cwfilmbuff: (movies)
52. Faces of a Fig Tree
Beautifully shot rambling narrative following a family over the span of a few years as they go trough several life-changing events. The story itself is very loose, but seeing what these people go through and how they react to the changes that crop up is consistently fun and interesting. Plus it’s chock-full of great deadpan humor, brilliant colors, wonderfully composed cinematography, and foul-mouthed ants.
cwfilmbuff: (movies)
30. Mr. Brooks
I’m as shocked as anyone: a movie with Kevin Costner and Dane Cook that not only doesn’t suck, but is actually pretty good. It helps that they’re working with an excellent script about a man who is addicted to killing people, which covers a lot of different subplots without ever straying too far from the main story and without including anything unnecessary. Plus the ending used a device I tend to think of as a cop-out, but it really works in this case. Performance-wise, a lot has been said about William Hurt, who essentially plays the personification of Mr. Brook’s compulsion, but while that praise is well-deserved I think it’s actually Costner who makes the movie work (never thought I’d be saying that again). He makes the title character likable, to the point that you want him to beat his addiction because, apart from the whole serial killer thing thing, he’s actually a pretty good guy. My hat’s also off to the art director for the excellent use of color (or lack thereof); Brooks is surrounded with black and white - at home, at work, in the clothes he wears, everywhere. My guess is it was done to highlight the dichotomy between his public and private selves, but regardless of meaning it creates some striking visuals.

31. Paprika
The latest eye-popping anime from Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue) deals with a technology that allows dreams to be recorded and studied, and what happens when that technology is misused. But the story, while interesting, is not nearly as important as the visuals, the fluid animation, and the mind-bending dreamworlds created in this movie. Excellent animation throughout, and just plain fun to watch.

32. 1408
FInally, a horror movie that actually tries to scare its audience, rather than gross them out. Very psychological and very effective, this is a movie that could have gone wrong very easily. It’ll never happen, but I’d love to see John Cusack nominated for some acting awards simply for the fact that he carried the majority of the movie alone. With a lesser actor this wouldn’t have worked, but Cusack pulls it off. I wanted a little more from the end, but for the most part the movie succeeds in its goal of creeping out the audience.
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25. Black Book

Entertaining, if too long, spy thriller set in Nazi-occupied Holland. It follows a Jewish woman who joins the Dutch resistance to spy on the German occupiers. There’s plenty of suspense, and for every obvious double-cross there’s two or three unexpected ones, but after the two-hour mark the film starts to drag on. Its slow resolution, combined with a bit of unnecessary cruelty toward the end (typical of Verhoeven, but up until then I was hoping he’d made a movie without sinking to those depths), left me disappointed in an otherwise excellent film.
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13. The 2006 Academy Award Nominated Live-Action Short Films
The five films that were up for Best Live-Action Short. Added up they were long enough not to require any padding by short-listed titles, so it’s just these five.

The Saviour
I expected a movie about a Mormon missionary having an affair with a married woman to be funnier than this one was, but it was still a good film. Did a very interesting job of having people learn moral lessons and find faith in unexpected but natural (i.e. not forced) ways.

Helmer & Søn
Work-obssesed son is called in when his father locks himself in a closet. Hilarity and personal growth ensue. Not bad, but not great either; a couple good laughs but for the most part predictable and trite.

Eramos Pocos (One Too Many)
A woman leaves her slovenly husband and son, so they get her mother to move in with them. Good dry humor throughout, but it’s the ending that really makes this one work.

Binta and the Great Idea
This would have been my pick for the Oscar. Wonderful story about a small village in Africa that manages to touch on issues of sexism, adapting to cultural change, the effects of technology, differences between “civilized” and “developing” nations, and the trend of Westerners “saving” African or Asian babies by adopting them - all without being the least bit preachy and keeping the audience entertained. Some of the acting is uneven, but not enough to diminish the enjoyment of the movie. It ended up being 30 solid minutes of happiness for me - one of those movies that just leaves a smile on your face.

West Bank Story
For a musical spoof it was entertaining, even if everything was done in a heavy-handed way. It delivers everything you would expect from a West Side Story parody about dueling falafel stands owned by Israelis and Palestinians.

On a side note, As the first film was starting about half a dozes pre-teen girls came in and sat down behind me, or at least I thought they were all around twelve years old, considering how they reacted to nudity (”ewwww”) and their apparent unfamiliarity with one of the more famous movie musicals around (”hey, they just ripped off Romeo and Juliet, no wonder it won”). Sadly as I got up to leave I saw they were all at least in their 30s - a fact that made my head hurt.
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12. The 2006 Academy Award Nominated Animated Short Films
One of two short film collections playing this week at the Ken (and various other places); the other being the nominated live-action shorts. Because the longest nominated short in the animation category is 15 minutes (none of the other four reach the 10 minute mark), the bill is filled out with five films that were short-listed but didn’t make the cut. So it was 10 movies total, but one trip to the theater and one ticket, so I’m counting it as one on the 07 movie list.


No Time For Nuts
If the Ice Age movies were noting but Scrat, I would have enjoyed them a lot more. Going back to the original teaser trailer for Ice Age, Scrat has embodied the manic energy and visual humor of Warner Brother cartoons, never failing to make me laugh. Thankfully in this short none of his celebrity-voiced costars but in to distract from the simple and elegant humor of a squirrel with a time machine.

The Danish Poet
The only nominated film in the category with any sort of dialogue, and most of that is narration. The story about the series of coincidences that lead to the narrator’s parents meeting is sweet and funny, but the animation itself is the weakest of the five selections.

A mechanical arm prepares a bird for its big performance. There is a lot of good humor building up to the big punch line (which got the biggest laugh of the entire show), but what really sets this one apart is the cinematography. It’s done in a single shot that rotates around the action in one-second intervals - something that takes a little getting used to, but sets a great rhythm for the film.

The Little Matchgirl
An incredibly beautiful telling of the Hans Christian Anderson story, it also marks a welcome return by Disney to its 2D roots. This one will likely win tomorrow night, and deservedly so.

Very funny Pixar short, which I’m sure will be well received if (or when) it’s attached to Ratatouille next year.


One Rat Short
Great animation used to tell the story of a street rat who finds itself in an animal testing lab. Some of the better action sequences of the year, animated or otherwise.

The Passenger
Amusing horror/comedy short. A lot of laughs, but needed a little more in the story department.

Wraith of Cobble Hill
By far the weakest of the lot. It’s a student film that looks and feels like a student film: bad claymation in pretentious black and white, poorly-written dialogue, a moral that hits you over the head, and all the pacing of a tranquilized snail.

Guide Dog
This one goes on the short list of Plympton shorts where his animation style didn’t bother me. Very funny story of a would-be guide dog failing to properly guide his blind charges. Apparently it’s the sequel to Guard Dog, which I haven’t seen but may need to check out.

A Gentleman’s Duel
Amusing steampunk battle between a Brit and a Frenchman over a well-endowed woman. Lots of frantic violence and some sexual humor (a rarity in American animation - cartoons are for kids, ya know), but it could have used a stronger ending. Impressive animation though, so between that and the high laugh content it was a good choice to end the show.

I highly recommend seeing this collection if you get the chance, or checking out some of the shorts online (I think iTunes has most of them available for download, although at $2 a pop it’s more economical to see them in the theater).
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11. The Lives of Others
Set in late 1984 (an obvious but appropriate allusion), this one provides an interesting look into the monitoring practices of the East German state police. It moves a little slow, but all the build-up pays off in the film’s climax and denouement. Especially interesting are the visual differences between East and West Berlin (what few glimpses we get of the later, anyway), and the almost universal acceptance of the way things are, despite the knowledge that life is better almost anywhere else in Europe.

I don’t think this one will take the Oscar on Sunday night, but it’s definitely worth checking out. There aren’t a lot of post-Cold War movies about life in East Germany, and this one is easily at the top of that short list.
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10. The Pursuit of Happyness

I can see why Will Smith got an Oscar nomination for this role. He did a good job making an otherwise uninteresting movie at least watchable.

Not that there’s anything inherently bad about the movie, there’s just not anything really good about it either. There needed to be more than constantly watching the world throw obstacles at Chris Gardner as he tried to gain happiness through a better-paying job. And when he does get that job (don’t talk to me about spoilers; it’s one of the most predictable endings since Free Willy), it’s one of the most anti-climactic endings I’ve ever seen. I was still waiting for the actual emotional climax after all the suffering he’d gone through when the credits started rolling. Good acting, but not a very good movie.

And I have to agree with my sister that the marketing department made a huge mistake naming the movie after a scene they couldn’t show in the trailers.
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9. Venus
The story was a little trite, but the performances were excellent and there was enough smart and funny dialogue to more than make up for that. Besides, if you want to see Peter O’Toole in a modern movie, you could do a lot worse.
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8. Curse of the Golden Flower
Very pretty Hong Kong costume drama with a story that would not be out of place in an opera. There is surprisingly little action, although that’s mainly a surprise because the US marketing team packed the trailers with fight scenes - apparently we only want to see movies from Asia if there’s a tone of wire fighting. The performances are all good, the story is interesting and tragic, but the movie’s main selling point is its visuals. From the choreographed crowd scenes with hundreds of extras to the brightly detailed costumes (although it seems high neck lines were forbidden in Imperial China), the movie is beautiful to look at. It’s hitting the end of its theatrical run, but I would definitely recommend it as a rental when it hits DVD.
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7. Borat
I avoided this one because it seemed over-hyped and not my cup of tea. I was right on both counts. There’s some mild shock value at the beginning, but after 15 or 20 minutes I became numb to it and the rest of the movie was just the title character making people uncomfortable in an attempt at humor. Some of it was interesting, in the sense of seeing what people will say when they don’t think anyone in their country will see it, but I failed to see why it was such a big deal when it opened last year.

I also fail to see why the screenplay is up for an Oscar. If anything, the parts that were scripted (and quite a few clearly were) hurt the movie by casting doubt on the authenticity of the bits that were presented as spontaneous.
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6. Letters From Iwo Jima
An excellent companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, but it also works well on its own. Better, if fact, than its predecessor. While Flags was an interesting look at the American propaganda machine during WWII, it tended to meander and I had trouble keeping myself interested in what happened to the characters. Letters, on the other hand, held my attention throughout. Even knowing the outcome of the battle, I was wrapped up in the stories and genuinely interested in seeing what happened to the characters.

I also liked seeing a movie made by an American director in which the U.S. was the faceless enemy. It’s a common enough technique to remove the individual identities of whoever our military is fighting, but it’s always interesting to see that turned on ourselves - a reminder that soldiers on both sides are in a similar situation. Flags does the same thing from the American side, which is what makes the two movies work together so well - both sides of the same story are told (at times using the same footage), with each side given equal treatment. In the end no one there, from the decorated officers to the lowest-ranking draftee, is a faceless killer, and there are no real “bad guys” on the battlefield, just a bad situation.
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5. Pan’s Labyrinth
If I were organized enough to make a top 10 list of 2006 this would be on it. The storytelling is superb, the visuals are beautiful, and everything about the movie works exactly right. It is, as countless reviews have called it, a fairy tale for grown-ups, and I know quite a few grown-ups who will enjoy it.

On a side note, Guillermo del Toro apparently has plans for a third Spanish Civil War movie. Methinks he is interested in that bit of history, but finds it sorely lacking in the departments of ghosts and fairies.
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4. Notes on a Scandal
Great acting and a good character-driven story made this one worth watching. The overly-dramatic music (often bordering on absurd) made it annoying. Over all a good movie, if slightly hindered during the last stages of post.

As I left the theater a thought occurred to me. The movie is about a lonely woman who writes down her fantasies about someone who is clearly heterosexual suddenly realizing that the key to true love is in a homosexual relationship. The author of these delusions throws a hissy fit any time her subject behaves in a way that doesn’t fit with the fantasy. So basically, Notes on a Scandal is about a slash writer.

movie 3

Jan. 5th, 2007 05:10 pm
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3. Children of Men
Great concept weighed down by a so-so story. Actually there are a lot of really good things about this movie, but the story leaves too much unexplained for it to be a satisfying narrative. Despite that, I continue to be impressed by Alfonso Cuarón as a director. He manages to create a very convincing view of the world after 18 years of human infertility, putting in all sorts of details that do a good job of selling the concept. Add to that a few incredible one-shot action sequences and you have a film that’s visually interesting enough to almost make up for the incomplete story. Almost.

movie 2

Jan. 4th, 2007 09:45 pm
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2. Sweet Land
This movie had one of the worst trailers I’ve seen in a while. Say what you will about the “give everything away” trailers for blockbusters and the like, but most of those movies weren’t going to be too surprising in the first place. The marketing department for Sweet Land took a good movie and made a trailer that dragged, making the not-quite three minutes seem like five or six (sadder still is the fact that the first 30 seconds or so are excellent, hooking you in only to have you loose interest by the time the trailer’s over). Based on this I had little interest in the movie, despite what seemed like an interesting love story and some good actors.

Thankfully the movie was much better paced than the trailer. The love story between two a Minnesota farmer and his German bride-to-be (in 1920, when Germany isn’t very high on most Americans’ list of favorite countries) is played out with just the right mix of humor, romance, and frustration. The actors are all good, if nothing outstanding. But one of the rolls call for dramatic, overly-emotional performances; that would have been out of place and hurt the film’s believability.

Most notable however is the cinematography. director of photography David Tumblety does an amazing job of setting up shots that would not look out of place on a gallery wall. Capturing the intimacy of two people who can’t be intimate and the vast expanses of open land (sometimes in the same shot), the camera work is what made this movie. It was helped by an editor who knew when not to cut too; one scene in particular, with people leaving a church and interacting outside, could easily have been broken up into four or five shots but has so much more impact as a single take from inside the building.

Needless to say I was impressed by the film. It’s not getting a very wide theatrical release (in San Diego at least, tonight was the last night to see it), but I highly recommend looking for it on DVD. It’s one of the rare feel-good movies that’s authentic enough to actually make you feel good.

movie 1

Jan. 2nd, 2007 08:15 pm
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In what seems to be a trend this year, I’ve decided to keep track of my media consumption this year. I may do books over at [ profile] 50bookchallenge, but my main interest is just how many movies I see in a year. I would estimate in the low triple digits, but that’s all it would be: an estimate. The time has come to subject my chosen obsession to the cold hard science of a blogged list. So let’s start with how I spent my afternoon:

1. Night at the Museum
I wasn’t sure about this one, because what little advertising there was made it look kind of dumb. And it is kind of dumb, but in a fun family film sort of way that was worth the discounted ticket price. Besides, how many movies are coming out these days with Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney? It has it’s faults, such as a lame feel-good ending and one of the worst child actors since Jake Lloyd, but there are more than enough genuine laughs to tip the balance. And bonus points for being a kid-friendly movie that doesn’t insult the intelligence of adults in the audience. In the end it was entertaining enough to watch, but I wouldn’t pay full price to see it.


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