Saturday, October 31, 2009

My Architect: A Son's Journey (2004): 7.6/10

My Architect: A Son's Journey (2004): 7.6/10
My Architect: A Son's Journey, the 2004 documentary made by Nathaniel Kahn about his father, important architect Louis Kahn is a jumbled but fascinating documentary with an added personal touch due to the relationship between the filmmaker and the deceased subject.
I am not normally a fan of the filmmaker of a documentary being overtly present in his own documentary. Herzog’s narration in his films is an exception. While his presence both in narration and on camera feels at times self serving, because of the level to which the films subject relates to him and the film essentially being Kahn’s mission to put together a full picture of his father, his presence is understandable and necessary.
There are two things in the structure of the documentary that is slightly unique to the way the majority of other documentaries function. The first is that instead of cutting back and forth between interviewees, Kahn shows us all of the footage he wants to from an interviewee at once. He also lets the interviews feel more like a conversation in the way he lets the conversations go on and in the way he allows us to hear his questions and their immediate responses. Kahn also has his conversations taking place in a more informal if not constructed and slightly staged environment. Many interviews take place standing up, with both subjects walking and are shot at Louis Kahn’s buildings. This allows the documentary not only to be about Kahn’s mission to discover more about his father but it allows for the simultaneous tribute and appreciation of the architects work. It also helps the interviewee discuss Kahn’s work when they are walking inside or outside of it.
The other aspect of the film that makes Kahn’s documentary slightly unorthodox is that Kahn structures the film by what he found chronologically. Instead of starting from Louis’ birth and moving through his life, as we see bits of interviews that are relevant to the specific aspect or time in Kahn’s life that they discuss, Nathaniel structures the film based on his journey (hence the subtitle) and not as a typical biography. There are moments where Nathaniel inserts scenes of straight forward biographical information which ground the film and allows for the chronological structure.
At the start of the film it felt pretty standard but by the time you get to the end you realize that this is actually is doing something pretty incredible with its exploration of so many relatable and complex aspects of humanity. This idea that Louis Kahn was brilliant because he put all of his time into his work but that it never allowed him to really connect to anyone and as a result he treated the women and children in his life pretty terribly through his neglect. His contribution to architecture though is a result of his neglect of people. His trip to Bangladesh near the end and the man he speaks to is just extremely moving. The scene when he talks to his sister in laws about whether or not they are a family is very interesting. And then we have Nathaniel’s mother who is convinced Louis was coming back to marry her when he died which Nathaniel himself is doubtful of. This is a very well rounded documentary about a man’s life and how his devotion to his work left many others abandoned and one sons journey to come to terms with that.

Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House (1948): 6.7/10

Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House (1948): 6.7/10

The reason this film worked for me was because of the actors. I wanted to love this and I thin ksomeday I possibly could but for now I have to admit I had a few issues with it. What were these issues? Let me explain:

The first reason that some of this movie bothered me has to do with the present ecomony. In this day and age when everyone is hard up for money, is it really that fun watching a couple who has money complain about losing some of it? What I mean is that throughout the film Jim and Muriel Blandings learn that building a house is much more expensive then they thought it would be. They find themselves unable to control the mounds of bills and the pile of problems that building a house causes. While this is all very stressful to them, they clearly are going to be ok. The fact that these extra costs are not destroying them, for me means that I really do not care about their money problems if they can afford to have money problems. Watching Muriel refuse to get rid of their FOURTH planned bathroom and insisting upon all these rooms is not funny to me; it is very annoying. Jim's little speech at the end when he freaks out and wonders how possible it is for anyone to build a house these days especially the people who are not as well off as they are is the only time that the idea that it is harder for other people is brought up. While there problems are valid, it still can be grating after a while to watch two yuppies deal with money annoyances that barely cross into the realm of legitimately dangerous money issues. Yes I know this is a comedy. I cannot help it though; it bothered me at points.

The second issue I had was that I could not for the life of me figure out the point of the subplot involving Jim suspecting Muriel and his best friend/lawyer of having an affair. I liked the Bill Cole character and I think he should have been there but the subplot felt unfinished and completely unsubstantial. It was simply a time filler and I think Bill's presence would have meant a lot more to me if he had just been a supporting character/narrator who did not need his own particular subplot.

It sounds like I hated this. I actually liked it a lot. I just wanted to get my issues with it out of the way. It is one of those harmless classic comedies that do not have an inappropriate bone in its body. I liked the fact that it was a comedy about an established married couple. It is really entertaining to watch Cary Grant and Myrna Loy act like that have been married for 15 years. It was just refreshing not to have to go through the courting phases with anyone in this movie. These two are stable and they clearly love each other. They do such a good job of showing us their relationship and how they interact with one another; it is not hard to believe that these two characters have been married for so long.

In general Cary Grant and Myrna Loy make this movie. Cary Grant is always a wonder to watch and it is hard to beat his comedic roles in my opinion. He has the greatest reaction shots out of possibly any actor who ever lived. The way he just stares after certain characters speak is just remarkable and the director is smart enough to get his talent at this and tends to keep the shots going longer than what would usually be neccesary because of it. My favorite moment in the entire film is when at breakfast one if their daughters says "You can't squeeze blood out of a turnip" and Grant just stares at her looking so completely confused. He also has these weird little noises he makes as a reactionary habit as well and these are equally entertaining to watch. It is impossible not to be taken in by Cary Grant because he was brilliant and he is excellent here.

Myrna Loy is always a joy. Did you like that rhyme? Because I did. Seriously though, she is always more emotionally in control than Grant and it is really fun to watch her calmness in every scene. She has always been able to keep up and to be an equally essential part of an on screen duo (The Thin Man series) and she does that here as well. She makes everything look so effortless.

My favorite parts included the time the film took to show us the Blandings' morning routine. I really loved the two daughters and the breakfast scenes were actually my very favorite parts of the film. Something I really liked about it as well is that it reminded me of Father of the Bride. In that film there is also an established couple and while the events they are preparing for are different, both films involve the couple going through a certain process and meeting lots of people who will assist them in some way and running into all sorts of problems, particularly money ones. I love Father of the Bride so I liked that it reminded me of that.

Overall despite some issues I had with the film I did enjoy this very a lot mainly due to Cary Grant and Myrna Loy and their on screen chemistry and legendary talent.

The Black Room (1935): 6.5/10

The Black Room (1935): 6.5/10

At first I did not know whether or not I was going to like this particular Boris Karloff film due to its very stilted dialogue in the beginning. It felt unfinished and confusingly unclear not ni plot but in moments. Then there was a scene about 20 minutes in when Boris Karloff is talking about a pear and I was hooked.

This 1935 Boris Karloff horror flick is set in past Czechoslovakia and concerns a twin set of Barons who are born and are expected at some point to the dismay of many to fulfill a prohecy in which the younger twin will kill the older twin. The film is about the events that set the prophecy into motion but not quite in the way we expect. The twins Anton and Gregor are played by Boris Karloff in a very meaty role between the two characters. Anton is the younger twin and the nicer one who has been gone for 10 years because of his fear that the prohecy would be fulfilled. He has spent his time studying and traveling. His right arm was also paralyzed since birth. The evil twin, Gregor was left to act as Baron and govern the people and he is pretty awful. He seems to be responsible for the dissapearance of many women and he's just an all around douche. Anyways Anton comes home because of a letter in which Gregor requests him to return. There is a girl named Thea as well played by Marian Marsh. So what did I think of this film? Overall I quite enjoyed it, especially once it got going. There is not anything really overtly scary in this but I do think that Karloff can be very terrifying and so the scares basically come from the ridiculous vibe of skeeviness that he puts on here. He does a fantastic job as both brothers. He felt genuine and naive as the nice one and like I said, ridiculously skeevy as the other one. The scary element or rather disturbing element of the story is the length that Gregor will go to secure his place with Thea. My favorite scenes were the ones when Gregor was pretending to be Anton. He does not play these scenes overtly but because we know it is Gregor, we read his delivery of lines completely differently and its very interesting to watch as a result.

Marian Marsh does a very nice job here. Her reaction to certain things felt very underwhelming but she had a way of delivering this one line that she had and it completely won me over with the creativity that she said that line with. There is also a small part played by Katherine DeMille, the adpoted daughter of Cecil B. DeMille who is a standout here. The film is decently shot but there are definitely 2 standout shots that I can think of that really impressed me.

I am becoming very quickly a HUGE fan of Karloff. Absolutely and completely superior to Lugosi in every way shape and form. There is no contest. I had only seen him in Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Scarface and of course as the narrator of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I had not reallly seen him in the roles that involve his beautiful voice (which obviously I was aware of from the Grinch). Now since I have been watching some stuff with him I have become enthralled. After having seen him recently in this, The Old Dark House, Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher and Targets I can safely say he has earned a spot on my favorite actors list.

My last comment on this is that I really enjoyed that a dog played a really significant part in this. He is sort of the reason the film goes where it does which was random and amusing.

Overall while I did have some problems with the film, (rough start, villagers reacting to certain situations in stupid ways) Karloff makes it for me and the plot is quite intruiging on its own. Check this out if you ever stumble upon it. It's like an hour long.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Review: Paranormal Activity (2009): 7.1/10

Paranormal Activity (2009): 7.1/10

I need to say a few things about this film before I get to the actual review. There is so much hype, so much calculated and planned hype that has been built around this film. I want to ignore it or try to for the sake of the review because while the marketing is brilliant, it is annoying and everyones reactions to it seems to be based off of the marketing of the film making everyone think this way before they even had seen the film. Looking at the film on these expectations; does it live up to them? Absolutely not. I do not want to judge this in comparison to the claims that it is the scariest film ever made; because it is not. It is far from being that. Based on these claims, the film is completely overrated and completely overhyped. However, if I look at the film without thinking about everything it has been built up to be by the marketing, I really really liked this a lot. I want to keep thinking about the film as its own entity and as a very impressive and creative use of essentially zero budget.

Two things first: 1. I did not see this in the theater. Before anyone can claim "well no wonder it was not one of the scariest movies you have seen if you did not see this in the theater" let me stop you right there. While scary movies are much scarier in the theater then they are while watching at home, a scary film should be able to have relatively the same reaction with people at home then on the big screen. It needs to be able to function and succeed without relying on the communal experience factor going for it. Most of the scariest films I have seen are films I have not seen in the theater. If it cannot match up to those films, then it does not belong on a list of my most frightening films. I am not saying the movie did not scare me. It creeped me out quite a bit.

Secondly the version of it that I saw had the original ending. After reading the new ending that was released in theaters (which proves that it was being prepped for a mass audience from the beginning) I can say that if I had seen that version my rating would be lower. Talk about stupid. While I had problems with the original ending as well, not in content but in style, the ending that I saw was of the classic nobody wins variety that I like to see. Personally though my favorite ending would be the one that was only shown at one screening. It is the ending that after reading about it, just having come off the movie, prevented me from sleeping for a good 15 minutes.

So as I have said before I am not judging this on the basis that it is one of the scariest movies ever made because for me it was not. I am judging it on the basis of whether or not I enjoyed the film. I am a fan of films like this; they do inherently draw me in. I think what the director and writer Oren Peli did with what he had to work with was very impressive and displayed a great deal of creativity on his part.

The film relies on anticipation to an insane degree but it works because the pay off, no matter how small it is, is satisfying based on how he builds the tension throughout the scenes. The film only has two people to really stay with as Micah and Katie provide us with the characters that we watch throughout the film. They, along with the homemade nature of the film ground it in a believability. When this subgenre of films is used, it is neccesary to get actors who can act as naturally as the style of the film calls for. This was an issue I had with Cloverfield; while the style was going for a level of authenticity, the acting was as stilted as any bad big budget film. This is a huge reason that the film that Paranormal Activity is being compared to, The Blair Witch Project (which deserves its status because without it, none of these other films would exist) works so well; the actors in it, particularly Heather Donahue were so good and you never felt like you were watching someone act. While Micah does a very nice job in an unlikeable role, Katie Featherston is extremely convincing here as Katie. She does a really nice job of drawing us into the story and of making us care about what happens to this couple.

Rather than focus on individual character development, Peli focuses on how they interact as a couple. This works well because it does help us care about Micah more when we see that they are happy as a couple at least until Micah gets out of hand with his priorities. It was very amusing to hear him squirm when Katie tells him that he is not in control of the situation; that IT is. "How dare you...blah blah blah" What an idiot. He does set his priorities straight by the end though...but it is too late.

For me the creepiest moments were the pattering footsteps and subsequent crash, the shadow on the door and of course the finale. While the movie is not incredibly scary, it is legitimately creepy in both its use of anticipation and its use of minimal effects. The lack of effects (obviously because of money) adds to the relatability factor that the movie carries which I think is extremely important. In another movie we would have seen a lot more and would probably have seen the demon at some point. The sounds and creepings about that the film shows us are all the types of squeaks and shadows that we think we see in real life. Little moments like that have terrified all of us in real life so taking those small goings on and allowing them to be parrt of an inescapable and random evil is very effective.

I am not looking forward to a sequel at all mainly because as I see it, the film did not end the way other people saw it. While I am intrigued to see what this director can do with a budget and I think he deserves the chance most definitely, I just do not want a sequel. At all.

Overall I really liked this a lot but I hate the hype and the marketing of it, brilliant as it is. It is not one of the scariest movies I have ever seen but it is quite effective and has stuck with me since my viewing of it last night.

Review: Treeless Mountain (2009): 6/10

Treeless Mountain (2009): 6/10

This South Korean film about two sisters who have to learn to adapt to a new life is affecting but ultimately unsubstantial. 6 year old Jin and her sister 3 year old Bin live a comfortable and pleasant enough life with their mother.

Their mother goes off to try to deal with their father in a clearly complicated situation which the audience is kept out of the loop on. She brings them to their aunts place, the mothers' sister-in-law. She clearly cares for her children but finds herself in a situation that cannot be dealt with while her children are with her. The aunt is not depicted as a bad person by any means but is (nicely) shown as someone who is just as confused about how to deal with this new dynamic as the children are. She is nice to them overall but in many moments and scenes fails to display the patient understanding that is neccesary in dealing with the children and their ways of coping with the situation.

While the mother is not depicted as a bad person in the film (nobody is), she does something that very much frustrated me. Before she leaves she gives Jin and Bin a piggy bank and tells them that everytime they obey their aunt, the aunt will give them a coin and when the bank is filled, the mother will come back. Why would she say this to her kid? This was a painfully immature move on her part in that she apparently assumes that a 6 year old will not take this literally. So of course a huge chunk of the film is Jin and Bin trying to catch, cook and sell grasshoppers in an effort to fill up the bank which they do. I am just not sure why she would say this to her children. It goes beyond false hope.

The film rests on the performances of the children who not only carry the film but are the film. We are not really shown anyone else's perspctive and so the leads most importantly Jin must be emotionally resonant which she very much is. Hee-Yeon Kim is so beautiful and surprisingly moving in this film. We can see her trying to understand what is going on in her head and we can also see the emotions at work within her. Song-hee Kim as Bin is a nice contrast and companion for Jin but since she is 3 years old it is hard to comment on any sort of intentional performance going on. I can only say that she is filmed so that we can she that she is effected as well.

The film, which is all observational in tone) is nicely shot with a couple of outstanding shots which would constitute a favorite shots of the year list if only. While the film is interesting, moving and is carried well by the leads, ultimately it never really crosses into great territory. It is just a pretty good film. So in the end, its only flaw is that it is too mild to really cross the line into being great.

Review: A Serious Man (2009): 9.4/10

A Serious Man (2009): 9.4/10

Out of the 45 films I have seen so far that have come out in 2009, my vote for the best of those goes to the Coen Brothers' bleakly hysterical A Serious Man.

Let's just get this out of the way; anybody who has a problem or is turned off by the Coen Brothers' extreme cynical worldview is going to hate this. Their cynicism is pushed as far as it can go with this film. This is cynicism and particularly their brand of it in its raw stripped down form. The film shows absolutely no hope for humanity and the shred of it towards the end which does occur is stomped out in the films' final moments. The claim that it may be their best film is not unfounded; it could be my favorite by them.

A Serious Man is basically a retelling of the story of Job. In this film, Job is represented by Larry Gopnik who played by theater actor Michael Stuhlbarg (this guy has a lot of presence. Fascinating to watch in every scene). The performance requires him to watch his life fall apart and he does a fantastic job of it. It is hard to pull off these lines for such a prolonged period of time and not become annoying as a character and he manages to maintain our sympathy (or at least mine) for him even though we wish he would try to do something more than be confounded with the extreme turn that his life takes. This leads him to begin questioning his faith and we see that in his desperate search for an answer as everything around him only gets worse.

For me it is very hard to review this film with a respectable amount of depth because there is so much packed into each scene that it would take many viewings to get a handle on this. Every character is simultaneously part of a pattern and rhythum that the Coens' have cooked up. Every recurring character (and there are many) adds to this built tension as it increases the stress in Larry's life. When they come back later in the film it is only to make the situation for Larry are dealing with worse.

The Jewish culture, religion and community play an essential role in this film. While there is a lot of thematic and soul crushing worldview stuff going on, they are also trying to recreate mid west Jewish suburbia in the 60's. While it is not something I can personally relate to, they create a clear and distinct portrait of how the 60's are dealing with two different worldviews clamoring for dominance. Someone I know has a father that grew up in this enviornment and he was really impressed with how accurate it was to his experiences.

Since at this point I really only have random bits and pieces of things to say since I have only seen this comlplicated picture once, I will delve off into some random thoughts.

There needs to be a shoutout to Fred Melamed for his truly memorable performance as Cy Abelman. His "calming" voice is discomfiting and knowingly deceptive and he plays the character with just the right amount of absurdity to make Larry's situation that much more confusing to him.

I really like that while the film is almost exclusively from Larry's perspective, the only other character to get an individual focus is his son Danny. We see that Danny is in the middle of conflicting world views as he struggles to juggle his familial obligations in preperation for his Batmitzvah and his instincts to be a normal kid who gets into trouble and to explore the changing world of the 60's. The recordings he listens to in his studies of the Torah are contrasted by the ever present music of Jefferson Airplane which represent the changes going on in the decade. It comes to a head in a fantastic pay off in the scene between Danny and Rabbi Marshak.

Something that works so well in this film even more so than their other films is that every scene that is saturated with these truly horrible and depressing perspectives and statements about life are so damn funny at the same time. The more depressing it is the funnier it is. The devastating hopelessness of this film is so successful in that it depressed me and it is all the more impressive that in each scene, the film managed to take me out of those emotions enough for me to be able to laugh at it all...and to be legitimately disturbed by its hopelessness. If that makes sense.

For anyone who did not get the end of No Country for Old Men, be prepared for an ending similar (only in that it leaves you staring at the screen after its end) to that film. But completely different as well.

Carter Burwell's scores are consistently haunting and have become an essential component to the Coen Brothers films and how they function in mood most prominently.

That might be all I have to say about this for now. I do think it is a film that needs to be seen more than once to fully comprehend ones thoughts on it in detail. When I was watching it though it became very clear that their are so many threads running through the film which are marked by characters entrances, exits and repeated occurances of entering and exiting after they have done slightly more damage to this man. Everything is weaved together beautifully. The person I went with saw it as being "a bit all over the place for them" and I can see that perspective but for me it is their most tightly scrpited film.

While I doubt A Serious Man will ever gain the cult status that The Big Lebowski has (overrated in my opinion) it has already gained a lot of momentum as being the film tha most accurately represents their worldview. This is a statement I agree with. I have my worries that this film could hurt them for the future. By this I mean that by after seeing a film that if neccesary can completely sum them up as filmmakers, where do you go from there? It does not get any bleaker than this film. There is no answer. There is no savior from doom. There is no control. It only gets worse. And all you can do is watch.