Monday, October 25, 2010

Film Yap: It's Kind of a Funny Story

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are a duo of writer/directors who are known for their stark realism and defying clichés. With Half Nelson, all of the inspirational teacher conventions were thrown out of the window and Sugar was not the typical sports movie. With their latest film, It’s Kind of a Funny Story they are adapting from a novel for the first time and the results are disappointing.

Craig (Keir Gilchrist) is a teen who is under a lot of stress. He is freaking out about a summer school application that will, of course, lead to a good college and a good job and a happy life. His parents don’t understand him and he has a crush on his best friend’s girlfriend. His depression and anxiety has made him suicidal so he went to the hospital for help.

They admit him into the ward for adult psychiatric ward. He immediately regrets his decision, but he has to wait at least five days before he can leave. So he spends his days talking to the staff about his problems which includes two fantastic character actors Viola Davis (Doubt) and Jeremy Davies (TV’s LOST)

His real recovery comes from befriending more of the patients. Zach Galifianakis gives an Oscar worthy performance as friendly man named Bobby. His past is slightly mysterious, but he is a very kind and dysfunctional who feels more comfortable in the ward. (Except when he plans the occasional escape.). The other comrade in arms is Noelle played by the increasingly good actress Emma Roberts. Her quirkiness and understanding ends up being just what Craig needs.

There lies the problem. It’s all way too easy. This is the Hollywood mental patient story. Craig finds love and discovers himself through very easy means. None of the patients are violent or really crazy, just Hollywood crazy. One man keeps asking people not to talk so loud, one person doesn’t like leaving his bed, etc. The path Craig takes isn’t very satisfying because it turns out he is a brilliant artist and instantly liked by everyone.

But it’s not like Boden and Fleck have just missed the ball on this movie. They’re just trying out a new genre. There are a lot of narrative experimentations in this film as they jump around by showing what is going on Craig’s head. The biggest risk was a musical performance of David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.” Once the familiar notes started playing it already felt like it could have been too on the nose, but Boden and Fleck bring a lot of fun into the heightened scene.

It’s the charm of everyone in this that makes this a very likable and watchable movie. It’s just never pushes itself to greatness, aside from Galifianakis’s performance. He brings so much emotion and honesty that is missed from the other aspects of the story.

3 Yaps

Film Yap: Wild Grass

Wild Grass is an almost romance story. With different paths and different decisions, there could be something more conventional, but the characters are ones that think a little too much.

Marguerite (Sabine Azéma) loses her purse after she goes shoe shopping. Despite rational, she waits to report anything. While returning to his car, Georges (André Dussollier) discovers a red wallet in the parking garage. Transfixed by the character trinkets inside he begins to theorize on how he can get into contact with her.

The description of the movie calls it a “romantic adventure.” This is way more down to Earth than something like The Princess Bride. With that film, their love is determined from the moment they reconnect. This is about the emotional roughness and awkwardness ones endure when they know they are interested.

Director Alain Resnais creates a very delicate world for these characters to play out their dance. Everything looks like it is in a haze, as if this was a memory itself. The colors are beautiful but they are too much like a painting from an art gallery; look but do not touch.

Despite its intrigue and realized lead characters there is still too much emotional distance with the movie. It’s not because the movie is challenging to comprehend at times because sometimes that can create a more profound connection. (LOST anyone?). It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what is separating the movie from its world. It could be because the lead characters are too foreign (no pun) to comprehend because we don’t know what they want at times.

It’s a film that doesn’t want to be like other Hollywood romances. Its narrator is more playful and not as helpful. Shots and scenes appear to be very random for the sake of being random, especially the final moment. In order to be unconventional it’s lost a little bit of what makes movies appealing.

Resnais has taken these risks before with some of the classic films Last Year at Marienbad and the masterful Hiroshima mon amour. This time, it isn’t as rewarding but there are still plenty of things worth examining in this movie because it’s still a master at work. It’s still a very beautiful film to look at.

In fact that’s what the only bonus feature is devoted to. There is a short featurette about the production designer Jacques Saulnier. It’s a fun pieces that has Saulnier travel around the sets and talk about the lighting and furniture and how it relates to the movie. Don’t know what else should haven’t been on the DVD, but this was a nice one.

Film: 3 Yaps

Extras: 2 Yaps

Higgens Network: Hereafter

Clint Eastwood is one of the more interesting Hollywood directors working today. Peter Morgan crafts some of the most intriguing scripts. Matt Damon is on a very solid run of nuanced performances. To top it all off, Hereafter is about theologically and people debating the afterlife. There’s no way I wouldn’t love this movie.

Somehow I didn’t love this movie. Even with all of those great talents working together, this was just a bland movie. Dare I say, lifeless? Continuing the never-ending trend of having “surprisingly” connecting storylines, Hereafter follows three different people dealing with grief in their own way.

Damon is a retired psychic who couldn’t handle dealing with death every day. His brother (Jay Mohr) wants him to get back into it because there is money to be made and he thinks his brother has a gift. Yet Damon still insists…I can’t believe he says it twice…that it’s a curse. So he is trying to have a “normal life” (Another overused phrase) by going to cooking classes where he meets the perky Bryce Dallas Howard.

Meanwhile, Cécile De France was one of the survivors of a terrible (and incredibly cinematic) tsunami. She returns to France to resume her job as a journalist, but becomes obsessed about image she had during the catastrophe. She can’t focus on politics anymore but starts to investigate the community who believes in an afterlife.

Finally there is Marcus, a young British boy, who is trying to get over the loss of his identical twin brother. He wants more answers about what happened to him, spiritually.

The only story that is really compelling is the one starring De France because that feels the most original. The smaller details about her television journalistic career worked, especially when it clashed with her theological queries. Though every story seems to meander with all of its scenes and never surprises anyone with where it was going.

With its title, it seems like there would be a bit of discussion with the afterlife. From one of its earliest scenes, it declares this is what it will be like and then nothing new is added aside from vague descriptions. It’s not comforting because it’s never sold to the audience.

When everything comes together, because they have to, it doesn’t feel satisfying because there isn’t anything that drives these characters. What did I want to happen to them? Most of Eastwood’s films are focused on the plot moving things forward. When it is just the characters, like Flags of Our Fathers, his films seem to be without focus. With all of its lingering shots of characters just looking and pauses for reflection, there’s not enough content to make them meaningful.

Film Yap: Romeo + Juliet

I hate Romeo + Juliet. I’m not the biggest fan of Romeo and Juliet and separately can’t really stand Romeo, but I do see what he sees in Juliet. (Except for her being 13). The original Shakespeare play is questionable on plot, but delivers in some of the most romantic and inspiring combination of words ever conceived. Baz Luhrmann thinks that’s stupid and makes a movie that’s all about HIM HIM HIM.

This movie is so bad on every technical level it could be seen as a parody. Yes, a modern day version of Romeo and Juliet is not a bad idea. West Side Story pulled it off with great success and even fixed some of its flaws. (Aka abandon Roseline). Luhrmann placed the play in modern times but decided to keep its original dialog with disastrous effects. First off, it creates an incredible disconnect but also it neglects most of the surface meanings of the dialog. Being insulting by someone biting their thumb seems ridiculous when they have loaded guns. Also the Prince just giving a verbal warning seems silly when they blew up an entire gas station.

This is, of course, pretending that Luhrmann even wishes you to listen to what is being said. He is using every device he can in order to distract you. Moulin Rouge is a Woody Allen film compared to the insane editing in this. The prologue is repeated so many nauseating times from different patterns it is as if Luhrmann not only wants you to hate his film, but to retrospectively hate Shakespeare as well. The only time the camera isn’t going all over the place is when two characters are silent. Indeed, why focus on the emotional depth between Romeo and Juliet when it could just be about how the other thinks they’re pretty. Also the balcony scene is turned into a swim in the pool. For it’s not about Romeo sees Juliet as a figure on high and wishes to bring himself to her level of glory. It’s about them being pretty.

Even if it were possible to hear the words it wouldn’t matter. Luhrmann picked the worst actors to deliver dialog they clearly don’t understand. Leonardo DiCaprio became one of the better actors of the 2000s, but in the 90s he was a bit hammy. He doesn’t sell any of the dialog because it looks like he has no idea what’s going on. Then again I’m sure his direction was “You’re in love! Be in love!” Even when it’s interpreted that Shakespeare is actually judging Romeo on some of his unearned love, Luhrmann still shoots it like an Abercrombie and Finch ad.

Claire Danes isn’t terrible in this film but just about everyone else is. Her cousin is played by John Leguizamo because of course he is. Harold Perrineau, Paul Rudd, and Jamie Kennedy just look embarrassed as they are screaming all of their lines, sometimes in drag.

I struggle to find any other film that fails on every single conceptual level, but this movie manages to pull it off.

On the new Blu-Ray there is a Picture-in-Picture Mode, raw footage, a featurette about the music of the movie, and a few more tidbits. They are fine unless you think the movie is one of the worst films ever created.

Film: 0 Yaps

Extras: 2 Yaps

Film Yap: Apocalypse Now

The movie starts up and “The End” begins to play as helicopters go through the sky. Chills of recognition creep down your spine. Of course it’s Apocalypse Now. With this new Blu-Ray edition the film has never been crisper and vibrant. I’m sure that has been said with every new edition, but this is different. This was the first time I watched a scene and because how pristine it looked, I was convinced I was watching a better film.

If you haven’t seen Apocalypse Now, go see Apocalypse Now! It still remains one of the greatest war films next to All Quiet on the Western Front and The Bride on the River Kwai. Other movies focus on showing the grittiness or the loss of innocence, this film examines the madness and the uncontrollable nature that was Vietnam.

Martin Sheen plays Captain Willard who is sent on a top-secret mission to go down the river into Cambodia and find Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and assassinate him. Kurtz has set up his own private village where he is king, or god. The US government declares him a mad man and wants this to be stopped.

So Willard travels forward, but it’s not really about the destination but the crumbling journey. One of the greatest scenes is when Willard meets up with Lieutenant Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who is more interested in surfing than bringing his men to be safety. He’s a man who doesn’t want to get out of war, but he wants it to last forever. The chaos is his life. As he continues forward Willard philosophies on whether or not he is damned to the same fate as those around him.

This was Francis Ford Coppola in his prime. He has never been able to capture the brilliance and emotion in a film again. Perhaps it was because this was not just a walk in the jungle. Included in the set is the infamous documentary Hearts of Darkness. It is a wonder that any film gets made, but it seems to be an act of God this even was shown in theatres. The madness was not only contained in the narrative, but towards everyone in the crew. This is one of the main sources of parody for Tropic Thunder and its pseudo-documentary Rain of Madness. It’s not one of the best paced documentaries, but is still a must-see for film fans.

This Blu-Ray set gets even greater. Also on one of its three discs is the extended version of the movie, Apocalypse Now Redux. There is 50 more minutes of footage from the film. Not all of it is necessary, but it’s all worth seeing because it’s still prime Coppola.

Also included in this set are brand new interviews with Coppola, Sheen, and the screenwriter John Milius. There’s also the 1938 audio recording of Orson Welles reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the inspiration for Apocalypse Now. There are also commentary tracks for the movie and Hearts of Darkness, another interview with Coppola and Roger Ebert, a collectible booklet and plenty more. This truly is the greatest DVD set that will ever be for this film.

Apocalypse Now – 5 Yaps

Apocalypse Now Redux – 4.5 Yaps

Hearts of Darkness – 4 Yaps

Extras – 5 Yaps

Monday, October 18, 2010

Film Yap: Psycho

Psycho, even fifty years later, remains one of the most brilliant and ingenious horror films ever made. It defies so many expectations and ways of storytelling that it still has the ability to shock people even if they think they know what is going to happen. Some of its elements are deeply rooted in the pop culture lexicon, like the famous shower scene and maybe even its ending.

Yet the film is much more than that. It is perhaps Alfred Hitchcock’s most suspenseful movie because everything is just a little bit off. Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane a woman who decides to steal $40,000. Even before Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates shows up, everything is incredibly tense and eerie. There is a cop who keeps staring at her and she keeps acting incredibly paranoid with everyone she talks to.

Norman Bates and the Bates Motel remains as one of the greatest structural shifts ever conceived. Once the famous shower scene takes place and all of the emotion that is entangled with Marion’s moral decision, the audience is lost. “Wait. Now what is going to happen? The movie is halfway over.” People are familiar with structure in films, even if they don’t know it. Either the guy will or will not end up with the girl at the end of the romantic comedy, etc.

So then who does the audience root for? There is the private detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) who starts to look for Marion but he isn’t really the main character. Neither is the sister (Vera Miles) or the love interest (John Gavin). It is just us vs. Norman Bates and his elusive mother. Perkins can not be praised enough for his performance. Casey Affleck must have watched this film in preparation for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford because Perkins knew just how to make everyone feel uncomfortable especially when he’s not saying creepy dialog.

It is his performance and the amazing script by Joseph Stefano that makes the truly best scene in the movie. When Marion arrives at the Motel she agrees to have a brief meal with Norman and the tension in that scene is impeccable. There is danger, uneasiness, but also a sexual longing. It’s frightening because at that moment Norman just wants to be with Marion and to connect with her. Just chilling. This shows it’s not about the gore or the morbid ways the teens get killed in horror films. It’s all about atmosphere and new ways to scare you without scaring you. This is how to make a horror film.

This new Blu-Ray is a must buy for fans of the movie. At first it is bit off-putting how smooth the picture looks, but it all quickly gels. The new 5.1 digital audio track is perfect. The bonus features are drool worthy. There is a long documentary about the making of Psycho, which is extremely well made. There are long interviews with Stefano, Leigh, and Alfred daughter Pat Hitchcock, who plays a small part in the film. There are also more featurettes breaking down various aspects of the film including Hitch himself and the shower scene. There is also a great segment from the famous interview with Hitch and Francois Truffaut. To top it all off, there is an informative commentary track from the author of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of “Psycho,” Stephen Rebello.

Film: 5 Yaps

Extras: 5 Yaps

Film Yap: Moulin Rouge

Moulin Rouge is a mixed bag, which for Baz Luhrmann is a huge step up. This film is full of contradictions and that is why it appeals to some people but make others run for the hills. (Yes, the ones with the sound of music.) When the film is failing, it’s because it’s too Baz Luhrmann but when it succeeds it’s because it’s very Baz Luhrman.

This is his fairy tale told through popular music. Ewan McGregor is Christian, an oh so talented charmingly bohemian tragically impoverished writer. (Their words.) He knows how to make poetry but he’s never been in love. Through truly insane accidents he joins a small troupe who are working on a new show called Spectacular Spectacular. They want the beautiful Satine (Nicole Kidman) to star in it at the Moulin Rouge.

The Moulin Rouge needs some money. The obsese owner (Jim Broadbent) sets up a meeting for Satine to seduce The Duke (Richard Roxburgh) so he can finance them for life. Through musical conventions, Satine mistakes Christian for The Duke and falls in love after they share a musical number. Realizing her mistake and maintaining her devotion, she pretends to be with the Duke so Christian and his troupe can put on the show.

It’s a fun story especially when it’s intertwined with reimagining of popular songs. In the best sequence, Christian starts to sing Elton John’s “Your Song” to interrupt Satine’s sexual misinterpretation of their meeting. Also the “Elephant Love Medley” is a brilliant and seemless blend of songs. These scenes work because Luhrmann actually cares about what is being said. So the focus is actually on the actors and the lyrics.

When he’s not interested, then the film just falls apart and becomes obnoxious. The first thirty minutes are a chore. It’s so ADD and all over the place it’s impossible to see anything beyond the editing. The Cancan number is so irritating, I’m sure a lot of people haven’t seen past it. During the scenes with hyperkinetic energy, all of the acting just resorts to people screaming random things. That’s actually all John Leguizamo does during this film.

What does end up working, surprisingly, is the core romance. To a point. Satine is a very realized character acted perfectly by Kidman. Christian is two-dimensional but that isn’t a hindrance. The Duke is just the dorky version of the hunter from Jumanji whose presence just feels irratating more than natural. So when the emotions are centered around Satine then it works on all cylinders. Even though the darker parts of the movie feel off because Luhrmann applies the same sorts of heightened ridiculousness to that as he does to young love, it kinda works because Kidman knows how to ground it.

The new Blu-Ray is worth checking out only if you tolerate the style of the movie because there are plenty of featurettes saying how wonderful it is. Since the whole thing needs to be stylish, those don’t even fill the full screen but just a smaller box it creates. There is also a rather annoying piece called A Creative Adventure that tries to combine all of Luhrmann’s films. There’s also a Picture-in-Picture mode and a commentary track by Luhrmann and his collaborators.

Film: 3.5 Yaps

Extras: 2.5 Yaps

Higgens Network: RED

RED works on the belief that it isn’t about the age of the action hero, but who is playing the hero. Wanted was a stupid movie, but people enjoyed it when Morgan Freeman was swearing up a storm and shooting people. Sure, it’s a bit of odd juxtaposition but it’s mostly because it’s fun to see Morgan Freeman as an unconventional action hero.

Freeman is back in this movie and joined by Bruce Willis, Brian Cox, John Malkovich, and—of course—Helen Mirren. Together they’re traveling across the country, killing bad guys, and taking names. Plenty of jokes are thrown at them for being old but none of them seem old. Willis can walk out of a spinning car, Malkovich can stop a missile, and Mirren can seemingly shoot every gun ever. The plot doesn’t revolve around them not being physically able, but just bored.

Before the complicated espionage assassination, Willis was spending his retirement revolving around his day around phone calls to a beautiful telemarketer played by Mary-Louise Parker. Once the bullets start flying, they have no choice but to finally meet and stay alive. Parker is a blast as the adventure romantic who doesn’t take kindly to being kidnapped. Willis is...the same emotionless performance he’s given for years now.

I loved them playing off each other and the rest of the group having fun, but they ultimately became part of the background. It suddenly becomes too convoluted with Karl “Bones” Urban and Rebecca “Wait, Mamet didn’t write this?” Pidgeon trying to use CIA resources to kill everybody. Then there’s Richard Dreyfuss playing the same part he did in Leaves of Grass (and W?) who is involved with Julian McMahon. Most of it doesn’t make any sense and is instantly forgettable.

This should have been like a Bond plot. Those guys are evil. Let’s get them and stuff will probably blow up. The film tries to cram too much and before we even understand why we’re in one state we’re off to the next one and more characters are added. Some are great additions like Brian Cox who pulls off the purple suit and Russian accent. But then Freeman is wasted because there are too many people doing the same thing.

Still, the movie is light and there are enough fun performances to make this an enjoyable movie to watch. It just doesn’t get me excited for Still RED.

Heartland Film Yap: 10 Mountains 10 Years

I feel like a monster for writing this review. Saying anything negative about this film is like talking poorly about puppies, the Holocaust, or babies. Oh wait. 10 Mountains, 10 Years is a great idea for a documentary. It is about a fundraiser for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s research which consists of climbing a different mountain every year for ten years.

It’s inspiring, innovating, and necessary. This is a wonderful organization, but it’s important to separate the group from the movie. After unveiling its premise, the movie feels completely flat. This is the opportunity to really display some of the most personal stories, but everything melds together in this film.

There are scenes that should totally work on paper, but have no pulse on screen. During the climb, the mountaineers are reading aloud letters from those who are sick. With the location and the people and the words, there should be tears but the filmmaking betrays these moments. (Too many of them as well). It’s difficult to focus on the words because the film isn’t providing the pathos and energy.

What does work is the saddening stats about these diseases. Actually seeing the people worked better than any of the interviews (Again too many of them). This is an organization that should be praised and there should be a more effective film to talk about it. This just seems like a DVD extra or something to present to companies. Even with Anne Hathaway narrating, it isn’t lifted towards something cinematic.

2.5 Yaps

Heartland Film Yap: Black White and Blues

The fun title Black, White, and Blues refers to its main character, a rather upset guy by the name of Jefferson Bailey (Morgan Simpson). Filled with relationship difficulties and alcohol, he is the prime person to sing the blues. Unfortunately he’s plagued with crippling stage freight. He can’t even physically be on the stage for too long.

After a sour bar brawl with Luke Perry, Bailey hops into the ride of a man named Augy (Michael Clarke Duncan). Augy has been pestering Bailey to go back home so he can receive his potion of a will. Both of them are extremely fascinating characters full of depth and mystery.

While watching this film, it’s difficult to realize that it actually is a road trip movie. Sure, there are a few minor detours and there is a clear path but you get too caught up in the narrative of these characters. The screenplay, written by Simpson and George Richards, handles its characters so well. Tales of redemption are difficult because in order for there to be emotional payoff, the film has to instantly establish the character and provide a believable arc. Black, White, and Blues does that with ease.

The most memorable part of the movie is its visual style. Its cool colors and impressive lighting design makes each frame rewarding. Mario Van Peebles further proves himself as one of today’s unsung directors. He was great with his feature Baadasssss! and his work on the TV shows Damages and LOST. He has a clear vision but the real skill is combining the visceral elements without ever neglecting the character arcs.

With a story like this, the ending can be everything. When something is alluded to for over an hour, there is some expectations of what is in the box. Its conclusion does end up being surprisingly satisfying in a more unconventional way. The whole movie is clever and will end up staying with you.

4.5 Yaps

Heartland Film Yap: Among Us

Fantasy only seems like fantasy when it’s juxtaposed against our world. Dragons flying could seem standard until you look out your window. Among Us does an excellent job of creating a cold realism and then slowly introduces in the incredible.

This is a Swedish film starring Michael Nvquist (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series) and Izabellas Scorupco as Ernst and Cecilia who are suffering. Their child is in the hospital in critical condition. They are both anxious and doubting, but they have no choice but to continue on with their lives.

Then a new man introduces himself into their lives in order to help them. He calls himself Walter (Tchéky Karyo) and Cecilia finds warmth in his presence. Ernst just becomes more frustrated whenever Walter tries to emotionally intervene. Words are never said and accusations are never made, but it’s clear to everyone that Walter is not exactly what he seems.

It seems like I’m giving away too many clues about the movie but writer/director Johan Brisinger does not play the tale out as suspenseful in that regard. Think enough about the title and the mystery is solved. Instead he wisely keeps it focused on the family dynamic and that creates for a better payoff. Nvquist and Scorupco are excellent as the grieving parents who don’t fall back on expected responses.

As with a lot of Scandinavian films, this movie is slow and a bit minimalistic. That approach could leave some audience members cold (pun intended), but in this case it creates a wonderful balance towards the possibly heightened premise. By the end it has this surprisingly emotional reaction. The movie takes risks, but Brisinger pulls them off.

4 Yaps

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Film Yap: The Tillman Story

The times have changed for what the name Pat Tillman stands for. He used to be known as a young football star, destined for greatness. Then he was the poster child for the War in Afghanistan, a model citizen of selflessness and honor. Now everyone knows the name because all of the government corruption centered around his death.

Documentarian Amir Bar-Lev does an incredible job with this film because he has to walk a very difficult line. Tillman never wanted the spotlight. He opped out of having a big governmental funeral and never wanted to have interviews about his decision to leave the NFL and enlist into the US Army. He believed in his country and was a brave man, but he did not want to be used for propaganda.

If that’s the case, should this movie be made? It’s still using the image of Tillman for alternative reasons, but is that a difference? The film is not called The Pat Tillman Story but The Tillman Story. Pat is the central point, but the narrative is about the Tillmans that remained.

By now, almost every knows that Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire, but that is not what was initially said. His death was used to help sell the war to the American public. Nothing was reported or questioned even with fellow soldiers testifying towards the truth. It wasn’t until Pat’s mom spent years going through the public records and trying to un-redact the classified material.

As the investigation continues, the worse it appears. It does not just look like someone made careless mistakes. Instead the film makes some serious accusations towards high government officials. Just like how Bar-Lev tackled the modern art world in My Kid Could Paint That, he uses a personal family story to bring forth legitimate questions about an institution. Every interview is incredibly fascinating and since he’s talking to Pat’s family and friends, they are incredibly passionate.

The only time the film lost its way was when they were just focusing on Pat as a person. I’m glad they debunked some of his legendary persona. Even knowing his last words doesn’t make him John Wayne. However when his family continues to praise him for many frames, it just feels like he’s being used again and then the film feels dirty.

This movie feels different than other political message movies. This is a closed story. There is no call for advocacy or even a layer of hope. This is something that has happened and it is important people know more of the facts because it could happen again.

4.5 Yaps

Film Yap: Leaves of Grass

I love it when a dramatic actor takes a break and actually jumps into a really comedic character. Sean Penn was great in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Sweet and Lowdown. Robert DeNiro was brilliant as the gay Captain Shakespeare in Stardust. Now Edward Norton had a field day in Leaves of Grass.

In fact Norton actually has two roles since he is both of the identical twins. Bill Kincaid was the brother who grew up writing long papers dissecting criticism and philosophy while Brady stayed in Oklahoma selling pot and partaking in all sorts of mischief. Bill’s life is going well with Cambridge considering him for a new professor position. Yet he’s called back home when he hears his brother was murdered with a crossbow.

That turns out to be a lie. Brady just needs Bill’s help. He needs Bill to pretend to be him so he can have a successful alibi when he has to confront a business partner of his from out of town played by Richard Dreyfus. Bill hates every part of the world he’s abandoned, especially his disappointing mother (Susan Sarandon). The only shining light is meeting Janet (Keri Russell) a beautiful woman who can quote Walt Whitman while gutting a catfish.

Norton is brilliant in this duel role. He’s very sophisticated and polished as Bill, but as Brady he’s all over the place. He has this ridiculous accent and you can never exactly tell if he’s under influence or not. Yet he’s just as brilliant as Bill but went down a different path. He’s like Mycroft Holmes, if Mycroft was more interested in growing marijuana. Neither the characters nor the performances fall into stereotype and kept within its reality.

Tim Blake Nelson wrote and directed this fascinating and funny movie with a large degree of intelligence. There is plenty to dissect about the complexity of the two brothers and how it parallels what Bill is teaching. Yet none of that ever eclipses the humor and warmth of the movie.

The movie’s shocking use of violence is really well done. It’s brutal and unexpected but adds a lot to the environment that Blake has created. The movie doesn’t even pass two hours but it feels so well realized and that is connected to the strong writing of Nelson. He is usually known as a fun character actor (Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Holes) and he also has a small part as Brady’s sidekick. I think writing is his real strength, because this movie is full of surprises and well-done arcs for its characters. This is a very strong comedy because of how original it is.

The DVD is pretty bare. There is an 11 minute long “making-of” documentary that is too cluttered with clips from the film you’ve seen. They keep interrupting the interesting comments by the people they’re interviewing. There is also a very nice commentary track with Nelson, Norton and one of its producers.

Film: 4.5 Yaps

Extras: 3 Yaps

Heartland Film Yap: Café

The interconnectedness of lives is a topic that is very familiar with independent films. They are films that live and die depending on the writing, specifically the strength of the characters. Café is not a perfect movie, but is a very fun one because of its characters.

Todd (Daniel Eric Gold) runs a quaint little café in Philadelphia. He has never met the owner of the café, but he returns every day because it’s an easy job and he’s in love with his co-worker, Claire (Jennifer Love Hewitt). Meanwhile, there is also a drug dealer (Jamie Kennedy) who appears to be working now with real estate. Alexa Vega plays a young woman trying to get a job to help someone on a personal level. A married man decided to be spontaneous and asked out a stranger he met in the theatre.

Then there is a man who keeps having a little girl (Madeline Carroll from Flipped) talk to him through his computer trying to convince him that the world is not real, but a computer simulation and she is its creator. Now this is a fascinating plotline because it’s so different from the rest of the movie. The others are strong character studies, but then there is this science fiction story that can either be accurate or the man’s schizophrenia.

Although the theological questions were a bit too easy, this story provided a lot of fun. Writer/director Marc Erlbaum has a fun sense of filmmaking. The camera is always gracefully moving through the lone set. With the avatar/God plotline he is able to show some fantastical imagery that enhances the movie.

The cast is really strong in this, as well. Gold has a leading man presence that makes his character very endearing even though he has the weakest of the set. Kennedy gives his best performance I’ve seen. He is typically very manic, but he’s controlled and very threatening in this.

A lot of people will be talking about the ending and it didn’t need to be that extreme. The movie works because Erlbaum created a world that was a lot of fun to be in for a week. At the end Erlbaum compromises a little bit of that interaction, not exactly with its story but he does end up overshadowing too much.

Beyond that, this is a delightful film that shows a lot of promise for Erlbaum and his future endeavors. IMDb lists his next film, A Buddy Story, which will star the brilliant Mad Men actress Elisabeth Moss. I can’t wait.

4 Yaps

Heartland Film Yap: Summer Eleven

There is always a considerable amount of bias when watching a film. Your own experiences always have a way of sneaking in. Watching Summer Eleven invoked my current role as a Telecommunications student at Ball State University. When my peers make a feature or a short film, there is usually a large amount of heart and promise hidden in the frames. There are often a ton of problems with the filmmaking and the script, but that’s excused because a student makes it.

That’s how I approached Summer Eleven but then Adam Arkin showed up. Arkin is a familiar actor who was last seen in a Best Picture nominee. Then I realized that the writer/director Joseph Kell is not new to the business, but has been a television actor for several decades. This makes it more difficult to ignore the rough edges of this film.

Having a coming of age film from the point of view of four eleven-year-old girls through the course of one summer is a sweet topic. It’s just handled very bluntly at times. The dialog is awkward and too on-the-nose throughout the summer. It’s difficult to tell if the dialog matches the ages or even if their actions match their ages.

The editing doesn’t feel finished, all of the acting is stale, and the lighting is very standard. But this isn’t a bad film. There is not one ounce of cynicism or condescension in it. It has all the right intentions, but it doesn’t get there…yet. Just like students making their first film, I’m certain Kell knows what he needs to do next time.

If he focuses on fewer characters, I think he can make something special. In Summer Eleven there are too many things going on and in order to move forward he needs to rely on familiar material. There is a subplot with a brother (Steven Gayhm) who goes to Iraq and becomes cynical upon returning home. This is one of the storylines that needed to be fleshed out a little more in order to earn the emotional payoffs.

This is just a lesson in filmmaking. I’m sure Kell will make another film and I hope he does. There are few films that focus on being this sweet. So many family films, like the ones from Dreamworks, are more interested in dropping pop culture references and things that only work for one age group. Kell wants to make something for the entire family and this does that.

2.5 Yaps

Friday, October 8, 2010

Film Yap: My Soul to Take

There is a difficulty in figuring out the quality of My Soul to Take. It’s definitely bad; that’s a certain. The question is, how bad is it? Usually it’s easy to tell if a film is a comedy, but this was more of a challenge. I love it when a horror film doesn’t take itself too seriously but is any of this movie genuine?

Sixteen years ago there was this crazy guy named the Riverton Ripper. Through digital technology there were able to figure out the Ripper has a knife with the word vengeance on it. A family man finds that bloody knife in his house and realizes that during his blackouts he is an evil murderer. This family man is played by Raúl Esparza, one of the greatest actors working today. He’s an accomplished actor on Broadway recently starring in Speed the Plow and his role in the revival of Company ranks as one of my all time favorite performances. It is incredibly depressing that this is his first major screen presence.

Through a series of familiar horror conventions, the guy dies but according to Haiti voodoo legend, his schizophrenia means he has multiple souls and his soul may still live on. Or maybe he didn’t die and he’s still out there ready to kill again. Maybe his “death” ties into the seven children who were mysteriously born at the same time. So in present day, those seven children are still terrified of the Ripper and they celebrate Ripper Day, which consists of one of them punching a puppet of the Ripper to keep him dead. Or something.

It’s very clever to have a lot of different mythology sources in this movie. There is the Haiti legend, there is a Christianity theory, there is this puppet thing and more that keep randomly being inserted into the story. The problem is this isn’t a case of flawed narrators. Somehow they’re ALL true! If a character randomly said aloud, “The Ripper will explode of a leaf of lettuce touched his right cheek,” it will become true. It’s always exciting to have a new monster on screen instead of playing with the same conventions of vampires or whatever. Yet this is just really stupid.

Since this concept is really stupid and contrived, Wes Craven wasted a fun spin on a horror trope. There isn’t one character in this movie who doubts that a 16 year old murderer’s soul could still attack people on the day of their death. There’s usually an annoying character that would powerfully argue there aren’t any werewolves in the area despite the reports of giant wolves attacking people on the full moon every single month. So even though that is relieving not to have that irritating character, but since everyone instantly believes what is going on they’re just seen as insane from the audience’s eye.

Speaking of insanity, I’m not sure Craven has any sort of grasp on high school anymore. In between jump scares and creepy noises in the night, there is this ridiculous high school plot. Let’s try to break this down. Bug is one of the scared Riverton Seven and he likes Brittany but hates Brandon. So to get back at Brandon he listens to a 2AM radio show talking about birds and creates a giant condor costume for his friend Alex to wear. Alex wears this costume during his presentation to fly around class, which results with projectile vomiting on Brandon.

Then there’s also this thing with a girl named Fang who uses high school like the mob and she authorizes who Brandon is allowed to hit and to what power. There is also a scene where Brandon chases Brittany through the woods demanding oral sex. Then there is this extremely Christian girl why only speaks in condescending spiritual advice. This is such an obnoxious stereotype it’s even offensive to atheists. Also I think high-schoolers only travel through their bedroom window in horror movies and Clarissa Explains It All.

It’s the combination of this crazy plot and utterly terrible dialog that makes this movie watchable despite how bad it clearly is. The drive home will be devoted to theories about this movie. Not about its themes or philosophies but simply wondering “Was that supposed to be a joke?” and “How does this make any sense?” At least it wasn’t boring.

1.5 Yaps

Higgens Network: Catfish

Catfish is one of the most talked about movies of the year, but most of the dialog is begging people not to talk about it. It’s a documentary that is about the relationship between a twenty-something photographer in New York and a family in Michigan that is using his photos as inspiration for their art.

To honor the encouraged silence, I shall not reveal anymore of the plot but only the movie as a whole.

After films like Exit Through the Gift Shop and the atrocious I’m Still Here, it is difficult to trust narrative documentaries. Walking out of Catfish, I didn’t think it was real because it would fit too well with the film’s themes for there to be technological fakery. Also I never bought the characters were making this documentary before the plot develops into something more cinematic. Was it just a coincidence this became so interesting?

Yet the filmmakers swear this is true—just like Mr. Casey Affleck was swearing last year. If this is true, then it’s still not compelling enough. People have raved about the ending but I found it very unsatisfying especially with its build-up in the movie. This would make for a powerful segment on This American Life but it’s stretched too much for a feature film.

There are plenty of fun ways the filmmakers told the story. It’s all told through degrees of common technology. Places are examined through Google Earth, research through YouTube, and the plot is centered around Facebook. Technology controls these lives but of course the movie is also subject to the same socializing technology with their video camera.

This film is not criticizing technology like a fearful 50s sci-fi movie. Instead it is curious about the evolution—not devolution—of online intimacy. This topic is so interesting but Catfish focuses too much on the plot and the facts that there is too swiftly of a shift when it asks personal psychological queries of its subjects.

The ending and ultimately the movie did not capture me like the rest of the country because I never cared about its characters. I only cared about them in relations to where the plot was heading and since the plot lead to a point that quickly plateaued the film has to be labeled as a disappointment. Apparently there is an upcoming 20/20 show devoted to this movie and the reveals in the final act so that may clarify how real it was. Either way, there is a severe emotional disconnect in the narrative of the film and that’s doesn’t count as the film’s point.

Film Yap: And the Nominees Were - 1937

Austin Lugar, Keith Jackson and Kenny Jones started a podcast called And the Nominees Are. On this show they are attempting to review every single Best Picture nominee starting from the very beginning. Here Austin recaps the plot summaries of each set while teasing the longer discussions.

We have reached a new landmark with the films in 1937. We have our first film in color. Sure there was that one segment in Hollywood Revue of 1929 but that didn’t count because that was colorized in post. And we don’t like that film. We couldn’t help but notice that there were two extremes with the films in this set. Either the film was tragically about death or it was a lighter comedy. Let’s see which ones worked…

The Awful Truth

Leo McCarey has been very impressive so far in his career. He’s made Duck Soup and Ruggles of Red Gap, the latter of which I’ve called one of the unsung American comedy classics. This is one of his most popular films starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as a couple who recently divorced but continue to try and make the other one jealous. It’s not as funny as some of his other films, but it’s still charming.

Captains Courageous

Spencer Tracy won his first Oscar as the wise fisherman who teaches young Fredie Bartholomew about life. This is a very fun movie that successfully takes its time with the character arcs. It may become too sappy at the end, but it’s still an exciting movie that would work well with children today.

Dead End

McCarey had been impressing us with comedies, but it has been William Wyler as the emerging dramatic director. We adored Dodsworth for not falling into the other traps of the movies from this time. Yet Dead End is a bit of a step-back as it feels too stagy and rather annoying character. This is our earliest showing of Humphrey Bogart and he is still awesome.

The Good Earth

There was a little bit of disagreement about this film on the podcast. Some of us were enthralled by its long epic tale of poor Chinese farmers (Of course played by Paul Muni and Luise Rainer). Its pacing allows for some satisfying emotional conclusions and it’s a really strong story. At least, that’s just my opinion…

In Old Chicago

Remember when we reviewed San Francisco? This is pretty much the same movie. Very half-assed and unlikable melodrama for the first 3/4ths and then it’s a random disaster movie for the last twenty minutes. Be very cautious from now on if a city’s name is in the title.

The Life of Emile Zola – WINNER

Paul Muni created an odd niche for himself as the guy who stars as the titular famous character. This movie is much stronger than The Story of Louis Pasteur though because oddly enough it tells a story instead of trying to summarize Zola’s life. The film is centered around a trial of an innocent man and how the author did everything he could to save the man.

Lost Horizon

Now this is a movie. This is a Frank Capra movie that no one remembers, but may be my favorite one of his now. Ronald Coleman is a beloved Englishman who was in China to rescue people from genocide. The plane taking him home mysterious crashes and he is taken to a mystical utopian society. There are plenty of parallels to the TV show LOST and the ambition for this movie pays off.

One Hundred Men and a Girl

This movie, on the other hand, has no ambition. After Three Smart Girls Deanna Durbin somehow became a star. Also since that movie, her acting became worse. This is a very annoying movie where she wants 100 out of work musicians to have the chance to run a music hall. Eugene Pallette and Alice Brady try their best to make this enjoyable.

Stage Door

As annoying as One Hundred Men and a Girl was, it wasn’t comparable to this movie. Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball and other women all want to be Broadway actresses but they spend most of their time complaining with dreadful banter. Bleh.

A Star is Born

This film has been made countless times and serves as the staple for showing the horrors of Hollywood. Yet, this is still a delightful movie. Janet Gaynor (Sunrise, State Fair) is the blooming young actress and Fredric March (The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Anthony Adverse) is the established star wanting to bring her in. Plenty of inside jokes and its fresh use of color makes this a very fun movie.

We discuss these movies with a lot more detail on our show And the Nominees Are as well as discussing the other awards from this year. This set was covered over two episodes both of which can be found for free on iTunes. We’d love it if you left us a review! Our show is also on Facebook and Twitter.

If you’d like to play along with us, the next 10 films for 1938 are The Adventures of Robin Hood, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Boys Town, The Citadel, Four Daughters, Grand Illusion, Jezebel, Pygmalion, Test Pilot, and You Can’t Take It With You.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Film Yap: The Blair Witch Project

A brief history lesson: In 1999, majority of the world was partying exactly like it was 1999. For the few brief moments when people were not partying, they were terrified. It was mostly because of Y2K, but a lot of people were shivering in fear from a little movie called The Blair Witch Project.

While a lot of horror movies were playing up the gore and special effects, writer/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez used creative means to scare you with very little money. The story is famous by now. Three student filmmakers want to make a documentary about the legend of the Blair Witch. They spend the first day going around town talking to the residents who lay the groundwork for the mythology.

Then they journey into the woods for more footage. The longer they spend in the woods, the higher the tension grows among them. They become very frustrated and slowly convinced there may actually be a Blair Witch.

The three actors (Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams) are what sell this movie. The film is presented in a documentary like format and it’s their naturalistic performances that convinced people this might have been a true story. Most actors in horror films just have to focus on screaming and breathing heavily at the right time. This trio did a great job about selling every moment of their arc: their awkwardness, amusement, professionalism, anger, nervousness, and ultimately fear.

It is almost like theatre of the absurd. A pile of rocks on the ground is not scary imagery, but if they react like it is without appearing cartoonish then it’s effective. The movie is full of tense moments like that. The movie doesn’t have major horror set pieces, but the pacing is still incredible. It’s a very clear arc to one of the most satisfying conclusions in recent memory of the genre.

Without this movie there wouldn’t be films like REC and Paranormal Activity. This film was a phenomenon and it still holds up really well on its own, not just as one of the first of its kind.

The new Blu-Ray is full of great bonus features. There is an impressive full “documentary” called Curse of the Blair Witch that serves as a (true) sequel to this movie expanding on the mythology of the Blair Witch and trying to find out more about the three kids. There are also creepy alternate endings, an older commentary track, and another mini-documentary showing text about the other sightings of the Blair Witch. Is this a movie that needs to be experienced on Blu-Ray? No, but it still looks nice.

Film: 4 Yaps

Extras: 4 Yaps

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Film Yap: The Human Centipede

The Human Centipede is the most talked about horror film of the year, but will be one of the most underseen ones as well. Why will more people see Devil over this? For this film is extremely disgusting. The title is referencing the idea of surgically connecting three people from mouth to anus to create a string of people…like a centipede.

At this point, if you are an American tourist in a horror film just avoid traveling in Europe. It will never turn out well. Writer/director Tom Six introduces the film in a typical fashion. Two young female Americans become lost and wind up at an evil German doctor’s house. Things are suspicious, drinks are drugged, escape is impossible, yadda yadda yadda.

Then the centipede is created and it’s nauseating. Then it’s just static. The movie is the definition of a one-trick pony. The unique form of torture is worth noting, but nothing is done with it. Just like Toy Story wasn’t just about hanging around in Andy’s room observing how toys operate; there was an actual plot involved with Woody and Buzz coming to terms. This film is missing the plot.

Even though the rest of the film isn’t very inventive, there are still some elements that work. Six knows how to work the horror film grammar. There are plenty of interesting shots and creepy sequences. There is a pool scene that is more positively memorable than any of the gross-out scenes with the “centipede.”

The only other thing that works is the insane performance of Dieter Laser as the evil doctor. He is a captivating villain who perfectly overacts without becoming cartoonish. Even though the third act has been overdone a million times, it is watchable because it’s fun watching this guy scream and act like a crazy person.

Once you have mentally accepted the grossness of the human centipede—it takes awhile—there is nothing else to latch onto. How can a film with such a scarring premise be so forgettable? Apparently Six is at work at a sequel to this film where he will unveil “the full sequence” which will consist of twelve people attached. So look forward to even more scenes of people awkwardly walking and trying to scream. Can’t wait.

The DVD includes a fly-on-the-wall making of documentary consisting of footage from behind the scenes. Only two of the ten minutes consist of the formed centipede, which is way more interesting of a topic than people just sitting around. There is also a silly interview with Six, an odd Folley session, and awkward audition tapes for the two actresses. Like the rest of the film, the bonus features aren’t good but still bizarrely watchable.

Film: 2.5 Yaps

Extras: 3 Yaps

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Higgens Network: The Social Network

Recently another report said that Facebook has passed Google as the most visited website on the internet. Some people see the site as a time waster, opportunity for promotion, inspiration for narcissism, or a glorious way to connect with people. The man who started it all was Mark Zuckerberg.


David Fincher’s latest film examines the beginnings of The Facebook and specifically who Zuckerberg is. Just like Citizen Kane was a harsh examination of William Randolph Hearst while he was still in power, The Social Network does not paint Zuckerberg in a positive light. The film covers two major lawsuits attacking Zuckerberg for stealing the idea for the website and sabotaging those working with him.

Before any of that starts, the film opens with an eight-minute scene where Mark is dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara). Dialog extraordinaire Aaron Sorkin controls the scene with such power and punch that a long scene between two people who are sitting becomes one of my favorite scenes of the year. This causes Mark to get drunk and spend hours to start a website inviting Harvard University to compare the attractiveness of its college girls.

Overnight the site became so popular it crashed the Harvard website. The impressive coding required for the site caught the eyes of the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer). They want to create an elusive club for the internet that captures the social experience of college. Then things become morally questionable.

Jesse Eisenberg is pitch perfect as the antisocial Zuckerberg. His bitterness and lack of sensitivity makes him a great villain or the perfect tragic hero. As the story goes into unpredicted turns, Eisenberg keeps control of his character to focus on the loneliness and the detachment. It is not a showy performance, but one that ought to be praised as the best of his career so far.

Truly everyone is on top of their game for this film. Fincher is only as good as his script and this is Sorkin’s return to The West Wing level of quality. Together they create a resonating film that holds as one of the highlights of their impressive careers. The structure of this film is exciting as it jumps around in time. There is no surprise in whether or not Facebook will successful, but it’s really what had to happen to get to that spot. Most people don’t know about Sean Parker’s involvement. That is a lot of fun thanks to a great performance by Justin Timberlake.

It is a film that examines what the modern social experience really is. Who really benefits from the online presence and does it really have reflections on reality? The film is very entertaining, but it will make you think twice about having a Facebook account. Much like the effect of Super Size Me, I doubt many people will stop doing using it but there will be a tinge of doubt every time you sign on.