Film Review: Let Me In

Film Review:
Let Me In–R
Directed by Matt Reeves
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Moretz,
Richard Jenkins, Elias Koteas
115 Minutes, Feature Film
Hammer Films

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The American film remake sub-genre is, generally speaking, a film industry cop out. Take an inspired (or uninspired) original source–films generally carrying the word “classic” in their notoriety–and present a new and updated version to an audience that studios predict will pay money to see a film they have already seen. While exceptions can be found, most remakes fail to best their source material, the horror genre being the best example.

In the past decade we have seen remakes of more than a dozen universally lauded classics in the horror and thriller genre. Most appeared to be nothing more than opportunities to cash in on a film’s preexisting reputations; seldom did these films shed new light on the classic story. To this end a remake of the 2008 Swedish vampire/coming of age film, “Let the Right One End” seemed pointless and actually offensive to a perfectly fine film that just happens to have subtitles.

Matt Reeves “Let Me In” is a surprisingly rare breed of remakes. Its source material is indeed from foreign soil, which, too, is another sub-genre within the remake sub-genre of horror. Following in the footsteps of such successes as the wave of Japanese ghost story remakes like “The Ring” or “Dark Water,” “Let Me In” hopes to attract a new audience, one not expected to have sat through the subtitles of the original, to this refreshingly unique take on vampire lore.

It’s also a rare breed of remakes in that scene for scene “Let Me In” is almost a direct retelling of its predecessor. Its flow is uniform as are many of the original’s memorable shots. Like its source material, “Let Me In” is set in a cold, empty place (here, Los Alamos, New Mexico, filling in for the desolate suburb of Stockholm). It’s an understandably bleak environment for what on the surface is a terribly bleak story, one that has climaxes that are both triumphant and despairing.

Owen (“The Road’s” Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young, lonely and bored boy. He spends his days fleeing from bullies; avoiding his overly preachy, wine-o mother; spying on neighbors through his apartment’s very own “rear window;” and indulging in the one thing that seems to bring him comfort, his Now & Later fruit chews.

When a young and mysterious girl named Abby (Chloe Moretz) arrives one frigid night observed walking barefoot through the snowy courtyard, Owen’s world suddenly becomes all the more interesting.

The friendship that forms is the essence of what makes this story (the original was based off a best-selling Swedish vampire novel) so unprecedented in vampire iconography. This isn’t the 90201-themed love triangle of the “Twilight” series, nor does it attempt to be a clever comment on society a la HBO’s breakout hit series, “True Blood.”

“Let Me In” is a love story like “Harold and Maude” is a love story. It is a coming of age story in the same austere way Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel, “The Road” is. More to the point, it doesn’t glamorize the vampire lifestyle, but rather shows it as a cruel infliction on everyone involved, both physically and mentally.

While some alterations are made from “Let the Right One In” (a strange scene from the original involving a pack of wild cats is smartly removed this time around) the filmmakers respectfully mirror the original, swapping for a Reagan era small town U.S.A setting and throwing a larger budget to the production (a particularly effective shot from the back of a car as it slides out of control stands out).

Director Matt Reeves drops snippets of Reagan’s famous, “Evil Empire” speech early on in the film, a speech in which the former President acknowledges evil’s existence in the world. This is not merely a way to present the setting. Whether or not the characters believe or know there is definite evil in the world is beside the point; they don’t understand it. In “Let Me In” things aren’t as black and white as good and evil.

Religion is hinted at throughout the film, primarily with the word evil being tossed around. Owen’s mother is hardly seen or heard from in this film because she is not entirely there for her son. She is struggling with her own beliefs and her weakness for the bottle. She sees and believes in the evils of the world but yet doesn’t care enough to protect her own son who ultimately turns to violent acts to solve his own confrontations with the evil that hears about but doesn’t quite understand.

We see early on where his character is headed in terms of his budding kinship to Abby who, as she puts it so eloquently, has been twelve years old for a very long time. To say much more would spoil the film’s intrigue. To tread lightly, this is a film that leaves the viewer wondering about the decisions made by its characters after the credits roll.

“Let Me In” features a stellar cast including the great character actors Elias Koteas (“The Thin Red Line”) as a curious, soft spoken policeman, and Richard Jenkins (HBO’s “Six Feet Under”) as Abby’s mysterious father-like caretaker. Here both men play somber and serious men who don’t quite understand what is happening around them, but are drawn into the fold nevertheless. In one scene Jenkin’s protector character pleads with Abby not to see Owen again. It’s a simple exchange of words that manages to tell so much about his past with her and his understanding that after he’s gone she will still be.

“Let the Right One In” is a masterful little horror film that should be seen by all fans of the genre. On its own, “Let Me In” stands up surprisingly well but ultimately feels like an easy way around trying one’s hand at a foreign language film. It’s a far more insightful film than anything else you might see this Halloween season and hopefully will pique the curiosity of its viewers enough to seek out the original.

Film Review: Tyson

Film Review:
Directed by James Toback
90 min Documentary
Sony Pictures Classics, 2009

Mike Tyson has always been one of those tragic prominent American figures whose achievements were unfairly overshadowed by his mishaps in life. Like Michael Jackson (from the incredible Thriller to his legal adventures in Neverland), Phil Spector (music revolutionary to big haired, gun toting murderer) or even President Bill Clinton (from the political arena changing “war room” to Monicagate), it’s easy to forget how incredible these individuals once were.

James Toback’s new documentary Tyson makes no attempts at debunking boxing champ Mike Tyson’s various conundrums over the years. Yes, he had a reputation for mistreating woman. Yes, he was a sexual deviant. Yes, he once bit Evander Holyfield’s ear, twice to be exact! In Tyson, Toback lets the cameras roll as Tyson reveals his remarkable life story from doomed street hood to an extremely young heavyweight champion of the world to gossip page luminary.

In 1986 at the terribly immature age of 20 “Iron Mike” won his first world title after knocking out Trevor Berbick in the second round. That prior to this monumental win Tyson had won 26 of his first 28 fights with a knockout, many within the first round, makes his early feats inside the ring all the more remarkable.

The first half of Tyson follows the same routine sports film formula, showing the contender rise from rags to riches through hard work, determination and a supporting mentor figure, in Tyson’s case, veteran manager Cus D’Amato.

He survives the perilous streets of his childhood and finds a constructive outlet for his anger with the gloves. The fight footage is enthralling (he truly was a powerhouse of a boxer) and his explanation of tactics like, “always trying to aim through the back of my opponents head, trying to find my punch going through and ending out the back of the head” is terrifying. When you realize how young and more importantly how naïve Tyson was when he was thrust onto the world stage, it’s a lot easier to find empathy in his downfalls over the years.

The father-like D’Amato brings out the confidence in Tyson but also unleashes the animal that made him such a ferocious force inside the ring. D’Amato’s premature death isn’t examined to great lengths in Tyson but it’s evident that it was a major catalyst for Tyson’s isolation in the world. 

Weaving together modern day interview footage with footage from his various fights, Toback succeeds in shedding the limelight on Tyson’s extraordinary rise. The latter half of the film focuses on Tyson’s rough maturation.

There is no excusing Tyson for his poor choices along the way (his sexual escapades, drug/alcohol abuse, violence outside of the ring), no matter how many teary eyed interviews Toback includes. In many ways the film’s failures are found in its glossing over of certain key events, most notably the Desiree Washington rape trial, which was a legal nightmare for Tyson who was notoriously misrepresented by the defense team chosen by Don King. 

Some of the film’s multiple screen editing with overlapping dialogue is distracting to the flow (especially considering Tyson’s high pitched speech impediment), however, overall the film succeeds in its attempt to allow an older Tyson tell his side of his life story once and for all. 

For boxing fanatics Tyson may not be the most revealing film to document Tyson’s career. His notoriety within that world still stands tall, however, for those of us who primarily followed his career through the scandalous five o’clock news spotlights the film is a refreshing reminder of how prolific he was as a fighter (seriously, in one fight Tyson admits to sparring with his opponent while suffering from a nasty case of gonorrhea, which he may or may not of contracted from a hooker). 

The tale of the soul who threw it all away is a common one. With Tyson, Toback captures the tragedy of Mike Tyson’s career not by focusing on his misfortunes in life but of the little moments that shaped who he was and is today. By the time the film comes to his lackluster swan song in 2005 against contender Kevin McBride, Tyson appears relieved of the weight of having to be number one. While it’s hard to find admiration in his monetary cop out, fighting McBride solely for the payoff, void of any passion for the sport, Tyson seems wiser and at peace in his later years.

The film’s closing moment, set to Tyson’s somber wheezing breaths in the background, is terribly unglamorous for a film documenting a raging bull of a fighter like Tyson. Still the somber finale is fitting knowing what we now know about Kid Dynamite. 

Film Review: Sin Nombre

Dreams of El Norte

Film Review:
Sin Nombre
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
96 min Feature, 2009

The gang members portrayed in Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre, are among some of the most frightening real-life villains ever to be fleshed out on screen. Covered from head to toe with tattoos (not to mention painfully endured initiation ink on the inside of the lower lip) and toting menacing homemade pipe guns, the Mara Salvatrucha family in Sin Nombre live in a world of devastating carnage and hopelessness. 

Sin Nombre was a runaway hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is an ambitious debut feature from a talented new director to keep an eye on. At times the film is an adrenaline-fueled amalgamation of Fernando Meirelle’s brutal exposé of Rio de Janeiro’s gang warfare, City of God and Gregory Nava’s 1983 border crossing odyssey El Norte. One half carries the same thrills that made City of God so exhilarating–fast paced cat and mouse chase scenes and gritty moments of violence. The film’s other side is reminiscent of the socially poignancy of El Norte, a film that would make anyone reconsider the U.S./Mexico border dispute and the grueling journeys so many hopeful immigrants undergo.

When we first meet Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia) the leader of the Tapachula, Mexico syndicate of Salvatrucha he has recently kidnapped and beaten a member of a rival gang. Without hesitation he enlists a young, rising thug, El Casper (Edgar Flores) and his even younger minion El Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer), to shoot the young hostage in the head with a makeshift gun, yet another initiation task to show his cajones. The body is then mutilated and fed to a pack of equally vicious dogs. This is only the first of many tests and grueling exercises that the young recruits must endure. 

While El Casper and many other Tapachula youngsters are establishing their loyalties, a young Honduran girl, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), begins the arduous journey north to the Texas/Mexico border with her estranged father and uncle. She realizes there is nothing for her in Honduras and is told of a better life in New Jersey, far off the folded Central American map the trio refer to throughout the film.

The Honduran’s odyssey starts in the jungles of Central America, segues to the corrupt Southern Mexican border, and ends up on the crowded roof tops of various freight trains headed north to the U.S. crossing.

Eventually the two worlds depicted in Sin Nombre merge as El Casper and Sayra are entangled in a dangerous race to reach the border. The love story, dramatic music and chase thrills that fill Sin Nombre’s latter half weigh the film down a bit, pulling away from its social realism. Still the meat of the film, particularly during the perilous train journey, is a heartbreaking glimpse at the trek so many people make to the promised land in The North. 

The film’s title translates to “nameless,” referencing the often-disposable soldiers that make up these urban gangs and the hundreds of souls trying to cross into our country on a daily basis. While it’s easy to view these people as a singular faction (or if you believe in the Lou Dobbs doctrine, an epidemic), Sin Nombre gives these faces a story, albeit one with devastating results. While the issue of immigration remains a hot talking point in politics and in living room cable news debates, there are thousands of people risking their lives every year just for the chance of somehow making it. They leave families, friends and their familiar life for the promise (or illusion) of bigger and better.

Films like Sin Nombre, or better yet the immortal El Norte, are made to show the unspoken side to the immigration debate. They are released as pieces of fiction but are rooted in the style of documentary realism. More often than not they sneak by the mainstream but should be seen with eyes wide open.

Film Review: Everlasting Moments

A Life Caught on Film

Film Review: Everlasting Moments
Directed by Jan Troell
131 min. Feature Film, 2008

Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments is a period piece without the overtly glamorous costumes ubiquitous to its genre. It is based on a true story but in the most unassuming manner, that is to say, straying away from the familiar subjects–the famous, the regal, and the important. It’s a foreign film but it could be set anyplace with an underclass. To this end Everlasting Moments fits the formula for a tedious subtitled piece set in a forgotten time but is ultimately one of the most intimate, honest and uplifting portrayals of the proletariat in a time of inequality since Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.

Set in Southern Sweden circa the early 1900s, Everlasting Moments follows a working class family as they struggle to survive through political unrest, a world war, and their father/husband Sigfried’s ill-fated alcoholism. At its core the film is about a woman’s dreams of escaping her surroundings and the camera that helps fuel this desire.

Shot in the grainy 16mm film stock of yesteryears (the film was then transferred to the normal 35mm for an extra gritty look), the film is in many ways an ode to the old school tactics of filmmaking. Set during the advent of the personal, plate loaded camera and a time when a Charlie Chaplin would tickle the delights of a family’s imagination for an entire evening, the film, like Giuseppe Tornatore’s whimsical Cinema Paradiso, pays homage to the wonders of photography.

Maria Larsson (a masterful, full of vigor Maria Heiskanen) plays a loving mother and an understanding wife who, after winning a camera in a lottery, finds comfort in a new love for capturing images of the world around her. While her husband drinks his way through a work strike (and the English strike breakers brought in), an affair, and a countrywide dabbling in communism, Maria is able to appease her concerns and misery with an eye for the beautiful frozen moments amidst the chaos and sadness of her day to day life.

One day while trying to pawn her prized camera a local photography shop owner, Sebastian (Jesper Christensen), befriends her and offers to teach her how to use the camera through an endearing act of kindness. Seeing Maria’s glowing fascination with the glass-eye gadgets that line the shop walls Sebastian encourages her to follow this newfound passion and ultimately gives her a new lease on life. As their relationship grows from professional admiration to minor crush to a full blown window into a life of true love and happiness, Maria is forced to make a series of choices regarding her loyalties to her abusive husband, her dignity as a member of the nobody lower class, and her feelings towards Sebastian. 

Christensen, the Danish actor best known for his villainous turns in the recent 007 films, turns in a restrained but memorable performance as Sebastian who adores Maria but whether or not this fascination is out of lust or pity remains Christensen’s charm with the role. 

Eventually Maria, having a true gift for the medium and an ability to see what most don’t, begins to document those around her and is able to make a petty living for her passion, a first for her character and an advent that brings on jealous rage from her husband. 

Much of the film’s screenplay was taken directly from the photos that Maria took during her life and from her daughter’s personal account. This authenticity and Jan Troell’s love of old school cinematography gives the film the look and feel of a documentary. She shoots a historical gathering of the three Scandinavian Kings, earning her a photo in the newspaper. Through rising notoriety she takes portraits of the neighborhood families, including her friend’s daughter with Downs syndrome, and captures a chilling candid moment of a group of children mourning their recently deceased friend.

This film, like the memorable photographs it honors, is about capturing a moment in time, in this case pre-war Sweden. Maria’s story is the vehicle for a larger tale of a port town’s growth through the ages and the effects that world tensions were having on the lives of the working class.

Everlasting Moments was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Gold Globe Award, but failed to make the more prestigious Academy Award shortlist. The film also failed to garner a wide-release here in the states and will most likely be ignored by even those knowledgeable of independent films, a tragedy bestowed on so many offerings in global cinema. It’s the epitome of what a great period film should be, a flawless window into a world not so foreign to our own.

Heiskanen is so convincing in the role of Maria that it’s easy to forget that she, along with her fellow cast members (watch out for Mikael Persbrandt’s complex turn as Maria’s abusive husband Sigfried), is a contemporary actress.

The film is about the heartaches that come with the weight of the world, the complexities of love, family and forgiveness, and above all the magic of photography, an art form often taken for granted in the age of Photoshop and camera phones. There are moments of great sorrow, particularly in a harrowing scene involving Maria’s son who is born with polio. Persbrandt’s Sigfried is at times a monster who still manages to gain our sympathy. Despite its more difficult themes the film is also an uplifting tale of a woman who appears to have nothing but ultimately has everything thanks to an iron will, a love for her family, and a beautiful, dual lens camera.

Film Review: Two Films by Kelly Reichardt

Film Review: Two Films by Kelly Reichardt
Old Joy, 76 min Feature Film, 2006
Wendy and Lucy, 80 min Feature Film, 2008
Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Few contemporary filmmakers are as well-versed in the art of cinematic minimalism as Kelly Reichardt. From the natural sounds of birds chirping and water flowing, to the crescendo of trains setting off into the distance, Reichardt is a filmmaker who enjoys the beauty and mystery in seemingly everyday life. Her first two feature films, 2006’s Old Joy and last year’s Wendy and Lucy, share the same affection for lingering shots of nature, restrained dialogue, and characters whose silences and mannerisms speak volumes of who they are. The films are also intimate studies of aging, finding one’s place in the world, and the changing face of this country.

In Old Joy Will Oldham and Daniel London star as buddies who have gone their separate ways but reconnect for a two-day excursion into the Oregon woods in search of a secluded hot spring. The film opens with Mark (London) meditating in the backyard of his rundown, Portland bungalow. The message machine picks up a call from Kurt (Oldham) who is in town and has ‘big, big news.’ A look of worry washes over his wife’s face.

Accompanied by Mark’s dog Lucy, the two hit the winding roads of rural Oregon in search of Kurt’s “off-the-map” hot spring. The two reminisce of old friends, now extinct old haunts, and catch up on where their lives have taken them.

Old Joy is in many ways a buddy, road trip film, with a dash of social realism; specifically in the way people drift apart over the years. Reichardt excels at not giving us official backgrounds to her characters but through their mannerisms (Oldham and London’s facial expressions alone speak volumes of their inner thoughts) and tidbits from their past it’s clear that Mark took the somewhat traditional route in life, whereas Kurt, having “never gotten involved in something he couldn’t get out of,” is still on an unsure path. 

Oldham, who also carries the alter ego as musician Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, shines as Kurt who comes off as the harmless, free-spirited soul most of us have come across at some point in our lives. Despite his casual, live-the-dash mentality it is clear he carries a weight of sorrow with him. 

His rundown van, faded clothes, light wallet and lack of a solid life foundation come across as almost childish to Mark, who at one instance belittles Kurt over the phone to his wife but then gently plays along with Kurt’s plan to somehow rekindle their friendship. 

As Kurt regales his buddy with long-winded stories about beach parties at Big Sur and hot spring excursions in Arizona, Mark’s complexion falls somewhere between jealousy and indifference. Mark appears content with his life–a baby on the way, a new direction in his carpentry work–but it’s obvious he too is hiding something. 

As their trip progresses frustrating scenarios arise, awkward confessions are professed (mainly by Kurt who misses the golden days of their friendship), and a terribly true-to-life barrier between these once seemingly close friends continues to rise. 

Between their ramblings on work, dreams, the physics of the universe, and Mark’s baby on the way, Reichardt fills the screen with shots of the stunning environment, set to the equally lulling music of Yo La Tengo. There are long moments of silence between the two, especially during the film’s pinnacle hot spring soak, which, again, furthers the notion that these two can’t seem to reconnect. 

When they return back to the reality of their separate lives we are left with Kurt as he wanders the Portland streets at night amongst other drifters, homeless, and others who are seemingly lost in the conventional world around them. 

Like Old Joy, Reichardt’s follow-up/companion piece Wendy and Lucy doesn’t follow a traditional beginning, middle, and end story line but rather meanders through its characters’ journey, in this case a young woman and her dog.

Michelle Williams, in undoubtedly her finest and most unexpected performance to date, stars as Wendy, a quiet, tomboyish drifter on her way to Alaska. After her weathered Honda hatchback breaks down in a sleepy Oregon town (the doting attention given to the Pacific Northwest in her films is another of Reichardt’s cinematic traits), Wendy experiences a series of unfortunate events that include getting arrested for shoplifting, paying a substantial amount of money from her dwindling Alaska fund, and in turn losing her beloved companion Lucy (the same Lucy, Reichardt’s mutt, from Old Joy).

Along the way she encounters a group of fellow youthful nomads at a pseudo hobo campfire (including a memorable cameo by Oldham as a free-spirited wanderer named Icky), befriends an elderly K-Mart security guard, barters with a surly mechanic and has a scare with a ranting homeless man. All while searching for her lost dog, leading up to an emotional breakdown in a gas station bathroom. 

William’s spoken dialogue throughout the film is limited but she makes up for her character’s reserved nature with an unprecedented knack for emotionally saturated facial expressions, mannerisms, and a complex world behind her mesmerizing eyes. It is said that Williams, who did the film for practically nothing, was so involved with the character that she resisted from bathing or washing her ratty clothes and was never once recognized during the shoot.

Reichardt only hints at Wendy’s back-story, mainly seen through a telephone call made to a relative in Indiana. We don’t know why she’s headed to Alaska or what she’s running away from? That she’s on the move is all that really matters. In the manner Williams carries her character it’s evident that she’s a bit lost in life but determined nevertheless to reach her Yukon goal. 

While the camera closely follows the increasingly forlorn Wendy, another character to develop is the town she stumbles upon.  Set during the Bush administration in small town America, Wendy and Lucy’s slow pace mimics the malaise of a dying part of this country. While set in Oregon, this could be anywhere U.S.A. In one scene the security guard mentions the town once had a functioning mill but since it shut down the town is light on work. He comments, “I just don’t know what the people do all day.” 

Unlike Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy lacks a transitioning soundtrack but rather drifts along to the diegetic hum of trains, the preferred mode of transportation for a great deal of drifters in the U.S. The film reaches one somewhat major climax but begins and ends much like an authentic chapter in one’s life. Shot in the moment, without any allusion to past or future, the film gives a new meaning to the term realism. 

With only two feature films (both of which were based on short stories and are concise, clocking in at a perfect 80 minutes each) under her belt, Reichardt is just beginning what will hopefully be a fruitful film career. Her background is in film studies, and her knowledge of the medium shows for a fairly novice filmmaker. Wendy and Lucy, which topped many critic’s top-ten lists last year, will be the film most interested viewers will gravitate towards, however, Old Joy is not to be missed. Both films, while different on the surface, share similarities warranting an easy back-to-back pairing. Reichardt intentionally leaves her stories open-ended with the characters embarking into the unknown, however, this lack of closure gives the films a resonance that carries with you long after the credits roll. o:p>

Film Review: Kicking and Screaming

Film Review: Kicking and Screaming
Directed by Noah Baumbach
96 min Feature Film, 1995

Here’s a joke: How do you make God laugh? Make a plan. ~ Chet 

If Rick Linklater’s Dazed and Confused is the pinnacle exercise in ‘good-old-days,’ high school nostalgia, Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming lies at the opposite end of the spectrum. 

Baumbach’s debut film hits at the heart of the grand ‘what now?’ conundrum that undergrads awaken to upon graduation. In addition the film deals with some of the shallowest people–archetypes of the liberal arts, Gen-X crowd of no-it-alls–and manages to make them surprisingly endearing and relatable in their naiveness towards life. Whereas Linklater’s immortal classic invokes a longing for the days of sex, drugs and rock and roll, Kicking and Screaming is set during the unsure time many people would rather forget.  

Set in the mid nineties when long parted hair, corduroys and plaid shirts we’re the essentials of any pre-hipster era twenty-somethings, the film revolves around a handful of recently departed academics. There’s the hip English/Creative Writing major Grover (Josh Hamilton), the surly philosophy scholar Max (Chris Eigemen), and the immature, highly neurotic movie buff Otis (Carlos Jacott). Playing the Dazed role of elder Wooderson is Chet (the wonderful Eric Stoltz), a nonchalant intellectual pushing 30 who is blissful as a tenth-plus year senior. 

Opening at a the kind of posh graduation cocktail party well-suited for the stereotypical privileged Ivy Leaguer, the gang sit sipping their drinks contemplating the next step. Grover’s equally witted girlfriend Jane (Olivia d’Abo) is off to Prague for a year, leaving the film’s protagonist bitter and alone. Otis is scheduled to start Engineering school in Milwaukee but chooses to defer the acceptance to stay with his friends and work at a video store. Max finds it necessary to analyze and rip apart the gang’s monotonous conversation pieces while ripping through the daily crossword like a paycheck depends on it. 

Released in the wake of the Pulp Fiction casual dialogue craze, and amidst the rise of the Seinfeld sitcom, the characters in Screaming drone on about film trivia, pointless ‘what if’ scenarios and casual observations of the incoming freshmen of the opposite sex. The screenplay at first comes off as a bit too polished for its so-called casual dialogue but as the film progresses the characters quickly become parodies of the hipster culture. On a number of occasions auxiliary characters even go as far as to say to the group, “you know, you all talk the same.” In one scene when Grover scoffs to his father (a memorable cameo by Elliot Gould) that he never got into “the whole coffeehouse scene,” it’s evident he’s lying. 

The mindless banter of Kicking and Screaming is postmodern but in the most unpretentious sort of manner because Baumbach realizes how naïve and hypocritical his characters are. While they verbally dissect those around them and maintain an elitist attitude towards their individual predicaments–that is, not knowing what the hell to do with their newly appointed degrees–they realize they need each other more than they would like to admit.

The level of comedic uncomfortableness that arises in Kicking and Screaming, particularly with Max, who strives to be smarter than everyone else in the room, is a theme that would carry on to Baumbach’s 2005 film, The Squid and the Whale (see the Jesse Eisenberg character’s casual plagiarism of a Pink Floyd song and his father’s (a serpent-like Jeff Daniels) argument for its artistic merit). Academics, who are completely in love with themselves but ultimately are clueless to life’s master plan, seem to be the archetypes of Baumbach’s work.

As the film comes to a close few characters come away on top, although a number of loose ends are tied and a certain monologue at an airport leaves Grover with some hope for reaching enlightenment. Meanwhile Chet’s barside argument for his lifestyle choices may be the finest explanation for why some people ignore the career driven life in lieu of casual bliss. Overall the film closes on a somber, albeit true to life note. 

The Squid and the Whale, an overly bleak portrayal about the consequences of divorce, quickly established Baumbach as a filmmaker to keep an eye on, however, Kicking and Screaming is his understated masterpiece. Cinematically the film is a mix of low-budget camerawork and effective flashbacks that are so uniquely stunning it’s a shame the technique of freeze frame to live action isn’t utilized more often. And the film’s various locales–from grunge music clubs, townie bars, tight dorm rooms and the stale dark wood interiors of off campus houses–create the perfect mise en scéne for any college backdrop.

For viewers currently suffering the unsure limbo of life out of college the film is a refreshing eye-opener to the ubiquitous dilemma. For the older/wiser viewer the story may recall–with a grin and a chuckle–the immature, naïve years that most go through and how these experiences often necessitate the maturation process. In Baumbach’s eyes we’ve all kicked and screamed our way through life’s obstacles at some point.

Film Review: Knowing

Film Review: Knowing
Directed by: Alex Proyas
121 Min. Feature Film, 2009

The recent wave of apocalyptic, disaster films is a troubling sign of the times. The big budget, Blockbuster trend began with Independence Day (menacing aliens), followed by the geological heavy duet Dante’s Peak/Volcano (menacing magma), accelerated to its own genre with Michael Bay’s Armageddon (menacing asteroid)continued on with The Day After Tomorrow (menacing global warming), and has even made it’s way to the animated film realm with last year’s perfectly crafted Wall-E (menacing human nature). With the recent release of Knowing, yet another flawed Nicolas Cage vehicle, this trend seems to still be chugging along, now adding a biblical sci-fi element to the blend. 

Cage, whose career has been on a downward spiral since his first venture as an action leading man in The Rock, stars as John Koestler, a seemingly brilliant MIT professor and astrophysicist (hardly a stretch for the man who once swapped faces with John Travolta). His wife recently died in a freak hotel fire, leaving him alone to raise his son and keep from succumbing to his growing alcoholism (post Leaving Las Vegas, the bottle seems to be Cage’s go-to channel for droopy-eyed dramatic tension). In the classroom he is struggling with his theories on the randomness of world events. With his family he has given up on faith and religion, as seen through an underdeveloped plot element regarding his preacher father. 

One day his son brings home a series of numbers scribbled on a note that had been locked away in a school time capsule for 50 years. When the random digits eventual uncover a series of dates, time, and location points for some of the most horrific fatal disasters of the past (and present), Koestler tries desperately to warn the world of what he knows while also trying to unearth the why behind the numbers’ existence. 

While the events leading up to Koestler’s discovery of the digits’ secret –the eerie girl who pens the list and hears whispers–create a level of intrigue, the film ultimately takes a turn for the worse when Cage, the action star, enters the picture to prevent the inevitable and ultimately save the world. 

To this end Knowing’s greatest fault is that it is two films wrapped in one collective flaw. The first half begins as a fairly unique tale of theological premonitions, mathematics, the curse of natural sciences, and even a possibly supernatural suspense element. When the film’s big budget special effects come into play (less so with a pretty remarkable plane crash), the film shifts its gears from the thinking man’s film to what could essentially be viewed as disaster porn (the grisly Final Destination triptych would also fit comfortably in this subgenre). 

Towards its unexpected but silly finale the film borrows elements from the brilliant Danny Boyle sci-fi flickSunshine, which also dealt with the eminent threat from our Solar systems biggest nuclear weapon, the sun. Eventually Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind gets its possibly unintentional nod and wink, and the film goes from original to passé.  

Director Alex Proyas was once one of the more fascinating under-the-radar filmmakers working in, or rather, outside of the mainstream. Starting out in music videos, Proyas first jumped on the scene with the dark comic noir film The Crow, a genre classic that has somehow managed to age rather well over the years. His masterpiece, 1998s Dark City, was a one of a kind surreal sci-fi classic, paving the road for a promising future. Even early on Knowing features some familiar stylistic elements from Proyas’ inspired past, most notably with the mysterious ‘Whisper People,’ who, like ‘The Strangers’ antagonists in Dark City, wander the night with hauntingly pale faces.

Sadly the film’s CGI heavy latter half, most notably the uninspired eminent apocalypse, more closely follows Proyas’ underwhelming pseudo film adaptation of Issac Asmiov’s I, Robot.

Knowing is yet another forgettable disaster blockbuster that is all flash and no substance, even when it tries. The film is also another forgettable addition to Cage’s mounting gamut of mediocrity. With the upcoming Hollywoodization of the 2012 doomsday lore, Knowing certainly won’t be the last piece of entertainment depicting the bleak end of the world.

If I chose the winners


 Oscar Night, 2009
Key: Will Win – X
 Should Win – O

  • [___] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • [___] Frost/Nixon
  • [___] Milk
  • [_O_] The Reader
  • [_X_] Slumdog Millionaire
  • “Slumdog Millionaire” was the early underdog nomination
  • that remarkably gained momentum as more people have sought it out. Truly the one word of mouth nomination. But was it the best film of 2008? For that matter, were any of these decent but not masterful films the best of the year? “Benjamin Button” is burdened by a predictably whimsical story and an unnecessary present day deathbed storytelling editing choice. “Frost/Nixon” was a fascinating look back in history with two brilliant acting turns, but is this a film to revisit again and again. “Milk,” the uplifting contender here and a tie with “Reader” for best film of the lot, is probably “Slumdog’s” toughest competitor but “liberal” Hollywood has not been friendly to past films with a prominent homosexual focus (see “Brokeback Mountain”). “The Reader” is the one truly thought provoking film in the lineup, not to mention the most surprising and controversial. Naysayers are coining this film yet another emotional Holocaust drama. They clearly have not seen the film. What “The Reader” excels in is its ability to spark debate. Regret, shame, legal morality, love, are all themes woven together in this fascinating film. Winslet’s performance is worthy of her first Oscar prize, however, the most underrated turn was from relative newcomer David Cross. 
  • [___] David FincherThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • [___] Ron HowardFrost/Nixon
  • [___] Gus Van SantMilk
  • [___] Stephen DaldryThe Reader
  • [_XO_] Danny BoyleSlumdog Millionaire
  • Fincher should have been recognized for “Fight Club” and
  • last years terribly overlooked “Zodiac.” Howard’s got his share of Oscars, Van Sant turned arguably the most personal film of the lot, Daldry’s nomination is most likely his prize, which leaves Boyle. It’s been wonderful watching Boyle mature as a filmmaker. His ability to jump from genre to genre should be recognized more and his vision of bringing the chaotic slums of India to the mainstream was ambitious but he delivered.
  • [___] Frozen River
  • [___] Happy-Go-Lucky
  • [___] In Bruges
  • [_XO_] Milk
  • [___] Wall-E
  • Dustin Lance Black is a name to get used to. His work on “Milk” and on the now fascinating HBO series “Big Love” shows a level of personal touch rarely spelled out on the page. A dark horse win for “In Bruges,” one of the better films of the year and a slyly dark comedy would be nice but is highly unlikely.
  • [___] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • [__] Doubt
  • [___] Frost/Nixon
  • [_O_] The Reader
  • [_X_] Slumdog Millionaire
  • Adapted Screenplay will probably be another of “Slumdog’s” sweep later tonight but I would argue that again, “The Reader” is the most thought provoking story of the lot. One puzzling absent nomination is “Revolutionary Road,” a surprisingly faithful adaptation of a fiction masterpiece. 
  • [_O_] Anne HathawayRachel Getting Married
  • [___] Angelina JolieThe Changeling
  • [___] Melissa LeoFrozen River
  • [___] Meryl StreepDoubt
  • [_X_] Kate WinsletThe Reader
  • Winslet will probably take her first Oscar this evening after a stunning six prior nominations. Her win, while warranted, will be the “it’s about time” prize of the evening. Streep may be here toughest competitor (after all she’s Meryl Streep), however, for my money the strongest and most surprising performance of the group was from Hathaway who is quickly shedding her Disney princess actin roots and is evolving into one our most exciting rising actors. “Rachel Getting Married” did not receive enough credit this year and an upset by Hathaway would be just what this little movie needs to garner a wider audience. 
  • [___] Amy AdamsDoubt
  • [_O_] Penelope CruzVicky Cristina Barcelona
  • [_X__] Viola DavisDoubt
  • [___] Marisa Tomei,The Wrestler
  • [___] Taraji HensonThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • This may be the toughest category of the night. All the actors shined and it’ll probably come down to Davis or Cruise. Tomei continues to turn in remarkably intimate performances in tough roles. Henson was probably the best part of “Button.” “Doubt” was an acting showcase but Cruz was dazzling as a high-maintenance, artist ex-girlfriend in Woody Allen’s most recent masterpiece. Cruz has parlayed through Hollywood for some time often with less than stellar results, however, when she’s on her native ground in Iberia her true talents come out.
  • [___] The Baader Meinhof Complex, Germany
  • [_XO_] The Class, France
  • [___] Departures, Japan
  • [___] Revanche, Austria
  • [_O_] Waltz with Bashir, Israel
  • Another tough one. “Bashir” and “The Class” were both remarkable pieces of cinema. “The Class” gives a new meaning to realism while “Bashir” took animation in an exciting and deep realm of possibilities (a reading of Joe Sacco’s graphic novel “Palestine” would be a perfect companion piece to this film). Either would be worthy but knowing the Academy, “The Class” will probably be the safest bet. 
  • [___] Bolt
  • [_XO_] Wall-E
  • [___] Kung Fu Panda
  • A category that was clearly created for Pixar. “Wall-E” could be in the Best Picture category but this sure-shot win will be enough.
  • [___] The Betrayal
  • [_O_] Encounters at the End of the World
  • [___] The Garden
  • [_XO_] Man on Wire
  • [___] Trouble the Water
  • A terrific lineup of docs this year. “Encounters” and “Wire” or so radically different but each films that will resonate long after tonight’s festivities. “Encounters” that speaks to a certain demographic of individuals, more specifically the adventurous souls. “Wire” is a one of a kind documentary/caper film about a one of a kind personal feat in human history. 
  • [_O_] La Maison En Petits Cubes
  • [___] Lavatory Lovestory
  • [___] Oktapodi
  • [_X_] Presto
  • [___] This Way Up
  • The first year I’ve been able to catch the Oscar Shorts before the festivities. Pixar’s “Presto” will probably prevail but look out for the beautifully imagined “La Maison” from Japan, a film that proves old fashioned animation techniques are still alive and well. 

If I chose the nominees

Thursday morning the nominations for the 2009 Academy Awards Ceremony will be announced. Normally the press release sends shock waves down the spines of anyone even remotely interested in the industry, however, after a fairly mediocre year of film (one in which the best films were rarely seen or put in the spotlight) it’s hard to say how big the Oscars will be this year. Unlike last year in which there were a number of sure fire wins (Daniel Day Lewis) and some extremely tight races for top prizes (Best Picture, Best Actress) this year’s lineup of possible contenders seems kind of uninspiring.

Sure this will undoubtedly be the year of Heath Ledger’s posthumous prize for The Dark Knight (hopefully the film’s sole prize of the night) and Mickey Rourke is ripe for a roaring comeback but other than that what is there to look forward to. Kate Winslet is one of the finest actors working today and has been nominated and passed over many times in the past. Will this be her year? Will she carry the burden of being nominated in two different categories (Julianne Moore was hindered by this curse in 2003 for a leading role in Far From Heaven, and a supporting turn in The Hours. She lost both)?

Wall-E was one of the most fascinating and prevalent films of the year (besides being a visual triumph of filmmaking, but does it have enough to clench a Best Picture nod? Will there be any love for some of the year’s top indies (many of which were the best films of the year, period) such as Rachel Getting Married, I’ve Loved You So Long, Happy Go Lucky, In Bruges, to name a few?

Overall this was a year of standout performances with very few solid films as a whole. Will strong, thought invoking character performances (Melissa Leo, Frozen River) best Oscar bait, star studded mediocrities (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) only time will tell.

The following is my list of the top contenders at this year’s Oscars if I were picking the nominees.  NOTE: Having not seen a handful of films, including Steven Soderbergh’s Che and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy this list is subject to change.

Best Actor

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Sean Penn, Milk

Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges

Richard Jenkins, The Visitor

Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

DARK HORSE NOD: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche New York


Still Haven’t Seen: Benicio Del Toro, Ché

Best Actress

Kristin Scott Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long

Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Sally Hawkins, Happy Go Lucky

DARK HORSE NOD: Kate Beckinsale, Snow Angels

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Emily Mortimer, Transsiberian

Still Haven’t Seen: Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy 

Best Supporting Actor

Eddie Marsan, Happy Go Lucky

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt

Robert Downey Jr, Tropic Thunder

DARK HORSE NOD: Bill Irwin, Rachel Getting Married

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges, John Malkovich, Changeling, Nick Nolte, Tropic Thunder, Jeff Bridges, Iron Man

Best Supporting Actress

Kate Winslet, The Reader

Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married

Francis McDormand, Burn After Reading

Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

DARK HORSE NOD: Samantha Morton, Synecdoche New York

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Debra Winger, Rachel Getting Married 

Best Film

Rachel Getting Married



Slumdog Millionaire


DARK HORSE NOD: TIE Synecdoche, New York OR The Wrestler

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (snubbed from last year), Let the Right One In

Best Director

Jonathan Demme, Rachel Getting Married

Gus Van Sant, Milk

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon

Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York

DARK HORSE NOD: Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Tarsem, The Fall, Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World

Best Screenplay-Original

Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York

Dustin Lance Black, Milk

Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen

Jenny Lumet, Rachel Getting Married

Philippe Claudel, I’ve Loved You So Long

DARK HORSE NOD: Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon, Wall-E OR Martin McDonagh, In Bruges

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Joel and Ethan Coen, Burn After Reading

Best Screenplay-Adapted

Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire

Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon

Justin Haythe, Revolutionary Road

Eric Roth, Curious Case of Benjamin Button

John Patrick Shanley, Doubt

DARK HORSE NOD: David Hare, The Reader

DESERVING OR MORE RECOGNITION: John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In 


Three surefire nominees for Best Documentary will most certainly be Man on Wire, Encounters at the End of the World, and Standard Operating Procedure. All three are radically different and brilliant in their own regards and this creates undoubtedly the toughest category race at this year’s Academy Awards. Man on Wire has been one of the highest rated films of the year and is the epiotome of what a quality documentary should be–gripping story, unusual subject, and flawless execution. Encounters is Werner Herzog at his finest, a fascinating look at man’s desire to explore their physical world, even to its extremes. Standard Operating Procedure is Errol Morris at his most intense and though provoking. Morris asks the question, is it possible to put a human face on acts of pure evil? Mark my words, the Best Documentary category will be the most gripping race to follow. 

Herzog’s curious ‘encounters’

Film Review: Encounters at the End of the World

Directed by Werner Herzog

Documentary, 2008 

Encounters at the End of the World is the type of film that will garner two different types of viewer. The first might see the film as nothing more than yet another nature documentary set in the frigid Antarctica continent. The film provides these folks a fix of scientific explanations pertaining to ice samples and global warming, stunning shots of the continent’s vast emptiness and it a glimpse into the unknown below the ice. There are even a handful of penguin shots thrown in for the obligatory post March of the Penguins ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs.’ 

The more observant filmgoer will see Encounters for what it really is, a documentary not so much about Antarctica but one that questions why mankind yearns to explore this planet taking some literally to the end of the earth. Herzog is interested in learning more about what drives living souls to travel into the unknown. 

For anyone familiar with the films of Werner Herzog, Encounters is any ways the film the auteur was destined to make. Herzog has always been fascinated by man’s perilous pursuit of enlightenment and as a filmmaker he has tested his own curiosities surrounding this world of ours. In Aguirre Wrath of God the protagonist (one of many daunting performances by Herzog muse Klaus Kinski) is on a suicide mission through the Amazonian jungles towards the mythical golden city of El Dorado. Fitzcarraldo documents the fictional account of a man’s dream of bringing the opera to the jungles of Peru and focuses on the mountain (literally pulling a riverboat up a steep hill) he climbs to bring his vision to life.

It is Herzog’s interest in mankind’s obsessive curiosity of the planet that draws him to Antarctica. In the introduction to Encounters Herzog narrates, “The National Science Foundation had invited me to Antarctica even though I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins. My questions about nature, I let them know, are different.” 

Encounters is about the people who live, visit and work in Antarctica. It is a common misconception that the only souls crazy enough to make the trek to the desolate continent are research scientists. What’s most striking about Encounters is that while many of the inhabitants of the few camps set up in Antarctica are there for the pursuit of scientific answers there are just as many average Joe’s simply there to catch a glimpse of the end of the earth. 

Along the way Herzog encounters a linguist working in a greenhouse, working on the continent simply to get away from a world where every minute a spoken language becomes extinct. There’s the former banker and ex-Peace Corps volunteer who now drives a mammoth snow bus that would seem right at home in a Mad Max film. The eccentric world traveler who can tuck herself into a small carry-on suitcase seems to be at the camp merely to quench a never-ending thirst to explore every end of the globe. What’s striking about Encounters is that for every stunning underwater scene or shot of the picturesque Antarctic skyline there is an equally fascinating interview with the people who call this place home. The “full time travelers and part time workers” as one inhabitant describes his peers. 

The trick of Encounters is that for the casual viewer the film is nothing more than a look at the natural wonders of Antarctica, with a timely message about global warming thrown in for political leverage. A closer look uncovers a film that is as much an ode to the world traveler as it is a nature documentary. 

For many of the people Herzog encounters along the way Antarctica is the last stop on what might be a seemingly endless tour of the planet. A possibly mentally scarred Balkan mechanic has a packed backpack, inflatable raft, and tent ready if a desire to explore arises.

Then there’s the film’s one penguin scene in which Herzog ties man’s internal desire to explore with the natural world. Rather than focus his time on the masse march of the penguins Herzog’s camera lingers on a lone penguin headed towards the far off horizon, a path sure to end in death. Why does this penguin walk alone into the unknown? A scientist posits that the penguin might have a chemical imbalance and does not realize its actions. It’s clear that Herzog believes that the penguin’s motives are more complex and relatable.

Encounters at the End of the World is one of the most unexpected and dazzling documentaries to see this year. Herzog has long had a unique, often poetic way of looking at the world that, when fleshed on in film, is unforgettable. His views of the continent’s natural wonders–the mesmerizing underwater scenes, the unforgettable sunset shots–and his discovery of the arctic region’s scientific offerings–new marine species, patterns in ice melt and an intriguing active volcano–feed the traditional documentarian mindset.  For some Encounters will be nothing more than another nature film in the wake of Planet Earth. And that’s okay. For others it will be the spiritual catalyst needed to awake the inner explorer in all of us.