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Wild Ocean (2008)
Short, beautiful to look at, but not very deep (excuse the pun)
I imagine this lost a lot going from the visual power of 3D IMAX to my 60 inch 2D monitor, And it's 40 minute running time limited how deep it could go. (No pun intended). But it still was enjoyable a well done wildlife documentary, focusing on the wild feeding frenzy that occurs most years along the eastern coast of South Africa, as giant clouds of hundreds of millions of sardines gather in search of food, bringing in turn every kind of imaginable predator in turn to eat them: sharks, dolphins, whales, sea birds, seals, and of course man.
Humans have fished this phenomena so heavily that the numbers of sardines has started to drop in recent years, and at the same time global ocean warming has started to change the sardines' geographical migration patterns.
All this is interesting and (or course) very well photographed. But probably because IMAX has to appeal to young kids as well as adults there's not the kind of depth of specific scientific information you might find in one of those BBC/David Attenborough documentaries covering the same subject.
Worth seeing, but probably far more so in it's natural habitat of a 60 foot IMAX screen.
Siu Lam juk kau (2001)
Fun, but not on the same insane level as Chow's later "Kung Fu Hustle"
While this shares some of the wonderful sense of the surreal and absurd that made Chow's 2008 "Kung Fu Hustle" a true classic comedy spoof of marshal arts films, it's nowhere near as consistent or as inventive in it's comedy. There are some real laughs, but also some serious dead spots and too-easy jokes in this tale of a bunch of once Shaolin trained Kung Fu masters giving up their hum-drum and largely unsuccessful work-a-day lives to team up and become the mightiest soccer playing force the world has ever seen.
Or are they? Team Evil is waiting to take them on in the $1 million soccer tournament.
Good-hearted and original enough to be worth seeing once, but unlike it's even wilder and smarter descendant I can't imagine feeling a need to go back and see it again, or to own it. If that later film is like a Hong Kong action Monty Python film, this one is more Three Stooges.
Prince of Broadway (2008)
Another big hearted, funny, touching view of society's outsiders from Sean Baker
This film by Sean Baker pre-dates his better known "Tangerine" and "Starlet", but shares many of those films' considerable strengths. Baker finds a way to make films about those on the very edge of society transsexual hookers in "Tangerine", a druggy porn star in "Starlet", hustlers selling counterfeit bags and clothing on the streets of New York here, and present their lives with compassion, empathy and surprisingly tremendous amounts of humor.
Baker neither judges nor condescends. These are flawed and screwed up people like all of us and they have great qualities, like strength, resilience and smarts like all of us too. And for all the laughs he finds in their idiosyncratic worlds and situations, it never feels like he's laughing AT these struggling folks on the margins. Baker just sees that life can be funny and people can be funny even when circumstances are tough.
As always he gets terrific performances from a mix of pros and non-actors, who also collaborated on the dialogue (in some ways Baker seems a bit of an American Mike Leigh).
For 'Prince of Broadway' the basic plot is be a bit more familiar and predictable than some of his films: An old girl friend shows up at struggling illegal black immigrant Lucky's door and drops off a 2 year old boy, claiming that Lucky is the father, and that she's be back in 2 weeks to get him back. It's not much of a spoiler to say the kid stays longer than 2 weeks, and despite all Lucky's efforts to the contrary, he starts to bond with the boy who may or may not be his son.
But the plot here is secondary to the wonderful moment by moment human interactions. Prince Adu is terrific as Lucky. A big, tough looking guy with a terribly soft heart, Lucky is prone to freak outs and weeping as he realizes how in over his head he is in dealing with this child -- and with life in general. His best friend is his boss Levon, a white Armenian guy who runs a shop selling counterfeit and/or stolen merchandise, but who seems to genuinely care for Lucky and his fellow workers, as well as his regular customers and who is struggling through his own painfully rocky marriage. These three form the center of the story, and a number of very well drawn supporting characters spiral off from there.
The film looks like it was made for about $25, and the end credits show the crew to be tiny, but Baker is expert at making the low-budget rough edges of his films work in their favor, using the low tech filming style to feed a sense of near documentary honesty without falling into the now common trap of trying to make it feel literally like a documentary. The film may be messy and loose, but it's also clear Baker is thinking about where his camera goes and about telling a story visually as well as through great performances and terrific writing.
With each film by Baker I see I like him and his body of work more. Here's a guy who wants to tell the stories of the people that Hollywood and TV ignores, and does it with tons of heart, humor and smarts. Whatever minor flaws it might have, it's very much worth seeing.
Intelligent, well made, brilliantly cast family feature
Intelligent, well made family feature from the original novel, bearing little resemblance to the now campy-seeming US TV series.
Beautifully shot, well scored, and featuring a first-rate adult cast (Peter O'Toole, Samantha Morton, John Lynch, Peter Dinkage) along with some very endearing child actors, this manages to be sweet without being saccharine, sentimental without being cloying.
It even has a nice layer of social commentary about the English class system the story involves the beloved pet being bought away from a near-starving family who can't afford to say 'no' when a lord offers them cash for their son's faithful companion.
I appreciated that Lassie is treated as a real dog, and not some kind of super-mutt. A great, wonderful dog to be sure, but her behaviors all stay within the realm of real-life dog abilities.
A very good film for kids and tweens, and a not at all bad one for grown ups who might watch with them. While it might not have quite the deep emotional power and/or wild humor of the truly classic family films, it's certainly well crafted and worth watching.
Silicon Cowboys (2016)
Light, enjoyable look at a surprising breakout business
Entertaining, intelligent 77 minute documentary about the surprising rise of Compaq computer the almost off-handed 1981 brainchild of three young Houston friends to become a serious rival to the seemingly untouchable giant, starchy, old-school IBM.
If there's not a lot of emotion or deeper levels to the doc, there's certainly a likable humanity to these not-so-corporate types who succeeded while creating the kind of relaxed, egalitarian company culture we now see as commonplace in the computer world, but at the time went against everything about how you were supposed to run a 'serious' company.
Maybe not a film to run out and buy, or one that will call out for multiple viewings. But I was never bored, and I was happy to get a look at this recent piece of modern business and cultural history.
Important, maddening and entertaining
A likable, nicely shot, important and informative doc, often shocking as it shows just how much perfectly good food goes to waste in the U.S. and Canada (it's more than you think even if you think it's a LOT).
The central element: director Grant Baldwin and his mate and film-making partner Jen Rustemeyer decide to live for 6 months only on food that is discarded. Far from having to ingest disgusting half-eaten snacks, they find a plethora of high end, terrific, nutritious foods, sometimes tossed because they were at or just somewhat near their 'sell by' date (which the film explains has little real world relation to freshness or health), or because of minor cosmetic blemishes, or sometimes as with boxes upon boxes of high end chocolate bars and containers of hummus for no obvious reason at all (they check for food warnings and recalls to make sure they're not accidentally poisoning themselves).
Along the way we also see interviews with various experts on food waste, meet organic farmers, and get glimpses of how crazy the waste through the whole system is from farm to store to home. (For just one of many examples; celery routinely has a large number of perfectly good stalks from each plant cut off to make packaging and shipping a bit easier, leaving behind a field full of top rate, unblemished chopped off stalks.) It's all educational and often maddening.
That said, it's not a film I feel a need to own. It's not a particularly emotional or deep experience, and the facts it shares are straightforward and clear. So I don't think it's something I need to see again, as glad as I was to have seen it once. That's both a strength the film accomplishes it's goal of awakening the viewer admirably and efficiently and a weakness as a film it doesn't transcend from enlightening and entertaining lecture to an artistic experience.
Müll im Garten Eden (2012)
Powerful, poetic and sad documentary by Faith Akin
Note: This can be purchased on Amazon.de under the title "Mull Im Garten Eden" - it has English subtitles
I'm a long time fan of the Turkish/German film-maker Faith Akin, so I tracked down a copy of this documentary. I was glad I did.
Filmed over a number of years this is a solid, sometimes poetic, very sad film about the building of a garbage dump in the picturesque sea-side Turkish town of Camburnu, and how it slowly destroyed the town and its way of life. Eco horror stories like this are nothing new, but Akin's humanist approach makes us care by letting us get to know and like some of the crucial people of the town like the mayor who are fighting an endless uphill battle against the damage the lying and disinterested central government is wreaking on them.
These people are no rural rubes they seem to know more about the law and even the engineering flaws of the dump's construction than the pathetic men who are supposed to be in charge. Inspiring at times, depressing and defeating at others, it's not the first film to show how greed and indifference is undermining our world, but it's a strong and human example.
Makes the familiar fresh
Argento has managed to transcend the trappings the ocean of coming of age/awful childhood films to create something odd, funny, sad horrifying, inventive and unique.
It's triply impressive because the heroine here is a 'poor little rich girl' thus making her less automatically sympathetic, and she is clearly rooted in Argento's own childhood growing up with artistic, dramatic and well known parents. And it's very easy for such a personal film to lose its objectivity and simply become a scream at those adults that wounded you as a child. But by playing deftly with black humor and touches of the surreal the film mostly avoids self- pity on one side and the overly familiar on the other.
Yes, by the end watching spunky, sweet and sad little Aria get endlessly shuffled back and forth between her divorced and monstrously selfish parents gets a bit repetitive (although it IS all slowly evolving towards an ending the repetition does pay off). And a few sequences don't work as well as most. But for every minor miss-step under Argento's adventurous hand there are a number of wonderful and very cinematic moments. It's a film I look forward to seeing again, and I hope it gets an English subtitled release on blu-ray or DVD soon.
Suicide Squad (2016)
Better than I expected, but far from what it might have been
Maybe it was the vicious reviews that led me to over compensate and be somewhat pleasantly surprised by this. Of course, I'm not the core audience, being well into middle age and not generally a fan of the comic book movie universe. That once very entertaining world now feels played out and repetitive to me, no matter how high tech the special effects.
But I did love Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy- largely for hijacking and making fun of the formulas. And that's probably why I liked (not loved) Suicide Squad. While not as successful at biting the hand that bore it as those other two comic films that refused to play by the rules, it still has fun with darkness and light and all our preconceptions about heroes and villains.
Indeed, it could have been flat out terrific, but two substantive problems held it back. First, the core plot is as silly, illogical and uninspiring as any in the weakest of the genre. Just because the film is more about the characters than the story doesn't mean there's couldn't have been something a little more imaginative to hang the tale on.
And, perhaps even more damningly, for a film that purports to be a sort of 'Dirty Dozen' of the comic book world, its villains turned anti-heroes are nowhere near 'anti' enough. They're all entertaining lightweights in the moral division. If they've done bad things you can be sure it was always for good reasons and/or they feel really bad about it. Instead of forcing us into the juicy, morally messy joy of forcing us relate to some really bad 'heroes', these are more misunderstood victims with superpowers then Walter Whites who happen to also be able to make things fly or explode. And that's too bad, because with more bite, edge and embrace of punky anarchy this could have been that rare popcorn movie is truly subversive, instead one that mildly, if sometimes entertainingly, play acts at it.
Spa Night (2016)
Delicate, well made but almost too understated coming of age tale
Beautifully shot and very well made on a truly micro budget, this story of a gay 2nd generation teen Korean coming of age in Los Angeles gains from it's intelligent production, attention to detail and unusual cultural setting, but also loses something in it's extremely familiar basic story of adolescence as well as in being so cold in it's lead actor's effect-less nature and the character's almost wordless personality. Add that with the film's distanced style and there ultimately is more to admire here than to be deeply emotionally engaged in. It's also not helpful that while Joe Seo underplays right to the edge of disappearing as David, our protagonist, some in supporting roles overplay to the point of near caricature. Neither extreme might have felt off putting in a film where the acting was more of a piece. But having the two styles next to each other was too often a reminder I was watching a film played by actors, not real human beings. Also, while I have no idea how old Joe Seo is, he looks far older than the high-school student he's supposed to be, which also took something away from feeling for the character's youthful confusion and ennui.
None-the-less, for all that carping I'm very glad I saw the film, and in Ahn's delicate use of imagery there were a good number of poetic moments that captured the painful and joyful confusion of finding one's adult self starting to emerge, even when that self puts you on a cultural collision course with your both your parents and your community.
If not the best coming of age film of recent years, it's at least a worthy addition to that admittedly overcrowded genre.