Wednesday, April 22, 2009

STATE OF PLAY: The Film Babble Blog Review

Taking a break from the heat on my Vegas vacation I found a theater (United Artists Showcase 8) not too far from my hotel and decided to take in:

STATE OF PLAY (Dir. Kevin McDonald, 2009)

Literally hitting the ground running with a foot chase through a rain drenched Washington DC night resulting in multiple murder, this adaptation of the six part 2003 British miniseries never lets up from its riveting opening. In the cold light of the next day we are introduced to a scruffy haggard looking Russell Crowe as a ace old school reporter (the type who brags about using a 16 year old computer) who buys coffee to get info from the police and makes jaded quips like: "I'll need to read a few blogs in order to form an opinion." A nice timely touch is to then pair him up with a blogger (Rachel McAdams) for his newspaper's online division. Crowe's long time buddy, a congressman played surprisingly solidly by Ben Affleck, is exposed as having had an affair with one of the previous night's victims (Maria Thayer - only seen in photos and cellphone footage) and, of course, something sinister lies in the shadows with an evil corporation possibly pulling the strings.

Yes, it's a conspiracy movie with a "trust nobody" vibe that has many allusions to one of the all time greats, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN with its Washington DC backdrop, intense walks and talks, doors slammed in journalist's faces, and even a shadowy parking garage sequence. The Watergate hotel gets more than just a visual shout out too. Crowe gets many terse tongue lashes from his English editor played beautifully by Helen Mirren in the cluttered newsroom of the fictional "The Washington Globe" (same typeface as The Washington Post in case one misses the connection) while he and McAdams go from lead to lead. For the up to par supporting cast we've got Robin Wright Penn as Affleck's estranged wife, Jeff Daniels as a smarmy Senior Representative, Viola Davis (DOUBT) as a no nonsense pathologist, and a stand-out Jason Bateman as a bisexual fetish club promoter addicted to OxyContin.

There are contrivances and clichés galore but the movie moves so fast with such entertaining zeal that none of that matters. Crowe puts in a cantakerously crafted performance that's strong enough to conceal that we are given virtually nothing of backstory of his character, while McAdams appealingly works those "dewey eyed cub reporter's eyes" (as Mirren sneeringly calls them at one point) uping the ante from her previous one note roles like the love interest in WEDDING CRASHERS. There is spare but weighty commentary on the fate of print media in the era of the internets - particularly the likening of bloggers to bloodsuckers (ouch!). Through this all the supreme structure of the film is what really makes it tick. It's played straight with a tightened pace that doesn't ever fall out of focus. Maybe it's not quite in the league of the classic 70's political thrillers it pays ample homage to, but STATE OF PLAY is a worthy addition to the conspiracy cinema canon.

More later...

Friday, April 17, 2009

10 Movie & TV Themed Slot Machines (A Vegas Vacation Post)

Since I'm on vacation in Las Vegas until the end of the month I won't be posting much, but I just couldn't resist making this list. Strolling through many casinos I saw many slot machines that were based on popular movies and TV shows so I decided to document my favorites. I decided to avoid those patterned after game shows (Wheel Of Fortune, The Price Is Right, etc.) because these were concepts that were game formatted to begin with and there are so damn many of them. So here goes:

1. Star Trek:

Nice to see the old school graphics especially because we're about to be inundated with images from the new-fangled prequel/reboot extremely soon.

2. The Sopranos:

One of my all-time favorite TV shows makes for a pretty impressive slot machine spectacle. But watch out - your wallet might get whacked...


The original trilogy gets the treatment.


I saw a few different Indy themed machines but this overwhelming display definitely has the gambling goods.



7. The Munsters: This one was pretty surprising. The ancient sitcom is not readily slot machine machine material but I was highly amused to find that, much like the show itself, it was developed because of the popularity of The Adams Family slot machine. Also, I learned funnily enough that some of the members of the cast sued IGT (International Gaming Technology) over the use of their likenesses.


9. Happy Days: Another Nick At Nite favorite becomes a jukebox styled money maker (and taker).

10. That Girl: Really? That Girl? That's a slot machine? Okay! Just never thought Marlo Thomas's smiling mug would make the casino cut but there it is. Though maybe because, as the theme song goes, "She's tinsel on a tree, she's everything every girl should be", it makes some kind of sense.

Like I said above I won't be posting much for the time being (unless I make it to a Vegas movie theater while I'm here), but I did just participate in an ongoing series of posts about the best films of the aughts that the great blog Film for the Soul is chronicling called "Counting Down The Zeroes." I contributed an essay about my favorite film of the year 2000: WONDER BOYS which you can read here.

Now back to my vacation.

More later...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Taking In Yet Another New Doc But For A Crucial Cause

After the Full Frame Documentary Film Fest earlier this month, one might think I'd be documentaried out but I found myself just a few days later again in a theater in the morning about to watch, yep, another documentary. This was a different deal though - a friend who works for Ipas, an international organization working to protect women's health and reproductive rights, invited me to the Lumina theater for a screening of their new 20 minute film NOT YET RAIN (Dir. Lisa Russell, 2009).

The title comes from an African proverb: "Thunder is not yet rain", with the focus being on the trials of pregnant Ethiopian women in 2006 despite that a law was just passed that expanded the conditions under which they can seek safe abortions. Interviews, village footage, as well as some almost too close for comfort film explaining procedures, offer many insights into the conditions and ex periences of these troubled women. Russell, who previously made a short film in 2005 about Nigerian AIDS activists (WE WILL NOT DIE LIKE DOGS), effectively portrays these people's plight - especially Aster's (seen below with director Russell), an older woman who lost her daughter because of an abortion done by an unskilled provider.
NOT YET RAIN, which premiered in Washington D.C.on April 7th, is a very well made and compelling film that only has the fault of being too short. A feature length film could be made of this material and I hear that may happen, but until then I urge folks to seek it out. You can view it or order a DVD on the official website here.

More later...

Friday, April 10, 2009

OBSERVE AND REPORT: The Film Babble Blog Review

OBSERVE AND REPORT (Dir. Jody Hill, 2009)

Last weekend on Saturday Night Live, Kristen Wiig playing an audience member in a Q & A, said to host Seth Rogan: "You’re in a second mall cop movie? Good luck with that!" It was an obvious dig at his new movie, but once you get past the seemingly similar premise, Rogen's deluded schlub of a character recalls such an alienated legend in their own mind like De Niro's Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER more than it does Kevin James's PAUL BLART: MALL COP. An old school trenchcoated flasher is terrorizing shoppers and employees alike at Forest Ridge Mall and Rogen as head of mall Security is determined to serve up justice. "Hot plates of justice" he specifies to the vein-popping annoyance of the hard nosed police detective (Ray Liotta) called in to investigate.

There is also vandalism and a robbery that Rogen also feels he can handle as he attempts to flirt with Anna Farris as a superficial make-up counter clerk. Rogen trades insults with a kiosk salesman (comedian Aziz Ansari) - one of his many mall adversaries resulting in one of the film's funniest scenes. Between crude confrontations Rogen gulps free coffee served to him by Collette Wolfe, a sweet girl-next-door but with a leg in a cast, who we know immediately is a better love interest for him than Farris but following Rogen's every misguided move is the name of the game here. Frustrated with Rogen's wannabe Police state, Liotta drops him off in a bad neighborhood but it backfires making our would be hero go with gusto into the enlistment process to become a full fledged officer of the law.

Darker than the Judd Apatow produced playgrounds of Rogen's former films, OBSERVE AND REPORT alternates between edgy and goofy with just the right tone. It's the best acting I've witnessed from Rogen and he's well matched with the crusty Liotta working his worry lines to great effect, Farris being all too convincing as a vapid vulgar slut, Michael Peña as fellow mall security, and Celia Weston as Rogen's alcoholic, though supremely supportive mother (as incoherent as she is). Nice comic turns from Danny McBride and Patton Oswalt also fill out the funny.

A much more accomplished and layered film than Jody Hill's previous piece (THE FOOT FIST WAY), OBSERVE AND REPORT may not be up to the manic comic levels of SUPERBAD or PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (even with the most gratuitous and grotesque display of flabby male nudity this side of BORAT) but it's still a worthy, if crass, character study that will satisfy fans of lovingly lowbrow comedy such as BAD SANTA or Comedy Central's Reno 911. Not too shabby a predicament for "a second mall cop movie".

More later...

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Late 80's Amusement Park Blues

ADVENTURELAND (Dir. Greg Mottola, 2009)

Greg Mottola's follow-up to the hilarious and touching SUPERBAD immediately announces its thematic stance with The Replacements anthem of adolescent angst "Bastards Of Young" blaring at the very beginning. In 1987 Pittsburgh, Jesse Eisenberg (THE SQUID AND THE WHALE) is indeed the "mess on the ladder of success" that song wailed on as he finds that his parents have cancelled his dream trip to Europe due to his father being transferred at work. After failing to find anything close to upscale work, Eisenberg gets a summer job working game booths at Adventureland - a garrish amusement park so cheap one risks being fired if they give away prizes such as stuffed giant Pandas simply because they're running out of them. Eisenberg falls for a co-worker (Kristen Stewart of TWILIGHT) while suffering daily indignities such as ridicule from his former best friend (Matt Bush) who has a penchant for decking him in the crotch and almost being knifed by a redneck father for one of the prized "big ass" Pandas.

Luckily Eisenberg has a few things that help him get through this. He is given a bag of joints by a yuppie friend (Michael Zegen) who actually gets to go on his summer vacation, he befriends Martin Starr (Freaks And Geeks) as a burnt out carnie and confides about his crush on Stewart with a laid back Ryan Reynolds, a handyman who is semi-legendary in the park because he supposedly jammed with Lou Reed. Reed appears in the almost wall-to-wall mix of 70's and 80's music that blankets every scene lovingly. Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" seems to never stop playing on the park's PA system but the likes of well chosen Big Star, Crowded House, Velvet Underground, Hüsker Dü, New York Dolls, and Bowie cuts that fill out the soundtrack more than make up for that.

The appearance of SNL's Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as Eisenberg's bosses made me expect a broader and definitely wackier movie but the wack has been held back in favor of character development over crude jokes - though there are a few. A number of narrative threads aren't fully fleshed out; there seems to have been stuff cut from the parents' (Jack Gilpin and Wendy Mallick) story and Reynolds just has the bare bones of an identity yet he still slickly glides through.

Eisenberg is likable in his Michael Cera-like awkwardness even when he performs some cringe worthy actions such as taking the park's lusted after Lisa P (Margarita Levieva ) for a date on the side. There aren't big laughs; just a steady stream of snickers but enough to keep me smiling throughout. It's apt for a film set in the late 80's about coming of age in the era post Pacman and pre Beavis And Butt-head that it has a heart more akin to John Hughes than Judd Apatow. A comic valentine to a plastic but palpable time, ADVENTURELAND is a good, not great, ride.

Post note: New Jersey Indie rock heroes Yo La Tengo scored the film and contributed a track called "Leaving Adventureland" which plays over the end credits and is well worth a download. It's Yo La Tengo instrumental dreaminess at its best.

More later...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Full Frame Documentary Film Fest 2009: The Fourth And Final Day

It was another nice Spring day outside in downtown Durham, but, as more than one person remarked, it was a much nicer day to be inside the Carolina Theater watching movies. I had had very sleep as I trekked back to enter yet another screening room so I was running on sheer momentum. Luckily I got my wind fully restored with this morning's film:


"Where there's controversy, there's William Kunstler" went Phil Donahue's introduction of the noted radical lawyer on one of his many appearances on Donahue's old TV show. That was one of the biggest understatements made in this incredibly involving bio-doc made by Kunstler's daughters Emily and Sarah who were thankfully here in town today to present their work. From Civil Rights sit-ins to the notorious Chicago 7 trial, then the Attica riots and the Wounded Knee uprising to the...well, you get the picture - Kunstler was a fighting figure of change who would not compromise. His story is empowering to the nth degree, made even more powerfully personal by the definition of labor of love that his daughters have brought. One of Kunstler's former clients - Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five, also appeared for the after film Q & A.

Then it was time for the Awards BBQ at the Durham Armory. The big winner was an entry from Denmark: BURMA VJ. It won the Anne Dellinger Grand Jury Award, the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award, and the Full Frame/Working Films Award. Since that was one I had missed I was elated that it was going to be re-screened that afternoon as were 5 other of the winners (click here for a complete list of what won). So this was my final film of the Festival:


This harrowing work of video journalists capturing the 2007 protests in Burma by thousands of Buddhist monks definitely deserved all the acclaim that it got here. I mean it's one thing to follow Wavy Gravy around with a camera but to risk one's life to get footage of oppressive military action so that the whole world could be informed is a gigantic world of difference. A riveting and disturbing experience that will be hard to shake for a while I believe, BURMA VJ displays the recordings that were smuggled out of the country with the voice-over narration of a source only identified as "Joshua". With its awards at Full Frame, Sundance, and the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, it's a shoe-in for a wide release so please keep on the lookout. As vivid and vital as a motion picture depicting real events can be, it is not to be missed.

The Festival is over and I'm already looking forward to next year. Stay tuned for more in depth reviews of some of the films covered here in months to come. A number of these documentaries haven't been picked up for distribution yet so I'm hoping to get the word out on this round of really great (for the most part, that is) films.

More later...

Full Frame Documentary Film Fest 2009: Day Three

This will be another brief rundown because with all these documentaries coming at me I've had little time for blogging. Like I said before I will write more about select films after the festival is over and the dust settles. This is what I attended on Day Three:

(Titles in red don't have IMDb listings yet)

BETWEEN DREAMS (Dir. Iris Olsson, 2009) A 10 minute film about passengers' dreams on a 7 day Trans-Siberian train ride. Very affecting although dark and blurry at times. Olsson did a brief Q & A after in which she revealed that every aspect of the film including editing and scoring had been done on the train. It really could've stood to be longer but it's pretty striking as is.

CARMEN MEETS BORAT (Dir. Mercedes Stalenhoef, 2008)

When Sasha Baron Cohen picked Glod, Romania to stand in for his homeplace of Kazakhstan for his audience pleasing alter ego Borat Sagdiyev, he left behind a lot of resentful residents. For some probably misguidingly romantic reason the film centers on the daughter of a local businessmen (one of the few well-off members of the community) who felt highly offended by Borat's ruse. Ionela Carmen Ciorobea, who at 17 is consdered an old maid by her fellow townsfolk, dreams of leaving the poverty of the village and the clutches of unsuitable suitors. The title is misleading; Carmen never meets Borat (Cohen is only seen in recycled footage from the original movie; the photo above is Carmen hugging her father - see what I mean about being misleading?) which is reflected in the different more accurate title on IMDb: WHEN BORAT CAME TO TOWN. Ciorobea's plight does have its touching moments and the tale of her father and other townsfolks' ill-fated attempt at a lawsuit prompts some mild chuckles but overall the film doesn't feel necessary.

THE MEMORIES OF ANGELS (Dir. Luc Bourdon, 2008) I feared this might be a dull travelogue but found it to be a mezmerising extended montage of many different film stocks from 50's and 60's Montreal, Canada. An example of the genre "The City Symphony", which I was unaware of before this weekend, the well timed scene shifting along with the carefully chosen music accompaniment was engrossing from the first to last shot.

THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE (Dir. R.J. Cutler, 2008)

As one of the most talked about offerings at the festival, this examination of the pain staking process of finalizing the September Issue of Vogue Magazine more than lived up to the buzz. Editor-in-chief Anna Wintour is the real life Devil who wears Prada and her intimidating demeanor levels staffers left and right but not long-time creative director Grace Coddington. Wintour and Coddington never come to confrontation but a palace of passive aggression is built as the labored over layout comes together. As funny as it is fascinating, even if you know nothing of the world of fashion (like me), THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE surely will make a documentary dent when it gets a full release. An insightful Q & A (mostly about whether Wintour is really that mean) followed with guests director Cutler, editor-at-large, André Leon Talley, and Coddington followed the feature.

MIROIR NOIR (Dir. Vincent Morisset, 2009)

As it was nearing midnight on a Saturday it was a perfect time for the US premiere of a rock doc. Actually less a documentary than a hodgepodge of musical segments, both live and studio, featuring Arcade Fire - the cult Canadian band who are one of Merge Records' (based in Durham) biggest sellers. Despite the lack of context with no venues identified, dates given, or interviews, the film is as artsy, abstract, and absorbing as their music. Most likely a late night favorite in years to come.

Whew! I have got to get some rest for the last day of the festival which will include an award BBQ and re-screenings of the winners. I voted on a number of movies so I'm anxious as Hell to see what wins and maybe view a film I missed. I'll let you know how it goes.

More later...

Friday, April 3, 2009

Full Frame Documentary Film Fest 2009: Day Two

The sky cleared and the sun came out for the 2nd day of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in downtown Durham. Bigger crowds came out too as it was Friday and more folks were free for the weekend. My post for the day will be shorter and not very in depth because it's been a long day and I'm very tired. I'll post full reviews of particular notable films in the near future (or at least a little more in depth than here) so please stay tuned. For now though these are my highlights for Day Two:

THE KINDA SUTRA (Dir. Jessica Wu, 2008)

This 8 minute short isn't really a documentary but a half animated featurette built around interviews with various people about how they first understood sex as children. Too cutesy for my taste really, but amusing nonetheless.

SAINT MISBEHAVIN': THE WAVY GRAVY MOVIE (Dir. Michelle Esrick, 2008) Now this is more like it! Upon entering the theater (Fletcher Hall) I was handed a red styrofoam clown nose. A suitable piece of swag for this rollicking (and rocking) bio-doc of the infamous poet turned Merry Prankster turned wacky activist/clown. Absolutely a gloriously funny and educating portrait from start to finish, it was capped off by having the man himself (below, 3rd from right) appear onstage with his wife (Jahanara Romney), director Esrick, cinematographer Daniel B. Gold, composer Daniel B. Gold, and documentatian God D.A. Pennebaker (who executive produced). Expect more bloggin' 'bout this soon because it stands as one of my favorites of the festival.

THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD (Dirs. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, 2009) A great afternoon of premium infotainment continued with this hilarious docu romp through the anti-globalization activist antics of the Yes Men (Bichlbaum & Bonanno). Maskuerading as spokespeople for corporations or government run businesses they believe are corrupt (Dow Chemical, HUD, ExxonMobil, etc.) provides a puncheant platform for skyscraping satire. Definitely so far the film in the Fest with the biggest laughs I've seen as the riotous audience proved over and over.

SNEAK PREVIEW: FIXER: THE TAKING OF AJMAL NAQSHBANDI (Dir. Ian Olds, 2009) A straight forward telling of the Taliban kidnapping "fixer" (someone hired by foreign journalists to facilitate, translate, and gain access for their stories) Ajmal Naqshbandi and an Italian journalist. Much casual footage of Naqshbandi was taken in the months before his murder which made for a compelling, if at times hard to stomach, viewing (several people walked out).

BEETLE QUEEN CONQUERS TOYKO (Dir. Jessica Oreck, 2009) Beautiful but boring. The question of why the Japanese are so fascinated with beetles is answered with an attempt at visual poetry that while lush was severely sleep inducing - which is where I should be now.

Okay! I have now got to get some rest for tomorrow. Day Three of Full Frame looks pretty promising - will let you know how it goes.

More later...

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Full Frame Documentary Film Fest 2009: Day One

The 12th annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival may be scaled down somewhat lacking the big name speakers such as Michael Moore, Ken Burns, or Martin Scorsese from previous years, but there is still a roster of riches on display in Durham over the next 4 days. The first day was drizzly and gray so it felt very comfortable to be inside the Carolina Theater and adjacent theaters in the Durham Convention Center to embrace this smorgasbord of infotainment. These are the films I attended:

MECHANICAL LOVE (Dir. Phie Ambo, 2007) I saw the first film of the morning in the same theater that last year I had seen the BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT in. This is extremely apt because many times throughout this Danish film about therapeutic robots I thought of the creations of the Tyrell Corporation. Not that the subjects here were "more human than human", as Tyrell's motto goes, mind you, but the questions asked about emotional attachments and human response are right on par with those of that inarguable cult classic. We meet Hiroshi Ishiguro, a Japanese scientist who is developing robot duplicates of himself and his family. His experiments are as creepy as they are uncanny (a word that comes up quite a bit). Meanwhile a mechanical baby seal called a Paro is introduced as a companion to a woman in an old folks home. This story is at first amusing but its airy pace and spare commentary drags the film down. Tinkling piano and poised presentation aside, MECHANICAL LOVE would have been better if edited down to a 20 minute segment of an anthology film or magazine style TV program.

A back to back bull session: MATETILLA (Dir. Victoria Clay-Mendoza, 2003) A film about professional bullfighters and RANK (Dir. John Hyams, 2006) a film about professional bull riders. This double feature, both shot in digital video and presented by a DVD projector, is part of the Festival's theme this year: "The Sporting Life". Not being a sports guy I wasn't sure how many of the films associated with the theme I'd attend but I'm glad I chose these because the contrasts between the Mexican world of children dreaming of bullfighting with suits of lights and coordinated moves and the rawer (yet just as rough) American landscape of bull riding were quite absorbing. For such dangerous sporting events with the threat of severe injuries there is a serene grace and inspiring motivation involved which both these films capture succesfully.

ART & COPY (Dir. Doug Pray, 2009) This is an incredibly entertaining celebration of real life Mad Men with tons of footage from famous commercials, interviews with the giants of the business, and many many statistics. Funny and insightful stories abound from the likes of the Nike "Just Do It" ads,
Wendys' "Where's The Beef" campaign, and the "Got Milk?" go arounds - which have all undoubtably reached icon status by this date. ART & COPY is as slick and polished as the ads themselves, but it is delightfully free of cynicism as it focuses on the creative end of the business and makes no condemning statements. Unfortunately director Pray was unable to attend so producers Michael Nadeau and Jimmy Greenway fielded questions after the screening. They followed up on one the film's many amusing revelations - that the Nike "Just Do it" campaign was inspired by the last words of a convicted murderer before being executed ("Let's do it!") and revealed that the beloved image of Santa Claus was created by the Coca Cola company - a fact that was cut from the finished film. Fancy that.

SONS OF CUBA (Dir. Andrew Lang, 2009) In introducing the opening night film, director Lang told the sold out crowd at Flecther Hall he had just completed work on it 3 days ago. If he hadn't said that I never would've been able to tell because his film is immaculately crafted and as fully formed as the best documentaries I've ever seen. We follow 3 Cuban children as they intensely train to box at the Havana Boxing Academy. They take the tasks very seriously as they jog through poverty stricken streets and form bonds with one another even when at obvious odds. I feel like I've spent a lot of time in Cuba this year with both CHE: PARTS ONE & TWO and now this film which takes place during Fidel Castro's conceding power in 2008. It's an entrancing experience that surprisingly has a lot of humor in between the kid's tears. This, of course from Lang's intro above, was SONS OF CUBA's world premiere so be on the lookout for it to come to your area.

Okay! Day One down. Tomorrow - Wavy Gravy gets his bio-doc due, the Yes Men try to right corporate wrongs, and whatever else I decide to see will get Film Babble Blog appraisal.
Hope you join me.

More later...