Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sundance: Pomegranates and Myrrh

I've been taking my time starting this review. Charlie and I saw the movie Pomegranates and Myrrh at Sundance last Thursday night.

Here's the thing. I like to consider myself a thoughtful, intellectual, liberal, educated sort of person who does stuff like listen to NPR for fun. And because of that, I feel like I should appreciate a film that puts a human story into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, right? So, I've been reluctant to say this, but the truth is, I found Pomegranates and Myrrh...well, a little boring. There. The truth is out.

I wanted to like this movie more than I did. It's about a woman who is a dancer with a troupe that specializes in traditional Palestinian dance. She gets married, and then her new husband is wrongfully imprisoned by Israeli soldiers and their land is threatened by "settlers" who pitch a tent and camp out with guns. The story follows how she and her family deal with this, and also how she continues to have dance in her life and refuses to allow herself to be defined by only her husband's imprisonment. It sounds pretty good, right? But in practice, I found my mind wandered, it just wasn't that engaging to me. And I left wondering if I just didn't have enough cultural knowledge to truly understand or appreciate it. Maybe that's true. Or maybe it just wasn't a very engaging movie.

I even felt guilty for not appreciating the dancing more. I often enjoy folk dancing. But the dancing in this movie, I must admit, didn't seem that great to me, and talk about feeling culturally insensitive! But, hey, since this is already a blog confessional, I'll admit that too. I can certainly appreciate the importance of maintaining one's cultural traditions, and that is even more important if you're in a culture under pressure like the one in this film. I get it. I support it...again, in theory. And so I guess overall, I found the movie disappointing, because I wanted it to be so much better than it was, and so I felt a bit let down.

Sundance: Endgame

Charlie and I saw Endgame last Wednesday night(the 21st), and I wasn't sure how I was going to like it. Sometimes films with heavy, serious topics bring me down, depending on the handling. But I was more than pleased to discover that I enjoyed this film a lot. It plays like a thriller, and keeps you on the edge of your seat as everything unfolds, which the director explained was his intent. He was there beforehand and then for the Q&A afterward, and he made the point that he wanted the audience to feel suspense and tension watching a story where they already knew the outcome, and I think he totally succeeded in that. Because as I was watching it, I was swept up in the mood of fear and unease of the time, wondering how it would all turn out okay, even though I KNEW that apartheid was going to end, Nelson Mandela would be released from jail, and the terrorism and violence in South Africa would subside (well, it's all relative, eh? South Africa continues to have a very high violent crime rate, including what the State Department's web page reports as the highest reported rape rate in the world.)

At any rate, the behind-the-scenes events that unfolded in this film, including secret talks held at a posh English manor house, were so interesting. I really had no idea that such things went on - and I knew about apartheid, I was paying attention, I cared that it ended. I had no idea that a company (Consolidated Gold) was so instrumental in bringing an end to apartheid, and that they started out doing so to protect their financial interests. The whole thing was really fascinating, and very well done. If, like me, you're thinking you might not want to deal with a heavy political film, I encourage you to do so. This one is totally worth it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sundance: Lulu und Jimi

On Tuesday night I headed out on my own to see the German film Lulu und Jimi, but I met up with my knitter friend Amy and a friend of hers, so I joined them. That is one of the nice things about Ogden Sundance - and Ogden itself. It's a small enough community, you're always seeing friends and familiar faces.

Lulu und Jimi is a brightly colored, sometimes surreal, sometimes kitchy, sometimes slightly grotesque (in the literary sense of the word) love story set in 1950's Germany, a blending of races, cultures, and post-war angst and desire for plenty. It was also clearly a lyrical and strange German ode to David Lynch. (This is a sentence I never would have imagined myself writing.) There are moments that seem like loving tribute to Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks, and a little internet research as well as the thanks to "David L." In the opening credits confirm that homage was the intent. Lord knows I loves me some David Lynch, and I really enjoyed this film as well. It is distinctive, and very much unlike other German films (though I usually enjoy German cinema, and also enjoy the opportunity to brush up on my German skills a bit).

Another balloted contender for the Best Foreign Drama category, I gave this one 3 out of 4 stars, though I wish I could give it something more like 3.5. If I had to rank it against the other two contenders I've seen, I'd put it in first place. Hell, the pink poodle alone probably would have done that. The costumes and sets are genius. This film is definitely worth seeing.

Sundance: The Greatest

Monday night my usual Sundance date had to work the night shift, and so I went to see The Greatest with my good friend, Erika.

I loved this film. I will go so far as to say I think it is now one of my favorite movies I've ever seen. Seriously. It is that good. I think I'd rank it up there with Secrets and Lies for me, with a similar universal and sometimes painful human insight and range of emotion, not to mention fantastic execution.

The writing is phenomenal. The actors are all pitch-perfect. The cinematography, the pacing, the direction, everything just works. And the story...the story is so good, so real. I found it almost haunting. I literally woke up thinking about it in detail the next morning, and it made me cry all over again. But the emotion isn't maudlin - it feels very authentic, and I think that's why it stuck with me so much.

The story is about the death of an eighten-year-old boy, and the ways in which his family and the girl who was with him when he died deal with the aftermath of that death. In a balanced way, it follows each of them in their grief, and the ways they deal with that grief, with one another, and with the other problems and tensions that existed in their lives which are overshadowed but not erased, and which must be dealt with too.

This is the first film for writer/director Shana Feste, and that's amazing to me - she seems so talented, to have sprung into film so fully formed like this. She was there with her producer, Lynette Howell, for Q&A afterward, and I was immediately struck by their relative youth when they walked on stage - which was inspiring and cool. It was a balloted film, part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition, and the first balloted film this festival that I've given 4 out of 4 stars, which I did without hesitation. I just really loved this film - I hope they sell it and make a lot of money and it really launches their filmmaking careers so they can make more great films like this. And when it comes to a theater near you, you should see it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sundance: Rudo y Cursi

Rudo y Cursi

Sunday afternoon Charlie and I headed to Sundance again, this time to see a Mexican film, Rudo y Cursi.  It's a comedy about a couple of goofy brothers who work on a banana ranch in Mexico and get discovered by a soccer talent scout.  

This was a fun movie, and definitely worth a watch.  We chose it because we like Sundance, and also because we like soccer, though there was surprisingly little actual soccer action in it.  The crowd was more mixed than the usual Sundance crowds - it seemed to also attract some people for the soccer, and some for the Spanish language.  (I kept thinking that they might be disappointed at times, because I didn't think they had the sound up loud enough, and then the audience that was reading subtitles probably kept laughing over the spoken parts.)    

The description says something about how you can take the brothers off the banana ranch, but you may not be able to take thew banana ranch out of the brothers.  And that's actually pretty apt.  It's a funny story, and one that is interestingly told, but you really do end up caring for the characters and their fates.  I believe some of the actors are fairly well-known in Mexico, and I can see this film being a pretty big commercial success in Mexico at least, a place where football is king, footballers are like gods, and there are no doubt thousands of small-town football players with their own big-time dreams.

As an entertaining side-note, this post was written almost entirely while stopped at red lights.  How is that for multi-tasking?

As I'm finally finishing this up and adding a photo so that I can post, it's Tuesday now, and I have two more films to blog about already -- Monday night I saw The Greatest, and tonight I saw Lulu und Jimi. So more posts to come soon.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sundance: Before Tomorrow and Louise-Michel

Last night we saw two more Sundance films. Just a quick post on both of them.

The first was Before Tomorrow.

Before Tomorrow is a drama that felt at times almost documentary-like. It was a slow-paced film filled with vast silences. One of the co-directors was there, a French-Canadian woman named Marie-Hélène Cousineau, and she spoke briefly of the film before it began and answered some questions afterwards. The basic plot follows an Inuit woman and her grandson in a tribe in northern Canada before the tribe came into contact with white people, though they meet with friends or relatives who talk about seeing a great ship appear and interacting with strange people. The main characters are a grandmother and grandson, played by an actual grandmother and grandson, who go to a close-by island for part of the summer with another elderly woman to dry fish for the tribe for the winter. The other elderly woman dies, and when the tribe fails to return for the grandmother and grandson, they set out on their own in a boat and discover that tragedy has struck (it appears in the form of smallpox or some other disease, likely brought by the strange ship), and all of their relatives have died. What follows in the film is the story of the strength of the grandmother, as she and her grandson survive on their own in isolation. The story itself seems interesting, the attention to detail in presenting the Inuit culture was interesting, and much of the filming was beautiful and barren. Yet it was a difficult film to watch -- it had such great stretches of silence, and at many times it felt as if your endurance and patience were being tested, just as the grandmother's and grandson's must have been. The one line that stuck with me was when the grandmother exclaimed, "When will this nightmare end?", and I must admit, watching the film felt a little bit like that. When will it end? How could it end well? How can I endure watching it if it just gets worse and worse? It is entirely in an Inuit language with subtitles, and it seems to be worth having seen, but at the same time, I don't know if I could recommend it -- hard to explain that. It wasn't exactly painful, but it also wasn't enjoyable. Really, for me, the most interesting parts were listening to Marie-Hélène Cousineau discuss it, how they filmed the appropriate scenes in the appropriate seasons, how they filmed with only traditional oil lamp light in the night scenes using HD, how in winter it was -40 C, etc. Anyway, not sure what else to comment on for the film. It was a balloted film, and I voted 2 out of 4 stars ("good") for it, because although I am glad that I saw it, and can see why it is important in terms of preserving Inuit language and traditions and culture, I can't say that I particularly enjoyed seeing it, it was a test of movie-going endurance, even though I suppose it helped me understand the world a little better.

The second film we saw was Louise-Michel, a French film that was also balloted.

This film do I put this? Well, it was so French. It is really difficult to imagine a film that is any more opposite from Before Tomorrow than this one, and so the contrast in seeing them both in one evening was marked. The Sundance site describes the film as a quixotic revenge comedy, the story of displaced factory workers who decide to put a hit out on the factory boss after their factory is shut down without notice. The idea is suggested by the odd character of Louise, and Louise finds another odd character Michel to enact the plan. The film follows what ensues, and I'd just suggest clicking on my link above and reading the description rather than me trying to re-create it less succinctly. This was definitely a black comedy, at times veering into the grotesque, at times absurd, and at times downright shocking -- I am sure I exclaimed, "Oh my God!" more than one time. The audience reaction to this film was amazing to compare to that of Before Tomorrow -- in Before Tomorrow, the audience's silence was palpable, it was uncanny, it was more silent than you can imagine several hundred people being -- the normal rustling and coughing and reactions were almost not present. It was as if the silence of the film's landscape and characters blanketed the audience as well, and wrapped them up in it. The reactions to Louise-Michel were loud, guffaws, exclamations, disbelieving laughter, and more. It too was a balloted film, and in the end, I gave it 3 out of 4 stars ("better") -- it was a totally strange, surreal, disturbed slice of life, but it made me laugh as well. Don't think it should win the audience choice prize either, but in a way completely unlike Before Tomorrow, it too was worth seeing.

ETA: Louise-Michel won "A World Cinema Special Jury Prize for Originality." Well, it certainly was original!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sundance: Mary and Max

I am going to interrupt my irregular, seldom-scheduled blogging about Academy Award winning films to blog about some other films that I'm watching, because I feel like it. Yes, I'm allowed to undermine the theme of my own blog, right?

It's that time of year again -- Sundance kicked off Thursday night, and though I have never actually attended any Sundance films in Park City (which is weird, but true -- I've just always wanted to avoid the zoo), I have the luxury of living in Ogden on my side, which is home to one of the most beautiful movie theaters there is (Peery's Egyptian Theater). For the last 12 years, the Egyptian has been used as a Sundance venue as well. The wonderful things about this include the fact that it's a pretty big theater compared to many used for Sundance (seats around 800), they give locals first dibs on Sundance tickets anyway, and even after that, the Ogden showings take a little while to fill up -- if they do fill up. And so it's easy to get tons of tickets to see amazing films every year right here in my little town, sometimes even premieres, or at least films where they bring in the writers or directors or producers or even some of the stars or documentary subjects to talk about the films before they start, or have Q&A sessions afterward. This year I have tickets to ten films between January 16th and 27th -- so I figured I'd try to blog about them here.

(I haven't blogged Best Picture films for a long time, although I watched It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Great Ziegfeld at the beginning of November, and then I watched The Life of Emile Zola last week. I'm sure I'll catch up one of these days...)

Mary and Max

So last night Charlie and I went to see our first Sundance film this year, an incredible film called Mary and Max. It was actually the film chosen to kick off the entire festival in Park City the night before, and I loved it. It's a stop animation or claymation film made by independent Australian filmmaker Adam Elliot (he as the writer/director and his producer Melanie Coombs were there to talk about it, and they were fantastic -- they said all filmmakers in Australia are independent, and the filmmaking community there is relatively small and doesn't have a lot of funding.)

I would have to say first of all that, though I only started attending Sundance within the last couple years, Mary and Max is my absolute favorite Sundance film I've seen so far. If you're reading this review, you should definitely click on that last link and visit their film website to get a feel for what the film is like. And if you get the chance to go see it in the theater, you should go. If you don't get that chance, then you should definitely rent it on DVD. The film was engrossing from the very opening shots. It's an entirely "in camera" animation -- no computer tricks, just five years of work, including over one year of filming at a rate of 4 seconds per animator per day, everything created with painstaking and loving attention to quirky detail, from the individual drops of water created using what amounted to cases of water-based sexual lubricant (!) to the plasticine model working typewriter. The musical score and the tonal color palettes give the movie a very unique mood and feel -- it isn't a happy, animated kids' fluff project, it's a poignant film for adults that makes you laugh, makes you uncomfortable at times, makes you cry, and just generally explores human imperfection, friendship, and acceptance. The basic premise starts off with a lonely, ostracized eight-year-old girl, Mary Dinkle, who lives in Australia, and who one day rips a corner out of a New York City phonebook and starts up a pen friendship by writing a letter to a complete stranger. The stranger turns out to be Max Horovitz, a lonely, middle-aged Jewish man living in New York, who is equally friendless, obese, and struggling to live in a world he does not understand. The film follows the two through 20 years, as they exchange letters and their lives deeply affect one another despite their great distance and seeming disparity. Truly, the word poignant gets thrown around a lot in a rather meaningless way, but this film really earns it. It's the very best kind of story -- both touching and ridiculous, just like life itself, and when the credits roll, you feel like you actually understand life just a little bit more. I will add that it's so incredibly well done in every element that when the credits rolled, that was the first time I noticed or remembered throughout the entire course of the film that it was actually voiced by famous people with recognizable voices -- Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Barry Humphries (i.e. Dame Edna!), to name a few. For the entire film, I was completely absorbed into the world that Elliot created -- usually in animated films, I am always very much aware of the actor behind the voice if it's someone well known -- and there are numerous examples, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, etc.

Mary and Max is a film that deserves to be described as truly touching, and I only wish the word weren't so painfully overused and could really convey what I mean. I definitely want to see it again, and will likely buy it when it is released on DVD. I hope it gets picked up for a US release and that people will give it the chance it deserves, to quote the film, "warts and all."