Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Funny Ha Ha (2003)

As polished and pristine as the Hollywood product is becoming, it is only natural that there is an equal and opposite reaction from the independent film world. While it is difficult to determine where underground movements started once they surface, a good example of this "anti-aesthetic" was seen at this year's South by Southwest film festival. Films such as Joe Swanberg's Kissing on the Mouth, the Duplass Brothers' The Puffy Chair, and Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation typify the cornerstones of this style of filmmaking which includes documentary-style handheld camera work, little (if any concern) for cinematic lighting, "naturalistic" performances (stammering is a must), and maintaining focus through out a shot is a definite no-no. These films are generally character studies focusing on a group of friends. Plots are non-existant and the characters generally meander through quasi-existentialistic crises.

This sarcasm is not to say that these are not enjoyable films.

Funny Ha Ha is Bujalski's first film and became much of an afterthought after it was made on a shoestring budget with some of the filmmakers friends doubling as the cast. The film received a limited run on IFC (where I caught it) and even won Bujalski an Independent Spirit Award in the "Someone to Watch" category. Not too bad for such a small film. Bujalski went on to his next project, the aforementioned Mutual Appreciation. However, Funny Ha Ha continued to gain noteriety thanks to the IFC run and through tapes circulated through friends. Just this past spring, Ha Ha received a small distribution deal and is now enjoying a small run in theaters.

To boil the plot down into a synopsis misses the point of the film. As mentioned semi-sarcastically above, films of this school don't spend as much time on plot as they do on capturing moments with the characters. But for the sake of convention, the film focuses on recent college grad, Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) and her small group of friends as they look for signs of life after college. But trust me, there's more to it than that.

The aesthetic of the film is very amatuerish, as mentioned before. The first two or three times I sat down to watch it, I couldn't get over how the film looked and sounded. It was shot on very grainy 16mm, the sound mixing is non-existant, and the camera work has that "sloppy chic" feel that is oh so trendy in independent film right now. Bujalski consciously chose non-actors (or more accurately non-professional actors) as his cast to give the film a rougher feel. It would be an understatement to say he accomplishes this goal.

Once I got past how the film looked, I found it to be a very charming film. More than anything else, I found the film to be about the rigors of coolness. The stammering actors' many "you knows," "ums" and "I'm sorrys" (if I were to play this as drinking game I would have been in trouble) give the sense that these people want to say things but in the age of irony, they may be afraid to share actual feelings.

Kate Dollenmayer is superb as the film's protagonist and completely inhabits the character of Marnie. Marnie is a real person, probably not too different from a girl you knew in college or high school. In one of the most excrutiating date scenes ever put to film, Mitchell (played by Bujalski) tells Marnie that "90% of her guy friends are probably totally in love with [her]." (I may be paraphrasing, but that is the general gist of the line.) And it's true, Dollenmayer plays this all-to-common in life, but rarely-seen-on-film role to a tee. Christian Rudder is also very good as Alex, a character that turns the romantic leading man on its ear with his delightfully spastic interpretation of his part. Myles Paige and Jennifer Schaper also shine as Marnie's friends Dave and Rachel.

Funny Ha Ha is, intentionally or not, a very uneven film from start to finish, but there are moments that you know you've lived and are captured so beautifully that you can't help but let these moments out shine all of the out-of-focus close-ups, and mumbled dialogue along the way. It may be a hard journey for some, but ultimately it is worth it.

My Grade: 87 (B+)

Friday, July 01, 2005

Batman Begins (2005)

Magnum's review -

I don't know why I can't fully enjoy movies like this these days? I think I'm such a jerkface and that the movie should be tailored to my liking that I have no patience for a film that tries to brush a broad stroke to tickle a variety of different audiences. This film was so good in so many ways, but I can't stop thinking about the handful of incredibly dumb, ridiculous and downright criminal moments that took place. I do recommend seeing this movie, but if you are a fan of the original film, prepare to come out confused and rather ticked off as your questions simmer.

Let's do this, we'll start with the bad and end with the good as to not leave a bad taste in your mouth. First off, Christian Bale nailed the Bruce Wayne persona, but his performance as the caped crusador was horrendous. His voice was laughable and he had no screen presence as a superhero. The action sequences were nauseating and nothing more that a rapid blur of edits, I felt very wasted during these fights and I hadn't been drinking that much that night. The opening training storyline in the mountains went a bit long and was kind of a yawn, though it explains why Batman can kick everyone's ass in a fight. The ending was okay, but there's a moment where about five different characters end up on the same insignifigant street for no reason, oh how convient, it made me giggle. Gary Oldman was a good younger Gordon but the film now doesn't jive with the original which comes after where Gordon has no idea who Batman is the first time. And they revealed the Batsignal at the end, um doesn't that happen in the original as well. Damn it guys, frickin focus on plot holes! The biggest and most unforgivable is the flashback to Bruce's parents being killed. It's not the same flashback as the original, nobody is wearing the same clothes, the mugging doesn't happen the same way and oh wait, it's not Jack Nappier who kills his mom and dad, but some other guy who eventually gets shot outside the courthouse. Unbelievable! There are ways to explain this huge disconnect between movies should they do another in between, but for now it's just a big god damn thorn in my side.

Okay, the good. The acting was fantastic, a departure from the over the top silliness that took place in the last two installments. The casting choices were great, I really liked Katie Holmes. Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, and relative newcomer Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later) nailed their parts and brought a lot of dark blood to the script. I credit Christopher Nolan with a job well done in his directing and the overall dark tone of the movie. And the production design was very well done, Gotham was not overdone with CGI which was good. Decent script with some good one liners, minus the plot holes. There's also a strange scene where Bruce is out at a hotel party and he brings two 'Eurohoes' who get naked and jump in the decorative fountain and then he buys the hotel when a waiter asks him and his guests to leave. Very James Bondish and funny but only because it was so strange and out of place. I have no idea why this scene was in there. Batman is not a player, he's a playa-hater.

Magnum's Grade: B (86)

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Before Sunset (2004)

Magnum's review-

I first caught this film at a special screening at SXSW 2004 down in Austin, Texas and just watched it again via my favorite thing ever (Netflix) with Wendibular the other night. Of course at SXSW the film was introduced by Linklater himself and actress Julie Delpy, so there really is no comparison. This is without a doubt a very amazingly good film, not just because of its entertainment value, but because it is so simple. It's basically an 80 minute walk and talk and it never ceases to be interesting. While watching it for a second time, I was expecting the bubble to burst considering the kick ass circumstances in which I first saw the film (hello...Linklater sitting there introducing it). But it never did, the film was just as solid and entertaining the second time around. No car chase, no explosions, no sex, just two people who haven't seen each other in years, reuniting and chatting for over an hour. Its' so good though, I'm telling you, see this film!

First I suppose we should get the summary out of the way. This is a sequel to Before Sunrise (1995) where a grad student (Ethan Hawke) meets a young French woman (Delpy) on a train ride and they spend a day and night in Vienna before they have to part. Instead of exchanging phone numbers and falling into the usual long distance relationship, they agree to meet again in Vienna later that year without any contact info in case something happens. They will leave it to fate. Before Sunset picks up about a decade later in a bookstore in Paris where Hawke is promoting his latest novel which happens to be about his fling with the French beauty. The two spend about two hours on a beautiful late Paris afternoon, walking the streets, parks, sipping coffee at a cafe and riding the river boats, just catching up and chatting about everything and anything. They never miss a beat and neither does the film.

The converstations are very realistic and fluid, not in a flawless Sorkin way but very fly on the wall. In part I think due to Linklater bringing Hawke and Delpy in on the scripting process early on to create the believable cadence. Techically the film is basic, mostly steadicammed, simple lighting setups, warm colors, good location scouting. I believe is was a very short shoot, like just over two weeks and they could only film for like 4 hours each day so that late afternoon lighting always matched. Interesting behind the scenes tid bits. The acting was superb but I expected it to be as Linklater gets so much out of his cast in every movie.

Magnum's grade: A (94)

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Candidate (1972)

Magnum's review-

I've been meaning to check this movie out for a long time as part of research for our EvansAmerica show. The film stars Robert Redford and was made to coincide with the '72 Presidential election campaign. The film follows Peter Boyle who plays Marvin Lucas a Democratic strategist who recruits Bill McKay (Redford), the son of a legendary California politician, to run for the Senate. The film is less an inspirational underdog story and more of a unflattering portrayal of the mechanics of politics.

Summary out of the way I have to say I found myself underwhelmed throughout the whole film. While alot of the scenes were amusing, that's about as good as it gets. You never connect with any of the characters because everyone in the film on both sides of the political aisle come off as self absorbed, cold figures who are cogs in the political machine, who sleepwalk through the motions. Not even McKay seems passionate about what he's doing, even though he starts out saying he's going to run his campaign as part of a crusade for the truth, talking about the issues he wants to. By the end he's spewing the same one liners like the rest of them with no heart. There's a scene towards the end where McKay is in the back of the car mocking himself and his speeches, his driver thinks he's lost his mind as McKay tilts his head down, his eyes growing dark and gives the Nixon 'peace' pose. I'm sure that killed with liberals back in '72.

Now the satire and the inside look at the political machine was a very bold choice for this film. Rather than go with the uplifting everything works out for the hero movie, this had guts, it was unique. And that is what I did like about it, however I think it was more effective for its time. Remember this movie came out pre-Watergate, before the nation lost faith in its officials and reporters starting uncovering the corruption in the beltway. I think that cynical look at government is still just as strong now, which is why the impact of this movie just didn't work on me. Politicians are corrupt, they make broad statements, they don't care about much more than their own personal gain and making friends with whoever will get them elected again. What's new? Seen it. Living it. That was the overall theme the filmmakers weren't shy about, you claw and fight so hard to win, losing yourself and your ideals in the process and then once you win, what then? Redford's last line of the film sums it up, he's in a back room of the campaign's hotel. The crowd is chanting for him and Boyle is smiling but Redford is shell shocked, he barely is able to mutter some simple words, "What do we do now Marvin, what do we do now?" That's a pretty damn good ending.

Magnum's grade: B (85)

Sunday, June 12, 2005

High Tension (2005)

Magnum's review-

The US version of "Haute Tension". A French thriller/slasher picture. One which I would really like to see the unrated French version with subtitles. This version was a mix of dubbing and subtitles that got under my skin. The US release was apparently edited down to get the all important "R" rating even though it was still a very brutally violent and gory film.

This movie really mind-fuck handcuffed me, and the more I spend time analyzing it, the more it plummets in my ratings. First of all, I'm getting sick of the twist endings, it's all the rave now and it's not being done right, this coming from me who's last movie had a twist ending of its own, so I know. Especially this twist that just makes you groan when it happens. It feels like a cop out and actually ruined the mood of the film instead of helping it. Up to that point, the film was a very tense, brutal French slasher film that blended a nice touch of homage to the American slasher film. Nothing very deep, just simple gore and scares, which is fine, but instead of sticking with it until the end, Director Alexandre Aja veers us off into the higher brow thriller genre for no reason whatsoever. The twist reveals huge gaps in the plot and requires vast lapses in reality and also limits the movie to a one watch flick wonder. Watching it a second time won't reveal any new clues, just more confusion.

Now the positive aspects of the film, namely technical, although the performance by Cecile De France as Marie was brilliantly done. The cinematography and sound design were very stellar for basically a slasher flick. The shot selection was very thorough and well planned. The framing was tight, the angles very interesting, the lighting was always top notch with nice color tone. Although this one damn shot bugged the hell out of me. Marie is walking around outside the farmhouse smoking, she walks towards an old swing that is lit by an overhead spotlight. It's a cool looking shot, but there is no motivation for the lighting and is just laughably out of place.


Here are my concerns that arose once the twist is thrown upon us. Where did the van come from? Is everything with Marie really just delusions and part of her imagination? There is no reasoning or payoff for any of this. If Aja didn't care that a lot of the plot wouldn't make sense, then why even put the twist in there? It was really frustrating to know that most of the tense moments involving Marie never really happened, just cheap scares?

Here's my ending that I would have done rather than the twist: Marie had already mentioned in the car about her dream in the woods and the masturbating scene before the carnage starts would have been a great bookend for the bloodbath. She puts on her headphones and slips into her sexual bliss, what ensues in the film is part of her dream that she uses to get off. When the carnage is done, we cut back to the bed where she is coming down from her climax. She rolls over towards the camera with a wicked and satisfied grin on her face as we hang for a while before cutting to black and rolling end credits. But that's just me.

Magnum's grade: C (76)

About this blog

Is this just another movie review blog? Yes, but it will be much better than all others. Why should we care what you think? Because we know what were talking about.

This blog:
The main purpose of this site is to create the Top 100 movies of our lifetime, ala 1979 to the present. We have been inspired by the lack of creativity or pretentiousness of the numerous Top 100 lists as of late. More details about the criteria we will use at picking these films will follow shortly. We will also be reviewing other films outside of the list as well. New in theaters, new on DVD, and films we've just happened to have caught recently on IFC or HBO or from Scotty's library o' movies.