So over the last week and a half I have been watching some great films suggested to me by my good friends, the only criteria being that I could not have seen them before. It’s been a wonderfully cinematic week and I hope you enjoy my “mini-reviews” presented here in the order in which I watched them. Apologies to Bryn and Lindsey as I could not get a hold of copies of their suggestions. Anyways, this is my journey.
‘Beyond the pride. Beyond the rivalry. Beyond the tradition.’
1. Stomp The Yard (2007)
Director: Sylvain White
There is hardly a conversation I have with my good friend Steve that is not peppered with quotes and references from his favourite film Stomp The Yard. I’m glad to see this movie if for no other reason than that I can now keep up with him in conversation. The movie is about a young battler named DJ who, after his brother’s death leaves his old life behind and attends Truth University, a school where rival fraternities “step” against each other to prove their worth. In the grand tradition of Step Up and Step Up 2: Tha Streets, STY centers around SERIOUS dance battles between SERIOUS people with SERIOUS consequences. I’d venture a guess Stomp The Yard takes itself the most seriously as the first battle in the movie results inexplicably in a shooting death. The actual plot is pure formula, delivered with laziness and disinterest from the director and actors. The dancing is fun and ridiculous and that is absolutely and finally ALL that is salvaged from this wretched 109 minutes. Not actually Steve’s favourite movie.
“Oh, Mrs. Dalloway… Always giving parties to cover the silence.”
2. The Hours (2002)
Director: Stephen Daldry
This is arguably the best cast I have ever seen. It’s become a bit of a cop out to say Meryl Streep is the best actress working today, but after watching something like The Hours it’s getting harder and harder to refute that claim. Giving equally tragic and brilliant performances are Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore each playing desperately unhappy women (all in different time periods) whose lives are affected in one way or another by Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. This is one of those rare movies that affected me deeply without ever letting me know exactly what was happening. Perhaps it would be too easy for the viewer to distance themselves from these women if we knew the precise origin of their suffering. Instead we are faced with these women years into their conflicts and the different ways they deal with them and how their stories contrast and even interact with one another. The film offers some subtle perspective on the meaning of freedom as each woman has a varying degree of personal freedom, but are in each trapped in their own unique way. Although this is a hard film to dissect, it is not all deep abstraction. Close to the end the film offers more answers than one might expect from a story so complex. Also to be noted are a subtle cinematography utilizing natural light frequently to illuminate the troubled facades of it’s heroines and a haunting, beautiful score by Phillip Glass that flows evenly through the movie interweaving seamlessly with the motifs of water that are evoked. This is a big, sad, complex film and it’s worth every second.
‘A tale of love. A story of horror.’
3. El Orfunato (The Orphanage) (2007)
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
I don’t watch a lot of horror films, and sometimes I make the mistake of making generalizations about them. In most of the horror films I have watched the story and the characters are merely the set up for a few scary moments and creepy set pieces. Not here. Here Bayona (and writer Sergio G. Sanchez) weave an intricate and expertly structured narrative that achieves a genuine terror that only a meaningful story can accomplish. The success here is that the filmmakers give the care and attention to the characters to make us care, which in turn makes every scare that much more affecting. Generally this is the failing of most commercial horror films. Why should we care if the vacuous cheerleader lives or dies? I certainly don’t. The influence of Producer Guillermo Del Toro is palpable here. You will find a similar mood and depth of feeling to that of his masterful Pan’s Labyrinth and this film carries a similar reverence for the imagination of a child. I loved that the paranormal is not portrayed as strictly malevolent, but like an unpredictable character who slowly reveals what it wants. The story proceeds carefully with a slowly building menace but is punctuated startlingly with some horrifying and bizarre events. The only complaint is that of the predictability of one small part of the plot where you will be whispering impatiently to the screen “come on! I figured it out, why can’t you?!” But on the other hand any film that can make me yearn so much for the characters to get what they want deserves high praise. A masterpiece of modern horror!
‘Meet the boys who are making history!’
4. The History Boys (2006)
Director: Nicholas Hytner
It’s hard not to be sentimental about our best teachers, and it’s hard not to like a movie about how our best teachers influence our lives. The History Boys is about a rag-tag bunch of grammar school boys who are inspired and challenged in different ways by the audaciously romantic Mr. Hector (Richard Griffiths) and the pragmatic Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore). The movie has a slow start due to it’s slavish adherence to exposition, which is fun, but not terribly relevant. Also, the film is bogged down a bit with the sheer amount of poetry that is spoken. I think of myself as a smart guy, but it’s tough to keep up with all the prose. It’s only when the new teacher is introduced does this movie begin to hit it’s stride. Mr. Hector teaches the boys to present truth and beauty in their studies and Mr. Irwin tries to persuade them that truth is irrelevant in academia and they should be looking for interesting perspectives, even ones that may wrong. The scene where they all discuss the holocaust was probably the highlight of the film for me. The careful examination of the boys relationships to the teachers and the teachers to themselves kept me interested in the film. This movie also boasts to be about the pains of growing up, but the youthful rebels seemed to be copy-and-pasted from any number of other movies. The film wraps up very much as you would expect it to, but it happily has earned its catharsis by that point. Not a groundbreaking coming-of-age story, but a very good love letter to the people who shaped us, flawed as they may be.
“Catastrophe equals opportunity.”
5. King Of California (2007)
Director: Mike Cahill
King Of California is about a sixteen year-old girl named Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) who is looking after her father Charlie (Michael Douglas), a man with bipolar disorder who believes there is Conquistador treasure buried somewhere in the suburban wasteland in which they live. This is another movie that is familiar and very predictable, but that is not to say it isn’t heartfelt. Although lacking in some key ways both characters and their relationship to one another is very solid and convincing thanks to very good performances from Wood and Douglas. The concept of the film is neat and the filmmakers don’t do enough with it. They hit the emotional keys strings just right, but I couldn’t help but notice such a vast potential for comedy in a movie with two or three laughs at best. I also found the inclusion of McDonald’s to be indecisive. The story places Miranda there as an employee, but nothing of any interest happens in those scenes and peculiarly the story doesn’t seem to feel one way or another about her working there. Also, the writing is a bit weak, particularly when you have to have the main character narrate over every scene in the movie. It didn’t work. I don’t want to get down on this film, it’s good. It is a solid father-daughter adventure that I had fun with. But like the treasure, there is a better movie buried beneath what we see.
“It’s like that book I read in the 9th grade that said ’tis a far far better thing doing stuff for other people.'”
6. Clueless (1995)
Director: Amy Heckerling
What a great movie! I probably had the most fun with this film of all the festival submissions. The story (and there hardly is one) follows Cher (Alicia Silverstone. Remember her? Batgirl?), a rich valley girl trying to find a boyfriend and do right by her friends amid the craziness of a California high school. The character Silverstone plays here is the stereotypical valley girl, but never have I seen this archetype portrayed better than here. What separates this film from others like it is Cher’s genuine eagerness in trying to do good and the shape her good intentions take after going through the materialistic crazy straw that is her brain. Also…Paul Rudd! His breakout role! As if I didn’t know! He is also great here and the tenuous relationship between he and Cher (and the fact that the audience knows way before they do) brings the movie down to earth. Most of the characters here are indeed Clueless, but the film itself is smart and self-aware. An endlessly quote-able teen classic. Belongs among Ten Things I Hate About You and Can’t Hardly Wait!
“Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone.”
7. Oldboy (2003)
Director: Chan-wook Park
Woah. Shit just got serious. This is a film I having being nagged to see since it came out and I do indeed feel dumber for having waited so long to see such an amazing film. Oldboy follows Dae-Su Oh as he is abducted and imprisoned in a tacky, windowless hotel room for fifteen years, seemingly for no reason. He is educated by bad television and practices martial arts for the day he may escape. Then one day he is released mysteriously and told he has one week to find out who imprisoned him and for what reason. This movie is kind of a “hyper-noir”. It starts with a ridiculously far-fetched premise but adds in all the little noir details that make it an insatiable mystery. There are clues, action, seedy underbellies and a villain truly deserving of praise. Joss Whedon said that a great villain has perspective and that “they are at least partially right.”. Park delivers such a villain. It was also a wonder to me how random the movie seems at first, but how slowly, as the truth emerges, everything before seems perfectly calculated. I can’t say much more without giving it away, but this film has maybe the best “twist” I have ever seen. This is a dark, disturbing, violent and absurdly funny film that should not be missed by anyone. Oh yeah. And he EATS A LIVE OCTOPUS.
“Nothing is simple. I’m a ballet mistress, and nothing is simple.”
8. Hable con ella (Talk To Her) (2002)
Director: Pedro Almodovar
I have heard so much about the famed Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar I was more than happy to pick this film. And what a film! Talk To Her bears all the markings of the work of a real artist. The story accompanies Benigno (Javier Camara) and Marco (Mario Grandinetti), two men who, by very different circumstances have found themselves looking after the comatose women they love and the strange friendship between the two. Almodovar shows a rare intimacy in the beautiful and increasingly unsettling scenes where Benigno looks after Alicia, the director’s camera not afraid to stay in one place for a while or show Alicia’s breasts as she is routinely bathed. This ease with the subject matter easily endeared me to Benigno before finding out more about him. In that regard too I am impressed by Almodovar. Never does the film cast judgement on any of the characters, it instead loves them for everything they are. This is a brilliant and utterly heartbreaking film about the strange, beautiful and even ugly forms love can take in the absence of reciprocity. Will leave you with many questions.
“I feel the need to express something, but I don’t know what it is I want to express. Or how to express it.”
9. Interiors (1978)
Director: Woody Allen
This one’s a bit of a cheat since I’m already an unabashed fan of Woody Allen, although I’d never seen Interiors. Allen is known primarily for his comedies and this was his very first drama. It is about three women in a family who find themselves fundamentally unsatisfied with their lives for various reasons after a sudden divorce. The film contains everything you would normally expect in a Woody Allen film: jealousy, artistic insecurity, fear of death, intellectuality, infidelity and narcissism. With Interiors though, he has chosen a palette that consists of cold, sterile drawing rooms as opposed to the witty, urban New York we are used to. This is engaging, but suffocating at first. I kept thinking that he could convey the same ideas with a bit of humour. Thankfully in the second act Maureen Stapleton steps in as a character one sister refers to as a “vulgarian”. She doesn’t exactly add humour to the film, but just a sense of levity that allows the characters someone to contrast to and the film flows evenly from that point. An interesting facet of this film though is the subtle aggression between the women, each believing the illusion that their happiness is kept at bay by one of the other family members. This is well-crafted drama about troubled lives with no easy solutions. It will certainly leave you with more questions than answers, an admirable ambiguity in a drama that Allen’s latest work seems to have none of.
And so concludes the first Friend Film Festival! Thanks everyone for your great suggestions, I had a lot of fun doing this! I’d love to hear about whether you agree or disagree with my takes. Thanks again.