Tuesday, September 27, 2011

An Important Film: Give Up Tomorrow

It's easy for cinephiles to say that a film is "important" and a great many of them are, but that importance just needs to be put into perspective. Films can drive philosophical and artistic discussions and trends into new territories, but how often is one imperative viewing? I have an addition to that rare category, a documentary called Give Up Tomorrow. It's not a "must-see" in the oft-used sense, but literally a film that you must see if given the chance.

Set amidst old world vestiges of colonialism, classism and backdoor politics in the Philippines, Give Up Tomorrow rivetingly exposes a Kafkaesque contemporary world of corruption and injustice. In a murder case that ends a nation’s use of capital punishment, but fails to free an innocent man, two grieving mothers personify the chasms – both nightmarish in scope – that divide two families and, by extension, a nation.

The documentary tells the story of Paco LarraƱaga, an innocent man who has been in prison for 14 years. Much of the first half of the film provides overwhelming evidence of Paco's innocence in regards to the heinous charges of kidnapping, rape and murder, but that evidence also goes far to expose unbridled corruption, conspiracy and indifference to human rights that is present in the case. This culminates in a circus of a trial and a bogus conviction followed by a vindictive appeal on behalf of the victims' mother to upgrade Paco and his co-accused's life-sentences to death (which she wins due to connections in the country's supreme court).

The latter portion of the film presents Paco's struggle for life and liberation and the unbelievable complications in freeing the man despite his widely-believed innocence. The efforts of his family, friends and the international human rights community have brought him to much better conditions in a Spanish prison, but no conditions behind bars are acceptable for a man, who, by rights, should be allowed to walk free.

Give up Tomorrow is a massive achievement in investigative journalism - of which seven years went into the making of the film. It is also a continuing cause to be fought. You'll find the filmmakers, Michael Collins and Mary Syjuco, actively pursuing Paco's cause outside screenings - giving audience members the chance to sign petitions and send well-wishes. For them, this is more than a film, it is a rallying cry for human rights and a plea for the life of an innocent man. Seeing this documentary is important because corruption and injustice thrive on shadows and casting light upon such things makes their existence that much harder.

See Give Up Tomorrow wherever and whenever you can. Visit their site,"like" their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter. For my money, it's the best and most affecting documentary you'll see this year.  

Monday, September 26, 2011

Retro Trailers: The Thing

Inevitably, there's going to be a lot of talk about this John Carpenter classic with the prequel (also titled The Thing) being released next month. I'm not going to rag on the update because, who knows, it might be good; I'll only say that I doubt it will be even remotely close to holding a candle to the 1982 version.

Scientists in the Antarctic are confronted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of the people that it kills. 

The Thing is easily one of the best horror films ever made. It features some great performances from Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley (that's right, Wilford Brimley!) and the craziest practical monster effects ever attempted.

*On Friday, Oct.14, the Times Cinema in Milwaukee will be doing a late-screening of the film. I'll be there and I would highly recommend it for just about anyone.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Now Playing - Drive

Being an avid cinema goer and someone who chose to get an education in film, I think it's fair to say that I've developed some fairly discerning tastes in regard to the medium. This can, at times, be somewhat of a curse. Sure, I probably enjoy a majority of the films I see, but not a lot really knocks me off my feet. That being said, there is an upside to being a film snob; when something comes along that is truly great and I mean truly great, the feeling of intense satisfaction that follows is like electricity. I saw Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive yesterday evening and I'm still feeling the residual effects of its greatness.

Such glowing reviews are difficult to write. I find that the films I love are the ones I have the hardest times describing off the bat. My enjoyment of most viewing experiences is often interrupted by the movies themselves - their plot holes, inconsistencies, poor performances, exposition etc.. Critical minds are trained to be alert, but I've found that the best films don't trigger it nearly as much as bad ones. I was so thoroughly engrossed with and invested in Drive - from the opening frames to the closing credits - that I didn't really think all that much on it. A day later and I'm still just so pleased with my experience that I have only now started to really think about the specifics (and will likely continue to for some time after I'm done writing this review).

Praise in these cases can be difficult, especially when considering the limitations of words to truly capture what the art of film presents. I so badly want to see Drive a second time, so I can understand my feelings toward it a little better, but I'll try to work a few things out as I write.

Here's the brief synopsis: A Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a wheelman discovers that a contract has been put on him after a heist gone wrong.  

Drive is a lot about style and a lot about character. The film opens up with some great 80's-esque music and pink font. Despite not taking place in that era, the film continues to use music of that sort done by various contemporary artists, while reinforcing the not-so-period aesthetic with dated details - such as Gosling's trademark gold scorpion jacket.

Gosling has said in previous interviews that Drive is his superhero film and it's easy to see why. The jacket and, to some extent, the track "A Real Hero" by College serve as themes for the unnamed protagonist (in the credits he's referred to simply as 'Driver'). Despite being almost frustratingly quiet and reserved, Driver is almost never without his ostentatious jacket, which continues to accumulate blood, dirt and wear as the film progresses. We know very little about the character, except for some momentary and vague exposition by Shannon, his boss, played by Bryan Cranston.

The Driver is something of an archetype in the fashion of Eastwood's "Man With No Name" character. He has a trademark outfit, speaks very little and most importantly is a master of violence. But, in this case, that aspect is somewhat more unexplainable. As far as we know, the Driver isn't some experiment a la Bourne Identity, or an experienced fighter/violent criminal (as far as we know). He's a blank slate. The film is less about who he is than his actions and his motivations for them. Yes, the film's title is an obvious reference to his profession as a stunt/getaway driver, but a lot of Drive is about the character's own drive.

The catalyst for his motivations begins with meeting his neighbors, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio. The development of his relationship with them is reserved, never hyperbolic or blistering with passion, but it's sweet and it becomes very apparent that he cares deeply for both of them without a whole lot of sex and emotion. The heist that goes bad isn't something he will profit off of, it's being done to help the recently-released husband/father out with some debts he owes. Driver is concerned that the thugs will come after Irene and Benicio, so he agrees to do the job.

When everything goes wrong, he is left to tie up loose ends that could somehow end up at Irene's door. Rarely does he wield a gun in these altercations, which results in some severe brutality on his behalf by way of more creative methods.

One scene in particular that struck me is when he and Irene share an elevator with a hit man of sorts. This is the stage of their only on-screen embrace, which is followed by the brutal beating and skull crushing of the hit man. The kiss almost seems like a 'goodbye', not because he is afraid the other man might get the best of him, but because his necessary violent actions might irrevocably alter her opinion of him. Despite this, despite the fact that it might tarnish his image in her eyes, he does what needs to be done to keep her safe. As he stands over the fallen man, now without a head at all, he turns to Irene, who has left the elevator - her face is blank and she is horrified - and the door closes between them. (Fun fact: Refn was advised by Gaspar Noe on the skull crushing. Noe's brutal 2002 film Irreversible features a rather infamous skull caving scene).

Such is the nature of many of Drive's scenes; one might be short or at least is the action within, but volumes could be written on their details, nuances implications.

It's no surprise that Gosling is great in this because the man is a brilliant actor, but his performance still further solidifies this image. Unlike last years passionate, fiery performance in Blue Valentine, Gosling is here a man with little emotion, but with rage and fury boiling beneath the surface, made only apparent by fist-clenching and intense silence. Since he was criminally overlooked for an Oscar nomination last year, I would love for him to get one here as it is more than deserved.

As for the film's other players: Mulligan is cuter and more likeable than I've found her in anything else. Irene is herself a somewhat reserved character, which required her to convey her emotions physically, which she's done quite well. Ron Perlman is a joy (as usual) in his role as an obnoxious wannabe (though still dangerous) mobster. His associate, the even more dangerous Bernie Rose, is excellently portrayed by the perfectly cast Albert Brooks. Bernie is intimidating and mean (he's the second most violent man in the movie), but he doesn't revel in his villainous actions, in fact he seems to approach them reluctantly - as unfortunate acts of necessity.

Wrapping up - it's rare when I find a film that resonates so completely with what I want to see in the medium. To me, Drive is a near-perfect film; so good it makes me want to cry. It's the best film of the year so far (and I have a hard time imagining that any will be better). Going even further - Drive undoubtedly belongs in the company of this century's most powerful films.


I'd See That - Trailers

Three trailers for upcoming films that look pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good.

1. Knuckle:

An epic 12-year journey into the brutal and secretive world of Irish Traveler bare-knuckle fighting. This film follows a history of violent feuding between rival clans. 

Sounds crazy. The film, by first time director Ian Palmer, has a December release date, but has been playing at festivals like Helsinki and Sundance. Knuckle impressively holds a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with 15 reviews. Also, rumor has it that HBO has designs on turning this into a series (whether fiction or non is a mystery though).

2. J. Edgar:

As the face of law enforcement in America for almost 50 years, J. Edgar Hoover was feared and admired, reviled and revered. But behind closed doors, he held secrets that would have destroyed his image, his career and his life.

Eastwood and DiCaprio working together on a film about one of America's most notorious and peculiar icons? Sounds like a home run to me. Opens 11/9/11.

3. Wuthering Heights:

Based on the Emily Bronte classic - A poor young English boy named Heathcliff is taken in by the wealthy Earnshaw family where he develops an intense relationship with his young foster sister, Cathy. Based on the classic novel by Emily Bronte. 

Sure, this trailer looks interesting, but the real reason it appears on here is the director - Andrea Arnold. This is her 3rd feature film after Red Road and Fish Tank, which were both dynamite. Arnold is emerging as one of the premiere female director working today. Hopefully, she keeps the streak going with Wuthering. The film has a November UK release (nothing set for US yet) and currently holds a 100% on RT with 6 reviews.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Now Playing - Contagion

There's a lot to like about Soderbergh's most recent film. For my money, it might be the best film he's made since The Limey. The cast and their performances are mostly excellent. The score is fitting and unique. It breeds paranoia without force-feeding it and is highly respectable and without much hyperbole in its depiction of a world-wide pandemic.

The latter quality is what sticks out most to me as to why I enjoyed Contagion. Going in, I was under the assumption that this would be more of an apocalyptic thriller about a virus with the potential to eradicate the human race and while this appeals to me, it's something that's been done before. Films about the pre and post apocalypse are a dime a dozens these days and in light of Contagion's restraint, it's easy to see that such dramatics are not necessary.

The Spanish Flu of 1918 (which is referenced often in the film) was intensely devastating, estimated at killing more people than the bubonic plague. The death toll figure sited in the film is 1% (which I'll just assume is accurate) of Earth's population, which isn't a world-ending event, but still incredibly frightening. This is the type of event that Contagion portrays. And it's scary because this feels a lot closer to reality than the end of the world. Without hyping up figures, people still panic (including the government), body bags still run out, as well as food, medicine and room to treat the sick.

Contagion is most effective right off the bat, depicting with frenetic urgency the measures taken to control and figure out the novel and deadly virus. I feel like, in any other film, there would be a ton of focus on finding a cure before innocent protagonists are afflicted. Things are a bit slower moving here. Cures for brand-new viruses do take some time, it would seem, and the first challenge is to simply grow it in a lab, which isn't a certainty to begin with. In the meantime, people die, which includes children and seemingly important characters. Around the time of Paltrow's skin-peeling autopsy, I imagine the audience will figure out that they're watching a film that doesn't shrink away from the grim.

 The film shows us multiple sides of the story; the government/CDC response (Ehle, Fishburne, Winslet), a family touched by the virus (Damon, Paltrow), a World Health Organization representative abroad (Cotillard), and a conspiracy theorist/opportunistic blogger (Law). For the most part, these stories are well-balanced, though I feel that Cotillard's WHO character is somewhat forgotten for the latter half of the film. Each story has its interesting elements, though I'll admit that the CDC, science-y parts were more captivating that anything else. I didn't care so much about Damon's relationship with his daughter, but the glimpses at rioting and instability that are part of his arc are very interesting and startling. Law's blogger character becomes more intriguing as more is revealed about him, though I'm somewhat disappointed at how his whole story plays out.

As I mentioned above, some characters are given less screen time as the film moves along. This makes me long for a film an hour longer, with more room to cover the many relevant facets of such a horrific outbreak. However, I can't say for sure how a 3hr Contagion would actually turn out. In and around its final act, the film's pace noticeably fizzles, which makes sense considering the greater amounts of time elapsing within the story, but that shouldn't result in the sudden drop-off in tension and urgency that occurs. That's not to say that what's on screen is all bad, it's not at all, but it's almost like the "all clear" is given a bit too early, so the audience is left riding a somewhat more peaceful, yet somewhat less enjoyable, wave to the very end. 

But on the overall, a pretty good film - one of the better films I've seen all year, in fact - complete with some noteworthy and skilled performances. I'm just left a little disappointed by the feeling that Contagion could have been a little better, which is to say it could have been great.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Retro Trailers: The Silence of the Lambs

My selection for this edition of Retro Trailers is inspired by the awful news that a "Hannibal" TV series is currently in development. Reportedly, this would deal with Lecter's early career as a serial killer and his run-ins with FBI agent Will Graham - the protagonist of Red Dragon. 

This series is being bled dry. I don't have any real opposition to Ridley Scott's Hannibal or Brett Ratner's Red Dragon (it's probably the best work of his sad career), but the Hannibal Rising prequel was an abominable mess and I think it's about time we put the beast to rest.

Frankly, Lecter was never more interesting than he was in his ten minutes of screentime in The Silence of the Lambs. Now 20 years old, the film could be called one of the first classics to come out of the 90's. It also represents some of the best work ever by many involved - onscreen and off.

A young FBI cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Now Playing - The Guard

A few years back, I decided to watch Martin McDonagh's feature debut In Bruges on demand without really knowing much about it. I was pretty impressed. Last night, again with little information, decided to go see his brother, John Michael McDonagh's, debut film The Guard. Again, I was impressed. These brother know what they're doing.

There's a sense, while you're watching The Guard, that you've seen this all before - the clever/funny criminals, the unlikely pairing of cops, the crass police man with a peculiar moral code - but rarely is it done this well and with the talent involved.

Brendan Gleeson is outstanding in the title role and a great part of what makes this film work. The plot of the film involves a supposed drug-smuggling ring operating in and around Sgt. Boyle's (Gleeson's) coastal, Irish town. This is what brings FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) to the area. However, this aspect of the story could almost be called a sub-plot. The bad guys do some bad things and pop up every now and then, but the life of Sgt. Boyle is what the film focuses on primarily. His mother is dying, he enjoys the company of escorts, he's foul-mouthed with an offensive sense of humor, he takes drugs, drinks liberally, never married or had kids and might have, at one point, been an Olympic swimmer. These are the snap-shots we see of his life and they're infinitely more interesting than the crime aspect.

There's a lot of good humor in the film as well. I laughed often at the things Boyle would say in his exchanges with Everett and even harder at Everett's unamused reactions. As the straight-man, operating in a completely foreign land, Cheadle performs admirably, playing great opposite Gleeson's confident, savvy, wise-cracker. The three villains, played by Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong, and David Wilmot have some great interactions with each other and with Gleeson. As Gleeson stands over a dying Wilmot, chiding him as people often do to villains on film, Wilmot blurts "don't mock me!" in a pathetically humorous fashion that typifies the brand of comedy you'll find in The Guard.

The film is relatively action-less until the finale, but that's not a problem, especially considering that the conclusion - Sgt. Boyle's last stand - is pretty awesome. The credits sequence that follows, featuring John Denver's classic "Leaving on Jet Plane", is darn-near perfect as well.

Apart from everything I've mentioned above, the film looks great, embracing the dark, gray aesthetic of the area, giving it the semi-unpolished look of a 70's British crime thriller. However, as an American, I had a hard time understanding some of what was being said by the heavier-accented characters in the film, Gleeson included (Gleeson most of all actually). But that's not really something I can fault the film with though, I'm just saying that when I watch it on DVD, I'll take advantage of the captioning option.


Casey Jones: The Movie?

You might remember Casey Jones - the hockey-masked side character in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise (played on film by Elias Koteas) - well, now he has his own movie, apparently.

The fan-film of sorts, directed by Polaris Banks - an editor from Arlington Texas - will premiere on Sept. 17 at CaseyJonesTheMovie.com. The title role is played by Polaris' brother Hilarion Banks and frankly, it looks pretty good. There's no dialogue in the trailer, but it shows off some high-quality footage of Jones getting his shit together and messing people up. I might have to check this one out.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

On DVD Impressions

As we near the latter quarter of the year, more and more films from early 2011 are being released on DVD. Let's take a  quick look at a few of those that I've caught in recent weeks.

 Sucker Punch:

What a joke of a film! Terrible from the onset. This is less a film than a bunch of incoherent music videos for some of the worst covers I've ever heard. I'm not even one who habitually hates on Zach Snyder. Personally, I enjoy his three previous live-action features (though I have reservations about all of them). The man has certainly developed a particular style, and one that is intensely concentrated in Sucker Punch, complete with the above-mentioned musical sequences, high-contrast, glossy imagery and stylized violence. This is something that needs to be culled ASAP if Snyder wants to avoid being lynched by rabid Superman fans. No more original ideas from this director, I say.

The Conspirator:

In this film, director Robert Redford is able to effectively visualize some important moments in history - most notably the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He is able to keep up with the Civil War aesthetic, which is impressive and engrossing throughout, which is sad considering that the story is not. Perhaps my liberal sensibilities are not as heightened as I once thought, but I fail to see the notion of grand injustice this film attempts to perpetuate. To me, Mary Surratt seems guilty of at least some form of conspiracy. Yes, the deck is stacked against her and the game is unfairly rigged to guarantee her conviction, but that doesn't make her innocent. To presume that she was entirely so, even from the biased depiction of history inherent in the film, seems naive. Some of the films performances were decent. McAvoy is on target as usual and even Kevin Kline gives an uncharacteristically stern (and solid) performance as Edwin Stanton, but Robin Wright's oft- lauded performance is rather annoying and coldly inhuman.


James Gunn's most recent feature didn't receive a ton of acclaim upon its release earlier this year and I get that, it's a pretty strange film. However, I found it to be darn-near fantastic. Not really being a big fan of Rainn Wilson, I was apprehensive about catching this flick, but I'm glad I did. I found that Super avoided major superhero/vigilante film cliches, while also embracing the genre.

Wilson's character isn't someone with your typical illusions of grandeur brought on by pop culture or the superhero fiction he attempts to emulate. In fact, he's delightfully ignorant of these things. His hallucinations are a gift from god - the delusions of old - a point that's driven home by the banner/mantra hung in his home "some of his children are chosen". The Crimson Bolt, (his innocuous superhero moniker) wavers momentarily in the faith that what he is doing is right, but returns to it with full fervor, even if the audience will not. He then can continue on to the goosebump-inducing final showdown with his nemesis, Kevin Bacon (who, while villainous, is vastly different from his First Class antagonist), where he spews forth the distinctions between good and evil as he sees them.

The film doesn't pull any punches; it's incredibly violent, but never in a way that allows you to take it for granted. The blows in the movie result in realistic injury, such as crushed bones and holes in the head. It's a dark film featuring some dark humor, (thankfully) never really encroaching on the quirkiness implied by the trailers and Ellen Page's involvement. Page is actually pretty okay in the film, if just a little over-the-top. I might have enjoyed a little exposition on how her character got to be a peculiar as she is. Michael Rooker and Nathan Fillion also appear in the film to its benefit.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams:

Alright, so this one isn't on DVD yet, but it's On Demand via Time Warner for those interested. The caves that are the subject of this film are not something that I came into the film knowing a whole lot about. So, as less ignorant people might imagine, I was blown away by what I saw. France's Chauvet Cave is an unbelievable marvel. When someone says "cave drawings", my mind produces images of crudely scrawled stick figures and animal icons, but the truth of it couldn't be any different. What Herzog captures are some of the most beautiful renderings ever put down; art to rival anything found in the same country's Louvre. I'm disappointed I wasn't able to see this in 3D as I believe it might have had an actual point here in bringing the cave to life. Apart from the beauty captured in this film, Herzog adds an extra dimension intellectually by bringing about legitimately thought-provoking notions about the human relation to art and its importance in defining who we are.