Monday, November 28, 2011

Cameos, Music, Puns, Oh My: Dissecting The Tropes Of The Muppets

Crossposted on and commissioned by

Before the fantastic reviews for The Muppets came flooding in, the concerns among fans included questions like, "Will this be the Muppet movie we've been waiting for" and "Will this be a real Muppet movie?" Even if the movie is indeed great, there are still certain elements fans will be keeping an eye out for - the elements that actually make a Muppet movie a Muppet movie. So what are the tropes that define these films and what notes does the new one have to hit to fit in properly with the Muppet movies of yore? We took a look at each of the six theatrical Muppet releases and created a refresher for you. Take a look below for the results.

The Muppet Movie (1979)
The first, the original, the classic, featuring the stellar tunes of Paul Williams and all star cast featuring every single person who was famous in 1979, The Muppet Movie is widely considered the best of the bunch. Perhaps the darkest as well, the film features a villain whose goal ends up being to KILL Kermit. This first movie sets up the foundation of what makes a proper Muppet movie, including meta jokes, puns, the aforementioned celebrity cameos and an ultimately heartwarming message. This story of Kermit deciding to go into show business not for fame or fortune, but to make people happy, and refusing to sell out in the process, is still poignantly relevant, and combining motifs from westerns, 30s gangster flicks and 60s road movies helps add to the films timelessness. All the original muppets are in the house for this movie about a movie about a movie, including a couple brief appearances from Crazy Harry, the muppet who has an affinity for explosives, who was more or less put into forced retirement over the next several films. Self-referencial, violent, and sweet without being saccharin, The Muppet Movie is a rare gem.

Cameos: Everyone was in this. From Steve Martin to Richard Pryor to Johnny Carson to Mel Brooks to Mr Television himself Milton Bearle, the list goes on and on and on until we get to the final cameo of the film from Orson Welles. Can't handle it.

Meta Humor/Breaking the Fourth Wall: Tons of it. It does feature movie within a movie within a movie after all, framed around the Muppets watching The Muppet Movie at a cast & crew screening. Perhaps the best use of breaking the fourth wall in the movie within a movie is Electric Mayhem following the script to know where they are supposed to pop up next. A narrative paradox!

Puns: Tons, perhaps my favorite being when Fozzie declares "drinks on the house!" and all the shady bar patrons run up to the roof, this classic from Kermit - "That's pretty dangerous building a road in the middle of the street. I mean, if frogs couldn't hop, I'd be gone with the Schwinn." or of course, the visual pun of an actual fork in the road.

Heartwarming Message: Making people happy, not selling out, staying true to you and your dreams will come true. This film perfectly meshes subversive humor with a genuine message.

Running Gag: Several here, all fantastic. The best appears three times, the first at the very beginning, Bernie: "You, you with the banjo, can you help me? I seem to have lost my sense of direction!" Kermit: "Have you tried Hare Krishna?" The second time it's mentioned, Kermit even *refers* to it as a running gag. It finally appears on a sign in front of a church, reading "Lost? Have you tried Rev. Harry Krishna?". Another great running gag is the classic Carol Kane "Myth" "Yeth?"And of course Sweetums chasing after the group of Muppets to go with them to Hollywood.

Sesame Street Cameos: The original and the best - Kermit and Fozzie run into Big Bird on the road, and offer him a ride, but he tells "No thanks! I'm on my way to New York City to try and break into public television!" Brilliant.

Musical Numbers: ALL great. Music by Paul Williams and the world's introduction to karaoke staple The Rainbow Connection, though my personal favorite is Moving Right Along

Dark Moments: Pretty dark in general, with Charles Durning wanting to kill Kermit, Mel Brooks trying to lobotomize him and so on. But rather than just one or two moments, the whole film has an edgy vibe.

Piggy fight scene: Piggy takes Kermit by utter surprise and beats up all of the bad guys. Amazing.

Slapstick Humor: In the bar, Kermit and Fozzie getting violently thrown around, Gonzo gets lifted by balloons and drops onto Fozzie's Studebaker, etc.

The rest after the jump!

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Super 8 Blu Ray Review

Crossposted on and commissioned by

Oh Super 8, when I think what you might have been … although I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of this movie and appreciated the sentiment behind it, ultimately I don’t believe the film accomplished what director JJ Abrams and executive producer Steven Spielberg set out to do. Consequently, it’s a bit of a failure. As much as I love the cast of kids and their moments together, none of the emotional payoffs with the adult characters are earned, and in the third act, when all begins to reveal itself, logic goes straight out the window. Super 8 is a pale imitation of the movies it was inspired by, filled with unmet potential. The idea initially came from Spielberg and Abrams talking about making a movie about kids making movies — *that* part of Super 8 works. Combining it with Abrams other idea of a train crashing while transporting something from Area 51 is where the film falls flat on its face. Super 8 feels like two movies thrown together because it is. Yes, E.T. was developed this way as well, but the difference is, in E.T. it worked. In Super 8, the marriage is clunky and undermines an otherwise lovely story. I’d definitely say the film is worth seeing, in case it speaks more to you than it did to me, and especially because of this impressive group of preteens, all of whom I hope go on to long and fulfilled careers; I just personally found it to be a mild disappointment.

Audio Commentary with JJ Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Larry Fong
Analysis of certain moments, instances of where Spielberg was more or less of a tangible influence, anecdotes, memories, the usual. This is where you can actually hear about cinematographer Larry Fong shooting in anamorphic, the sound effects, which sequences were shot on a sound stage versus on location, motivations behind the actors (as far as Abrams knew them to be), how they worked around puberty, and more. Plus, Fong does one of his famous magic tricks during the commentary, and the gang collectively composes emails to Steven Spielberg. Even though we can’t see either, it’s still fun to know they’re going on. One of my favorite fun facts is that because they got the actors for such little time, anytime you see a reverse shot of one of the kids, it’s a stand-in. Overall, the commentary is thorough and engaging and well worth the listen if you have the urge to learn more about the film.

The Dream Behind Super 8 (1080p, 16:28)

Shot stylistically, almost as if this were a short documentary rather than a standard featurette, this piece takes a look at where the idea for Super 8 came from, and features extensive footage of Abrams on set interacting with his cast and crew. We learn the history of JJ Abrams and frequent collaborators Burk, Fong, and Matt Reeves, and see clips of their childhood Super 8 films. Also elaborated on is the relationship between Abrams and Spielberg over the past 20 years and how they came up with the idea for Super 8 together. My favorite bits are a shot of Abrams’ face while Elle Fanning nails the emotional scene wherein Alice talks about her dad, and his speech to the crew upon wrapping, where he offers “Let me know when I can do anything for you because you’ve done so much for me.” I know secondhand at least what a good guy Abrams is, and it’s neat to see him living up to that reputation on set.
The Search for New Faces (1080p, 17:46)
A look at the six leads of Super 8, from the audition process to wrap, featuring audition tapes of and interviews with the collection of young actors, thoughts from the casting directors, and footage of the kids engaged in behind-the-scenes antics, Abrams directing them, and best of all, the final day of shooting where an emotional Elle Fanning says goodbye and thanks to the crew for all their hard work. Watching the actors hug Abrams, knowing their journey together had come to an end, actually brought tears to my eyes. Favorite moments include learning that Abrams called each kid personally to offer them the part, a funny on-set moment where lead Joel Courtney doesn’t know how to use a rotary phone and Abrams teaches him, and when the cast reminisces about Riley Griffith’s contagious laugh. Since the kids are easily the best part of the movie, this featurette is my favorite, no question.
More after the jump
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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Kinect Disneyland Adventures: A Magically Addictive Exercise In Wasted Potential

Crossposted on Gaming Blend

Because apparently, there's no such thing as muscle fatigue, someone decided to create the very first open world game for Kinect. Fittingly, since the last time I was at Disneyland I lost the ability to feel my feet, this game is Kinect: Disneyland Adventures.

The premise - you're at Disneyland! And that's about it. During your day at Disneyland, you can experience up to 20 attractions, talk to over 40 characters, go on over 100 different "adventures" assigned to you by the various characters in 8 different lands, take photos of landmarks, hidden mickeys and characters, and interact with just about every item in the park. Completing every adventure, earning every pin for doing well on attractions, getting every autograph, and casting a spell on all 2000+ magical items will take you well over 50 hours. Is it worth the time and money? Let's take a closer look.

After creating your child avatar, which, much to my chagrin, is only allowed to have brown eyes, the game begins. The first thirty minutes to an hour of Disneyland Adventures is dedicated to teaching you how to control the game and understand the essential structure of gameplay through interactions with the main six Disney characters: Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Pluto, and Goofy.

So how do you function in an open world kinect game? Move your left or right arm forward to move, hold your arm out all the way to the side to turn, wave to interact with characters and attractions (the quicker and more childlike the wave, the better), and once you master opening your item inventory, which involves holding your right hand up at a 45 degree angle until the menu opens, then selecting the item you need (I promise, it's nowhere near as easy as it sounds), you use your left hand exclusively to walk and your right to control various items. Wave it to cast a spell with your magic wand, hold your hand over a target with your blaster to shoot, hold your arm straight out to take a picture, and so on. As the game progresses, items in your inventory will include those, along with a fishing rod for catching random fish (I still haven't found one), baton for conducting musical groups across the park including the singing statues at the Haunted Mansion and any jazz band hanging around New Orleans Square and more. This beginning section also clues you in on the gameplay structure of meeting characters, receiving tasks, accomplishing these tasks, then reporting back to the character.

Once you learn the basics, you can go off and do whatever you want. This virtual map of Disneyland is an exact recreation of the Anaheim park, to a frightening degree. The attention to detail is astounding. I kept having moments of "I bought a corn dog at that stand!" "I sat on that rock for 20 minutes when I was exhausted!" "I threw a coin at that waterfall!" and so on. One of my favorite things about the park has always been how the trash cans are themed to each land, and the same holds true here. You could lose hours and hours just taking in the accuracy of everything around you. And that's *before* you're gifted a magic want by Cinderella. Once you have the wand, count on spending triple the time wandering around the park. You'll be able cast a spell on anything you see that sparkles. And there are A LOT of things that sparkle in Disneyland, you guys.

Each of the 8 lands has over 30 sets of magical items, and each set has 3 to 35 magical items within. So, aiming low, let's say that's an average of 10 items per set, that would mean a minimum of 300 items per land which means there are 2400 MAGICAL ITEMS TO CAST SPELLS ON IN THIS GAME. NOT including the 8 or so landmarks to take photos of in each land, the 30 something hidden mickeys to find in each land, the couple of blaster mini-games in each land land and so on. For a completionist who has major OCD when it comes to video games, the constant messages that I've completed "2 of 20" or "8 or 36" over and over and over, almost drove me out of my mind and kept interrupting me as I made my way to talk to characters or play attractions. This makes it great for irresponsible parents who need to keep their kids occupied for long periods of time and horrible for OCD ridden game reviewers. In that way that you need to open every drawer in Bioshock, you will need to cast a spell on every single godforsaken magical item in Kinect: Disneyland Adventures.

If you forget about using the items in your inventory to earn both in-game and out-of-game achievements, Disneyland Adventures boils down to meeting characters and going on attractions.

Meeting characters is simple, you wave to begin an interaction, then say autograph for an autograph (they will tell you to put your hands out to get one - don't do it, go with the stellar voice command system, save yourself the headache), bow to dance, high five to high five, hug yourself to hug, and put your arm out to take a picture. Although it should be noted that you can only get an autograph and picture if you have earned enough money through picking up coins in the park and completing attractions to go to a store and buy autograph books and photo albums. You heard right - the game encourages you to buy things from the stores at Disneyland! Sure, it's all part of the proper Disneyland experience, I suppose, but I haven't purchased anything but water from Disneyland for as long as I've understood that Disney eats money, and that's been longer than you might think. Better yet, you can only buy photo albums for each land in a store in each land, and you can't unlock the store until you go on an attraction. So it's impossible to just go from character to character, collecting everything you need. You MUST make money, go to the store, and play the attraction mini-games. You also need to have the brain capacity to understand this. I'm looking at you, tiny children. Who are clearly reading this right now.

The characters also give you a series of "adventures' which reminded me of the missions in Fable 3, where in order to make a friend or gain a lover, you had to waste time running around grabbing items and delivering messages. It felt pointless in Fable 3 and feels pointless here. And yet I COULDN'T STOP. To become a Lost Boy for Peter Pan, you have to play through Peter Pan's Flight, then gather his shadows around Fantasyland, then buy and wear a Lost Boy costume. Stich sends you to find him five hamburgers, and then to find a picture he lost of Lilo. Cinderella has you find sewing items, and then gives you the general mission of finding spools of thread around the park. Aladdin needs you to impress the genie with your magic. Some character named Duffy Bear I've never heard of before needs you to find stuffed Duffy Bears, but because he doesn't speak, you don't know that until you accidentally stumble upon 1 of 10 Duffy Bears. These go on and on and on. 

More after the jump. Yes, there is more.
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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Win A Copy Of Griff the Invisible!

We here at All Things Fangirl are giving away one DVD and one Blu-Ray of the Australian indie romance, Griff The Invisible. It was in theaters in the US for about 30 seconds, so if you missed it earlier this year, now's your chance to catch it. If you're unsure whether or not this a movie you should be interested in, check out my Blu-Ray review here.

To enter, just follow these steps:
1. Send an email to allthingsfangirl at gmail with your name, mailing address, whether you prefer a DVD or Blu-Ray, and why you're interested in this film
2. If you're on the Twitter, give a follow to your ATFG editors, @loquaciousmuse, @eruditechick and @castling
3. Wait and see!

The contest ends one week from today, on November 22nd. Best of luck! See full post

Blu Ray Review: Griff The Invisible

The Movie
An instant favorite of mine in the everyday superhero sub-genre, Griff The Invisible is the story of a mild mannered, oft-bullied office worker who leads a secret life as a vigilante superhero. His existence is thrown through a loop when he meets his brother's not-girlfriend Melody, a loner scientist with fantastical interests & aspirations of her own, including figuring out how to walk through walls. The connection between the two presents itself after Melody reveals her multiverse theories to a stumped Tim and fascinated Griff during an unexpected visit. The romance that unfolds is sweetly off-beat and combats any predilection towards the twee with a unique sense of humor, strong chemistry and genuine portrayals of of these innocently unhinged people. We root for their impossible dreams to come true and most importantly, root for them to pursue these dreams together.

With a seamless blending of fantasy and reality, clever knack for storytelling, pitch-perfect casting and soundtrack, and unique take on what is now a somewhat tired subgenre, Leon Ford shines in his directorial debut. The Blu-Ray, giving 16mm the 1080p treatment, looks fantastic, maintaining the gritty nature of the 16mm film without sacrificing clarity. If you’re a fan of Kwanten’s work as Jason Stackhouse on True Blood, this is an easy recommendation, but I believe this indie romance has an appeal that reaches far beyond the fan base of its lead. Maeve Dermody almost steals the show and it’s baffling that this unearthly beauty with such a precise and honest talent hasn’t yet been discovered on this side of the world. Patrick Brammall, as Griff’s obnoxious but caring brother who displays slightly more socially acceptance oddities in his personality, shows a great handle of comedic timing, obvious especially after watching the extras and hearing his contribution to the commentary.

For any of us with secret fantasies, whether they are walking through walls, saving the day or something even closer to the plane of reality we are familiar with, Griff The Invisible is meant for us. It’s a love letter to our potential and finding someone to reach it with, no matter how difficult life becomes or how much the outside world may fight against us.

Special Features

Commentary with writer/director Leon Ford, producer Nicole O’Donohue, and actor Patrick Brammall
This is where the meat of the Blu-Ray really lies if you want to learn about the shoot. We learn where the idea came from, how Kwanten got involved, insights into the music choices, including Lenka and Lykke Li, shooting locations, set dressing, which scenes were used to audition the actors, actor Toby Schmitz’s hair, how certain effects were achieved, and more. One of my favorite bis of information, since the special features left me craving a look at the technical aspects and design of the shoot, was learning about “Hero Mode”, the shorthand for all departments noting the moments when Griff becomes the superhero version of himself, with blue and yellow lights, wide, comic book-like camera lens, Ryan in the suit, and more. Brammall keeps the commentary light and littered with jokes between the anecdotes, and technical dissection.

Featurette (4:08)
Begins with the trailer then jumping to a standard featurette, featuring Kwanten talking about his connection to Griff (with an endearing confession), the leads on acting together, info on the suit and how the story was formed, and more. Short but sweet.

Anatomy of a Scene  Opening Sequence (3:16),  All-In-One Shot (2:16), Anyhoo (2:00)
Dissection of three different scenes, from storyboard to final cut, with some behind the scenes footage thrown in, including the director figuring out how to tackle one scene on location and a couple shots from the rehearsal process. Opening Sequence is very much about the action, a complicated sequence. All In One is particularly super cool, cause I wondered about they shot it myself while watching (so much simpler than I assumed it would be!). I won’t get into details so as not to spoil the moment, but you’ll see when you get there. Anyhoo is more about the actors and moments, showing on set footage, and Ford watching the monitor, and an ADR session with Patrick Brammall.

Appear Calm: Diary of a First Time Director Pre-Production (1:25), The Shoot (3:11), and Post Production (2:42)
A short self-made piece documenting Ford's first time making a feature film. Divided into three sections, pre-production, the shoot and post, it's mostly comprised of his thoughts, recorded with a webcam, paired with behind the scenes footage. Pre-Production is about a minute long, just a quick bit about beginning the rehearsal and read through process. The Shoot picks up after the first day, where we see a genuine reaction from Ford, impressed with the work of the actors across the board, and picks up again the Sunday before the final week. In Post Production, we see shots of the editing room and gain insight into the tedious process. We see him deal with needing to cut the film down, screening to producers, then holding screenings, finishing the final sound mix, getting picture lock, figuring out how to compromise and his journey to utter exhaustion.

While this feature doesn’t go particularly in depth or anything, but it’s still nice to hear tidbits about the shoot and hear from the man behind it all. Things get blurry the further you get from them, so it’s nice to have interviews filmed with only himself in the room, done *at* the time. I like some authenticity in my Blu-Ray extras.

Rain Stops Play (1:16)
During a pause in shooting while it was raining, Brammall and Ford jump into a improvised comedy bit that is genuinely hilarious. Or maybe it’s just cause Brammall's accent reminds me of New Zealander Rhys Darby that I think he's so funny, but this featurette was enough to make me research whether Brammall is well known comedian or anything, so well done Patrick Brammall!

Patrick’s Set Tour (1:24)
Patrick Brammall takes us on a brief but humorous tour of the set.

Deleted Scenes (7:36)

Here we see another clip showing Tim’s mild idiocy (and complete lack of connection to Melody), more of Griff’s scheming, Melody being awkward, many elongated scenes, including one in the office, one of Melody with her parents, and one of Griff with her parents and a sweet scene between Griff and Melody, getting to know each other, which was perhaps the only one that I wondered about being cut.

Music Video: Don’t Give Yourself Away by the Shadow Bureau
Oddly, one of my least favorite songs of all the music used in the film, which is overall incredibly strong, but it gets to be the official music video for some reason. The lyrics have a relevant and nice message, so I guess I see it, but of all he songs I was dying to hear in their entirety, this one was at the bottom of the list.

Overall, the features are fun, but I would have liked a lot more behind the scenes info, especially on the acting process and design elements. The film is so stylistic and specific, I would have loved to learn more about the way it was shot and put together. Commentary is definitely the place to go to for even a taste of this information, but sadly won't illuminate anything as far as acting is concerned, as the two leads do not participate.

Film: B+
Extras: B
Buy, Rent or Skip? Buy. It's a wonderful little movie that I can't help but think could use our support. I'm giving two copies, so if you're interested in winning the film, just head here and enter the contest. See full post

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Strangely Sweet Connection Between Kid With a Bike and Fringe

Light spoilers for Kid with a Bike and One Night In October, episode 4.2 of Fringe

One of my favorite movies at AFI Fest Presented by Audi last week was Kid with a Bike, from the Dardenne Brothers. I loved the movie on its own, with no qualifying or explanation necessary to know how much, but there was some information revealed in the Q&A that brought the story a little bit more into this world, and the world of one of my favorite television shows, Fringe. Buzzuh, huh, what now?

Let's back up. Kid with a Bike is about an 11-year-old boy who gets dropped off an at orphanage by his father, who tells him he will be back in one month. After this month passes, the boy does everything he can to get in touch, but his father is gone, moved out of their apartment and has left no indication to where he might have gone. When the boy sneaks out of the orphanage to see if his dad really abandoned him, but perhaps even more importantly, to see if his dad left the boy's beloved bike behind for him in the apartment, he encounters a woman who ends up taking the boy in on the weekends, committing herself to showing this boy the love and affection he needs to lead a good life. The boy fights back, getting involved in bad situations, seeking acceptance in places where he'll never get it, and we are left to wonder when he will realize the love he so craves is right there waiting for him in the form of Samantha.

During the Q&A the Dardenne brothers, making their first ever appearance in Los Angeles, talked a bit about what drew them to tell this story.
Movies give another chance to these characters. One can say that they give these characters another chance because for instance, this story was born out of a story that we heard in Japan told to us by a judge for Juvenile Delinquents about a boy who was now a man who had committed murder. When he was a child, his father took him to an orphanage and told him that he would come back and get him and he never came back and the boy waited and waited and waited year after year after year…and fiction allows us to say "Is this child going to be able to escape the destiny which is prepared for him? Is he going to be able to have another destiny?" And that's what we're trying to tell with Samantha.
Essentially, the brothers created an alternate universe for this boy that they heard about in Japan. They created a world where a force intervened to steer him on a different path. Hearing this immediately brought me to tears. It's not like this Japanese man truly had his life changed, it's not like anyone went back in time and gave him a caretaker, but there was something so elegant about this source of inspiration and noble about the intention of the storytelling, I was moved.

It reminded me of the second episode of this season of Fringe. No, really. In One Night In October, we watch a man in the alt-verse, John McClennan, using a device of a fringe-scientific nature to steal happy memories from people and inject them into himself, in order to get a brief high, the difference being this method makes him feel what it is to remember true happiness, not create a false sense of it through substances. Basically, he is a serial killer with the pattern of seeking out happy people.

The Alt-Fringe team discovers that in our universe, John McClennan Prime is a renowned expert on serial killers and request bringing him on to investigate and help them find where Alt-McClennan might be hiding out. We wonder why in one universe, this man who clearly has homicidal tendencies, chooses to study serial killers, while in another, he is a slave to those impulses and becomes one himself. It is revealed in a confrontation between both McClennans that they share one very particular moment in their past - when their father discovered their collection of dead animals. Alt-McClennan was severely punished and beaten for his actions. McClennan Prime ran away, fell down, got hurt, and was rescued by a woman named Marjorie, who ended up caring for the boy in spite of what he had done, telling him "Even when it’s the darkest, you can step into the light." Jealous that McClennan Prime got to have the happy life, Alt-McClennan steals his memories, which leads the team to believe that the assimilated McClennan, without those memories, would become identical to his other worldly twin and morph into a serial killer himself. But the impact of this woman on his life is too great. While McClennan Prime's memories may be gone, the irreversible impact Marjorie had on his soul remains. The power of love isn't evident merely in memories. When we have amnesia, we don't forget basic language, or the accent we grew up speaking with - the things that are ingrained in us use a different part of the brain, and being truly loved is an essential aspect to our entire being, not one of a list of memories that can fade.

Ultimately, both Kid with a Bike and One Night In October are about the transformative nature of love, seen through two universes, the one where a boy from a bad place is forced to succumb to his fate, and one where an angel steps in and alters the course of his life for the better. Both are extremely effective in telling the same sort of story, but in completely different ways. One, a classically Dardennian drama, the other hardcore science fiction, proving the worth of their respective genres and mediums by showing two very different ways to come to the same conclusion.

Perhaps fans of a movie like Kid with a Bike and fans of a show like Fringe have more in common than we think, and if fans of either are reading this right now, I encourage you to make a point of catching the one you aren't familiar with and seeing for yourself. See full post

Friday, November 11, 2011

AFI 2011: Best of Fest #5-1

For #13-10 of our Best of AFI Fest presented by Audi, series, click here
For #9-6 of our Best of AFI Fest presented by Audi, series, click here

5. Footnote (dir. Joseph Cedar)
As a Jew who went on birthright this year, I have no qualms about calling this movie, Israel's official foreign Language selection for the Oscars, one of the most delightfully Jewish pieces of fiction I've seen in years. It's witty, intelligent, moving, and riddled with guilt and inferiority complexes. This story about a father and son, Professor Shkolnik and Professor Shkolnik, who both work at Hebrew University in Jerusalem studying the Talmud, asks the questions, when does a role model become a rival and the student become the competition, and presents the theory that in a battle of egos, he who realizes humility first is always the winner. Expect your loyalties to fly all over the place in this smart, whimsical, and ultimately tragic intellectual comedy from acclaimed director Joseph Cedar. Inventive storytelling, a jaunty score and top notch performances help elevate an already brilliant script (it won the Screenplay award at Cannes) to even greater heights. To delve too much into the specifics of why this tale is so riveting would be to give too much away, but it's an absolute must see.

Favorite Scene: All I can say is this: It involves Uriel (the younger Shkolnik) and a tiny room full of scholars and a lawyer, and is one of the only sequences in the entire film where the score drops out completely

4. Extraterrestrial (dir. Nacho Vigalondo)
"Something urgent is not the same as something important. That's my lesson." This part of director Nacho Vigalondo's introduction to his new film Extraterrestrial stuck with me throughout the whole genre bending screwball comedy. The film opens with Julio and Julia, awkwardly dancing around each other the morning after a drunken romp. Normal post-one night stand protocol is thrown out the window when the twosome notices that all communication lines are down and more alarming still, a giant alien spacecraft is hovering outside the window. In any other film, made in any other country, by any other director, Julia and Julio would then embark on an adventure of epic proportions, falling in love as their adrenaline from massacring aliens brings them closer together. But this is Nacho Vigalondo, making a character driven story "filled with bullshit" (his words), not a soulless big budget sci-fi extravaganza. So instead, Julia and Julio use the conventions of alien invasion stories to weave an elaborate web of lies to cover up their brief affair when a nosy neighbor, Angel, and her alpha male boyfriend with a penchant for heroism, Carlos, check in on her. The series of lies becomes more and more elaborate as Angel discovers their secret, and Carlos experiences an entire film of his own off camera, seeking out alien insurgents and fighting to take back the city. Or so he thinks.

Extraterrestrial shows a masterful knowledge of every genre in play. No one could tell a story quite this humorously, this cleverly, without having a vast working knowledge of science fiction, romance, and classic screwball comedies, yet nothing about the film feels too well tread or unoriginal. Even with a straightforward narrative, a huge departure from Vigalondo's first feature, Timecrimes, the film keeps us guessing as we marvel at the absurd length these two people will go to, and at what end? With the world seemingly ending outside, how much does it matter if your boyfriend catches you cheating? It may have been more important to come up with a plan of survival, but the comically urgent human drama at hand took priority. Leads Julián Villagrán and the jaw droppingly gorgeous Michelle Jenner have incredible chemistry, which grounds the outrageous nature of the story.

Favorite Scene: A character makes a "confession" that is at once ridiculous and necessary, perhaps not to the physical survival of the human race, but certainly to the mental survival of the people involved in this comedy of errors

3. The Loneliest Planet (dir. Julia Loktev)
The winner of the Grand Jury prize, and for good reason, this story about the notion of what is masculine and feminine and the roles their fluctuation plays in our lives and relationships connected to me on a deep and immediate level. Nica (the charming Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) are happily engaged to be wed and on a backpacking trip together in the republic of Georgia. She is goofy yet tough, he is strong yet caring, and they are the picture of perfection. While in the mountains with their tour guide, Dato, a moment occurs so small, so brief, so fleeting that if you look down at the wrong time, you *will* miss it, but so powerful that it dramatically alters the dynamic of this perfect couple perhaps forever. Guilt, shame, resentment and passive aggression swallow the second half of the movie, a sharp contrast from the light, adventurous beauty of the first half. A landscape which at once seemed so freeing and filled with potential becomes claustrophobic and uncomfortable. A film like this, with little dialogue and almost no action, could have easily crashed and burned in lesser hands, but Loktev's confident direction has you completely enraptured, aching for a satisfying resolution, but unsure if one could ever be possible.

Favorite scene: Directly after the "incident", Nica and Alex walk on opposite sides of the screen, a range of emotions hanging in the air, the only sound to speak of coming from the repetitive plodding of their shoes in the muddy terrain.

2.Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
In this hopeful fairy tale from the Dardenne brothers, a young boy abandoned by his father at an orphanage goes on a series of quests to find the familial love he has been so callously denied. In one particular instance of desperation, the boy, Cyril, sneaks out of the orphange and goes back to his old apartment to find his father, or at the very least, find his bike, an item so important to him, there is no question in his mind that his father would leave it for him. Here, he encounters a woman, Samantha (played with a delicate softness by Cécile De France) taken with his vulnerability, who becomes determined to give him what he needs in more ways than simply tracking down his beloved bike. Thomas Doret gives a heartbreakingly realistic performance as Cyril, seamlessly shifting back and forth between problem child and sweet little boy (a routine mimicked by a very different kind of child in our #1 choice below) as he seeks acceptance and worth. He is still too young to lose faith or sink into despair, and Samantha recognizes that if a glint of hope remains in his eyes, he can be saved. To awkwardly quote Shame, which also screened at AFI, he is a good person who came from a bad place, and it's Samantha's mission to nurture Cyril until he feels the love he deserves.

Favorite Scene: Cyril and Samantha go biking and share lunch. Simple, understated and a preview of their potential happy ever after.

1. We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsey)
No amount of nurture seems to be able to bring the titular boy in Lynne Ramsay's bold return to the silver screen out of the darkness. This is a film so relentlessly upsetting that to even think about it is to rip a tiny tear in your soul. Tilda Swinton plays Eva, a mother dealing with her son's unquenchable thirst for destruction. Screaming non stop as a baby and staying in diapers till well into Elementary School are signs pointing to a defect in the boy, but all the doctors deem him normal. Still, Eva sees a side to him hidden from the rest of the world. The rot inside of him seems aimed solely at his mother and taking her down one notch at a time. But no matter how disturbed she gets by his actions, and how designed he is to ruin her, he is her son, she loves him, and nothing means more to her than his acceptance, no matter the cost.

Ultimately, Kevin may feel the same way about his mother, seeking a deeper connection to the person he felt never truly loved him, as he was initially unwanted and the reason why his mother's passion for travel had to come to an end. Because we see the film from Eva's perspective, we relate to her exasperation with him and it isn't until the movie is long over that we begin to think back on her mothering skills and wonder how much they may have affected Kevin's outcome.

Tilda Swinton bears her soul with the performance of her career, John C Riley does a fine job as her optimistically oblivious husband and Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller shine as Kevin. Both (along with Toddler Kevin Rock Duer) are stunningly beautiful and portray their up and down moments with a twisted believability.

Favorite Scene: Kevin gets sick to his stomach and for a brief evening, shows his mother the love she craves. Although he resorts to his cruel tendencies the next morning, their bond on that night has repercussions for years to come. Whether his behavior was genuine or part of a plan to upset his mother further is left to the viewer, as all dissections of the emotions running so high in this film are, but no scene better captures the heartbreak of a parents worst nightmare coming true, then this all too momentary look into what Eva's life could have been.
See full post

AFI 2011: Best of Fest #9-#6

For #13-#10 of my Best of AFI Fest presented by Audi, series, click here

9.Carre Blanc (dir Jean Baptise Leonetti)
The best of the dystopian sci fi films presented at the fest (I also caught 80s head trip Beyond the Black Rainbow and the very Russian Anna Karenina by-way-of the fountain of youth Target), Carre Blanc depicts a society where the dead are casually used as meat, job interviews are all trick questions in the form of cruel tests, and a waiter can be beat to death for spilling champagne, but the only item reported on the news is what happened in the latest Croquet match. A disembodied voice on the loudspeaker constantly informs its citizens of the rapidly declining population, sandwiched between encouragements for teenage girls to become artificially inseminated and the same piece of elevator musak repeating on a loop. The suicide rates are high, the birth rates low and the disenfranchised work force is encouraged to smile at all times. But perhaps most horrifying is how little people seem to notice that this world has gone too far. The film asks the question, is being normal in a monstrous society just as damning as being a monster in a normal society and how do you rise above? Jean Baptise Leonetti crafts a strikingly foreboding atmosphere with the skill of a seasoned auteur, but doesn't sacrifice concise storytelling (with a healthy dose of frightening social commentary) for the sake of “mood”. Leonetti is firing on all cylinders in his feature film debut and of all the filmmakers showing at AFI is the one I’m most looking forward to keeping an eye on.

Favorite Scene: Not so much a scene as a moment, but the instance we realize the film has marked the passage of time by taking advantage of its established world in a clever and subtle way gave me actual goosebumps.

8. Coriolanus (dir Ralph Finnes)
As far as adapting Shakespeare goes, Coriolanus is about as good as it gets. As someone who has studied Shakespeare in numerous ways, including as a classically trained actor, I can say with no hesitation that Ralph Finnes pulls off a remarkable bit of craftsmanship in his directorial debut, bringing much more of a refined POV to the table than I was expecting from an actor-first. Setting this political story in a modern day version of Rome as consumed with the 24 hour cable news cycle, poll numbers, and ever growing insurgencies as we are and displaying it through handheld camera work and intimate close-ups brings a naturalistic urgency to this century's old portrait of a man thrown into an impossible position. Displaying his grasp of what cannot be sacrificed when capturing Shakespeare cinematically, Finnes often lets the camera hang in the air, allowing the story to be told the way it was meant to be, letting the breaths of the actors communicate their intentions, not the work of an editor in post-production. Finnes and the brilliant cast of players surrounding him tackle the Shakespearean text with a self-assured precision and hearty understanding helping to turn this often impenetrable story into an accessible, searing political drama. Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox astound in their specificity and realism, making verse look easy, and Gerard Butler, displaying some pathos for once, is the most likeable he’s ever been. I ecstatically look forward to Finnes using his talent and savvy and pulling together the perfect creative team for the task at hand to adapt a play I'm more familiar with that hasn't yet received the proper big screen treatment.

Favorite scene: Vanessa Redgrave dares you to defy her as Volumnia, mother to Caius Martius Coriolanus, in a scene where she pleas with him to bring harmony to Rome. If you’ve ever wanted to see a true professional nail an obscure Shakespearean monologue, here’s your chance. Vanessa Redgrave, get ready to meet your seventh Oscar nomination.

7. Pina (dir. Wim Wenders)
Confession: I’m not a fan of dance. I don’t understand it, I can’t do it, I don’t want it. But when I heard that German visionary Wim Wenders had constructed a 3D documentary about the art of Pina Bausch, I couldn’t stay away. Wenders and Pina had been friends for years already when Wenders approached her about making a film together. He wanted to find a way to communicate the beauty of her brand of storytelling with the world at large, but kept coming against the roadblock of film not yet developing the correct tools. After seeing the U2 3D doc, Wenders knew he had found the way to properly capture her craft. Sadly, just a couple of days before test shoots were to begin, Pina unexpectedly died . Wenders almost abandoned the film completely, but was urged on by those that loved her to keep going, so he decided to turn the film into a tribute. What results is a documentary unlike anything you’ve seen before, that defies convention and proves 3D’s use as a tool for the progression of art. In lieu of talking heads, Wenders employs a Warholeqsue series of moving portraits accompanied by voiceover, allowing us to see Pina’s dancers in moments of stillness as their voices surround us, honestly reflecting on the woman and teacher they loved so much. Archival footage of Pina floats above the proceedings as if her ghost is participating in the story, as eerie and effective a use of 3D as I’ve seen. Adopting Pina’s own choreography technique of “questioning”, Wenders asked each dancer to improvise a movement that encapsulated their memories of Pina. These movements were then formulated into solo pieces and set against locations around Wuppertal, the home of Pina’s dance company. The mountains, the forest, a factory, a cityscape, even on a suspended railway car, these pieces will move, inspire and spark your creativity, without you even realizing. Ultimately, this is why the film succeeds. The proof of Pina's legendary mastery is evident in the way your mind and body react as you experience her work and impact on those around her.

Favorite Scene: A section from one of her pieces, Mueller’s Cafe, that was one of four dances restaged and shot in 3D for the film, that can best be described by me as an embodiment of the line “the course of true love never did run smooth” The ferocity with which the three dancers throw themselves into this simple repetition of 7 or 8 basic moves had the audience spontaneously break out into applause upon its conclusion.

6. Michael (dir. Markus Schleinzer)
Movies about pedophiles are never easy and this Austrain film about a creepy Tony Hale lookalike, named Michael who keeps a ten year old boy locked in his basement, is no exception. In a departure from most films of this nature, no information is ever explicitly given and no sexual act is ever explicitly shown, the film is mostly communicated in befores and afters, small, but telling moments. Michael himself is a fascinating creature who takes equal pleasure in quoting torture porn to the boy as he does behaving like a strict yet loving father, allotting time for TV, providing fresh home cooked meals, and taking him on day trips. As an audience, we become filled with questions and concerns, eagerly awaiting a rescue, never sure if it will come. Director Markus Schleinzer, best known for casting the films of Michael Haneke, deliberately removes all judgement and solely tracks the day to day interactions between this man and this boy, a perspective not often seen. But no amount of objectively chronicling a few months in the life of a child molester makes the act any more acceptable, which is part of the point. Even the most mundane implications make you want to this man to pay for what he's done and pay hard. The last frame of Michael is frustrating, yet powerful, and a fitting end to this slice of a-very-fucked-up-life drama.

Favorite Scene: A simple tracking shot of Michael walking to his car in a parking lot with a new friend had me on the edge of my seat fighting back tears. See full post

Thursday, November 10, 2011

AFI 2011: Best of Fest #13-#10

Crossposted on

This past week in Los Angeles, AFI threw it’s 25th film festival, presented by Audi, taking over the Chinese and Egyptian theaters on Hollywood Blvd. The films screened were divided into nine categories. Galas & Tributes, Special Screenings, Guest Artistic Director, Spotlight and Midnight were ineligible for awards, while World Cinema, Young Americans, and Breakthough all had an Audience Award at stake, which went to KINYARWANDA and JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI in a tie, WUSS, and WITH EVERY HEARTBEAT, respectively. New Auteurs had not only an Audience Award, which went to BULLHEAD, but three prizes awarded from a specially selected jury, THE LONELIEST PLANET receiving the Grand Prize, ATTENBERG the Special Jury Prize and Matthias Schoenaerts in BULLHEAD walking away with accolades for his universally lauded performance. But with 26 screenings under my belt, I figured I should award my personal Best of Fest to the thirteen films that struck me personally the most, from all categories. First up, #13-#10.

Note: I saw Melancholia and The Adventures of Tintin separately from the festival in a non-review capacity, so will not be including them in this list. Though had they been a part of my AFI experience, they would have both easily made the cut. 

13. With Every Heartbeat (dir. Alexandra-Therese Keining)
In this Swedish romantic drama, two soon to be step sisters, one of whom is engaged to be married, find themselves drawn to each other at their parents’ engagement celebration. Ruth Vega Fernandez does a great job as the conflicted Mia, but it’s Liv Mjones as the free spirit Frida that steals the show with her offbeat confidence and grace. Although the third act becomes a bit too formulaic for my liking, the attraction between these two women is palpable, resulting in one of the best love scenes on screen this year, and their entire love story is well worth watching.
Favorite Scene: After an unexpected encounter in the woods alters their previously icy relationship, Frida climbs into bed with Mia and the unexpected occurs.

12. The Dish & The Spoon (dir. Alison Bagnall)
Alison Bagnall returns to the scene after an eight year haitus with this sad, sweet look at two lost and dejected souls who find comfort and care in each other. Greta Gerwig plays Rose, a woman who just discovered her husband’s infidelity and is on the brink of losing it altogether. Gerwig’s performance dangles the question in front of us – did her husband cheat because she’s crazy, or is she this unhinged solely because of the adultery? As she begins to formulate her plan to take down the other woman, she encounters an equally alone British teenager, played by Olly Alexander. The two quickly bond and embark on a safe, quirky, perhaps even pretend, romance straight out out of third grade, complete with stories, costumes, games and role-playing. Whether this connection is real or a coping mechanism remains a concern as we revel in their awkward glow.
Favorite Scene: After their first real kiss, Rose and the boy plot out their future together, complete with marriage and ten kids. It’s utterly innocent and endearing in the best way possible. For a brief moment, you think they could be in it for the long haul.

11. Jeff Who Lives At Home (dir. Duplass Brothers)
When a movie opens with a slightly flabbier Jason Segel ruminating on the relevance of M Night Shyamalan’s Signs to life at large, and meaning every damn word, you know it’s going to be good. In this delightful follow up to last year’s Cyrus, about three people who find themselves stuck in lives they never wanted, forced to find their true paths on one fateful Louisiana day, the Duplass brothers deliver yet again. Segel’s optimism as the titular Jeff is infectious and could melt even the most cynic movie goer’s heart with his determination. And, can I just say, Susan Sarandon looks amazing? Like. Amazing. I had a smile plastered on my face for practically the whole film and in a fest full of mostly depressing material, it was a welcome change of pace.
Favorite Scene: Judy Greer’s Linda and Ed Helms’ Patrick have a confrontation about their marriage that challenges the quirky other-planeness of the universe that had been so carefully established. It’s not the typical choice to have Judy Greer play the person most grounded in reality, and the film greatly benefits from thinking outside of the type-cast box.

10. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (dir. David Gelb)

This film that tied for the World Cinema Audience Award takes a look at the three Michelin star sushi bar in Japan, widely considered to be the best in the world, Sukiyabashi Jiro, and more specifically, the man behind it, 85 year old Jiro Ono, and his two sons, the oldest of which, Yoshikazu, will eventually and inevitably succeed Jiro as head chef. Although director David Gelb originally set out to make a documentary on sushi restaurants all over the globe, after his experience with Jiro and he food he makes, there was no question that Sukiyabashi Jiro would be the focus. We learn about the techniques that took years to discover, hone, and pass on. Everything from the temperature and texture of the rice, to the fish dealer, to the cut of the fish, to the number of minutes spent massaging an Octopus has been boiled down to a science. Or to be slightly more accurate, an art. The family drama surrounding the question of whether the son can truly follow in the footsteps of his father, the legend, brings in a whole other level. As an audience member, I equally found myself wanting to get to Japan as soon as possible to make sure Jiro himself would be the one crafting my fish, and wanting the food community at large to acknowledge that Yoshikazu will be the best heir to the restaurant any father could ask for. But Gelb takes Jiro far beyond a simple documentary. A goal of his was to shoot food the way Planet Earth was shot, which explains the clean, direct and full cinematography and in order to properly set the tone of watching a master at work, Gelb chose music from Philip Glass to accompany Jiro’s tale, elevated music for an elevated skill.
It should also be noted that in the post-screening Q&A, director David Gelb was asked where he recommends we have sushi in Los Angeles, and the first suggestion was Sushi Nozawa, aka my favorite sushi place in the U.S.
Favorite Scene: We are taken through the entire, specially created, twenty piece menu, described by food critic Yamamoto as a symphony broken into three movements. Each piece of fish looks as delectable as if it were right in front of you and guaranteed, your mouth will inadvertently water. See full post