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by Bill Gibron

6 Dec 2008


“The Troubles” - what a calm, contemplative way of describing the dire and often deadly confrontation between the government of England and the independence movement in Ireland. In truth, the conflict was (if past tense is even appropriate) a complicated collection of competing ethnic, religious, and socio-political agendas wrapped up in decades of hatred, bloodshed, violence, and vengeance. As a subject, it’s too extreme, even for the most accomplished filmmaker. The scope alone would render any realization small and inconsequential. While he’s worked in the medium before, first time filmmaker Steve McQueen is new to the realm of the feature length domain - and to make matters more tenuous, he’s taking on the story of one of the “Troubles” most important figures - Bobby Sands.

Yet for all the pitfalls he could face, the artist turned director has delivered the astonishing, masterful Hunger. In a minimalist way which uses visuals to explain the deepest ideological divides and a single, 17 minute take to clarify all motives, McQueen condenses four decades of fighting into a single, epic overture. We watch as British guards go about their daily lives, anxious about being the victim of IRA sponsored crime while committing the kind of atrocities that earned them a spot in such a dead pool. We see the prisoners’ outrageous responses, from smearing feces on their cell walls to refusing to bathe or maintain personal hygiene. Without going into unnecessary expositional detail, McQueen shows us how bodily fluids were used as protest, how messages were transported among inmates and their loved one, and why Sands stood up to a English policy which deprived he and his fellow inmates of their basic rights and “political prisoner” status.

Certainly, some of the earliest images come at us free of almost mandatory context. We wonder who the characters are, picking up bits and pieces of personal information along the way. Dialogue is kept to a bare minimum, individuals interacting within an assumed set of facts. When we first meet Sands, it’s almost by accident. Physically beaten and restrained by the British guards before being taken into an area for an obligatory bathe, the animalistic nature of his responses offset the well considered conversation he later has with a visiting priest. During this spellbinding sequence, McQueen locks the camera down to capture the pair in profile. Bantering back and forth, mixing clear indications of position with occasional jokes, it’s one of the few cases where performance, previous visual clues, cinematic style, and the given content come together to almost singlehandedly restructure the film.

Indeed, Hunger can be looked at as a nightmare in three sections. Act one puts us smack dab in the middle of the “No Wash” protest. Part two takes us through the creation of the hunger strike. And the last segment shows, in horrific detail, the toll the stand takes on Sand. The sequences where open sores are dabbed with ointment, when an emaciated and skeletal man is carried like a pile of old rags from room to room, are heartbreakingly excruciating. As McQueen’s camera lingers on these images of pain, actor Michael Fassbender (who went on a doctor -ontrolled crash diet to look the part) registers the emotional will - however so slight, sometimes - that made Sands a martyr for the cause.

But if Hunger were just set-up, followed by suffering, we probably wouldn’t find it so fascinating. Because McQueen keeps things so closed off and isolated, because he lets us in little by little to what the “Troubles” mean to both sides of the conflict, we soon find ourselves locked within the dissension. It’s hard to champion either ideology, especially when Hunger narrows it down to a plaintive power struggle where brutality and hostility have usurped rationality. There are comments that mock the UK approach, while the terrorism employed by the IRA is explained, but never excused. In the end, we see how personal the battle has become. As Sands dies slowly, an assassination is carried out that’s shocking in its coldness and casualness.

In fact, it’s clear that Hunger is meant as both a testament to, and a condemnation of, everything the Troubles stood for in 1981. As tensions would rise, ebb, implode and then slowly ease (right now, The Belfast Agreement of 1998 keeps things relatively quiet and, dare it be said, peaceful), such outsized actions appear insane. We are meant to look at the constant beatings, the strong arm stances and immovable moral coding and smirk at how arcane it all seems. Yet Hunger also has a place in our post 9/11 mindset, a Thatcher dense reminder that both sides of an issue can take actions that lead to nothing but death and destruction. The perceived power in such a scheme is almost always dissipated by the lack of prudence inferred from the outside.

All politics aside, Hunger definitely announces McQueen as a filmmaker to watch. Like painter turned auteur Julian Schnabel with last year’s sensational The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the value of being an artist first, a director second is showcased here. Both men understand the inherent value in images, in keeping things simply, straightforward, and stark. There is no need for messy details or busy art direction. Instead, by carefully choosing what you intend to show, by making sure every picture within your film frame counts, you have the potential of making something truly special. Like the story of a former magazine editor who suffered a paralysis so severe he could only communicated by blinking his eye, the isolated torment and agonizing end to Bobby Sands’ life sounds like the stuff of stifling, stilted cinema. Hunger, and the man behind its making, proves just the opposite. 

by Bill Gibron

5 Dec 2008


In the highly competitive and lucrative world of CG animation, there’s Pixar…and then everyone else. While it’s clear that companies like Dreamworks, Fox, and the House of Mouse itself, Disney, have made great strides to catch up to John Lasseter and the gang, no one can top recent, award-winning masterworks like Wall-E, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and Cars…that is, until now. Yep, leave it to the newly inspired workers of Uncle Walt’s world to finally step up their game (with a little outside help) and deliver one of 2008’s most rock solid family entertainments. While Bolt may not be the timeless classic of its partner’s predecessors, it shows that efforts like Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons were little more than mere mediocre warm-ups.

As the star of TV’s biggest action hit, Bolt is a very sheltered dog. As a matter of fact, the production company has kept him in the dark about his fictional hero status. He’s never left his trailer in over five years. So when he is accidentally separated from his on-air “person”, child star Penny, and winds up thousands of miles from Hollywood in NYC, he’s one disoriented dog. Hooking up with a cynical alley cat named Mittens, Bolt is eager to get back to his master. But as he soon learns, he’s not possessed of the super powers that make his adventures on TV so successful. This causes a whole new set of problems. Eventually, the duo meets up with starstruck hamster Rhino. Together, the trio attempts to stay alive, travel across the country, and reunite with Penny and the production team.

Back before the PC ran everything, Bolt would have been the kind of movie the Disney Company made in their sleep. It’s slick, sophisticated, incredibly well scripted, and sprinkled with enough ani-magic fairy dust to keep both the adults and the wee ones totally sated. From the pitch perfect voice casting - yes even Miley Cyrus - to the wonderful action sequences that set up Bolt’s complicated persona, first time directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams never miss a bravura beat. Instead, they take what could have been cloying and maudlin, aimed directly at the diminished demo that the House of Mouse has been milking for nearly three decades, and deliver something startling and a whole lot of fun. You may feel slightly manipulated, but cute pets in trouble can do that to a viewer.

John Travolta, who voices our canine lead, does something truly remarkable here. He manages to make us forget his own international superstardom and through the force of his performance, gets us to care for a pen and ink pooch. This isn’t the first time an actor’s strengths have lent credibility and potency to an animated effort, but Travolta’s work in Bolt is just outstanding. So are the supporting players, including the tween phenom as girl in peril Penny, comic Susie Essman as gnarled New York kitty Mittens, voice over artist Mark Walton as Rhino, and some surprise cameos (Malcolm McDowell, James Lipton) in luminous lesser roles. With art design that suggests humanness without really getting into realistic detail, all aspects of Bolt are polished and professional.

But perhaps the biggest surprise here is how Disney has managed to make a successful commercial film that doesn’t feel like a crass, calculated cash grab. For years now, the minds behind such hapless 2D dreck as Home on the Range, Brother Bear, and about a billion direct to DVD titles, have threatened to become irrelevant within the medium they helped create. Full length feature animation would be nothing without Walt’s way with storytelling…and product selling. But since the advent of home video, all Disney has cared about is the bottom line. Money, not emotional satisfaction, has been its main priority. But with Bolt, you can sense that shifting. You can see where elements that may not play directly into the studio planned parental babysitting (the over the top stunts, for example) have instead been embraced, utilized to accent the sense of adventure and over cinematic wonder. 

Also, there’s a lot of heart in this film. Bolt’s earnest affection for Penny really comes through, and while always playing the party pooper, Mittens gets a Las Vegas moment that’s truly telling. Rhino may be the movie’s only obvious effort at smile driven attention grabbing, what with his goofball mugging and pop culture shout outs. Yet within the context of everything else, it works, as does Miley’s mandatory song (gotta keep all revenue streams open, right?). In fact, Ms. Cyrus is not a weak link here by any capacity. The drawl has been toned down substantially, and Penny doesn’t resemble the Hannah Montana star one bit. If you weren’t told this was Miss Best of Both Worlds, you’d never really guess her temporary A-list identity.

Indeed, the inherent charms of Bolt make issues like cross-promotion and product placement seem ancillary, or even obsolete. It’s rare that we get lost in such fictional derring-do, that a bunch of moving bitmaps can charm us in ways that even live action films lack. But thanks to the imagination of the powers who used to rule the cartoon artform, we can escape for 80 minutes of merry mutt hijinx. And for those lucky enough to experience the film in Disney’s new 3D process, the picture is IMAX-level remarkable. The amount of depth and detail is truly astounding. As Pixar moves forward with its future projects, Disney is relying on their newfound affiliation to keep, as well as reconstruct, its position as the industry’s leading light. Bolt proves that the link is definitely working.

by Bill Gibron

4 Dec 2008


By now, the comic book movie is really nothing new. We’ve already gone through the various phases of adoration - from sycophantic worship to contemplative critical scrutiny. There’s no middle ground anymore. Either your latest funny book hero has to resemble a certain Dark Knight (or at the very least, an Iron Man) or you’re crapping on the artform. Even amiable efforts by The Incredible Hulk and anything X-Men are now considered second tier. So where does The Punisher fit into this fly by night, strike while the iron’s hot dynamic. Is the antihero vigilante a viable 2008 commodity, or was Dolph Lundgren the last word when the character went straight to video back in 1989. After witnessing the waste that is Punisher: War Zone, the answer seems like a solid “yes”.

When his family accidentally witnesses a mob hit, Frank Castle loses everything - wife, children, and marbles. Becoming The Punisher, he works closely with the NYPD to root out the bad guys and deliver a little judge, jury, and executioner justice. During a raid on the headquarters of mob hitman Billy Russoti, Castle accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent. This gets the bureau and its point man Agent Paul Budiansky angry, puts the dead man’s family in danger, and gets The Punisher to question his current career path. In the meantime, he messes up Russoti’s face, and after some botched plastic surgery, the mobster becomes a crazed monster named Jigsaw. After getting his nutso brother out of the insane asylum, the freakshow fiend decides to do away with the wife and child of the G-man, and kill The Punisher once and for all.

Punisher: War Zone is 100 minutes of people getting shot in the face - bad Italian stereotypes, non-existent narrative, and people getting shot in the face. There are so many goombahs in this film that the Super Mario Brothers need to be nervous. Members of certain anti-defamation leagues should be up in arms over the meatballs and manicotti way the mobsters are portrayed. If Sicilians got angry over how they were depicted in The Godfather, this latest Punisher should give them ‘agida’ in the ‘dingamagoo’. And forget that so-called “torture porn”. When the title hero opens fire, no one is left standing, blood spraying like spackle from an untrained plasterer’s pallet knife. And don’t look for anything referenced in the previous flimsy films. This is a reboot, meant to bypass events previous and go right up your unsuspecting ass.

German born Lexi Alexander was rumored to have left this project after completion due to what Lionsgate called “creative differences”. The ‘Net is rife with speculation, but when viewed in 35mm, it’s hard to see where the complaints were. If the studio wanted more violence, then what was Alexander thinking ratcheting down the mayhem? And if they wanted less, then didn’t they see a script filled with firefight after firefight and a main character whose face is literally scraped apart by broken glass? Maybe they all realized how mediocre the movie actually is. Nothing separates the know-it-all rats from a sinking cinematic ship quicker than a literal lack of motion picture quality. 

But Alexander needs to be complimented for staying so closely to the overall ‘80s feel of the film. This Punisher plays like a Charles Band byproduct, make-up effects resembling rejects from Dead Heat and the Savage Steve Holland portfolio. It’s all so cartoonish, uncomplicated, and manufactured to mean nothing beyond its basic shoot ‘em up strategies. Such a result creates a critical dilemma, however. A certain level of love/hate delineation is evident here. If you want plot, characterization, and narrative complexity, go down to your local B&M and buy a copy of Crank, or better yet, anything by Asian auteur John Woo. But if the discharge of gunpowder followed by the random opening of fleshy wounds is all you really care about, then settle in for some serene face-shredding delights.

From a performance standpoint, the new cast is just as capable as the old, with one odd exception. Mock his love of Scientology, but John Travolta was a much more effective villain in the original Punisher than Dominic West’s Don of Douchebags, Billy Russoti, aka Jigsaw. Any character that maintains a sense of narcissism even after a massive Jack Nicholson circa The Joker makeover is not evil - he’s friggin’ nuts. Odder still, he passes off most of the dirty work to his bugnuts brother Looney Bin Jim. As played by the Green Mile‘s pansied Percy Wetmore, Doug Hutchinson, we get the standard insane cackle followed by lots of stunt double fight moves. And as for the main man himself, Ray Stevenson’s Punisher is like an insurance salesman settling unpaid policy scores. He doesn’t look the part of a pissed off vigilante. He’s more like a guy dressed in black paramilitary gear looking for a three martini business meeting.

Far from a complete disaster, Punisher: War Zone does offer up lots of that already mentioned face shooting fun. But on the other hand, when all you have is shrapnel to the visage, there’s not a lot of leeway in the consideration. In a year which saw the sensational Wanted along with a bevy of better action films, this is hapless Hitman hokum at best. In the pantheon of Marvel/DC possibilities, some characters need to be left to the pages of a pen and ink fantasy. They just can’t make a successful leap to legitimate big screen substance. The Punisher is clearly a last tier talent. No matter how many bullets he lets loose in someone’s mug, he just can’t elevate his status above subpar.

by Bill Gibron

3 Dec 2008


The most interesting Oscar race this year won’t be for Best Actor, Best Director, or Best Film. By the time we get to the ceremony next March, we’ll have had so many preemptive awards that those categories will be more or less decided. Sure, there’s always a Crash like surprise in the mix, but when was the last time a real dark horse took home the top prize? No, the more intriguing competition will be for a trophy that few televised talent fests focus on, with critical groups paying it equally uninspired lip service. Yet 2008 will go down as one of the great years for those fun fact films known as the documentary. And now that the Academy has narrowed down its potential nominees to an interesting collection of 15, perhaps it’s time for a little handicapping.

Looking over the titles featured, SE&L can safely say that it has seen almost half - seven in total. FYI - the full list is here:

At the Death House Door
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh
Encounters at the End of the World
Fuel
The Garden
Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts
I.O.U.S.A.
In a Dream
Made in America
Man on Wire
Pray the Devil Back to Hell
Standard Operating Procedure
They Killed Sister Dorothy
Trouble the Water

Of this collection, we’ve experienced the horror of NOLA during and post Katrina (Trouble the Water), the fascinating story of Philipe Petit and his 1974 Twin Tower tightrope walk (Man on Wire), Werner Herzog’s trek to Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World), the story of Earth’s most precious and addictive resource - oil (Fuel), the international embarrassment that was the US’s involvement in the tortures at Abu Ghraib (Standard Operating Procedure), our current credit crunch (I.O.U.S.A. ) and the story of renowned mosaic artist Julie Zagar and her husband Isaiah (In a Dream). Of that selection, the “you are there” realities of Trouble match the spellbinding personal chutzpah of Petit for a virtual tie for number one - and that’s without seeing the other eight offerings mentioned.

In past years, Michael Moore and his SiCKO/Fahrenheit 9-11/Bowling for Columbine hype have overwhelmed the documentary with mangled, “must win” mannerisms. No one else had a real chance when faced with said filmmaker’s jaunty jingoism. But 2008 was a downturn for Moore, his Slacker Uprising a mostly uninspired offering of cloying campus ennui. That meant that there was room for other entries to fill the gap. Of the several fine films SE&L experienced this year, Bigger, Stronger, Faster has to be one of the best. This troubling take on steroids, metered out in true journalistic fashion (bias, whenever obvious, is countered with troubling contradiction), presents its subject with humor, depth, and a great deal of personal insight.

Sputnik Mania was the kind of hilarious history lesson which a post-modern mindset would find hard to believe. Looking back on the Commie-concern of the ‘50s is even more frightening when filtered through a wasted War on Terror based on many of the same mob rule principles. Speaking of dated period railroading, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired illustrated quite convincingly that, while guilty as Hell of having sex with an underage girl, the famous director did everything to settle the case by the book. It was the starstruck LA judicial system, desperate to put the kibosh on several high profile celebrity crime controversies, that decided to make him an example…one that still exists nearly four decades later.

No one, not even SE&L, thought that Bill Maher’s riotous Religulous would make the short list, but not because it wasn’t a brilliant social satire in the Moore mode. No, the industry insiders who vote for such self-congratulations would never let a subject like the razor-sharp ridicule of faith go rewarded. And yet such “God” content made the prison rehabilitation expose, The Dhamma Brothers, a solid and uplifting delight. The idea of using Buddhism, and the staunch requirements of Vispassana (an ancient technique of fasting and meditation) to help convicts get in touch with their inner anger is inspiring - and the Establishment’s skeptical reaction to it all too typical.

The life of legendary surf idol Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz and his extended family would seem like standard documentary material - until you learn that all nine of his kids were raised in a tiny camper as the maverick medico and his sainted wife traveled the country, longing to find the American dream. Surfwise‘s warts and all portrait was one of 2008’s most powerful, and poignant. So was the soul stirring [email protected]. As with many of the genre’s best, this film was disqualified since some of the material came from a BBC project started in 2004. Still, in the running or not, the tale of a group of senior citizens and their choral productions featuring modern music (Nirvana, Talking Heads, Coldplay) is the kind of rousing, revelatory film that renews your confidence in the medium.

Other missing in action titles that SE&L is certain should have earned some minor consideration include Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, one of the best films on the late great journalist, and Trumbo, a take on the notorious blacklisted screenwriter. Dear Zachary offers a heartbreaking testament to a dead father on behalf of a son who never knew him, and The Cool School: How Los Angeles Learned to Love Modern Art discussed the movement which took the spotlight off New York and its vice-like grip on cultural criticism. And then there’s The Order of Myths, an unusual look at how Mardi Gras is celebrated in Mobile, Alabama. For over 300 years, race has been secretly served by clubs and organizations that, while preaching tolerance, confirm their bigotry behind closed doors.

Of course, the issue remains - with so many grand movies already mentioned, imagine the quality of the eight films on the official list that SE&L has yet to see.  At the Death House Door is supposedly a searing anti-Death Penalty doc, while The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) focused on a family fleeing Laos during America’s secret bombing campaign during Vietnam. The Holocaust and its many unsung heroes get another incredible airing in Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, while a post-riot LA and a 14 acre community project sits at the center of The Garden. Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts seems self explanatory, while Made in America is actually a film about the longstanding gang feud between The Crips and Bloods. Finally, Pray the Devil Back to Hell discusses the rise of Liberia’s first female head of state, while the murder of a prominent activist forms the foundation of They Killed Sister Dorothy.

Thanks to DVD, and the ability of smaller films and cinematic types to gain wider distribution, the documentary has come of age. It’s no longer an elusive entertainment relegated to arthouse screenings and an eventual PBS rebroadcast. The 15 films highlighted by Oscar may not represent every worthy endeavor over the last 12 months, and critics can’t keep up with the sheer number of releases arriving on a weekly basis, let alone some painstaking labor of love from an independent party. Yet as the last few years indicate, each new documentary deserves at least some cursory attention. Fall asleep at this switch, and you could miss some amazing movies.

by Bill Gibron

2 Dec 2008


While they won’t make a lick of sense to most Westerners (they’re almost exclusively in Japanese), the seven trailers featured here represent the work of maverick moviemaker Minoru Kawasaki to a T. While we compile more material for tomorrow’s blog post, please enjoy these stunningly surreal delights.

Calamari Wrestler

It’s the story of a squid who longs to be a champion. And you thought Mickey Roarke had the inside track on grappling greatness.


Executive Koala

An office drone with the body of an oversized Australian animal is suspected of being a serial killer. Huh?


Kabuto-O Beetle

Another odd creature - a bug - and another wannebe wrestler. Hmmmm…


The World Sinks…Except Japan

When natural disaster causes the rest of the planet to sink into the ocean, Japan becomes the last bastion of dry land for the world’s weirdos…and politicians. 


The Rug Cop


A policeman and his crime-fighting toupee. What more could you want?


Crab Goalkeeper

A giant crustacean conquers the world’s most popular sport.


Cat Noodle Chef

A feline puppet fancies himself a Japanese noodle chef. Yummy!

 

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