Archive for May, 2009

2007

May 29, 2009
PBS — American Masters
USA
English
90 Minutes
Documentary
Arthur Dong [Family Fundamentals]

Informative documentary about the history of Chinese-Americans in Hollywood films. Unlike the Jewish film community or the Black “Race Films” of the early 20th century, Chinese-Americans had few, if any, people who looked like them represented on movie screens. Great old footage and interviews with the pioneers of Chinese-American filmmaking are included. Also included are the examples of white actors pretending to be Asian. I suppose if you lived in the 1940s in Iowa, perhaps you didn’t realize that Charlie Chan didn’t look Asian at all. A nice eye-opener.

8.4 IMDB

HOLLYWOOD CHINESE

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A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER
2008

May 27, 2009
Download
USA
English
95 Minutes
Documentary / Crime
Kurt Kuenne [Drive-In Movie Memories; Validation]

By some reports, the most powerful documentary ever viewed by human eyes. Entire theaters full of people sobbing, unable to leave the theater after it was over until composing themselves. I can’t really dispute that claim, though I wonder if the story itself is powerful or the film-making execution. Kurt Kuenne, a local guy, set out to film the story of his friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby so that his unborn son could learn about him. Allegedly, Dr. Bagby was murdered by his off-kilter (duh) substantially older than he girlfriend. The film alleges that she drove from Iowa to Pennsylvania without stopping, all the while calling him from a cell phone. For thirteen hundred miles she drove and called, but he never answered. She shows up, they meet, she shoots him with a gun she didn’t deny owning. Then she drives all the way home again without stopping where she gets on her home phone and calls the man she just killed in order to leave a message on his voicemail thereby establishing an alibi. At first she denies seeing him, then she changes her story to say that she handed him the gun and then drove away, claiming that he shot himself. Five times. In the back. Then she flies to her hometown in Nova Scotia where she announces that she’s pregnant with her murder victim’s baby.

Here’s the thing about this film. Murders happen all the time. This guy was nice enough, sure, and there’s ample footage of him acting in the films of his buddy Kurt when they were boys. And there are groups of people ready to speak to the camera about how warm he was. But what’s different about this story is that almost to a person, man, woman, old, young–when they begin speaking about him, they inevitably begin crying. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. And that’s because there’s much more to this story than we are let in on, but the interview subjects are privy to. In deference to spoilers, I won’t say what it is, but it’s revealed as if it were THE SIXTH SENSE or something.

This is where the controversy arises. This film makes Michael Moore’s work seem positively objective. This film is exactly the opposite of the Maysles Brothers or Barbara Kopple or even Errol Morris. The days of a documentarian simply turning on his or her camera and letting the story tell itself appear to be over. Kuenne has scary music and closeups of words in court documents like “murder” and he does the voiceover and he often sobs while speaking and there are flashes of red and he ridicules governmental officials and the murder suspect with language and footage and attitude. Like Moore does with Bush 43.

So what we end up with is a documentary, about a compelling subject, which is every bit as manipulative as a Ron Howard sweeping-score-telling-us-what-to-think fictional drama.

Make no mistake. I was absolutely riveted. My mouth was agape during several portions. I talked back to the screen. I cried. I yelled. I actually paused the film and walked around for 15 minutes because I didn’t want to learn any more about the story. I can’t remember a documentary making me feel that way. There are hundreds of docs which cause outrage or sadness. But this one sort of grabs the outrage and sadness and anger right out of you while you’re watching. How much of that was due to technical know-how and editing brilliance and how much of it was due to the story itself, I can’t really say.

I can say that you won’t soon forget it and as soon as its over you can argue with yourself about the film-making style that Kuenne employs in the service of his story.

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DEAR ZACHARY is the subject of Cinebanter Podcast Number 74. After you’ve seen the movie, listen to the spoiler-filled review by Tassoula and I by clicking the play button right here:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Show Description:
• 00:00 Intro
• 00:32 PUBLIC ENEMIES Discussion
• Break
• 17:39 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 19:27 DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER Discussion
• Break
• 31:06 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 31:41 The Last Five®
• Break
• 55:11 Listener Last Fives (Scott in Florida and Cynthia in California)
• 1:04:02 Credits and Outtake

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~~

8.2 Metacritic
8.7 IMDB

Dear Zachary @ Amazon

DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER

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1999

May 26, 2009
May 31, 2007
June 20, 2003
May 27, 2001
October 18, 2000
June 12, 2000
DVD
Germany
No Dialogue
45 Minutes
Drama / Romance / Short
Farhad Yawari

Lara…..Julia Brendler
Jakob…..Marco Hofschneider [Immortal Beloved]

At least the sixth time I’ve seen this short film about a girl in a mental institution who only feels free when she dreams she’s swimming with dolphins. Though a German production, there is no dialogue. This fact shocks my high school students to whom I give extra credit if they stay awake for its entire 45 minute running time. The music is sweet and complimentary, often providing a form of dialogue which may be more hardwired than spoken language. The colors are bright and important–the girl’s room is white, except for the blue (water) dress she wears and her beloved gold goldfish. I’m probably too close to this movie to objectively grade it. I fall for it hook, line, and sinker every time I see it. I love the girl dancing with the single drop of rain on her arm, I love the tender way the boy holds the shell up to her ear so she can hear the ocean, I love the drawing of the sea he gives her, I love how when she dances, the whole world dances along with her.

Who wouldn’t want to swim with the dolphins like Lara does?

Still the greatest 45 minute film I’ve ever seen.

Previously Written:
I swear I have to watch this every year or so just to remember what can be done with sound and images. This film fills me up with happiness. Still touching and beautiful.

Previously written:
Surely the greatest 40 minute film in history. No dialogue. Beautiful music. Spectacular cinematography. This is not a nature film, but the story of a young woman in a mental institution who can only feel free when she dreams of swimming with dolphins. It is pure magic from start to finish. It is never slow. This was my fourth time watching and it effects me the same way each time. The colors are fabulous, the young woman (Julia Brendler) an absolute doll, and the feelings this film expresses do not require any character to speak. It’s on a Film Fest DVD which is well worth the price for this short alone.



6.4 IMDB

Film-Fest DVD – Issue 3 – Toronto @ Amazon

DOLPHINS

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1926

May 24, 2009
Netflix DVD
USA
Silent
107 Minutes — February 5, 1927
Comedy / Romance / War / Action
Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
#30 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.

A confederate train driver gets his train and his girl back when they are stolen by Union soldiers.

What’s amazing is not just that it’s 82 years old, not just that it isn’t boring, but that it’s downright exciting to watch. Keaton never changes expressions, which makes his evermore perilous situations even more entertaining.

The plot is simple. Fort Sumter has been fired upon and the the Civil War is upon us. We are in the South and men rush to the recruitment office to enlist. Keaton loves both his locomotive and his girlfriend. She insists that he sign up for the army, but the military leaders believe that he’s more valuable as a train engineer bringing supplies to and fro. Though no one tells him this. His girl refuses to see him until he’s in uniform. He continues engineering for a full year until at a dinner stop, a Northern spy steals his train and starts speeding north, burning bridges and tearing down communication towers. It is up to Keaton to get the train back.

He first runs, then steals a huge-wheeled bicycle, then gets on one of those up and down sidecars that rides on the tracks, and finally, the gives chase in another train engine. The chase is thrilling. He constantly has to feed the engine wood, he grabs a cannon and tries to fire it towards the other train, the escaping men leave obstacles on the tracks which he must push off, the two armies are marching in the background as Keaton obliviously chops wood, and Keaton is running on top of the train and over the woodpile and into the boxcar. The action is fabulous. We always know where everyone is. The camera follows from the side at high speed. And Keaton never changes expression. Like there’s nothing he can’t do. He isn’t a reluctant hero, he is going to get his train back no matter how far north he has to chase it.

There are creative sight gags involving the water tank and the cannon which shifts and aims squarely at Keaton himself. There is a damsel in distress. There are some pretty impressive battle scenes using hundreds of extras. And then there is the scene of a full-sized real locomotive attempting to cross a river on a burning bridge before it plummets to the valley below. The layout of the sequence is impressive even by modern standards. The camera follows from quite a distance as the Union army begins marching down the steep hill to ford the river while the huge train rumbles (silently, natch) over the smoldering bridge. Horses and cannons and men with muskets all marching from left to right. The train is incredibly imposing, comes from out of the woods and chugs towards the right of frame. Just when it looks like the bridge might hold, the heavy machine crashes through and lands in a smoking heap in the river below. There was obviously no chance for a new take. I don’t know how many cameras I would have had operating to ensure that the event was captured. But the interesting thing is that the big crash stunt was part of a much larger mosaic of things happening all over the frame. There are men moving, trees swaying, the river is rushing, etc. None of the actors are watching the train because they know what’s about to happen. The whole scene seems like the train fell through by mistake, which makes it much more realistic.

There is a terrible-quality clip of the scene you can watch here.

The film had a complete story, it was exciting and the jokes were shown in the service of the story, not as a set piece as you might find in other silent comedies. And what Keaton did physically and how he shot the action sequences are a fabulous antidote to modern comic book films where the audience is never sure where characters are onscreen and who is fighting whom. Keaton didn’t have the luxury of quick cutting. Most of our modern action directors could learn a thing or two from 1926′s THE GENERAL.

Clip of the cannon stunt

“It is an epic of silent comedy, one of the most expensive films of its time, including an accurate historical re-creation of a Civil War episode, hundreds of extras, dangerous stunt sequences, and an actual locomotive falling from a burning bridge into a gorge far below. Keaton defies logic with one ingenious silent comic sequence after another, and it is important to note that he never used a double and did all of his own stunts, even very dangerous ones, witha calm acrobatic grace.” — Roger Ebert The Great Movies

“One of Buster Keaton’s most celebrated comedies. It’s a classic and many people swear by it, although it isn’t funny in the freely inventive way of his Steamboat Bill, Jr. Its humor is too drawn out for laughter. And yet is has a beauty: it has the shape of comedy.” — Pauline Kael

“It is real and the train’s maneuvers credible and dangerous. It is well known that Keaton performed personally in scenes that involved considerable risk. It is not only a comedy but a genuinely heroic film. I would swap all of Modern Times for that glorious moment when Buster’s meditation fails to notice the growing motion of the engine’s drive shaft on which he is sitting.

“Slow-starting, then hilarious action comedy, often voted one of the best films ever made. It was an expensive production, with its spectacular train crash becoming the most costly single shot in silent films. At the time of its original release, it was a critical and popular failure. It took thirty years before it was recognized as a classic of comedy. Its sequence of sight gags, each topping the one before, is an incredible joy to behold.” — #128 Halliwell’s Top 1000

“Keaton’s best, and arguably the greatest screen comedy ever made. Against a meticulously evoked Civil War background, Buster risks life, limb and love as he pursues his beloved railway engine, hijacked by Northern spies up to no good for the Southern cause. The result is everything one could wish for: witty, dramatic, visually stunning, full of subtle, delightful human insights, and constantly hilarious.” — Time Out Film Guide 2004

“Keaton’s masterpiece and arguably the most formally perfect and funniest of silent comedies. Full of eloquent man-vs-machinery images and outrageous sight gags.” — Videohound’s Golden Movie Retriever 2001

“One of Keaton’s best silent features, setting comedy against true Civil War story of stolen train, Union spies. Not as fanciful as other Keaton films, but beautifully done.” — Leonard Maltin’s 2007 Movie Guide

#30 They Shoot Pictures Top 1000
8.3 IMDB #127 All Time
**** Halliwell’s
**** Videohound
**** Maltin

 

The General @ Amazon

THE GENERAL

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2008

May 23, 2009
Showtime
USA
English
87 Minutes
Documentary
Abby Epstein

My wife had a baby a little more than six months ago. This documentary was right up my alley. Because I’m a closeted hippie, I wanted us to get a doula. My wife was skeptical, thinking that I wanted someone else to do the work that I was supposed to do. The breathing, the backrubs, the control in the delivery room. But what I wanted was someone to be her advocate so my wife could concentrate on the whole bringing a new human life into the world thing. She interviewed several and we hired Vanessa (if you’re in Santa Cruz or San Jose and need a Doula, e-mail me and I’ll give you her info.)

I bring our doula up here because one of the first things she asked us was “do you believe your baby knows how to be born?” which was exactly what she should have asked. I’m the guy, I’m not pushing a huge baby through my birth canal, but it seemed weird to me that, though human babies have been birthed for thousands of years with no need for medical intervention, lately in the United States, it seems like childbirth has become some sort of ordeal which needs to be “neutralized” or “made more comfortable”. Again, cave-women leaned against a tree, squatted, and a baby came out.

Of course many of these babies died in childbirth, as did their mothers, but the way that the baby industry has completely gone bonkers in the other direction is cause for some concern. I was shocked to learn how many ways medicine intrudes on the birthing process. Shots are administered, eyedrops put in crying babies’ eyes, umbilical cord cut too early, women placed on back with legs up in complete defiance of their anatomy, painkillers administered into the spinal cord area, and most concerning of all, the rate of cesarean sections increasing every year. In the USA. Not the rest of the world.

What is wrong with us? That’s the question that is taken on in this documentary. Ob/Gyn’s are interviewed, most on the side of medical science, a few on the side of nature. Midwives are heard from, expectant mothers, babies are born on camera, and the magic of childbirth is pretty accurately captured. We spend most of our time in Manhattan which lends a bit of an elitist vibe to the whole thing. Since home births are rarely covered by insurance, we can assume that most of these women had the means to pay their own way. We see organizations fighting with insurance companies. We see stats that compellingly tell the tale that we have a terrible rate of childbirth death for such a rich nation.

In America, childbirth is thought of as just another “quicky procedure” like liposuction or a boob job. Why wouldn’t the modern, busy woman schedule her delivery down to the half-day if she could? Why wouldn’t a woman who takes an aspirin at the first sign of headache also long for the numbness that a epidural can provide?

Because childbirth isn’t an “ordeal” to suffer through. It is probably the most alive a woman can feel. There is a whole bunch of spiritual earth-mother warrior-woman stuff I’m thinking of but won’t write out here. I’ll just say that babies know how to be born. We should as a country stop getting in their way using the medical industrial complex.

It must be said here that had my wife and I tried a home birth, or even a birth center, the complications that we had would have probably resulted in my wife’s death. So the home birth thing isn’t for everyone. But it should be for thousands of women who want to take their power of reproduction back. Labor takes time, don’t let the doctor limit that time. Eyedrops are unnecessary. Birthplans written in clear, polite but firm language, are a must. It is your day, your birth, your health. You get to be in charge.

One note for the squeamish. I didn’t find myself watching this doc through my fingers as I often do when I see other surgical procedures.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch porn and NASCAR to get my penis cred back.

6.3 Metacritic
7.2 IMDB

The Business of Being Born @ Amazon

THE BUSINESS OF BEING BORN

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2008

May 23, 2009
HBO
USA
English
92 Minutes — June 6, 2008
Animation / Action / Comedy / Family
Mark Osborne & John Stevenson

Prepare For Awesomeness

Jack Black made this more enjoyable than it probably had the right to be. Creative use of Chinese-seeming art design. It may be culturally inauthentic, but I didn’t notice the difference.

7.3 Metacritic
7.7 IMDB

Kung Fu Panda @ Amazon

KUNG FU PANDA

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A STORY FROM THE DEEP SOUTH
2008

May 23, 2009
PBS — P.O.V.
USA
English
86 Minutes
Documentary
Katrina Browne

7.2 IMDB

TRACES OF THE TRADE

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2008

Camera Cinema Club
USA
English
93 Minutes
Mystery
Jeffrey Goodman

There Comes A Time In Your Life When You Want To Be Exactly Who You Are.

6.1 IMDB

THE LAST LULLABY

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BREATHLESS
1960

May 14, 2009
May 10, 2009
Netflix DVD
France
French / English
90 Minutes — February 7, 1961
Crime / Drama / Romance / Thriller
Jean-Luc Godard
#33 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.

A young car thief kills a policeman and goes on the run with his American girlfriend.

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BREATHLESS is the subject of Cinebanter Podcast Number 71. After you’ve seen the movie, listen to the spoiler-filled review by Tassoula and I by clicking the play button right here:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Show Description:
• 00:00 Intro
• 00:32 BREATHLESS Discussion
• Break
• 18:27 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 18:59 The Last Five®
• 47:26 Credits and Outtakes

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“Casual, influential, New Wave reminiscence of both Quai des Brumes and innumerable American gangster thrillers. One of the first and most influential films of the French New Wave.” — Halliwell’s Film Guide 2008

**** Halliwell’s
8.0 IMDB

Breathless – Criterion Collection @ Amazon

BREATHLESS

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2007

May 13, 2009
DVD — Thanks Nazhat S.
USA
English
97 Minutes — February 22, 2008
Comedy / Drama
Jon Poll

Popularity Is A State Of Mind

5.4 Metacritic
7.2 IMDB

Charlie Bartlett @ Amazon

CHARLIE BARTLETT

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2002

May 10, 2009
Netflix DVD
France / Portugal
French
92 Minutes
Comedy / Drama / Romance
Catherine Breillat [Last Tango In Paris; A Real Young Girl; 36 Fillette; Perfect Love; Romance; Fat Girl; Brief Crossing; The Last Mistress]

A female director struggles to get a scene of sexual intercourse on film.

**^ Ebert
**^ Berardinelli
B+ Schwarzbaum
6.3 Metacritic
5.9 IMDB

Sex Is Comedy @ Amazon

SEX IS COMEDY

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BREATHLESS
1960

May 10, 2009
Netflix Roku
France
French / English
90 Minutes — February 7, 1961
Crime / Drama / Romance / Thriller
Jean-Luc Godard
#33 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

BREATHLESS will be the subject of Cinebanter Number 71, which will be posted shortly.

8.0 IMDB

Breathless – Criterion Collection @ Amazon

BREATHLESS

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2009

May 8, 2009
San Jose CA — Century 21
USA / Germany
English
127 Minutes — May 8, 2009
Action / Adventure / Sci-Fi
JJ Abrams [Regarding Henry; Forever Young; Armageddon; Felicity]

The Future Begins.

8.3 Metacritic
8.5 IMDB #71 All Time

STAR TREK

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2009

May 6, 2009
Campbell CA — Camera 7
Mexico / USA
Spanish
96 Minutes
Crime / Drama / Thriller
Cary Fukunaga

The Greatest Sin Of All Is Risking Nothing.

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SIN NOMBRE is the subject of Cinebanter Podcast Number 70. After you’ve seen the movie, listen to the spoiler-filled review by Tassoula and I by clicking the play button right here:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Show Description:
• 00:00 Intro
• 00:32 SIN NOMBRE Discussion
• Break
• 19:09 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 20:08 The Last Five®
• 1:04:59 Credits and Outtake

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**** Ebert
***^ Berardinelli
B- Gleiberman
B- Tobias
** Phillips
7.7 Metacritic
7.2 IMDB

SIN NOMBRE

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2007

May 4, 2009
Netflix DVD
USA
English
97 Minutes
Comedy / Drama
Mike White [Star Maps; Chuck & Buck; The Good Girl; School Of Rock; The Amazing Race]

Has The World Left You A Stray?

7.0 Metacritic
6.2 IMDB

Year of the Dog @ Amazon

YEAR OF THE DOG

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2008

May 3, 2009
HBO
USA
English / Hawaiian
111 Minutes — April 18, 2008
Comedy / Drama / Romance
Nicholas Stoller

A Comedy About Getting Dumped, And Taking It Like A Man

6.7 Metacritic
7.5 IMDB

Forgetting Sarah Marshall @ Amazon

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL

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2007

May 1, 2009
Showtime
USA
English
80 Minutes
Documentary / Comedy
Michael Addis

6.3 IMDB

Heckler @ Amazon

HECKLER

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Written by Michael W. Cummins