painting used to simulate the effect is so real and dazzling, that we feel the effect as if we were actually there. It makes us dizzy to watch from above as Sister Clodaugh rings that bell, praying that she won't go tumbling to her death below.
All this trickery is the work of art director Alfred Junge, and genius cinematographer Jack Cardiff (both, by the way, won Academy Awards). The way Cardiff sets up his shots, and the angles at which he shoots the vast faux vistas creates a richly elaborate universe in which to dwell. It all seems so dream-like and yet very real. Never before or after was Technicolor used to such a beautifying degree. Often, the system either over-saturated or blended the contrasting colors. The colors in Black Narcissus are appropriately basking in rich colors, but not so much as it to become a gimmick. Instead it is just a brilliant nuance that is hardly noticeable until you step back and think about it. The atmosphere created by these three elements (production design, cinematography, and Technicolor) is a dark, chilling, mystifying atmosphere, full of forbidding and foreboding. The picture lives in a world reminiscent of Rembrandt and Vermeer and Van Gough. A beautiful contrast of dark versus light and an exploration into the world of color as has never been matched, even by such films as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.
As the film thunders along in its flurry of emotions, one particular performance stands out. Of course, Deborah Kerr is excellent and perfectly cast, but the performance I wish to illuminate is much darker and wicked. It is British actress Kathleen Byron as the half-mad, over ambitious Sister Ruth. Byron is simply brilliant and, although in a supporting role, carries most of the emotional weight of the movie (which is quite a substantial amount). It's one of those subtle performances. Not an obvious acting job like Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde. No, this is subtle and unique, even though the whole film is a melodrama. Byron's madness and frightfulness is kept at bay until the very end as it should be. Nothing is there initially, but the performance blossoms into one of the most chilling and effective portrayals I have ever seen. The rest of the supporting cast does well enough, highlighted by an old caretaker of the mountain palace played by May Hallat. It's a classic 1940s performance. Sort of a crazy old woman who, like everyone must at some point, has been turned insane by the mountain's atmosphere.
Ahhh, this is one of the most ambitious, imaginative, and spectacular films I have ever seen. But it is not meant to be at all. It is subtle and subdued, despite the Technicolor and the melodrama and the astounding production design. It has every mark of an epic, thunderous, enormous film in the style of The Ten Commandments or The Sound of Music, but it somehow avoids such delusions of grandeur. Black Narcissus is everything a movie has to be. Deep, touching, moving, and above all emotionally exciting. It is very exciting to be sure. Although the story is not necessarily on full of action and big adrenaline pumping rampages, the film manages to pull of a different kind of thrill. The thrill of the chilling mountain air, the thrill of being high above the world, the thrill of the wind blowing against your face as you slowly, yet noticeable loose your mind.