Film Brief: Public Enemies

Not much to say on this one.  There are a number of redeeming elements, but otherwise an inability especially early on of how to tell a story.  In other words, it is impossible to become engaged with this movie.  Compare how this movie starts — the badly-blown first jailbreak scene — to the sense of mystery that was developed in early frames of No Country for Old Men.  Or think about that first sequence in Drive.

In the last third or so there are a couple decent sequences including a shoot-out in the woods that starts to turn this movie around, but by then it’s too late.  And Johnny Depp, who is always interesting no matter what he does, is a bore in this one.  Almost seems to be phoning it in.  3/10.

Honey ah sugar sugar

Searching for Sugar Man is one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen.  Yes, it is a documentary.

It had been lingering in my queue for a while, but winning the Oscar the night before put it back in the forefront of my mind.  I had been reluctant to watch this movie because 60 Minutes ran a piece on it, so I felt I knew the story to the extent I did not need to see the movie.  Boy was I wrong.

Beautifully put together and pretty much perfect in every way, I’m not sure how Sugar Man could have been any better.  I think it has an absolute timeless quality which may allow it to live on as one of the great films of all time.  It expresses the beauty of life in a magical two-fold way: first, that this story happened in the first place, and then that it took another 14 years after the mystery was solved for the movie to be produced.  There are great true stories out there, but having them delivered as a motion picture is another thing altogether.SugarMan

The obvious comparison here is with Buena Vista Social Club (1999), where by contrast that film was released immediately upon the salient revelations.  With Sugar Man, it took some time for the story to resonate with the right filmmaker.  And this filmmaker had to find his own way to tell the story, which may have meant playing a little loose with the facts in a spot or two (SPOILER ALERT!  look at the Wikipedia page for more on this, but only if you have already seen the movie).  But I don’t think the overall power of the movie is diminished.  Besides, I have to judge a film based on the film alone and how I felt watching it, not what I found out afterwards doing research.

Again comparing with Buena Vista Social Club.  That is an extraordinary and beautiful tale as well.  However, I think in that case the album is a much more remarkable phenomenon than the movie.  Not true with Sugar Man.  Rather, this movie can better be thought of as documentary equivalent to Shine (1996): the triumph of long-suppressed, passionate artistic talent.  Triumph of the human spirit when all might have just as easily been lost, depicted in full glory.

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I was so touched by Sugar Man that I thought it might be the best movie of last year.  Yes, even better than Django Unchained.  But it’s a documentary.  So I got into a philosophical question of what difference does that make.  A film should be judged only by the final product in front of you and the heights of emotion it can stir, not categories like documentary, drama, comedy etc.  But in this case I think I will defer to custom and keep documentaries is a separate category.

Besides, I can’t fairly place Sugar Man on my Best of 2012 list since I did not see it theatrically.  Now, though I think a movie should be judged purely by what it presents, a 10 rating — a masterpiece — carries with it a sense of timelessness; it is a classic gem untarnished by scrutiny.  And as a documentary draws strength from the true story it depicts, it must also be liable for any deviation from a full accounting of that truth.   As such I’m giving Searching for Sugar Man a 9/10, missing a 10 rating by a hair.  Very highly recommended; this movie restores faith in humankind.  Try to see it before you find out too much from other sources: the less you know about the story, the more you’ll get from Sugar Man.

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Production Notes: I’ve got to get my iPhone plug in — iPhone app 8mm Vintage Camera was used to create some of the effects in this movie.  The Thin Blue Line (1988) was the first movie in my mind to showcase how compelling a documentary could be, and Sugar Man carries forth that tradition of outstanding production values.  It’s important to produce documentaries on par with feature film standards so as to optimize the impact of the story.

Oscar Nominated Shorts

Tonight I watched the Shorts HD presentation of the Oscar Nominated Short Films – Live Action.  There was nothing particularly devastating, but they were on the whole good, entertaining, thought-provoking movies.  The first one shown was Death of a Shadow (Belgium/France), which I did not care for a great deal but did have a kind of cool steampunk aesthetic, faintly reminiscent of Hugo.  Next was Henry (Canada, in French), about an old man who is in conflict with his own memories.  Not a bad portrait of the awfulness of memory loss with age.  These first two however I found a little too single-note.

MCurfewy personal favorite — the one I’d most like to see again, and the only one in English — was Curfew (USA).  A story about a young man trying to mind his own business and commit suicide,who is interrupted with a summons to babysit his strong willed 9-year-old niece.  Featuring a fun little musical scene in a bowling alley, this is the most “likable” of the shorts to a wide American audience, not that you’ll ever see it on Bravo.

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The last two I was not necessarily looking forward to, but I kept an open mind.  When you’re talking about boys in Kabul, Afghanistan, or in a Somali fishing village, visions of impoverished gritty life take over and don’t necessarily make me think – yes!  That’s what I want to see.  But these two movies I enjoyed very much.

Without knowing specifics about the state of the campaign, I would have to say that Buzkashi Boys (Afghanistan/USA) probably is the odds-on favorite to win the Academy Award.  At 28 mins., it is the longest short, and it offers the most complete, most long form-like story, and a cinematic vision amenable to Academy voters.  The story is of two hardscrabble boys who are seeking a better life in the bombed-out Afghan capital, so it has the right political mix to edge out the others in Academy voting.  The Academy rarely rewards the best in any category, but in this case you could say that Buzkashi Boys is at least as good as the other contenders and probably the most deserving to win.  We’ll find out tomorrow night.

The last film was also the shortest, at 18 mins — Asad (South Africa/USA).  It too is about young boys trying to eke out an existence in their impoverished community, in this case a Somali fishing village.  All the while they are dealing with pirates who rule the streets.  Reminiscent of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (because there’s an old fisherman plucked right out of that story), Asad takes a delightful comic turn at the end to finish the shorts presentation on a positive note.  Buzkashi Boys and Asad are indeed gritty, but also charming and rewarding.

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I am not assigning numerical values to these movies.  On their own, I recommend only Curfew, Buzkashi Boys, and Asad — though there is not a clunker in the bunch.  I’m not sure what the mechanism is for watching any one of these movies by itself.  Your greatest chance of seeing any one of them is to see them all.  As a whole, I recommend the Shorts HD presentation, which also features commentary by past Best Short winner Luke Matheny — not about the films themselves, but rather about his own experience with the awards process.  His commentary provides a little light comic relief in-between the featured shorts.

In a world dominated by full-length features, it’s refreshing to see some quality short films from around the globe.

Stranger Than Paradise

Stranger Than Paradise

Eszter Balint and John Lurie in Stranger Than Paradise

I’ve been intrigued lately to discover early Jim Jarmusch movies, so last night I watched Stranger Than Paradise (1984, B&W).

To give you an idea what this movie is about, I’ll cite Pauline Kael (from the Wikipedia entry):

The first section is set in the bare Lower East Side apartment of Willie, who is forced to take in Eva, his 16-year-old cousin from Budapest, for ten days. The joke here is the basic joke of the whole movie. It’s in what Willie doesn’t do: he doesn’t offer her food or drink, or ask her any questions about life in Hungary or her trip; he doesn’t offer to show her the city, or even supply her with sheets for her bed. Then Eddie comes in, even further down on the lumpen scale. Willie bets on the horses; Eddie bets on dog races. Eva, who never gets to see more of New York than the drab, anonymous looking area where Willie lives, goes off to Cleveland to stay with Aunt Lotte and work at a hot-dog stand. And when Willie and Eddie go to see her, all they see is an icy wasteland – slums and desolation – and Eddie says ‘You know it’s funny. You come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same.’ The film has something of the same bombed-out listlessness as Paul Morrissey‘s 1970 Trash – it’s Trash without sex or transvestism. The images are so emptied out that Jarmusch makes you notice every tiny, grungy detail. And those black-outs have something of the effect ofSamuel Beckett‘s pauses: they make us look more intently, as Beckett makes us listen more intently.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything Kael is saying, and I haven’t seen this Trash movie.  For me, these three characters command an infectious charm which make them eminently watchable, and Jarmusch is content to let the camera linger on them.  The characters are the heart of the movie, not so much their settings.  You can’t help but to like these three.  One problem I had early on was that though Eva has supposedly stepped ‘right off the plane’ from Hungary, she has not a whiff of a European accent whatsoever, and speaks English too well.  Willie too has no accent.  But who knows, maybe Hungary had exceptional English programs in the 1980s that wiped away native accents.  I doubt it and see this as flaw in the movie.  But I was able to get over it quickly enough.

I am giving this a qualified recommendation.  IF you already have seen and loved each movie in the Jarmusch trifecta, Mystery Train, Dead Man, and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, then check out Stranger Than Paradise. It has the same understated comic elements found in those movies, but even more understated.  Consider Stranger Than Paradise a deep cut in the Jarmusch oeuvre.  You might really hate this movie, or you might love it.  At the time of its release it received a lot of critical praise.  Other than the accent issue, I had a little problem with the lack of a momentous plot line.  You know how I’m big on plot.  Jarmusch’s stories in his later movies are potent while maintaining the charm and good will of their characters.  I’ll give this movie a 7/10, but again on the contingencies I’ve stated.

When I have time, I will write more in depth about Jim Jarmusch, a key figure in the burgeoning 80’s avant garde, new wave indie or whatever you want to call it movement, in which you could loosely group David Lynch and John Sayles.  From the very first frame of this movie, you recognize that this director has an idea.  He has a vision that’s all his, he knows what he is doing and he is going for it.  He is not content to be a cog in the wheel of big-money Hollywood machinery and he’s not going to spit out formulaic drivel.  It’s refreshing and at the core of what good movie-making is all about.

Notes on Side Effects

First good movie of the year, at last.

Side Effects, starring Jude Law and Rooney Mara from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is refreshing.  In a world of modern thrillers, psychological thrillers etc etc that rely on cinematic sleight of hand and filmmaker’s razzle dazzle, there is none to be found here.  The director Steven Soderbergh, of seminal indie classic Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), which helped to launch the indie “revolution” to the extent it was launched, instead executes a good, straightforward and powerful story without any hocus-pocus.  This is all the more remarkable considering the film’s theme, the use of prescription drugs.  So many directors would with material of this nature go ape nuts with all sorts of dream and/or fantasy sequences, blurry out of focus camera effects and creepy haunting music — but not Soderbergh.  I think he recognized the unique strength of the story and went about the best he could to stay out of its way.

Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum in Side Effects

Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum in Side Effects

What that story is I shall not delve into here.  There are plenty of reviews and synopses out there for that.  My general rule for this blog is to provide what only I can, and a run-down of the plot is readily available elsewhere.  You’ll have to trust me that it’s a great story, and this is a great movie — almost.  Checking Rotten Tomatoes, the overwhelming opinion is in favor of this movie.  But a few reviews out there — negative reviews — have talked about unbelievable and convoluted plot twists.  I could not disagree more.  There is no problem with the story; it progresses in a perfectly believable and natural yet exceptionally compelling way.

But there is one scene about half-way through that I had a problem with.  No spoiler alert here, but suffice it to say that it is a critical event in the movie, and for me it was mishandled to the point of leaving me incredulous for several minutes afterward.  As honest and realistic as the totality of this movie is, this one scene was, let’s say, mis-choreographed.  At it’s completion, the movie continues apace, so my doubt with this scene didn’t stop me from following along.  But it lingered in the back of my mind.

With the exception of this one brief trip-up, Soderbergh does a masterful job delivering an exciting psychological drama.  Rooney Mara, Jude Law, and Catherine Zeta-Jones all do a fine job, and I even liked Channing Tatum, though I’m not a fan of his.  I would say that the filmmaking style lacks a certain edginess, for lack of a better word.  I applaud how it eschews the nearly ubiquitous reliance on cinematic gimmicks in lieu of actual story.  However, I found myself wanting a little glimmer, just a touch of razzle-dazzle to push it over the top.  An example of this is the dull intro title credits, though I suppose they are vindicated by symmetry with the end.

As it stands, I still very much recommend this movie.  Watch the trailer first.  If you think you’ll like it, you won’t be disappointed.  Definitely a pleasant surprise; 7/10 bordering on 8.

–UPDATE– I’ve watched the trailer again, and am reflecting on what a brilliantly constructed little movie this is.  As such, I am revising it to an 8/10.  Or, that is to say, highly recommended.  It’s unlikely that there will be many more movies this year on par with or surpassing Side Effects.

Can I Stream It?

TUAW:

Can I Stream It? Is a free universal app that lets you see when movies you are interested in are available for streaming. The app checks several sources, including iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, VUDU, Crackle, Blockbuster and Xfinity. The company says it will be continually adding new services.

CANiStreamIt

This looks like a great new service, and long overdue.  As it stands, I usually browse around movies that are available on my Apple TV/iTunes service, which is pay-per-view and limited by a draconian 24-hour viewing period.  Once I decide to watch a movie, I then switch over to see if it’s available on Netflix, which does not cost anything other than the $8/mo. that I am paying for that service.  Browsing on the iTunes side is much nicer than Netflix since the Netflix selection is pathetic by comparison, the Netflix interface is not as nice, and Netflix on Apple TV does not offer previews, for what reason nobody knows — I asked a Netflix lackey once and he was clueless as to why this is.

To perform searches I piddle around with the basic remote to key in my search term one letter at a time.  This whole process is a pain in the rear.  To top it off, movies that have been sitting in my iTunes wish list (I wish Apple would call it a “queue” since that’s what it is) will occasionally disappear — I would really like to watch Pineapple Express, for instance, but now it seems my only choice is to purchase it, which I refuse to do.

This app is available for iPhone and the various Android & Windows phone imitators.  And you don’t even need an app: they have a website, www.canistream.it!  What a bonus!  Clever how they’ve incorporated the Italian domain in their URL.

This should really make it easier to see what movies are available for viewing.