September 29, 2009

Surprises Await in 'God Grew Tired of Us'

I'm not sure how Trudi picked this one on Netflix. Frankly, I never know what's next in her queue until the film arrives at our apartment.

Well, to quote The Beatles, I should've known better. Because Trudi's latest pick, God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan, is an extraordinary film that shouldn't have slipped under my rather insular radar. But I'm glad I saw it late rather than never. And I urge all my readers, if they haven't already, to do the same.

GGTOU tells the story of Sudan's Lost Boys, a group of kids who, amidst the terror of war, were forced to migrate, on foot, from Sudan to Ethiopia and then to Kenya--all the while undergoing unimaginable horrors that no person, let alone a child, should experience. These boys finally reached shelter at a camp in Kenya, though not without cost: Starvation, disease and the evils of war claimed many children along the way, and the boys learned to bury their comrades at an early age. The camp, a United Nations facility, served as a means for the boys to become friends and family to each other, as many were orphaned during the Sudanese conflict, but the camp had limited food, and survival remained a struggle.

Then some of the boys got the opportunity through the camp to make a new home in the United States. And that's when a different kind of struggle emerged for them.

The film, directed by Christopher Dillon Quinn (who also wrote it) and Tommy Walker, focuses on three Lost Boys: Panther, John and Daniel. John, a tall, sensitive young man, settles in Syracuse, N.Y., while Panther and Daniel head to Pittsburgh. Initially, there is a sense of relief when watching their transition to America following the horrors they endured in Sudan, and there's even some amusing moments as they grow acclimated to staples such as refrigerators and supermarkets.

But the amusement stops once the Lost Boys get jobs and begin to support themselves...and start thinking of home.

The film carries a sad subtext. Only a select few of these youths were tapped to journey to America, and many of their friends were left behind in the camp. The loneliness and sadness that Panther, John and Daniel face are expressed quite frankly in the film, but one of the questions that arises is why no mental health services were provided to them following their arrival in the States? There's even a scene in the movie that outlines how one of the boys went through what appeared to be a nervous breakdown and had to be placed under observation. These kids saw what no one should see, all the while maintaining a responsibility for each other that would be unthinkable in the U.S. The stress of that burden must've been immense. So why weren't any professionals assigned to these youths in an effort to ease their transition to the States and assuage any feelings of loneliness and despondence?

One of GGTOU's other issues--this time, in terms of the quality of the film making itself--is that the narration, by Nicole Kidman, is delivered in a monotone that seems designed to call as little attention as possible to her involvement in the documentary. It seems a bit disingenuous; as long as her voice is there, wouldn't it make sense to use all of its nuances and inflections to the fullest possible extent? In this reviewer's opinion, that would've given the proceedings even more power...though it could be argued that narration was hardly necessary in the first place, owing to the nature of this tremendously powerful subject.

Thankfully, GGTOU doesn't pull any punches in its depiction of the boys' struggles--overseas or in America. The graphic, horrifying images of war and starvation in Sudan that are shown early on in the film contrast with the youths' gallant attempts to support themselves, as well as their remaining families and friends, with terribly low wages from jobs that they often take two or three of just to make ends meet. And there are many ethereal moments in the film, especially toward the end, when we follow the boys' successes in their fields, as well as their outreaches toward family members and girlfriends.

But ultimately, GGTOU's effect is sobering: It calls attention to war's terrible impact on innocents--a disaster that is still occurring--and shows that despite the fact that some may be saved, the struggles will continue...unless action on a worldwide scale is taken to address the conflict. I thank Trudi for putting this one on Netflix. I wouldn't have known of it without her doing so, and that would've been my loss.

September 27, 2009

Warm, Fuzzy Feelings Get Trampled in 'District 9'

I think the era of cute, friendly aliens, a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial--is finally over.

Neill Blomkamp's District 9, a nightmarish, what-if vision of an Earth that treats its first visitors from outer space like rats carrying the plague, shows that our cynical, suspicious society could fashion a distinctly unpleasant welcome for extraterrestrials on first contact...sans charming hand signals and Francois Truffaut. District 9 presents a scenario in which alien refugees, arriving in a massive ship above Johannesburg, South Africa, at an unidentified date in the future, are shuttled into filthy refugee camps as the government decides what to do with them and derisively called "prawns"--a reference to their crustacean-like features. Enter scruffy, officious Wikus Van De Merwe (played magnificently by Sharlto Copley), a pencil-pusher charged with evicting these otherworldly visitors from their homes, a procedure he appears to do with relish until...

Well, I won't tell you. But it's worth noting that this film has a fish-out-of-water flavor reminiscent of Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, mixed with the claustrophobic nastiness and bloody action of Aliens.

The most interesting aspect of District 9 is its political subtext--a hardly veiled-at-all comment on apartheid that is made more apparent when one considers the setting for the film: Johannesburg. The aliens themselves are presented as, well, aliens...with highly unusual and often disgusting predilections. (Eating rubber from tires, rummaging through garbage and unnecessarily wearing brassieres are among these extraterrestrials' favorite pastimes, apparently.) The fact that these visitors are so unappealing (especially considering their spiky appendages and aggressive behavior) makes the film so much more complex; the creatures, assumedly created with the help of New Zealand's WETA Workshop (the brains behind the special effects featured in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which District 9 co-producer Peter Jackson directed), are insect-like and dirty-looking, and speak a muttering, click-heavy language that constantly seems to suggest expressions such as "buzz off" no matter what the context.

So how can we feel for these creatures if, to paraphrase Dr. Zira in 1968's Planet of the Apes, they're "so damned ugly"?

There's the rub. These creatures are not E.T. But they are sentient, and the violence and humiliation they endure in District 9 is enough to make a viewer gasp--despite the fact that it's all (admittedly well done) makeup and CGI special effects. And that's the comment, I believe, Blomkamp is making about apartheid...or any other inhumane mistreatment levied against other people: Can one feel for another whom one doesn't understand and who represents an unfamiliar culture? Can the "other" be welcomed into society without being put down and discriminated against?

And could this be a likely scenario in case we ever achieve first contact?

It's a heady perception, and although the film at times degenerates into action-movie cliches and overly animated hand-held-camera wobbling, the subtext is a powerful one. Blomkamp's film has a lot of heart, and that's something much of the best science fiction has as well.

Not to mention green, creepy aliens. Eat your heart out, Close Encounters.

September 26, 2009

'Cartouche' Ending Not So Bad After All

Well, I wasn't disappointed--as I'd been in the past.

The ending of Philippe de Broca's 1962 swashbuckler Cartouche, which I finally got around to revisiting last night, wasn't as bad as I'd remembered it. Sure, it was a downer, but it was sensitively handled. My only complaint this time around was that it seemed a bit abrupt.

As opposed to the rest of the film, which was a brawling, thrilling delight.

I wonder if the unhappy (though now that I think about it as an older man, somewhat fitting) ending has led in part to the film's relative anonymity in the United States. After all, we like our swashbucklers happy and peppy--adventures as comedies, where everybody who deserves to wins in the end.

It was not so with Cartouche. C'est dommage. This film deserves to be better known.

September 23, 2009

La Vie en Rogue: 'Cartouche' Prevails Despite Zs

So sue me. I'm a lot older than I used to be (as is everyone, of course), and that means I just can't stay up until the wee hours merely to watch a good movie.

At least, not as often.

That was the case last night with Cartouche, Philippe de Broca's exuberant, swashbuckling romp from 1962, which Trudi and I watched about a third of before heading off to catch some Zs. With terrific, colorful cinematography by Christian Matras, a stunning, Purcell-esque score by Georges Delerue, and charming performances by the likes of Jean-Paul Belmondo, Claudia Cardinale and Jean Rochefort, Cartouche has got what it takes to be one of those relatively unknown classics.

Except it has a really downbeat ending...which I didn't get a chance to revisit last night, owing to the soporific atmosphere at La Maison de Simon Butler.

What I did see, however, was "cherce." The story in part concerns a lovable, lower-class thief in 18th-century France, Cartouche (played disarmingly by the roguish Belmondo), who, to escape the villainous mob boss Malichot (a menacing Marcel Dalio), joins the army with two other no-goodniks (Rochefort and Jess Hahn), and then proceeds to return to his thieving ways. Trudi and I got as far as a superbly choreographed fight scene set in a tavern, in which broad slapstick was juxtaposed with delicate swordplay among Belmondo and a set of upper-class twits, and then we had to exeunt omnes.

Oh, well. Looks like we'll finish it later...perhaps tonight?

So far, the movie is even better than I remember it, which may be setting me up for disappointment once I review the ending. Still, it's got many exciting moments, including a bit of anti-war sentiment that echoes de Broca's 1966 cult classic, Le Roi de Coeur. (Two generals even kill each other in the heat of battle, which also happens, ironically, toward the end of LRDC.) I'm looking forward to seeing the rest--whenever that may be. I'm also looking forward to staying up to finish it.

That might be a much taller order.

September 20, 2009

Up Next on Netflix: 'Cartouche'

Wow. Talk about obscure.

Philippe de Broca's relatively unknown 1962 swashbuckler Cartouche is on tap for my (and, hopefully, my significant other's) viewing pleasure...and I'm still wondering why I put this one up so high in my queue. After all, I've always hated the ending--a real downer to an otherwise charming and exciting film.

And, no, it's not a warranted, dramatically necessary cinematic downer a la Carol Reed's magnificent The Third Man. In fact, it's completely pointless.

So I'm going to have to ask myself a question I've asked throughout (seemingly) eternity: If a flick is good almost all the way through but sputters at the end, can it still be considered a good film?

Another example of this is Nicolas Roeg's 1973 suspenser Don't Look Now. Wonderful stuff...until the ludicrous, frustrating ending.

How do I come to terms with these fundamentally flawed movies?

I'll have to watch Cartouche again to see if my tastes have changed. I'm not optimistic that they have...but you never know.

Anyway, I'll keep you posted.

September 18, 2009

Death Be Not Proud of 'Final Destination'

Look, I'm as much for Death as the next guy. After all, it's gonna happen to, sometime.

But I'm a little perplexed by Death's career choices. After headlining four Final Destination flicks, he's made it clear he's only in it for the money.

Which brings me to an interesting question: Do I have to see all installments of the franchise to know that it's a lousy, cheap-o set of movies?

Or can I just go by instinct on this one?

By the pricking of my thumbs/Something stupid this way comes.

Oddly enough, I have tried watching at least two of these wretched movies on TV: numeros deux et trois in the series. Needless to say, I was appalled by the ludicrous situations, horrible acting and dreadful writing. But the most offensive thing was the franchise's irritating insistence on personifying Death, who, in his apparent annoyance over being cheated by a bunch of earnest young actors, has devised countless gory ways of getting back at them.

Death, what are you, slumming or something? Don't you have anything better to do?

The fact is, I've embarked on this rant because I'm chagrined that the fourth installment in this painfully obvious series, The Final Destination (hopefully), has been advertised ad nauseam over the airwaves of late in an effort to get undiscerning moviegoers to the theaters. Frankly, this critic would rather have his brains squeezed out by a cheese press than pay 12 smackeroos for the vile jelly that is TFD.

Of course, that may be in the plans for me anyway. Maybe I can get a rain check.

September 16, 2009

Title-Challenged Films Should 'Meet' Their Maker

I've now had it with terrible film titles.

Although the dreadful trend of releases with "Meet the" in their monikers appears to have fizzled out (at least for the time being, thank goodness!), the world now has a new enemy: "All About" flicks.

I kid you not. This is truly an insidious pattern.

Take All About Steve, for instance--a universally panned dud starring Sandra Bullock (who should know better than to do this dreck) and Bradley Cooper (who may find himself knowing better after seeing the reactions to this movie). What does the title actually tell us about the movie...other than it's a riff on the 1950 classic Bette Davis picture All About Eve? My theory is that junky flicks of this ilk depend on titles that say nothing about the they're low-concept initiatives with limited, simple (or, rather, simplistic) plots. This applies to such cinematic horrors as Meet the Parents and its cheap-laughathon sequel, Meet the Fockers, as well as to bargain-basement "parodies" such as Meet the Spartans. And let's not forget the prolific Tyler Perry, who regaled us last year with Meet the Browns.

Exciting stuff, huh? Makes you just wanna rush out and spend 12 bucks on these classics.

A good movie title, IMHO, should tempt the potential viewer without giving away too much. But it shouldn't say too little, either...or nothing at all. Films such as The Exterminating Angel, The Hidden Fortress and Kind Hearts and Coronets not only promise interesting content, but also live up to their potential appeal--and each one of these pictures provides some insight into its title when viewers watch it.

So...are the days of good titles gone already? Come on--I hardly knew ye.

I guess I should be optimistic...after all, if Quentin Tarantino can weirdly misspell a 30-year-old movie title for his own Inglourious Basterds, there must be some creativity left. Then again, if we've come to the age of "All About" flicks because it's easier to slap on a movie than a moniker that offers a real perspective, then it's time for me to eschew the popcorn at the movie theater for a nice big cup of fake butter.

Cheap's to the cheap, right?

September 13, 2009

Bax, Newton Still Steal Show in Lean's 'Twist'

After watching David Lean's sinewy 1948 masterpiece Oliver Twist last night, I was struck by the fact that it seemed somewhat more heavily cut than Lean's other post-war Dickens adaptation, 1946's Great Expectations--a work of remarkable economy, especially considering the length of the original book. Strangely, I hadn't felt that way about Twist on previous viewings; I have never read the source material (as opposed to GE) and am admittedly ignorant about the full scope of the tale.

This time, however, Twist seemed more choppy than it had before...though not on account of its quality. As an atmospheric piece depicting 19th-century England, the film has few competitors: the production design is impeccable, and the casting--from the epic Francis L. Sullivan as the pompous Mr. Bumble to the wild-eyed Robert Newton (in the film's best and most frightening performance) as the evil Bill Sikes--is nearly perfect. (The criticism of anti-Semitism levied against Alec Guinness' performance as the schnoz-enhanced Fagin may be somewhat valid, owing in part to the ludicrousness of the appendage, but Guinness has finely tuned the character, and my question is: Is Fagin really any more villainous than Sikes, Bumble, Monks or any of the other nasties in the story? I say no.) Plus, the score, by Sir Arnold Bax, is eerie, brassy and very English, striking all the right notes of menace and innocence at the appropriate times.

Lean, though an accomplished editor, apparently did not work his magic on this version of Twist, and perhaps it would've been a very different film if he had. Still, there's a lot to like, from the scary opening sequence involving Twist's mother in the storm to Sikes' terrifying entrance. From a technical perspective, all is very high quality, but from a literary one, it seems there's something missing. Perhaps I'm lamenting the lack of gilding on this wouldn't be the first time--or, for that matter, the last.

September 07, 2009

All Right, I've Had Enough of 'Marked for Death'

Can someone tell me please why Steven Seagal remains popular?

Or, for that matter, why his 1990 magnum opus, Marked for Death, shows up more often than The Seven Samurai on cable?

Or--even more troubling--why I continue to watch this idiotic movie almost every time it's on?

It's not that I like bad writing, hammy acting and uninspired directing. Really. I loathe such things.

But after finding myself lapping up these atrocious elements during a recent viewing of MFD, I realized something extraordinary.

I'm a movie hypocrite.

OK...we're all allowed our guilty pleasures. Some of us, for example, crave the Francis the Talking Mule movies. (You know who you are.) Others enjoy a cheesy Roland Emmerich flick now and then.

Yet MFD occupies a different seat on the cinematic exchange. It has almost no redeeming qualities from a film standpoint. Editing, music, cinematography, script...they're all dreadful. And the story--which supposedly concerns Seagal's obsession with kicking the collective tucheses of the members of a Jamaican drug gang led by the maniacal Screwface (a completely over-the-top Basil Wallace, who nevertheless is more interesting than any of the other characters)--borders on outright racism and xenophobia.

So what the heck is wrong with me? Isn't there a junky Joel Schumacher flick always on that I could watch instead?

It's not that there's a distinct appeal to all the crummily-shot mayhem in MFD. Nor is there any rhyme or reason to the proceedings, which almost always lead to Seagal pushing someone into someone else via his distinctly vague martial-arts moves. And it's certainly not a movie that I'd call a "guilty pleasure," as "pleasure" has very specific connotations that do not jibe with this film, and "guilty" is an adjective that seems, to my mind, to fit in more with the Francis movies than MFD.

At any rate, I'm still trying to figure out this conundrum. To paraphrase The Muppet Show's Waldorf and Statler: "Why do we always come here?/I guess we'll never know."

I'll continue to ponder this great mystery of the cinematic universe while I attempt to restore any credibility this blog has as an arbiter of taste in the movie world. Heh...good luck with that, right?

September 04, 2009

Virtues of 'Viridiana' Still Ring True

How Luis Bunuel ever got the money to direct movies is beyond me.

They're anti-clerical. Superficially decadent. And as negative about humanity as anything people will ever see.

Yet this great surrealist director had a long, superb career that carried him all the way from Spain to Mexico while he thumbed his nose at the establishment.

Talk about biting the hand that fed him. And smiling while he was at it.

Viridiana, Bunuel's 1961 masterpiece, is a prime example of how this exceptional artist got away with cinematic murder. The movie--which concerns a nun-to-be (Silvia Pinal) preparing to take her vows who is coerced into staying at the neglected mansion of her lonely, dissolute uncle (the always brilliant Fernando Rey)--lampoons everything within reach, from the church (one of Bunuel's favorite targets) to human compassion. Some scenes--such as the "beggars' banquet" in which a group of unwholesome derelicts engages in a drunken party and reenacts da Vinci's Last Supper tableau--have to be seen to be believed. Others just have to be seen. In truth, the film, though hardly tame, is relatively subdued and never beats the viewer over the head with a misanthropic ideology. It's not as funny as much of Bunuel's later work (such as The Phantom of Liberty), but it's more moving...and oftentimes quite realistic, a shocker from this surrealist master of the subconscious, a director who once gave us a razor slicing through a (cow's) eyeball in Un Chien Andalou. The reality lies in the extreme depiction of its characters' obsession, from Pinal's misguided piety to Rey's malodorous fantasies about his dead wife to his illegitimate son's hedonistic bent.

Wow. Hey, Luis--those are real characters! OK, so we don't really like them, but...they behave like real people--with real neuroses! What's up with that?

It's the mark of a great director to treat an incredible subject with conviction, and Bunuel does just that. From the beautiful black-and-white cinematography by Jose Aguayo to the brilliant use of Handel's music (especially the "Hallelujah chorus" from the Messiah), Viridiana involves you in the proceedings from the start. Small wonder it was banned in Spain in its day--if it were poorly done, no one would've paid any attention to it.

My feeling is, they should've given Bunuel more money.