Friday, March 27, 2009

Ann Arbor Film Festival 2009: The Animated Forest

Kate and I just got back from "The Animated Forest" -- the animated shorts in competition at the A2 film festival.  It was a lot of fun.  I'll just jot down a few thoughts, going from my favorite film on... down...

Chainsaw (Dennis Tupicoff 2007): I thought this was really excellent.  The narrative is cleverly put together, and the animation suits the subject matter quite well.  It's all rotoscoped, but the result is heavily stylized -- strong lines and flat patches of color.  There are a few clips of archive footage which are patched in, and I feel are completely unnecessary, but this is minor criticism.  What these folks have done really well is take from live footage they shot the things that they want -- movement, shadows, etc., left out the things they don't, and used it to shape their own vision.

Friluftsliv (Outdoor Life) (Håkan Wennström 2008): Admittedly, this suffers from Swedish Film Disorder.  I think that I saw 10 or 12 people leave at the end for the specific purpose of committing suicide.  On the other hand, the textures that the animator builds up are pretty amazing, and the philosophical voiceover is interesting enough to be forgiven. 

I Live In The Woods (Max Winston 2008): This is an interesting counterpoint to "Outdoor Life."  While it definitely falls into the "crude humor" genre of animation, the movement conveys real energy.  This was definitely the funniest film of the bunch.

Father (Sebastian Danta 2008): I liked the story, but I don't know that the animation added much. 

Retouches (Georges Schwizgebel 2008):  I'm getting a bit tired of Schwizgebel.  He does what he does very well, and very consistently.  Every year or two you can be sure that you'll get an 8-10 minute film concerto, light on narrative structure, but with a few clever transitions.  He's done that this year too.  I wish he'd try a bit harder to do something else.

Trepan Hole (Andy Cahill 2008): This was a bit awkward, since the director was sitting right behind us.  There were a few good moments, but I think there was a reach/grasp mismatch.  I'm sympathetic to this kind of mildly abstract animation, where the characters are bizarre clay tube things.  That's fine.  But I think those kind of characters pair naturally with a simpler narrative -- in 6 or 7 minutes, one doesn't have time to tell us what the clay tube things are like, why they do what they do, what happens to them when they're sucked into a giant clay anus, etc.  I suspect that the film makes sense to the director, but I can't say it made sense to me.

Kanizsa Hill (Evelyn Lee 2008): There were a few good still shots that would make great paintins, prints, or whatever.  I don't think that any of the animation was interesting.  And the voiceover was an unwelcome throwback to the pretentious bullshit of film festivals of yesteryear. 

The Heart Of Amos Klein (Michal & Uri Kranot 2008): Generic animation and a heavy-handed metaphor.  Goody!

Permutation (Viktoriya Gruzdyn & Katerina Friday 2008): The objects animated were pretty interesting here, but I'm not sure what, if anything, the director was trying to convey.

Battery Acid (Dean Denell & Daniel Olson 2008):  Nothing much to add here.

El Miedo (Fear) (Jimena Sarno & Ms. Bea 2008):  I last went to the A2 film festival in 2003.  I had the privilege of sitting through 1.5-2 hours of poorly assembled video "art", usually constructed around a pompous script being read in somebody's best "I AM MAKING A SERIOUS FOR THE ART" voice.  I came back this year because the rumor was that the festival was, well, good now.  Watching this film was like being in 2003.  I actively dislike it.

THE IDIOT STINKS (Helder K. Sun 2008): This film stinks.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Gladiator (2000)

K: I didn't see this film when it first came out (at the time, I was living in Grinnell, IA, which has one movie theater...sometimes) but the Michigan screened it as part of their great directors series. You all have probably already seen it (and I have to get back to work), so I will keep this brief.

1) It was really good to see it on the big screen. Unfortunately, I don't think that it would be nearly as powerful on a small screen.

2) Russel Crowe is really good. Maybe not oscar good...but I understand it was a slow year (once movie theater in 2000). He did very well with the really gung-ho, let-loose parts of the film, but I thought that he did a particularly good job with some of the more subtle scenes, where he is concealing thoughts, containing anger, or making transitions.

3) Given the genre, the director and cinematographer did some fairly innovative things--the battle scenes were especially good.

4) Unfortunately for me, the exact things that made the movie good also made it difficult to watch. It is a fairly intense experience, and left me fairly worn out.

5) This is embarrassing, but A lot. This is somewhat unusual for me, but I couldn't help it. It was moving. I was doing ok until the last time he walks through the field. I just lost it. Something about going home to those you love really hits me hard.

On the whole, it was definitely worth seeing. I would even say worth the Oscars it won. Certainly not on par with No Country for Old Men, but WAY better than Titanic.

Labels: , ,

Monday, February 25, 2008


I had intended to do some kind of wrap up at the end of the night last night, but it turns out that 2 straight hours of blogging does a number on your back--at least if you adopt the kind of vulture-on-carrion pose I use when typing while sitting on the floor. Ross termed it "discomblogulation". Yes indeed. This is the kind of humor I enjoy on a daily basis. Jealous? I thought so.

You may have noticed that the quality of my posts deteriorated significantly as the evening wore on. My overuse of the double dash became almost criminal. I freaking love the double dash. Since almost all of the films I wrote about were worth seeing, the lower than usual quality of these posts makes me somewhat sad. However, none of the posts were as bad as I thought they would be, and as the sticky note above my desk tells me every day--done is better than perfect! (there's that double dash again). Besides, there is something honest about an unedited blog post. Among other things, you get to see how piss-poor my writing has become after 4 years in graduate school.

And now the summery of the evening, broken into lazy, I-need-to-get-back-to-work bullet points:
--We didn't mention anything about the red carpet. This is because 1)Ross and I are not exactly the people you would turn to for thoughtful fashion commentary and 2) Regis Philbin is a train wreck. A very very orange train wreck. Maybe if we all agree to ignore him, he'll go away.
--Ross and I saw all of the animated short film nominees. Since most of America didn't join us, they will just have to take our word for it. Peter and the Wolf was a bizarre choice.
--Tilde Swinton clearly never thought that she would be up on stage. I have no idea what happened with best supporting actress. I didn't see most of the best actress films, so I can't really comment on that. But Cate Blanchett should have won.
--Once won for best original song. Good thing, because otherwise I would have turned off the tv.
--The rest of the awards went as expected (read: the right way).
--Overall, it was more entertaining than usual. John Stewart had some good material to work with, the montages were relevant and interesting (I even stopped typing to watch). I especially enjoyed the montages of previous best actor/actress and best picture awards.

Whew...back to work. Maybe Ross will take over the next couple of posts. He's always funnier than I am.


Live Blog...

R: OK, maybe there's some small stuff to think over. I'm kind of surprised that Andre Wajda didn't win for Katyn, if only because these are sometimes "lifetime achievement" awards, and I hear he's a good candidate for one of those. Also, it was nice that Marketa Irglova got to say her bit. An original sentiment, I know.


R: Well, why fool around with the small stuff. Here comes best picture... Well, that was well-deserved.


K: Daniel Day Lewis won best actor. No surprise there. His earrings are so crazy. Listening to him talk, his performance in There Will be Blood is all the more amazing.


K: Oh thank god. The song from Once won the best original song.


K: This song from Once is so lovely. I'll be so disappointed if it doesn't win.


K: Whoh. Marian Cotillard. Another woman who clearly didn't expect to win. I really wanted to see Ma Vie En Rose before--now I want to see it even more.


Best Actress is coming up. We're both bracing ourselves for disappointment.

Of course, as in most of the categories this year, there are really too many good options.


K: How exactly do they choose the best sound editing person anyway? And how is that different than sound mixing?


K: Ooo...another bad earing on the sound editing winner. It looks like some kind of fishing lure.


K: Well between the short animated films and best supporting actress, I'm pretty unhappy so far. At least John Stewart is pretty funny tonight.


R: Now I'm even more unhappy, because I think I figured out why Cate Blanchett didn't win supporting actress, and it must be because Ellen Page isn't going to win best actress. Fuckity fuck fuck.


K: Holy Crap. Even Tilde Swinton was surprised. She was clearly not expecting to win. And I'm not usually one to be snarky about clothing, but her dress is so weird. She is wearing a sack.

Tilde Sinton?! Really?!
Cate Blanchett was so good in I'm Not There. This is a crime.


R: Tilde Swinton? OK, clearly Hollwood read this, and decided to not give the awards where they were deserved this year. Either that, or there's been a big drop in the price of hard drugs.


K: Cate Blanchett is so freaking good. It's unfair. Her Dylan performance is legendary.


K: I can't believe that our THIRD choice animated film won.


R: Here's live animated short. Peter and the Wolf? Seriously? Whatever.


K: Oh wait. I forgot about Once. Why are we listening to all of this crap when Once could have easily been nominated three or four times? It was only nominated for one song, but if there is any justice in the world, it should win.


K: The songs are really bad this year. Were there only 5 songs TOTAL this year?


R: Wait a minute -- did Transformers not just win best Visual Effects? Seriously? They were beat by "the bear from 1999?"


R: Here comes best animated feature -- we're not particularly well qualified to comment on this, since we didn't see Ratatouille (which just won). We did see Persepolis, which was good, but not "has to win" good. Our full post on this will go up later tonight.


R: We're going to update this from the top, and "liveblog" the Oscars. Can you handle it? I can't.

We're still in the red carpet phase, and what have we noticed? Both Harrison Ford and Daniel Day Lewis have earrings. It's almost forgivable for Daniel Day Lewis, who seems generally silly. But for Harrison Ford, I have a heartfelt plea:

Harrison Ford, you are the living, breathing embodiment of masculinity. Lose the fucking earring.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Coen Brothers

The Coen Brothers have made so many good films. How can the same two people make Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, and No Country For Old Men? How can they make one film that depends so much on music (Oh Brother) and a few years later, one that depends so much on silence (No Country)? So good.

No Country for Old Men is the best film the Coen Brothers have made. Which, as you might guess by the above statements, is saying a lot. I can't do justice to it right now, so I'll just leave it this: they totally deserve both the best picture and the best director awards. I'm so stoked that it ALMOST makes up for the short animated film, best actress, and best supporting actress awards.

Labels: , , , ,

Heath Ledger

K: The retrospective of people who have died made me really sad--mostly because it reminded me of Heath Ledger's death. I feel kind of stupid for feeling sad. I mean--he is an actor. But still, it makes me sad. Maybe I would feel differently if he weren't such a fantastic actor...if he had died in a car accident, rather than killing himself. Nobody should have to feel like that is the better way to go. Cinema is poorer for his loss.


Michael Clayton (2007)

This is supposedly a movie about a morally ambiguous lawyer who gets caught up in a mess of lies and conspiracy. In reality, it is a movie about a morally un-ambiguous lawyer who gets caught up in a mess of lies and conspiracy.

It isn't that George Clooney is bad in this movie. It's just that there is no doubt that he will do the right thing in the end. George Clooney is clearly capable of portraying a nuanced character--he proved that in Oh Brother Where art Thou? I don't know why he fails to make his character in this film more three dimensional--he fails to be anything more than the stereotypical lawyer-turned-goodguy.

That said, it is a pretty good thriller. There is an extended wraparound flashback that encompasses most of the film. It succeeds where most such extended flashbacks fail, in that you are anything but bored when it overlaps. The pacing of the film is really excellent. And although the wrap up on the plot is fairly predictable, the VERY end is nicely extended.

As I mentioned earlier, Tom Wilkinson is fantastic in this film. He disappears into the character, and lends it the nuance that Clooney's character lacks.

Tilda Swinton won the best supporting actress, but she's basically a non-entity. I'm still bitter.

It is worth seeing as what it is--a decent thriller. It is not worthy of the fawning attention that the critics have heaped on it since it was nominated for all those Oscars.

Labels: , , ,

There Will Be Blood (2007)

This film is supposed to be based on Oil! (I'm putting this parenthetical in because frankly, I don't know how to deal with the punctuation problem in this title). However, I can't imagine Upton Sinclair writing something with such a morally ambiguous bad guy. So I think that the resemblance is probably faint. Anyway...

Ross will make some kind of lame argument about how he was distracted because of the similarity between the voice Daniel Day Lewis uses in this film and the voice that Will Ferrell uses in the Anchorman. However, I did not have that problem, so I will ignore that. Daniel Day Lewis is pretty awesome in this film. He maintains an incredible level of intensity throughout.

The writing in this film is, for the most part, very good. The tone is excellent. Visually, they really capture the dry, dusty West Texas desert (although the Cohen Brothers do the same thing better in Oh Brother). Paul Dano does such a fantastic job with the preacher that its hard to tell just how crazy his character is.

The problem with this movie is not anything it contains. Rather, it is what it doesn't contain...namely, about 15 years during which Daniel Day Lewis's character makes his big personal transition from father-trying-to-love-a-damaged-son, to father-stabbing-his-son-in-the-heart. Why, as a director, would you do that? Especially when you have an actor like Daniel Day Lewis who could probably pull off that kind of transition...oh...I don't know...ONSCREEN.

If I were feeling little more generous, I might be able to make an argument that it was intensional. Maybe the transition was unnecessary, because it was inevitable. When he took his son back, Day Lewis's character was going against his nature. Perhaps his failure to make that transition was so inevitable, that it didn't need to be shown. Perhaps. Or perhaps it was just lazy. Hard to tell.

Anyway, it is worth seeing because it is visually so striking, and Daniel Day Lewis is so great. Just ignore the ending (or walk out 15 minutes before) and you'll be fine.

Labels: , ,

Duck Season (Temporada de patos) (2004)

We saw this movie last night. It was really fantastic. It's one of those films that you can't really summarize without making it sound like an after school special. Two kids are left alone on a lazy Sunday afternoon. A neighbor comes over to bake a cake. The boys order a pizza and try to avoid paying the deliveryman by telling him that he took more than 30 minutes.

The characters unfold slowly and reluctantly over the course of the film. There is a surreal, dreamlike quality that inhabits lazy sunday afternoons when you are a kid--a quality that is sadly lacking in my sundays as an adult.

Visually, this film is really striking. I would be overjoyed to have any of the frames of this film as a photograph on my wall--the exterior shots are off-balance and industrial. Oh...words fail.

This is one that really has to be seen to be understood. You should see it.

Labels: , ,

Best Supporting Actor

So Javier Bardem totally deserves the best supporting actor win for No Country for Old Men. But as they were going over the nominees, I was struck by how INCREDIBLY good the nominees are this year. In almost everything. Among the supporting actor nominees, I was fond of Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton) in particular. And I've heard that Philip Seymour Hoffman and Casey Affleck were also amazing.

Anyway, Javier Bardem was unbelievable. The scene they played was easily the best--one that I'd almost forgotten about. But that is another post...

Labels: , , , , ,

Persepolis (2008)

Persepolis just lost for the best animated feature. I didn't see the film that won (Ratatouille) so I'll have to blog about Persepolis instead.

I'm a huge fan of Marjane Sarapi's books--both the Persepolis duo and her others. However, I was skeptical at how it would translate into an animated film. Despite often being clumped together under the same subculture, Animation and Comics are two extremely different media. Both benefit from a rich visual vocabulary. However, while the great strength of animation is the range of dynamic motion, the strength of comics is the stillness that invites the reader to add her own motion and sense of time.

You can probably see where this is going. Many of the best features of the book come through in the film--the story is just as engaging and the graphical style is just as dramatic. However, the best scenes in the film are those that are 100% still. Is isn't that the motion is bad (though Ross might disagree), it just doesn't stand out as a strength of the film. In contrast, the comic book uses the strengths of comics beautifully.

Still, you should see it. For that matter, you should read it as well. If for no other reason, it will expose you to how graphic novels can be used to enhance storytelling.

Labels: , , , ,

In Bruges (2008)

We saw this movie on Friday at the Michigan, and it was a real shocker. The preview (which we saw approximately 63 times at the Michigan) made it look like a rollicking good time full of wisecracking hit men and dwarves. And it is. But it is also good. Really really good.

The tone of the film is much darker than the previews indicate, but there is a strong thread of humor throughout. The humor often fails to interface with the story (it is surprisingly light-hearted, considering the darkness of the subject), but that disconnect lends a surreal dream-like quality to the whole thing.

All of the performances are fantastic. The characters are obviously well-written, and the performances are nuanced enough to bring out the texture. Collin Farrell is really really good in an extremely difficult role. His eyebrows might deserve a credit all their own. I thought that Brendon Gleeson's character was going to be a generic sidekick, but he is almost more central to the film than Farrell's. Ralph Fines is a surprisingly three dimensional villain.

The ambiguous ending has become such movie cannon that it is almost a cliche all its own. However, this movie stands out, because despite having an ambiguous ending--the movie still ends.

Overall, it was a fantastic film. The tone of the film benefits from the big screen, but it isn't manditory.

Labels: , , ,

Oscar Blog-o-fest, 2008: The predictions

K: Tonight is the Oscars, and we don't blog nearly enough. So in a two-birds-one-stone move, I'm planning to post as much as humanly possible during the Oscars. Let's see how many posts I can manage.

This year, we've seen many of the Oscar nominees, including all of the best picture nominees. We've seen Juno, Michael Clayton, There will be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Atonement (Ross only), Persepolis, Elizabeth the Golden Age, The Savages, and I'm not There.

My humble predictions:

Best Picture:
should win: No Country for Old Men--because it is simply awesome
might win instead: Atonement--never underestimate the power of a period film

Best Actor:
should win: Daniel Day Lewis (There Will be Blood)
will win: Daniel Day Lewis--he really has this tied up

Best Actress
should win: Ellen Page (Juno)--because she really carries the film
probably will win instead: Julie Christie (Away from Her)--semi-retired actress comes out for one last huzzah

Best Supporting Actor
should win: Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men)--because he is SO great
long shot: Casey Affleck (The assassination of Jesse James...)--he was supposed to be awesome in this, but I can't imagine that Javier Bardem won't win

Best Supporting Actress
should win: Cate Blanchett (I'm Not There)--she is really amazingly good in this (though really, she always is)
might win instead: Saoirse Ronan (Atonement)--though I would be surprised

Best Director
should win: The Cohen Brothers -- they've had too many great movies not to
might win: PT Anderson


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts (2007)

R: We went to see the "Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts" at the Michigan last night. I can't say that the circumstances of the screening were as auspicious as they were last year -- the quality of the video projected was noticeably less, and none of the "runners-up" were screened -- but I think the films were, on the whole better. In fact, there was only one that I disliked!

Even Pigeons Go to Heaven

A French effort headed up by Samuel Tourneux, this was the only 3D/CG entry this year. I have to admit that I was impressed by the quality of the animation -- I'm not a big fan of CG, but I think this was an improvement over last year. In fact, I'd say that the animation was good enough that I can go right on to complaining about the film, which I, fully aware of the irony, will call "soulless." At the end, we've seen that the protagonist is a fool, the antagonist is a fool, and so... the viewer must be the clever one? Ah, but the viewer just sat through Even Pigeons Go to Heaven, so actually he can't be the clever one.

My Love

This is the fifth film from Russian director Alexander Petrov, who I think it's fair to call the leading animator of his generation. His previous efforts include

The Cow (1989, based on a story by Platonov)
The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (1992, based on a story by Dostoevsky)
The Mermaid (1996, my personal favorite)
The Old Man and the Sea (1999, finally got him an Oscar)
(YouTube quality is particularly inappropriate for these films, since much of the painterly aspect of the films gets blurred out -- if you're in A2 and would like to see these in better resolution, let me know)

I wouldn't be blogging if I weren't occasionally snarky, so let's get that out of the way. The NYTreview of My Love makes about almost as many mistakes as specific claims about the film. Like his previous films, My Love is executed in Petrov's "oil paint on glass" style, not in pastel. The story is based on a novel by Ivan Shmelev, A Love Story, which is centered on a boy who has read Turgenev's First Love.

Visually, the films is as striking as Petrov's earlier efforts. The still frames could be paintings of the Russian countryside, and the "montage" sequences blur, twist, and morph from image to image -- anything but a cut. As you might guess, this was the film I was most excited about seeing -- I'd actually resisted the various temptations of the InterTubes, so that I could see it on an appropriate scale. There are other animators who paint on glass (google Caroline Leaf and Georges Schwizgebel), but Petrov is more of a realist, has a greater love of detail, and doesn't shrink down as well. Thematically, Petrov draws from the village vocabulary of The Cow and The Mermaid, while making greater use of (slightly) surreal digressions that reminded me, a bit, of Dream of a Ridiculous Man.

Although I quite enjoyed it, I can't say that this was my favorite film this year (though it's an easy second). It's the "talkiest" of the entries, and this is certainly a weakness. Animators in general, and Petrov in particular, have the entire world of visual expression open to them -- it's a bit disappointing when they rely on extensive dialogue to make their point. It would be easy to call the story sentimental, though I think the ending does much to redeem the film. The pace is relaxed, though I haven't made up my mind as to whether I would call it loose. Like all of Petrov's films it's a major accomplishment, but after such a long wait, I had hoped for more.

Madame Tutli-Putli

This film was absolutely amazing. It was some of the most stunning puppet animation that I have ever seen, and it has to win the Oscar. As it turns out, there was a lot of digital compositing to put everything together -- I have no idea how else one could animate a puppet running through such tight corridors. Also, as Kate pointed out, they added human eyes to the puppets, as describer here. As with CG, I'm not a big fan of live elements in animation, but the effect here simply must be seen.

More importantly, these technical advances are used to great creative effect. I'm not sure I can summarize the plot of the film -- some manner of nightmare is the best I can do. I want very much to see it again, to "figure it out," but to let it sink in, more like Tale of Tales than Memento. The only other thing to add is that this is the first professional film that the directors, Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, have made. Wow.

I Met the Walrus
(Sorry -- couldn't find this one on YouTube)

I think this film is interesting because it draws so heavily on the vocabulary of Flash animation, even if it wasn't actually done in Flash. Which I suspect it wasn't, since it has considerably more polish, I like seeing some of those idioms taken to a higher level. The gist is that the producer interviewed John Lennon when he (the producer) was about 14 -- that interview forms the soundtrack, and the animation basically riffs on the dialogue. Looking at the website, it sounds like this interview was a life-changing experience for the interviewer -- I can't say that comes through in the animation. Still, it's fun.

Peter and the Wolf

One of my professors at VGIK was fond of dividing up the world of animation into various national schools. This works surprisingly well, but, I think Peter and the Wolf would piss her off, as it's a British-Norwegian-Polish co-production. To make things better, it appears to be set in Russia, presumably because they're animating Prokofiev. The thing that stands out about this is, IMHO, the expressive quality of the animation. The goose, crow, and cat come alive, and this is what sets good animation apart from good artistic design.

The catch is that animators are kind of like actors, and just like one actor doesn't play all of the parts in a movie (even Peter Sellers doesn't play all of them), I don't think the same person animated all of the characters in this film. I wasn't as impressed with the wolf or the human characters as I was with the characters I listed above. It also didn't look like the fast movements (the cat darting, the wolf pouncing) were done well.

This leaves me a bit puzzled, because this film one the "Cristal" and the audience award at Annecy this year -- not an audience I would expect to be forgiving of uneven animation.

Friday, January 18, 2008

My Kid Could Paint That (2007)

R:  There have been a lot of noteworthy movies in the last semester.  Among all of the sturm und drang, there's a good chance that you didn't hear about “My Kid Could Paint That.”  The gist is that a girl from Binghamton, aged 3 or 4, became a hot thing in the Binghamton art world.  Well, not just in the Binghamton art world -- she popped up in the New York Times, and on 60 Minutes.  

The film comes in two parts.  As you might guess, the first half is the rise of Marla Olmstead, the painting wunderkind.  In one of the few bits of illuminating commentary in the movie, the journalist from the local newspaper who originally broke the story points out that the story went on too long to just be a human-interest piece, and had to “turn.”  And that's the second half of the movie -- the media turning on Marla and her family, and a series of accusations that Marla's dad (also a painter) is actually producing the paintings.  Or finishing them.  Or something.

As the movie drags on, the filmmaker becomes more and more prominent.  As I recall, he started filming the family before the story “turned,” and as it becomes more interesting I'd say it gets away from him.  The family trusts him long after he's stopped trusting them; much navel gazing follows.  In the end, I think the project was too big for him.

Clearly, I didn't like this movie.  I'm writing about it because it provoked as much conversation as any that we saw this semester.  There are the obvious (and clumsily handled) questions about what it can mean for abstract art to be “good” if it can be produced by a toddler.  Like the director, I'll leave that aside and focus on the issue of doubt.

Let's go back to the accusation that Marla isn't actually doing the painting.  This is not an unreasonable accusation -- her paintings are, indeed, more finished than one would expect from a small child.  They are remarkable for the same reason that they are suspect.  Indeed, “suspect” is probably a better word than “accusation,” because I don't recall anybody making a damning case against her having done the painting.  So how can one dispel those suspicions?  The method that 60 Minutes settles on (and the director, in a moment of inspiration, decides to...  continue...) is to try to video tape an entire painting, from start to finish.  The problem, not a surprising one, is that Marla reacts to the camera.  She's shy, and doesn't produce anything “for the camera” that looks as good as the paintings produced without the camera.  There's a lot of hemming and hawing about this, and in the end the Olmsteads are not able to satisfy “the public”, or at least the director.

The problem is that I don't think this is a test that Marla could pass.  As I mentioned above, she's shy and four, and I'm skeptical of the notion that any artists(even one that was grown-up and an attention whore) would be the same in front of a camera as they are working alone.  And so as outsiders we're in an awkward position: a question has been raised (”did she paint them!?”) that we, as outsiders are unable to answer.  And as social animals, we jump to the default conclusion -- she's cheating!

I'm more familiar with this feeling than I'd like to be.  Each term, I run a program that sifts through 800 undergraduate lab reports looking for plagiarism.  I then have to sift through the results and see which cases look like cheating, and which look like coincidences.  Once I get into the “find the cheaters!” mode, everything starts to look suspicious, and it can be very hard to step back and admit that some of the ambiguous cases are, well, ambiguous -- and not worth pursuing.  “It's unclear” is not a satisfying answer, but it's sometimes the correct answer.

Labels: ,


Well, it's been a busy couple of months.  Kate and I are both looking hard at the looming job market, so we've been watching fewer movies, and as you've noticed, not blogging.  A few movies from the past semester stood out not only as good, but as interesting to discuss, so we'll post on those as we can.  Maybe not full posts, but bloglets at least.  Kind of like this one.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Eastern Promises (2007)

There is a new member of the Pantheon of Terrible Movies, and his name is Eastern Promises. After poking around a bit, I was surprised to see that not very many people have realized this -- currently, it's got 89% on the tomato-o-meter.

First, let me make an obvious point: If a director centered a film on a grotesque caricature of African Americans, and went so far as to cast only white people and have them act in blackface, he'd be publicly eviscerated. He wouldn't be allowed near a camera again, ever. I have no idea why it's acceptable to do the same damn thing with Russians. If you don't find it offensive, surely you (like me) find it boring. In a similar vein, if you're going to fill your movie with Russian characters, you should hire some actual Russians. There's a whole country full of them, and many of them can act. It may surprise you, but they do a pretty good Russian accent!

Now, I know what you're thinking: "Ross, it's a movie! I'm looking for over-the-top exoticism! And I don't speak Russian, so they don't sound silly to me." Let me point out, then, that the movie fails on its own terms. I guarantee that, within a half hour of the movie starting, you will know exactly how it will finish. I guarantee this. Not only will you have worked out the basic plot points, you will have figured out how the characters will "develop." The only things that will surprise you for the remainder of the movie are the bizarre decisions made by poor Naomi Watts, with which David Cronenberg clumsily advances the plot. It's as if they realized halfway through shooting the movie that they hadn't really come up for a reason for the Russian mafia to care about a nurse, and decided to have her throw herself at them until they reacted. Awesome.

We could ask whether Viggo Mortenson's character is interesting. I'd say "kind of." He made an admirable attempt to learn some Russian, and developed a surprising command of the Russian smirk. This isn't to say he's convincing, only that he's more convincing than most of the other actors. I think that the interesting part of the movie is supposed to be his struggle to walk the line between good and evil. I have to say, not much struggle is apparent. He only kills "bad guys." When put into a morally ambiguous situation, he always makes the "right" decision. He doesn't seem to have any regrets, really, and this makes him kind of boring.

If you want to watch a good movie about an undercover cop with a funny accent, watch The Departed. The only reason to see Eastern Promises is If you want to see Viggo Mortenson naked and bloody in a sauna.