Sunday, June 29, 2008

Page --> Place --> Picture

This past month, I had a unique film experience like I've never had before. First, I read John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" - a big deal seeing as I don't read books nearly as often as I should. Like Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" (which I - surprise, surprise - have never read), the book begins as a travelogue but features enough colorful characters and events to warrant a great novel. It's highly engrossing nonfiction, depicting Savannah, Georgia and its lively inhabitants in a great ensemble drama. The book was the author's first, and spent 216 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list following its release.

Not long after finishing the book, I visited Savannah itself, and got to see first hand the setting of the story and the home and streets within and upon which the characters walked. It's one of the most beautiful towns I've ever seen, and having the connection to the story made it all the more splendid. Never before had I read a famous work, then visited the land in which it took place in such back-to-back fashion.

While I was in Savannah, I bought a copy of director Clint Eastwood's film version of Berendt's book. I'm always looking for an excuse to expand my DVD library, and it seemed like the logical next step. It was a change of pace for me - usually I'm visiting the places I've seen in the movies, not vice-versa. Whether it was the afterglow of Savannah's beauty, the affection for Berendt's words, or just a case of poor adaptation, I was underwhelmed by Eastwood's film. Too easy, too Hollywood, and not nearly as graceful as I would have expected from Mr. Eastwood or for the screen treatment of this work. People have long been telling me that the movie is never as good as the book. This is one time when I can wholeheartedly agree with them, and say also that the setting of both media trumps all.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (book): A
Savannah, Georgia: A+
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
(movie): C

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

And So It Begins...

The trailers for two major Fall contenders have recently hit the web, Spike Lee's epic Miracle at St. Anna and David Fincher's Zodiac follow-up The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. From here, both of them look as though they might garner at least a few big nominatons by year's end, and both of them have officiall been added to my "Must-See" list. Take a look:

Miracle at St. Anna:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button:

Monday, June 16, 2008

Funny Bunny?

HA! Is it a mortal sin that I think The House Bunny with Anna Faris actually looks like a pretty good knee-slapper?

If so, strike me down. It's my personal opinion that Faris is a budding comic genius, with more brains hidden beneath her giggles than all of the Girls Next Door combined. ....And I need a "yob" too!

Monday Madness

It's okay. We all go a little mad sometimes...

...right, Mr. Beale?

...or was that Mr. Bates?



All of my reviews can now be found in one place, the newly-formed sister site, YOUR MOVIE BUDDY: REVIEW VAULT. It will be updated weekly. Head over there now to get all the dish on The Happening, Kung Fu Panda, Sex and the City and more!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Mistress Asia

Asia Argento's exotic look is certainly what makes her so appealing to audiences, but the same attribute is also what has kept her on the sidelines in films like xXx (yikes) and Marie Antoinette. She's earned plenty of indie cred. with movies like Gus Van Sant's Last Days and the infamous JT LeRoy account The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, which she herself wrote and directed. Yet none of those titles have managed to give the rebellious beauty the kind of attention she seems to deserve.

This month, Asia stars in her father, the great Dario Argento's horror-thriller Mother of Tears, and coming soon, she'll play the sex-crazed lover of a libertine in the lush French period piece The Last Mistress. Given the early buzz, Mistress may finally earn the sexy starlet her much sought after spotlight. Here's the trailer:

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Roid Rage

Last night, I attended an advance screening of budding filmmaker Christopher Bell's much-buzzed about documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster at Philly's Ritz Five. The movie - which attempts to expose the cold, hard facts about steroid use in America - is very entertaining and comprehensive, but doesn't really bring about anything new regarding our country's performance enhancement drug problem.

Like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock before him, Bell narrates with a comic, relatable enthusiasm, and investigates his topic with great resolve. However, with their films, Moore and Spurlock did and do reveal hidden truths (being, perhaps the Columbine killings and the deadliness of fast food, respectively), as should all non fiction entertainment. Bell just sort of uses their formula to recycle what everyone already knows about steroids. He thrusts mass quantities of facts and figures at the audience, but none of it is all that staggering. Will the use of anabolic roids make your testicles shrink? Yes. Will females develop deeper voices? Check. Are most professional athletes doing it? Probably. Will it kill you? Probably not. This picture doesn't open your eyes, it just makes sure you haven't closed them. But it an age when war, fuel costs, and a groundbreaking election are making headlines, forgive me if I avert my gaze elsewhere.

Bell does succeed in gaining unprecedented access for his project, proving that there must have been some serious cash behind it. Nearly everyone the director makes an example of, everyone who has ever been involved in a high profile steroid case, is not only mentioned, but featured in the film. Olympic athletes, doctors, lawyers, politicians, fitness models, photographers, magazine editors who are pro-roids, psychiatrists, current users and family members of users all appear somewhere. Even Gov. Schwarzenegger (who, as a former user like himself, was the director's hero as a child) shows up in a captured photo-op. He's meant to be made out as the villain, a la Charlton Heston in Moore's Bowling for Columbine, but in actuality looks more like an accomplished man with a dark past than an ignorant bastard. Bell does not have a strong enough position on the topic, or direction with his movie, to inspire such strong emotional responses.

That's a surprising detail, given the fact that the subject matter of B,S,F hits close to home with the director. As mentioned, Bell himself is a former user, but his two bulky brothers are currently shooting up, and provide the human side of the story. One lifts 700 lbs. in a strong man competition, and the other has pipe dreams of making it big as a pro wrestler. This should make the movie ring true despite its obviousness, but Bell's ambivalence and the lack of severely devastating side effects keeps it from doing so. It becomes a well-produced personal account of a story that everyone's already heard.

If you like documentaries that tell you what you already know, but allow you to have a blast in the process, give B,S,F a look when it goes wider in theaters this Friday (look out for an appearance of the man with the world's biggest biceps - shocking!). If not, just check out the trailer:

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Planet B-Boy (again)

I've lost the link to where this review was originally published, so I'm re-posting it here. It's the review for what is surprisingly one of the better films I've seen in 2008, the breakdancing documentary Planet B-Boy.

Review: Planet B-Boy
5 stars
(out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

While an absurdist comedy like last year's Jamie Kennedy flop Kickin' it Old Skool may suggest that breakdancing died in the late '80's, director Benson Lee's rousing documentary Planet B-Boy confirms that the widely overlooked art form is alive and well. Spanning numerous countries around the world and presented in over six different languages, the film is like a UN conference with a turntable.

It opens with a history of the dance, along with the culture of hip-hop from which it was born. Going back as far as the late '60's, participants like original B-Boy (aka Beat Boy) Ken Swift recount the culture's formative years, and clear up its common misconceptions. According to Swift and co., hip-hop is very different from rap, composed of DJ's, MC's, graffiti artists, and of course, B-Boy's. It's revealed that the influences of breakdancing - the legitimacy of which is repeatedly stressed – included Kung Fu, gymnastics, and the unique moves of James Brown; and that the late '70's marked its official, widespread arrival. More than one guest makes mention of 1983's Flashdance, to which these guys flocked, not to see Jennifer Beals in off-the-shoulder sweats, but then-underground-legends like Swift and “Freeze” in curbside cameos. That movie's success ushered in what was a apparently a decade-long bout of breakdance exploitation, remedied in 1990 with the formation of a worldwide competition that would rightfully bring the head-spinning, windmill-ing form of expression back to its feet.

Battle of the Year (which appropriately, and perhaps unintentionally, bears the acronym B.O.Y.), an annual competition based out of Hanover, Germany, was that remedy, and it serves as a platform for the action of Lee's film. Founded by Germany's Thomas Hergenrother (who, as proof of the phenomenon's cultural diversity, is markedly white), the tournament attracts teams from over 18 countries each year. Lee introduces us to a handful of those teams during the strenuous months leading up to Battle of the Year '05, including '04 champions The Gamblerz from Korea, France's Phase-T, and USA's Knucklehead Zoo from Las Vegas. Clever transitions made up of moving maps and an animated subway let us follow these teams around the world, like an international monorail tagged with colorful graffiti. We learn not only the various dancing styles of these vastly different groups, but also the motivations of their members, back stories about family and friends, and the passion for the “sport” that unites them all. Lee obviously cannot show all of Battle of the Year's hopefuls, and like any non-fiction entertainment, individuals with the most charisma (like team Ichigeki's “Prince” of Japan) get the most play, but the representative sample gets a loud, clear point across.

A contagious energy spills out of the screen once these B-Boy's get moving. Whether it's the daring showmanship of Phase-T (which even has a young boy in their crew), the technical wizardry of The Gamblerz and Last for One (also from Korea), or the transcendent style of Ichigeki, one can't help but get caught up in the graceful insanity of these dancers. Their inspired, rhythmic movements succeed in showing what the founders were so intent on telling in the movie's earlier scenes: breakdancing is far from illegitimate. The finale in Germany unfolds the way most movies of this type usually do, be them documentary or narrative features. The teams we've come to know put all of their best efforts on the line, and square-off against one another in one last fight for the gold (which here, is primarily notoriety and future opportunities, as the miniscule prize money is distributed among the victors). But as someone observantly pointed out to me, one of the more impressive differences about Planet B-Boy is the lack of any and all coaching. These artist/athletes choreograph all of their own moves and shows, and invest their own time into it because they're doing what they love. Tie-breaking “battles” highlight the improvisational side of the competition, but the six-minute “performances” from each country truly showcase each crews' talents.

Planet B-Boy puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that breakdancing is a lot like fighting, although no opponent ever strikes another. The intensity is there, but the violence is not. This aspect remained with me long after the film ended. It opened up the possibility that Lee's work could not only educate and entertain, but perhaps inspire an urban youth to productively channel his or her energy into something artistic; something that has as much street cred. as gang violence, without any of the repercussions. If it achieves that inspiration (which it could), than it's not only a fine piece of entertainment, but a priceless one. Even if it didn't, it would still be one of this Spring's best movies.