“Barbara” – Honor Among Barbarians

Barbara

Barbara (Christian Petzold, 2012)

I watched this on 2/17/13 at Cinema Sundays at the Charles, where it was presented by Beatriz Bufrahi, Instructor, Video and Digital Imaging, Baltimore School for the Arts. It’s too bad I forgot to write my review before the film opened this past Friday (2/22/13) in Baltimore, but here that review is now.

This was the German submission for the 2013 Academy Awards, though it did not make the shortlist of 9 films from which the 5 nominees were selected. It is a very good – if not 100% great – piece of filmmaking.

Barbara takes place in 1980 – when Germany was divided between the Communist East (the “Deutsche Demokratische Republik,” or DDR) and Capitalist West (the “Bundesrepublik Deutschland,” or BRD) – and follows the story of an East German doctor, Barbara (Nina Hoss), who is sent away from East Berlin to a provincial town as punishment for applying to leave the country. She begins working at the local hospital, where she remains aloof from all but the main doctor, André (Ronald Zehrfeld), though she suspects him, not incorrectly, of informing on her to the local secret police. Since almost everyone informed on everyone in East Germany, whatever André may or may not be telling Klaus (Rainer Bock), the Stasi (secret police) representative (Rainer Bock), does not make him a bad guy. In fact, he is a compassionate, hard-working medical professional, struggling to do what he can with little resources, who may, himself, have done something illegal (in the eyes of the State) to warrant his own exile.

Little by little, a friendship of sorts develops between Barbara and André, in spite of the former making covert plans to escape to the West – with the help of her West German lover – and in spite of periodic home and body searches by Klaus and his team. When the time comes for Barbara to leave, she suddenly finds herself confronted with an ethical dilemma: a patient – Stella (Jasna Frizti Bauer) – she has earlier cared for reappears, in far greater need of saving than Barbara, herself. The choice Barbara must make is a heartbreaking one, yet she knows she can make no other one. Making that decision, she is finally truly free.

The acting in Barbara is excellent. Nina Hoss (A Woman in Berlin) is entirely believable as a woman worn down by the bleak existence offered to her by the failing Communist State (the “Barbarians” of my blog entry title). She is still beautiful, but the years of smoking (there is so much smoking in this film!) and depressive existence are taking their toll. Ronald Zehrfeld is almost too nice as her potential romantic partner, but still a fine charismatic on-screen presence. Their gentle duet is lovely to watch. I also loved the Production Design. The dingy interiors, contrasted with almost-lush and green exteriors, is something that will be familiar to anyone who spent time in the Soviet Union or any Eastern Bloc country. The burned outlet in Barbara’s apartment is an especially nice touch.

The script is overall strong, though some might question the decision that Barbara makes at the end. Ultimately, I believe that the film is about finding yourself through work and action, rather than through escape. Christian Petzold does not shy away from the unpleasantness that was life in the DDR, but also questions the panacea that life in the West might be for Barbara. Her boyfriend wants her to stop working once she escapes, yet she is a fine doctor. Perhaps she can do more good by staying where they need her. Early in the film, when Barbara scornfully explains to André that she is being punished for wanting to leave the peasants and workers who financed her education (the State’s line), and she has been told that she owes them her service, André replies, “They’re not actually incorrect.” I think in many ways that may be the ideology of the film, that we all have a duty to give back and that a complete life is one lived in service of needs more than our own.

There are a few false notes in the film – how does Stella find Barbara’s apartment, for one? – and some questions that remain unanswered, but overall this is a very good work of art and entertainment, rolled into one powerful film.

Oscars 2013 Recap

Oscars Statuette

So another Academy Awards ceremony has come and gone. I’ll leave most of the commentary about Seth MacFarlane’s hosting job to others, though allow me to point you to this well-written critical piece, this mixed-bag of a review, this positive one, and this analysis of the ratings for the night. I will say this about MacFarlane, which is that if you invite someone responsible for Family Guy and Ted to host the ceremony, you should be surprised by none of what happened. To protest otherwise is the height of hypocrisy (protest the jokes, by all means, but don’t act surprised that he did them).

As a side note, I was in a room full of women during the “boobs” song, and most were laughing, which proves nothing other than that there is never one monolithic reaction to, well, anything. My favorite bit of the night? Sock-puppet Flight. My least favorite moment? MacFarlane making fun of how Oscar recipients (for Make-Up in Les Misérables) Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell looked (well, OK, the Don Cheadle/Lincoln joke and the Jews-in-Hollywood joke also bothered me, and yes, the boobs song was very problematic, if also outrageously funny).

But let’s talk about the awards, which is what the night was supposed to be about. First, here is the Midday with Dan Rodricks show podcast, from Friday, February 22 – Midday with Dan Rodricks: 2013.02.22_Academy Awards* – so you can hear my thoughts, and those of Linda DeLibero, before we knew the results of the big night. Below is a list of my Oscar predictions, with the ones I got right highlighted in green, and the ones I got wrong highlighted in red. Please note that there were two winners (a tie) for Sound Editing. For a list of the winners online, visit imdb, among other sites.

Reed 2013 Oscar Ballot

Which awards surprised you? I loved Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained, but was surprised that he won, as the odds seemed to be in De Niro’s favor (or Jones’s). I was also surprised by the Ang Lee win (though not unhappy). I really wish that Emmanuelle Riva had won (and it was even her birthday that night), but thought Jennifer Lawrence was pretty good in Silver Linings Playbook.

However, all of that said, although my ballot reflects the films I thought would win, the films and people that I wished had won, in certain categories, if different than the actual winners, are here:

BEST PICTURE: Django Unchained

BEST DIRECTOR: Michael Haneke

BEST ACTRESS: Emmanuelle Riva

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Helen Hunt (who showed a lot more than just boobs, but for good narrative reason!)

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: Frankenweenie

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT: Death of a Shadow

BEST ANIMATED SHORT: Adam and Dog

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Beasts of the Southern Wild

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN: Life of Pi

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Skyfall

An interesting night, for sure, and a good year for movies, in which many of the Oscar-nominated films actually had good box office receipts.

* I have to issue 2 corrections to things I said on air:

  1. All members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are eligible to vote in all categories of the Academy Awards:http://www.oscars.org/awards/academyawards/about/voting.html. It is only the NOMINEES for the individual categories that are determined by the members of the respective branches (editors, cinematographers, actors, etc.). While discussing the nominees for Best Cinematography, I expressed disbelief that Claudio Miranda (“Life of Pi”) could be the front-runner over Roger Deakins (“Skyfall”), since most of the work we see on screen in “Life of Pi” is the work of the Visual Effects Supervisor and his team. How, then, could other cinematographers not recognize that fact? Well, now I know why Miranda won: there are a lot more non-cinematographers voting for the award who don’t understand the distinction and are just reacting to the pretty images.
  2. Dan asked Linda and me if Harvey Weinstein had something to do with the success of “Silver Linings Playbook,” and we replied that we didn’t think so. We were wrong. The film – which continues to do well at the box office – was produced by the Weinstein Company (though Bob and Harvey only show up as “Executive Producers,” which is why I didn’t see them listed as the Producers).

Stirred, Not Shaken, but Still a Vodka Martini: “Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007”

Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007

Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 (Stevan Riley, 2012)

If you know very little about the James Bond books or the James Bond films, yet have always enjoyed reading or watching at least some of them, then you might just really like this film. It provides a satisfactory chronology of how Ian Fleming – the author of the original novels – began writing, and how Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman – the producers of the original films – began filming. It features interviews – freshly shot and archival – with many of the key players in the movie franchise (though not Sean Connery, who became angry with the producers years ago, claiming under-payment and exploitation), and with many people who knew Ian Fleming. Somehow, though, it seems to lack, for me, a spark of real documentary flair, and just ends up feeling like another talking head + b-roll affair. It doesn’t help that I have always been something of a Bond aficionado, and recently boned up on my knowledge some more for my October 5, 2012, radio show.

Still, it’s the only kind of documentary like this out there, so I’ll probably end up buying it for future classroom use (since I plan to teach a course on Bond films next year). It doesn’t have to be perfect to be useful. Even a stirred vodka martini does the trick, if all you’re interested in is having a drink.

Extraction Mode: How “Inception” on Blu-Ray Delivers Its Kick

I am finally (but slowly) beginning to buy Blu-ray discs. As someone who spent over 10 years amassing a decent DVD collection, I have been loath to throw money down for a new set of discs. As the price of Blu-rays has dropped, however, and as more films have come out in the new format, I have started to pay attention to what these larger capacity discs have to offer.

Whereas a regular single-layer DVD holds 4.7gb worth of information, and a dual-layer DVD twice that much, a single-layer Blu-ray disc holds 25gb, and a dual-layer Blu-ray twice that much. If you’re confused about what that means, you can look at the FAQ (frequently asked questions) section of Blu-ray.com.

One thing I have most definitely  appreciated about Blu-ray players, from the beginning – which is why I bought one – is that they can play both DVDs and Blu-rays. This was a smart move on the part of manufacturers, as it allows both formats to exist side by side, as opposed to VHS tapes (remember those?) and DVDs, thereby limiting consumer backlash from people fed up from being forced to upgrade. Keep the movies you have – on DVD – but buy your new movies on Blu-ray. This goes some way to addressing the objection I raised in my first paragraph.

I will admit that I am not a resolution nut. While I appreciate nice looking images as much as the next person, I do not require the films I screen at home to be as crisp and clear as they can possibly be. I have a 1080p 42-inch TV and a Blu-ray player that up-converts standard-definition DVD discs to a respectable approximation of high definition, and I am perfectly happy with that. I do like high quality transfers of films to video, however, and thanks to the Criterion Collection – among others – there are many such transfers out in the world (on DVD and Blu-ray, both). But if the transfer is good, I don’t care if it’s on DVD or Blu-ray (for now – my eyes may get used to the higher resolution over time, just like they no longer like looking at 1980s-era TV shows shot on video). I’m even happy watching films streamed through Netflix, which play at 720p on my Roku box.

Where Blu-ray discs have started to pique my interest, though, are in the possibilities they offer for even more extras than we can currently find on DVDs. Now that is worth spending more money for. If you’re a cinephile, that is . . .

And if you are, then Blu-ray.com will help you  discover which discs come with the best special features (and the best transfers). I’m actually amazed at how much great info is available on that site (including detailed price variation graphs for individual titles). The reviews of the films are incredibly detailed! I mean, who has time to spend writing reviews of movies if it’s not your real job? Um, yeah, like, who does that . . .

Which brings me to . . . 

Inception Blu-Ray

Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) – the Blu-Ray Release

I watched this film in a theater when it first came out, and liked it but didn’t love it. I found the dream-within-a-dream story quite compelling, but thought the movie was almost too clever by half. I was, however, intrigued by the special effects, and was curious to know how they were done. Not so curious as to make any effort to find out much about them, though.

Then, this past fall, I watched the documentary Side by Side, in which Christopher Nolan and his long-time cinematographer Wally Pfister discussed their preference for film over digital, and how they preferred to do as many of their effects in camera, rather than in post-production, and I began to think back to Inception. When I recently saw the Blu-ray for sale on Amazon for under $10, I figured, why not get it? That’s a good impulse-buy price for a disc with loads of extra features on it.

Of those special goodies, the one that has most sold me on not only this particular disc, but also on the potential awesomeness of the Blu-ray experience is “Extraction Mode:” a movie that plays within the feature (a dream within a dream?). With the juxtaposition of documentary and feature, we are offered glimpses into the construction of scenes right after (or before) we see them. Every time a scene with a lot of visual or special effects is about to start, the feature pauses and rolls over to the documentary, which explains the how-to of what you will soon see. Then the feature begins again, where it left off. [For a great explanation of what visual effects are vs. what special effects are, click here.]

The original movie, itself, is 148 minutes long. In “Extraction Mode,” it’s 190 minutes. If you’re not in the mood to devote that much time to Inception, you can just jump to the scenes about which you have questions. But for those of you willing to spend the 3+ hours, this is a terrific way to re-connect with the film. I wouldn’t want to watch it this way on a first viewing, but “Extraction Mode” definitely enriched my return adventure to the world of Nolan’s vivid imagination. For all I know, this might have happened to me anyway on a second viewing, even without this feature, but I have now begun to change my opinion of the film from, “Hey, that was pretty cool, but so what?,” to thinking it’s one of the most complex and well-constructed science fiction films of the past 20 years. Or maybe that idea was just implanted in my mind while I watched the film within a film, and I’m still within that film, as in a half-remembered dream . . .

Here are some of the things I discovered:

  • It’s remarkable how much Christopher Nola re-made Leonardo DiCaprio in his own image. Cobb’s hair and the suit are vintage Nolan. I would have missed this if we hadn’t been cutting back and forth from DiCaprio to Nolan.
  • As repeated time and time again by Nolan, Wally Pfister, Special Effects Supervisor Chris Corbould and Visual Effects Supervisor Paul Franklin, the mantra was to do as much as possible in camera so that the effects enhance what is already in the frame. That means that explosions happen with the actors in frame, and water actually falls on them. I understand now why everything feels so real and tactile!
  • The freight train (built around a truck so it could actually run in the street) is a great example of the need to do things in camera.
  • The tilting hotel bar had to be real (see above), so they built it as a giant see-saw that could go back and forth at 20/25 degree angles. They had to test the extras so they could behave normally in that environment and not get seasick.
  • For the hotel corridor scenes, Chris Corbould (the Special Effects Supervisor), designed and built a 100-ft horizontal rotating corridor. The engineering had to be precise, and the device was enormous. And this was all done so that the actors would actually be in that environment, and it would look and feel like it was happening. As actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt says, “There’s no substitute for real human energy in performance.”
  • I was gratified to hear that Nolan was thinking about 1970s Roger Moore-era Bond films when he designed the snow fortress sequence. He wanted (of course) real ski stunts. They even made real avalanches happen. None of this changes the fact that this is the least interesting set for me, but since my first thought when I saw the film was, “Ugh, Roger Moore Bond,” I laughed when I heard him describe his thought process.
  • For the “zero-g” corridor sequence, they built a set that was identical to the horizontal corridor, only vertical. Again – simply incredible!
  • The description of how they designed and built “Limbo City,” combining digital effects and actual streets and sets, is fascinating. Nolan says that the “line between visual effects and practical photography was as blurred as we could make it.”
  • As a result, when there is almost pure CGI (computer generated imagery), such as in the scene where  Cobb confronts Mal, and Ariadne jumps out of the window, it ends up looking very fake by comparison.
  • At the end, it really is even more striking how much DiCaprio really really really looks like Nolan in the scene with the very old Saito.
  • One of the final bits in the documentary features composer Hans Zimmer talking about the music. He initially generated electronic sounds, and then asked the orchestra to imitate. That’s a nice reversal of the way that synthesizers have long mimicked orchestras.

For those of you who have not seen the film, it centers around a man, Cobb (DiCaprio), who is a specialist in entering the dreams of others to “extract” information. It’s a form of very advanced corporate espionage. He works with a team that includes Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy) and Ariadne (Ellen Page), among others. They are hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe) to implant an idea (which they call “inception,” the opposite of “extraction”) in the mind of a corporate rival of his, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy). In order to accomplish this, they must create dreams within dreams within dreams. Each layered dream presents new challenges and dangers, including the increasingly menacing apparition of Cobb’s dead ex-wife Mal (Marion Cotilard), who lives on in Cobb’s subconscious. If you think about the plot too much, the explanations of what is happening can sound like psycho-babble, but it somehow captures the imagination through its visual brilliance.

Once you watch it the first time, get ready to then get the Blu-ray and watch it in “Extraction Mode.” If all Blu-rays were like this, I’d be buying them all the time!

Get Pitch Slapped: Why “Pitch Perfect” Is Fun but Also Annoying and Dumb

Pitch Perfect_01

Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore, 2012)

There’s not a whole lot to say about this film. It follows the story of Beca (Anna Kendrick), a disaffected first-year college student whose divorced father – a professor at Barden University, the school she attends – has strong-armed her into an attempt at “legitimate” study, rather than allowing her to follow her dreams and move to Los Angeles to produce music. In an effort to convince Dad that she can fit in, Beca joins a disgraced female a cappella group on campus, the Barden Bellas, and through pluck, perseverance and the brilliance of her musical arrangements, leads them to the national singing championships. Along the way, she finds love, loses love, makes friends, loses friends, fights with Dad, makes up with Dad, and eventually becomes a whole person – disaffected no more! – in a gloriously happy ending. If you’re looking for mindless formulaic feel-good entertainment, this will satisfy.

The acting and singing are pretty solid, with Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Rebel Wilson, Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee, and Skylar Astin all relatively appealing in their respective roles (though Dean and Lee are used in questionably stereotyped ways as an African-American butch lesbian and a quiet and reserved Asian). Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins are also great fun as a pair of snooty a cappella judges. People who enjoy the TV shows Glee and The Sing-Off will find much to love in Pitch Perfect‘s set pieces.

One of the things that has always bothered me about Glee, however, is the way in which the rehearsal process and hard work behind performance is compressed or not even shown. People – even good singers and dancers – are rarely able  to spontaneously sing and dance in perfect harmony with others, and in beautifully composed arrangements, without significant practice. True, musical shows and films have always taken liberties with the labor behind the magic, and if we like the music we rarely complain. But Glee is partly about the process of creation, itself, and so its ellipses annoy me more.

Compared to Pitch Perfect, however, Glee is a marvel of detailed performance logistics. So be forewarned. Leave behind your desire to watch a believable story and embrace the madness, and you may just have a good time.

One thing that I really liked a lot about the film was its marketing campaign. And not the poster, above, but these little teaser banners, below. Enjoy!

Pitch Perfect_05 Pitch Perfect_04Pitch Perfect_03 Pitch Perfect_02

“Django,” the Original, Is No Leone, but Still Good Fun

Django

Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966)

I just watched this last night, to try and see  what insights I could gain into Tarantino’s Django Unchained before my Oscar show on the radio today.

I’m not sure I gained a whole lot, but it was fun to watch. Until now, I had only seen Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns, such as the “Man with No Name” series, etc. It turns out that being a master visual stylist, like Leone, is a key factor in making the ridiculousness of these movies work. Corbucci has none of Leone’s visual flair, yet the film is not without its charms.

It is also extremely violent, which makes Tarantino’s film feel more like an homage than I had thought it would be. And it deals with the issue of racism that also helps to explain why Tarantino chose it as a template (that, and he just likes to mash things up). The scenes of actors in red hoods are a clear inspiration for the KKK scenes in Django Unchained.

Django centers on a mysterious gunslinger (Django) – in a Northern Union uniform – who drifts into a barren town after killing off a group of white Southern Confederates. They had bern about to kill a prostitute who had befouled herself by sleeping with Mexicans, whom they had just killed before Django arrives. Once in town, with prostitute in tow, Django sets about killing the racists, and then ends up being betrayed by the Mexicans, who destroy his hands. No one is good. Everyone is soiled. Even Django, who in the name of gold does some not-so-nice things.

Franco Nero as Django is a nice discovery, with the charisma of Clint Eastwood and some very blue eyes, and Loredana Nusciak as Maria (the prostitute) makes for a lovely companion. There is other fine work from the supporting cast, though many of the “whites” look almost as dark as the “Mexicans,” which leads to some confusion.

I would not put this in a class with the great Westerns of the 20th Century, but it’s good fun.

Red Carpet Radio: Dan, Linda and Chris Debate the 2013 Oscars

Hey, Fellow Film Fans!

Curious to know what your favorite film critics have to say about this year’s crop of Oscar hopefuls, before the ceremony, itself? Join Dan Rodricks, host of Midday with Dan Rodricks, Linda DeLibero, Associate Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and me, this Friday, February 22, at 1pm, as we discuss the nominees on WYPR, 88.1FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station.*

I already blogged my initial reactions to the nominations, on January 10, right after they were announced, but since then I have seen a few more of the films, and have broadened my opinions of the ones I had already seen. Below, therefore, is a list of the nominees, with the ones I would be OK seeing win highlighted in yellow. I may have my specific preferences for the winners (and tune in Friday to hear those), but these are the films, performances, and craft achievements that I think are worthy enough to merit serious attention.

Reed Oscar Preferences 2013_01

Reed Oscar Preferences 2013_02

Reed Oscar Preferences 2013_03

Reed Oscar Preferences 2013_04

I still have yet to see two of the foreign films – Kon-Tiki and No – one of the documentaries – The Gatekeepers – and any of the short documentaries, so it’s not a complete list. Otherwise, I have managed to see everything. Go me!

Which films, actors, craftspeople are your favorites to win?

*NOTE: Missed the show? Have no fear. Here it is: Midday with Dan Rodricks: 2013.02.22_Academy Awards

Special Sneak Preview of “Book-Smithed”

BOOK-SMITHED

Today, at the annual Smith College Club of Baltimore luncheon, I presented a sneak preview of my documentary, Book-Smithed, about the annual book sale run by this organization. It was a lovely event, and I was grateful for the very positive feedback I received.

I am even more grateful at the wonderful opportunity I was given to work with these amazing women over the past year. They do good work. I am especially grateful to Mary Anderson, the current President of the Smith College Club of Baltimore, without whose participation and involvement this film would not have been possible.

The film would also have been impossible to complete without the invaluable assistance, on camera, of two Stevenson University alumnae: Robin Farrell and Michelle Rossignol. I thank them both from the bottom of my heart.

Here is information on the book sale, and Smith College:

The Smith College Book Sale was started in 1959 by the Smith College Club of Baltimore to raise money for young women who could not otherwise afford to attend Smith. From then until now, the annual sale has raised enough money for a million dollar endowment, which pays for scholarships for two to three Maryland area women a year. This is the story of the women of the sale who work to help other women succeed.

Smith College was founded in 1871 as an academically rigorous single-sex women’s college for young women who would have been qualified to attend the nation’s top universities had those schools admitted anyone but men. Since then, Smith has continued helping young women achieve success.

My film is 20 minutes long, and profiles the history of the sale and the women behind it. While I am not making the actual film available yet – except at events like today’s sneak preview – since I first want to run the film festival circuit, you are nevertheless welcome to watch the trailer.

Tell me what you think, and if you know of any specific film festivals which might be especially interested in screening the film, please let me know!

A Good Way to Sigh, Hard: Why the Latest “Die Hard” is the Worst of the Bunch

Good Day to Die Hard

A Good Day to Die Hard (John Moore, 2013)

My simple verdict? This is a god-awful mess, not even worth the time and effort I am about to expend reviewing it.

I loved, and still love, the first Die Hard film. As a teenager, I had grown up as a huge Bruce Willis fan, thanks to the 1980s TV show “Moonlighting.” His cockiness and humor – trademarks of David Addison (the character he played on “Moonlighting“) – made the extreme violence of Die Hard palatable, providing just enough ironic distance to keep us from being too horrified by the excessive body count. The excellent supporting cast (William Atherton, Bonnie Bedelia, Paul Gleason, Alexander Godunov, Alan Rickman, James Shigeta, and Reginald VelJohnson) helped to populate the movie with characters either sympathetic, funny, interestingly creepy, or some combination of two or three of those traits.

That said, it was hardly a masterpiece, but it knew what it was and delivered it with panache. If you forget the plot, you can watch this 30-second reduction and remember all of the good times.

Almost all successful films spawn franchises, and so, two years later, we were given a sequel (from a new director – Renny Harlin), Die Hard 2 (“Die Harder“). This film did not impress as much, and perhaps a better subtitle would have been “Try Harder,” since the plot felt forced and uninspired. Still, compared to the newest Die Hard movie, it rocked.

And then came the third entry, 5 years later, Die Hard: With a Vengeance (made this time by a returning John McTiernan) which managed – in my humble opinion – to bring back some of the freshness and energy of the first film. This was due in large measure to the addition of two fine supporting players: Samuel L. Jackson as an unwilling partner in hijinks, and Jeremy Irons as a very willing bad guy. Again, it was no masterpiece, but it delivered its thrills with cleverness and wit.

And that seemed to be it. Three films in a franchise is pretty respectable, no?

But then, in 2007, Twentieth Century Fox decided it would be a great idea to bring back John McClane – this time with a grown daughter! – for one more go, in Live Free or Die Hard. I can’t remember much about the film, as it was pretty terrible (and no longer directed by McTiernan). It was fun to see the director Kevin Smith in a supporting bit as a tech wizard geek, through, and Justin Long – the Mac guy in those Mac/PC TV commercials – did alright in his own part. But Mary Elizabeth Winstead – so good in Sky High – very nearly ruined the movie for me, and Timothy Oliphant – so good in “Deadwood” – was miscast as the villain.

And now, in 2013 – since the fourth film made a profit – we are graced with #5. Lucky us.

I’ve written too much already, but here are just some of the things that I hated about the film:

  • It has an incredibly ugly palette. I was convinced that it was a badly shot digital film, since so much looks pixellated, but no, it was shot on 35mm (I looked up the tech specs). It reminded me of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in terms of how noxious the image was. It’s hard for me to comprehend how a major studio release could look so horrible.
  • The acting of the supporting players – even from Sebastian Koch, terrific in both The Lives of Others (a great film) and Black Book (not a good film) – was almost uniformly unwatchable. It was as if they were being urged by the director to sneer, snarl and convey each and every feeling through a surge of animated facial tics. The worst was Jai Courtney, as McClane’s son (yes, we now get to meet child #2!), who so unimpressed me in Jack Reacher. When he’s sad, he pouts. When he’s angry, he grimaces. Nice.
  • The destruction of bystanders and locations is unconscionable – worse than in the previous Die Hard films – and makes it extremely hard to root for anybody.
  • In the middle of that wanton mayhem is one extremely confusing car chase, where the close-ups inside the vehicles in no way match up to any of the exterior wide shots. I know there is value in confusing the viewer in the service of amped-up adrenaline, but not to the absolute detriment of comprehension.
  • Where the @#$%^&* are the Moscow police? Yes, it’s a crazy city, but they’re not THAT incompetent.
  • Why don’t McClane and son need radiation suits in Chernobyl if everyone else is wearing them?
  • The ending slo-mo helicopter stuff was laughable.
  • Finally, anyone who speaks Russian will be distracted by the fact that only some of the actors (such as Sergei Kolesnikov, as Chagarin, and Yulia Snigir, as Irina) are actually Russian, whereas others (like Sebastian Koch) might be foreign, but can’t speak Russian any better than your average Joe (as in “the plumber,” and not Stalin).

One fascinating thing for me was to see how much Moscow has changed since my last visit in 1998. It seems to have so many modern skyscrapers now. Not that that’s good . . .

So what is the movie about? Who cares? Oh, OK, here’s my summary: John McClane goes to Moscow to try and rescue his estranged son, whom he believes is a ne’er-do-well arrested for the assassination (or attempted assassination – it was hard to follow) of a politician (or a gangster?). But guess what? He’s really a good guy! It’s all a misunderstanding! And as their bodies are consumed by fire and radiation in the middle of the devastated plains of the abandoned Ukrainian city of Chernobyl, father and son embrace and reconcile. Except that they are not burned (I was lying), don’t really embrace, and – *plot spoiler* – make it home safe and sound to the actual embrace of Mary Elizabeth Winstead (no better here than she was in Live Free or Die Hard).

You have been warned.

[NOTE: This article has been corrected from an earlier version in which I mistakenly listed John McTiernan as the director of “Die Hard 2” – thanks to my friend Derek Abbott for catching the error.]

Searching for 5 Broken Plagues: 3 Superb Documentaries That Showcase the Value of Archival Footage

It is, truly, an embarrassment of riches this year, as far as the Best Documentary Oscar Nominees go. To recap, they are:

Unfortunately, unless my local arthouse cinema plays The Gatekeepers before the Academy Awards ceremony on February 24, I will have missed that one. But the other four are all quite remarkable in their own unique ways. I have my preferences for the one that should win, but those change depending on my mood. So hard to decide when they’re all so strong. In December, I reviewed The Invisible War.

Let’s start these reviews with my current favorite, which I just finished watching this week.

Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012)

Was it a huntsman or a player
That made you pay the cost
That now assumes relaxed positions
And prostitutes your loss?
Were you tortured by your own thirst
In those pleasures that you seek
That made you Tom the curious
That makes you James the weak?

And you claim you got something going
Something you call unique
But I’ve seen your self-pity showing
As the tears rolled down your cheeks

Soon you know I’ll leave you
And I’ll never look behind
‘Cos I was born for the purpose
That crucifies your mind
So con, convince your mirror
As you’ve always done before
Giving substance to shadows
Giving substance ever more

And you assume you got something to offer
Secrets shiny and new
But how much of you is repetition
That you didn’t whisper to him too

– “Crucify Your Mind” (1970), lyrics by Sixto Rodriguez

The poetic words, above, are from just one of the many terrific songs that I discovered while watching this surprising film. I am all about Sixto Rodriguez and his music these days.

Searching for Sugar Man tells the heretofore unknown story of Detroit native Sixto Rodriguez, born in 1942 of working class Mexican immigrant parents (and the sixth child, hence his name). In the late 1960s, Rodriguez – who, to me, sounds like a combination of Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Jim Croce, with a little bit of Paul Simon thrown in – was discovered by local music producers, and thereafter released two albums: Cold Fact and Coming from Reality. Unfortunately, neither album achieved anything even remotely resembling commercial success in this country (in other words, they bombed), and so his label dropped him, in spite of the high hopes of the men who had promoted him. And so Rodriguez faded from view, not even a has-been, since he’d never arrived.

Except that, somehow, his music made it to South Africa where he became an enormous success, on par with the Beatles, and something of an underground symbol for the white youth anti-Apartheid movement. But he never knew about it, and no one there knew anything about him, though rumors were many.

Such is the departure point for the film, and I will not write any more about it, as the pleasure is in the experience of watching it for yourself. As the title of this blog post indicates, it could never have been made without the use of an extensive library of archival footage, and it is this footage which lends the film its power.

I will admit that I was bored at first, and did not take to Rodriguez’s songs right away.  But slowly, the music and the story grew on me, and after 30 minutes I was absolutely riveted.

Manohla Dargis wrote an interesting review of the film in The New York Times, and in it she points out an additional strangeness to the story, which is the question of how a dark-skinned man of Mexican heritage became such a figure of worship for WHITE South Africans. The only visible African face in the film is that of a female newscaster. I agree with her that I kind of wish the filmmaker had explored that thread, but the fact that he didn’t does not detract from my high opinion of the story.

This is the most directly moving and affecting of the 3 other Oscar nominees I have seen, perhaps because the story was so unexpected. It’s also the least epic in its scale. If the Academy decides to go the feel-good winner, then this film will win.

Five Broken Cameras

5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi)

Until I had seen Searching for Sugar Man, it was 5 Broken Cameras that I was rooting for to win. I actually think it is the film that WILL win, since it’s topic is of greater worldwide epic significance than Sugar Man. What we get here is five years of the travails of the inhabitants of the Palestinian village of Bil’in, as seen through the home video footage of Emad Burnat. The title comes from the fact that, one at a time, each of the video cameras he was using gets broken in various ways (including gunfire). In 2009, Burnat was approached by the Jewish Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi, who shaped the finished film from the hundreds of hours of tape, and wrote the voiceover that Burnat reads over the course of the film.

Burnat, a simple farmer, begins his filmmaking odyssey at the birth of his youngest son, as a new Israeli settlement is begun across the valley from his home village. The film therefore chronicles the growth of this child in parallel to the growth of the settlement and its encroachment on his village’s land. Given the events that he records, it is impressive how even-handed the narration ends up being (Davidi is a smart man), since the film is much more of an indictment of impersonal army tactics than of Jews or Israelis. It helps that, beyond Davidi, there are Jewish activists on the side of the Bil’in residents who feel the same outrage that they do. It is anti-authoritarian and anti-oppressor. It is also very sad, since we see governmental forces acting with impunity and apparently suffering no consequences for their actions. And we see young children destined to grow up and hate their oppressors. The cycle of violence continues.

And yet – the very fact of the collaboration between Davidi and Burnat provides hope for the future. Whether or not the film wins an Oscar, it is a must-see.

How to Survive a Plague

How to Survive a Plague (David France, 2012)

Finally, there is this film, which tells the tale of how a group of determined (mostly gay, but not exclusively) activists succeeded in discovering a workable set of medications and medical procedures to combat the AIDS epidemic. It chronicles the birth of Act Up and other groups that tried to channel the fear and outrage provoked by the rise of HIV, and the lack of governmental action to combat it, into something positive. Hats off to these courageous men and women – many of whom died – as their actions saved the lives of millions.

How to Survive a Plague, like Searching for Sugar Man and 5 Broken Cameras, is told almost entirely through archival footage. It’s amazing that all of this old video from the 1980s and 1990s exists – what a triumph of preservation! It’s also interesting for filmmakers like me to watch the quality of the footage improve over time, as we get closer to the present.

The non-archival footage consists of present-day talking heads. And since we see many of the people in the film die, I liked the device of holding off revealing who had survived (which we know when we see their talking head), as it created an additional layer of drama to the already compelling narrative of the terrible AIDS epidemic.

This is also a must-see, even if the story is better known than that of the other two films in this blog entry.

Again, so hard to choose. For now, my heart is with Searching for Sugar Man. But I would be happy with any of the nominees (that I’ve seen). As would Peter Knegt of Indiewire, as witnessed by the final line in his prediction blog.

If you’ve watched any of the documentaries, let me know your thoughts.