My twelve year old son was playing Super Mario Brothers on the Wii with his friend tonight. My son has played the game so much over the years he’s come to almost hate it. His friend isn’t there yet. While blazing through each screen with ease, EC casually blurts out that quote. His friend looks at him puzzled. Welcome to the club.
Creating a unique world in film is difficult. The safe bet is to stick to the real world or go so fantastical as to render it unrecognizable. Those who dare to mix the real and fantastical face the challenge of overcoming an audience never believing a single moment. If there is one only one thing Benh Zeitlin pulls off in his first feature length film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, it is creating a world all its own, with one foot steeped in reality and the other planted in the clouds.
Bathtub is somewhere in the Bayou, an island unto its own, filled with people living in poverty which include a young girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Hushpuppy lives with her dad but in her own home. Dad seems barely capable of caring for himself and demands that Hushpuppy fend for herself, possibly because he senses his days are numbered, but it’s just as likely Wink is skirting responsibility while drowning in his own sorrow (not to mention liquor) of not having Hushpuppy’s mother with him. The feisty independent girl longs for her mother and is angry her father can disappear for days without notice.
Some of the Bathtub community are defiant, so much so that they won’t evacuate when a major storm is approaching. Instead of fleeing, Wink and others hunker down. They do their best to survive the storm and hold onto what little they call their own. Hushpuppy thinks the storm is happening because the icecaps are melting and will unleash some oversize warthog looking beasts. She learned this at school. At this point, shots of melting icecaps invade the screen. I’m not sure if the images and lore were meant to convey a heavy handed message, but it felt like there was a parallel being made between Katrina and global warming. Far from an activist film, Beasts also doesn’t hide the similarities of its world and the one of New Orleans right after hurricane Katrina.
The storm comes and trounces the Bathtub with non-stop water. Wink, Hushpuppy and some of their neighbors are left to survive the elements while figuring out what they’re going to do longer term. The journey meanders a bit, allowing us to get a fuller picture of just how adamant this community is about living life on their terms, no matter how hard the government or other outside forces try to rescue the remaining Bathtub residents.
In between the fantastic voyage and strange images of beasts racing towards the Bathtub, there is a story of a little girl who wants to find her mom and somehow make things work between her and her overbearing, sometimes abusive father. The father-daughter relationship on screen is a challenge. One of them we root for and the other against. While folklore rules the day and people revel in their plight in life, wisdom is in short supply, which is probably why the film’s most touching moments seemed a bit distant for me. The intended impact never hit fully as I found it difficult to completely empathize with a father who can’t seem to look outside of himself and a community that seems to pride itself in debauchery as much as it does in being a loving responsible community.
The cinematography and score are beautiful, creating a world all its own. The challenge is when the deeper emotional moments and themes don’t resonate as much as the gorgeous sights and sounds. What seemed like it could have been a one-of-a-kind masterpiece falls short, but there is much to love, including amazing performances by first time actors, Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry.
[xrr rating=3.5/5 label=” “]
[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LA6FFnjvvmg[/youtube]
Guts. That is what it takes to make (not to mention fund!) a black and white stop motion film dealing with the death of family pets. A real pick me up if ever there was one. Leave it to Tim Burton with Frankenweenie to pull off the impossible. It’s been a while since he last tapped into his dark quirky style and made it work.
Victor Frankenstein is a loner. He’s not unhappy. He enjoys spending time with his dog Sparky, making movies and doing science projects. When Sparky gets hit by a car and dies Victor’s world takes a dive. Inspired by his science teacher’s lesson on electricity and lightning, Victor digs up Sparky and brings him back to life thanks to some ingenuity on his part and the town’s constant evening lightning storms.
It wouldn’t be a Burton film without a plethora of odd characters. Mr. Rzykruski’s, the science teacher, makes a lasting first impression as he takes some of the magic and myth out of his students’ misunderstanding of lightning. The scene is magical thanks to screenwriter John August’s punchy dialogue and Martin Landau’s creepy over-the-top delivery. Not to be outdone by her teacher, a strange little girl with beady bugged out eyes and her cat, who shares the same comical feature, make every moment of screen time entertaining. Our initial introduction to the girl and her cat are when she stops Victor to explain how her cat sometimes leaves a present in the litter box in the shape of the first letter of a classmate’s name. The gift is meant to indicate something significant is going to happen to that person. After the cat leaves a “V”, it’s not long before Sparky is dead.
Like many Burton films, Frankenweenie obsesses over the odd, even taboo subjects. This time around it’s death with a side helping of science. Thankfully, Frankenweenie sees death as it should – sad and tragic. Too many films, whether aimed at children or adults, try to put a happy spin on life’s end. Celebrate, don’t mourn at funerals. Frankenweenie will have none of that. Where it missteps is in the end where it sends mix messages to kids about both death and science. As long as your motives are good, science and our applications of it follow suit. Just as the movie says, science is neither good nor bad, but to think that good intentions equals positive results is ridiculous. There are times our best intentions produce terrible results, and sometimes the opposite is true. The lesson taught about death is ultimately puzzling, thanks to an ending which tries to redeem a situation that should be left as it is. I’d say more but – spoilers.
Aside from some thematic problems, Frankenweenie is a lot of fun in the final act. There are endless references to classic monster movies, making the action sequences all the zanier. What was once a relatively somber film turns into a bit of a thrill ride.
I’m not sure who Frankenweenie is for. I guess it’s geared towards kids but the style and subject matter don’t fit that demographic. My seven year old enjoyed it but then she also enjoys quite a few old black and white monster movies. Regardless of who the movie is targeted at, the daring style of a stop motion, black and white feature film gets paired with a solid story and some good characters, which has been missing from Tim Burton’s movies in the past. The magic is back.
[xrr rating=4/5 label=” “]
[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MquUxWXEOLU[/youtube]
Sometimes you need a punch in the gut. As much fun as action films filled with heroes of all shapes and sizes are, there are times a more intimate and sad tale needs to be told. Enter The Kid with a Bike, a French film by Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne.
We’re immediately confronted with an angry 11-year-old named Cyril (Thomas Doret). He’s trying desperately to call his dad and when that number rings disconnected several times, the kid makes a break for it. A chase ensues and only takes breaks or slows down in the first half of the film as Cyril makes every attempt to find his dad who has clearly abandoned him. One of Cyril’s attempts to find his dad finds him latching onto an unsuspecting woman waiting in a doctor’s office waiting room. This brief encounter leads the woman, Samantha, (Cécile de France) a hairdresser in the neighborhood, to befriend Cyril by first getting back his bike and later providing him a place to stay on the weekends, away from the group foster home.
The behavior of Cyril as a young boy who has been abandoned is authentic. The anger he feels towards his dad is transferred on everyone else who cares enough to at least be with Cyril which is more than can be said for the father. Contrasted with the self-destructive behavior of the youth is Samantha’s love and care for the boy. Even though she finds herself over her head in taking care of him, she perseveres in a way that displays true love and grace, which is too rare in both movies and real life.
Even though he is loved, Cyril finds comfort from the neighborhood dealer, Wes, who befriends him. Unlike Samantha’s firm yet unending love for the young man, Wes gives Cyril the thrill of the moment; validation and words that serve to puff Cyril’s ego up and provide a quick allegiance to the no good criminal. Still, one can’t blame an 11 year-old boy whose dad wants nothing to do with his son to gravitate towards a male who goes out of his way to give the boy attention.
The last act in the film is a bit puzzling – neither good nor bad. The story grows a bit more complex without losing its focus on the kid with a bike and his struggle to find his way through a harsh life. Bonus points for not abusing a swelling soundtrack. In fact, there are only a couple brief moments where any music is used at all. What could have easily turned into melodramatic drip with a background track made to manipulate versus compliment the on screen drama.
A tight story focusing on a boy who struggles to find real love after his father left him, The Kid with a Bike never strays from the characters who are so real it’s easy to forget you’re watching a fictional tale. In a culture where cynicism and sarcasm rule the day, it’s refreshing to watch a film which doesn’t apologize for its melancholy nor shy away from its underlying altruism.
[xrr rating=4.5/5 label=” “]
[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BvQSgr-DPU[/youtube]
Some films demand a grandiose treatment. After The Dark Knight, it is only fitting that Cristopher Nolan indulge in making The Dark Knight Rises a sprawling epic full of thought provoking themes supported by sometimes majestic and other times troubling sights and sounds.
Bruce Wayne is in bad shape. The billionaire and his alter ego, Batman, disappeared after taking the blame for the murder of Gotham’s beloved district attorney turned two face villain, Harvey Dent. As much as Rises is about super heroes and villains, it’s about the inner conflict of a man who has lost his sense of purpose. And, even when he believes he has that purpose back, we’re left to wonder if the purpose has turned into one last suicidal mission to save the city he loves.
The headlining villain this time around is Bane (Tom Hardy), a man who wears a mask that may have been stolen off the set of Silence of The Lambs, which makes him difficult to understand when he speaks. The voice sounds like a mix of Sean Connery and Darth Vader. (Special thanks to my wife for that one.) There was some serious audio magic performed to make Bane more audible and clear, to the point where it was jarring to hear this booming voice coming from a muzzled mouth. Had the original voice been used (from earlier trailers) I think that and a combination of sub-titles may have been more effective, but I understand why the change was made. Having a villain with sub-titles probably wouldn’t fly with a majority of English speaking audiences. Regardless of the voice, Bane is a menacing character. The lore surrounding him is revealed over time and only adds to his puzzling motives. Whereas the Joker was the maniacal terrorist in a clown motif, Bane is the pro wrestler with a masterminded plot to destroy Gotham, but not before he has a chance to run some evil sociological experiment where he serves as the ringmaster and the people of Gotham revel in a world which punishes the rich and gives them freedom all the while crushing them.
Adding more characters to the mix is always tricky for super hero movies. Add one too many and the story bogs down with the weight of too many stories to tell and not enough time to tell them all in. Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), seemed like she would be the tipping point this time around. Instead of becoming a boat anchor, Catwoman’s story compliments that of Batman’s quite nicely. Catwoman’s arch is much like Han Solo’s in Star Wars IV. She’s a sketchy character whose desire for fortunes outweigh her desire for doing good. Both she and Batman want to be different people. She a thief who can’t get away from her life of crime even if she tries, and he a seemingly washed up crime fighter who wouldn’t mind dying if it meant a valiant effort to save the people of Gotham.
Nolan will never be accused of keeping his stories straight forward and simple. Dialogue here and in his other films is full of exposition, which is a big no-no for most. Somehow the Dark Knight director makes even plodding material interesting. Credit the constant use of an emotionally charged soundtrack for much of that. If all our lives were backed by cinema soundtracks they would instantly seem other worldly and overly dramatic. And maybe the nearly non-stop swelling music is overkill, along with a two hour and forty-five minute running time but I never once did a time check.
Commentary on modern day issues cannot be missed. The attacks on corrupt Wall Street bankers and the one percent are spread throughout much of the film. Providing some equal opportunity of a critical eye, the Occupy movement is also alluded to and, if the allusion is correct, the picture is not a pretty one. The use of laws to make organized crime a thing of the past even though they may overstep civil liberties is touched on lightly. None of it is heavy handed in a preachy manner. Nolan keeps the focus on the story while touching on various themes, some timeless and others capturing current day events.
Some will fondly recall the previous film in the trilogy as superior, with Heath Ledger’s amazing performance as the Joker being the main reason. Both films are excellent and both provide numerous areas to nitpick. The Dark Knight Rises goes out with an operatic crescendo, a thrilling yet satisfying ending to a trilogy all about a man dressed as a bat.
[xrr rating=5/5 label=” “]
[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8evyE9TuYk[/youtube]
Another year. Another list a year behind the times. Life moves at a slower pace here when it comes to movies. It’s like being in a time machine always set to minus twelve months.
[wpbp_blocks set=”my-top-20-movies-of-2011″ columns=”1″]
I’m happy I finally gave The Hunter a try via Netflix streaming. Having been on my instant queue for a while, I almost put it off to the point where it ended up in my “sure, I’ll watch that someday (which means I’ll always find something else to watch)” list.
Martin (Willem Dafoe) is hired by a mysterious company to track down the last Tasmanian Tiger on the planet, kill it, and bring back DNA samples. His housing arrangement while on his mission includes a widower and her two young children in the middle of the Tasmania wilderness. Mystery surrounds every one of Martin’s moves. He poses as a scientist studying Tasmanian Devils, which makes the local loggers immediately hate him and the environmentalists suspicious of his motives. His mission is simple yet complicated not only by the locals who see him as a threat but also by the widower and her two kids. Mom is so depressed and drugged she sleeps non-stop, leaving the children to fend for themselves. The girl is spunky and her younger brother is silent. Martin resists getting involved as much as he can but finally succumbs to a family sorely missing the adult male, a role Martin fills simply by being present.
Making a terrible looking film shot in the majestic landscapes of Tasmania is probably near impossible. Regardless, director Daniel Nettheim still deserves credit for making the most of the gorgeous scenery as our protagonist tracks his prey. Martin sets out on a number of hunts throughout the surrounding area and each one is filled with less than thrilling action. He sets various traps, tracks his progress, and then cleans up after himself. While not exciting, the scenes are nearly mesmerizing with the calm, professional Martin tracking the elusive animal. During most of the hunting the tension is built knowing there are those who don’t want him there and the fact that Martin seems like a man with a heart but still goes about this mercenary mission of hunting the last of a species for monetary gain. Just enough happens during these journeys to make the suspense grow while not overwhelming the story with melodrama.
There are loose ends which never get tied up in a satisfying manner. The height of the mystery driving the thriller isn’t as clear as it probably should have been nor are the motives of at least one character. As a result, the story feels overly ambitious for what should likely be a story focused on Martin and his inner conflict.
Maybe all the pieces don’t add up in a completely satisfying manner, but that doesn’t stop the beauty of The Hunter from resonating. Willem Dafoe carries the quiet thriller on his back with a performance which is as much about the smallest moments, the slightest of facial expressions in the midst of a mysterious hunt for the most unlikely animal to be called a tiger.
[xrr rating=4/5 label=” “]
[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZjK9uIBJMQ[/youtube]
Earlier this year I got rid of our satellite/cable TV service. I did not do this to free ourselves from the tyrants of TV. I looked at my family’s viewing habits and it no longer made financial sense for us to pay $50 per month for service we used very little. My wife loves giving me a hard time about this, partially because she was the last hold out and partially because the final decision came just a few days from her birthday. My husband of the year award may be another year away. You can’t lose them all.
When people hear about us “cutting the cord” they often have two reactions. First they look in amazement. Once the awe wears off there is a feeling of judgement. They feel as though we’re making some moral statement with this cord cutting by seeing all those who still pay for satellite/cable bills as morally inferior to us. As if our TV sits there with nothing to display. Nothing could be further from the truth. The TV is on way more than it ever should be at our home. We pay for Netflix and Amazon and I have a tendency to purchase blu-rays if the price is right. (I know, discs are dead.) Even so, people often immediately change topics or awkwardly defend their paying one bill we don’t. It’s very strange. And to think all this stems from a rather boring, pragmatic motivation — our viewing habits changed and I’m cheap.
There were many dynamics at play with the 2008 market and housing crash. Talk of greedy bankers, incompetent credit ratings agencies, spineless politicians and policy makers have been and continue to be the focus as we get some (small) distance between the events that resulted in a near economic collapse. Missing in all of this is the consumer side of the equation. Main Street. The innocents. You and me. Except we’re not so innocent. Money was (is?) cheap and our desires for more and more rarely subsides. Taken to the extreme this vicious cycle of cheap money and an endless appetite for more results in a couple like David and Jackie Siegel. Timing is everything. Lauren Greenfield happened to already be filming the Siegels building the largest single family home in the United States when everything came crashing down. The result is The Queen of Versailles, a documentary capturing the story of the little guy through the eyes of the biggest of the little guys.
David and Jackie Siegel came from modest families. David built his timeshare company, Westgate Resorts, from the ground up. He employs thousands of people in order to sell mostly middle class families on renting a dream they can’t afford to own. Westgate builds incredible resorts on money they borrow from banks, then they sell mortgages on the rooms for a week per year to families who could never afford such luxurious vacation pads otherwise. Those families pay a monthly amount over many years to pay for a vacation stay once a year for the rest of their life. One room in a resort essentially provides 52 mortgages. Westgate then turns around, bundles these mortgages and sells them as investments. At one point, David Siegel’s son is on screen pumping up his sales staff. He tells them that they are saving lives. He equates timeshare sales people to doctors, nurses, firemen, etc. He does this with a straight face as he rattles off some study which shows people who take a week vacation once a year live longer than those who don’t. Even houses made of cards need someone to care for them. In this case care comes in the form of twisted logic.
Jackie got a computer engineering degree and went to work for IBM out of school. Her achievement was short lived as she decided there was little glamour in writing code so she decided to marry money instead. After being in an abusive marriage, Jackie found David via a beauty pageant. The two have six children plus one adopted niece on Jackie’s side of the family. The former beauty queen and her husband decide they need more room with such a big family so they go about building a 90,000 monstrosity of a home inspired by Versailles and the finest buildings Vegas has to offer. In the process of building their dream house the economy comes to a screeching halt.
What starts off as a tale of decadence turns into the story of just what the housing market crash looked like, from the top of the food chain to the bottom, all through the eyes of a difficult to like billionaire couple. The lack of money flowing freely means David Siegel is suddenly underwater on his prized property in Vegas. He personally backs every loan the company takes out which means he is liable for hundreds of millions of dollars. And since he’s saved nothing, he and his family’s life of continued luxury is at severe risk. The trickle down impact of this is seen in one of the family’s nannies and their driver. Both depend on the Siegels for paychecks and as the banks lay the hammer down on the timeshare mogul, the ability for David to pay a household staff dwindles. Layoffs at Westgate come fast and furious, with thousands losing their jobs. No one is safe. Yet through it all, Jackie is shown to be both aware yet oblivious all at once. On the one hand she is quick to recognize a childhood friend’s desperate need for money to catch up on mortgage payments and writes a check on the spot. On the other hand, she continues to spend money like there is no tomorrow. She’s shown in one moment to be completely cognizant of her drastically downsized staff’s struggles and in the next she humiliates them with some offhand comment like, “Well, at least you won’t have to clean this place”, referring to her version of Versailles going up for sale.
As the film progresses, David’s patience grows shorter. He spends every waking hour puzzling his way out of massive debt. His dream house is on the market for a mere $90M. His company is shrinking. The banks want him to liquidate everything but the shirt on his back. And to top it all off, his family is driving him mad with their lack of awareness of what is happening to them. Towards the end of the film David’s nearly non-existent patience is put to the test by his family and he loses it. It’s an amazingly intimate moment which shows just how fragile the mortar is which holds the Siegel household together.
The Queen of Versailles profiles a hard to empathize with couple who are caught in the tangled web of a market crash. What could have been a condescending look at how the mighty fall, director Lauren Greenfield finds the deeper story by also exploring the stories of those around the Siegel family. No one will shed a tear for Jackie and David Siegel, but most will admit to an uneasy feeling that the beast they attempted to ride is the same one that many of us tried to hang onto, if only to a lesser degree.
[xrr rating=4/5 label=” “]
[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CYOnT3Gqe9U[/youtube]
Some films hit instantly – good or bad. Then there are the oddball films which refuse to give in to my scene by scene judgements. Just when I think I have it all figured out, written off as a so-so film desperately trying to be something more, Take This Waltz makes me take it all back. And it’s not because of a sudden turn in the final act, but in piecing together moments which make a greater whole.
Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen) are a twenty-something married couple. They love each other and show affection for one another but something is missing, at least for Margot. Lou is either too naive or in too much denial to see his wife’s unhappiness. She hugs and kisses yet she mopes around as though life is her ball and chain. Making matters more complicated, the young work from home wife meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) during a business trip and the two hit it off in a slightly awkward yet hard to miss manner. While riding home from the airport Margot tells Daniel she is married and he confesses that is too bad as he walks to his home – across the street.
The dilemma is clear. Temptation sits not in another country, state, city, or neighborhood. No, temptation for Margot is one street crossing away. While she quietly laments her loss of love for her husband, her curiosity of what might be with the handsome neighbor who charms her in every way gets the best of her. In fairness, Daniel doesn’t make things any easier. He makes sure he is around whenever Margot steps foot outside and vice versa. The two talk and flirt with one another to the point where Daniel puts the pressure on thick and direct by describing just what he wants to do with Margot. She resists, at least for a while.
In most films the story is clear. Follow your heart. You fall in love, you fall out of love. Take This Waltz would appear to fall into this trap. The dialogue between Daniel and Margot is at times insufferably cutesy. The disciplined husband whose focus is getting his chicken cookbook out the door more than much else is portrayed as a bit of a yutz as a result. Everything is setup for the typical sabotage of a syrupy tale of love lost then found elsewhere, but something deeper is at the core of the telling of the story. The portrayal of the everyday life of a still young married couple provides a realistic glimpse.
Strong performances across the board lead Take This Waltz through troubled relationship waters. Visual metaphors abound and don’t completely sink in until the credits roll. What seems like an initially forgettable small romantic dramedy turns into something greater with the slightest of twists and the direct blow delivered by an alcoholic sister-in-law whose caved into the allure after a year long remission. Wisdom comes from the strangest of places.
[xrr rating=4/5 label=” “]
[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUQTNY5yaVk[/youtube]