Category: 2001


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(A quick aside before I begin my actual review. I promised you all in my last Best Of list [well, actually, it was in the post explaining why there would be major differences to my Best Of lists and arranging all the films I viewed by score] that I would start at least reviewing the “A” and “A+” films that I’ve watched again. Well, last week, I finally got around to watching one of those films. And in an instant reminder of why I’d had to retire this blog, I’ve only just now found the time to do this write-up. But, I really have a lot to say about this film so here goes.)

Terrence Malick’s last two films, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, both dealt with questions as old as mankind itself. Why are we here? Is there a purpose to my life? Are we alone even when those we love are physically in our presence? What do we do when we don’t have the answers to our own existential queries? What makes Terrence Malick so special is his own humility in knowing he can’t possibly hope to provide a definitive answer to those questions. At best, he can speculate on what he believes and capture the despair of our mortal need for answers in a world where those answers are impossible to grasp. And if a mainstream American blockbuster has ever come close to matching Malick’s existential introspection, it’s Steven Spielberg‘s 2001 science fiction opus, A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

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Discarding fears of artificial/synthetic intelligence overlords like Skynet or Mass Effect‘s Geth, we live in an exciting era of machine intelligence. I’m skeptical of a truly intelligent/sentient machine existing in my lifetime (although Ray Kurzweil’s prediction for the technological singularity places that in 2049 which would be the year I turn 60. So, maybe…), but programs like Wolfram Alpha or even less complex virtual intelligences like Apple’s Siri mean that an age where computers can be trained to understand natural language systems and return answers based on those queries is already upon us. And what happens when we have machines that can not only process information and provide answers but can also draw inferences and attachments to the sensory input they take in? Which is to say, what happens when a machine begins to have emotions?

What could have been a redundant and unnecessary question, one that had been thoroughly analyzed through Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, is given new life and greater insight in Spielberg’s A.I. A.I. is the story of David (Haley Joel Osment), the world’s first “mecha” capable of genuine, unconditional love. Set in a world where global warming has raised the sea level and destroyed all of the world’s major coastal cities, population is strictly controlled, and few families are lucky enough to be given the license to have children. One such family, led by scientist Henry (Sam Robards) and his wife Monica (Frances O’Connor) have an ill son kept alive through cryogenic sleep until scientists can find a cure for him. And, in the meantime, they are the test parents of David, designed to be the world’s perfect mecha son.

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Although Monica does not appreciate her husband’s decision to bring a robot boy to their home as a substitute for her sick son, she quickly warms to David, and once she “imprints” on him, he more than warms to her. He experiences the obsessive, protective, desperate love towards his new mother that only young children can understand. But, through a set of circumstances beyond David’s control, Monica is forced to abandon David into the cruel, dystopian world in which she lives. And David starts a manic and crazed quest to find the Blue Fairy of the Pinocchio myth which he is convinced will turn him into a real boy so that he may finally have the love of his mother which he so desperately craves.

If A.I. were simply about whether or not David were a sentient being capable of emotion and genuine self-awareness, it would be unnecessary. And the film dispenses with those questions almost immediately. As soon as David’s capacity for unconditional love is awakened, he becomes a boy. A boy that is slightly off but a boy nonetheless. He is capable of hopes and dreams and aspirations. He wants love and affection. He wants to impress his mother. He ignores the logical and sane response to the Blue Fairy myth (which is to say that it is a myth) and believes that he can actually become a real boy. Therefore, he is capable of that most human of responses, self-delusion.

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And because A.I. has the sense to be about more than whether or not David is a sentient being, it is able to ask deeper questions. Was it ethical to create David at all? The world is a cruel, miserable place, and is it right to create a being as innocent as David and then thrust him into this misery? Of course, by the end of the film, David’s woes and journey and existential quest become a stand-in for all of humanity. Is there something inherently selfish about the act of human procreation? Is our human habit of creating grandiose justifications for our own existence desperate self-delusion or beautiful despite its falsehood? Can our existence be its own justification? Is our human need for love a strength or a weakness that consumes us when it’s not provided?

And through Steven Spielberg’s marvelous direction and a story conceived by the late Stanley Kubrick, A.I. takes a long, hard look into the potential nihilism of our own existence and manages to provide something beautiful and meaningful at the end. Let there be no mistake. A.I. is not the cloying melodrama that Spielberg is prone to in his weakest moments, but it also refuses to be an empty reflection of the abyss that happens in Kubrick’s darker pictures. Instead, A.I. paints a heartbreaking and horrifically sad portrait of growing up, loss, mortality, and parenthood while also saying that the beauty of some of those experiences and the narratives we craft in our lives makes our existence worthwhile.

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A.I. Artificial Intelligence isn’t a perfect film. There are moments where its most heartbreaking moments wildly shift from genuine despair to forced melodrama. At two and a half hours long, the film has more than enough to say to suit its lengthy run time, but there are still scenes that could have used more editing simply because a number of scenes just run slightly too long. Although the film is very much meant to be a science fiction fairy tale, it is a science fiction fairy tale grounded in realism, and one scene involving fish in the submerged ruins of New York City breaks that illusion of realism.

But these are minor complaints about what is easily one of the finest science fiction films of the aughts. Great science fiction holds up a mirror to modern society and forces you to engage with the great questions of your time, or in the case of the best science fiction works, of all time. And A.I. Artificial Intelligence will have a shelf life that I hope lives on even into the days where artificial intelligence isn’t simply something we see in works of fiction. If you want a film that presents a marvelous fairy tale and thrilling adventure for chidlren but poses the kind of questions and insights you expect as an adult, A.I. is everything you could wish for.

“I am. I was.”

Score: A

 

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(A quick aside before I begin this review. I watched this film last night at work at the bar. Beyond the usual interruptions that come with watching this film at the bar like having to pause it any time a customer wanted a beer or something, I also had to stop it for hours at a time not once but twice when old ladies came into the store and I felt it was probably wise to turn off the R-Rated movie. If I thought the pauses would have overly affected my review, I just wouldn’t have written one. But I figured I should be up front about it since as a horror movie, I kept regularly escaping the tension and atmosphere of the film).

In Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining (though I suppose it’s equally true in Stephen King’s book), the Overlook Hotel was as much a character as Jack, Wendy, and Danny Torrance. Kubrick’s camera lavished fetishistic attention on every nook and cranny of the secluded hotel, and with a decided Mid-West Native American meets 1920s art style, it’s impossible to forget the time spent within its haunts (pun most definitely intended). Genuine atmosphere and tension are becoming a lost art (though 2009’s The House of the Devil is a brilliant exception). And while 2001’s Session 9 may have a somewhat muddled central story, no one can deny the suffocating atmosphere and unease at its core.

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That The Shining-centric introduction is not without reason. Session 9 is cut very much from The Shining‘s same “haunted house” cloth. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that they’re less “cut from the same cloth” and more, “The Session is a wide-eyed homage that occasionally borders on stylistic plagiarism” (but, thankfully, it’s borders on that line. It never crosses it.). And if the Overlook was the secret star of The Shining, then the real-life Danvers State Hospital (which an asylum for the criminally insane that was the inspiration for Arkham Asylum in the Batman universe) steals every second of Session 9. Though the film has actual quality performances and tension, the abandoned and supremely terrifying Danvers State Hospital is the star of the show.

Shot almost entirely on location in the hospital, Session 9 is a creepy and atmospheric modern spin on the classic “haunted house” horror trope. Struggling haz-mat removal contractor Gordon Fleming (War Horse‘s Peter Mullan) is desperate for work. He’s just had a child and his business is on the verge of going under. So, the opportunity to remove the asbestos from the Danvers State Hospital is too good to pass up even if it means seriously underbidding the competition and agreeing to do the job in one week when it should take three at a minimum. And, when he and his partner Phil (David Caruso) cross the threshold of the hospital for the first time, it’s immediately clear that this job will be more than they bargained for.

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But, despite the overwhelming creepiness of the hospital (and the fact that Gordon may or may not have heard voices when he first entered), they take the job and bring on three workers for the crew. Petulant and obnoxious Hank (You Can Count On Me‘s Josh Lucas) is banging Phil’s ex-girlfriend for no other reason than he can and he knows it pisses off the hair-trigger temper of Phil. Gordon’s nephew Jeff (Brendon Sexton III) is new to asbestos removal and terribly frightened of the dark which is probably the wrong phobia to have in this hotel. And law school drop-out Mike (Oz‘s Stephen Gevedon) labors away at this job despite being way too smart to spend any time with manual labor.

And, as the crew passes the time in the hospital, they get an almost hilariously miniscule of real work done as each member of the crew (except for Phil and Jeff) splits away from the group as they discover secrets and scares lurking in the shadows of the asylum. After accepting the job, Gordon has a fight with his wife though you don’t learn til later on what it was about and Gordon slowly starts to become unhinged over the week. Hank finds a cache of old coins behind a loose brick in the walls and concocts a scheme to steal them and get rich. All the while, Mike discovers a series of recordings of a former patient in the hospital with split personality whose tale is linked to the inevitably lethal turn their work takes over the course of the week.

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Perhaps the most shocking element of the film is that (beyond Brendon Sexton III’s Jeff) the performances are almost uniformly excellent, particularly Stephen Gevedon and Peter Mullan. Peter Mullan is wound immensely tight and is a bundle of nervous, desperate energy that you’re constantly left wondering when he’ll finally snap. And Stephen Gevedon (who I know from his Season 1 turn on Oz as Scott Ross) captures Mike’s morbid curiosity and intensity. There’s an especially memorable moment where he teases/abuses the new guy, Jeff, by explaining the practical applications of a lobotomy with a chop-stick millimeters away from Jeff’s eye.

But, beyond any other element of the film, what makes Session 9 work (when it’s central mystery is obvious from the start) is how “lived in” the film feels. And, of course it would feel lived in because Danvers State Hospital was a working asylum (and one of the most notorious in the country) up until 1992. Even if the members of the crew didn’t start getting murdered halfway through the film, the hospital itself would have been scary enough, and like The House of the Devil and The Descent, Session 9 wisely holds off on any jump scares or real horror so long that when it arrives, you’re on the edge of your seat.

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The only time where the film falls apart is at the ending which is both open-ended enough to invite speculation over whether the killer is crazy or possessed (which is good though I tend to lean towards possessed) but it’s also handled in such a muddled way that certain things simply don’t make sense within the continuity of the film itself. They are minor complaints because Session 9 is one of those rare horror films that relies more on an audience’s over-active imagination and paranoia than gore and violence. If you don’t like slower paced horror, you will probably find Session 9 to be a snooze, but I thought it was a treat.

Final Score: B

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There are two criteria by which I judge the effectiveness of a documentary. Either it moves me emotionally (Children Underground, Undefeated) or it makes me think about the world in new ways (Road to Guantanamo). I’m not sure if a film has ever moved me as much as the 2011 Best Documentary Feature Oscar winner, Undefeated, and if a viewing of The Road to Guantanamo doesn’t leave you incensed about the handling of aspects of the War on Terror, you’re brain dead. Following one season in the life of one of the nation’s most respected high school football programs, Go Tigers! is a more cerebral experience than its spiritual successor, Undefeated, and if it never hits the emotional heights of Undefeated, it may have something more valuable to say.

Undefeated is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen (it’s currently a strong contender for the best, period), and so it’s almost unfair of me to compare Kenneth Carlson’s Go Tigers! to that much-beloved film. Though both films share the structure of following three players through one season (Undefeated also focused on the coach), Undefeated was far more focused on the personalities and emotional growth of the four subjects it portrayed. It was an intensely emotional  and character-driven ride. Go Tigers! is more detached and driven by the meaning of the football town to the team where it plays as well as what type of priorities would produce such a consistently excellent football program.

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In Ohio (and arguably the nation), there is no bigger football program than Massilon, Ohio. Having played for 105 seasons when the film begins, the Masillon Tigers are the oldest high school football team in the nation and easily one of its most successful. Football isn’t just a game in Massilon, Ohio; it’s a way of life. The town lives and dies on the success of the football program, and after a 4-6 season, the town is in a rut. The Massilon school system is on the verge of financial collapse, and if the town can’t pass a levy to salvage the schools, the school’s will have to make devastating cuts across the board. And, in the eyes of the coaches and teachers and players, the only way to convince the town to raise the taxes for the levies is for the high school football team to have a successful season.

Go Tigers! is told from the point of view of three seniors on the football program. Ellery Moore is a natural leader, but the football program is what’s keeping him out of prison where he’s already served a term in juvie for rape (which he denies, but says prison was what he needed regardless). Danny Studer is a gifted artist whose father is the conditioning coach for the team, and Danny’s been bred for football his whole life. And David Irwin is the star quarterback whose biggest concern becomes not making the necessary pass, but finally passing the ACTs. And whether they want it or not, the fate of the whole town lies on these boys’ (and the rest of the team’s) shoulders.

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The residents of Massilon make the obsession of Friday Night Lights‘s residents of Dillon seem like a passing fancy. Danny and David were both held back one year from entering high school so that they could be bigger to play on the football team, and other than an English teacher, no one has a problem with it. Rather than cut some money from the gargantuanly bloated football program, the town wants to raise property taxes on everyone to save the schools. On the day of the biggest game of the season, the high school band has permission from the mayor to march through any establishment in town they choose. Their stadium looks nicer than many smaller colleges. Football is the king of Masillon.

The film is abound with little tidbits exploring the obsession that Massilon has with football, and it isn’t afraid to ask serious questions about where this town’s priorities are. By framing the film’s actions in a town trying to salvage a financially wrecked school system during a major election, the film poses the obvious question of “would this town be in such a mess if the football program weren’t so large?” It also asks such questions as “Would these boys struggle academically if the football program weren’t their lives from the cradle?” And that last part isn’t hyperbole. The film opens with members of the football team staff/booster squad (it isn’t entirely clear) visiting a woman just after she’s given birth and putting a football in her baby’s crib. They do this for every newborn boy in town.

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I watched this movie several evenings ago, but I haven’t had a chance to review it til now. And, this is my first night back in Morgantown after spending the whole summer back in Philippi. I’ve spent most of today in the process of moving and unpacking. It’s as fun and exhausting as it sounds. The fun part is sarcasm. So, I’m going to draw this review to a close. Go Tigers! may not be as life-affirming and immensely enjoyable as Undefeated, but that’s an outrageously high bar to clear. If you have even a passing interest in football, you should give this film a go. I’m not a huge football fan, and I still found it brilliant.

Final Score: A

 

Tape (2001)

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I’m a fan of what my friend Jen calls “verbal volleyball” cinema. Though I haven’t reviewed a film in this vein since My Dinner With Andre, I’m in love with films that are just two (sometimes three) characters talking for more or less the entire film’s run time. In fact, one of the first films I ever gave top marks to, Conversations with Other Women, fits perfectly into that genre. And I’ve highly enjoyed other similarly structured films including the Steve Buscemi-helmed Interview and the early Robert Downey Jr. movie, Two Girls and a Guy. While 2001’s Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) film Tape isn’t quite Conversations or My Dinner with Andre, it’s an intellectual mind-game that provoked a visceral emotional reaction.

I suffer from slight social anxiety that usually only manifests itself when people behave in ways so removed from polite social expectations that it begins to make me uncomfortable. My anxiety in these situations manifests into a legitimate sense of physical pain and a shortness of breath, and weirdly, this carries over to fictional situations. So, when I say that there are moments in Tape where the film elicits such a pained, uncomfortable reaction that I nearly had to turn the film off, it should speak volumes to how honest and brutally dark the subject matter can get. Tape may only be a 90 minute long conversation in terms of its plot, but at its core, it’s a gritty and mature look at harrowing topics.

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Shot on a very cheap home digital camera, Tape is the conversation between two (and then a third) friends who haven’t seen each other in ten years. Vince (Reality Bites‘s Ethan Hawke) is a drug-dealing, assistant firefighter with violent tendencies that has just lost his girlfriend and has no plans for his life. He’s in Lansing, MI (we believe at first) to support his best high school friend, Jon (The Age of Innocence‘s Robert Sean Leonard), whose self-produced film is in a small, local film festival. But as the two drink beers and talk in Vince’s cramped hotel room, it’s clear that Vince has ulterior motives as he tries to get Jon to admit to some indiscretion in his past with a girl they both dated, Amy (Kill Bill‘s Uma Thurman), and it isn’t long before startling admissions and explosive accusations are made.

And if that plot description sounds dull as hell, sorry. That’s what the movie is. Based off of Stephen Belber’s play (I highly suspected that it had been a play first while watching it), Tape is a forty-five minute conversation between Vince and Jon that gets increasingly darker until finally Amy shows up and then it’s an even darker and more uncomfortable conversation between the three of them as they explore their pasts and aspects of their lives they all wish they could just leave forgotten. Other than one minor tussle between Jon and Vince, there is no action. Just conversation, and thankfully, after a bit of a slow start, the conversations really take off.

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One of the many reasons that Tape is able to be so fascinating despite its simple execution is the terrific performances from its three-person cast. I’m continually astounded by the fact that Ethan Hawke isn’t one of the biggest stars in Hollywood today because not only does he have classic leading man looks, but he is also a supremely talented actor. His turn as Vince is simply feral. Vince is a hyperactive bundle of misdirected energy and anger, and Ethan Hawke creates as much tension as the writing by tapping into the audience’s understanding that Vince is just seconds away from exploding. It’s a marvelous performance from a consistently under-rated actor.

Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard were both good even if neither of them were able to live up to the impossibly high standards set by Ethan Hawke. Uma doesn’t show up until much later in the film, and it’s a while before you realize the darkness lurking beneath the surface of Robert Sean Leonard’s apparently squeaky clean film director, but once they have the chance to display the complexity and darkness of their own characters, Thurman and Leonard deliver much of the emotional power of the film. In fact, Amy and Jon’s verbal sparring when they finally go head to head later in the film provided the moments that made me so physically uncomfortable that I worried I might have to turn the film off. Thankfully, I powered through.

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It’s  a shame then that Tape is so completely hideous to look at. It’s not an exaggeration when I say that Tape ranks up there with Border Radio as one of the most aesthetically unpleasing shot films I’ve ever watched for this blog. The handheld digital camera Linklater uses makes the film look like a poorly made home film, and the man had already made Before Sunrise and Dazed and Confused at this point, so you know he could have afforded better equipment. It was a stylistic choice and one I felt was ill-suited to this movie. It didn’t do much to enhance the intimacy of the picture which I’m sure was his intention.

But, if you’re a fan of the “verbal volleyball” subgenre of film, you should certainly give Tape a try. When it first begins, you may be at a loss for what the point of this movie is, but take my word for it when I say that the pay-off is worth it. Ethan Hawke is positively spell-binding, and though it takes a while for the others to find their footing, they provide the perfect counterpoint to his simmering energy. If you find yourself experiencing physical discomfort in awkward situations, Tape has them in spades and the sheer torture that it’s climactic confrontation caused me is the best commendation I can give to this film’s emotional veracity.

Final Score: B+

 

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When you sit down to watch a Coen Brothers film, you know you’re in for a cinematic experience unlike anything else other contemporary artists are making. Whether it was the gritty and stylistic re-imagining of True Grit, the political satire via film noir via stoner comedy The Big Lebowski, or one of the true modern crime epics in No Country for Old Men, the Coens pack a potent punch of visual delights matched with a consistently dark and offbeat sense of humor. When the pantheon of great Coen films is brought up (Fargo, Lebowski, No Country, Raising Arizona), 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There is rarely, if ever brought up. It should be. Because although the film fails to meet the absurd level of perfection of Fargo or The Big Lebowski, this played straight film noir is an often breathtakingly philosophical look into the modern man and it’s nihilistic bent provides one of the most emotional Coen films this side of A Serious Man.

It’s ironic that the film proved to be such a harrowing emotional experience for me because of how emotionally dead and almost comically stoic the male lead is (but more on that in a second). But, not since my viewing of Synecdoche, New York has a piece of American cinema so convincingly reminded me of my own mortality and the potential meaningless of my own existence. On it surface, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a classic film noir (Billy Wilder would have been proud) mixed with elements of screwball comedy (in terms of the sheer avalanche of poor coincidences that haunt our hero), but at its core, the film is a terrifying peek at the price of ambition, the cruel whims of fate, and the essential fact that we will all some day die. That it manages to include all of these heady intellectual elements while still retaining the black humor normally associated with the Coens is all the more a testament to the film’s strengths.

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In the 1950s, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a barber, and he doesn’t talk too much. Ruled by his cheating wife, Doris (Almost Famous‘s Frances McDormand), Ed’s life is an endless haze of haircuts and cigarettes. His life is going nowhere, and, honestly, Ed’s alright with that. But, as fate would have it, a man walks into Ed’s barber shop and tells Ed about a crazy new scheme, dry cleaning. And the man just needs $10,000 to get off the ground. Ed sees his opportunity to finally do something with his life and decides to anonymously blackmail his wife’s boss (Killing Them Softly‘s James Gandolfini) over the affair he’s having with Ed’s wife to make the money for the investment. And, I’ll stop now for fear of spoiling any of the endless twists and turns that the film’s plot takes as Ed’s one small act of rebellion avalanches into a catastrophe.

All of the hallmarks, both visually and thematically, of the film noir genre are present in The Man Who Wasn’t There. If you’ve ever watched classics like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street, you will be bowled over by how well this film nails the genre conventions. And for fans of later, more mature neo-noir like Chinatown, the Coens give this film the character depth and philosophical bent lacking in some of the older noir films. From the deep shadows to the soft focus to the shifting/morphing cigarette smoke (even to some of the strange touches of Cold War paranoia that seep into the film, I’m now realizing intentionally), the film is a visual stunner, and it’s Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography was well deserved. In fact (and this is coming from a Lord of the Rings fan boy), it should have beat The Felllowship of the Ring for Best Cinematography for 2001.

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Billy Bob Thornton’s performance is kind of complicated to assess in a traditional sense. Because, he doesn’t exactly show the full spectrum of human emotions. Ed is more or less an emotionally dead man who’s living life  at a robotic pace. And throughout the film, we only get brief glimpses into the kind of man Ed might have been if he hadn’t crossed paths with his domineering wife. But, if you want to talk about a performance that defines showing exactly what you need in a character through a extraordinarily restrained performance, Billy Bob Thornton gets the job done. Some might complain that much of his state of mind is gained through expository inner monologue (which is fair although mostly those moments revealed Thornton’s classic acerbic sense of humor), it appeared that Thornton was able to show Ed to be a man who has lived life always under complete control and who can’t even break loose of his self-imposed cage even though his life is falling apart around him.

Although Billy Bob defies critical assessment, the film is overflowing with superb supporting performances. Frances McDormand (who is married to one of the Coens) reminds us why she is one of the most under-appreciated talents of her generation. Through her commanding performance, we see exactly why a man like Ed would find himself unable to muster a defense to her sheer domination. James Gandolfini isn’t on the screen that long, but his Big Dave Brewster is such a dynamic and constantly shifting turn that it made me sad all over again that The Sopranos is off the air (though I have the whole series on DVD and should rewatch it soon). Gandolfini’s big climactic scene alone was enough to catapult him onto my short list for Best Supporting Actor for the 50 film block I’m working on right now. And Tony Shalhoub also makes an appearance as a fast-talking, rich lawyer whose legal gamesmanship is a sight to behold.

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I’m going to draw this review to a close because it’s getting late (and I’ve become stupidly addicted to Saints Row: The Third). So, let me just say this. If you are a fan of film noir or the Coen Brothers, you owe it to yourself and to this movie to watch The Man Who Wasn’t There as soon as possible. Neo-nor remains one of modern cinema’s most consistently rewarding genres, and while this film tends to play the tropes of the 1950s almost painstakingly straight (though the Coens add their own little touches [one late twist seems a little too bizarre for me but you can judge for yourself. You’ll know what I’m talking about]), it is a hidden gem of the 2000s that has clearly slipped by too many movie lovers because it didn’t get the attention it deserved upon its initial release.

Final Score: A

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If you’ve been reading this blog for any extended period of time, you know that my tastes in cinema tend towards the obscure and artsy. And, generally, this makes me the perfect candidate to enjoy movies that have gained “cult” status over the years. Although I’ve never been to a midnight showing (cause I never had a way to get to the ones in Morgantown when we still had them), I consider myself to be a pretty huge Rocky Horror Picture Show fan, and I know far too many of the words and choreography to that show, and the list of cult films I enjoy goes on. 2001’s Donnie Darko is one of the most popular and defining cult films of the 2000s. I last watched it when it was first released (I was 12 at the time), and I did not like it. At all. Over the years, I’ve grown to think maybe I was too young to appreciate it. Well, as a 24 year old, I still find it to be mostly muddled gobbledygook with some occasional great elements thrown in. And I still can’t for the life of me comprehend why this has become such a modern cult classic.

And before some Donnie Darko fanboy jumps down my throat for not understanding the film (which seems to be the case whenever I criticize either this film [which I find to be sometimes bad, usually good, once or twice great]) or Inception, which I legitimately enjoy), I get the movie. Although the theatrical version (which is what I watched earlier today and which will be the version of the film that I review) has a fairly open-ended finale, there are still only two real ways to interpret the events of the film (either a Looper-style stable-time loop or the film is essentially David Lynch’s Lost Highway with a talking bunny. I realize that it’s the former in the Director’s Cut). It’s that I find Donnie Darko to be a ham-fisted tale, bloated with half-assed subplots and at a mere two hours, I still found myself constantly begging for the film to draw to a close. If the Director’s Cut is longer, I honestly can’t imagine any way it made this film better.

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In October of 1988, on the heels of the Dukakis/Bush election, Donnie Darko (End of Watch‘s Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled young teenager living with his family in the Blue Velvet-style suburban Hellhole of Middlesex. Donnie’s not your average angsty teenager though. He is potentially a total crazy person showing all of the signs of classic paranoid schizophrenia. With chronic sleep-walking (he may wake up later at the top of a mountain or at the local golf course), Donnie begins to see an “imaginary” talking man in a bunny suit who tells him that the world will end in 28 days. And as Donnie spends the next 28 days battling with a puritanical teacher, a phony self-help guru, and the douche bags who attend his high school (as well as his own mental illness), it might be for the best for Donnie if the world ends after all. The only thing keeping him attached to anything is the appearance of new girl Gretchen (Saved‘s Jena Malone) that Donnie quickly falls for.

There are, in my mind, exactly two consistently excellent things about Donnie Darko. The first is the soundtrack which is a great collection of 1980s alternative/indie rock hits. And let’s face it, I’m not sure if there was ever a better era for alternative rock. A lot of great Oingo Boingo, Tears for Fears, and Joy Division. You can’t ask for more than that. Also, Jena Malone was a marvelous breath of fresh air in a film full of awkward, stilted performances. She was (she’s not that young anymore) one of Hollywood’s most interesting and talented young actresses, and it’s really a shame that she never got more mainstream exposure. She’s beautiful and talented, and she put more nuance and subtlety into her portrayal of Gretchen than everyone else was able to find over the course of the whole film. That’s not necessarily true. Mary McDonnell also found some real emotional gravitas as Donnie’s beleaguered mother.

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The movie’s called Donnie Darko. Donnie is the main character. So, if you’re assuming that a significant portion of the film rests on Jake Gyllenhaal’s shoulders, you’d be right. This was one of Jake’s earliest high-profile roles (along with October Sky). I think Jake’s a great actor. His performance in Brokeback Mountain is mesmerizing and a perfect display of male vulnerability and sexual aggression all at once. He’s not good in this role. He has some good moments. But when he’s trying to look demented and mentally unhinged, he succeeds, but it’s also so comically over-the-top that I begin to wonder if he’s trying to be satirical. The film hinges on me believing that he’s crazy, and while I believed he was crazy, I would have appreciated a little restraint. It’s good to know that by the time Zodiac and Brokeback Mountain came around, Gyllenhaal had matured as an actor.

I mentioned this earlier, but this film is the rare movie that clocks in at under two hours (I think I had it at an hour and forty-seven minutes when the end credits began to roll), but it’s just overflowing with material that needed to be cut. There are at least half a dozen subplots in this film that supplement the central story of Donnie losing his god damn mind and worrying about the impending apocalypse. And there isn’t a single one that works. It’s almost as if director Richard Kelly realized he didn’t have enough material for a full-film but didn’t take the time to write out at least one or two good subplots and just made six insultingly thin ones instead. And, while the film does do a really excellent job of stringing together some of the seemingly random shit the movie throws at you just in time for its ending, that was the rare beam of proficiency in the film’s storytelling.

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As an allegory for modern teen angst, the film is just as hit or miss. There are times where it captures the pain and heart-ache that we feel as teenagers as well as anything else. It has highs that are nearly as high as The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It just doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word consistency. While I admire characters that defy easy categorization (it’s what makes the people that populate the films of Kenneth Lonergan so entrancing), Donnie’s characterization often defies any human logic. And not often in a good way. He’s dickish to people he has no reason to be an asshole to, and while I understand that he’s a crazy person, his acting out doesn’t always seem centered in whatever psychosis he’s suffering from. As a character, Donnie is a hot mess (and gives a bad wrap to all other Don’s out there. *cough cough* me.)

Despite the total thrashing I just gave this film, it does have its moments. The score is amazing (not just the soundtrack). Jena Malone solidified herself as a rising indie talent in this film. In terms of sheer atmosphere, Donnie Darko captures something essentially anxious and fear-driven in both its visuals and its thematic content. I just wish that Donnie Darko could keep up the illusion of competency over its entire run-time. I understand how many people LOVE this movie, and my mostly indifference to it isn’t meant as disrespect to a film that so many hold dear to their heart. It’s just a statement of both my inability to connect with the film as well as what I hope is a logical pointing out of some of the myriad flaws working against this modern cult classic.

Final Score: B-

The power of documentaries to explore sides of life previously unseen is the reason for the whole genre’s existence. Through a simple presentation of truth (or what the editing room produces as truth), you can accomplish more to change social views than any work of fiction could ever hope. Sadly, documentary’s aren’t an especially popular medium of mass consumption and it is rare for a documentary to get a wide release. Especially for films that cover harrowing material such as genocide or poverty, it’s not the sort of life-affirming or action packed material that draws audiences in. Yet, if more people saw films like Gasland or God Grew Tired of Us, perhaps we could have more substantive conversations about these issues. Similar to Michael Winterbottom’s docudrama The Road to Guantanamo, 2001’s Oscar nominee Children Underground will open your eye to a heartbreaking tragedy and injustice in the world that should incense anyone with a soul.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Romania (a former Soviet bloc nation) became a dictatorship led by former Communist Nicolei Ceaucescu. In order to boost Romania’s work force and to become a competitor in the new European economy, Ceaucesucu banned all forms of contraception as well as abortion. This ill-advised policy decision led to an explosion in the population but not a large enough increase in production to feed all of the new children that were being born. Kids were being born but obviously they weren’t old enough to work yet so they weren’t contributing anything to the economy. They were just drags on it. So an already poor Eastern European nation suddenly had even more mouths to feed. Parents couldn’t afford to take care of their own children, and by the time the film was shot in 2001, there were over 20,000 homeless children in the capital alone.

Edet Belzberg’s documentary Children Underground follows the lives of five children (and glimpses into the lives of some of the other children around them) who, whether as orphans or runaways, live in the subways of the Romanian capital of Bucharest. Cristina is a 16 year old girl, but you’d be forgiven for thinking she were a boy for the film’s first ten minutes. With a bald head and a tough as nails attitude, Cristina and many of the other girls living in the subway station keep their hair short and their demeanor masculine to protect themselves from molestation and rape. Cristina is the leader of her own little group of survivors beneath the train station. The children beg and perform odd jobs in order to find enough money to eat, but more often than not, they purchase a paint known as Aurolac, which they huff to get high so they can momentarily ignore how hungry they’ve become.

The other four children’s situations are just as tragic. Mihai is a smart, sensitive 11 year old boy. He loves poetry and science and excels at the school he attends for the street children. Yet, he is terrified of his alcoholic father and ran away from home and is now just another lost, drug-addicted soul. Ana and Marian are two tragically young siblings. Ana, female 10, ran away from home when her parents were no longer able to feed her and her brother Marian, 8, and she dragged Marian along with her. She too is addicted to huffing the paint, and she and her brother both regularly receive beatings from the other children. The last is “Macarena,” the nickname given to another 15-16 year old girl who has the worst Aurolac addiction of all. She spends the majority of the film walking around in an almost completely oblivious haze as a self-defense mechanism against the cruel and uncaring world she inhabits.

Much like Grave of the Fireflies, it wasn’t more than twenty minutes into Children Underground before I started crying, and I didn’t stop until the credits rolled. Although the film isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s still almost mandatory viewing for anyone who cares about the realities of child poverty in the rest of the world and our moral obligation to keep tragedies such as this from happening. The camera doesn’t flinch from the violence and tragedy on display for a second (but more on why that was a slight problem later). You see 10 year old Ana kicked in the face and then brutally beaten by older children because they accused her of stealing their Aurolac. A grown man mercilessly kicks Macarena in the stomach over and over for crying in the subway. After Mihai and Ana have an argument at a park, he starts cutting himself with deep gashes up and down his arm as penance.

You see the hypocrisy and cruelty of the adult world that turned its back on these kids. Halfway through the film, a nun tries to take Ana and Marian to a home. Before they leave, Macarena follows the nun and begs to be taken as well. When she’s abandoned by yet another adult, she slumps in total despair and wails against her fate. Even after Ana and Marian make it to the home, the people running it determine for seemingly arbitrary and bullshit reasons that Ana and Marian wouldn’t be fit for the home simply because they’ve been in the street for too long. So, they’re dropped back on the streets. A priest walks by the children later in the film and berates them. He tells them that their lot in their life is their fault and it could have been avoided. You see grown-ups walking by with their eyes shut as these children destroy themselves in broad daylight, and almost no one ever stops to try and help them.

The rays of light in the film are rare at best. And it is the people with the least to give that regularly give the most in the film. Because if there’s ever been a scathing portrayal of what happens when a few control most of the wealth, this is it. You regularly get shots of the people living their lives in Bucharest who seem to be managing just fine. Yet, these homeless, starving children are beneath their attention. You see business owners exploit the children for labor but then turn their backs on them as soon as they are no longer useful. It’s the poor social workers who are their only friends in the adult world. It’s the volunteers at the local street children school that protects them. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, a woman living in the mostly destroyed ruins of a building shares her shelter with Mihai. She literally has next to nothing, but what she has, she gives to a child in need.

However, one ultimately has to hold the filmmaker at least partially responsible for some of the terrible things that happened during this film. Unless a camera was left in a hidden place and just happened to capture some of the film’s most horrific moments, Edet Belzberg witnessed truly horrendous acts of violence being committed against these kids and chose to let her camera keep running rather than stop them from happening. Understanding that many documentarians take a “hands-off” approach to film-making, to me there is absolutely no excuse to watch an 11 year old child slicing up his own wrists and not do anything to stop him or to see a group of kids brutally beating a 10 year old girl and not stepping in. By not involving yourself with the subject you’re shooting (especially when it involves at-risk children), it can come off as being exploitative.

The only other problem the film faces is the inexplicable decision to shoot certain scenes in black & white. It seems like a stylistic decision that distracts from the otherwise visceral reality of the film. Because if you can watch this film and not get absolutely sick to your stomach, you are made of ice-cold steel. Despite those two minor problems, Children Underground remains one of the greatest documentary films I’ve ever seen. In fact, it might be the greatest. The only reason it’s not going to get perfect marks is because of those two issues. Few films have left me such an emotional wreck after the film was done. When a film makes me say out loud multiple times “I can’t handle this anymore,” it’s a sign of how harrowing and powerful the film is. So if you ever need your trivial American life concerns put into perspective, Children Underground will remind you just how horrendous life in the rest of the world can be.

Final Score: A

I am way too excited about the upcoming days to really do any more meaningful writing this week. Every time I’ve sat down to the typewriter for the last week (I don’t know why I said typewriter there since I use my computer and its keyboards) I’ve been distracted by thoughts of Bonnaroo. It’s a miracle I’ve been able to churn out any meaningful reviews. I leave tomorrow (around 11 AM) to head down to Tennessee and I am excited beyond words about the possibilities of my exciting adventure to the coolest music festival (after Coachella anyways) this year. This will be my last movie review until at least a week from now. I might get one more review of a TV series done. That depends on whether or not I decide to watch another episode of Mad Men tonight and at a reasonable enough hour that I have the energy to review the first disc of the show before I go to bed. Considering the fact that my Mad Men reviews have started to get as in-depth as my Game of Thrones reviews, I don’t see that happening just because I don’t want to make that mental commitment. There’s going to at least (with certainty) be one more Song of the Day post before I go, and then this blog is going on a week long hiatus. I’m going to write an official hiatus post later though. Anyways, I just finished watching Shrek and while I didn’t really enjoy it as much as when I was a kid (though I certainly caught more of the dirtier jokes this time around), it was still a fun children’s movie which has earned its place in cinematic history as being the first kid’s movie to win the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards.

Based off of William Steig’s children’s book (though the film franchise will be remembered far longer than its source material), Shrek is an affectionate parody of nearly all of the children films to come before it. Shrek (Austin Powers‘ Mike Myers) is a solitary and irritable ogre living by himself in the swamps surrounding the kingdom of Duloc. When the evil Lord Farquaad (Dexter‘s John Lithgow) of Duloc relocates all of the fantasy creatures in the kingdom onto Shrek’s swamp, the stolid but basically decent ogre sets off on a quest to get his swamp back for just himself. Reluctantly dragging along the talking donkey, named Donkey (Eddie Murphy), Shrek agrees to rescue the Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a treacherous and dragon-guarded castle for Lord Farquaad in exchange for getting his land back. After Shrek and Donkey rescue the beautiful and feisty Princess Fiona, it’s only a matter of time before Fiona and Shrek begin to bond, and we learn that ogres aren’t the only ones like onions (i.e. they have layers. That joke only worked if you’ve seen the movie), and that Princess Fiona may have some secrets of her own.

I have complicated feelings about Shrek. I’m not going to lie. I remember this movie being so much funnier when I was little. Unlike say Up or Toy Story 3, I don’t feel like this film aged as well as I did. You can put in the best Pixar movies, and they’re going to turn me into an emotional wreck by the end of the film regardless of how old I am. Seriously, if you play that opening montage of Up at any point in the rest of my life, I will cry like a baby without fail. I understand that Shrek was meant to be more of a comedy than a serious film, and while I picked up on a lot more of the jokes directed to the grown-ups during this particular sitting (there was a lot of sex and penis jokes in this movie. Like wow.), I didn’t necessarily think all of them were that clever. Most of the adult-themed humor in the film was as broad and obvious as the jokes geared towards the kids. There were some subtle pop-culture nods here and there that I thought were fairly clever. But, if I want to watch a Shrek film with an endless stream of pop-culture allusions, I can put Shrek 2 in. Still, perhaps as a film meant to be enjoyed by children, my memories of how funny I thought it was as a kid are more than enough to recommend showing it to a whole new generation of children.

The film’s animation though has aged much better than I expected. While all of the people look like plasticine dolls ripped out of the in-game engine of a particularly mediocre current-gen videogame, everything else about the film dripped with style. Shrek is an intentionally ugly world, yet there was a surprising amount of beauty in the landscape work as well as some really exceptional particle effects during important scenes. Much like Rango (though ultimately a far better film), Shrek revels in perverting (in a fun way) and subverting all of the standards of children’s animation. That to me will always be the film’s ultimate legacy. It has become one of the most influential children’s films of the last twenty years simply thanks to its art style alone (well also its occasionally adult sense of humor). Shrek and Donkey were especially well-animated and while the script certainly gave the pair plenty of life and character, the animation team must be given an extraordinary amount of credit for their iconic status in the animated pantheon. Many films have aped Shrek‘s style but few have come close to matching its original magic.

One last comment before I draw this to a close (and do my song of the day post). With the exception of the original Beverly Hills Cop, this was probably the best comedic performance of Eddie Murphy’s career. He was the only part of the movie that was still able to consistently make me laugh and his non-stop zingers, non-sequitors, and neurotic ramblings were always able to keep me in stitches. If you’re a young adult like myself and considering re-watching Shrek for the first time in years, it’s still an enjoyable film even if the years might tarnish your cherished memories of this movie. My sister and I still somehow managed to know all of the words to the movie and were calling them out as the film was happening like we were watching Rocky Horror Picture Show. It definitely has the best soundtrack of pop and rock music in any kids movie I can think of whose name isn’t Fantastic Mr. Fox. This was the film that introduced me to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (though it’s performed by Rufus Wainwright in the film and my favorite version is Jeff Buckley). And if you’re thinking about showing it to your kids for the first time, you have my whole hearted approval. Just come up with a clever distraction if they ever ask you to explain some of the dirtier jokes.

Final Score: B+

This is going to be one of my shortest Song of the Day posts yet simply because I forgot to write it last night before I went to bed. I have a concert tonight after work. I’m seeing the Shins (hence the artist choice) and the concert is at Terminal 5. It’s on the Upper West Side, and I live in about as far the other direction as you can imagine in Brooklyn so I’ll be getting home very late tonight. Anyways, I’m incredibly excited to see the Shins. They’re one of my favorite bands. “New Slang” was the song that introduced me to the group thanks to Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, and there’s a very high chance that if they play “New Slang” tonight, I might start to cry. I can’t wait for the show. Should be awesome.

 

Today is the last day of April which means that my Spotify playlist for April’s Songs of the Day is officially complete. You can listen to the entire playlist here! I think it’s pretty great. There’s basically something for everyone to enjoy.

I tend to turn my nose up at kitschy sentimentality. It’s not that I’m incapable of feeling genuine, happy human emotion. I simply think that film-makers try to exploit easily manipulated emotions for cheap dramatic effect. One of the (many) reasons that The Tree of Life was so exceptional to me was the way its optimistic and heartfelt message never once felt artificial or forced. Whenever films come along that an incredibly sentimental and warm emotional undertone, I am immediately skeptical and cynical. So, when one of those films is actually enjoyable and genuine, it is a welcome escape from the pessimism at the heart of so much great cinema. 2001’s Nowhere in Africa won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 2002 Academy Awards (it’s weird that the tenth Oscars since then is Sunday), and while the movie is long (140 minutes) and feels even longer, it is a poignant and obviously heartfelt film with an attention to often overlooked historical detail that should be enlightening for anyone with an interest in foreign cinema and a less studied side of the Jewish WWII experience.

In 1938, after spending six months in Kenya and nearly dying of malaria, German lawyer (and Jew) Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze) is finally able to bring his wife Jettel (Julianne Kohler) and his young daughter Regina (Lea Kurke as a child and Karoline Eckertz as a teenager) to Africa in order to escape the impending persecution of the Jews in their native Germany. Making his living as a cattle farmer, Walter must struggle to acclimate his high-society wife to the realities of African living while his daughter grows up in a culture entirely different than the one where he was raised. As Regina grows up, she begins to have more in common with the African tribesmen that she befriends thanks to the family’s cook, Owour (Sidede Onyulo), than the other British and German children she meets at her school. This new homeland threatens to tear apart the marriage of Walter and Jettel and matters only become more complicated when the British government arrests every German refugee in the nation and puts them in (very posh) prison camps. When Jettel sleeps with a British soldier in order to secure her husbands release and ability to work on a British farm, their marriage is put to the test and eventually even their loyalties to their homeland over their new home in Africa becomes a problem over the 10 years that the film takes place.

We haven’t watched a German film for this blog since Werner Herzog’s Stroszek in September (which was great) unless you count the Danish (but German produced) The Monastery (which I don’t since it’s mostly a Scandinavian production). Nowhere in Africa continues the streak of nothing but top notch German films that I’ve watched on here (including Das Boot and The White Ribbon). I’m having trouble making up my mind about whether or not I think the film is way too long and just way too slow. Even if it was, it doesn’t undermine my appreciation of the film. The movies plot isn’t exactly propulsive. More often than not, it’s a study in the day-to-day life and fight for survival that the Redlich family endured when they arrived in Africa, but it’s chock full of so many interesting details and cultural tidbits that I can forgive it for inching along at its own deliberate pace. The movie feels at least an hour longer than its already lengthy running time, and while I became very attached to these characters (particularly Regina and Owour), the film took its own time to lay out the details of the complexity and competing desires of this expatriated family.

One of the most engaging aspects of the film was the way it really explored the hypocrisy of many of the refugees who emigrated to Africa and the way that they treated the African natives after they had been abused for racial reasons back in Europe. Jettel doesn’t begin the film as a very nice woman and watching her steady transformation to a woman that loves Africa and doesn’t want to leave its people was one of the most rewarding aspects of the film. Unlike so many films that deal with hot button issues like race and especially the Holocaust, this movie doesn’t find one race miraculously saving a downtrodden other race, but instead finds two people who have experienced exploitation and destruction finding their grace in each other. At no point did I find this film to be either condescending to the Jews (it’s based off an autobiographical novel of the same) or the Africans, and while each groups were show to have their own strange quirks, watching Regina become the primary link between the African tribal culture of Owour and the European genteelness of her family was fascinating. Similarly, Regina’s coming of age was the emotional tie that kept this film from ever becoming too slow as seeing her grow up was always interesting.

Still, despite all my praise for the film, it’s a serious problem when I’ve thought nearly two hours has passed and the movie’s only been on for a little over one. The movie’s languid pace will be too much for some, although for anyone with an interest in emotionally uplifting cinema with a veracity that is far too rare in today’s market, Nowhere in Africa is a delight. The film could have left around 30 minutes or so on the cutting room floor, but even its seemingly endless running time shouldn’t ward you away because at least this excessive attention to detail gives the movie a lived in and authentic quality that is its primary selling point. Whenever I think of the great nations for foreign cinema, Germany is never the first nation to spring to mind, but Nowhere in Africa is just another example from this blog of Germany being one of the most under-appreciated outlets of foreign films. For all students of foreign cinema, this is another movie to add to your list.

Final Score: B+