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Archive for April, 2010

Newport Beach Film Festival Day 5

On Tuesday I first caught up with the documentary “Warrior Champions” from directors Brent Renaud and Craig Renaud. The documentary follows four paraplegic Iraq War veterans who are training to compete in the 2008 Paralympic games in Beijing. Each of the four different athletes have a distinct personality, which makes them come compelling people to watch.

The documentary is an interesting look at a process that I never knew existed. I’m sure we have all heard of the Olympic games, but I bet most people have never heard of the Paralympic. The filmmakers follow the four former soldiers through their training to making it to the Paralympic games in Beijing. You can see the real happiness and pride these soldiers are feeling in representing their country at the Olympics. The documentary makes you feel like you really can do anything in your life.

“NoNames” from writer-director Kathy Lindboe is a well-intentioned, but mess of a directorial debut. The film follows Kevin (James Badge Dale), a young man stuck in a small, rural Wisconsin town. He is deeply connected to a group of friends, but they are holding him back. Kevin is at a cross roads in his life and he has to make a choice whether to move on or stay in town with his life long loyal friends.

The film wants us to connect with these group of friends that Kevin relies on. But I’m afraid there are far too many of them for us to really care about them. Many are poorly sketched out as characters and some are given useless subplots that go nowhere. There were so many characters that I don’t even think some of these characters names are even mentioned. Some of these friends and their subplots should have been eliminated and the director should have concentrated on a smaller group of friends and given them some depth.

Many of the scenes are poorly paced and awkwardly staged. After Kevin beats up the man who raped his girlfriend, CJ (Gillian Jacobs), the intensity that the scene is supposed to carry just falls flat. The rapist is a poorly conceived antagonist who only appears in the film when it’s convenient to move the story along. The scene that propels the film to its climax is so ridiculous and unbelievable, I couldn’t believe what I was watching.

I understand that the director was trying to show us a realistic, touching tale of friendship, but the script needed another pass in order for it to be just that.

“Docuhebag” from director Drake Doremus first caught my attention when it played earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. This is a very funny film that surprises you. You think the story is going somewhere when it first starts, but ends up going somewhere else. Funny performances from the two leads, Andrew Dickler and Ben York Jones, playing estranged brothers. I’ll have a full review up later in the week.

Newport Beach Film Festival Day 4

On Monday I caught up with a documentary from Chico Colvard called “Family Affair.” The documentary opens with a story of a young Colvard accidently shooting his sister with a shot-gun while he was trying to imitate the TV show “The Rifleman”. As it turns out, this act of violence would probably be the least damaging thing to happen to Colvard’s family.

Colvard films this documentary using home video camera’s, so the documentary has the feel of a very intimate home movie. Colvard films his three sisters who were sexually and physical abused by their father. When he sees how his three sisters react warmly to their father at a family event, it sets Colvard off on a quest to fully flesh out the troubled past of his family.

The film documents how each of the three sisters are facing problems even in their adult age. One sister is going through cancer and loses custody of her child. Another one is a diagnosed schizophrenic, and the sister who was shot by Colvard at young age, is still facing medical troubles to this day due to the shooting. What makes each of these stories interesting and engaging is how real the sisters come across on-screen. They are not playing to the camera, when they talk about their abuse we feel it comes from a very real and disturbing place within them.

The documentary doesn’t give us any easy answers about why their father sexually abused them, except for one scene of a psychiatrist offering an explanation, which seems unnecessary. Whatever answers we get out of this documentary are not easy ones for us to understand. One of the daughters says she use to enjoy when her father would molest her. It is these kinds of reveals that surprises the viewer as the film moves toward its conclusion. This is a personal documentary that shows us the real life consequences of living with abuse within a family.

The other film I caught on Monday was an intriguing film from Russia, “House of Sun.” The film is set in the height of the hippie movement in the 60’s and 70’s. Sasha (Svetlana Ivanova) is a child of Russian diplomats who becomes entranced by the hippie lifestyle. Instead of going on a trip her parents set up, she ends up running away with the hippies and ends up falling in love with the leader of the hippies, who is known as The Sun.

Let me first say that I’m not sure exactly what happened in the film. This may have to do with the poorly colored subtitles that at time made it difficult to read the subtitles. The ending of the film is a bit of mystery, but I think the director, Garik Sukachyov, intentionally does this. The plot of the film is really second to the style. The film has a great energy to it that represents the spirit of the times. Though the film is in Russian, the film uses a soundtrack made up of American pop and rock songs from the 60’s and 70’s that instills a lot of energy into a given scene.

The strength of the film is the visceral experience it gives the viewers. I was sitting back in the theater and just went along with some beautifully stylized scenes, like when Sasha and The Sun are about to make love, a ray of light comes shining down on them. The film defiantly captures the crazy spirit of the times, but I don’t know exactly what was going on up on-screen.

Newport Beach Film Festival Day 2 & 3

April 26, 2010 5 comments

On Saturday I was only able to catch up on one film. The film I saw was “Burning Palms”, written and directed by Christopher B. Landon. The film was apparently sold out the night before, so they added a second viewing. I decided to see what the bid deal was, and I was sadly disappointed. The film wasted 105 minutes of my life that I will never get back.

A write-up of the plot describes the film as “a subversive comedy satirizing well-known stereotypes of Los Angeles neighborhoods.” Honestly, 4 out of the 5 stories that make up this film, have nothing to with Los Angeles. The location is not important to these stories. The only story that relates to Los Angeles is the West Hollywood story about a gay couple adopting an African child.

The movie tells these stories in kind of a comic book form. There is no good reason for this choice, other than to break down each story into a chapter inside the comic book. The stories range from the comedic, serious and the horrific. None of the five stories work at all. The first one about a woman worried about her fiance’s close relationship with his daughter, and the one about a group of kids holding a trial, don’t work at all. The second story about a woman putting her finger somewhere during sex runs on way too long. The ending we see coming a mile away. The story about a gay couple adopting an African child relies on easy stereotypes for its humor. The last story starring Zoe Saldana as a rape victim aims to be disturbing, but falls flat.

None of the stories are interconnected at all, expect for Shannen Doherty’s sad appearance in two of the stories as a psychiatrist. I wanted to walk out of this movie halfway through. I stuck in there because I felt I could only fairly judge the film if I saw the entire thing. Now that I have seen the entire film, I can say that the film is not interesting, and has nothing to say about Los Angeles, or anything else at all.

On Sunday I caught a French film, “7 Days”, from director Daniel Grou. The film is a disturbing look at the limits a person will go to exact revenge. The film opens with a couple’s child found raped and murdered. A man, played by Martin Dubreuil, is arrested for the crime, and the father, played by Claude Legault, captures the man and slowly tortures him for seven days. On the last day he will kill the man and turn himself over to the cops. The police, lead by Remy Girard, search for Legault before he becomes a killer.

The film is not afraid to show us the graphic violence that the father commits against his child’s rapist. However, the film does not revel in the violence. The father has to get drunk to torture the man, and he looks to take no joy when he committing these acts. Legault spends most of his time in silence as he tortures this man in a cabin in the woods. The film shows us the two ways of dealing with loss represented by Legault and the police chief Girard, who lost his wife in a shooting.

I think towards the end the film does starts to lose focus and enters a realm of fantasy that takes you out of the realism the director has crafted. The film is a tough one to watch, but it’s a revenge film that rises above the torture porn of recent Hollywood films.

I also caught a feature entitled “Alamar” from Mexico, by Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio. The film focuses on a child, Natan, who is half Italian and half Mexican. His parents can no longer get along with one another, and before Natan leaves to Italy with his mother, he spends some time with his father in the Mexican coral reef.

The film has no plot at all. I was a bit disappointed because I went in expecting a feature with a narrative. The only form of plot or narrative that happens is in the beginning when we learn of Natan’s family situation. I’m not sure the film falls into the documentary class as well. The film kind of defies easy classification. The film simply follows Natan as he goes with his father and grandfather hunting fish on the coral reef.

The film is a beautiful look at a way of life. We simply see the culture happening on-screen. We see their living quarters, how they make food, and the strong bond of family that this culture revels in. A scene of Natan and his father playfully wrestling around shows genuine affection between father and son. I will admit that the story did get a bit tedious. How many times can I see them catch a fish? Still, the film is a great look at a culture that I wasn’t aware of.

Categories: Diatribe, Review

Newport Beach Film Festival 2010 Day 1

Yesterday was the first full day of the 11th annual Newport Beach Film Festival. This was also my first film festival so I was very excited to attend. The first stop of the day was a collection of short films from Canada, named Oh Canada. This wasn’t my first choice, I had trouble finding the place to get my press pass, and this collection of shorts was the only playing right away.

Oh Canada was a series of six short films from Canada, though I was bit disappointed that not a single one was uniquely Canadian. I found the collection of shorts to be fine, none of them blew me away. One of the more interesting shorts was one called “Remote” by filmmaker Marc Roussel. The story focuses on a man finding out his television is a link to 30 years in the past. The premise is intriguing, but the short is almost ruined by the male lead, who is a bore to watch.

“Letter Home” by director Ken Pak is a story about the Iraq war and its connections to the past. It starts off absorbingly enough with a voice over reading a letter over an old super 8 millimeter film footage of a family. The filmmaker needed to pick a better voice over actor because the southern accent that narrates the first half of the short is obviously bad. The bad music choice of an acoustic guitar song at the end kind of ruins whatever pathos the story was going for.

“Man v. Minivan” by Spencer Maybee, is about groom having seconds thoughts an hour before his wedding. The lead played by Marc Bendavid is very good, but whatever catharsis the story was going for at the end was not earned. It feels false.

“American Jihadist” from director Mark Claywell is a documentary about Isa Abdullah Ali, an African-American man who converted to Islam and fought around the world for Islāmic causes. The story traces Ali’s life story and the recent history of Islāmic turmoil around the world. As a result of his actions around the world, Ali has has been wanted by the U.S Government.

Isa Abdullah Ali is a fascinating person to watch. The director first introduces him as this menacing fixture, and by the end Ali is telling us that he really doesn’t hate anyone. He comes across as to preachy by the end of the film spouting these obviously rehearsed phrases. I did feel that Ali’s personal story gets lost at times when the documentary cuts to telling the history of Islāmic turmoil.

During the Q & A period the director said the documentary was going to be cut down to fit a hour broadcast on television. When thinking back on the film, it does feel like one of those one hour documentaries that airs on the History Channel. The film did give me a new perspective on how one views the term Jihadist. It’s a good history lesson as well.

“Solitary Man” from directors Brian Koppleman and David Levien is Michael Douglas’ best performance since 2000’s “Wonder Boys.” Michael Douglas is playing the Michael Douglas part that we have become familiar with, a smooth womanizer type. But he is so skilled at playing this role we just sit back and entertained. Douglas is great playing this man who just wont change. I’ll have a full review up later, but this is terrific vehicle to remind us how great Michael Douglas can be.

Kick-Ass is an Assault of Good Entertainment

April 19, 2010 1 comment

I heard a lot about this film months before its release. The hype on the internet surrounding the film was so huge, I was wondering if it could live up to it. Now after watching the film, it’s safe to say that the film is a first-rate piece of entertainment.

“Kick-Ass”, the new film from director Matthew Vaughn, is based on the comic book by Mark Millar about Dave Liewsiki (Aaron Johnson), a regular teenager who decides to become a superhero. While his first attempts at being a masked hero don’t play out as he planned, he eventually becomes an internet sensation after protecting a man from gang violence. Kick-Ass, his superhero alias, eventually gets caught up in a rivalry involving a mob boss played by Mark Strong and a crime fighting father daughter team, played by Nicolas Cage and Chole Moretz.

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the film’s violence, specifically the violent actions committed by 13-year-old Chole Moretz, who plays Hit Girl. She cusses and kills people like a pro. Moretz steals the film and she does make you believe that she can really kick-ass. I can understand why people are turned off by her actions and how she is treated in the film. I think it didn’t bother me as much because the violence is so over-the-top and ridiculous I couldn’t treat any of it seriously.

The film both pokes fun at superhero themes and embraces them. The entire production design of New York City in the movie has a comic book look to it. When Johnson takes out his Kick-Ass costume, which is actually a scuba suit, the music swells to a superhero theme that reminds you of something out of “Superman”. The film at first does add a bit of reality to the superhero film. Johnson’s first attempt at being a hero ends badly. I thought the film would continue to add a bit of reality to the genre, but towards the later part of the picture, it fully embraces the overblown violence of some of today’s superhero films. Any notion of reality is gone. Though I have to admit that some of these actions sequences were riveting to watch.

The performances all around are compelling to watch. Aaron Johnson is a relatable presence as our protagonist. He has the potential to be a big star in the future. I look forward to him playing a young John Lennon in the film “Nowhere Boy” coming out this fall. Nicolas Cage is a natural playing the strange father of Hit Girl, who instills in his daughter the importance of a gun over a doll. Cage has long been a superhero fan and his broken up speech patter when he’s in costume is hilarious to watch. Mark Strong, who continues to deliver compelling work in almost every film he is in, continues the streak here as the story’s mob boss.

My advice would be to ignore what the critics and fanboys are saying about “Kick-Ass” and just experience it yourself. It is a thoroughly enjoyable good time at the movies and presents a more interesting take on the superhero film than were use to seeing.

3 1/2 stars

Divorce Yourself from Date Night

Tina Fey and Steve Carell are very funny TV stars, who probably would combine to form a very funny film. It looks like we are going to have to wait for that funny film, because this film isn’t it. It’s always bad when the funniest moments from a film are in the outtake reel during the closing credits.

Carell and Fey play a boring married couple named Phil and Claire Foster who make it a point to go out for at least one night a week. One night they decide to go out to the city and try to get in an exclusive restaurant. Unable to get a table they take the table of another couple called the Tripplehorns. Carell and Fey are having a great time until they are mistaken as the Tripplehorns by thugs working for a mob boss. The real Tripplehorns have stolen some important information from the mob boss. Carell and Fey spend the entire film running away from their would be killers and trying to clear their name.

The film features a roster of credited and uncredited celebrity cameo’s in supporting roles. Some of them hit and miss. Mark Whalberg is amusing as the shirtless security officer who Carell and Fey turn to for help. James Franco and Mila Kunis add some much-needed humor to their interactions with the married couple. Some talented people like Taraji P Henson, as a police officer and Ray Liotta, as the mob boss, are not given anything to do in the film.

The film does have a couple of moments that made me laugh. I’m thinking of an extended car chase involving two cars getting stuck head on. This scene made me laugh mostly because of J.B Smooth playing the taxi cab driver. I loved him as Leon in “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, so I can’t help but be entertained when he shows up on-screen. Fey and Carell do have a couple good moments, like when they perform a lap dance together. However too many of the scenes and lines just fall flat. The director relies too much on cutting to facial reactions of Fey and Carell that are intended to convey humor.

Towards the end of the film the plot really goes off the rails. Fey apparently has no idea what Carell planned, but the film makes it pretty clear that she would have been there when he made the plans. We also get the obligatory scenes of Fey and Carell working out their marriage problems during the middle of them fleeing for their lives. These scenes might have more impact if we actually got to see their marriage troubles on-screen. The first ten to fifteenth minutes of the movie doesn’t show us any of the troubles that the two are having a heart to heart conversation about.

The director of the film, Shawn Levy, was responsible for some sub par comedies from the past decade, like “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “The Pink Panther”, so it’s no wonder that the film’s direction seems lifeless. The script by Josh Klausner doesn’t help either. Steve Carell and Tina Fey are great talents, so it makes you wonder why can’t they pick better projects?

2 stars

Hot Tub Time Machine is a Whirlpool of Dumb Fun

April 8, 2010 1 comment

My first thoughts when I heard about “Hot Tub Tim Machine” were not positive. I thought this was just another dumb movie with a moronic premise. The movie is dumb, but it’s a dumb, entertaining movie.

John Cusack, Craig Robinson and Rob Corddry play old high school friends who reunite after Corddry’s failed suicide attempt. The three decide to catch up by visiting an old ski resort that was the spot for their happiest memories. They arrive at the ski resort to find that like their personal lives, it’s a complete mess. The three of them, along with Cusack’s nephew, played by Clark Duke, get drunk in a hot tub and the next thing you know they end up spilling Russian Red Bull on the hot tub’s control panel which transports them back to 1986.

I won’t spend anymore time going further into plot, because that is not the point of the movie. I’ll just say that the plot follows other time travel related films. The four try to find a way back to the present and decide to do exactly what they did in 1986, to not screw up their present. This is hard for them to follow because they see it as a chance to correct the wrong’s of their youthful past.

What makes the movie work is the cast. Cusack, Robinson and Corddry are all likable leads and each have their own funny moments. Robinson’s funniest moment come when he calls up his wife, who in 1986 is a nine year old girl. Corddry is the funniest among the group in a standout performance playing an extremely bitter, foul-mouthed man. I was a bit taken aback by the level of anger that Corddry displays on-screen. You see this during his first encounter with Clark Duke, where he sincerely tells the kid to fuck off.

The film features the same old message that we have seen in other time travel films about regretting the past. This is showcased in the relationship Cusack forms with Lizzy Caplan while stuck in 1986. It really doesn’t work on the level it’s aiming for. The movie’s message is nothing special, at most it feels adequate.

A supporting performance by Crispin Glover as a one-armed bellhop recalls the most famous time travel movie, “Back to the Future.” He’s amusing, but the payoff involving how he exactly loses his arm, doesn’t work for me. Chevy Chase’s small supporting role in the film is another callback to the 80’s. Unfortunately, he is given nothing funny to do in the film.

The movie is dumb fun, and doesn’t try to be anything other than that. On that level, the movie succeeds.

3 stars