Posts Tagged “Comedy”

2012

June 26, 2012
Cinearts Santana Row
USA
English
86 Minutes
Comedy / Romance
Colin Trevorrow

I dare you not to fall in love with Aubrey Plaza as an intern name Darius at Seattle Magazine, who interviews, then befriends, a man who has put an advertisement in the paper reading “Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.” The man’s name is Kenneth and he’s played by mumblecore pioneer Mark Duplass.

The magazine writer in charge of the road trip / expedition is Jeff, played by Jake M. Johnson, who is the “nice guy” on NEW GIRL. Here he plays a combination of that role, plus a large helping of Schmidt the douchebag.

Every character, not just the would-be time traveler, is dealing with some form of incredible loneliness. And the low-key nature of the performances and direction make the story seem much more universal than just a wacky guy who claims to be able to travel through time. Jeff volunteers for the assignment so that he can visit a woman he dated in his late teens who continues to live in the small town. His life has been full of empty hookups and dead-end career moves. A second intern, Arnau, has never kissed a woman, though he’s about to begin graduate school. Darius, is a loner outsider, who has never felt like she belongs. A touching dinnertime scene between Plaza and Jeff Garlin in a welcome tiny role shows the concern a father might have for the lack of action his daughter is getting.

And what to say about Kenneth? Is he crazy? What are his motivations for wanting to move the clock back ten years? What sort of trauma could have happened in his life? Jeff performs his own kind of time travel by setting up a meeting with the girl he can’t get out of his mind. She’s obviously aged since then, as he has, but will there be anything there when he arrives? Darius feels guilt over her mother’s death. Can’t we all think of a time in our past that we might think is better than our present? Specific weeks or seasons or ages or grades. I think we all can. If we did have the technology to go back to that time, what sort of dangers would we face?

Duplass never for one second winks at the audience. He shows off his martial arts training, his ease with handguns, his secret plans for stealing necessary technology. He needs to trust Darius completely, though her main job is to write an article about Kenneth, not be his assistant.

The film was sweet and slow and full of those off-handed jokes that naturalistic filmmaking is full of.

7.5 IMDB
7.2 Metacritic

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED

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2010

January 11, 2011
San Jose — Cinearts Santana Row
Canada
English
108 Minutes
Biography / Comedy / Crime / Drama
George Hickenlooper [Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse; Some Folks Call It A Slingblade; Mayor Of The Sunset Strip]

Spacey chews the scenery in this semi-true story of imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Spacey plays him as a super-jew, super workout guy, super schmoozer, super loyal husband, and super cocky. Barry Pepper matches him overacted scene for overacted scene. Not sure if it’s a black comedy or a realistic portrayal of broken Washington. Not hard to watch, though John Lovitz is pretty much replaying every slovenly medallion wearing character he’s ever been.

As a political wonk, I enjoyed seeing real-life people portrayed by look-a-likes. George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Tom DeLay, etc. Real footage of congressional hearings is spliced in. Hints are given that Abramoff had his hand in all sorts of malfeasance, including the recount in Florida in 2000.

Spacey appears to be having fun, though.

Kevin Spacey; Barry Pepper

6.5 IMDB
5.0 Metacritic

CASINO JACK

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2010

August 14, 2010
Sneak Preview Cinearts Santana Row San Jose
USA
English
90 Minutes — August 27, 2010
Comedy / Drama / Romance
Rob Reiner [This Is Spinal Tap; The Sure Thing; Stand By Me; The Princess Bride; When Harry Met Sally...; Misery; A Few Good Men; The American President]

You Never Forget Your First Love.

There is not a single moment within FLIPPED’s 90 minutes that could possibly offend anyone. Except maybe people looking for a compelling story or strong acting or well-rounded characters. But language and subject matter and the blossoming of young love are done with such apple-pie restraint, that I hate myself for hating it.

Bryce Loski moves into a new neighborhood across the street from Juli Baker. Juli introduces herself and appears to be ready to spend the day with the new family before their moving truck is even unpacked. We are told the story almost entirely in voice-over. First Bryce gets to explain what happens, and then it flips (get it?) and Juli tells us the same story from her point of view.

Bryce is played to an almost unbearably bland level by a kid named Callan McAuliffe, whose sole qualification seems to be his blond hair and skinny frame. Why Juli likes him, we cannot speculate. Juli, on the other hand, is equally attractive, but is at least given a back story and a personality which Bryce is sorely lacking. Juli is a spitfire, she isn’t afraid of what other people think, she mounts a tree sit-in 40 years before Julia Butterfly Hill will do the same thing up in Humboldt. Juli is played with a smile and energy by Madeline Carroll, whose list of credits dwarfs McAuliffe’s.

This romantic mis-match continues to their respective families. Bryce has an older sister and snobby parents played by Anthony Edwards and Rebecca De Mornay. Edwards’ character is seen with a constant scotch in his hand and a negative word for everyone, while De Mornay doesn’t appear to do anything. The one bright spot in the family is Bryce’s grandpa, played by John Mahoney who seems to figure out how great Juli is before the rest of the family does.

Juli has twin brothers, a hard-working mother (Penelope Ann Miller) and a bricklayer father, who spends his free time painting, well-played by Aidan Quinn. There is also an uncle who is in an expensive institution, which explains why the Bakers, gasp, rent their home and don’t own it like the self-respecting Loskis do. Dismissed as hillbilly dreamers by the Loskis, the two families don’t interact. But the Bakers are seen singing at the dinner table, raising eggs in the backyard, and being loved, while the Loskis argue and suffer the rage of Edwards’ character. And we suffer right along with them.

The plot is as follows: Girl sees boy move in, girl stalks boy, boy avoids girl for five years, boy realizes that she’s pretty great, girl now hates boy, boy apologizes for being a dickhead, hands are held. The end.

As I’ve mentioned, though, the girl’s affections are something worth fighting for, while the boy is a blank-staring guy with obnoxious friends.

The voiceover stuff is necessary to move the plot along, but it tries to put us in the mindset of every other, and much more well done, nostalgic film we’ve seen. The Richard Dreyfuss stuff in STAND BY ME, a much better Rob Reiner film, did this in a great way. Much of the praise for that can be leveled at Stephen King, a man who has had some success in the publishing arena.

But FLIPPED has too much voice-over and then we have the other character voice-over us a bit more. There is also a big problem with what they’re saying. They are speaking at a level of clarity and self-awareness (and vocabulary for that matter), that no 13-year-old could possibly handle. Not for a second did I think these characters were doing the talking and not some older writer or director.

The side-trip to see the retarded uncle was painful. It is nearly impossible to play mentally challenged (as Robert Downey, Jr. explained in TROPIC THUNDER), and this was no exception. Wait until you see what happens when he drops his ice cream cone. Oy.

There is a 15-minute meaningless sub-plot about the eggs that Juli’s hens are laying in her backyard. Two neighbor women begin paying her for several dozen eggs a week and she gives Bryce’s family some for free as a thank you for past niceties. During a meal, the Loski family begins by being thankful of the eggs, and then with Bryce’s help, by the end of the meal they’ll all be convinced that there is either an embryo or salmonella hiding under each shell. This leads to throwing them out, but still accepting them from Juli on a regular basis.

Quinn and Carroll are very good in their roles, Mahoney does the best he can, but the rest of the cast is not given much to work with. Edwards, especially, is never seen smiling, yells at his kids at the dinner table for seemingly no reason, and harbors preconceived notions about just about everyone he comes in contact with. His role is thankless.

After watching this, I’m convinced that TOY STORY 3 should be the film with a PG rating and this one should have eliminated one utterance of “asshole” and been the G-rated family film that it’s trying to be.

One side-note. Pay attention to the Bryce’s lawn and parking strip. When shot from Juli’s house, the strip is clearly covered in dark-green astroturf, while the lawn appears to be real. Then the strip is magically back to normal, then turf, then normal. If there’s a symbolism there, I’m not sure what it is.

You can safely take your grandmother and your six-year-old to this film. And then apologize for it later on.

6.5 IMDB

FLIPPED

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2009

July 18, 2010
Showtime
USA
English
88 Minutes
Comedy / Crime / Drama / Sport
Robert D. Siegel [wrote THE WRESTLER]

Paul Aufiero = Patton Oswalt

Oswalt is perfectly cast as a die-hard New York Football Giants fan who spends his working hours in a small box in a parking garage listening to sports radio and writing the script for one of his nightly calls. He is one of those movie-level losers, like MARTY, who lives at home with his mother, has filthy friends, and posters of his sports heroes on his walls. He also sleeps in sheets that I myself had back when I was twelve. The ones with all the NFL teams on them.

His sister is married to a businessman and his brother is a personal injury lawyer as seen on TV. They all wonder what he’s doing with his life. But Paul seems to be content simply following the Giants, talking about the Giants, calling in to sports shows as a representative of the Giants, and wearing only clothes that come in Giants colors. On homegame Sundays, he and his buddy, Sal, played by indie-everywhere Kevin Corrigan, put on jerseys and facepaint and drive from their homes on Staten Island, down 95 to the Meadowlands, where they cheer with the other fans, walk around throwing the football, but strangely, don’t seem to eat or drink anything. Just when I was wondering how a guy who works in a parking garage could pay the astronomical NFL ticket prices, we cut to a shot of the two men, in the parking lot in camping chairs, watching a TV which is hot-wired onto their car battery while the real game goes on 100 yards away. This is the kind of humor the film has to offer. It’s very dark, it’s borderline mentally ill, and just this side of unbelievable.

The scripts that Paul writes for his call-ins (which he claims he says off the cuff) are full of grammar and spelling errors. And he works on them for hours. His calls end up lasting a minute or two and typically end with Scott Farrell saying “always great to hear from Paul in Staten Island.” Unfortunately, his mother often pounds on the wall imploring him to keep it down.

Paul’s single greatest hero (and here’s where we as viewers have to substitute our own–I’ll use Bono) is a killer linebacker named Quantrell Bishop. He has posters of the guy and he always wears his number 54 Bishop jersey to the parking lot. One day, the two losers are out for pizza when they spy Bishop and his posse getting gas for his Escalade. “What are they doing in Staten Island?” they ask each other before giving chase in a run-down Corolla. They stop off at a row house for something that seems vaguely criminal and then head into Manhattan. The film really gets going when we see the two men, who are complete products of their Staten Island surroundings, get nervously excited as they cross the bridge into the bustle and parking difficulties of Manhattan. Never mind the high prices. They follow Bishop into a strip club, where they are shocked to drop $29 within minutes of entering and they grab two seats facing the VIP lounge and the Bishop entourage.

In real life, this must happen all the time. I once bumped into (literally–it was crowded) Derek Jeter and his entourage at the Palms in Las Vegas (which makes me sound much cooler than I actually am.) Everyone who’s seen a celebrity in public knows that they just seem to shine brighter than those around them. I did get to glance into the famous blue eyes of Jeter, but what I also noticed was just how the energy of him being there, smiling, added a kind of buzz to the surroundings. People see celebrities in airports and hotels and concerts and they do appear to be different than we mere mortals.

But here’s the question the film asks: what if your hero turned out to be not only rude, but to beat the shit out of you until you went into a coma? I have been in the presence of celebrity probably 50 times. The soundboard at U2 shows, their hotels, in airports, at film festivals. And I’m always asked why I didn’t get an autograph. My answer is that I never want to be disappointed. And how a signature and a two-second human interaction means that I’ve “met” Bono or Stewart Copeland or Colin Farrell, I’ll never know. Gene Siskel used to say, when asked about interviewing actors and then giving them bad film reviews, something like, they’ll never be your friends–you won’t be going out for coffee with them. Plus I know they all have as many problems and they are as assholish and as messed up as the rest of us.

I say all this because in the film, the pair try to send a drink over to Bishop, who refuses a screwdriver (the only mixed drink they’ve ever heard of), so they decide to walk over anyway. They are at first ignored, then ridiculed (“look Bishop, you do got fans, ha ha ha ha.) This scene is unbearable to take. We know that Paul the schlub meeting Bishop the multi-millionaire cannot go well. But the scene takes a terrible turn when it’s discovered how long the two had been following him and Paul is punched and kicked into unconsciousness.

This alone makes a good movie, but what makes it even a bit better, and where the connections to my choice of Bono no longer work, is that the more trouble Bishop gets into, the less successful the New York Giants are on the football field. If I were to go up to Bono and say, please sign my copy of OCTOBER, and he beats me unconscious, they need to postpone some concerts. After Bishop stomps Paul, he is suspended and the Giants playoff hopes dim, the longer the investigation goes on. This part I loved. Paul is such a Big Fan, that he may decide to put his own health and a well-deserved payday aside so that he can continue to follow his beloved Giants (on TV at least) as they make a run for the Superbowl. If his name gets out, will his fellow fans hate him? Was he too much of a pest and somehow had the beating coming?

Oswalt is absolutely perfect. I’ve always known there was an actor hiding inside his schlubby comedian body. (He does a bit on a 1980s video from Night Ranger that is making me laugh right now as I remember it.) He almost dies, yet he wants his Giants to win. He has made the success of the Giants his reason for living, and without them, his family would be even more right about him. No girls, no adequate job, no life. And if it turns out that his lawsuit is the reason for the Giants demise, could he live with himself?

Added to the picture is another caller to the sports program, a guy named Philadelphia Phil, who revels in any Giants defeat and who is the arch-enemy (radio-version) of Paul from Staten Island.

Sidenote: I was at a San Francisco Giants game this year, and there was a presentation about cancer research, I think, and the spokesman was Tommy Lasorda. Now, Tommy Lasorda may be the single most hated person in San Francisco Giants history. Wanna get beat up? Wear Dodger Blue to Pac Bell Park. Or Chiefs Red to the Black Hole in Oakland. Maize and Blue in Columbus? You get the idea. However, Lasorda was years removed from being a Dodger. He was raising money for medical research. And you should have heard the boos. Oh my. Whenever the jumbotron showed him, the profanities began (from the normally white-wine sipping Giants fans). Sidenote over.

I bring it up because the hatred between the Giants and Eagles was shown pretty perfectly in BIG FAN. The two fans of different teams at first simply spar on the radio show, but over time, they get more angry and mean and how long can Paul keep the truth of his beating from the AM radio audience.

The specificity of Staten Island and the portrayal of a unique type of obsessive, the American football fan, make BIG FAN a fabulous, though not exactly fun, film.

What if your hero (Steve Jobs, Obama, Thom Yorke, Lebron) ignored you–made fun of you–almost killed you?

7.0 Metacritic
6.9 IMDB

Big Fan @ Amazon

BIG FAN

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STARRING MAJA
2009

Cinequest 20
Sweden / Ireland
Swedish
94 Minutes
Comedy / Drama
Teresa Fabik

Sort of a Swedish “Real Women Have Curves” where an overweight, but bubbly teenager shows the audience that she has feelings too. Just because this film was predictable from the first frame to the last, doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

The title character, Maja (Zandra Andersson), is an 18-year-old aspiring actress. She is also huge. She takes acting workshop classes where it’s clear she takes her craft much more seriously than the other, bored members of the troupe. She also is the butt of jokes at her school, and is bumbling in the way that only the cinematically big-boned can be. At a wedding (where she trips into the wedding cake, catches it before it collapses, and then licks the base of the bride & groom figures before quickly reconstructing the top tier, all without anyone noticing), she strikes up a conversation with the wedding videographer. Like all wedding videographers, Erika (Moa Silén) believes that she’s destined for greater cinematic glory. As she’s reviewing her video from the wedding, she stumbles upon Maja speaking directly to the camera about wanting to be an actress and declaring her availability for any projects that Erika might have.

Erika is at first intrigued by Maja’s klutziness and her seeming disconnection between her dreams and her body-type. She begins filming a thrilled Maja while shopping the footage around and being turned down at most production companies, except for one which wants to make her the basis for a comedy film called “Phat”.

When a call comes in about a role in a sitcom, Maja jumps at the chance, Erika does the driving, and a “sensitive” male classmate sneaks out of his house to go along so that he can meet with his “brother”. As this film holds no surprises, we know that Maja’s role will be described as a “hideously obese creature” who set up a blind date with the sitcom star. Erika will struggle with her conscience after setting up the part for Maja with an ex-boyfriend who has become much more successful than she has. The boy from school will learn how men posting ads online will often not, gasp, be exactly who they say they are. Maja will be in heaven as she spoons with the hot, but “theatrical” boy while they share a bed in the big, exciting, city.

There will be drama as Maja’s mother invites a large party over to watch the show, as Erika’s plans for a film at Maja’s expense are exposed, as the boy tells Maja a secret that the rest of us have known about for 45 minutes.

There are some things that the film surprised me about.
1) The boy did go to the big city, meet a man, and have some form of sex with him. Maja: you didn’t do things you didn’t want to do, did you? Boy: [no answer--then tears]
2) The acting troupe is putting on The Twelfth Night (I believe) which includes a character who is so hideous that the rest of the cast pretends to be attracted to him, until he realizes and has a speech about how evil they are by playing with his heart. This role will be played, of course, by Maja, who will wow the community theater crowd to the point of tears with her heartfelt acting talent. But the thing is, Andersson is a really good actress. We want to applaud along with the rest of the auditorium during their curtain call.
3) The film said some things about the actual chances of someone of Andersson’s build becoming famous at anything. There were scenes that were reminiscent of PRECIOUS when she pretends she’s at the BET Awards with her light-skinned boyfriend. There are dream sequences here as well.

The moral of the story I suppose is that if you’re a filmmaker, don’t make fun of your subject, find their inner soul and show it to the audience. And if you’re an overweight aspiring actress, simply find a gay man to hitch your wagon to and he’ll design a graduation gown that will be talked about for years and years. Or something.

I’d let kids of any age see this. It’s empowering. It’s crowd-pleasing. And completely predictable.

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The Cinequest Program Said:

Everyone wants to be seen, everyone wants to be noticed.

Finding the perfect balance of comedy and drama, Teresa Fabik’s Starring Maja inspires with a poignant, coming-of-age tale that examines our hopes and fears, about discovering ourselves and about following our dreams.

Meet Maja, an 18-year-old girl from a small town in Sweden. She dreams of becoming an actress and getting the world to see her for the beautiful person she is. But it’s difficult to get anyone to look past her portly physique, her awkward social skills, or her clumsiness. Along comes Erica, a struggling documentary filmmaker, who sees an opportunity to create some comedy and make some money by recording Maja’s daily antics. As time passes, Maja’s warm-hearted enthusiasm wins Erica over and has her questioning her motives. Maja’s journey is riddled with comedy and sadness as she struggles to find the self-esteem and courage to live her dream—on her own terms.

—–

6.9 IMDB

STARRING MAJA

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HOUSE OF BRANCHING LOVE
2009

March 6, 2010
Cinequest 20
Finland
Finnish
102 Minutes
Comedy / Drama
Mika Kaurismaki

This is the kind of comedy where a man, while getting orally serviced by his girlfriend for rent, tosses a lit cigar out his window onto dry grass, where a brush fire ignites, and as the man rushes outside wearing boxers and brandishing an extinguisher, he loses control of the hose and it sprays all over his face and the window before finally hitting its target. The crowd erupts in laughter. And…scene.

A couple in their 30s is divorcing, but neither wants to leave the lakeside house, so they decide they’ll both live there, as long as they live by a set of ground rules. Samples are, we split the bills, and, no new people allowed inside, which really means that they can’t bring their new lovers over. This rule lasts about an hour. The woman calls a former one-night-stand participant and he flies his seaplane over and docks it at the house. The man asks his pimp half-brother to secure the services of a prostitute who will pose as his new love interest. But she’s on the run from a scary female mob boss who accuses her of stealing some money.

The man’s best friend is some sort of blow-dried, tight-acid-washed-jeans wearing guy who seems to have a way with the ladies, if not with his toothbrush.

The entire plot is based around a divorcing couple, who through jealousy and kidnapping and a next door neighbor with a huge dog, find that they are better together than apart. There isn’t a single surprise, and the mood changes from madcap slapstick to serious tied-to-a-chair torture seemingly at random.

Skip this one.

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The Cinequest Program Said:

It’s divorce: Finnish style.

In this wicked comedy, Juhani and Tuula, a successful family therapist and a business trainer, cannot practice what they preach. When they decide to divorce but continue to share the house, reason not only doesn’t prevail, long repressed emotions erupt like childish, playground tantrums. First Juhani brings home a bar pickup, infuriating Tuula so much that she gets even with a tryst of her own the next night. Juhani then ups the ante by hiring a prostitute who’s being tailed by the local mob that thinks she’s stolen a big chunk of their money, to pose as his girlfriend.

Director Mika Kaurismäki’s wild ride through domestic dysfunction not only earns its laughs, it also exposes the futility of false personas where matters of the heart are involved. Ultimately, love, in all its guises, is a part of the human condition none of us can do without.

—–

6.6 IMDB

HOUSE OF BRANCHING LOVE

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2009

February 27, 2010
Cinequest 20
Norway
Norwegian / Polish / English
100 Minutes
Drama
Sara Johnsen

Terrific film about the nature of fate. And love, of course. Axel is an advertising executive in his 20s with a completely dicky demeanor. He is Asian, but was adopted at a young age by a Norwegian couple. He treats women poorly, is reckless and handsome and snobby. His adoptive parents live in a large, expensive house, and it’s clear he’s the most important thing to him. His family hires a new maid, Maria, a sexy woman from Poland, whose own son lives with her mother back in her home country. They are immediately attracted to each other, though when not having sex, he treats her as if she were his family’s maid–which, of course, she is. Maria works a second job washing dishes at an Asian restaurant in a not-so-great part of town. A co-worker, Anne, is quiet and thoughtful and was also adopted by a Norwegian, though her mother has a blue collar job working as a coat check woman in a hotel lounge. Rounding out the cast is a blond farm boy named Per, just back from the Gulf War, after being photographed brandishing a rifle in the face of a small Afghan boy. The publicity from the photo resulted in his being discharged from the army, and sent back home where he is anxious to begin his college studies. His first apartment is across the street from the restaurant. The four will become two couples.

There are several things going on in this film and not all of those things work. The film opens with night vision shots of a war zone, but Per’s military story is by far the least compelling one. He has an embedded photo-journalist (a hot one, to boot) follow him around as he goes about his army business. A car speeds through a roadblock, he kills the driver and screams at the kids in the back seat to get out. A photo is taken and he becomes a scapegoat. He has trouble sleeping afterward, but is polite and smart and ready for college.

The more successful theme is one of class distinction. Axel is spoiled and wealthy and handsome and entitled and works in a high-priced ad agency. Anne is beautiful and sweet and is a waitress at a local restaurant. Maria is in Norway on a worker’s permit, lives in a different country than her son, is both a maid and a dishwasher. That’s our hierarchy. But what caused them to reach the class level they’ve reached? Maria came to Norway looking for a better life. Axel and Anne were adopted as children from their homeland by two vastly different families. One a single mother working in a hotel, the other a well-to-do couple who throw lavish parties, support liberal causes, and think nothing of their mid-20s son coming home to live after a work suspension (for inappropriate language towards a female, of course).

Add to this the relationship that Maria and Axel enter into–she is employed by his family, how can any love affair be equal? When he’s mean to her, his barbs are always aiming towards her domestic servant status.

What if the situation were different? The girl was adopted by the wealthy couple and given all the advantages that Axel now enjoys.

I must say that as someone who was adopted as an infant, this sort of what if discussion is never far from my mind. What if the family before the one I ended up with had decided to take me? How would everything have been different–or the same? Biological children probably don’t go through this, but we “chosen babies” do. So this film hit quite close to home.

Beyond the plot, the film is populated by good looking people of various backgrounds. Axel walks around completely nude–and why shouldn’t he with that body. Anne is striking in her poise and posture and quietness. She has a first kiss that will make you swoon. Maria is louder and demonstrative and sexy. And Per is buff and handsome and as Norwegian as apple pie. Each does a fabulous job with their characters. The music and photography is great.

If you forget about an incredible coincidence for a moment and just let it wash over you, you’ll be in for a great film experience.

Notes:
Coincidence aside, fabulous story of siblings, adopted from Asia to Norway…the son is an affluent advertising creative type who is just an asshole to everyone he meets…his adopted family is beyond wealthy…clearly he’s had everything he’s ever wanted…we see him as the film opens paying his buddy to sleep with his girlfriend, thus proving her unworthiness–it’s a loyalty test she fails…sent home on a semi-suspension (for inappropriate language), Axel meets his family’s new maid, a Polish hottie who he treats like trash…Maria also works as a dishwasher at the Vietnamese restaurant where her best friend Anne works. Anne was also adopted from Vietnam, but her mother is a coat checker at a posh hotel…An ex-soldier, who becomes infamous for a photo of him aiming a machine gun in an Afghan boy’s face, moves into Maria’s low-rent building to being his college studies…the soldier finds comfort in the restaurant and the advertising exec finds comfort in the maid…there are some interesting things being said about the luck of life’s draw…both Vietnamese young people seem smart, one was adopted by affluent parents, the other by a working-class woman…how does this adoption lottery affect those involved…the cast is magnificent, and the Norway we see is less fancy, clean, and healthy than divided, racist, and full of class divisions…not sure if the soldier’s story is as compelling as the others…the scenes of war seem a bit out of place…they are good, but the vibe is different…the film is all about how big events can affect everything that follows, whether it be an international adoption, a child left in another country, or an act during wartime…

7.1 IMDB

UPPERDOG

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2009

July 19, 2009
Camera Cinema Club
USA
English
95 Minutes
Comedy / Drama / Romance
Henry Jaglom [Hollywood Dreams]

Time Never Kills The Love Of Your Life.

Actress Tanna Frederick. Remember that name, please. Although you’ll be hard pressed to forget it after the credits for IRENE IN TIME spend what seems to be a full 60 seconds where they say simply “Tanna Frederick In”. In huge letters, while background images of the ocean are changing. Someone (director Henry Jaglom) really must think that the name Tanna Frederick either means something now to audiences, or will soon mean something to audiences. She also starred in his last film, HOLLYWOOD DREAMS, and fool me once, shame on me, but fool me twice…you know the rest.

Frederick plays a 20-something, unlucky-in-love, singer who is recording an album. While Ms. Frederick’s voice won’t make you nauseous, neither will you believe for a second that she has a recording contract. Nor will you believe that the obviously hip producer spends his time staring out his booth’s window at Frederick while mesmerized by the dulcet tones coming out of her mouth. Someone told the actress she could sing, Jaglom encouraged her, now she’s playing a singer. (This is something I’ve referred to for years as the “Potsie Principle” named for the Happy Days character who found a way to sing in nearly every one of the later episodes of that classic sitcom.)

Never mind that her songs include one call “Dancing With My Father” (lyrics: I’m dancing with my father by the light of the moon) and a song that must be heard to be believed called “Starbucks” about a woman who walks into the coffee shop with a cellphone thus making the retail chain (ticker symbol: SBUX) magical. Or something.

I really enjoyed the 2007 Irish film ONCE, and one of the reasons why was the recording studio scenes. Typically films have a big “reveal” whereby a band or singer hits one, maybe two notes and the heard-it-all producer stops what he’s doing, silences his co-workers, and stares longingly at the musicians behind the glass. ONCE didn’t do this. The first verse of the first song was shaky, but it got better and better, and while the recording engineer didn’t gaze at the band as if witnessing greatness, he did smile at the surprise of hearing something decent.

IRENE IN TIME has sweeping camera shots of what seems to be entire songs, where our beautifully lit star, Ms. Frederick, is singing with such passion that every other musician in the room can’t help but stare. And producer, and later love interest, Jakub, sits in a director’s chair absorbing every note that comes towards him. He even uses his love of her singing to land a date with her. I don’t doubt that people may find her whiny voice appealing, but I defy anyone to tell me that the rest of her band, including four other professional singers, would smile as much at one singer, when they have much more important things to worry about–like producing their best performance. It rang completely false.

There are also those films where the director needs to show us that the actor or actress is really singing. And that he or she is really remarkable. And that the words that the character wrote are so deep that we need to hear every verse and every word. And then the whole band has to hug and high-five afterward to prove that magic was made during the session we just witnessed. Somehow IRENE IN TIME covers each of these bases. And did I mention the song called “Starbucks”.

This film is completely populated with boring, self-centered people. And the queen of the self-centered is Irene. This gaggle of women meet up to drink wine, swim in a posh Santa Monica bungalow’s pool, and bad-mouth their former and present boyfriends and their mostly absent fathers. There are tears aplenty. Whenever this group of women meet, or even when a group of older friends, male and female, hold poker nights, Irene gets to be the first and last person to talk. Her problems are so much bigger than everyone else’s. She gets to be first in telling the story about how great her now-dead father was, how he would lie to teachers to get her out of school and take her bike riding or sailing or to the circus. In fact, why limit these incredibly compelling stories to just friends or even just acquaintances? Why not discuss her father on first dates? And, believe it or not, why not discuss her father with the unknown high school student at the next table at a restaurant?

There’s a scene where a father and daughter are having dinner in a restaurant booth. She is one of those only-in-the-movies teenagers who speaks of existentialism and parental boundaries and how her dad could have been a better father. He leaves to go to the bathroom, against her wishes. Meanwhile, our heroine’s date, a jazz singer’s manager, has been getting eyes from the restaurant’s hostess (played by Dorothy’s little sister and the ex-Mrs. Bogdonovich, Louise Stratton) so he leaves his date to go talk with her. This shows us that another man in Irene’s life will be a dog like all the others, but that’s not the worst of it. Irene scoots over to talk with the young woman. Are you with your dad? Yes. My dad used to come to school and lie to the teachers and take me bike riding. And within minutes of meeting, she’s explaining the greatness of her dead father to yet another victim. The teenager, who is both wise beyond her years, and much more aware and intelligent and grown up than Irene mentions that her date is right now flirting with the hostess and “he’s not the right match for you.”

In addition to the contract rider which provided Frederick with three full songs to sing on camera, there must have been an equally enforceable clause which required that she appear in a bikini. Don’t get me wrong, she looked fabulous, but with the exception of a scene that actually took place poolside, the other two bikini-scenes were were completely gratuitous. Frederick has obviously been hitting the gym and if I had a body like hers, you know, but more guyish, I’d scarcely keep my shirt on anywhere. But sometimes scenes are added to films just because the actress wants them. To the best of my recollection, she never actually sang while in a bikini. Though perhaps those scenes will surface in the DVD release.

All of the characters come from money. Irene’s father apparently gambled a lot and on one of the occasions when he won, it paid for the down payment on the house she grew up in. Irene currently lives with a friend and her friend’s mother (Karen Black), in a huge house with a pool and fountain. It’s not clear how Irene makes a living. Surely not in the hour a day she spends recording songs with such titles as “Starbucks.”

In the mid-point of the film, Irene visits the house she grew up in as her mother hosts a last party before selling it. She escapes to her old room to look around. She finds a music box and inside of it is a note in her father’s handwriting. Why she waited this many years to open the music box even though many a childhood treasure hunt started there, is never explained. The clue inside says to look in a box in the closet and in that box is the photo of a young singer. At this exact moment a family friend comes into the room and nervously says “put that away before your mother sees.” Uh oh. The plot thickens. Or maybe, the plot finally starts. Not really.

Next scene: a woman is rehearsing a jazz song while her manager watches. Irene comes in at the exact second the singer starts performing a song. Irene begins shaking and crying and sobbing and looking on in mouth-agape wonder as the woman continues to sing. When it’s over, Irene (who is unknown to both singer and manager) demands to know “where did you get that song!” Again, Irene walked in just as the song was starting. The manager tries to cool her down and asks if she’s a fan, but she isn’t. The singer comes over and tries to comfort Irene. Irene, never one to hide her emotions from strangers, begins a story. “My daddy and I wrote that song together and I haven’t heard it for 15 years, I demand to know how you got it!” The answer is obvious to we in the audience, though it isn’t so obvious to Irene because apparently nothing is obvious.

Yes, her perfect father (disappearing gambler, breaker of public school truancy laws) may have had a mistress or two on the side and perhaps this singer was one of them. The singer tries to lessen the blow by saying “you remind me of him” and “I loved him so much”, etc. Once we find out that Irene’s mother adopted her, it doesn’t take a genius to deduce that the singer is the mom and Irene is the daughter and the father wasn’t the prince that she thought he was. Her constantly rosy view of her “daddy” is finally cracking a bit when faced with this kind of evidence.

Irene is a “close-talker”. Irene stares at people and says things like “I feel this connection” or “Daddy is watching over me.” Irene is apparently so incredibly beautiful, inside and out, that every man who comes within her zone of influence is immediately smitten and must date her. But what about the women in her life? Thanks for asking. In what may be the most ridiculous scene in a film full or ridiculous scenes, there is a bathing-suit-clad couch scene where four women are talking. One of the more forward women, who looks like a former Olympic swimmer, is all but devouring Irene with her eyes. “I find you very attractive” she purrs as her hands stroke our heroine’s bare shoulders. “Have you ever been with a woman?” Only in the movies do we hear “let’s kiss to see if we feel anything” and our giddy main character kisses the Olympian to see if her problem isn’t with her choice in men, it’s with her choice of males. Then the other two have to kiss, but they don’t take it seriously. Then Irene gives her review: “your lips are softer than a man’s–it’s like kissing yourself,” which in retrospect is probably something the narcissistic Irene has always wanted to do.

The next male who falls for her is the record producer, a buffed, seemingly normal guy who all but begs for a date. She agrees (while close-talking) and he picks her up while holding a bouquet of red and blue balloons. You’d think he was a medium who contacted her father from beyond the grave by the way she acts. She again shudders and cries and sobbingly says “Oh my god, when I was a kid, my dad would give me balloons that were also red and blue! How did you know?” she says through her tears. He replies, “I thought of you when I was picking the colors.”

To review the men we see with Irene. 1) Man comes over for dinner at Irene’s house. She admits how happy she’s been with the past three months together. He counters that it’s really only been 2 and a half. Gone. 2) On date with architect, her chirpy, borderline retarded interaction with him (“Close your eyes. Now think of your favorite drafting tool”) results in his replying something that the rest of us will wonder for the rest of the film “what’s wrong with you?”. Gone. During the meal. 3) A man returns to L.A. after six years and has lunch with Irene, her friend, and another man. By the way, the friend has to “pretend to be straight this one time” and though she ends up telling her date she likes women, he almost changes her orientation with a single kiss. The man who returned after a long absence used to date Irene and he continues to talk about the good times and how he’s grown and changed the way she wants and then he proposes marriage, right at the bar. Gone. 4) Jazz singer’s manager, calls her up, they bike ride on the Santa Monica boardwalk (the better for Irene to again tell the story of her father “kidnapping” her to go for a ride), and they have the aforementioned meal while the hostess licks her lips while watching him on his date. She gets dropped off by him after a different date saying “you make me feel like an awkward 8th grader” though I’m not sure what that means. Gone. 5) Record producer who stares at her through the glass, is smooth and handsome, and picks her up with huge display of tear-inducing balloons. They have what appears to be romantic walks on the beach and good sex. This man leads Irene to invite her complaining girlfriends over for a ceremonial burning of the huge collection of self-help dating books she’s collected. They throw them into the fireplace with enthusiasm. Irene then says “this past week with Jakub has been great. I think I finally found the one.” Yup, it only took her a week, but she knows for sure. A later phone call will reveal that Jakub is on his way back to Chicago where his wife and family live. Gone.

Zero for five. And none of them are as great and warm and loving as Irene’s Father was.

Frederick (or her character, and I’m not sure which is which) is as self-centered and neurotic as Woody Allen, with none of his humor or charisma. That’s right, she has less charisma than Woody Allen. Her mother will say “did you know you come from a long line of narcissists?” Anyone who watches this film will be nodding their head vigorously. This film was full of boring people (mostly women) who continuously boo hoo’ed over their man problems. And each of them connected their present day problems with men and the fact that their father left them, or were abusive, or were perfect, or were too caring, or not caring enough. We get it.

Fathers have incredible “power” over their daughters’ formation of male roles and relationships. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that fathers have been responsible for untold negative relationships between daughters and the men they attempt to love. On the other hand, fathers have also been responsible for well-adjusted and fulfilling relationships between daughters and the men they form partnerships with. Most of us have parents who mostly did the best they could. It’s time to move on and take responsibility for ourselves.

This film was a mess of talky scenes where characters I didn’t care about lamented how terrible their lives were, while surrounded by affluence. No one is seen working or paying for anything or checking off anything on their to-do lists. They were just seen talking. Over and over again about the same thing. Mostly, about the father that Irene hasn’t seen in 15 years.

A final title card says (in flowery script): For My Daughter.

5.4 IMDB [20 Votes]

IRENE IN TIME

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1967

July 18, 2009
San Jose CA — California Theatre — 70MM
France / Italy
French / English / German
124 Minutes
Comedy
Jacques Tati
#87 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.

I was lucky to catch this in 70MM at the beautiful California Theatre in downtown San Jose. It was my first exposure to Director Jacques Tati, who appeared in the film as “Monsieur Hulot”, but there isn’t really a main character. In fact, there is absolutely no discernible dialog in the whole film. It’s in French and German and English, but you can’t really pick up on what anyone’s saying. It is all background noise. Hulot stumbles from place to place, first to a huge bureaucratic building, then to a fancy dinner club, then to a guy’s apartment, but here’s the thing: we have no idea why he is wherever he is. There is also an American tourist who follows her tour group around from gray building to gray building, never seeing any of the sights that made Paris famous (except in creative window reflections.) The two of them will cross paths, but again, we don’t know why. They’ll end up at a department store, in a traffic circle, and in a splendid lengthy scene in a restaurant on its grand opening day.

The film was made in 1967 by its crazy director who took two years, mortgaged his financial future, and actually built a small city outside of Paris in which to film it. He also never, I mean not once, filmed anyone or anything in close-up. There are no shots, I don’t think, with one actor only. Shots are held for long periods of time and in the background and corners things are happening. There are also cardboard cutouts on buses and in building windows and in the far background whose purpose appears to be populating the frame. At other points, live actors will be frozen in the background and only “come to life” at certain points in the scene. Not sure what that choice was about.

But if ever a film was full of whimsy, and not manufactured whimsy, like CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY or THE TRUMAN SHOW (even if you like those movies.) How a story with mumbled far-off dialogue and no plot and no explanation for why people are doing what they’re doing can be so compelling and interesting is beyond me? The entire thing is funny, but there aren’t many laugh-out-loud moments.

I very much liked the experience.

7.9 IMDB

Playtime @ Amazon

PLAY TIME

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2009

July 16, 2009
Redbox DVD
USA
English
91 Minutes — January 16, 2009
Action / Comedy / Crime
Steve Carr

Safety Never Takes A Holiday.

In my defense, sometimes marriage can be a collection of compromises. Sometimes my wife gets to pick the movie. Plus, we are big fans of KING OF QUEENS, which is probably the lightest TV show I’ve ever watched regularly. For a three-camera studio audience sitcom, it was hilarious to me. Mostly because the guy was overweight and loved the same kinds of foods that I do–that is, stuff a 10 year old would eat. And neither character was all good.

So with that goodwill felt towards Mr. Kevin James, I tried my first experience with the Redbox machine near my Lucky’s. I have recently read a New York Times article about how Paul Blart is the number one rental in Redboxes, which only hold about 50 different titles and how the CEO of Redbox was pretty sure that Paul Blart was not the number one rental at the much snobbier Netflix.

The plot, ha ha, is that James has hypoglycemia and that keeps him off the police force in New Jersey, but he takes his job at the West Orange Mall just as seriously as if her were a real cop. He rides a Segway, helps little old ladies, finds lost children, and keeps his uniform pressed and looking good. Everyone around him ridicules his weight and the dedication he brings to his job. He has a crush on the hair extension kiosk girl. He has a circle of friends who work in the mall. He has a daughter at home, the product of a green-card-acquiring Mexican immigrant who left them behind soon after her birth.

It’s Black Friday and a group of highly-trained, tattooed, X-Game participants takes over the mall so that they can steal the credit card codes on the biggest shopping day of the year. But with our hero’s knowledge of the mall layout and how to get a Segway to do what you want, the bad guys don’t stand a chance, do they?

The reason this film wasn’t as funny as it could be is because Blart himself has no discernible sense of humor. At all. Since he takes his job so seriously, he doesn’t think what he’s doing is funny. His shyness isn’t funny. His dating bad luck isn’t funny. James isn’t given a chance to be ridiculous. Knowingly, that is. It just isn’t very funny. Filled with unknown actors, this film made a fortune. I’m sure a sequel is in the works. Nice use of incredibly sappy old Survivor song.

3.9 Metacritic
5.4 IMDB

Paul Blart: Mall Cop @ Amazon

PAUL BLART: MALL COP

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1925 & 1942

June 28, 2009
Netflix DVD
USA
English
72 Minutes — April 18, 1942 re-release
Adventure / Comedy / Romance
Charles Chaplin [City Lights]
#27 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 lone prospector in the Yukon becomes rich after various adventures.

Most famous for the scene in which a starving-to-death Chaplin boils his shoe and he and his companion eat it. Sort of a collection of gags more than an actual story. Chaplin is out of his depth as a prospector. He narrowly avoids being eaten by a bear on several occasions, and once, his starving roommate swears that Chaplin’s turned into a five foot chicken just waiting to be eaten. There are dance hall girls who will break his heart and rich guys who will spit on him. But because it’s Chaplin, we know he’ll have the last laugh.

This was released in a much longer version in 1925 as a silent. Once sound in movies was perfected, Chaplin went back, wrote a score, took away the title cards, and narrated a brisk 72 minute version. I’ve never seen the original silent. The narration was less intrusive than you might imagine. Though it does tell us things we can already understand while watching. The special effects are astonishing for its time period, especially as a cabin balances on the edge of a cliff.

8.2 IMDB #157 All Time
**** Halliwells

The Gold Rush @ Amazon

THE GOLD RUSH

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HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB
1964

June 24, 2009
TCM — LiveTweet
UK
English / Russian
93 Minutes — January 29, 1964
Comedy
Stanley Kubrick [Paths Of Glory; Lolita; 2001: A Space Odyssey; A Clockwork Orange; Barry Lyndon; The Shining; Full Metal Jacket; Eyes Wide Shut]
#39 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 mad USAF general launches a nuclear attack on Russia, and when recall attempts fail, and retaliation is inevitable, all concerned sit back to await the destruction of the world.

First things first. This was a live-tweet whereby people around the world all watched Turner Classic Movies at the same time (or if that channel wasn’t available, they started their own DVD at the appropriate time). This is not the best way to watch a film you’ve never seen before. You find yourself looking down to read comments and respond rather than letting yourself get into the film you’re discussing. Luckily, this was, perhaps, my fifth viewing of Kubrick’s classic.

It is impossible to watch many of the scenes of politicians and generals arguing and not think of the Bush administration. It must be said, however, that the film is pretty dated. There is exactly one woman in the film, but Peter Sellars plays three roles. There are several hilarious phone calls where the US president speaks to the Russian leader about the “mistake” of sending nuclear weapons towards them.

The sets are Kubrickian in their hugeness. The entire pace and feeling of the film changes when Kubrick goes hand-held for a few scenes of a US base under attack. We’d see this again in Full Metal Jacket.

But this is mostly rightly held up as a farce about a single crazy guy and how much power he has when his subordinates follow orders without thinking them through. A young James Earl Jones plays one of the pilots. George C. Scott is really the reason to watch. He uses all of this macho-ness in the service of playing General Buck Turgidson (in fact most characters have snicker-worthy names).

Everyone should see it, but it was clearly made in 1964.

9.6 Metacritic
8.7 IMDB #28 All Time
**** Halliwells

Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb @ Amazon

DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB

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AVENUE MONTAIGNE
2006

June 20, 2009
Netflix DVD
France
French / English
100 Minutes — February 16, 2007
Comedy / Drama / Romance
Daniele Thompson

I still don’t know why this film showed up in my mailbox. I obviously added it to my Netflix Queue, but for the first time, I have no idea why. It didn’t star anyone I’ve seen anything else from. The director was new to me. I don’t love Paris-based films. I don’t add things because Netflix says “I also might enjoy…” So I’m not sure what happened, it may have even been a mistake. Having said that, it was an enjoyable story about a single block on a street and the stories behind a play, a piano recital, and an auction all taking place on the same night. One spunky “amelie-esque” waitress is the connection to all three stories. All of the characters are wealthy and attractive, but even rich people have a hard time being happy all the time.

The actress in the play, feels like she’s slumming by appearing on a soap opera when all she really wants is to be cast in the newest Sydney Pollack film. The pianist would rather play in shorts and flip flops to a group of children or hospital patients than tour nonstop for rich audiences. The old man who is auctioning off his priceless art collection is trying to stay young in the arms of a beautiful woman who is open about only loving his money.

It’s good, it’s french, and the main waitress character is adorable. What’s not to like?

6.4 Metacritic
6.9 IMDB

AVENUE MONTAIGNE

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THE RULES OF THE GAME
1939

June 16, 2009
Netflix Criterion DVD
France
French
106 Minutes — January 18, 1961
Comedy / Drama
Jean Renoir [The Grand Illusion]
#3 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 count organizes a weekend shooting party which results in complex love intrigues among servants as well as masters.

What’s memorable about this film is the complete lack of sexual morals of any of the characters. Everyone, of both genders, has a little something on the side. Some come out and say “I don’t love you, but I want to sleep with you” while others are more coy. Characters sneak off to one of the many rooms on the estate to mess around, often in front of spouses. The basic premise is that rich people are just as horny as you and me. It must have been scandalous back in the day.

8.0 IMDB
**** Halliwells

The Rules of the Game @ Amazon

THE RULES OF THE GAME

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2009

June 14, 2009
Camera Cinema Club
USA / UK
English
98 Minutes — June 26, 2009
Comedy / Drama / Romance
Sam Mendes [American Beauty; Road To Perdition; Jarhead; Revolutionary Road]

5.7 Metacritic
7.8 IMDB

Away We Go @ Amazon

AWAY WE GO

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2009

June 10, 2009
San Jose CA — Camera 12
USA
English
100 Minutes — June 5, 2009
Comedy
Todd Phillips [Old School]

7.3 Metacritic
8.4 IMDB

The Hangover @ Amazon

THE HANGOVER

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2009

June 3, 2009
Campbell CA — Camera 7 — 3D
USA
English
96 Minutes — May 29, 2009
Animation / Action / Adventure / Comedy / Family
Pete Doctor [Toy Story; Toy Story 2; Monsters, Inc.; WALL-E] & Bob Peterson [Finding Nemo; Ratatouille]

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UP is the subject of Cinebanter Podcast Number 72. 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 UP Discussion
• Break
• 20:31 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 21:23 The Last Five®
• Break
• 49:49 Listener Feedback/Eli Stone discussion
• 1:00:34 Credits and Outtakes

~~
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**** Ebert
**** Phillips
A Schwarzbaum
8.8 Metacritic
9.0 IMDB #15 All Time (ha!)

Up @ Amazon

UP

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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
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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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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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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1981

April 19, 2009
Camera Cinema Club
USA
English
115 Minutes — August 14, 1981
Comedy
Peter Bogdanovich [The Last Picture Show; Mask; The Thing Called Love; Northern Exposure; The Sopranos; Broken English]

Three agency detectives fall in and out of love in the course of their duties.

The guest this Sunday morning was writer-director, Peter Bogdanovich. Which was cool.

* Halliwells
6.0 IMDB

They All Laughed @ Amazon

THEY ALL LAUGHED

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2008

April 17, 2009
DVD — Thanks, Nazhat S.
USA
English
90 Minutes — October 3, 2008
Comedy / Drama / Music / Romance
Peter Sollett [Raising Victor Vargas]

6.4 Metacritic
6.9 IMDB

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist @ Amazon

NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST

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2008

April 8, 2009
Download
USA / Germany
English
121 Minutes — November 7, 2008
Comedy
David Wain [The Daily Show; Keeping The Faith; The Ten]
Paul Rudd [Clueless; Romeo + Juliet; The Cider House Rules; Friends; Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy; The 40 Year Old Virgin; The Ten; Knocked Up; Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story; Forgetting Sarah Marshall]

Danny and Wheeler were just sentenced to 150 hours mentoring kids. Worst idea ever.

This one can be filed in the “could have been much worse” category. Man-crush Paul Rudd makes this story bearable. We get a ten year old obsessed with boobs, a medieval role-playing dork, and a guy who responds to a woman’s “I’m kinda engaged” with “I’ve kinda got a boner.” I laughed a lot, and I only feel moderately embarrassed about that.

6.0 Metacritic
7.3 IMBD

Role Models @ Amazon

ROLE MODELS

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I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP ALONE
2006

March 21, 2009
Netflix DVD
Malaysia / China / Taiwan / France / Austria
Taiwanese / Malay / Mandarin / Bengali
115 Minutes
Comedy / Drama
Ming-Liang Tsai [What Time Is It There?]

7.8 Metacritic
7.2 IMDB

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone @ Amazon

I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP ALONE

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2008

March 15, 2009
Camera Cinema Club
USA
English / French / Wolof / Spanish
91 Minutes — March 27, 2009
Comedy / Drama
Ramin Bahrani [Man Push Cart]

8.7 Metacritic
8.2 IMDB
8.2 Critical Consensus

GOODBYE SOLO

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2008

March 8, 2009
Cinequest 19
Switzerland
German
92 Minutes
Comedy / Musical
Oliver Paulus

Strange mishmash of an alpine village and a Bollywood musical story. Somehow, it works. Lighter than the altitude, characters, all of whom are blonde, begin dancing in a supermarket while a noticeably brown Indian in town with a film crew, sings to the camera about love and food. Madcap, slapstick, romantic. The crowd couldn’t have laughed any louder. Everyone left smiling.

5.2 IMDB (94 Votes)

TANDOORI LOVE

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Written by Michael W. Cummins