Posted by: dailymovierec | February 17, 2009

American Teen (2008)

american_teen_08American Teen is a 2008 documentary from filmmaker Nanette Burstein, who has a couple solid films under her belt (The Kid Stays in the Picture, and On the Ropes, both of which I would like to see). This documentary takes place in a small town in Indiana (Warsaw, Indiana, to be specific), and centers on the lives of 5 teenagers at the local high school. In this film, Burstein attempts to showcase the classic teenage stereotypes, such as the nerd, the jock, the popular girl, the heartthrob, and the outcast, and toss them together to see what happens, a la The Breakfast Club. The result is rather mixed, but in an enjoyable, refreshing way.

My primary issue with the film was that it did feel a bit scripted. This has been the source of a cloud of controversy surrounding this movie, and after seeing it, I can understand why. Many viewers have gone so far as to accuse the Burstein of feeding the characters lines while film, to manipulate the story. I should be very clear  - I believe the director and teens portrayed when they state that nothing was scripted. However, while I do believe that the real lives of these teens are portrayed, I also feel that the director heavily edited the film to show us what she wanted us to see. This is NOT necessarily bad thing, in fact, this is the basis for cinematic storytelling on any level, and it is necessary in order for any plot progression to occur. That said, Burstein shot for 10 months in Warsaw, and apparently had over 1000 hours of footage that was edited down to 2 hours. This means that we, the audience, only get to see .2% of these teens’ lives in front of the lens, and a lot of details and character elements were left out. This amount of editing is not a problem for a fictional film, but for a movie like this, which is attempting to capture real life, it calls its authenticity into question. Do I think that it is impossible to capture the teenage experience on camera? Yes (with the almost exception of Freaks & Geeks, what a great show!) Has a great film been made here? Absolutely. 

All nitpicking aside, this is a fun and interesting take on the American high school experience, and the rare movie that almost everyone can relate to, since we can all see a little bit of ourselves in each of these characters. I’d love to hear what others thought about it in the comments – am I being too harsh? Have I missed something?

Posted by: dailymovierec | October 9, 2008

The King of Kong (2007)

 

Movie Poster for "The King of Kong"

I’ll admit it – I often find documentaries boring. It’s not that I’m not intellectually curious, I always just found the realm of fiction to be much more interesting. This movie broke that rule. This is the story of Steve Wiebe, a man who sought to challenge long time record holder Billy Mitchell for the high score in Donkey Kong. What starts out as a simple “man overcomes odds” story morphs into a tale of outsider politics, and of the desire in all of us to be the best at something. While the film definitely takes Wiebe’s side, the director Seth Gordon ensures that we still sympathize with Mitchell. While his conduct is a bit unseemly, the obsession each man has in attaining (or in Mitchell’s case, holding onto) the record goes far beyond pride. Watching this movie will make you question your own motives in your life.

 

Another interesting layer of this movie is the age old question of life reflecting art. In the quest to defeat the other, both Wiebe and Mitchell elevate the challenge into a “good vs. evil” level battle. Each of their show downs will have you as much on the edge of your seat as you were for each of your battles against Ganondorf (yeah Zelda!)

A must watch for any video game fan, but don’t let this stop you even if you don’t like gaming – there is plenty of story and character here for anyone to enjoy.

Posted by: dailymovierec | January 29, 2008

Pure (2002)

Pure is a great movie that is difficult to watch. Released in Great Britain in 2002, it took 3 years for the movie to make it to the states, after Keira Knightly (who has a great supporting role) became a household name. This film depicts the story of a young 10 year old boy, who after having to cope with the loss of his father to a heart attack, now has to face his mother’s addiction to heroin. At first Paul doesn’t understand what is going on with his mother, but after repeatedly preparing her “medicine”, he comes to understand his mother’s troubles. Robert Ebert makes a fantastic point when he states, “One of the movie’s intriguing qualities is that its horrors take place within a world that is not as cruel and painful as we know it could be.” Paul shows courage and fear, maturity and naivety all at the same time. I also found the ending to be quite appropriate, it is uplifting and realistic at the same time – some are saved, and some aren’t, which tends to be a very real fact of drug addiction. A great, accessible film from Britain – great depth, but not as frighteningly intense as “Requiem for a Dream”.

Posted by: dailymovierec | January 28, 2008

Zulu (1964)

I apologize for the lack of posts last week … starting a daily blog is hard! I assure you that I am back on track, and that you can not only expect daily movie recommendations, but also a new “features” page to be rolling out this week, that will feature new and interesting material!

Zulu is a movie that is near and dear to my heart because it is one of my dad’s favorites. It is also a fascinating and well done war film, regularly making best of lists, and it is also an interesting document of its time. The film depicts the battle of Rorke’s Drift, one of the great defenses in the history of warfare, in which 139 British soldiers held off an attacking force of 5,000 highly trained Zulu warriors. The film depicts the intensity and viciousness of the combat, although it does feel dated in its need to pigeonhole the personalities of the men (Private Hook in particular is unfairly maligned). All in all, a really great movie — plus, you get to see Michael Caine’s debut role in a major motion picture! This movie is also a longtime favorite of many directors, including Ridley Scott and Peter Jackson. In fact, the battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers was staged in the same way as the battle in Zulu as an homage!

Posted by: dailymovierec | January 23, 2008

Sling Blade (1996)

When we think about Billy Bob Thornton, we tend to think of a borderline serious actor, who has girlfriends wearing vials of his blood around their neck. Sling Blade however, is the movie that made Mr. Thornton a major star. This southern gothic movie which he directed, wrote, and starred in, has become regarded as a modern classic for its deep and nuanced characters. While there was a good deal of mockery of Thornton’s character Karl at the time of the film’s release, critics and audiences have agreed that beyond a few humorous lines, Thornton has created a moving character, who is able to redefine right and wrong in spite or (or perhaps because of) his mental handicap. Once you can move beyond the shock of seeing Billy Bob Thornton in such an unusual role, you will come face to face with the man’s raw talent. A ferocious, beautiful movie — highly recommended.

Posted by: dailymovierec | January 22, 2008

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

The film world has lost a tremendous talent today in Heath Ledger. I have been a fan of his work since the beginning, and have seen pretty much every movie he’s been in (including Ned Kelly, which is … okay). In honor of his memory, I wanted to visit his first US film, 10 Things I Hate About You. This movie suffers from one major flaw, which keeps it from being taken seriously — it’s a teen movie. I however view this as an asset, because 10 Things I Hate About You is an excellent teen movie. I’ve always felt a sign of true art was if not creating new genres, at least excelling within existing ones. Like a fine haiku, this movie accomplishes all it sets out to do, and then some: it is charming, it is funny, it has something for everyone — but most of all, it’s a blast. It’s compulsively watchable, and therein lies its appeal. It may have a young cast, but it is full of immense talent: Julia Stiles, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and most of all, Heath Ledger. Tough and sensitive at the same time, watching this movie will remind you of why everyone fell in love with him in the first place. Godspeed Heath, we miss you.

Posted by: dailymovierec | January 20, 2008

The Muppet Movie (1979)

I chose this movie for today’s recommendation not because it is obscure or not well known. On the contrary, the Muppets have a permanent place in our pop culture. I picked the Muppet Movie because I think it is a movie that everyone should see again. This was one of my favorite movies when I was growing up, but I saw it again when I was in college, and it took on a whole new meaning. This movie is just funny, no matter what age you are. When you watch this movie with fresh eyes, you can truly see the gift of imagination that Jim Henson gave to the world, and how cruel it was that he died so young.

I have always felt that great children’s media doesn’t dumb itself down, but instead challenges its audience, no matter what age they are, to question their surroundings. It is no small point that To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee is written at a 5th grade reading level. In my mind art is great not for obtuseness, but for accessibility and clarity — everyone, even a child should be able to understand it. I’m not saying that The Muppet Movie is the greatest film ever, but is a great movie, and it is a fantastic adventure (and “Rainbow Connection” is to this day one of my favorite songs).

Posted by: dailymovierec | January 19, 2008

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

Wet Hot American Summer is one of those movies where I am always amazed at the number of people who have not seen it. This movie is hilarious. That’s really all I can say about it — it mocks all of the summer camp movies of the 1980s, with some great performances by well known actors (funniest role to this day that I’ve seen Paul Rudd in). Watch it, enjoy it. That’s all.

Posted by: dailymovierec | January 18, 2008

The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006)

The winner of the 2006 Palme D’or, this terrific drama depicts the roots of Ireland’s civil war on a close and personal basis. This film takes the traditional depiction of a civil war pitting “brother and against brother,” and makes it a literal narrative, as two brothers come together and grow apart over the course of the conflict. Director Ken Loach is careful to make sure that the film shows, and doesn’t tell – we are allowed to interpret for ourselves the cost of the conflict, and the cost of peace, and weigh the benefits of each ourselves.

The cast does a wonderful job of portraying the emotions and motives of their characters. Cillian Murphy is absolutely captivating as the protagonist, allowing us to see reality through our own eyes, while readily admitting that his is an imperfect narrator. A true ensemble piece, the interplay between the actors makes the narrative completely believable – no one rises above, making the story first and foremost important.

Loach has created both a historical piece and ferociously current piece with this movie. Unlike other historical epics (Braveheart comes to mind), there is no whitewashing of history for the sake of a heroic figure. The film is brutal, and it is honest. Highly recommended.

Posted by: dailymovierec | January 17, 2008

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

I admire Robert Ebert as a film reviewer not because of his fame, but because I like his attitude towards movies. Yes, he is a film snob, but he always views movies with a fresh perspective and, more importantly, he admires movies that take risks. In a film culture today that rewards banality (take note of our past few summer of sequels), it’s good to have critical superstars gunning for the movies whose reach extends beyond their grasp. Jacob’s Ladder is a prime example of this. A great psychological thriller that predated the trend by a good 8 years, this movie spawned a lot of great movies (The Sixth Sense, Memento), and a lot bad ones (Fear Dot Com comes to mind).

What makes this movie most effective are two things: 1) It’s believable, and 2) it’s scary as hell. While some of the special effects are a bit old hat now, at the time this movie was made, they were fairly unheard of, and borderline revolutionary. Not to spoil the surprise, just know that seeing some of these images in their raw form, rather than in a glut of CGI, can make for some rather disturbing surprises. It’s a fun ride, with an appropriate ending.

While I enjoyed it immensely, Jacob’s Ladder is not without its shortcomings. In an attempt to recreate the sensation of a man losing his mind, the film takes some artistic liberties, and more often than not, muddies the plot to a point of confusion. For me, this added to the effect. For you, it might not. The love / hate split of reviews on this movie speak to this effect.

It’s a genuinely scary movie (rarer than you think), it’s thought provoking, and it’s well executed. Definitely worth a shot.

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