Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Spirits, Stones, and Social Networks! Oh My!

Jackass 3D:

What do you get when you combine feces, motorcycles, snakes, and a huge steaming pile of the purest form of human stupidity and low-brow humor? You get Jackass of course. The kings of Darwinism are back in their latest iteration of the oh-so-popular line of extreme physical comedy, this time in the form of Jackass 3D.

All the usual suspects are here, including Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, and the rest of the crew. The stunts are just as mind-bogglingly gross, hilarious, and outlandish as anything else they’ve ever done; and this time it’s all in the form of the overpriced gimmick known as 3D. Upon sitting down for this 90-minute marathon of “jackassery”, a suspecting, or hilariously unsuspecting, viewer will be thrown into everything from a port-a-potty slingshot to a ballgame incorporating all the wrong appendages. The stunts range from painful to puking, and you’ll laugh the whole way through. While this “unique” brand of humor certainly isn’t for all, it will almost certainly be enjoyed by both fans of the series and immature adults (and teenagers) alike.

A Very Cautionary “Go see it”- 6/10

Waiting for Superman:

Children, waiting, hoping, and praying for an answer to one of life’s hardest questions, “What path should I take and what should I do be successful?” A difficult question indeed, and one, that for many, is sadly not being answered by the current American educational system. A stark, but oddly hopeful, expose of the current state of the American school system is what’s at play in the brutally honest documentary, Waiting for Superman.

Documentarian Davis Guggenheim (director of An Inconvenient Truth) sets out to explore this infinitely complex topic of education through the eyes of the children, parents, and teachers who experience it everyday. Striking an ideal balance between personal narratives and irrefutable statistics, the film manages to tell a deeply personal story while still maintaining its overall broad scope of focus.

In the eyes of a small 5th grader and his single mom growing up in the Bronx, the only hope for educational success comes in the form of a single lottery to determine whether or not he gets into a local charter school that’s considered more than a cut above the local competition. Human stories such as this, and others incorporated in the film, gives it the distinctive and gripping tone it needs to deliver the powerful message it contains. Waiting for Superman is, simply put, something that every American should not only see, but listen carefully to, because the warning it gives is something simply too important to be left ignored.

Don’t Ignore It - 8.5/10

Paranormal Activity 2:

“Can lightning strike twice?” seems to be the apparent question that Paramount Pictures has tried to answer in the sequel to last year’s indie horror hit with the release of Paranormal Activity 2. The film gained praise and recognition for the incredible amount of believability its plot incorporated. The story and setup were relatively simple, a young married couple with no children being slowly tormented by some sort of demon from the wife’s haunted past, with the entire film shot by a single handheld camera.

Now move to this year’s sequel, and the similarities become immediately apparent, with the same basic composition of the film remaining virtually the same. Some elements have changed; however, including the fact that the sequel takes place in the original wife’s sisters' family, which includes a teenage daughter and a baby brother. The film also switches from its single camera point-of-view to a multiple-camera narrative style with most of the film shot with somewhat grainy closed circuit cameras.

Despite all these new innovations and rethinking’s in the films storytelling and plotline, the film still falls fatally short in one key category, maintaining the oh so special sense of authenticity that made the first one so great. Paranormal Activity 2 sadly becomes simply a “hollywoodized” version of the first, incorporating incredibly flawed plot elements and special effects in various moments throughout the film, and what the moviegoer leaves with is a sense of being ripped-off after having experienced the original film.

Easily Avoidable - 4/10


Following in the tradition of his memorable roles in American History X and Fight Club, Edward Norton is back again, this time in the form of arsonist and murderer, Gerald “Stone” Creeson, in the aptly named film, Stone. Getting the obvious praises out of the way, the cast of the film is stellar to say the least, including the likes of Robert De Niro and Mila Jovivich. De Niro stars as the parole officer deciding whether or not Stone will finally gain his freedom, while Jovivich stars as Stone’s cyrenesque girlfriend charged with the task of seducing De Niro into releasing Stone from prison.

What results from these complex characters is something far better than your average prison drama, instead it’s something distinctly different, a strange and bizarre sort of character study into the question of what it really means to be a prisoner in the world. Rather than focusing on an over the top action-packed plot, Stone slows it way down in both story and tone. The most intriguing moments of the film come from the numerous and complex conversations that occur between Norton and De Niro, and during the “encounters” that take place between De Niro and Jovivich. Eventually, upon have viewed the entire film, the moviegoer will almost certainly end up asking who is the real prisoner in the film? And while different people may come to different conclusions about that question, what most will agree on is the fact that Stone is something certainly worth seeing, due in part to everything from its various amazing performances to the larger intriguing questions it begs to ask.

Get past its darkness, and see its brilliance - 8/10

The Social Network:

“You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies” reads the movie poster of the recently released Social Network. The Social Network provides an interesting look into the formation of what has become a major force in today’s society. Focusing on Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerburg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network depicts the incredible founding and lightning-fast growth of the largest social network in the world.

Truth be ******, The Social Network sets out to tell one thing, an intriguing story, which, depending on your point of view, can either make or break the film. Though the film is based on a supposedly factual account of the founding of Facebook, the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, many have called into question the legitimacy of many of the events portrayed in the film. If one is able to get past this potential flaw, The Social Network makes for a fascinating look at the current state of the modern world as we know it; one in which our lives are dominated by letters typed on a keyboard or the pictures posted on a page. If for nothing more, the film is worth seeing simply because of the level of relevance it holds in today’s constantly interconnected society, and it will probably be long remembered as a portrait of the current state of the world in the year 2010.

An Undeniably Important Film - 7.5/10

The Cove

“Round em’ up and mow em’ down!” a line that may seem to denote a philosophy of murder on a massive scale, and while the topic of this particular review may not in involve the slaughtering of anything human, it does involve the killing of something surprisingly similar to us, dolphins.

All of this takes place in the most seemingly unlikely of places, a small fishing village on the beautiful and majestic coast of Japan known as Taiji. A hotspot for tourists from all areas of Japan and around the world, Taiji has one heck of a “dirty little secret”, or perhaps more accurately, a very large secret.

Day in and day out, local fisherman round up thousands of dolphins and heard them into a small cove on the coast to be selected and captured for use in aquariums and sea parks all over the world (i.e. Seaworld).

But, what happens next is something far more shocking and horrifying indeed. One may wonder what happens to the hundreds of dolphins that fail to be chosen during this process. Well, the answer is something almost unbearable to witness, the remaining dolphins are shepherded into yet another cove, and there they are stabbed repeatedly with sharp harpoon-like poles until they are all dead.

Unsurprisingly, their deaths are neither humane nor painless, rather hundreds of dolphins dye a slow and painful death as their blood and entrails slowly turn the water an ominous sheen of blood red. The blood flows thick and the viewer’s sorrow runs thicker.

As one may guess, neither the local government nor the local fishermen who participate in this practice are very keen on exposing this ritual to the general public. And, in the next logical step, they are also very determined to prevent any and all knowledge of this practice from seeping out into the general public.

That’s where the documentary, “The Cove”, comes into play. Longtime dolphin activist, and former dolphin trainer on the well-known TV show “Flipper”, Ric O'Barry, is the subject and genesis for the film currently being writing about. Dedicated to exposing this terrible practice, Ric O’ Barry recruits a self-described “Oceans 11” crew of individuals to covertly film this secret ritual in an effort to expose the practice to the outside world.

Despite the undeniably admirable motives and subsequent brave actions taken by Ric O’ Barry and the rest of his crew, the documentary still seems strangely lacking in a few key areas. And while the film is certainly compelling and intriguing by its premise alone, it’s the film’s presentation of the material it contains that causes a number of obvious and very apparent imperfections.

The film comes off as over-hyped and even over sensationalized to some extent. While the events taking place onscreen are undoubtedly tragic, the way the material is presented comes off as “Hey look at this! Yeah, over here! I’m important, so pay attention to me," meaning the film is almost too self-aware of its’ own material, and seems to promote itself as, dare I say it, more important than it actually is.

I often felt myself calling into question the neutrality, or at the least the presentation of the facts, in the film. While one can’t criticize a film whose entire premise it is to draw attention to a particular issue, the facts and interviewees used throughout the film feel somewhat inaccurately represented. This leads to what many would consider to be a far less compelling and convincing argument for the film itself, and even makes it seem a little less important in the eyes of the moviegoer (at least this particular one).

All criticisms and stylistic flaws aside, “The Cove” is something that, in the end, is simply worth watching for the eye-opening facts it reveals, and the moral indignation it arouses within each and every viewer.

Worth a watch for the message alone-7/10

Side Note: If anyone is interested in finding out more about the campaign to stop the massacre in Taiji, click here. If you would like to become involved in the campaign, please contact senior Lauren Parrino, Multimedia editor of the Foothill Dragon Press, at seenemo30@yahoo.com or at 805-850-9508 because she is fighting against the slaughter for her Hero Project.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Reality of the Unreal: Restrepo

An unbreakable bond forged under the harshest of circumstances, a brotherhood that could only exist in a place as desolate and deadly as Outpost Restrepo, in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan.
While the preceding line may sound like an overly-dramatic voiceover narration for a film trailer, you can rest assured it’s not.

The daily reality of a small squad of 12 American soldiers assigned to the 2nd Platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team as they serve a 15-month deployment defending a small outpost is the subject of a new documentary Restrepo by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger.

Over the course of 10 months, these two documentarians spent every waking moment recording not only the daily lives of these men, but the emotional, psychological, and physical changes that they underwent, as well. The changes are quite surprising and the lasting effect on these men’s psyches is something that can only be witnessed by actually viewing the film.

And while the average person may be no stranger to witnessing the horrors of war on the big screen, what helps to set this film apart from all others is the incredibly uncensored access into these soldier’s lives that the audience is given within the film.

As a viewer you are sent on a traumatic and extremely eye-opening “90-minute deployment” with this small band of soldiers as they fight tooth and nail to defend a small rocky outcropping in the middle of nowhere.

The film covers the gamete, containing everything from adrenaline-inducing firefights between American and Taliban forces to highly emotional, and quite frankly tragic, outbursts from soldiers as they witness firsthand the true cost of war as their best friends die a slow and painful death in front of their eyes. No film, in all my experience, gives such an intimate yet broad picture of war from such a uniquely “human perspective.”

The directors go to incredible lengths, risking life and limb many times in the process, to show the audience that what they are witnessing is real and that this is the harsh reality for thousands of young Americans serving overseas every day. Tim comments at one point that “we’re fighting a guerrilla war to keep reality on the agenda,” and his film more than accomplishes this point.

Rather than focusing on the causes and reasons behind the war, Restrepo simply sets out to show the evolution and effects of gruesome and repeated violence during war on the minds of the soldiers fighting in it. The changes in the mental makeup of these men are marked to say the least, and, in many cases, quite shocking and disturbing as well.

To watch a young man no older than age 18 or 19 transform over a period of 10 months from a semi-peace-loving hippie, whose parents wouldn’t even allow him to own a squirt gun, to a man that will kill an enemy without a moment’s hesitation is quite honestly tragic, but important to bear witness to nonetheless.

The film primarily focuses on this specific group of soldiers, but it also does a more than adequate job of showing the civilian cost of the conflict as well. The viewer of Restrepo is exposed to the other side of the conflict, with multiple civilian casualties shown during the film.
At one point, during a mission designed to run the Taliban out of a small area of in a remote valley, someone accidentally orders a bombing run launched on what turns out to be a home of innocent Afghans. Innocent adults and children are caught in the fray and end up being killed in the process. The film, however, steers away from showing any extremely graphic depictions of death, maintaining a distinct sense of tact and sensitivity, while managing to effectively convey its point.

The cinematography in the film is just as harshly beautiful as the subject matter itself. The first-person feel of many of the shots is extremely personal and allows the viewer to connect very easily with the soldier onscreen, and in doing so, makes the audience feel as if it, too, has been sent on a 15-month deployment to this desolate place in mountains of Afghanistan.
A final, but rather important point that I’d like to address about the film is the distinct sense of neutrality that Restrepo assumes. Junger and Hetherington set out to show the war for what it was for this single group of men, without inflicting the film with their own personal agendas or views. In other words, Restrepo can best be described as war without the politics, commentary, or drama.

Restrepo encapsulates the most basic of human instincts and leaves it to the various onlookers to come to their own conclusions.

Rating: 9/10. See it for yourself.

Norton and Nelson combine to create "Grass"

“What the heck do the actors Edward Norton and Tim Blake Nelson have to do with marijuana?” is the question you’re almost certainly wondering at this very moment, and in the case of the film Leaves of Grass, the answer is everything.

If the name Leaves of Grass sounds familiar to you, it’s because it should, Leaves of Grass also happens to be the name of Walt Whitman’s famous poetic chronicle of American culture. Although this coincidence is certainly intentional on the part of writer, director, and actor, Tim Blake Nelson, the film can only be described as a very loose allegory of Whitman’s original work. The film’s plot and the book’s poetry do have some fleeting similarities, but they end there.

Instead, Nelson chooses to shift the focus of the film to one of the many unanswerable questions exploring the nature of human existence: what does it truly mean to be happy? Famed actor Edward Norton is left to ponder this question, in not one, but two lead roles. In the case of Leaves of Grass, these two lead characters happen to be identical twin brothers, one an esteemed philosophy professor at prestigious Brown University, the other a modest marijuana grower from rural Oklahoma.

The film starts out by opening on a rather intriguing lecture given by the professor, Bill Kincaid, on Sophocles, which, oddly enough, more than does its job in the setting the reflective literary tone of the entire film. Shortly after having given this lecture, Bill receives a phone call out of the blue from his brother’s friend, simply named Bolger (Tim Blake Nelson), explaining the tragic news that his brother, Brady Kincaid, has suddenly died in a fatal “crossbow accident.” Forced to go back to his small hometown in Oklahoma for his brother’s supposed funeral, Bill quickly finds out that what he’s originally came home for is really a complete myth, orchestrated by his brother to force him home to help out with a rather insane plot involving his brother and a crime kingpin whom he owes money to.

Without giving too much more away, what follows is a wild and oddly emotional ride that involves everything from a homicidal orthodontist to hundreds of pounds of the finest hydroponically grown pot Oklahoma has ever known. The film quotes numerous literary works, including the novel it’s named after, and uses them quite effectively to convey its constantly shifting theme of the never-ending search for true happiness.

The only reason that these deep moments of reflection in the film manage to stand out is due in large part to the rural setting of the film and the great acting delivered by Edward Norton. Even in the most unexpected people, a marijuana grower, and under the most unusual of circumstances, Norton and many of his supporting actors (including the likes Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, and Keri Russell) help to deliver great performances that help the viewer contemplate these larger questions of life in a much different light.

While most may not consider fishing for catfish in a mosquito infested swamp an adequate location to discuss the deeper meaning of life and Walt Whitman’s classic works, or the front seat of a beat-up El Camino an appropriate place to ponder the existence of god, the performances given in the film are so good all around that these settings easily end up seeming a natural place for such deep topics.

The stark contrasts in the film, namely the obvious differences between both brothers, also help the theme of the work to take on a multi-dimensional look by analyzing situations from a myriad of angles. Because of this, and largely due to the great acting of Norton, the transitions between these different characters, and thusly different points of view, are easily smoothed-out and overlooked by the viewer.

Despite the great performances delivered throughout the film, the uneven pacing and the slightly confusing tonal shifts in the film’s plot cause it to be less than perfect. In one scene two characters, a mother and son for example, might be having a deeply emotional conversation, and less than a moment later a redneck and a drug dealer are duking it out in a bloody shootout. If the film were more consistent in its tone, and maintained it throughout, the film could have ultimately been much better.

These jerky transitions cause it to become not only confusing in parts, but also take away from the deeper meaning in the film. The addition of many unneeded action sequences doesn’t help either. Rather than being a slow-moving, perceptive film, the film is peppered in random places with unnecessary bits of vulgarity, if you will.

Thankfully, the film’s redeeming qualities due in large part to Norton’s and the rest of the cast’s amazing acting help to outshine the film’s inconsistencies.

7/10 - Worth a Rent

Dogtooth: Gnawing Into Your Brain

Independent films are often characterized by their uncanny ability to incorporate weird, wonderful, and often controversial themes that most mainstream fair would avoid entirely. And more often than not, this aspect of indie films is what makes them not only compelling, but gripping as well.
The Greek film
Dogtooth (aka Kynodontas), directed by filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, retains many of these qualities common to indie films, and while it certainly incorporates them well, it’s the extent and overkill to which the director goes to convey his intended themes that makes this film a giant thumbs-down for me.
Is it weird? Yes. Is it controversial? Without a doubt. But just because it contains some of these elements doesn’t necessarily make it worth watching.
Dogtooth sets out to explore a single question: what happens to the human condition when one is cut-off completely from the outside world, along with all of its influences? In the case of Dogtooth, the disturbing interactions of three siblings, two sisters and one brother, are explored as they are forced to live out a truly bizarre existence at the country estate where they were born and have never left.
The parents of the three children offer little to no explanation as to why they have chosen to go to such lengths to not only shield but to also imprison their children. Other than a bizarre desire to completely control the mental and social development of their offspring, one can only guess at the sinister motives that are at play within this family.
In their never-ending quest for domination over their children, the parents even go to such extremes as to teach their children the wrong meaning for any word that comes from outside their home. For example, they are taught that the word “telephone” means “salt shaker”, and that a zombie is a small yellow flower. The children are also, rather unsurprisingly, told that the outside world is a place of death and despair, and that they may only leave the confines of their estate when they have lost their “dogtooth.”
It doesn’t take a lot of effort for one to identify the strange effects that this ironfisted isolation has on these three children in the film. The three kids seem to constantly be on the verge of either murder or incest with one another. And, eventually, this isolation does manifest itself in the form of extreme acts of violence among these next of kin, and even in sexual relations between brother and sister, and sister and sister.
It’s this extreme violence that finally pushed me to the point of pure disgust with this film. The basic subject matter is not what causes its downfall in my mind; it’s the utter excess to which the film goes to display its intended themes that makes me dislike it so much. Rather than subtly implying any of the disturbing themes of this film, Lanthimos instead decides upon showing the viewer various scenarios so unnerving and so graphically real that one can’t help but be disturbed.
While some may view this as an artistic choice on the part of the of the director, I don’t see the point in adding things like extremely graphic scenes of sexuality if they don’t in some way add to the plot, theme, or meaning of the film. Thus, when this film is closely examined, a cinephile would be hard-pressed to find any real purpose behind these specific plot elements. They may help deepen one’s understanding of the emotional state of the characters, but this could have easily been accomplished far better by other, less lurid means.
To the credit of Lanthimos, the cinematography in the film is simple yet oddly beautiful, the in-depth study of the human psyche is undoubtedly fascinating, and the themes it explores are also intriguing. But despite these positive points, the negative aspects of the film caused by the sheer gratuity with which it is told make it something I wouldn’t touch with a twenty foot pole. In the end, what this film amounts to is nothing more than an exercise in the depraved and perverted.
Not For Most
Rating: 4.7 out of 10

Monday, August 23, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Review

“It’s the worlds’ first street-art disaster movie”, reads the tagline for the indie street-art documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. It’s not often that one hears the words street-art and disaster used in the same sentence, let alone in the same paragraph, but this film manages to combine these distant concepts, and it does it well. Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Banksy Film, which is the official title of this “documentary on acid”, chronicles the work of various underground street-artists from around the world. The flow and plot of this film are so wonderfully random, complex, and yet oddly understandable, that it’s impossible to express in words.

The film begins without any subject whatsoever, consisting only of a man, his family, and a handheld camera. This man, named Thierry Gutta (a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash), who also happens to be both the director and eventual subject of the film (I’ll explain later), has an obsession with filming everything he does, and I do mean EVERYTHING. And by that I mean he never goes anywhere without a camera. This need to document everything that occurs to him in life stems out of the death of his mother when he was a small child; because his missed this important event, he feels that every second that he’s not documenting life, he’s losing precious memories forever. For years he continues on with this seemingly aimless obsession, with no subject at all, until he meets his cousin who introduces him to the underground world known as street-art. His brother, who goes by the nickname Space Invader, puts together characters from different retro video games, i.e. Space Invader, with mosaic tiles, and glues them on random surfaces all over the city of Paris, and eventually around the world. On a trip back to his hometown of Paris, Gutta is introduced to his brother’s work and is immediately drawn into it and begins filming his brothers nightly escapades all over the city of Paris. Gutta eventually expands this filming of his brother’s street art to many different street-artists from around the world, which inevitably becomes the subject of the documentary. After spending a few years documenting various artists, Gutta is eventually introduced the famous (or should I say infamous) Banksy, who is known the world over for his provocative and sometimes inflammatory graffiti pieces. Banksy thusly becomes the new subject of the film, as Gutta follows him everywhere he goes. And here’s where the film becomes confusing, very confusing. Because of the amount of time Gutta had spent filming and studying the techniques of these many artists, he eventually becomes one himself, dawning the pseudonym Mr. Brainwash (which I will now refer to him as), and takes to the streets of LA creating his own original (or not so original) pieces of street-art. This causes the documentarian of the film to become the subject of the film, with the director becoming Banksy himself. Beyond that, see the film for yourself, and you’ll get exactly what this all means.

The sheer randomness with which this film is told is what makes it worth seeing. The film juxtaposes from one moment to the next between seemingly unconnected events. For example, in the span of five minutes, the film manages to shoot from a heavily-emotional personal narrative to a thrilling nighttime chase scene with a street-artist fleeing from the cops. At the same time, the film is self-aware of its own wackiness, and it seeks to strike a balance between the being avant garde and simply telling its own story. This strange balance that forms is at the core of what makes this film so unique and, well, different.

Exit Through the Gift Shop even manages to play around with a deeper question of what truly defines art and what art is and isn’t. It begs the question, “When is art really art? And what makes an artist original, rather than a clone of any other modern artist?” Because of the fact that Mr. Brainwash spent such a long time documenting and studying the various styles and techniques of these artists, he is able to emulate it in his own way almost effortlessly. The question of whether or not his work deserves any artistic merit is left to the viewer to contemplate. At one point, Banksy, being somewhat frustrated says, “I used to encourage everyone to create their own art, know I’m not so sure.” This comment poses that great question in a rather inelegant yet pointed way, and makes one sit back in his chair long after the film and ends and ponder what makes art, art.

It’s because of my love for films that maintain a sense of humor, yet still ask serious and thoughtful questions, that I give this film a (drumroll please)…

9.0/10- A Great Movie!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Films Coming Soon...

OK, so after a short hiatus, I have returned as promised (for anyone that actually cares) to regale you with more stories of diamonds and duds. Some of the films you can expect to see reviewed soon include: Un Prophete, The White Ribbon, Ajami, St. John of Las Vegas, Fish Tank, and many many more.