Tuesday, September 30, 2008

DVDebuts: What's Wheat, What's Chaff?

Above and below are some of the week's wheat. (The chaff will appear tomorrow....)


Scott Prendegast's KABLUEY starts out very badly, making his lead character (played by the writer/director) into someone ready for the loony bin -- which is simply not the case. That the movie recovers is surprising enough, but it goes on to become a dark charmer full of very personal humor, sadness and regeneration. And the "blue guy" is an absolutely inspired concoction.

A bleak, black and damn funny look at addiction of various sorts, FINDING AMANDA gives Matthew Broderick yet another chance to shine. He glows and so does his co-star, Brittany Snow, in a movie that is well cast, well written and full of bracing ideas about the world in which we live and lose. If Peter Tolan's film dallies with sentimentality toward the end, it does not cave into this.

Joan Allen mellifluously narrates THE RAPE OF EUROPA , an intelligent and (to me, at least) somewhat surprising documentary about the Nazis and art. Connoisseurs not only of terror, torture and genocide, they knew their art and what they liked. The film is eye-opening, occasionally bleakly funny and gives us a rare and too-short glimpse of some of the art done by Adolf Hilter in his early years. And -- yikes -- it looked pretty good to me: not experimental, certainly, but executed with some skill, style and charm. As one of the movie's talking heads notes: If only the guy had been accepted into art school, someone else could have run the country. (If this sounds enticing, you might want to rent Menno Meyjes' interesting movie MAX.)

Yes, BEFORE THE RAINS has a Merchant/Ivory look (those two names are attached to the poster for the film, though not in a writer/director/producer mode), but since the pair turned out a number of fine films, so what? This one, set in a slightly pre-Ghandi India, serves up an excellent story-as-metaphor for what colonialism does to both servant and master. The tale is believable and upsetting, the performances good all-round, and the locations utterly gorgeous.

Unlike last year's silly The Fountain, which served up a lot of visual pizzazz to little point, THE FALL is even more of a visual knockout while offering strange and interesting characters and a bizarre plot that keep us involved. I was no fan of Tarsem's earlier The Cell, but his new one is so beautiful and vivacious that it held me in thrall first shot to last. Further, leading man Lee Pace demonstrates yet again how versatile and watchable he is.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Find of the Week: LEATHERHEADS

Post-midway through this movie, as a soldier, just after a rousing bar fight, sang "Over There," it fully hit me. I turned to my companion and whispered, "This is really good!" He nodded affirmatively. Why were we so surprised? Was it the dismissive, barely-awake reviews? The fact that LEATHERHEADS bombed at the box-office? That it was perceived as just a "sports" film? Whatever: the fact is that this third directorial outing by George Clooney is every bit as good as his first two: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck.)

Graceful and leisurely, alternately funny and moving without so much as an unnecessary push, the film makes it appear that Clooney is as effortlessly truthful a director as he is an actor. He gets so much right. And his writers, Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, do the same. Together they give their story of professional sports teams in the 1920s an unusual twist: There are no real heroes and no real villains. Instead, the filmmakers bestow a sense of graciousness on one and all, even the somewhat smarmy promoter/investor played by Jonathan Pryce. I believe this achievement comes from their understanding of human nature in a manner more complete than that of many moviemakers. They let us see the direction in which their characters are moving and what each of them wants and needs. This understanding makes the film richer and more humane than most comedies, even -- perhaps especially -- with the "dirty tricks" that make up the Clooney character's repertoire. These are necessary, one feels, against the odds wielded by the money-and-power people.

Clooney and Renée Zellweger work awfully well together; there's a lot of smart dialog here, tartly delivered. And the supporting cast, from John Krasinki to Jack Thompson, Mr. Pryce and Marian Seldes, is more than up to snuff. Production design, cinematography, editing -- all of it is first-rate. I'm flummoxed as to why this film was not more successful amongst intelligent audiences (it will most likely not appeal to "Rocky" fans). Perhaps critics and public were primed for some political agenda from the actor/director. Instead, he's given us a sweet and subtle piece of nostalgia without rose-colored glasses. Maybe the lack of those glasses did "Leatherheads" in. But if you sit back, relax -- and don't put your brain on hold -- I predict you'll have a very good time.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Consumer Guide to Online Movie Rentals: Blockbuster, GreenCine or Netflix?

Which movie rental service to use? One does wonder. With most of us now having less discretionary income at our disposal, how and where we spend our movie-watching funds grows more important. As someone who has belonged to the three top online rental services (two of the three for several years now), I feel qualified to give you some tips. Granted, this is just one man's opinion, but it’s coming from a fellow who uses these online services religiously. (Important Admission: For the past couple of years I have been writing for GreenCine and so I realize that I cannot fairly judge it. But I'll still try. I did join as a paying member several years prior to my writing for the company and so had a chance to observe and judge its performance.)

I joined Netflix
at the beginning of 2003 and have never stopped using its service, though I have changed my number of DVDs out at one time from three to six and back again. When a friend told me about GreenCine in April 2004, I joined and have remained with this service, too. When Blockbuster began its online service, I became a member shortly after, from April of 2007 through the end of that year. After eight months, I canceled my membership, but started up again this past June then stopped after three more months (the reasons why appear below).

The Catalogs

Netflix (NF) has the largest film catalog of any supplier. Whatever movie you might want, chances are best that you'll find it here. While the Blockbuster (BB) catalog does seem to be growing, it still does not compare with that of NF. I find GreenCine's (GC) to be by far the smallest of the three, yet this company sometimes offers titles I can't find anywhere else. A recent example: the 2006 award-winning German film Pingpong . Although BB appears to be trying harder now than it initially did to offer a more inclusive catalog, it still lists titles that it claims to have on order but which somehow never seem to actually arrive in-house. Some titles in my BB queue remained there, listed as not yet available, for the full eight months of the first round of my membership. Currently, the very interesting Spanish "Scare" movie series 6 Films to Keep You Awake seems to be the latest group of titles for which you can queque on BB and never actually see. (These titles -- and others -- that never became available on BB were simultaneously rentable from both NF and GC.)

The Service

NF's service is by far the best. With all three online companies, as soon as you've returned a DVD, the next available one in your queue should automatically be sent to you. Because NF's warehouses are located throughout the U.S, few of us are farther away than a day or two from receiving that next DVD in the mail. I happen to live near the Queens, NY, warehouse of both NF and BB, so one-day service is the rule, unless something goes stray in the mail (a rarity) or your own region is currently out of the DVD you request -- in which case it may be shipped from a warehouse in another state, requiring an extra day or two in the mail.

Location, location, location: GG has only one warehouse -- based in Los Angeles -- which initially made for much longer wait times, both arriving and returning. The company has circumvented this to some extent via its new policy of "Quick Return," a kind of honor system (imagine that in this day and age!) in which, as soon as you have mailed back the DVD, you can click on Quick Return in your queue and GC will count this particular movie as "returned" and will send you your next film. If you're on the east coast, or really anywhere outside GC's west coast warehouse, this cuts down the delivery time considerably.

There is more to service, however, than automatic shipment, and this is where all online services occasionally trip up. Netflix has been sued several times, I believe, for what certain members have termed unfair business practices. I must say that I have not noticed this in regard to the service I've received, but I do know that once in awhile -- this current month, for instance -- I am receiving four DVDs at a time rather than three at no extra cost, due undoubtedly to someone else's class action suit. It seems to me that NF is relatively quick to act on complaints and so I find myself with little to complain about regarding NF. A few weeks ago, that company did experience a day or two during which its entire site was down, no DVDs were shipped and it took a full week or more before the entire operation seemed to right itself completely. This did disturb service, but events such as this occur from time to time on web sites and must be "put up with" by members, as long as they do not occur too frequently. (As I write this, in fact, the GC site is down so that I cannot access my queue or get some links I need for this article.) Overall, NF handles its practices like any smart business, aiming to please its customers and keep abreast of changes that might impact its industry.

One of these changes is the on-demand craze, for which both NF and BB provide an immediate "play" service via which you can watch many films on your computer, as well as (from NF) a "box" you can purchase for $99, plug into your TV and tap into a portion of NF's online movie catalog. I may do the box eventually; for now I prefer getting the DVDs and their often-very-interesting special features, not to mention the English-for-the-Hearing-Impaired subtitles (great for better understanding of heavy southern drawls and British/Irish/Scot accents).

Of these three online services, only BB provides a walk-in alternative/addition to its service. To make use of this you must join BB's Total Access program, which allows you to rent movies online, return them to a BB walk-in store and, for each movie returned, take one out of the store's current selection. This is quite helpful if you happen to live near a BB walk-in store, as I do. My daughter, on the other hand recently cancelled her BB account because she does not live near enough a walk-in store to make this worthwhile. When BB began its Total Access, the company charged much less for it, making it a can't-lose situation for the consumer (but a money-loser for BB). When they nearly doubled the price for the same service a few months later, I decided to drop BB, since its service has not been up to snuff and the price hike seemed the last straw. When I joined again six months later, it looked initially as though service had improved. But not really. At one point in my second go-round, I managed to go almost two weeks without receiving a movie online. (The BB phone reps were generally helpful, however, and emailed me a coupon I could print out and take into the local store for a free rental.) Still, regarding my online service, after several phone calls, one of the BB phone reps explained that BB had recently changed its policy to the following: If the first movie in your queue is not available, instead of immediately sending out the next available film in your queue, BB waits one full day before doing so. The next day, if that next film also has a wait --- that's right -- BB delays another full day before trying again. In my experience, NF would never pull something as shoddy as this. Its technician would simply move down your queue immediately to the next available film and send it out. When I learned this information, I simply closed out my BB account once again. Still, I may give them yet another chance -- and for the following reason:

Blockbuster Rental Exclusive: Yes, that's what you'll find written on a number of DVD boxes at any walk-in BB, and it means that you either cannot get this DVD from NF or GC-- or that you will probably have to wait quite a while before receiving it from either of them. If you're like me, you may want to see the film right away (particularly if you need to write about it). So this "exclusive" is both smart (for BB) and annoying (for any outsiders). When I first heard about it, I expected some sort of restraint-of-trade lawsuit against the companies that were colluding on this. It did not happen, however, so perhaps this is simply business-as-usual.

What about GC's service?
Comparing either NF or BB to GC, regarding service, is like comparing a major department store to a mom-and-pop gift shop. GC does not have the staff or number of copies of each film to compete, but since its membership is also, I suspect, much lower than that of NF or BB, its service is better than you might expect. There is more of a wait for popular titles, but while you wait, there is also a raft of compelling movie-related stuff to read and ponder: The GC Daily Blog, Guru Movie Reviews, Interviews, Polls, Lists, the Weekly Dispatch and much, much more. GC is definitely the most movie-loving, movie-related, movie-friendly of the three services. And for this reason alone -- my occasional writing for the site not withstanding -- I shall probably remain a member. (Of course, you can get many of these extras without becoming a paying member of GC. But I believe in supporting a concern as movie-friendly as this one.)

Helpful Tips for (Maybe) Getting Movies a Bit Faster

Yes, yes: Keep your queue filled. That's what all the services recommend. (Yet, all it really takes is to have one or two or five truly "available" movies in your queue each week in order to keep them coming in timely fashion.) Beyond this, what? In order to have the best crack at the new films when they first appear, you should try to make certain that any movies you have out will arrive back on Monday morning and certainly no earlier than Saturday. If your movies arrive back on Friday, for instance, NF or BB will sent out the next available film already in your queue, for they cannot send the next week's batch until the next week. Monday is when NF first sends out the new films, which can not legally be rented until Tuesday, so that one day in the mail makes everything kosher. Be sure that any new releases you want to see are placed at the top of your queue, and you should get at least some of your choices in this manner. If you wait until Tuesday to queue up films that make their DVD debut on that day, this will, in most cases, already be too late, for they were sent out the day previous. (GC is sometimes a little slow on this, so you might still get new films here on a Tuesday.) Oh yes: about BB. This rental service used to allow you to place new releases at the top of your queue on Monday or even before. Of late (the week I re-resigned from this service), BB was not allowing me to queue up for the week's new films until Tuesday morning, by which time I would have much less chance of getting them. Yet another reason to use Netflix.

What's the Cost of Each?

NF plans range from eight DVDs out at one time, unlimited rentals, for $48 per month to three out/unlimited for $17 to one out/unlimited for $9 per month.

BB's Total Access plans (with unlimited in-store exchanges) range from 3 DVDs out at once for $35 per month down to 1 DVD out for $22 per month. BB's Movies-thru-the-Mail only plans range from $16 per month for 3-out to $9 for one-out.

GC's plans range from ten DVDs out at once, unlimited rentals, for $60 per month to three out/unlimited for $22 per month one out/unlimited for $10 per month

So. BB undercuts NF by a buck on the three-out, while GC costs more across the board. But the simple dollar price doesn't give the full picture. NF and BB mail out only Monday thru Friday (and in a holiday week, there are only four possible mail days) but GC mails out Monday through Saturday, offering the possibility of more DVDs in a single week. And for all of BB's vaunted Total Access possibilities, I found that, on my one-out unlimited program, I might actually be able to watch three-to-four DVDs per week (or 12-16 per month) for $22. On my NF plan, via mail only, service is good enough that I can consistently watch 4-5 film per week (or 16-20 per month) for $17.


For any of you out there who watch as many movies as I do, Netflix is the prime answer. I think it's smart to keep a second option open however, and for that I would -- and do -- go with GreenCine. If Blockbuster ever manages to clean up its act, who knows what it might provide. Its Total Access/in-store option is a good one, but the manner in which BB runs things is not. Word on the street a few years back was that BB wanted to buy NF, and indeed tried to. NF said no (thank goodness for us film buffs), so BB decided to start its own service. The rest, as they say, is history. And also mystery: why a company as big as BB can't do a better job. Perhaps the motive of putting NF out of business by first taking it over or--when that did not work--competing with it turned out not to be such as smart one.

Netflix, after all, came up with its original brilliant idea and has continued to refine and improve it over time. While all three firms are businesses that must turn a profit, the differing ways in which each one works is worth noting and considering before you make your first -- or next -- move regarding an online movie rental service.

"Film Criticism in Crisis?" Why not: Everything else is.

Today saw an interesting group discussion -- Film Criticism in Crisis? -- sponsored by Film Comment magazine and given before a near sold-out house, during the 46th NY Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. As he introduced his prestigious panel, Film Comment editor Gavin Smith joked that using the word "crisis" sort of guaranteed that people would sit up and take notice. But is true film criticism in any more of a crisis now than at an earlier time? The panel seemed not all that concerned with the "crisis now" attitude.

Certainly print media is in crisis -- and has been for some time -- and many former print critics are in print no more (unless you choose to highlight their blogs, paste them into a Word document, and hit the "print" button). The crisis, if it is such, is that any kind of a living wage for those of us who toil in the writing-about-film vineyard is no longer (or rarely) forthcoming. So I guess, by day, we'll be busboys at Denny's -- and write at night.

Each panel member (there were eight, including moderator Smith) added his or her own ideas about criticism and crisis: Smith opined that we should not expect any dishing or fights to break out between print and blog critics (they didn't). Chicago critic Jonathan Rosenbaum offered, among a lot of good stuff, the idea that there is so little now of what we hear and take for granted that is actually the truth -- including the fact that Barack Obama is consistently described as a black man when his mother was white.

Film Comment's editor-at-large Kent Jones offered an interesting reference to Pauline Kael and later asked for -- and got -- a round of applause to honor the late Manny Farber; Jessica Winter, talked about her current gig with O magazine and how she must think a bit of about demographics and where, urban or not, her readers are located; Korean film critic Seong-Hoon Jeong offered up a fun story about the Korean blockbuster D-War and what happened in the blogosphere when the critical establishment drubbed the film.

Pascual Espiritu, who blogs -- and beautifully: thoughtful, informative -- as Acquarello at Strictly Film School, told us how she (and we) ought to think of her blog; Cahiers du cinema editor Emmanuel Burdeau was perhaps the hit of the panel, offering lengthy tales of the how and why of Cahiers' current crisis, as well as telling us how very good and underrated was the film Cloverfield (I fully agree with the gentilhomme on that one); finally GreenCine's own go-to guy for what, filmwise, is worth reading on the web, David Hudson, acted (as he does on the GreenCine Daily Blog) as a connector, linking and commenting on what his co-panelists had just told us.

Smith opened the discussion up to attendees for a few minutes prior to adjourning to the gallery for nibbles and in-person chats with the panelists. The questions from the floor were perhaps on a bit higher-level than is sometimes encountered at the Walter Reade, so I am sorry there was not more time for them. All in all, this was well-spent afternoon, and if we did not solve the crisis, (or even agree that there is much of one), it was a pleasure to see and hear intelligent talk about international film criticism.

Hip, Hip Hooray!

Bad Jim. I have not posted for 10 days, due to my companion's hip surgery and recovery from same (ongoing, as I write). Forgive this non-movie note: If any of your senior (or even junior) friends or relations have need of hip replacement, do have them ask their doc about what is called hip resurfacing. It's definitely worth looking into!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

FRÄULEIN (not the one with Dana Wynter)

Maybe midway through Andrea Staka's Das Fräulein (opening in the US via Film Movement simply as FRÄULEIN) there occurs a scene in which a major character begins to open up, relax, and feel. We've seen this kind of thing many times before, but Ms Staka, together with her wonderful actress Mirjana Karanovic, makes it seem as though we're virgins to an experience like this. We hang on every tiny movement and facial expression, barely breathing, as another actress, the equally fine Marija Scaricic, keeps pushing and pulling to bring Ms Karanovic to life. I think it was at this point that I realized I'd follow these women anywhere (Ljubica Jovic portrays the third), so real did they seem and so important had their lives become to me.

Immigrants to Switzerland (they come from the former Yugoslavia), the ladies span three generations, and each of their problems, quite different one from the next, are shown subtly but specifically. Ms Staka (shown above, right) has previously written and directed one short and one documentary, and Fräulein, her first full-length narrative feature, is indeed short (barely 80 minutes, including credits) and most definitely has a documentary feel. She understands the importance of brevity and gives us just enough information about her women to hook us and keep us on that hook. (Barbara Albert -- Falling, Free Radicals -- collaborated on the screenplay, along with Marie Kreutzer.)

Because the characters come from a recently war-torn place, you may expect the usual baggage, revealed secrets and angst¸ but the moviemaker holds these in check. We learn very little about the past; the war is spoken of in passing and we do sense losses for each woman. But their lives are in the here-and-now and Staka's understanding of this gives her film immediacy and strength. The movie may not, finally, go where you'd prefer, but I doubt you'll be able to dispute its reality. Fräulein, a rich and moving experience in its own right, also offers a bright promise of things to come from Ms Staka.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Watching new documentaries take shape during INDEPENDENT FILM WEEK

Sometimes a last-minute invitation can open up the whole world. Yesterday was a good example, when I said "yes" to producer Claire Weingarten's suggestion that I come to see 20 minutes of a documentary that she and two friends had made that was being shown at Independent Film Week. Currently celebrating its 30th anniversary and formerly known as IFP Market, Independent Film Week hosts 156 projects, including documentary works-in-progress, "emerging narrative" screenplays and "no borders" international co-productions to a mainly industry crowd. The purpose is to get your work seen, in hopes that distribution opportunities will arise or that people with money will like what they see enough to invest and thus help you finish your film. Sponsors of the week-long event include Kodak, HBO, A&E Indie Films, Panasonic and SAGIndie, as well as the ever-present Stella Artois (slurp!).

Over the decades more than 20,000 filmmakers have taken part in the IFP program, including Charles Burnett, Todd Haynes, Jim Jarmusch, Barbara Kopple, Michael Moore, Mira Nair, John Sayles, Ed Burns and Kevin Smith. Some of the young people involved in this year's presentations will no doubt join this illustrious group in the upcoming decade. Venues for the screenings include the Chelsea Cinemas, Pier at Solar One, the Stella Artois Lounge and the basement auditorium at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where I found myself yesterday afternoon.

Spread out across huge tables were sets of postcards advertising various films, every one of which looked at first glance worth seeing. With only one hour to spare, I quickly perused the cards, and picked up one for a film by Jonathan Lee entitled Growing up with Paul Goodman , about a writer (shown above, bottom) that I, as a younger man, much admired. I'll hope to see the completed documentary one day.

While waiting for Claire's segment to begin, I was introduced to her friends Jen Gilomen and Sally Rubin who have their own movie in the mix, Ghosts of Appalachia . GOA deal with two friends in a small Kentucky community who find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict over coal mining. I asked both sets of filmmakers about how they found their two projects. Jen and Sally started large: with the world and its problems -- chief among these, energy needs -- and then worked down into subject (coal), place (Appalachia), and finally people (their two pro/antagonists).

Claire's team (including co-directors Cambria Matlow and Morgan Robinson) was handed its subject by a friend working on energy in Africa who told them about the situation, noting that they might want to film it. They did. The result is Burning in the Sun, of which the audience (about 25 people filling a small conference room) saw twenty minutes. BITS tracks a young man named Daniel Dembele who, raised in Mali but having spent time in Europe, seems to combine the best of both worlds. He has decided to build and install cheap solar panels (shown above, top) that will bring the first-ever electricity to the small villages of his native country. This proves a fascinating subject. The twenty minutes shown to us were riveting, and the ramifications are pretty extraordinary -- for Mali, of course, but for poor countries worldwide and, in fact, for some rich ones, too. If solar energy can be created as easily and cheaply as shown here, our government has, as Ricky used to tell Lucy, some 'splainin' to do. (And doesn't it, though -- about almost everything.)

As I say, I spent approximately one hour of time at the IFP event but walked out, my mind racing with possibilities and feeling more energized and enthusiastic than I have in ages. Let's hope investors and sponsors feel the same.

(For information about IFP or any of the three films mentioned, simply click on the underlined link to each, and you can contact the filmmakers via their web site.)

Monday, September 15, 2008


Yes, I know: You are won-
dering why I -- why anybody who reads reviews -- would bother with SARAH LANDON AND THE PARANORMAL HOUR. I shall tell you: The critical consensus on this film, not to mention that of Netflix members, was generally so bad that I just had to see if there was a single good thing here that everybody missed. There is not. From the opening scenes, during which so much exposition is spilled so thuddingly, I was certain that the film must have been based upon a very long novel, and that the filmmakers didn't have a clue how in heck (this is family film) to include it all. But no: According to the IMDB, this is an original story/screenplay. Still, the exposition never seems to end. Not since Korea's Dragon Wars have I heard so much non-stop exposition. (Thank you, GreenCine, for allowing me to share this earlier review.) But that movie turned its exposition into camp and had some wonderful special effects. Here, the effects are, well, ineffective. The perpetrators of this "amateur night at the movies" are the Comrie family, two particularly cute members of which are shown above. This group clearly wanted to make a movie, gol' darn it, and so they divided up the duties -- direction, production, writing, acting -- and just did it. I forgive them all. But I must ask that they do not grace us with the sequel that, unless I misread (a two-year-old would not be able to misread anything in this movie), the denouement appears to promise.

DVDebuts Worth Noting-- THE SMALL BACK ROOM

This latest Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger collaboration to finally reach DVD is as wonderful as fans of this British/Hungarian filmmaking team have come to expect. Smart, fastidiously filmed and very adult (the relationship between David Farrar and Kathleen Byron is a model of sophisticated bonding between thinking/feeling human beings during wartime), THE SMALL BACK ROOM also builds up a good head of steam -- and suspense. I would imagine Richard Lester must have thought back to this small, lean and underrated 1949 film when he made his impressive and also underrated Juggernaut some 25 years later. As usual, the transfer and DVD extras -- via Criterion -- are all a buff could wish for.

DVDebuts Worth Noting -- CONSTANTINE'S SWORD

What the Roman Catholic religion, the Vatican and god knows how many priests have done down history to harm Jews is the subject of Oren Jacoby's and James Carroll's CONSTANTINE'S SWORD, a documentary based on Mr. Carroll' book of the same name. What it tells and shows, via investigation and interview is horrible indeed, and its measured tone (no one raises his or her voice) simply adds to its impact. That Carroll (shown above) is himself an ex-priest adds even more. The Catholic Church has much to answer for -- little of which it has so far managed to do. For the very worshipful, the film will present problems. One hopes they'll at least give it a shot, mull it over and maybe do some research of their own.

DVDebut Worth Noting -- REPRISE

This critics' darling is indeed full of smart editing and clever combinations of what is, was and might be as it tackles a story of two young writers and how each handles his early success. If REPRISE left me a little less than satisfied (more screen time's devoted to style than content, leaving us grasping to understand characters we'd like to know better), I'm still happy to have seen this first full-length feature from young Danish writer/director Joachim Trier (above right).

Sunday, September 14, 2008

DVDebut Worth Noting -- THE GO-GETTER

Lou Taylor Pucci, shown right (Thumbsucker, Chumscrubber, Southland Tales) is one sweet little pooch, adorable without being too cute, clearly adolescent while simultaneously vulnerable and sexy. His performance in THE GO-GETTER, a bizarre little "road" movie, in which one of the travelers is but a voice for half the trip, helps make the movie worthwhile. The always reliable Zooey Deschanel and Jena Malone provide distaff pleasures, while writer/director Martin Hynes adds enough style and visual flair to keep things interesting. He's also created a number of subsidiary characters that are drawn briefly but specifically and acted to perfection by the likes of Maura Tierney, Judy Greer, Bill Duke and Nick Offerman. Perhaps no great shakes, "The Go-Getter" is rarely less than pleasurable.

DVDebut Worth Noting -- TIMES AND WINDS

A Turkish village high atop a mountain full of greenery and scenery provides the backdrop of TIMES AND WINDS, one of the more beautiful films I've seen of late. Director/writer Reha Erdem lets his story unfold naturally with no unnecessary exposition and a lot of repressed passion--Oedipal and otherwise. (Is there a special word to describe mother-daughter jealousy? If so, will some kind reader please comment and fill me in?) The sins of the fathers, passed down generations, is made plain again -- this time in a setting exotic, quiet and cut off from much that we know yet brimming with a flawed humanity we can understand.

DVDebut Worth Noting -- POPE DREAMS

While many small, seat-of-the-pants movies hope to create characters and a plot that will hold an audience in thrall, few succeed. POPE DREAMS does in most respects because it never pushes its story -- involving death, love, sex, music, family and success -- anywhere that it can't reasonably go. Writer/director Patrick Hogan makes an auspicious debut, with a lovely cast (Julie Hagerty (above) and Stephen Tobolowsky (above right) make up the older generation while Phillip Vaden, Marnette Patterson and Noel Fisher do nicely by the younger). An award-winner at festival such as Atlanta, Stony Brook, Big Bear and Phoenix, the movie is decidedly small but rarely strikes a false note. Devotees of the humane, sweet and decent should queue up.

DVDebut Worth Noting -- NOISE

Each week, I'll try to cover new DVD releases worth a watch that lack of time prevents me from covering in any longer format. Here's the first:

With NOISE Tim Robbins (above) gives one of his best performances (this is saying a lot) in writer/director Henry Bean's (The Believer) new film. That would be reason enough to watch, but Bean's second film is actually better than his first: Lighter on its feet, it allows comedy, satire and a little melodrama to evolve from a story about a man who decides to do battle against urban noise pollution. Bean lets you see the gradations in all of his characters and events, and William Hurt as a very nasty/smart New York Mayor, Bridget Moynahan as Robbins' wife, and Margarita Levieva as his paramour offer sterling support.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Up next: the third annual Jackson Heights Film Fest

Beginning this Thursday, 9/18, The 2008 Jackson Heights Film Festival

(together with The Jackson Heights Kid's Film Festival) kicks off its third year of fun and film. Since I've lived here in the Queens, NY, community of Jackson Heights for the past 13 years, I feel duty-bound to push this nice little fest, which concentrates on short films but this year also offers two fine full-length features. This is the third annual fest (for both the films and the kid's films), and each year the events grow, along with their attendance. To see the complete program -- as well as purchase tickets (one of the programs is FREE!) or get your travel instructions, simply click on the underlined "name" links above.

This year's opening night includes a short film, Basket Boy from the Burundi Film Center, and a screening of the enormously well-received Chop Shop directed and co-written by Ramin Bahrani, whose Man Push Cart was an independent critic-pleaser a few years back and whose newest film Goodbye Solo just wowed 'em at the Venice and Toronto film fests. Click the movie-title links above for my GreenCine Guru review of Chop Shop and recent info on festival showings of Goodbye Solo, from the GreenCine Daily Blog (a must-read, by the way, for film fans who want to keep abreast).

Mr. Bahrani himself (above left) will make an appearance after the Jackson Heights screening for a discussion and Q&A. He's an intelligent guy and a fine filmmaker who gives great interview , if this one by David D'Arcy for GreenCine is any example. In it, Bahrani insists that his film is a fine one for children to see. It's not your typical kids' film, for sure, even if it does feature a child in the leading role. But when my daughter was growing up, I'd have taken her in a flash to see something this vital and entertaining, and then discussed the themes and ideas (immigration, child labor, and the importance of having a caring family to help a kid make decisions) with her afterward.

Friday night (8pm) and the Saturday matinee (4pm) will be devoted to the lion's share of short subjects. Then, for the closing night of the fest, don't miss Christopher Zalla's Sangre de mi sangre (also known as Padre Nuestro) which last year won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and was also nominated this year for a Goya Award (Spain's "Oscar") as Best Spanish Language Foreign Film. This movie received a very limited theatrical run last spring and is not yet available on DVD, so for anyone interested, a visit to Jackson Heights is in order -- especially since Mr. Zalla (shown above right) will be there for a post-screening discussion and Q&A.

Friday, September 12, 2008

"Find" of the Month

It's always a delight to discover a wonderful, though little-known, movie that's gone straight to DVD or had almost no theatrical release -- one that gets nearly everything right while staying smart, entertaining and thought-provoking. The last such film I got this excited about was Setton/Schechter's The Big Bad Swim (DVD cover art shown above), released just over one year ago and which introduced us all to the lovely Jess Weixler, well before she sprouted those below-the-waist "Teeth."

It's excitation time again, and not a moment too soon (having seen a string of so-so-to-bummer films over the past couple of weeks: 88 Minutes, Itty Bitty Titty Committee, Redbelt, August, The Witman Boys, Street Kings, Freshman Orientation, Socket and the worst of the bunch, Prom Night. But now arrives with little fanfare a honey of a film about globalization, the work ethic, culture clash and more, acted to near-perfection and directed with a light touch that still manages to cover all the bases.

A cultural, socio-economic rom-com (they don't make that many of these), OUTSOURCED accomplishes a great deal in just 98 minutes, perhaps the most surprising of which is its gracious attitude toward a country (India) and an occupation (customer service/order fulfillment) that has many Americans, myself included, often climbing the walls. Yet the director/co-writer (with George Wing) John Jeffcoat is so very good about helping us see these workers and their culture through Indian eyes, as well as American, that one bridge after another is crossed happily, with wit, charm, and a little sadness before the film comes to its meaningful and deeply-felt finale. "Joy" is a word I don't toss around much in my reviews because it's something I've felt a distinct lack of lately, but "Outsourced" made me experience this -- and more than a few times along the way.

Jeffcoat and his casting people (Ellen Chenoweth, Kathleen Chopin and, in India, Uma Da Cunha) have done a yeoman job of finding actors who bring oodles of talent, charm (looks, too) to the proceedings. The under-rated Josh Hamilton (shown at top, whom I'll remember for his great performance in one of the best legit plays I've seen -- The Cider House Rules, Part I (NYC never got to see part 2: budget problems, we were told) -- does yet another amazing job. As usual, he's loose, funny and totally real, and here he does a spot-on rendition of the fish-out-of-water American abroad. His repartee with beautiful co-star Ayesha Dharker, in which he dons an Indian accent and she an American, is simply priceless.

I don't know nearly enough about Indian culture, but I have long felt anger and resentment about the seemingly set-in-stone class system. Yet the food-over-the-wall scenes in this movie, funny on the surface and disturbing underneath, do lead to an interesting meeting of class and culture that, for me, opened the door a crack as to how and why this class barrier continues. The sex scenes, too, offer much more than the usual skin and soft-focus: Instead we get humor -- and lots of it. This is, after all, a romantic comedy, but it is also one in which truth and believability trump any simple-minded insistence on happiness at all cost -- as happens in the better examples from this genre (My Best Friend's Wedding, Seven Girlfriends).

From the lengthy time it has taken to receive this film via the on-line rental services, it is clear that the movie is proving popular and has been under-stocked. So don't give up hope if it takes awhile to show up in your mailbox. Keep it at the top of your queue; it's worth the wait. Maybe the best thing I can say about "Outsourced" is that it actually has me looking forward to my next encounter with customer service in India.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Filmmaking About Babymaking: Then She Found Me & Baby Mama

That biological clock just

keeps on ticking. The good news -- for those of us who watch the preponderance of films at home on disc -- is that two recent movies about women who want babies (but can't seem to get pregnant) are now available. Helen Hunt's very impressive first film Then She Found Me made its video debut last week, and this week sees the DVDebut of writer/director Matthew McCullers' Baby Mama.

As up to the minute as these movies may seem to the younger set, I do recall seeing another up-to-the-minute movie about the same subject back in 1970: The Baby Maker, a film that gave Barbara Hershey one of her earlier and better roles. Since nearly 40 years have come and gone between that film and the two under consideration now, one must conclude that "new" ideas such as surrogate mothers and/or any alternate manner of conception (including adoption and gay/lesbian parenting is still way too far out of the mainstream to take hold and stay put.

Ms Hunt's movie -- and I think it safe to call this her movie, as she directed, co-adapted (from Elinor Lipman's novel), co-produced and takes the leading role -- is a lovely piece of work. It includes quite a few major characters, all of whom register strongly due to their being cast with a fine ensemble: Bette Midler, Colin Firth, Matthew Broderick, John Benjamin Hickey, Lynn Cohen and Ben Shenkman among them (It's particularly great to see Midler in such fine form). Hunt handles each scene surprisngly well for a novice, bringing out the necessary content without hammering it home. She draw lovely performances from all; whether she simply let each actor do his/her thing or coached it out of them, who knows? Who cares? Her film covers parenting (birth and otherwise), loss, and those tentative steps toward something new with insight and a combination of warmth, irony and wit.

Baby Mama
adheres fimrly to the rom-com format, even though it is even more involved with the "How the hell do I get pregnant?" scenario. McCullers has cast his movie impeccably, from his SNL leads (Tina Fey and Amy Pohler) to Greg Kinnear, Dax Shepard, Romany Malco, Signourney Weaver, Steve Martin, Maura Tierney, Holland Taylor, Denis O'Hare and James Rebhorn. Each gives every line of dialog its due, even if some lines are better than others. For awhile, mid-section, the movie looks like it might get lost but then bounces back nicely, rounding the bases -- comedic, romantic, sentimental -- with speed and enough style to carry you along happily. And the babies are all adorable.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Coming of Age -- in the Water & on the Job: Water Lilies & Itty Bitty Titty Committee

Two movies about young girls coming of age appeared on DVD last week and, despite their similar subject, they could hardly be more different in tone, style or success. Itty Bitty Titty Committee has a cute title (That's not a put-down: Say it out loud and you'll have to chuckle), an attractive and energetic cast led by Melonie Diaz and Nicole Vicius, and a worthwhile message about

women honoring their bodies in ways other than silicone implants and facial recon-struction. Unfortunately, the delivery of the message is somewhat botched.

The film's director is Jamie Babbit (above), who's been around for a dozen years now, making shorts, doing a lot of television, and three feature-length films. Her first But I'm a Cheerleader, is still in some ways her most consistent. She acted as writer and director on that one, but not on her subsequent films: the disastrous-unto-camp The Quiet (though my compatriot at GreenCine Guru Reviews, Erin Donovan, was a fan) and the movie under consideration here. With Itty Bitty, Babbit lands midway between her other two in terms of a successful foray into the land of girls, women, lesbian love, and messages. She includes way too much frolicking, and I admit that I have a low tolerance for frolic (running, jumping, dancing, giggling and other dialog-free activities that make it look like the actors enjoyed the experience far more than us poor viewers). And literally every plot point in the movie (well, it is a rom-com: spoiler ahead) plays out to its happy conclusion, which simply makes it appear that nothing was ever truly at stake. Add to the mix dialog and plot contrivances that are too generic, and you come up with an off-and-on enjoyable time-waster.

Céline Sciamma's Water Lilies, on the other hand, does much more with less: less plot, characters, and a much less obvious message. A message is there, all right, but you must ferret it out. Synchronized swimming is the activity that starts the ball rolling, one that makes for an exotic and graceful backdrop to the story of a young girl in the process of finding out who she is and what she wants. Two other girls are involved, as well as a boy in whom two of the three girls have a strong interest. Adults are all but missing from the entire movie, and they are conspicuous in their absence -- raising yet another red flag about middle-class child-rearing in France.

While Sciamma's film touches on death (I'll certainly remember the line "Ceilings will never be the same"), its main topic of interest is the uses of friendship and sex, and the writer/director adds her own distinctive stamp to both the content and the style of films in the coming-of-age genre. The cinematography is sharp, the colors bright and the compositions smart and often striking. The music, too, is memorable, particularly at film's end, as one theme melds into another, much as the relationships and feelings on display do the same. Sciamma has brought together a wonderful cast of pivotal players. Her three girls and one boy (played by Pauline Acquart, Louise Blachère, Adele Haenel and Warren Jacquin) don't have a false moment among them. (You can view some of their auditions in the "extras" on this very well-transferred Koch-Lorber disc.)

Monday, September 8, 2008

A Fashion Icon/Iceberg Gets the Documentary Treatment

Following fashion (as in clothes for men and women), those who create it and others who report on it, for me is a very nearly worthless endeavor. So why -- when I was part of the small minority who found Unzipped, Douglas Keeve's documentary on Isaac Mizrahi, tiresome, overlong and... well, bordering on worthless -- would I waste more of my time on another "fashion" film like LAGERFELD CONFIDENTIAL -- just released to DVD today? Masochist? I hope not.

I'm more interested in Karl Lagerfeld (shown below, en avion) than I ever was in Mizrahi; the former has lasted a hell of lot longer for one thing. Also, I very much enjoyed a 2004 film by the Lagerfeld doc's director, Rodolphe Marconi, entitled The Last Day. What Marconi has come up with regarding Lagerfeld is surely no masterpiece, neither of investigation (despite the promise-of-sleaze title) nor of art. Other than some ravishing shots of Paris and environs, a few gowns, and some very pretty young men (Karl's taste clearly runs to tall, lean and long-haired), the look here is is mostly dull-as-dishwasher documentary.

It's when Marconi gets Lagerfeld to talk about his early life, his parents, and especially his notions of friendship, sex and love, that we see something of the man inside the legend. If what we see is not particularly pleasant, so what? Lagerfeld is a fellow who, it appears, has never wanted for a single material thing in his life, and privilege breeds contempt. Listening to the man explain his method of cutting long-time friends and business associates off at a moment's notice is to hear ice water take that final step into freezing.

So the movie does fascinate in fits and starts. Depending on your interest in the subject, I'd recommend it, and even more so, the writer/director's earlier work "The Last Day," with Gaspard Ulliel and Nicole Garcia. An even earlier film, Defense d'aimer (Love Forbidden) is not so hot: melodrama served up at a snail's pace. However, Dave Kehr in his NY Times review from 2003 found more to enjoy than I, so you might want to watch all three of Marconi's movies, if only to get a sense of his growth.