Showing posts with label Movie Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Movie Reviews. Show all posts

Jun 12, 2013

ChristCORE by Justin Ludwig

Fellow University of Regina film school alum, Justin Ludwig has a new documentary that he directed playing in Medicine Hat from June 13-15 at the Monarch. We had several production classes together back in the day, and here's what he had to say about his project: 
ChristCORE is a feature documentary that follows my journey into the world of evangelical Christian hardcore music. As someone who grew up in Regina's punk and hardcore scene, the music was a catalyst that helped to un-do my religious upbringing. The scene is traditionally secular, which is how I thought it should stay when I first became aware of the Christian insurgence which started to make waves in Regina ten years ago.
However, what started out as somewhat antagonistic concept grew into a film that strives for dialogue and understanding, opening up the world of the Christian hardcore movement to a whole new audience who may have never thought such a thing could exist. It's a film for fans of the scene as well as those who hate it, offering a glimpse into life on the road for two very different bands, newcomers Messengers and genre stars Sleeping Giant. We see faith healings, mass baptisms and some violent mosh pits, leaving the judgements to the viewer. Come check it out and support independent Canadian film!

ChristCORE screens Thursday to Saturday at 7:30pm at the Monarch.

Jan 23, 2013

Toy Story (1995)

What is it about Pixar? Is it the characters, the look, the stories? Obviously, it's a combination of all of these things.  Pixar Animation is what the film industry could use more of, and that's exactly what I was thinking ever since I was a kid and first saw, Toy Story (1995) directed by John Lasseter.

It's still amazing to me to think about how computer animation sprung up into the mainstream, created a new visual form of storytelling, and revolutionized the landscape of modern cinema just during my own childhood.  It was clear from that first feature length computer animated film about toys that came to life, that Pixar was on to something that was going to change everything. 

I've got to be honest though, technological innovation aside, at 11 what made the movie resonate was the brilliant cast of toys and how they were personified and crafted into a completely original and imaginative world.  We all used to bring our toys to life when playing with them, and the concept wasn't merely captivating, it was entirely relatable to the kid in all of us.  It's why I still love the movie as an adult, and probably why I appreciate it even more now that I understand the work that's gone into making it.  

It's unbelievably rare for a studio to release success after success as is the case with Pixar.  If it can be attributed to anything, it's that they actually take the time to polish and refine their concepts. Stylistically they continue to push the envelope and tell creative stories full of adventure and heart, which makes it tough to pick a favourite among the bunch.  From toys to cars to monsters and fish, it's like they've found a way to tap into all of these brilliantly thematic worlds and add their own flavors.

I love that Toy Story demonstrates how a movie can appeal to all ages without sacrificing emotional investment.  That originality isn't simply about being different, it's about breathing new life into basic concepts, like friendship and love, when they've become so familiar and exhausted by the same story lines. Pixar seems to understand that a little bit of heart and style can go a long way. 

Pixar has really mastered the art of creating endearing and honest characters.  Buzz and Woody are no doubt at the top of that list, and their rivalry and eventual friendship is born out of a genuine conflict and very real emotions.  The desire to feel wanted and dealing with jealousy have rarely been addressed so powerfully in such an innocent way.

Quite simply, I could watch this movie a hundred more times without getting bored.  I felt bonded to Pixar at an early age, and the quality of their work has maintained my interest all of these years later.  With nods to my childhood and concepts that spark my imagination, films like Toy Story aren't merely for kids, they're genuine classics. 

Dec 4, 2012

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer, fun for all the children call, their favourite time of year.  And what holiday isn't a bit better with Charlie Brown?

Whether you've managed to make the most out of your own Charlie Brown Christmas tree, have fallen for the glitz of commercialism like Snoopy, or have reminded your fellow man what Christmas is all about like Linus did, I think most of us can agree that there's something special about the 1965 television hit A Charlie Brown Christmas. As one of the most memorable Christmas specials of my childhood (not to mention the special that started the series of Peanuts specials) A Charlie Brown Christmas is part of my holiday routine.  I even have the soundtrack along with the original Charlie Brown Christmas on vinyl.

"Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!" hollers Charlie Brown, the every-man of holiday depression and sorrow. I always felt sorry for Charlie as a kid. I knew he had it right, and I never understood why the other kids just couldn't cut him any slack. So he didn't get the aluminum tree like Lucy suggested. Even his dog was giving him a hard time. And therein lies the charm of this holiday favourite, because who hasn't felt disenchanted or out of sync with the holidays before?

Charlie's search for answers is full of charm. Lucy, in psychiatry mode suggests, 'maybe you have pantophobia' which she explains is the fear of everything.  'That's it!' Charlie exclaims.  Linus, confused by Charlie's mood states, 'You're the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.  Maybe Lucy's right.  Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you're the Charlie Browniest'.  Poor Charlie, once again typecast as a downer.

I love the fact that Charlie Brown ends up with the part of the pageant director who can't get anyone to listen.  He's in a prominent position pretty much so he can be walked all over.  Although when your friends can dance like that in repetition, you've kind of already got it made. The kid doing the shoulder shrug back and forth is my favourite. 

There's something truly enlightening about A Charlie Brown Christmas that you can't just find anywhere. I think nostalgia plays into it big time, because I saw it as a kid just like my parents did. Plus, if the cartoon strip isn't iconic enough, the ambient piano and raw recordings of the Vince Guaraldi Trio lends itself perfectly to the whimsy and reflection that Christmas inevitably brings.

Charlie Brown isn't saved by any sweeping miracles or a sleigh full of presents, but his frustration subsides when a series of minor mistakes brings his friends around to see the simpler side of things. In an increasingly cynical world, the message still seems to resonate with heart. It's not what you have, but who you have to share it with.

Sometimes the simplest messages ring the most true.  From Linus, from me, to you, A Charlie Brown Christmas is the perfect reminder for 'what Christmas is all about'.

Oct 22, 2012

Casino (1995)

If there's one director that seems to know a thing or two about turning stories about mobs into great movies it's Martin Scorsese. Take your pick, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, The Departed, he even directed the series premiere of Boardwalk Empire. He has done for mob movies what Spielberg's done for aliens, and although there's a tremendous variety in his incredible body of work, I find Casino to be the most endearing of Scorsese's films because of how it portrays such a romantic and realistic view of greed, of Las Vegas, and of success in all of its destructive forms.

I've always loved movies about gambling. Being a broke student for the first part of my life kind of encouraged that fantasy of winning away all my financial troubles and thinking that everything would be solved because of it. At its heart, Casino is about the exact same thing. The mob wants their skim from the casino, the hotel manager (Robert DeNiro) wants to take the gamblers, the gamblers want to take the casino, the girl (Sharon Stone) wants to take the manager to finance her bad habits, the friend (Joe Pesci) wants more than his take from the skim, the government wants their take in taxes, and the chain goes on and on. It's about a love affair with money, and how even with so much around there's never enough to appease anyone.

What makes Casino great is the depth of the story, and how each of the key roles brings a unique and dynamic conflict to the surface. DeNiro's character isn't so much concerned with the mob as he is about running a successful casino. He's talented and smart, and knows how to take advantage of impulsive gamblers. But his trusted friend, played by Pesciis one of those impulsive types and always seems to be on the verge of derailing what DeNiro's established. Then there's Stone, who plays the girl that knows how to get what she wants, and through her that we see what a well oiled machine the Vegas scene is for people who know what they want. 

As if there isn't enough to hold your attention in a story about gangsters, casinos, and crime, it's the fact that this select group of leads is always teetering on the edge of having it all and losing it all. This formula keeps Casino consistently sharp, and much like Scorsese's previous mob hit, Goodfellas, it gives the film a rich array of characters to bounce the action between. 

I love how the politics of Vegas serve as a fitting backdrop, and how winning and losing is expanded to incorporate the evolution of Las Vegas itself. DeNiro as Ace Rothstein (based on the real Frank Rosenthal) narrates at the end of the film, "The town will never be the same. After the Tangiers, the big corporations took it all over. Today it looks like Disneyland. And while the kids play cardboard pirates, Mommy and Daddy drop the house payments and Junior's college money on the poker slots. In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it's like checking into an airport. And if you order room service, you're lucky if you get it by Thursday. Today, it's all gone."

Signed copy of the Casino script at the Mob Museum.

Casino is captivating and beautiful to watch, and sparks the same kind of euphoria and rush as taking a ride down the strip. It's an adventure driven by money, a character piece defined by the worst traits, and an ultimate Scorsese flick that embodies that nostalgic Vegas vibe. I guess in some strange way every tourist still gets a kick out of the idea that Vegas was run by the mob.  Heck, we visited the Mob Museum while we were in Vegas because of it.  In my opinion, Casino is a no-risk gamble.

Sep 7, 2012

Surfwise: Documentary #6

From the road trippin' to the beaches to the philosophical nature of creating your own version of utopia, Surfwise (2007) is a fascinating documentary about the Paskowitz family - and some surfing too.

Like the other documentaries that I've written about as part of this 9 Docs Project, I picked up this movie when the Movie Gallery went out of business.  When you have nothing to go on except the cover of the movie you're setting yourself up to be surprised, and Surfwise did that in a great way.

On the surface it seemed like just a story about a family of surfing hippies, but in actuality it's about the conflict between total freedom and social responsibility.  More specifically, it's about parenting.  The Paskowitz family lived for experiences, but in an effort to be truly free from the makeup of everyday society they (as in the parents) made some clear sacrifices on the part of their children.  

While watching this movie I just kept thinking about how much fun it looked, but how I'd come to despise the reality of constantly being stuck in a motor home for those long drives with 11 people.  As you might expect, a lot of the kids felt the same way.  The entire experience is essentially a way of life dictated by the father.  His lessons are earnest and steeped in self-fulfillment through dedication and passion, but at the same time you're left to continually question the disconnect.  I empathized with the kids, but felt like Dad was taking the easy way out under the banner of 'if I can't have it my way it's not worth doing'.  

Obviously no one wants to be a slave to a job or live a life without enjoyment, but in some capacity you have to ask yourself what you are contributing to society - even in some small way.  We can't be in it just for ourselves - or can we?  There's not a right or wrong answer here exactly, which ultimately leaves you asking more questions.

Surfwise was fascinating, entertaining, and a great looking documentary.  I was really impressed with how much this one got me thinking about so many of my own views in contrast to theirs. Whether you agree with how they did things or not, the truth is you can't deny that they got a great story out of it all.  Check it out.  8/10  

May 24, 2012

Almost Famous (2000)

To say that growing up is awkward in the best of circumstances doesn't quite encompass what it would be like to do so around those who you idolize. Few movies have really embodied this experience as well as Cameron Crowe's (loosely-auto-biographical) flick, Almost Famous (2000). In my view, it's one of the best movies about rock-and-roll, and the knocks that come from seeing the reality of your fantasies.

Some people love this movie because they want to be journalists, some musicians or critics, but what I really love about this movie is that it's about passion. I can relate to knowing what I wanted to do from a young age, and sharing that curiosity, that single-handed pursuit to find some answers in an overwhelming and personally uncharted landscape, is as engrossing as it is occasionally cringe-worthy.  That's just good entertainment in my books.

At its core, Almost Famous idealizes both the positive and negative rock stereotypes with successful twists, painting a great visual portrait of the '70s scene. The fictional up-and-coming group Stillwater experiences an entertaining range of hiccups on their tour, as high school student William accompanies them to write an article on the group for Rolling Stone magazine. The scenes with Will are arguably the best, not only because he's playing a fly on the wall a lot of times, but because his vulnerability brings out the utter absurdity of the culture he's thrown into. Despite William's love of being there, his reactions and reasoning are often the glue holding things together in a cast of conflicting personalities and superficial egos.

Almost Famous has a grit and rawness about it that makes it feel genuine, almost like shuffling through a stack of old records. There are enough little pop history references mixed in to make even the casual music fan feel in-the-know.  Even with the characters having pretty clear flaws, their predictability is kept in check by William's curiousity to understand it, and because of that everyone is along for the ride. 

The relationships between Will and his mom, Will and Penny (the lead groupie), and Will and the band all paint a different picture of the rock lifestyle.  It's apparent that the fine line between living the fantasy and dealing with the reality hits everyone hard when they suddenly stumble into either too quickly.  And that's probably what I like best about Almost Famous, it makes you feel like you're right there on the bus, on that tour.  You feel privy to inside information, and even though you know the fantasy can't last forever, you're still rooting for it to continue.  

Cameron Crowe is great because he really thinks about the music that he uses. More often than not, he allows his song choices to really be featured in his films, not as a crutch to aid in false emotion, but as an exclamation point to enhance the scene and allow viewers to really listen to the lyrics. The Tiny Dancer scene in this flick is the clear standout, but there are numerous examples in his work (like Secret Garden in Jerry Maguire or In Your Eyes from Say Anything).

Almost Famous is addicting.  And just maybe, it might leave you with that post-concert buzz, like you just skirted euphoria and witnessed something truly amazing.

Feb 3, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close Review

Slowly but surely I've been crossing nominees off of my Oscar screening list.  A few nights ago, Andrea and I went to see Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, one of the nine nominees for Best Picture this year.  I'll be blunt about this one, it wasn't very good.

The trailer for this flick had me excited, sort of the way I felt after seeing the trailer for United 93.  I was imaging an emotional, but heartfelt picture about an innocent kid and his soul searching quest to find meaning against the backdrop of 9/11. It looked genuine and fresh.

The problem I had immediately with the film was the kid, to be honest. Part of his back-story is that he has some kind of social disorder or disability (never really defined in the movie) that makes him awkward and emotionally abrupt.  He was always on the verge of a panic attack or he was flying off the walls with rage.  In the first thirty minutes all I kept thinking was, what is his problem?  How am I supposed to relate to him if he's so aggravating to watch? And, really? Someone thought audiences wouldn't find it annoying to centre such a sensitive story around a character who is already this disconnected from reality to begin with?

Like I said, I expected an emotional story, but the kid overwhelms every aspect of the narrative.  His ticks and commentary seemed so gratuitous and heavy handed that I was actually relieved when some of the supporting players finally got a bit of screen time.

The thread of the film is the quest to find a lock for a key that is found in the father's closet after he dies during the attacks.  I actually really liked the concept, but was scratching my head again when it wasn't really explained why the key should be relevant to begin with.  Even the close relationship between the father and son didn't really justify that this seemingly random find would be worthy of scouring the city to find answers for. I suppose it could be argued that the quest to find meaning in some of these traumatic events is a hopeless search, but I still found myself thinking that wouldn't the kid be more content to search out a part of his father's actual history? Something that he already knew was important to his father?

I know in my own experiences in dealing with loss that I'm not looking to give random items more meaning. You end up looking to expand on the things that you already knew meant something - unfinished business.  The proposed scavenger hunt in Extremely Loud didn't seem grounded enough in many aspects.

When all is said and done though, I would have overlooked so many of the film's flaws if the kid was more relatable, a bit more innocent, more wide-eyed, more raw, and just far less stunted.  In a story that was genuinely full of compelling connections and human stories, why have the main character fight against all of those naturally inspiring encounters instead of adding to them? Why distract us with painfully enigmatic narration and a kid who you have to will yourself to even root for? In short, it was the perfect recipe to continually disconnect from the plot.    

It may be a bit harsh, but this flick isn't anywhere close to being one of the best films from 2011 and certainly shouldn't have been nominated in my opinion.  If you really want to watch a powerful film surrounding 9/11, there are literally ten other flicks that I could recommend to you - United 93 for starters.  Do yourself a favor and embrace the trailer for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and then move on to the other nominees.    

Jan 26, 2012

My Week With Marilyn

The Oscar nominations came out on Tuesday and so, like I do each year, my goal of screening as many pictures as possible before the broadcast is officially underway.  My Week With Marilyn just opened at the Monarch Theatre last night and so it was the perfect opportunity for Andrea and I to head down and check it out.

First things first, Michelle Williams is spot on in her portrayal of Monroe.  You might expect something shamelessly camp, but what's delivered is vulnerable, emotional, and intelligently nostalgic. It's a well earned Best Actress nomination for Williams, and her performance alone is a strong enough reason to see the film.  Thankfully, the supporting cast is no let down either and I was thoroughly engrossed throughout.

What I've always found fun about the Oscars is the variety of films that you can discover if you're willing to take a few chances.  I had a good feeling about My Week With Marilyn to begin with, but there are several flicks I know nothing about this year.  When you've grown up addicted to movies, sometimes it's just fun to find more ways to feel connected to them. 

The Monarch Theatre remains a great venue for watching smaller, more dramatic films. It was packed last night because it was 5+5 Wednesday - $5 ticket and $5 pop and popcorn.  If you live in Medicine Hat, you really should visit the Monarch.  They still have some of the best theatre seats in town. 

Dec 13, 2011

A Christmas Story (1983)

We all have a Christmas story. Whether or not you've seen this movie won't change the fact that you've probably experienced some version of it growing up. Remember that toy you had to beg for as a kid? Or that Christmas dinner that didn't go right? That gift you absolutely hated? Or that snowsuit that made it so you couldn't put your arms down? These scenes are just the tip of the iceberg in Bob Clark's old fashioned homage to the traditional family holiday in, A Christmas Story (1983).

This classic centers around young Ralphie, a kid growing up in 1940's Indiana. Like all kids he has that one special toy in mind; the perfect reward, the ultimate Christmas morning highlight. For Ralphie it's the Red Ryder Carbine Action 200 Shot Range Model Air Rifle (or put simply, a BB Gun). His mother, his teacher, even Santa Claus all tell him the same thing, "You'll shoot your eye out!". And with that we have the makings of an entertaining couple of weeks as Ralphie sets out to prove that he really is deserving and responsible enough for such a gift.  

Interestingly, the style of A Christmas Story was actually the inspiration for the television show The Wonder Years. Although the story remains in the 1940's, Ralphie's thoughts are narrated from his perspective as an adult. It's hilarious having that additional commentary as Ralphie explains the detailed context of the things that were happening in his youth. The rules of double-dog-dares for instance, or the scam of Orphan Annie decoder rings, or the affect of electric leg lamps on the family dynamic.  Hindsight is 20/20 as they say, and the narration hilariously bridges the gap between childhood naivety and adulthood cynicism.

What makes this movie a classic in my mind is that even though some of the incidents may be a bit outlandish, for the most part it's an entirely relatable, heart-felt, and honest depiction of what it's like to be a kid at Christmas. Even though I grew up in a completely different era than when the movie takes place, and even though I wasn't born yet when this film was released, the experiences speak to generations who remember what those last few weeks of December were like as a kid.

A Christmas Story is an innocent depiction of childhood excitement marred in the less-than-holy realities that surround the holidays.  Stories about Santa and the North Pole are great, but to me Christmas is really about family and the conflict that occasionally derails good intentions. A Christmas Story reflects this best when you see how even a flawed day doesn't mean that everyone can't still enjoy themselves. 

And let's be honest anyway, as good as Christmas day is it's never as perfect as our anticipation leading up to it. 

In short, of all of the Christmas movies you're likely to see this season few will be as genuine and nostalgia induced as A Christmas Story.  In some small way Ralphie's experience is your experience, and common ground is a great place for comedy. Watch this movie! I double-dog-dare you to.

Sep 29, 2011

Sofia Coppola's Somewhere

I first heard about Sofia Coppola's latest film, Somewhere after coming across several scathing reviews that touted it as a pointless and pretentious train wreck.  As ridiculous as it might sound, it was actually those reviews that made me fall in love with this film before I even saw it.  The truth is, I knew exactly what kind of movie this would be and why its reception was coming off as polarizing as it was.

Let's be clear, nothing really happens in this movie.

If you want to fault Somewhere, chances are this is what killed (or will kill) it for you.  Fair enough.  If I was going to pitch a movie, this probably isn't how I'd want to describe it.  However, I found the entire presentation eerily hypnotic and fascinating.  This isn't a film driven by plot points, it's a film driven by observation and perspective. 

Somewhere is about an established male celebrity named Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), the routine of his career, and his relationship with his daughter (Elle Fanning).  The overall arch of the picture is really about balancing the excess with the simple pleasure of a meaningful relationship, like the one Johnny finds with his daughter.

Sofia Coppola has a distinctive style that's made up of long takes, ambient establishing shots, and loose cuts.  Her style has never been more aptly used or tested than it was here.  It's like Coppola always keeps you hanging on a scene longer than you need to see it in an effort to disarm your expectations.  An early scene where a set of twin strippers dance in a private hotel room is a classic example.  After a while it becomes less about the strippers and more about the actual situation.  As the scene plays out it becomes more real, and the private show that Dorff's character, Johnny Marco is enjoying just starts to look lonely and even a bit sad.

The idea of showcasing celebrity life as a routine littered with perks is a captivating approach.  The long takes with deliberate and extended reaction shots start to strip the glamour of celebrity life away.  Yes, it's easier to get laid.  Yes, you have an awesome car.  Yes, you get to travel all over the world.  What really gets you excited if you've come to expect and live with these things for an extended amount of time though?  With fewer people to relate to or sympathize with you for your awesome life, those few meaningful relationships you do have become the most valuable thing in your life.  I can't say that I ever felt sorry for Johnny, but I did empathize with his search for purpose and substance.

Somewhere is a slice of celebrity humdrum and the undetermined, open-ended maze that we all navigate in our own pursuits towards happiness.  I'll admit that you have to be in the right mood to truly appreciate this flick, but when you are it washes over you and you can't help but admire it.  

No matter your personal means, there are some things in life that we all want and some things that we all need.  I couldn't help but consider both as I watched the poetry play out. And maybe that's what really makes Somewhere special.  It's what your view of celebrity is and how you address that culture that really dictates how you'll perceive the message being presented.  Is it too much? Should we even care? What do we really value? And is there ever enough? 

As I said at the start, it's not for everyone.  But, at only 97 minutes long it's also not the biggest cinematic risk you'll ever take.  If you're craving something a bit different, this might just hit the spot. 8.5/10

Mar 9, 2011

Overnight: Documentary #5

Thrillingly entertaining, bold, harsh, and a remarkable character study, Overnight is a documentary about ego and success in Hollywood.  The film chronicles the overnight success of Troy Duffy, a young musician and screenwriter at the time, who destroyed a golden deal with Miramax resulting from his own arrogance, attitude, and self-destructive behaviour.

As the tagline of the film reads 'there's more than one way to shoot yourself'.

I've seen numerous documentaries about Hollywood and celebrities, but I've never seen one that captured the rise and fall of an individual so intimately.  We're treated to home video after home video of Duffy celebrating with his friends, taking conference calls, having heated debates about his script, reacting to feedback, and so on.  As an outsider your perspective shifts from viewing a talented guy who just happens to be cocky about his success, to viewing a talented guy who really has no clue about how out of touch he is with those around him.

Duffy's persona is that of a spoiled film student who got an easy A, and that's because the deal he was offered was a dream come true.  Miramax bought his script for The Boondock Saints for $300,000, gave him the opportunity to direct the picture with a $15 million dollar budget, allowed his band to release the soundtrack for the film, and Harvey Weinstein even said he'd buy the bar that Duffy worked at.  Troy Duffy essentially won the filmmaker lottery. 

It's the classic tale of money changing the man (or at least revealling more of who he really is) but Duffy does start off with profound ambitions to simply make great movies.  He's passionate, talented, driven, and he wants to take his friends along for the ride.  He's entitled to some celebratory gloating, and really, who wouldn't be pumped? 

It's when the euphoria starts to fade that he doesn't seem to realize how alienating his arrogance becomes.  Here's a guy who bought entirely into the hype of himself and figured it was enough to build a career on.  He starts burning his bridges, but still talks as though he has everyone by the balls. If you watch his friends throughout the film you can just read the levels of disbelief on their faces.

The politics and maze of Hollywood production is fascinating to me, and it's incredible to see such extreme sides of the spectrum.  Duffy deserves what he has coming to him and there's an element of joy in seeing him get his comeuppance - although he has no shortage of people to blame when things start to go sour.  

Overnight combines the candid and blunt conversations that put you right at the source of the chaos, while also having broad enough coverage of the experience to contextualize the arch of the story.  There's no doubt about Troy Duffy when the camera's pointed in his direction, and although the realities that come to light about his personality are unfortunate, they're also responsible for turning a deal gone wrong into a classic slice of documentary filmmaking.

This doc was a lot of fun and I highly recommend it. 9/10

Dec 18, 2010

Tarnation: Documentary #4

The amazing thing about film is that it can literally play with your emotions. Specifically in the case of documentary, someones version of the truth can irritate and annoy you, their perspective can conflict with your own, and even their style can be challenging to grasp and understand. I felt a mixture of all these things in trying to appreciate Jonathan Caouette's very personal film, Tarnation (2003).

Based on the premise alone I felt Caouette's documentary was intriguing. With a tagline like 'your greatest creation is the life you lead' and a documentary assembled from two decades of home video, answering machine messages, photographs, personal confessions, and scraps of pop culture, the setup is made to be epic. Our subject is Caouette himself and his relationship with his schizophrenic mother.

Right off the bat we're treated to intense and challenging cuts, filters, and mashups. It felt like something I might have put together when I was 13 and just discovering editing software - I wanted to use every filter available, not caring if they conflicted. This styling is bold in the case of Tarnation, and it set the tone of what was to come.

Caouette loves to see himself on camera, and this quickly became another obstacle for me when trying to understand the message of the film. We're treated to long staring sessions, which add to the avant-garde nature of the documentary. The mental condition of his mother, and the complicated nature of their relationship can be argued as the reasoning for this approach, but even at its weakest it's constantly bordering on masturbational cinema. I was always questioning why do you want me to know this?

I'm still not entirely sure of what Caouette wants us to take away from his experience (outside of admiration for his situation) and how that meshes with my interpretation of it. Jonathan Caouette is so dramatic and even in his early home video clips he's so eager to play to the camera that it sabotages his live efforts to be sincere when the moment itself seems genuine. His sexuality as a gay man and his troubled childhood begin to feel more and more focused on clamouring for some intangible acceptance than it does about revealing a deeper meaning regarding the state of his mother.

Let there be no mistake, the film is about Caouette. And this wouldn't have bothered me if the story wasn't sidelined by attention seeking gimmicks.

The story, as patched and ambitious as it is, ultimately fails to give us a broad enough context to actually appreciate and empathize with the subjects for very long. The entire project ends up feeling like a film school experiment where pieces were just thrown in to see how someone else might interpret them. And yet despite all these things, Tarnation was a documentary that I found myself thinking about a lot.

Only because of it's challenging nature and because of my film school background did I feel the need to try and confront the elements of the film that bothered me, but in the light of the mainstream I can see a lot of people simply turning it off because of how different and uncomfortable it is. The essence of great film making is not about how enigmatic it can be or how many meanings can be pulled from the final product, but instead about how effective its construction is in getting the viewer to appreciate, understand, and hopefully inherit the emotions and information you're trying to convey.

Tarnation is simply too overproduced and glorified to leave you feeling that you're witnessing a reality. The narrative is played out too abstractly to let the viewer settle with a clear thought, and after the first half an hour I felt I could have used a break already.  As troubling as Caouette's childhood and upbringing are painted - the momentum of the project is lost on self-indulgence and a significance that never feels completely justified - however, bonus points are awarded for being unlike anything else I've seen recently. 5.5/10

Nov 2, 2010

Star Wars (1977)

"Luke, I am your father".

As though growing up hearing that phrase countless times wouldn't have some influence on my love for Star Wars.

Truth is, as much as I got the Luke Skywalker comparisons, quotes, and references, I didn't really get into Star Wars until they re-released it on VHS in the nineties. I was born in 1984. That was one year after the last film from the original trilogy was released, and although I use this as the reasoning as to why I was named Luke in the first place (my parents deny this), like so many kids after me I wasn't born yet to experience Star Wars the first time around.

Nowadays, Star Wars seems to have become a milestone in growing up. Inevitably the first showing of Star Wars to any kid becomes an event. And why wouldn't it be? It's a movie that's over 30 years old and you can still find full sections of toy stores dedicated to its merchandise.

I can't remember the first time I saw it, but we had the toys in our house before I knew exactly what they were. I was 12 when Star Wars was re-released and at the time it seemed there was no better age to cement the notion in my mind that I would be an awesome Jedi. Again, I believed this held twice as much weight because of my name.

There are a lot of reasons to like Star Wars. It's an epic story about the battle between good and evil, it's a universal adventure with amazing special effects, there's a cast of memorable and diverse characters, and on top of all of that there's the Force. Who wouldn't want to be able to move things with their minds?

I think the reason that the movie and saga have been so well received though is because Star Was is about an obscure kid who unwittingly (in the beginning anyway) ends up playing a key role in changing the galaxy. It sounds ridiculous when put into that scale, but the truth is we all dream of having our own legacy and this is one for the ages.

Even now that the franchise has been merchandised to hell and back, Star Wars still beams with originality. It's no wonder the toys sell so well, where else can you get a Wookie or an Ewok, or a lightsaber? The fact that there are so many facets to the series is another substantial strong point. It's gone to the point where you could research details on these fictional planets or characters back stories. Personally, I wouldn't, but it's impressive that the movies have spawned so much material.

Lucas argued that the special editions helped further complete what the original vision for the trilogy was, but read any review from a critic or fan who saw those first films. Star Wars was groundbreaking then because it did something that no other movie had done before in its technical execution. CGI is an incredible asset to modern filmmaking, but it's so overused now that there's something romantic about watching the original trilogy and knowing that they actually had models and puppets and scenes built. That fake world was actually real. Someone constructed those scenes and costumes and had to make them come to life in person. I get the same rush when watching old war movies, knowing that the scenes actually had to be filmed like that.

Ok, so the technology is pretty cool too.

What I also like about Star Wars is that even though it's a futuristic saga that employed so many new techniques at the time, the basis of the plot is incredibly traditional. The lines between good and evil are clearly drawn, you have an obvious hero and villain, and there's an elaborate and well established challenge to overcome. Even though there are twists along the way, mainly surrounding Luke's family members, there really is no doubt that in the end Luke Skywalker is going to save the day. It's just like a serial from the 1930's or 40's, or a fairytale that your parents would tell you as a kid. This one just had lasers for extra punch.


As a filmmaker/editor I find George Lucas an interesting person to study considering that he went from obscurity to widespread fame himself following a film school path. Ultimately I think it comes down to imagination. He had a big dream, and he put the time and effort into it to make it work. Star Wars wasn't immediately fast tracked by a studio, it took a lot of convincing and a lot of guts (think about how many lame sci-fi flicks are out there, and how Star Wars might seem if you only knew it as words on a page). Lucas put a lot of time into planning and writing and re-writing until he had what he wanted and then he pursued it. And it didn't hurt that he acquired merchandising rights before studios really took advantage of them. His personal story says just as much about determination.

In the end, despite the marketing, the remakes, the remasters, the overwhelming heap of Lucasfilm pop culture, it's in that first film, Star Wars: A New Hope, with it's great characters, epic scale, and awesome adventures that you're quickly convinced you're witnessing something unlike anything else that's out there - including Star Trek, which has its own list of merits. Should anyone even attempt to produce a movie in the hopes that it will reach the same level of success, a movie that will resonate for generations between critics and fans alike, a film that will define and advance an entire genre, or a movie that will continue to make millions upon millions of dollars in merchandising decades after it was released, what can you possibly say? May the force be with you.