The Way We Get By

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The Way We Get By
Directed by: Aron Gaudet
Written by: Aron Gaudet

The Way We Get By is a fantastic documentary by writer/director Aron Gaudet. It is about three older people and what they’ve gone through in the last five years as the self-appointed welcoming committee for American troops as they return to native soil. The film is predominately set in the Bangor Airport in Bangor, Maine, and the homes of the welcomers.

The Way We Get By is a short documentary that was made for the long-running PBS television series P.O.V. It’s a film about nothing, and yet, everything. By that I mean that the stories don’t seem to be as heavily influenced by the director as other documentaries might be. And the many themes that come across in the film (loss, loneliness, family, spirit, etc.) are universal themes.

The style presented in the documentary keeps these stories fresh and interesting. There’s an amazing rhythm from story to story that keeps it going. One style in particular reminded me of David Lynch’s on-going Interview Project, which centers around individual stories. The similarity lies in the edit, where the interviewee’s audio track is dubbed over a different shot, trying to capture the right emotion for what is being said.

Each person in The Way We Get By is a dear soul, and I instantly connected with William, Joan, and Gerald on an emotional level. There’s so much pathos here. Heck, the preview itself had me tearing up. I found one line from Gerald to be especially poignant. When asked why he was doing what he was doing, he replied, “Be nice to somebody and that makes you feel nicer. That’s the only way you can deal with it.”

I loved seeing the different attitudes and opinions of the greeters as well. I love how these people, even the ones who don’t support the war, are there to support the troops regardless of their stance. That in mind, I wouldn’t call The Way We Get By an anti-war film. Rather, I think anti-loss would be a more fitting term.

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Lovely by Surprise

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Lovely by Surprise
Directed by: Kirt Gunn
Written by: Kurt Gunn
Starring: Carrie Preston, Austin Pendleton, Reg Rogers, Michael Chernus

Charlie Kaufman’s absurdity meets the style of Wes Anderson in this quirky look at humanity and the art of storytelling.

Carrie Preston plays Marian, an author who is struggling with her latest novel about two man-children (No, this is not a Will Ferrel movie) who live together in a landlocked boat in the middle of nowhere, surviving on cereal and milk.

Faced with writer’s block, Marian goes to Preston (Austin Pendelton) for help. Encouraged by her mentor, Marian attempts to off her main character. What she doesn’t realize, however, is that Humkin has other plans in mind, and literally leaps into our world.

Marian confides in Preston

I hesitate to say too much about the iconoclastic story for fear that it would take away from experiencing it for yourself. It’s a mixed bag of emotions, and first time director Kirt Gunn (also the writer) handles it delicately. It reminded me of Stranger Than Fiction and Adaptation, but only in plot. Kirt’s story is unique, fresh, and well worth watching.

At times grandiose and overacted, the decidedly idiosyncratic story has a peculiar blend of fiction and reality that works surprisingly well. The title of this film is very apt, and wonderfully absent from the film. It’s a title that makes sense in retrospect, which is a credit to the film.

The range of acting talent on display in Lovely by Surprise is, in my mind, the film’s greatest component. Carrie Preston, Austin Pendelton, and Reg Rogers perform admirably. I would love to see more from them. Michael Chernus brought a great amount of charisma to his performances as Humkin, and a What About Bob? quality to the character.

It’s a great little film with a lot of heart.

Lovely by Surprise comes out on DVD July 7th, 2009.

(Originally posted at MovieZeal.com)

PDQ Reviews (6/9)

RKO

Title: RKO 281
Directed By: Benjamin Ross
Starring: Liev Schreiber / James Cromwell / John Malkovich
PDQ: Tells the story behind Citizen Kane. The casting is genius, but the story was too bland and already covered.

Love

Title: Love and Death
Directed By: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen / Diane Keaton
PDQ: A fun, epic romp with Woody Allen. (You might want to watch The Seventh Seal first)

Cassandra

Title: Cassandra’s Dream
Directed By: Woody Allen
Starring: Ewan McGregor / Colin Farrell
PDQ: More in the style of Match Point than Allen’s earlier films. Not much going for this cautionary tale.

Nashville Film Festival Report, Day 2

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Day 2 of the Nashville Film Festival started with the 1:00 showing of a documentary called Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary. The overall format of the film was interviews with a host of documentarians around the world broken up by clips from their films. I appreciated the range of talking heads, as there were many faces that I didn’t recognize. After the film was over, I came away with two cemented ideas: Errol Morris continues to fascinate me (Especially with his interviewing device showcased in Fog of War), and I appreciate Werner Herzog more and more…but trust him less. He blurs the line between fact and fiction too much for my tastes. His point that all film in a sense is fictionalized, but I don’t think that should stop filmmakers from trying to portray truth in the films. This is a discussion that I would have liked to see more interaction with between the interviewed.

Mothers and Daughters

After a quick lunch, I watched Mothers & Daughters at 3:15. This film followed the mother/daughter relationships between several characters, overlapping in some areas. Overall it came across as being overly dramatic in several scenes, but there were a few gem moments that really touched me. The older woman (pictured above)  in the film was fantastic. The emotionality of the character was portrayed with such subtelty.

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I admit that William Shatner was one of the selling points of the festival for me. I’d read a little about the William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet here and there, but wasn’t quite sure what it was about until watching it at the festival. In short, it’s a documentary that tells the story behind choreographer Margo Sappington’s ballet Common People. The performance fuses the ballet with Has Been, a recent album by William Shatner and Ben Folds. The documentary, which works more as a DVD special feature than a feature-length film, tells the story through interviews with the artists involved in both productions, which is a great story to tell. It also features footage from the ballet, which was riveting to say the least. I would have loved to see it performed live. After returning from Nashville, I purchased a copy of Has Been, which is quite a treat.

Up

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Up
Directed By: Pete Doctor / Bob Peterson
Written By: Bob Peterson
Voices: Edward Asner / Christopher Plummer

Up is the latest animated film from Disney / Pixar, and is a treat for all ages. It follows the exploits of Carl Fredricksen, a disgruntled, elderly balloon salesman, and a local boy scout named Russell, as they set off in a grand adventure to South America in Carl’s house, propelled by a plethora of colorful balloons.

That’s the most that I want to give away from a film that everyone should experience for themselves. I was impressed by the balance between the style and the narrative in Up. The opening 15 minutes or so, for example, is in essence a montage, that blends the two together perfectly and sets up the rest of the film nicely.

Pixar has a history of technical excellence, and Up definitely falls into this category. It was released in 2D and 3D formats, and I applaud the Pixar team for creating a 3D film that doesn’t feel too gimmicky. The 3D format accentuates the film, and doesn’t draw too much attention to itself, taking the viewer out of the experience.

From the beginning of the film, the story evokes feelings of nostalgia, childlike innocence. While Up is a decidedly humorous (Sometimes too silly for my tastes) family film, it’s also very serious, touching upon themes of family, belonging, and fear.

Following in the footsteps of WALL·E, I love Pixar’s emphasis on non-verbals, especially in the opening montage, drawing upon Charlie Chaplin’s physicality, antics, and especially pathos. The emotionality of the film was especially heightened by Michael Giacchino’s breathtaking score, which kept me in my seat during the end credits.

While I found the story especially moving at times, however, some of the dialogue seemed forced and on-the-nose. An example of this would be when Russell tells Carl about his family, a scene that felt like tacked on exposition to get the story moving. In writing a story, subtlety is a virtue.

And while I was more than wiling to accept the fantastic nature of the film by leaving my brain at the door and taking my heart with me, there were certain elements that left me scratching my now empty head.

But aside from a few issues that I had with the film, Up is a truly fantastic film that everyone deserves to see. The themes and characters are so rich that the whole family can take something away from it.

Nashville Film Festival Report, Day 1

This post is a long time in the writing, largely due to graduating from college, and the extended trip back home to Pennsylvania. It has given me more time to digest the films that I watched, however. I had the opportunity to attend the Nashville Film Festival again this year, and it was a great experience. Aside from watching some great films, I also had the opportunity to hang around with some of the people involved in the creation of these films, through the Q&A sessions after their films and bumping into them outside of the theater. I would like to write up a post for each day that I was at the film festial, briefly recounting what went on and my quick reactions to the many films that I saw.

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On Thursday, April 16th, (500) Days of Summer started the festival at 7:00 PM. Directed by newcomer Marc Webb, the film is a semi-romantic comedy. (Watch the preview here) Leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel have a great on-screen chemistry that propels the film. The style and narrative structure of the film is unique and postmodern at times. It is centered around Tom (Gordon-Levitt), who falls in love with Summer (Deschanel). The film jumps around from the aftermath of Summer breaking up with Tom, and the 500 days before-hand. It’s quirky, but at the same time realistic. Look for it’s limited release on July 17th, and pray that it gets picked up for a wider audience.

After the film, there was a quick Q&A between director Marc Webb (right) and Variety film critic Joe Leydon (left). Afterwards I found myself in a conversation with the two outside of the theater. At one point they were talking about the differences between Truffaut and Goddard, at which point Mr. Leydon showed off a tatoo of film strip that read “Truffaut Lives”.

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Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison

(Seen at the Nashville Film Festival)

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Directed by documentarian Bestor Cram and written by Johnny Cash biographer Michael Streissguth, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison is a fascinating look at Cash’s famous live recording behind the titular bars.

With the lack of actual footage of the event, Cram pulled together a collection of photographs taken at the concert by Jim Marshall, interviews with people involved and affected, and rare footage taken inside Folsom.  Where the film could have easily been devoted to one story, I appreciate the narrative balance presented here. Instead of dealing with the ups and downs of Johnny Cash’s life like so many other films, Cram instead focuses on Cash’s life surrounding the Folsom Prison performance and two inmates whose lives were affected by his performance.

While I didn’t particularly care for Millard Dedmon’s story, he seemed to serve as an amalgamation of the Folsom inmates. Glen Sherley, on the other hand, is the driving force of the film. While at Folsom, Sherley wrote a song called “Greystone Chapel”. The night before the performance, his recording ended up in the hands of Johnny Cash, who performed the song the following day. Cash and Sherley became good friends, with Cash helping Sherley out years after he was released from Folsom. It’s a fascinating story that will stick with you; that’s the power of good cinema.

The first documentary to focus exclusively on such an important event, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison succeeds at telling such a captivating story in just 87 minutes. Watch this film if you have the opportunity.

The Class

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Starting with teachers at a high school in Paris introducing themselves before the school year begins, director Laurent Cantet sets the mood and setting for the rest of the film. The Class rarely steps outside of the building, showing us what happens within the confines of the classroom.

The Class, based on François Bégaudeau’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, is about Bégaudeau (played by himself in the film) teaching French to a culturally diverse class in a Paris high school. It deals with important issues that pertain to teaching and interacting with people coming from different cultures and backgrounds. In several scenes Bégaudeau has to explain what certain words and idioms that he uses mean because the students aren’t familiar with them.

Stylistically, The Class falls into the cinéma vérité camp, adopting a distinctive documentary feel. The majority of the film takes place within the classroom, and is intimately filmed. It’s as if the camera is hovering around the classroom capturing spontaneous moments as they happen. Aside from meetings with the student boards and parents, there isn’t much background for the students given; what you see is what you get. There are a lot of close-ups in the film, reminding me of the style of director John Cassavetes.

Staying during the closing credits, I had a short conversation with an older couple that were seated a few rows in front of me about the film. The husband is a teacher, and they were wondering what my take on the film was, and more importantly, Bégaudeau’s teaching method. We talked about the cultural problems that he had to deal with and how he genuinely wanted his students to succeed.

That said, however, I appreciate how the filmmakers didn’t make Bégaudeau out to be the perfect teacher. For example, he’s been teaching there for four years and should have more control over his classroom; the students run the class more than they should. The moments when he does connect with the students, however, are beautiful. I think he would be more at home in an organic setting rather than the traditional one that he’s currently in.

In some ways The Class can be compared to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Both films deal with a culture clash that takes place in an environment where people are forced into contact with each other. The Class succeeds in showing us what can happen when various cultures come together under the same roof. It raises a lot of questions about education, culture, and communication, leaving the viewer to struggle with the answers as the credits roll.

Watchmen

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Watchmen, Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the much-loved graphic novel of the same name, was released theatrically on Friday. Having not read the graphic novel, all I knew about the film going in was what I saw in the previews.

The opening credits sequence in Watchmen sucked me into the film, and I was hooked for the first thirty minutes. Through the historical montage, complete with living photographs and revisionist events, I felt like I had a decent grasp of the universe that Watchmen took place in. It’s a rare feat to accomplish this with such a sweeping story. That said, there were times when the multiple narratives felt disjointed and episodic. And while the film is largely about The Watchmen themselves, I would have liked to see more in regards to the societal look on things.

There was also a lot of pop music that was included in the film, ranging from Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. The integration of the music with the visuals worked well for a while, but soon became more of a distraction than a complementation of the film.

Watchmen is an ensemble piece at heart, housing a horde of different characters, but the two that interested me the most were Rorschach, played perfectly by Jackie Earle Haley, and Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), who comes across as Clark Kent with Batman’s toys. In some ways I would consider him to be the main character of the film, although there wasn’t much of a resolution for him at the end of the film.

Billy Crudup also made an appearance in the film as Dr. Manhattan, the God-like character in the film. His personal dilemmas and choices were a much-needed intellectual boost in the film, resulting in a cool ending. And while the character of Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) wasn’t in the film nearly enough, what glimpses we saw of him were intriguing to say the least. I would love to read Watchmen if only to learn more about him.

Sadly, however, director Zack Snyder tends to put more emphasis on “graphic” than “novel”. Starting out as a serious, gritty epic, I was surprised at the change in tone partway through the film and Snyder’s self-referential winks and personal fetishes. (At least there weren’t any drugs in the film)

I’m certainly not opposed to violence in film if the story calls for it and is used well. But to quote Alfred Hitchcock, “There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.” And on a similar note, Roger Ebert wrote in his review of The Winslow Boy that, “Sixty seconds of wondering if someone is about to kiss you is more entertaining than 60 minutes of kissing.” Whatever happened to suspense, subtlety, and the imagination? There are better ways to show violence in a film. And in the case of Rorschach’s back-story, some well-placed shadows would have been far more effective, stylistically and emotionally, and would have fit with his film noir presence.

As an extra tidbit, I noticed a similarity between 300 (Also directed by Snyder) and Watchmen. The former ends with Dilios telling the story of the 300 Spartans in the oral tradition of story telling, while Watchmen ends in a similar way, but with the written tradition. Perhaps Snyder’s next film will end with a typewriter…or maybe I’ve just been a communications major too long.

In any case, Watchmen, while having some interesting characters, cool visuals, and a promising story, fails to tell that story well. Instead of getting a developed character-driven epic about humanity, we’re left with an adolescent storyteller infatuated with gratuitous sex and violence. And we’re left wanting more.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Directed By: Mark Herman
Starring: Asa Butterfield / David Thewlis / Vera Farmiga
Rating: three_half_star

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a unique perspective of the holocaust, showing it through the eyes of a young German boy (Butterfield), whose father (Thewlis) is a German officer. After their family moves near a concentration camp, young Bruno makes friends with a Jewish boy named Shmuel through the fence, not knowing what the camp really is.

There is a theme of childlike innocence that flows throughout the film. While at times this theme is over-done and stretches reality, it really hit home with me. The film opens with a swastika filling the screen. As the camera pulls back on a busy street we see a group of children running around pretending to be airplanes firing their imaginary weapons as they run down the street. This struck me as an ironic statement, showing the seemingly innocent way in which children ‘play’ war games, while not fully understanding what war really is.

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One element of innocence that caught my eye was a scene near the beginning of the film where the boy is talking to his father. We see that his father has a distinct shadow on one side of his face, which is contrasted with the fully lit face of his son, which to me is a representation of his innocence. As the film progresses, so does the lighting of the boy. As his innocence crumbles, his face no longer has that wonderful glow.

On a similar note, James Horner’s score fit the mood of the film wonderfully. I didn’t notice the music very much at the beginning of the film, which I think was what Horner was going for. There is a definite build-up in the music, both in the volume and also in the mood. At the beginning it is light and more carefree, but nearing the end of the film it builds into a darker, pulsing sound. Sometimes, though, I was reminded more of his other scores, like A Beautiful Mind, which was a little distracting.

I was impressed by the acting of the youngsters, who said just as much through their facial expressions and gestures than they did with their speech. David Thewlis also turned in a sound performance as the father. And it was great seeing Rupert Friend again as well. I first saw him in Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont; I can see this getting him some much-needed recognition.

On a more technical note, I wasn’t very impressed with the editing early on in the film. It was overly jumpy in areas, and unnatural. I don’t know if that was an intentional contrast, but it certainly felt more natural later on.

When the film came to it’s dramatic close, I realized that it wasn’t necessarily a film about the holocaust. Rather, it’s simply a story about a friendship between two boys. The holocaust elements are certainly there, but they serve more as a backdrop to the real story that’s taking place.

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