Category Archives: TUiW Goes To
Made in Dagenham
Of all the feature films at the festival, this was the one I was least excited to see, but was pleasantly surprised. Sally Hawkins gives a great performance as the leader of a group of machinists at a Ford factory in England that fought for equal pay in the 1960s. Miranda Richardson has entered the Oscar conversation for her supporting role in the film, and while she was good, I don’t know if it was good enough to warrant an Oscar. Richard Schiff, as a corporate big wig from Detroit steals all his scenes, as does Bob Hoskins. It was a light and fun film that won’t set the world on fire, but is definitely worth your time.
Mike Leigh’s newest effort, following the life of an aging couple, their son, and their friends, is a delightfully warm and enjoyable film. Leslie Manville is phenomenal as Mary, a middle-aged alcoholic whose life is seemingly falling apart at the seams, and Jim Broadbent provides a slew of laughs with nothing more than his manic expressions. The film has an interesting structure, dividing the year into the four seasons and essentially creating four acts. Leigh continues his hot streak, and I’d expect to see that extend into Oscar season once again this year.
Closing out the festival was Danny Boyle’s newest, much buzzed about film. I’d heard all of the rumors of people passing out during the graphic self-amputation scene at the climax of the film, but it was still a shock when I heard someone yelling to turn on the lights and call a doctor. The person who passed out was thankfully okay, but I have a feeling the one scene will overshadow a film that’s actually quite gripping and a lot of fun. James Franco continues to assert himself as one of the best actors around, and Boyle finds ways to make a man stuck in one spot for 127 hours a suspenseful, highly entertained. It’s not a movie for the faint of heart, but if you have the stomach (or don’t mind covering your eyes), go check it out.
The true story of Stan Herd, an artist who with the help of several homeless men, created landscape art out a vacant lot in New York, Earthwork is the kind of film you want to like, but end up finding poorly written and dull. John Hawkes does well with a fairly mundane script, but in the end, there’s not much you can do about poor writing and editing. It’s a nice story of overcoming adversity, but one that just fails to make its mark.
If there was one film at the festival that I absolutely loved, it was Nick Moran’s The Kid. Based on the best selling British autobiography of Kevin Lewis, it’s the ultimate story of never giving up and overcoming odds. Born in the slums of London, Kevin endures an abusive mother, alcoholic father, school bullies, and a social worker who doesn’t see a problem. After the foster father who saves him passes away, Kevin turns to the underworld to make his money, only seeing his problems get worse. As Moran himself said in introducing the film, you’ll think the first half is incredibly hard to watch, but its all worth it for the payoff of a happy ending. Rupert Friend is great as Kevin, and Natascha McElhone is unrecognizable in giving a remarkable performance as his abusive mother. I don’t know how well The Kid will fare here in the States, but if you have the chance to see it, I can’t recommend it enough.
While all the attention at this festival went to other marquee films like Black Swan and 127 Hours, Blue Valentine quietly arrived as the best of the featured films. With a brilliant performance from Ryan Gossling and Michelle Williams giving the film everything she has in her, Blue Valentine is a beautiful and devastating portrait of a relationship both starting and ending. A heavy film indeed, Blue Velvet is not the feel good movie of the year, but it is a fantastic piece of cinema that should not be ignored, especially come awards season.
Fans of animation must do anything in their power to go see The Illusionist, the gorgeous French film from the studio that made the Oscar nominated Triplets of Belville. Should Toy Story 3 get nominated for Best Picture, I’d hope The Illusionist would take home a statue. The animation is tremendous, with much care and craft going into a film that reminds us that you don’t need computer animation or 3D to make something great. The story of a magician seeing the prestige of his profession starting to decline and the girl that he takes under his wing, The Illusionist is funny, touching, and dark, a perfect trio that come together to create a film you won’t soon forget.
Despite a solid and charming performance from Rashida Jones, Monogamy was a dull, poorly paced film. Clearly aiming to be a quirky indie, Monogamy moves at times at a glacial pace and features disorganized structure throughout. Just describing the plot is hard to do, but at its most basic, its about a photographer who begins to question his relationship when he secretly photographs a woman who engages in public displays of sexuality. Maybe its an interesting idea, but for the most part, the film doesn’t really know what its getting at and leaves too many threads hanging by the end.
For weeks, we had been guessing what the secret Director’s Choice film would be, but in the end it seemed like Robert Redford’s newest film, The Conspirator, would be the pick, given that it was shot in Savannah. Telling the story of Mary Surratt, charged for conspiring in the Lincoln Assassination and sentenced to death. It’s a fascinating story that ends up being presented dully. Robin Wright, as the titular character, does a good job playing the innocent victim, and Tom Wilkinson is terrific as well, but flat performances from star James McAvoy and supporting cast Evan Rachel Wood and Alexis Bledel take you out of the story. The film looks very nice, and it was exciting to see Savannah pose as Washington D.C., but ultimately The Conspirator is just too dull of a film to generate any Oscar buzz.
My first taste of the big screen on Tuesday came with the charming musical short Sudden Death! With everyone dying from Sudden Death Syndrome, which causes them to break into song and dance right before they die, two scientists race for a cure while falling in love in the quirky short which is recommended for (and clearly made by) fans of Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible.
Artists and car enthusiasts alike will enjoy this funny and highly entertaining documentary on Art Cars, cars turned into works of art. Whether its a famed spoon bender covering his car in bent cutlery, a car covered in ship and train horns, or two cars stacked on top of each other to make a Gothic cathedral, Automorphosis is a film of real life characters that will have you laughing and keep you interested in this unique form of expression from start to finish.
Probably the quirkiest documentary short I’ve ever seen, Quadrangle features the split screen story of a divorced couple as they explain their wild time in the 70’s when they essentially swapped spouses with another couple while both families were living under the same roof. It’s a totally bizarre story that is sold mostly by the creative split screen story telling.
The Night Catches Us
Fans of The Wire will enjoy seeing some familiar faces in this drama about the aftermath of the Black Panthers 1960’s rebellion, set just years later in the 1970s. One of the film’s producers described it as “Deerhunter meets the Panthers” as opposed to a straight story of the Black Panthers’ fight, and it does indeed play out as an interesting portrait of people caught in the late years of the Civil Rights Movement, and their decisions that not only replay their past, but greatly affect their future. Throw in a killer soundtrack from The Roots and you have an great indie that will continue to win over small audiences.
Jonah already touched on Fair Game, so I won’t go into too much detail, except to say that I think it’s essentially two movies pasted together. The first half is an entertaining real life spy movie, as Naomi Watts’ Valerie Plame navigates the pre-Iraq War C.I.A., wheeling and dealing all over the globe. Once she’s identified as an agent, her whole world collapses, and with it, the movie. The second half of the film is full of melodrama and loses the momentum the first half carries well. It’s an interesting story, for sure, but the execution in Doug Liman’s film misses the mark.
Don’t Go in the Woods
The final screening of Tuesday was a late showing of the directorial debut of Vincent D’Onofrio, the super low budget, super campy slasher musical Don’t Go in the Woods. The film, about a band and their groupies in the woods, getting picked off by a mysterious killer one by one, was great fun. Speaking after the film, D’Onofrio explained the film was made with as little money as possible as quickly as possible, with an amateur cast, and was more directing practice than a serious piece of work. Either way, the audience couldn’t stop laughing and gasping throughout, in what was one of the more fun films of the festival.
TUiW is spending the week at the Savannah Film Festival. Stay tuned here and on Twitter for more.
John Cameron Mitchell’ latest effort has only been on the festival circuit for about two months, yet it has generated a lot of good buzz. Still, with the promise of a film about a couple coping with the loss of their only child, I anticipated a slow, depressing film that would end my Halloween on a sad note. I was nicely surprised however, as Rabbit Hole packs in a considerable amount of humor and warmth into a film about an inherently sad topic.
Rabbit Hole is supported by three terrific performances by Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, and Dianne Wiest. Though Kidman has been largely absent from the awards scene in the last several years, she turns in a great turn as a character that splits the difference between sympathetic and loathsome. In one moment, she struggles to pack up her child’s room and in another, she openly admonishes members of her group therapy group for believing in God. Wiest also delivers a memorable performance as Kidman’s mother, and watching her interact with Kidman is a sheer joy, seeing two tremendous actresses go at it. Aaron Eckhart as Kidman’s husband whose struggles with both letting go of his son and trying to reconnect with his distant wife give him a lot to work with, and he should be an Oscar nominee.
Perhaps the best part of the film is its slow build. Instead of starting the movie with direct exposition, it trickles out. What happened becomes clear, not because a character stands up and tells you what happens, but through the arguments of the characters. Similarly, when the tension between Eckhart and Kidman finally breaks through, its natural and powerful, without feeling like its supposed to be the scene where they yell at each other.
I don’t know if Rabbit Hole will be in the best picture conversation, but with such a large category, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it nominated. Either way, it’s a powerful film that has grown on me even more over the last 24 hours.
If you see one animated short film this year that isn’t done by Pixar, make it Zero, a charming Australian film that elicited numerous “aww” moments from the crowd at the Animated Shorts Showcase. Set in a world on yarn people born with numbers on their chest that determine their spot in the social hierarchy, Zero‘s titular character lives a life of loneliness until something comes along to change his life. If you can find it, watch immediately and get a smile on your face.
Lost Editors Panel
For you Losties out there that can’t get enough, I went to a panel of editors from Lost, and here are three fun facts I learned:
- Jeremy Davies was a nightmare for the editors, as he was constantly mumbling, stuttering, and pacing with no consistency, making it impossible to edit different takes or shots. One unnamed costar apparently memorized his lines too, just so she knew when it was times to deliver hers since she couldn’t understand him.
- If you were always disappointed by the CGI on the show, know that it was because they had about a week of post-production, which is barely enough time to get anything done well.
- The ticking sound Smokey makes? A receipt printer in a New York taxi cab.
If you thought TUiW was off the festival circuit, you were wrong! Hot off the tails of Jonah’s trip to the Austin Film Fest, I’ll be spending the week at the Savannah Film Festival in Savannah, GA, which features an impressive slate of films including Black Swan, 127 Hours, Blue Valentine, Another Year, and Rabbit Hole, just to name a few. Since I’ll be at the festival most days from 9AM to 10PM, be sure to check out our Twitter page for the best film criticism 140 characters can provide.
Last night started off with a bang with Darren Arononfsky’s newest film Black Swan. Since Jonah already gave it a rundown, I won’t go into too much detail except to say that I too found it to be an exceptional film. Aronofsky is a tremendous director who is a master of visual storytelling. I felt bludgeoned to death early on by the black and white motif the film has at its heart, especially considering how obvious it seems, but as the color palate fades into gray and then black, just as its characters are plunging into darkness, an unsettled feeling creeps in on you. Shots of mirrors is also a fairly drab convention, but instead, Aronofsky focuses on the fractures in mirrors and the points in which one becomes another. It’s an interesting visual trick that ups the suspense and eerie feeling the movie is built upon. While not exactly a funny movie, there were several points in which the audience couldn’t help but let out some chuckles, mostly to break the tension. Like The Hurt Locker last year, it’s a film predicated on tension and the expectation that at any minute, things could blow out of control.
The acting too is phenomenal. Natalie Portman is at times unrecognizable, having slimmed down considerably, and she manages to play the frail Nina to a point of believability, keeping camp as far away as possible. Vincent Cassell is a natural in the role, and while Mila Kunis doesn’t seem like she’s branching too far out of her wheelhouse, she brings all she has to a dramatic role, something she’s not as familiar with. Barbara Hershey is as phenomenal as all of the early buzz has said. There is a point in which she comes out of darkness that sent tingles up my spine. Her’s is a performance that will without a doubt win her an Oscar nod.
Be sure to check in tomorrow for a review of the Animated Shorts showcase, as well as my take on John Cameron Mitchell’s newest effort, Rabbit Hole, which I’m seeing in an hour and a half!
Review: If you feel like Darren Aronofsky may be softening, with the great but relatively straightforward The Wrestler and the news that he’s directing Wolverine 2, that’s just because you haven’t seen Black Swan, his batty new film that stars Natalie Portman as a ballerina with a fragile mental state. Portman has just been cast as the Swan Queen in a production of Swan Lake and, although she is flawless as the White Swan, she has trouble tapping into the seductive darkness and lack of control that characterizes the Black Swan. Add in an overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), an aging, unhinged star (Winona Ryder), a director with less than pure intentions (Vincent Cassel), and a rival who seems to personify all the qualities she lacks (Mila Kunis), and it doesn’t take much to push Portman over the edge.
But where does that take her? The film is ambiguous on a literal level, lending a dreamlike feel to things that seem like they are really happening and a stark violence to thigns that may not. Aronofsky focuses on the physical toll dancing can take on the human body, stretching even small injuries like cut fingers and toes to horrifying proportions. Like his past films, Aronofsky also focuses on the way obsession cuts both ways, making the obsessor great at his or her skill (dancing here, or math in Pi, for example) but sickens the mind. At times Aronofsky’s lack of restraint leads to some silliness, but it also pays off in some nauseating and shocking moments.
But mostly, it is a film that spends its first 2/3 establishing a pattern of control, only to blow that up in the last half hour (not unlike Portman herself). From the point Kunis takes Portman out drinking onward (the latter’s first remotely irresponsible act in the entire film, if I remember correctly), the movie takes on such a rapid, nauseating flow, moving from one shocking setpiece to the next, that literally anything is possible. Is Portman going to fail onstage? Kill somebody? Turn into a swan? What is real? By that point, Portman’s psyche has cracked and fractured far too much to tell for sure. At its most ridiculous (one critic correctly dubbed this movie balletsploitation) the movie feels like an arthouse-meets-Skinemax retelling of The Red Shoes, but at its best the movie gets at the violent depths that plague talented, creative people who pursue perfection. Just make sure you bring a paper bag to thwart hyperventilation.
Jonah’s Score: 81
TUiW Grade: A-
That will wrap up our coverage of the Austin Film Festival! All in all, I was a little disappointed in the overall selections, but the films that I liked (Black Swan, Meek’s Cutoff) I REALLY liked. Thanks for reading!
Review: On Friday, Wikileaks released thousands and thousands of documents showing the Iraq War to be even more violent and poorly managed than we thought. Even as our presence there is decreasing (but still FAR from 0), it is still important, I think, for us to understand how and why we went there because I don’t think anyone would tell you that Iraq will be the last time we get into a conflict with a country that could involve a war so we might want to learn from it for next time. Which is to say that I’m not one of those people who is going to be like “why did we make this movie, everybody already knows what happened,” especially since, judging from the gasps in the theater, people don’t know exactly what happened when Joe Wilson published an op-ed saying that George Bush was lying about whether or not Saddam Hussein acquired uranium.
But that being said, did this movie have to be so boring and smug (I guess the latter was inevitable since it stars Sean Penn; ka-pow!)? Penn is a former ambassador who goes to Niger to do the CIA a solid and look into whether or not Saddam bought houses from the Bluth Company yellow cake uranium. His wife, played by Naomi Watts, is a covert agent with the CIA who is in charge of researching Iraq. So, anyway, Penn publishes an op-ed saying Saddam has no uranium and, as payback, the Bush Administration blows Watts’ cover in every newspaper they can find (the title comes from Karl Rove’s quote to Chris Matthews saying that she is “fair game” for reporters) (because if someone in the government says it, it must be true!) (sorry).
For the first hour, Fair Game just kind of throws a bunch of stuff out there and sees what will stick. There’s a lot of boring spy stuff that tries to be more “realistic” than Bourne but just ends up being incredibly boring (put it this way, it made me miss the scintillating, non-stop action of Rubicon), but there was also some promising stuff about what it is like to be married to a covert agent and little insights into their life. But once Penn publishes the op-ed, the movie becomes unbearably tiresome, as Penn and Watts basically just argue a ton. Fair Game ends up transforming into a whistleblower thriller, with the Joe Wilson character cast as the crusading man trying to just speak truth to power and (incredibly) the Plame character turning into the nagging wife who is trying to stop him (think about The Insider or JFK or anything movie like that where a man is trying to unravel this huge conspiracy but his wife keeps being like “THINK OF THE CHILDREN”). Now for all I know this is how it really went down, but it felt like the movie kept forgetting whose story it was as Watts receeded further and further into the background. If nothing else, it was really dull to watch her and Penn keep having the same conversation over and over again. There were about 20 interesting movies that could come from this source material, but director Doug Liman made the most boring one possible.
Jonah’s Score: 51
Review: By now the Danny Boyle brand is pretty recognizable and 127 Horus is definitely on-brand. Boyle takes his kinetic, oft-exhiliarting storytelling to Utah to tell the true story of a hiker, biker, adventurer (James Franco) who gets trapped under a boulder for the titular length of time and ends up having to go to extreme methods to survive. Franco does a great job in what is almost completely a one-man show and Boyle constructs a number of very exciting moments, but ultimately (as happens to often with Boyle) those moments never really coalesce into a meaningful whole. The film is ultimately pushing a very bland theme about how much we all need each other and how connected we all are and it doesn’t seem like Boyle is even really interested in getting at who this guy is or how people react to extreme situations or anything like that. In the end, 127 Hours is just 5 or 6 really good music videos stretched out over 90 minutes and I couldn’t help but spend a lot of that time wondering what Werner Herzog might have been able to do with this story.
Jonah’s Score: 61
TUiW Grade: B-
-Monday night I saw a pair of competition films: Dig and narrative award winner Adios Mundo Cruel. While the former showed a lot of real potential from its filmmaker and the latter had a couple of inspired gags, they were both ultimately pretty forgettable.
-On the whole, that would have to be how I would describe most of the movies I’ve seen here. It seems like the programmers sought out the 5 or 6 biggest fall releases they could find, a bunch of really great panelists, and then punted on everything else. South By Southwest had MacGruber and Kick-Ass but they also screened Dogtooth and Winter’s Bone and Cyrus and premiered Tiny Furniture and Marwencol. And Fantastic Fest may have been lacking in big films, but those movies certainly aren’t boring and middlebrow. I can’t help but dream about what kind of great film festival we could have by merging Fantastic Fest with AFF (or really making Fantastic Fest safe for movies like Blue Valentine and Meek’s Cutoff), but that’s not really the point of either.
Tomorrow: LAST DAY! BLACK SWAN! WOO!
Derek Cianfrance’s emotionally apocalyptic depiction of a crumbling marriage seems built to capture the arthouse zeitgeist. Combining two incredibly reliable actors (Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling) and borrowing from a number of different touchstones (500 Days’ of Summer‘s timeline zipping, Eternal Sunshine‘s romantic melancholy, Funny Ha Ha‘s disconcerting intimacy). But what makes Blue Valentine so effective is the way it shapes these elements into an emotional atom bomb, without resorting to cheap manipulation. Unlike those other movies, there’s no zany humor or sci-fi underpinnings to hide behind, just a sharply drawn, completely realized examination of a poisoned relationship.
Jonah’s Score: 77
TUiW Grade: B+
The Company Men
Review: Another Sundance hit, The Company Men looks, on paper, like the most likely movie to break out and reach a wide audience, given its star studded cast and timely premise. The movie focuses on a series of businessmen (led by Ben Affleck) who find their cushy lifestyles threatened by aggressive downsizing at their megacompany (all while the CEO makes millions of dollars!) which is more the product of stocks and hostile takeovers than a total necessity. The film is well-shot (thanks to the always great cinematographer Roger Deakins) and the performances are pretty strong (Tommy Lee Jones is especially nice in an understated turn), but the whole adds up to significantly less than the sum of its pieces. The problems start with the screenplay by writer-director John Wells (best known for helping other people make ER and The West Wing) (sorry, that was a little harsh; Team Sorkin!), who seems to have never met a cliché he doesn’t like (Affleck learns the quiet nobility in manual labor in one especially strained moment). As a lot of us have learned over the last few years, there’s a lot of drama and pain in losing one’s job in an frighteningly uncertain job market, but The Company Men struggles to find new honesty in such a scenario.
Jonah’s Score: 51
TUiW Grade: C
There is a rather notable TV component to the festival, which this year included two screenings and panels committed to TV shows that, when they were scheduled, must have seemed like the best and brightest of the new TV season. Unfortunately, those shows were Lone Star and My Generation. At the presentation for the former, the promised “unaired episode” was actually just the show’s pilot, which sets up its conman-has-two-wives scenario with flair. One gets the feeling that creator Kyle Killen (who, to top off his depressing 2010, also wrote The Beaver – which is basically a one-man show for Mel Gibson) is a little sick of talking about what went wrong, especially because from his perspective nothing really did. Killen delivered a great show that blended the cable-ready moral murkiness of Don Draper or Bill Henrickson with the more mainstream conventions of soaps like Dallas (on paper, the show seems like another show that merged a bunch of cable-ready antiheroes with familiar network conventions: Lost), and FOX was looking for such a show. Unfortunately, these shows need a lot of time to grow (to give one example, during season three of “Mad Men” I knew maybe three or four people who watched the show; this year my friend’s can’t stop talking about it) and the realities of network TV make that pretty much impossible. Asking people to watch a new show is asking them to make a new habit (not easy) while also possibly breaking an old one (even harder) and shows like Lone Star need time for that to happen. As a viewer, the trade off is that a show with Lost’s ambition may be difficult to ever mount again, but it is a fair trade off for the rise of networks like AMC or HBO that are willing to stock up on nothing but quality dramas. Like Shawn Ryan (the creator of this fall’s most tragically underwatched show, Terriers) said, quality is now a niche in and of itself, and one available to an audience willing to look for it.
Review: Pitched as Spellbound by way of King of Kong (Seth Gordon, director of the latter, was a producer on this) the result is a film that is not nearly as riveting as the latter or engaging as the former. Make Believe is about six teenagers who are going to Las Vegas for a teen magician competition; for the winner it is an important step on the road to becoming a professional magician. The stakes are high enough and the kids are cute (ranging from a preppy overachiever who seems like a fusion of Hannah Montana and Tracy Flick to an idealistic Japanese kid who grew up in an extremely rural area), but the movie seems content to sit on the surface and coast on those two factors. It makes for a film that is appealing but in an unsatisfying and ultimately hollow way.
Jonah’s Score: 50
TUiW Grade: C
Review: Even films that purport to demythologize the mythological West (think McCabe and Ms. Miller or Unforgiven) buy into a lot of that mythology, even if they cloak it in moral grayness and an air of anti-violence. Enter Meek’s Cutoff, from director Kelly Reichardt, which is steadfast in its unflinching portrayal the extraordinary desperation and dire circumstances that actually characterized the settling of the west. Set in 1845, the movie is about a group of three families travelling down the Oregon Trail, who have been led off-course by the navigator they hired, the grizzled Stephen Meek. Reichardt’s shots are long in terms of both duration and composition, giving a sense of the vast, suffocating emptiness that the travelers face every day (where most westerns utilize the lushest cinematography possible to play up the gorgeousness of the landscape, Reichardt doesn’t even bother with widescreen, composing the film in 4:3 instead). The movie’s pace is deliberate, but necessarily so to communicate how desperate the situation is (and how tedious the journey could be). The wagon train moves slowly, water is scarce, salvation or terror could lie just out of sight, and something as simple as crossing a river or travelling down a hill means putting everything at risk. The scenario is dire enough but inches closer to combusting when the train comes across a Native American who could help them find their way or could simply be leading them into a trap. Reichardt wrings every last bit of suspense without sacrificing an ounce of realism and presents a story that works on several levels (as a look at the way women are marginalized in society or a multifaceted examination of our societal fear of otherness) without giving itself over to an easy allegory (a fact that is helped along by the movie’s unbelievable ending). The performances are low-key and fascinating (it may take you a while to recognize most of the recognizable people, since they are buried under layers of grime and malnutrition), especially Michelle Williams as a woman who takes an interest in the Native American hostage. I could go on and on about this movie but, since the movie isn’t coming out until 2011, I will shut up for now. But let me put it this way, I haven’t seen a movie released in 2009 or 2010 that I have had a stronger reaction to this one.
Jonah’s Score: 91
TUiW Grade: A
Tomorrow: Local filmmakers tackle family secrets and frisbee golf.