Part one of a six part examination of various recent documentaries, which I expect to finish by the end of the month.
by Ken B.
Billionaire David Siegel built his fortune from time share resorts he ran from the 1980s, and owning a 52 story building on the Vegas strip. He’s filthy rich these days, with his third wife Jackie (perhaps of the trophy variety…?), a former model, and their eight children. We never get to know the kids. I’m not sure if I want to know about the kids. One of them is inherited through one of Jackie’s relatives, from a tough background, and then made the sudden switch. They live in a big house and want a bigger house. The new one will be 90,000 square feet, modeled after the Palace of Versailles, with thirteen bathrooms, ten kitchens, two tennis courts, and an absurdly large grand staircase. The biggest home in America.
Then, in 2008, the recession hits.
Their world comes crashing down. The Siegels, which spend the first half of Lauren Greenfield’s documentary living in compulsively maddening ignorance to the rest of the world, must face reality, or however much they can. Employees of David’s company are laid off by the hundreds. He cuts his home staff in half. (There are now only four nannies/housekeepers, which is apparently a tragedy for them, who must now start to do their own housework. Jackie even says that she wouldn’t have had so many kids if she knew she’d have to do so much work herself.) And they can’t finish the house, which they put on the market for the humble price of $100 million.
The Queen of Versailles is an oddly interesting examination of the fabled upper-one percent. As times become tougher, their initial oblivious nature becomes incontestable. It’s a evilly watchable tragedy – Schadenfreude at its finest and most compelling. It provokes a final message as well: the higher you are, the farther the fall.
As this 100 minute film moves along, you learn more and more about these people, and you’re not exactly sure that you would want to know them personally – at least at the start. It’s a cruel thing to say, but perhaps dire financial struggle make the heads of the family more tolerable and grounded. It’s not that the Siegels are (or were) inherently bad people. It’s just probably safe to make the assumption that after one is built so high above normality, a grasp with the reality that most face is unapparent until a crash like the one in 2008 forces you to deal with it. It’s hypocritical to chastise these people for enjoying their lifestyle – who wouldn’t? (Although it probably is worth questioning the actual ramifications of building a replica of Versailles for your own private use).
When all is said and done, The Queen of Versailles is a film that is indeed interesting, but is entertaining the right word? It’s about a crumbling small empire and the lack of preparedness it’s greeted by. It can be said that it is very fascinating, but maybe this isn’t the most appropriate scenario to find a considerable amount of joy in experiencing.
Oh, if you’ve seen it, you know that of course it’s entertaining!
by Ken B.
In Barbara, Christian Petzold crafts a film of gripping yet subdued tension. It wouldn’t be considered a “thriller” in the American box office (or budgetary) sense, but it should be considered one. It’s shot plainly, deliberately, authentically. There are no secrets, you are the viewer witnessing the moral dilemmas presented solely as situations. And that is what so great.
The title refers to Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss), a doctor in 1980 East Germany that is punished by the government for attempting to leave the country and is subsequently transferred from Berlin to a hospital in a remote small town. She doesn’t know anyone. At first, she doesn’t want to know anyone. Her small apartment is sometimes searched by the officers assigned to keep an eye on her, and she’s particularly reserved and quiet. She quickly catches the eye of André (Ronald Zehrfeld) a colleague who later on says he’s there also as a punishment (medical malpractice, which sounds like it was technically someone else’s fault). There’s a patient that captures Barbara’s attention – Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), maybe late teens or early twenties, a laborer brought to the hospital by the police after being caught hiding for days in tic infested fields, and also pregnant.
Barbara’s desperate attempts to keep ties (for multiple reasons) with the members of her previous life and escaping are depicted throughout the 105 minute movie, highlighted and expressed through an understated and powerful performance from Nina Hoss, a frequent star of Petzold’s films. She incontestably understands the flow of the story and the objective, and tailors the character of Barbara to suit each movement of the story. I already made a passing reference at the most striking thing I found about Barbara – the non-striking visual style. It is a stationary camera. Petzold and DP Hans Fromm realize the aesthetic requirements of this intimate character study, and respond with no special shots, a heavy emphasis on natural lighting, set designs without vivid or abnormal colors, and an intentional absence of notable incidental music, if there even was any at all to be recalled. It’s sort of a closed-off trend that one notices from European dramas, replete and recurring because it’s a style of filmmaking that commands great success when done right.
Barbara is a low key film with much grander assumptions and implications. A fascinating portrait of the politics and their victims on the Comecon side of the Iron Curtain, it is meticulously but not obviously put together, and that is a sign of expert work. It’s greatly recommendable, for the intelligence and care on display to tell a riveting and compelling story about what would be an otherwise uninteresting main character. Under the hands of a competent cast and crew, just about anything can be made into a good movie, and that includes the story of a doctor working in a small town under an oppressive government that no longer exists.
by Ken B.
Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing has a lot of good ideas going for it. It also has a lot of not-so-good ideas going for it. When its 108 minutes passed by, it was clear that there was a large amount of high quality in the creative sense, but little to write home about otherwise.
Whedon barely changes anything in the plot except abridging the dialogue and moving the setting from 16th century Italy to 21st century California. This is still the story of two couples; Benedick (ALEXIS DENISOF) and Beatrice (AMY ACKER) are suspicious and somewhat cynical when it comes to love, thanks to many years of experience. Claudio (FRAN KRANZ) and Hero (JILLIAN MORGESE) are younger and more hopeful – nearly naïve, some might say. The film transpires at the home of Leonato (CLARK GREGG), Hero’s father, over the course of several days. Also among the present are Prince Don Pedro (REED DIAMOND), and the Prince’s brother John (SEAN MAHER), who attempts to break up Claudio and Hero.
Here’s what I see: Joss Whedon attempting to adapt William Shakespeare is an intriguing enough idea to attract interest, and for the most part, Whedon is more than capable of adapting and directing Shakespeare’s sharp, rhythmic dialogue. The acting, generated mostly out of lesser known performers, is very good. There is but one flaw, and that is the overall execution of the project from an aesthetic and technical standpoint. DP Jay Hunter uses a minimalist black-and-white approach for the most part, and on its own, it is quite enjoyable. However, the traditional filming on top of the modern setting with actors speaking old English creates a looming undercurrent of a perfunctory art project, very different from the other aspects on display, which are dedicated and professional.
While this is sometimes easy to overlook, there are moments where Much Ado About Nothing’s dynamic becomes unavoidably distracting. Consider a masquerade party towards the start of the film. It uses artistic camera angles and a jazz-based score by Whedon. Combined with the black-and-white imagery, it looks a bit like a swanky cologne ad. Once Shakespeare’s dialogue comes careening in, it’s all the more off putting. These two aspects of technical filmmaking and iconic English language writing are great on their own, but have a mix around the chemistry of oil and water.
The fact that the entire project was filmed in twelve days at Whedon’s house implies that the final product could have been much worse or rushed, and this film certainly is a far cry from downright bad. But the way the movie presents itself overall makes it clear that it does not jell internally. Some parts of the film are appealing and clever, and other parts can become downright irritating. Much Ado About Nothing is a movie I definitely wanted to like, but I cannot recommend it, for there are too many shortcomings that keep this from being as good it should have been.
by Ken B.
ParaNorman is a movie that works because it pleases people of just about every viewpoint. We have horror movie allusions of both subtle and obvious varieties, beautiful animation, clever jokes, and a message of acceptance that’s not too preachy. It caters to anyone that may be even remotely interested in it, and what it creates has certain moments of great cinema.
This is the story of Norman (voice of KODI SMIT-MCPHEE), a quiet boy who has the ability to see ghosts. He frequently talks to the ghost of his grandmother (voice of ELAINE STRITCH), and on his way to school, talks to ghosts that traipse down the sidewalk. The fact that he openly communicates with things that no one else can see, combined with his otherwise quiet demeanor makes him an easy target for the bullies at school, like Alvin (voice of CHRISTOPHER MINTZ-PLASSE). Come to think of it, Norman only really has one friend, an awkward kid named Neil (voice of TUCKER ALBRIZZI)
While at school, Norman is confronted by the ghost of his possibly insane uncle, Mr. Prendergast (voice of JOHN GOODMAN), who had died the day before, shortly after telling Norman that he could also see ghosts. Prendergast desperately informs Norman that tonight is the 300th anniversary of the time several witches were executed in their town, and that it is necessary to read at their graves from an old book to keep the dead, well, dead. It is now up to Norman to do this. It’s not easy – what starts out as a fairly straightforward mission turns into an event with Norman, Neil, Alvin, Neil’s jock brother Mitch (voice of CASEY AFFLECK), and Norman’s sister Courtney (voice of ANNA KENDRICK) escaping ruthless zombies. How the film gets here and what happens afterwards is part of the brilliance that are the storyline and details within ParaNorman.
What I found most attractive about ParaNorman is how it takes an effectively simple and arguably overdone plot (people who are different should not be persecuted and stigmatized purely because they are different) and handles it in a thoughtful and more original way. There’s a lot more to this than is usually contained in a kid-targeted animated movie. Screenwriter and co-director Chris Butler isn’t afraid to add depth to the message within. On a more aesthetic note, added are horror references of every kind – a scene that mimics the production design from Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968), a score from Jon Brion with an occasional horror-synth backdrop, and just little things all around. The 92 minute movie retains a creepy atmosphere nearly entirely throughout thanks to the fantastic visuals. The meticulous stop-motion animation is enhanced with eccentric set pieces and just right lighting.
My only real complaint with ParaNorman would be how a movie that is otherwise anti-formula in the field of children’s movies can occasionally slip into the predictable and expected moments – cringing was an appropriate reaction towards the end when a speech is given that outlines the entire message of the movie. It is my experience that most kids would be able to pick up the message without a moment so obvious. I can think of ways that this point could have been made in a more subtle manner.
ParaNorman is otherwise a very good movie – with stellar voice acting, it’s a movie that actors want to be a part of. With tight plotting and legitimately funny jokes, it’s a movie that writers write when they obviously care about what they’re doing, and with breathtaking visuals, it’s a sign of true artisanship from artists and technical workers.
by Ken B.
The one thing that we all have in common is that we often feel that we have nothing in common with anyone. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is masterfully directed, written, and acted, all working to examine this truth. While my opinion (and this review in general) may be colored by the fact that I am quite literally in the middle of this movie’s target demographic, I still must say that it’s parts relatable, funny, and tragic – hugely entertaining and entirely worthwhile.
Set in the early ‘90s, we have Charlie (LOGAN LERMAN), an introverted high school freshman, writing about his experiences through a series of letters to an unnamed recipient. He’s always been socially awkward – the only person he really clicks with on his first day is his Advanced English teacher, Mr. Anderson (PAUL RUDD), who has dabbled as a playwright. Soon, however, he is able to find solace in two seniors, stepsiblings Sam (EMMA WATSON) and Patrick (EZRA MILLER). Along the way, they introduce him to friends and pastimes that escape mainstream attitudes or mindsets, from avoiding Top 40 music and being involved in midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
It’s all well and good on the outside, but as this 102 minute movie progresses, we learn of the rocky pasts and presents of all of our main characters – Charlie begins to unravel a horrific truth about his late Aunt Helen (MELANIE LYNSKEY), Sam reveals events that are only part of an unstable relationship with her family, and the openly gay Patrick has to conduct a relationship in secret with a closeted jock, as said jock would face physical and emotional danger should it become public.
Stephen Chbosky is literally the center of this whole film – he is the director, has written the screenplay, and is the author of the book it’s based on. While a novelist this involved with a film adaptation has the potential to spell disaster, Chbosky handles it in a mature and insightful way, improving the status of the film if nothing else. What’s particularly refreshing about The Perks of Being a Wallflower is that unlike most dramedies I’ve seen this year, the comedy and drama components are not jarringly switched between – there are some laugh out loud moments here, and towards the end it becomes quite dark, but it’s balanced perfectly. The centerpiece of this film is the acting – Lerman, Watson, and Miller are astounding in their roles, bringing characters living on paper for the past thirteen years to life quite easily and impressively. Regardless of the strong adult performances, the trio carries every moment they’re onscreen.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a triumphant film. It celebrates things from the power of friendship to the strength of literature, displayed in a subplot where Mr. Anderson privately gives Charlie various coming-of-age classics throughout the course of the year. This is a highly recommendable movie, with nostalgia for those who grew up in the era, relatability for those experiencing similar feelings to the ones displayed, and general entertainment for every viewer of any conviction.
The text on the image isn’t red for blood — it’s because I tried about seven different colors, and that’s the only one that would show over the image.
by Ken B.
Why was this movie made? Why, in the 21st century, was there a need to carry a motion to create a $150 million blockbuster based off of a 1960s soap opera? While I admit that there is a section of the fan base that is apparently quite devoted, there isn’t a real interest for Dark Shadows, especially in this capacity. Most who viewed it in its original run have only passing memories of it. What we have is a movie that is misleadingly promising in the first 30 minutes, falling into a deep pit of mediocrity, and then coming back up to impressive entertainment in its last 30 minutes.
The film starts in the 18th century, where a young Barnabas Collins departs with his family from Liverpool to Maine, and the family sets up a fishing port successful to the point of a town being named after the family (Collinsport). A witch named Angelique (EVA GREEN) was once loved by Barnabas, and after Barnabas falls in love with Josette (BELLA HEATHCOTE), Josette is cursed into jumping off a cliff. When Barnabas attempts to do the same, Angelique turns him into an immortal vampire. He soon falls into a two century slumber, believed to be dead.
By 1972, the Collins Estate is debilitated. One entire wing of the mansion is never entered, on account of there only being a few inhabitants. The current matriarch, Elizabeth (MICHELLE PFEIFFER) has a teenage daughter named Carolyn (CHLOË GRACE MORETZ) and a younger son named David (GULLIVER McGRATH), who claims to see ghosts. Also living in the house is an elderly maid (RAY SHIRLEY), a drunken groundskeeper named Willie (JACKIE EARLE HALEY), and a psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman (HELENA BONHAM CARTER). A woman bearing a striking resemblance to Josette, using the name Victoria “Vicky” Winters, applies to become David’s private tutor (Vicky is also played by Heathcote.). Barnabas awakes in his coffin, and he attempts to decipher the current estate of the family. When news of this reaches Angelique, who is running a rival fishing operation, she takes this an opportunity to finally have him again.
The melodrama within makes it an aware and idyllic reference to soap operas in general, and Tim Burton’s visual style is a perfect match for gothic styling. Danny Elfman’s score is stereotypical of him (parts macabre and wit), but a brilliant fit here (and for an inexplicable reason, a motif within briefly reminded me of Randy Edelman’s score for Dragonheart (Cohen, 1996)). The script, by Seth Grahame-Smith, goes for a horror/fantasy riff in the strong beginning and end, and a more comical middle. That more comical middle is where the film really suffers, dragging the 113 minute film down to a near screeching halt, with mildly unbearable jokes about 1970s culture. The scenes where the story or characters actually progress are the only ones worthwhile within this part of the film. Burton lays off of the fantasy tricks here, bringing the dead zone (no pun intended) to an even more obvious front. Johnny Depp, in the lead role, tries his best and occasionally succeeds in inserting some life into the second act, assisted by the credible supporting actors.
As a whole, Dark Shadows never really finds any footing, constantly cajoling between horror and comedy, and never properly adapting either. While the performances (particularly Johnny Depp’s), the visual effects, and the musical score have the ability to create a satisfying sequence every now and then, Tim Burton’s version of the TV show is just a testament to what happens when money is thrown about without a foreseeable end goal or sufficient energy.
by Ken B.
Love. Love love. I love love. Everyone loves love. But what I don’t, nor anyone else, love are movies like this – completely incompetent from a storytelling perspective, and entirely too bloated for its own good.
Juan Diego Solana’s Upside Down has a bunch of impressive visuals and absolutely nothing else. There’s a mildly plagiaristic plot, and then there’s an exceedingly complicated set of inner-movie physics. There are actors that are never really given a chance to shine, and some interesting ideas that are only briefly entertained.
Adam (JIM STURGESS) lives in a universe where there are two very separate planets, one over the other. In Down, where he lives, there is poverty abound. He grew up an orphan, as his parents were killed in an oil refinery explosion, and his only surviving relative was his great Aunt Becky (KATE TROTTER).
In Down, gravity falls down. In Up, it… goes up, of course. Up, in contrast to down, is filled with wealth and fortune. Down sells oil to Up, which converts it to electricity and sells it back to Down for higher prices. The divide between Up and Down is very obvious and the border hostile.
Anyway, one day when climbing up a mountain, Adam meets Eden (KIRSTEN DUNST), a woman from Up. They hit it off immediately, but because they are from two rival social classes, they are forbidden to cross into each other’s world and be together. They are forcefully separated, but years later Adam sees Eden as a representative for TransWorld, the massive company who owned the refinery that killed his family and thousands of others. Against the advice of his colleagues, he gains an entry level job at TransWorld, determined to reunite with Eden and make some technological developments along the way, based on something he found as a child.
It looks fairly straightforward, but this 107 minute movie all too quickly flies off the handle and becomes entirely incoherent by the last act. A while ago, I reviewed Roman Holiday, and mentioned that I liked the melancholy bittersweet ending. No such thing exists here, making this a pointless conclusion that’s mildly infuriating. It in and of itself contain extremely unlikely scenarios that I would describe, but would have to spoil the film even more in the process.
While the special effects, especially those in the wide shots between the two worlds are dynamic and incredible, Up is often shot with the camera upside down, creating an unintelligible and often nausea-inducing result. The music by Benoît Charest and Sigur Rós is nearly entirely generic and unmemorable. The performances are uneventful, mostly because the clichéd script doesn’t really give them much space to shine – or any at all. Upside Down is a colossal waste of time – one hour and forty minutes devoted to a pandering plot, clichés and predictability at every turn, and an insultingly saccharine ending makes this a movie not worth experiencing, regardless of whether you live Up or Down.