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Berlin Calling (2008)
It's all about the music
"Berlin Calling" is an ambitious film that looks into the dark side of the German electronic music but doesn't seem to know what to say about it. Director Hannes Stohr makes a wise move in casting real life electronic musician Paul Kalkbrenner in the lead role of (the overbearingly metaphorically named) DJ Ikarus.
On the cusp of releasing his greatest record Ikarus succumbs to the effects of his longtime drug use and is admitted into a psych ward. From here, the film veers wildly in tone recalling the excesses of "Trainspotting" and the tension of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" without ever find a middleground. Subplots involving a teenage fan who works at the hospital; his on again/off again bisexual girlfriend and his dealer never really develop into anything substantial. Worse, Stohr doesn't seem to know what he wants to say about drug use. Is it necessary for creative artists? Is it an evil? Is it OK in small doses? He offers middling cases for each scenario but doesn't make any unique observations.
That said, the music in the film is fantastic. Written by Kalkbrenner himself, it casts a great light on the contemporary German electronic scene and if there is any reason to see the film, it's for the music. He manages to make the subtle shifts in tone and mood accessible for even the casual music fan which is a feat in itself.
Sing Sing Thanksgiving (1974)
Interesting '70s document
Half documentary and half concert film, "Sing Sing Thanksgiving" adequately balances the lives of the inmates of the prison with the feverish energy of the holiday concert. All the performers are up to the task and are filmed in their prime. The Voices Of East Harlem give a truly rousing performance including a stunning, moving version of "Young, Gifted & Black". B.B. King gives is equally fiery, with a show stopping version of "How Blue Can You Get". Somewhat out of place, though no less powerful, Joan Baez keeps the prison audience in rapt attention.
The concert is MCed by Jimmie Walker.
The film fails in it's attempt to balance the concert with the lives of the inmates. It's almost an afterthought and is subject matter best left for a subject all its own.
Miike delightfully surprises
The work of Takashi Miike is usually marked by bizarre characters in even more bizarre situations. By turns audacious, scary and violent, Miike has became a director renowned for his ability to shock. Perhaps his biggest shock has arrived yet with his new film "Shangri-La" - shocking only because it's the complete opposite Miike's work has became known for. Instead we are treated to a delightful, light, and outright heartwarming comedy that is thoroughly enjoyable. It hardly breaks new ground and it's nothing we haven't seen before, but it's done with such sincerity and executed so well, you can't help but admire it.
"Shangri-La" follows the lives of a group of homeless people in Japan who run into a man who nearly commits suicide and decide to help him out of his financial troubles. Using their various ingenious resources they embark on a complex scheme to blackmail a crooked businessman, whose bankruptcy claim has put people out of work. It's a fun romp as these seemingly homeless people manage to outsmart the very people who cast them from society. Miike knows enough not to over explain his characters or to drop the plot in emotional syrup and knows to keep things tight and moving along briskly to its inevitable conclusion.
"Shangri-La" is a welcome addition to Miike's filmography but hardly indicative of his work. First timers should start with "Fudoh" or "Visitor Q", but those looking for something completely familiar need look no further.
Hit Me (1996)
Hit Me, Steven Shainberg's (Secretary) directorial debut has a lot going for it including a great cast and a truly striking set to utilize. Unfortunately, the story is utterly ridiculous. The first half hour is a long, drawn out affair I guess to establish Elias Koteas' character, who seems to be nothing more than a series of ticks. We find out he has a brother who is mentally retarded, and the state wants to take away, but Elias will not let them happen. On the verge of losing his job at a two star hotel, he becomes involved in an incident (which I won't reveal here) that is so muddled, so badly played out and so unbelievable that I found it hard to believe that the rest of the motivations of the characters in this movie, rested on it. If the source material (a Jim Thompson novel) was unclear,
Shainberg certainly didn't make it any clearer which leads to the main character entering into a heist for truly inane reasons. It's hard to get excited about a heist when the reasoning behind it is virtually nonexistent. Yes, there are heists for the sake of heists - and often that works fine - but this film spends a lot of time and energy trying to establish some reason for this to take place, but fails to convince.
Good film noir, relies on amoral men, sexual women and desperate desires. Hit Me which claims to be a film noir is simply desperate - for a good story and a stronger execution.
Sunshine State (2002)
The sum of all of its parts
Director John Sayles, from his own script, brings us to Florida to one week, and with the leisure of a vacationer on the beach reading a book, lets the the story unfold with an assured pace. Much like "Magnolia", but without the quick cuts and flashy editing, "Sunshine State" involves us in the intertwining story of as many as ten characters, each richly developed and well acted (Angela Bassett
and Edie Falco are easy standouts). On the surface the plot regards the
development (and oppostion) of some Florida beach real estate, but this really about people coming to terms with their past and trying to move on to the future. Of dreams crushed and realized. Of history and memory. John Sayles doesn't
provide any pat or cliched answers and allows us to reach our own conclusions. This is a smart film for a smart audience, and stands among John Sayles' best works.
"Sunshine State" is a film rarity, and a complete pleasure. This is a film that never quite found a place in theatres, but I hope it does on video. Seek this one out you'll be glad you did.
Bijitâ Q (2001)
Incest, Necrophilia, Murder, Crack Addiction, Prostitution...family togetherness?
Takashi Miike once again delivers a movie unlike anything you've seen before. Breaking all taboos regarding what can be shown on film, "Visitor Q", while
delivering some of most perverse images brought to the screen is also a
comment on contemporary life in Japan and reality television. It's hard to
adequately describe the plot without giving away much of the surprises held
within, but simply put, "Visitor Q" is about a father who is filming his family for the hopes of selling it to a television producer as the ultimate reality show. Throw in the strange visitor who starts living at their home and who ultimately changes their lives and you have a story that hooks you from the opening (and very
Miike is not a director who merely presents his stories for shock value. The latter half of "Visitor Q" is proof, when just when you think Miike has laid all his cards on the table, the story takes turns that are surreal, absurd and yes, comic. Miike is also a master story teller.
If you are a fan of Miike or extreme Japanese cinema, check this out. If you are easily offended or faint of heart....stay away.
Das fidele Gefängnis (1917)
An interesting beginning
"The Merry Jail", which now appears on the wonderful Criterion DVD edition of Ernst Lubitsch's comic masterpiece "Trouble In Paradise", serves as an
interesting introduction to the director's early years as a German silent film director and a first look at his handling of complex, comic relationships between men and women.
The roughly fifty minute film, involves a couple and their maid who all sneak off to the same party to rekindle, confront and find new love. It's not a great film by any stretch, and is often confusing with humor that is dated. However, the real treat of the film is the last fifteen minutes when Lubitsch ties together the stray threads of the story and ties them into (a not necessarily neat) bow.
For an introduction to Lubitsch's work, please stay away from this film and watch "Trouble In Paradise" or "The Shop Around The Corner", but to see the
beginnings of an influential director, "The Merry Jail" is an adequate classroom.
Gangs of New York (2002)
Sprawling, beautiful epic
Over 20 years in the making, "Gangs Of New York" enters theaters with almost overshadowed by the hype and rumours surrounding the production. From the supposed arguments between director Martin Scorcese and producer Harvey Weinstein; Leonardo DiCaprio's apparent off camera antics that slowed production and Daniel Day-Lewis' complete immersion in the role. When the release date was pushed back twice things did not look good, however, I am pleased to write that "Gangs Of New York" is not only Scorcese's best film since "GoodFellas", but ranks among his best work ever.
The film starts with a nice cameo role by Liam Neeson, as young Amsterdam's (DiCaprio) father, getting his Irish gang ready to battle William Cutting (Day- Lewis) and his gang of "natives" for control of Five Points an area that in the mid-1800s has become a cauldron of immigrants all claiming their right to the land. There are no guns, just blades, not shiny and new, but sharp and steady with age, and soon the white snow is red with blood and Amsterdam's father is dead before his eyes at the hands of William "Bill The Butcher" Cutting.
Fast forward sixteen years and Amsterdam is out of reform school, unrecognizable with a settle to score. Five Points is not the neighbourhood it was as it is now under the fist of Bill the Butcher, who for lack of a better word, is early kind of mob leader. Every grift, hustle, whore and score sees a payment go into his pocket. However, as the occupants of Five Points battle each other,
America is preparing to go to war with itself, drafting immigrants as they come off the boat (all told in a truly remarkable sequence).
As Amsterdam learns the ways of Five Points, he joins Bill the Butcher's fold, at first to seek his revenge, however, not recognizing the older Amsterdam, Bill takes him under his wing and he is soon taken by the easy influence, power and money at his command. The closer he gets, the more conflicted he becomes, and equally, Bill is seeing the world around him change. No longer can brute force rule, but votes are now becoming harder than bullets and his allegiances with the powers-that-be, who once turned the other way to his indiscretions, are now at jeopardy.
"Gangs of New York" is a near perfect film, moving from the microscopic view of a neighbourhood to a wider scope of a nation on the brink of war. The performances are great and Daniel Day-Lewis is spectacular as Bill the Butcher, and he will doubt garner Oscar attention. However, it is flawed. Cameron Diaz's character, who's heart has the eyes of no less than three men, is not given enough screen time and there is even more we wish to know about Bill the Butcher, perhaps more of a backstory to account for his motivations.
Scorcese's ambition and assuredness behind the camera makes these flaws quickly disappear. There is so much contained in here - from the lush costume detail to the street vernacular of 1800s New York - you wish the film, despite it's three hour running time, would keep going. This is a world one wishes to linger in just a bit longer. Much has been made of the editing of this film, some saying that is what sparked disagreements between Scorcese and Weinstein.
Whatever the case, Scorcese has said there will not be a director's cut DVD, but here's hoping he reconsiders.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
A wonderful new direction for Sandler and P.T. Anderson
I've seen a lot of negative comments for the wonderful "Punch Drunk Love", and I think a lot of this reaction is coming from the surprise of how un-Sandler *and* how un-Anderson this picture is. Indeed, it not just a departure for Adam Sandler but for P.T. Anderson as well.
In his fourth feature, P.T. Anderson steps away from the ensemble-cast epics
that brought him into the mainstream ("Boogie Nights", "Magnolia") and the quiet character study of his debut "Hard Eight" (aka "Sydney"). Instead, he takes a nod toward the romantic comedies of the forties' and fifties' and combines it with his own distinctive style to create a love story - and more specifically the study of a personality and of the actual "falling" in love. The madness of romance, rather than the whimsy.
In "Punch Drunk Love", Sandler plays Barry Egan, a bi-polar, shy man who is
constantly belittled, and pushed around by his sisters. One morning he finds a harmonium on the driveway of his plunger business, as well as Lena (Emily
Watson) shortly thereafter leaving her car in his care for him to drop off at a neighbouring garage. When Lena returns to pick up the care, Barry finds himself falling for her and when she leaves on business trip to Hawaii, he follows her. In addition to all of this, Barry is being extorted by phone sex operators for money and carefully saving pudding cup barcodes in an insane plan to acquire air
miles. Does this sound crazy? Definitely, but in the wondrous hands of P.T.
Anderson he pulls these seemingly disparate plot ends and ties them up before your eyes with constant surprises and an energy that is unflagging.
Like his previous film "Magnolia", P.T. Anderson has a firm command of the
soundtrack for his film. Jon Brion's score hammers and clangs when it needs to and whispers and hints at others and the magical touch is the odd, but perfect, use of Shelley Duvall singing "He Needs Me" from Robert Altman's "Popeye". "Punch Drunk Love" is an absolutely gorgeous movie to look at. Shot in a rich, deep blue hue, with a beautiful wide screen lens, Anderson has a wide canvas
with which he creates some truly stunning scenes, particularly and curiously, in the supermarket sequences.
Rounded out by a strong supporting cast, including Luis Guzman and Philip
Seymour Hoffman, "Punch Drunk Love" is one of the most touching and original
films this year. Be warned though, Adam Sandler and even P.T. Anderson fans
may be disappointed, but give it a chance and it will surprise you.
Johnny Cash: The Anthology (2000)
A nice, if somewhat vague, overview of a legend
Johnny Cash by all accounts is a legendary musician with a tremendous impact, not only on country music world, but on the rock music world as well. Johnny Cash is one of the few musicians who retains a remarkable sense of grace, dignity and respect this far into his musical career (especially with his most recent American recordings), yet, who also has a tremendous impact on his contemporaries such as Beck, Wilco and Will Oldham.
"Johnny Cash: The Anthology" presents two different overviews of his career, the first a 15 song guide from the past to the present and the other a biographical overview of his career. Along for the ride is commentary by the likes of Merle Haggard, Rodney Crowell, Billy Bob Thorton and Kris Kristofferson and while this may all sound good it is a disappointing viewing in the end.
The editing in both presentations is sloppy and poorly cut, particularly in the biographical portion of this video. It starts so abruptly I initially thought my DVD player had skipped a portion of the documentary. While the documentary was interesting it jumped around fairly quickly in Cash's career and pretty well skipped the 70s and 80s entirely. Though, the same sound bites from the aforementioned people appear in both presentations, it is good they didn't gloss over the bad parts of Cash's career particularly his addiction to pep pills in the 60s, but to sit through their glowing praise of Cash during the video presentation is a trial. The only reason it's worth sitting through their anecdotes are to see the tremendous footage of Cash classics. It's a real treat to see his performances from the 60s, as a lean and raw young man.
If you have the patience to sit through this, go for it, otherwise wait for a more comprehensive, better edited documentary to come along.