DVD Review: No

yes

DVD Review: ‘No’

Gael Garcia Bernal gives the performance of his career in No, as an exiled Chilean working for the “No” Campaign in 1988. Basically, the plebiscite is coming up and Chileans will vote either “Yes” to retain dictator Augustus Pinochet or “No” and open the floor up for fresh candidates.

Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, whose father was exiled under Pinochet. Now his son is back in town and wants to turn Chile around. He helps run the campaign and its marketing efforts. Not unlike the Equal Time laws in the US, both the Yes Campaign and No Campaign are given 15 minutes each nightly to espouse their side.

The Yes Campaign utilizes nationalistic images and sweepingly patriotic music. On the other hand, the No Campaign starts off with heavy facts that serve as a scathing indictment of Pinochet’s regime. After marginal success, the No Campaign rethinks their strategy, and then the fun really begins.

This film is perfect for fans of the early 90’s documentary War Room, about the backroom goings-on of the Clinton campaign. Fans of Network will also enjoy the largely political dialogue.

As far as the way the film looks, do not be led astray by the DVD’s technicolor dreamcover. The film’s color has been muted and drained so that it actually looks like footage from 1988. In fact, since real footage is seamlessly interspersed with the dramatized footage, the viewer may not be able to tell which is which. Ubiquitous lens flares and unfiltered light add to the minimalism and uber-realism of No. While the color is too bled out to whisk the viewer into 1980s Chile, one may think that real found footage is being delivered to their eyes.

This is an important film culturally and historically, so I hope you will give it a chance.  Sometimes our battles aren’t won in fields or in trenches but in the streets and in strategy rooms. ‘No’ teaches us to choose the ballot, not the bullet.

Here is the actual video of the finished product of the No campaign. It’s catchy; I was singing it all afternoon.

Just say Yes to No. Recommended.

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Review: Movie 43

Review: Movie 43

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You might be wondering why I even decided to give anthology Movie 43 a whirl, considering it has a 4% on Rotten Tomatoes. 4%. The reviews have been wholly unkind, yet this film was still appealing to me. Why? I think it was the cast and the trailer that was cut to maximize hilarity. And Chris Pratt. Love Chris Pratt.

Movie 43 boasts what can only be described as a powerhouse ensemble. Kate Winslet (shown above), Emma Stone, Greg Kinnear, Dennis Quaid, Elizabeth Banks, Kristen Bell, Justin Long, Hugh Jackman, Liev Schrieber, Naomi Watts, Chris Pratt, Anna Faris, Jason Sudeikis, Leslie Bibb, Uma Thurman, Stephen Merchant, and Halle Berry are just some of the cast members.

The movie is told in vignettes, with an over-arching framework story that we cut to and away from every couple of sketches. The quality of these vignettes is uneven, but none are particularly good. Each vignette has an entirely different cast (I don’t think there was one bit of crossover) and directed by a different director (Elizabeth Banks, Peter Farrelly, James Gunn, and Brett Ratner are some of the directors).

Honestly, these vignettes are no worse (and possibly better!) than a lot of SNL’s current skits in the post-Fey, post-Wiig universe. Just like SNL, the stories go on too long, way past the point of the setup being funny any longer. Each skit is basically only its setup; once the gimmick erodes, they keep harping on the same elements to produce laughs. Or not produce laughs in most cases.

Take the vignette starring real-life couple Liev Schrieber and Naomi Watts. The schtick is that they bully their home-schooled child so that he will have an authentic high school experience. The first several clips in the montage are funny or funnyish, but the longer takes seem stale (and we are only 3 minutes in!). Halfway through the skit, your mind wanders away from you and you start thinking about your grocery list.

I think the strongest segments are the “Blind Date” vignette starring Merchant and Berry and the “Picnic” vignette starring another real-life married couple, Chris Pratt and Anna Faris. However, the comic talents of these four fine actors cannot save these segments from weak structural underpinnings and an over-reliance on ‘gross out’ humor.

I feel like the Farrellys are living in an Apatow world. Although Apatow has had limited success writing complex female characters, that seems to be changing (thanks in part to Girls cohort Lena Dunham and Apatow’s own comic genius wife, Leslie Mann). I think the Farrellys’ situation is most comparable to George A. Romero. Romero is the undisputed godfather of the zombie sub-genre, but the contemporary maestro is Danny Boyle (or some would say Zack Snyder). The Farrellys found fame in the gross out comedy genre, but Apatow really revolutionized it and gave it back its humanity.

Anthologies are usually produced in the horror genre. Horror is known for not having an over-abundance of plot or character development, so you can get into the setup and started getting scared immediately. While many horror anthologies ultimately fail, this is probably the best atmosphere for a filmmaker looking to direct a segment of an anthology.

The romantic comedy genre has had very dubious success with the anthology. New Years’s Eve (which may be more of an ensemble piece than a true anthology, admittedly) has a 7% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I really enjoyed Paris, je t’aime, which I felt mainly consisted of solid work, but felt really let down the unevenness of New York, I Love You. More city love story anthologies are planned: Shanghai, I Love You, in 2013Jerusalem, I Love You in 2014, and Rio eu te amo in 2015/2016.

Not Recommended (except maybe for ardent fans of SNL or for a particular actor in the ensemble)

Review: Future Weather

Review: Future Weather

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Future Weather was a film that intrigued me ab initio. It seemed like a perfect counterpiece to Take Shelter, the Michael Shannon breakout explosion. While Future Weather is more of a family dynamic piece and less cerebral (and definitely less supernatural) than Take Shelter, they share commonalities.

I always love supporting women filmmakers, and Jenny Deller does a fair job in her first feature. Her other main credit, a short entitled “Save the Future,” serves as both a prologue and trailer to the feature.

Lili Taylor, as a mentoring teacher, is completely and overwhelmingly spot-on in each scene. I can be very lukewarm on Amy Madigan (e.g. I love her as Hannah’s mom on HBO’s Girls, but did not care for her in That’s What I Am), but she was the perfect blend of no nonsense and nurturing in her role as Greta. Any film centered on an adolescent actor can be unnerving, but newcomer Perla Haney-Jardine’s no-holds-barred acting sets up her for primo roles in any future YA dystopian novel movie adaptation that she chooses.

One of the best elements of the film is Haney-Jardine’s Lauderee, who is the film’s protagonist. An aspiring ecological scientist and environmental activist, Lauderee wants to change the world around her, but she is often ill-equipped with the tools to do so. Being a middle schooler, she doesn’t know how to filter her passion as not to alienate those around her. Her lack of tact and diplomacy is not without consequence, and she gradually learns to tamper her tongue without diluting her zeal.

Any film that promotes Marie Curie types over the Kim Kardashian trope is worth a look, even if the film is not without its faults.  A little unnecessarily slow in parts, the film has wonderfully understated pacing issues. Aside from a few pacing problems, I found this gem to be quite palatable.

 

Recommended for fans of Another Earth, Tumbleweeds, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Recommended.

Note: The short film “Save the Future” is available on DVD.

 

Review: Nobody Walks

Review: Nobody Walks

Yet another film I saw this year at the Sarasota Film Festival, Nobody Walks  follows the the blossoming relationship between Martine, a young film director (Olivia Thirlby) and her audio tech mentor, Peter (John Krasinski). Peter is a guru at sound mixing and has agreed to help Martine add sound to her film project, which follows insects on their day-to-day journeys, much like the David Attenborough feature Life in the Undergrowth. Martine comes to live at Peter’s luxe house during the project, and enjoys privacy in the pool house.

As the duo delve deeper into the mission, Peter begins to find Martine irresistible, even as she denies that she is cloyingly trying to entice him. The two bond over their artful success over mixing her film, which only further cranks up the sexual tension. Peter’s intern, much closer to Martine’s age than his, flirts with Martine and this drives Peter into a crazed frenzy of jealousy, even though he cannot articulate to himself why.

There’s only one problem with this burgeoning love story. Peter is married. With kids. And they all live in the big house in front of Martine’s pool house. Melodrama ensues.

If you are expecting John Krasinski’s character to be anything like Jim on The Office, you will be shocked and amazed. Krasinski has stifled the funnyman shtick in other films – most notable in his directorial/screenwriter debut, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (which I do not recommend).

Olivia Thirlby is one of those faces that seems to make people say “Aaah, where do I know her from?” You may have seen her as Jason Schwartzman’s ex on HBO’s Bored to Death or more recently in the unforgettable Moscow disaster blunder The Darkest Hour. She has some indie cred from films such as Juno, Being Flynn, Breaking Upwards, and The Wackness, but some career missteps as well: No Strings Attached, Dredd 3D (I’m assuming) and did I mention The Darkest Hour?

The effervescent Lena Dunham scribed the screenplay, which I didn’t know until the film’s credits. From an objective viewer standpoint, this was probably a plus as I am such a big Lena fan — her awkwardfest debut Tiny Furniture is over-the-top quirky and squirmy, but easily watchable and endearing.

Much like Peter’s inability to articulate his jealousy, I cannot closely articulate my reasons for not loving the film. It dragged in a few places, even though the runtime is a mere 83 minutes. Several pivotal scenes feel like the “oomph” has been diluted; much more a critique of how the film is shot rather than Dunham’s screenplay. However, the story and dialogue is lackluster, leaving us with a wholly mediocre adventure in suburban infidelity, where nothing new is ventured and nothing new is gained.

Watch the trailer, and catch the film on iTunes on September 6th or in cinemas on October 12th.

Recommendation Level: Barely Recommended (and only as a rental). Sorry, Lena.

Documentary Watch: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Documentary Watch: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Ever see a film that invokes such a level of passion and craving that your mouth begins to water? Jiro Dreams of Sushi is one of those films.

Jiro owns a sushi house in Tokyo’s business district. The sushi bar sells only sushi, no alcoholic beverages, appetizers or side dishes. The sushi rolls and nigiri are grandiose in their simplicity; Jiro uses the finest quality ingredients and old-school methods to bring out the natural flavors of the fish on a diner’s palate. The lack of frou-frou elements or unnecessary garnishes bring the attention back to flavor and technicality;  one patron described the fish as butter melting on her tongue.

Several apprentices discuss Jiro’s mentoring process, including a discussion of the shortest tenure of an apprentice (one day). Both sons marinate over what Jiro was like as a father; one anecdote includes one of the boys not recognizing his father and asking their mother what this stranger was doing in their house (Jiro frequently rose before the boys were up and came home long after their bedtimes). Despite Jiro’s familial shortcomings, his real marriage is to his art in sushi-making, and his family has come to respect this.

The sushi master has two sons, one of whom is being groomed to take over the restaurant after Jiro’s retirement (in line with Japanese custom). His younger son owns another sushi restaurant, using the same style and meticulous clean method as his father, but in a more relaxed atmosphere.

The documentary has a sleepy, dreamlike quality, which is buffeted by whimsical Philip Glass-type soundtrack. At times, you will feel that you are at the bottom of a pool looking up at Jiro & Sons.

A big reveal near the documentary’s end is heart-warming as much as it is startling.  This one plot twist made the rating jump a 1/2 star – you leave the film feeling buoyed (and hungry for sushi).

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is available on Netflix instant and DVD.

Recommendation Level: Strongly Recommended (even if you don’t like sushi).

EXTRA CREDIT — Dining with your eyes.

Famously foodie films  include Babette’s Feast, 9 1/2 Weeks, Julie & Julia, The Cook The Thief His Wife & His Lover, and my personal favorite, Big Night. Big Night is an Italian restaurant that serves one last meal to its faithful few before its possible and likely closing. During the highlight course, one diner sobs at the beauty and divine taste of the food.

If you want to nurture your sweet tooth, re-watch Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Chocolat, Waitress (oh, those pies!).  For foreign films, try Tampopo, Tortilla Soup, Like Water for Chocolate, Mostly Martha, or Eat Drink Man Woman.

Review: The Day

The Day

Review: The Day

The Day is a new post-apocalyptic horror film with a whole host of actors you know from other genre films. I liked it but didn’t love it.

We saw this film at the Sarasota Film Festival in April. The filmmakers were in attendance along with actors Ashley Bell and Dominic Monaghan.  You may remember Monaghan best as the hobbit Merry from the Lord of the Rings trilogy and as Charlie on Lost. He was affable during the post-viewing Q&A – maybe even endearingly goofy. It was clear that he enjoys interaction between the audience/fans and himself, and I always respect an actor for this. Similarly, Ashley Bell (the tortured young girl from The Last Exorcism) was incredibly gracious toward the audience and her experience on the film.

X-Men’s Iceman Shawn Ashmore  and Shannyn Sossamon round out the principal cast.  Michael Eklund continues his run of creepy roles as the chief of predatory clan. Eklund brings a feral quality to the role that other actors would have spoiled by overacting, lack of nuance, or an overindulgence in the cheese quotient.

The basic premise is a devastated earth yields little fuel, animals, or food for the remaining human race. Survivors band together to scavenge what they can to subsist, but ruthless clans of predators have picked off many of these intrepid human remnants. Five somethings are being tracked by one of these clans, and rather than run and be picked off one-by-one by the ruthless trackers, they hole up for a final stand in an old farmhouse and prepare for battle.

Luckily, this protypical siege film is pretty true to its genre and premise. It’s straightforward in that if the premise sounds appealing to you, you will probably like it. If it doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, it likely isn’t. The Day does not pull its punches.

The “preparing for battle” montage was probably my favorite scene of the movie. Cornered without arms, the quintet use ingenious methods to cobble together weapons and traps for their would-be assailants (who of course are expected to arrive at dark).  The gore is not over the top, but do know that most of the combat is of the hand-to-hand variety, and a female is tortured practically to the point of losing consciousness.

As for the shooting aspects, the film was beautifully shot in a muted palette.  The colors of the world have bled out with the last bastion of humanity, and it adds a really gritty atmosphere to the film. You may even forget from time-to-time that the film was shot in color because the landscape is utterly gray and dreary.

The filmmakers were coy when an audience member asked what caused the apocalypse, but they seemed to insinuate it was possibly environmentally-related. It seemed they didn’t want you to question to “why” or “how” of their set-up, but just get immersed in it. I think this is partially folly – while I get they are not trying to make a Message Film, trying to analyze the plot beyond what was shown on-screen was not rewarded.

WWE Studios is distributing the film. According to VideoETA, the DVD is slated for a November release if you don’t catch it in its limited theatrical run.

The trailer is here, but I would advise against seeing it; the trailer reveals a fairly significant and unanticipated spoiler than I was glad not to know going into the movie completely blind.

Recommendation Level: Recommended (if you are a fan of the genre).

Review: Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos)

Review: Juan of the Dead

I saw this film back in March at the Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa, Florida. It was our third year in attendance. Coming into the festival, I had secret hopes that Juan would serve as this year’s Strigoi, the Romanian/UK horror-comedy (available on Netflix Instant).

Juan, he did not let us down. Touted as the Cuban Shaun of the Dead by the media, this slogan really sells the film short because it is more than just a Spanish-language counterpart. Indeed, Juan is an homage to our beloved Shaun, but it stands on its own two undead legs too. One reviewer makes fun of the incessant comparisons to Shaun of the Dead with his parody titles list, including Prawn of the Dead, Lawn of the Dead, Faun of the Dead, et al.

This gory romp has pure moments of comic relief buffeted by intense action sequences that scandalize the audience in its honest brutality. Tucker and Dale v. Evil may be a better comparison for this element, among others.

The film has real heart. Initially, Juan is shown as a feckless, absentee father interested only in beer, women, and chortling with his pudgy best friend. His transition into zombie-combating greatness does not seem forced and is surprisingly organic. The tragic pre-outbreak relationship between Juan and his teenage daughter is remarkably spot-on for a film with so much zombie fodder.

As his undead-killing prowess improves, so does his relationship with his daughter, who finally sees her father as the leader she has always wanted in her life. Raised by her grandmother, the daughter has the sass and spunk that is needed in what is otherwise a male-dominated cast.

Characters use insanely ingenious methods of dispatching the infected. I dare not ruin any for you, but two scenes in particular will be a treats you have always wanted but have never been given in somewhat similar fare.

Cuba, for all its problems (both of image and actual substance) should be proud of its film industry for making such an entertaining, solid film. While being marketed as Cuba’s first horror film, there has been dispute as to whether this is really the case. Anyway, politics are not wholly removed from this neo-Cuban classic. A visit to the film’s website reveals the apropos tagline: “50 years after the revolution, a new revolution begins.”

See the trailer and you will get an excellent idea of the film’s feel. No punches were pulled during the editing of this preview. Juan of the Dead is now available on VOD in USA and Canada. Check for screenings of the film here.

Recommendation Level: Strongly Recommended

Review: Another Year

Another Year

Review: Another Year

There’s something about British director Mike Leigh. A truly cerebral auteur, you may know him for his work in Topsy-Turvy, Happy-Go-Lucky, and the un-hyphenated but adequately ampersanded Secrets & Lies.

Another Year is centered around a stable married couple whose friends and relatives bring seismic rumblings during one eventful year in their otherwise happy, settled existence.

Frequent Mike Leigh collaborator Jim Broadbent brings levity to this slice of life showcase as the jovial Tom. Tom’s wife, Gerri, is helmed by Ruth Sheen. Her conflicted maternal instincts are expertly exposed throughout the year with the most nuanced of mannerisms and expressions. Her stoicism is omnipresent throughout most of the film, but you can sense those buried emotions just simmering beneath the surface.

David Bradley delivers a devastating performance as widower Ronnie. While you may know Bradley best for his role as groundskeeper and squib Argus Filch in the Harry Potter films, this veteran Brit’s oeuvre is as impressive as it is long.

If there can be a standout performance is such a cinema gem, it would be Lesley Manville as Ruth’s friend Mary. There is something quintessentially annihilating about this film, and Mary is a big component of that ambiance. It marinated with me for a few days after viewing, but I didn’t feel it was a depressing watch either. You are watching Mary simply unspool in front of your eyes but you only feel concern and empathy for her wretched stratagems.

The film is beautifully shot in 35mm with Arricam LT, Cooke S4 Lenses. The 129 mins runtime does not feel too long at all; it gives the characters time to develop and evolve. You will not want to say goodbye to them at the film’s end.

All in all, give this film a go. You might feel that it’s the best film you’ve seen in a long time. Or at least since you saw Midnight in Paris.

If you are a Mike Leigh beginner, start with Secrets & Lies. It is an easily accessible though not always easily watchable) film with a high squirm quotient. The performances are powerhouse and understated, depending on what is required for the actors. Topsy-Turvy is perfect for Gilbert & Sullivan fans, and if you did not have a penchant for The Mikado before you saw the film, you are sure to afterward. Vera Drake is a grittier tale of a home-care abortion provider in 1950s England (but regardless of your position on the political spectrum, this is not to be missed for the riveting performance by Imelda Staunton).

Fun fact: Another Year actors David Bradley, Imelda Staunton, and Jim Broadbent have all appeared in multiple Harry Potter films (as Argus Filch, Dolores Umbridge, and Professor Horace Slughorn, respectively). Timothy Spall from Secrets & Lies played Wormtail, and AY/S&L actress Lesley Manville was married to Gary Oldman, aka Sirius Black.

Recommendation Level: Strongly Recommended