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Another Film Fest DC has come and gone and this year I did it up right, squeezing twelve screenings into nine days. The DC fest concentrates on international offerings rather than domestic indie films. These run the gamut from overseas blockbusters (Aftershock, the most expensive and successful movie in China’s history, was featured) to smaller, artsier films.

Last year I divided my post-fest recap into genre films that one could imagine finding commercial release in the US had they been filmed in English and the more art house pictures. I liked that divide and no other option for splitting up the films revealed itself this year, so today I’m starting with the genre flicks. Action, sci-fi, crime dramas, and Chrimassy dramedies find their place here with commercial success and sizable budgets in their homelands.

Jared joined me for a few films this year and he can chime in on the one he saw. Otherwise I’ll continue to identify the Grouch who’d like these entertaining films the most (and later we’ll discuss who would hate the most the more thematic artsier films that actually make you think).

The Robber (Der Räuber), Austria/Germany, dir: Benjamin Heisenberg

Andreas Lust plays Johann, the title robber, a newly-released ex-con who combines his loves of running and bank robbery. He trains in his cell and comes out of nowhere as a contender in the Vienna marathon. But many of his training runs involve taking a train (or hijacking a car) to another city and holding up a bank.

The running and robbery scenes are beautiful. They are artfully constructed and help us feel the serenity Johann feels in his runs and the adrenaline rushes in his crimes. That rush is in fact what appears to motivate him in both of his endeavors, but that’s all we really get to know about him. Johann is a blank slate and we see little of his motivation beyond the idea that both activities thrill him.

This lack of development is particularly troublesome when it comes to a relationship he has with a woman he apparently knew before his jail sentence. It means we don’t understand why they are together or even if he cares about her and we don’t care about Johann’s fate. At 90 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome by much, but beyond a few well constructed action scenes I can’t recommend much. C

Grouch who’d like it the most: I’m not sure any would like it much but I could see Brian enjoying it.

Transfer, Germany, dir: Damir Lukacevic

Here is a film that has a terrific premise but still manages to be half-baked. A new technology allows the minds of the old and infirm (and rich) to be transferred to young, healthy bodies. An elderly German couple tentatively tries it out and two attractive Africans are their hosts. The catch is that the hosts wake up and once again have control of their bodies for a few hours per day while their guests sleep.

You can imagine the philosophical issues such a technology might present. The problem is this movie does too and gives a half-hearted attempt at all of them. How do the hosts and guests learn to live with each other? They can sort of feel each other and communicate in writing. What sort of racial issues arise when old white Germans get implanted in young black Africans? Did the hosts truly give up their freedom under their own free will? What happens when your other halves have sex, fall in love, and even get pregnant?

Whenever the film starts to present an interesting point, it veers off to explore something else. The consequence is every theme gets short shrift. I wish it had been reined in thematically or perhaps lasted longer as it only clocks in at 93 minutes. Though, truth be told, none of this was treated very expertly. For example, the feelings the hosts and guests have for their other halves seems to vary wildly. One moment the host male is saying his guest is an interesting guy and the next he’s trying to escape.

I must point out one technical aspect and that is some very distracting dubbing. The host Africans are played by black American actors and they are clearly speaking in English. The German is noticeably dubbed and it sounds dubbed, like a cartoon voiceover. At times I found myself paying more attention to the dubs than the rest of the movie. C+

Grouch who’d like it the most: I think Brian would get the most out of the intriguing premise while having less of it ruined for him by how much it falls short.

Easy Money (Snabba Cash), Sweden, dir: Daniel Espinosa

First, marvel at how awesome that Swedish title is. Snabba Cash? That is delightful.

This is a pretty straight-forward crime story. Joel Kinnaman (now on AMC’s “The Killing”) plays JW, an ambitious college student that gets a taste of the good life through some classmates he wants to impress. He falls in with a gang of criminals that is about to up their game significantly by smuggling drugs into Sweden. In doing so they are trampling on the territory of the incumbent Serbian gang and reprisals ensue.

It’s rife with cliches but they never feel particularly burdensome. One Serbian gangster receives custody of his daughter and it makes him want to leave the crime life. JW, for his part, gets over his head pretty quickly and through him a standard “crime doesn’t pay” parable plays.

The film is nicely but not overly stylish. It’s also not terribly thrilling or emotionally resonant, though the climax does somewhat succeed in both regards even if it’s not very surprising. It mostly avoids boredom but a love story and JW’s envy of his richer classmates are introduced and then mostly forgotten. The look at Swedish crime life gave it some novelty for me. An English version of this same movie might end up forgettable, like a We Own the Night. B-

(It has now come to my attention that a remake is in the works, supposedly starring Zac Efron and Rachel Weisz, directed by Daren Aronofsky. Very interesting. On the other hand, news on the project within the last year seems slim and I’m still waiting on a Mark Wahlberg-led remake of last year’s Film Fest DC fave Reykjavik-Rotterdam.)

Grouch who’d like it the most: I think Adam would thoroughly enjoy this crime story.

Win/Win, Netherlands, dir: Jaap van Heusden

This drama set in the world of finance intrigued me but also worried me going in. The catalog promised a hot shot protagonist burdened by the pressure and moral quandaries of the industry. The potential for the film to turn into a brash anti-capitalist screed concerned me. But what I didn’t expect was to be bored.

Oscar Van Rompay plays Ivan, our savant, who is discovered by the firm bigwigs after leaving stock tips on post-its around the office. His rise at the firm and the gradual cracking of his shy exterior are actually quite entertaining. As time goes on his work becomes less fulfilling, helped by the professional and personal downfall of a coworker he has been befriended.

But here’s the issue: there doesn’t seem to be any special reason for his sullenness. He mopes around the city and considers blowing his career, but why? He works a lot, but it looks like he does it because he likes it has a knack for it. The job doesn’t present any specific ethical issues. The worst seems to be that several of his coworkers are kind of dicks, but they’re not terrible. More intense than anything.

So what’s the point? I guess I’m glad it didn’t turn into a ham-fisted treatise on our economic times, but at least that would have had some meat. I know this post is supposed to be about films that, with a language change, could be seen in US multiplexes, but I think for Win/Win to work here it would need a good scandal or something and that would be welcome. D

Grouch who’d like it the most: Adam would dig the business plot the most, but perhaps would also hate Ivan’s career malaise the most.

Home for Christmas (Hjem til jul), Norway, dir: Bent Hamer

This Christmas dramedy alternately warms and breaks the heart. A half dozen story lines intersect in a small Norwegian town on Christmas Eve. There’s a bum going home, a doctor with a struggling marriage, a man juggling a wife and a mistress, and a dad trying to see his estranged kids.

Some of these stories are cozy Christmas stories and some are dark. I don’t think it does anything new and exciting, but the emotion is well-earned and appropriate. The gloomier parts probably disqualify it from the Christmastime rotation of feel-good films, but it’s a good reminder about how the holidays are not happy times for everyone. And sometimes you just want a sadder Christmas movie, you know? Like how my favorite part of Home Alone is when Kevin has that talk with his scary neighbor in the church and finds out he’s a lonely man who misses his granddaughter. It’s a stray poignant, sad moment and Home for Christmas delivers similarly.

Also, there’s a bizarrely graphic sex scene near the beginning. It’s totally strange and incongruous. B

Grouch who’d like it the most: I’d definitely say Jared, but I saw it with him and I know he wasn’t fond of it. I think his problem was that I mentioned I heard it described as “Norwegian Love Actually” and it’s definitely not as cheery as that film. Still, I think it’s more up his alley compared to the other guys.

Here’s part two of our fun exercise on ranking the top 25 films we are looking forward to this summer:

JARED

20. Horrible Bosses – I have absolutely no idea how to call this one. What do you do with a film that was written by three guys, one of whom wrote for Becker but also Duckman, a second who wrote for $#*! My Dad Says, John Francis Daley, the kid from Freaks and Geeks? That is directed by Seth Gordon, director of the acclaimed King of Kong and somewhat less acclaimed Four Christmases? That reunites the stars of The Switch(Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman) and also features Colin Farrell, Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Julie Bowen, and Jamie Foxx playing a character called “Motherfucker Jones”?

19. Bridesmaids– Has all kinds of good buzz. But frankly, the trailers have not impressed me, and I’m increasingly skeptical of Kristen Wiig’s ability to carry a film. That said, I’ve been a big Paul Feig fan ever since stumbling across his book in used book store. Jon Hamm probably doesn’t have a huge roles, but hopefully he can use this and his SNL stints to springboard into more comedy.

18.Our Idiot Brother– Would have ranked higher if not for the dreadful trailer that was just released. Has a pretty killer cast, though. And Paul Rudd can absolutely put a film on his back.

17. The Change-Up – As Brian mentioned earlier this week, the trailer for this movie is horrendous. But it has a decently funny cast and was directed by the guy who did Wedding Crashers. Plus, the screenwriters were the ones behind The Hangover.  And, as is perhaps more relevant, the underrated Full of It, which has a similar sense of magical realism.  Besides, it has totally been a year since the last body-switching movie, so we were due.

16. Friends With Benefits – Brian is going to tell you that this looks like exactly the same movie as No Strings Attached.  What, like Shakespeare came up with his own stories?  This one has Justin Timberlake instead of Ashton Kutcher, which is a decent upgrade. And comes from Will Gluck, who also directed Easy A, for whatever that’s worth.

BRIAN

20. Transformers 3: Dark Side of the Moon
Ok, full admission. When pulling this group together I realized I forgot to list a #20, so I went with the next best thing and threw Transformers on here. It was filmed in DC and it gives me an opportunity to link to this awesome video of the DC cops crashing into Bumblee. I’d say this movie has like a 20% chance of being somewhat entertaining.

19. Everything Must Go
I don’t really find Will Ferrell funny, which is why I think he could be good in this dramatic role. Stranger Than Fiction is sorely underappreciated and if this is any sort of return to that sort of performance from Ferrell, then sign me up. Rebecca Black Hall (whoopsies!) plays the love interest, Stephen Root is the next door neighbor. I think Jared’s being short sighted on this one by not even ranking it. (Spoiler alert?)

18. The Beaver
They should just retitle this film the Mel Gibson Reclamation Project and be done with it. Without that pesky sideshow, this looks rather enticing. With Jodie Foster behind and in front of the camera, Gibson plays the broken businessman who wears a puppet beaver on his hand as part of his mental healing. It got mixed reviews out of SXSW, where it had its US premiere, but I’m still optimistic.

17. Thor
Based solely on watching the trailers that have come out for this, I think Thor is going to be bad. So far, it looks like I might be horribly (and wonderfully) wrong — it’s currently at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. Even though it has Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings and is directed by Kenneth Branaugh, nothing about Thor looks fun, interesting or novel — just a horrible mishmosh of the worst of Hellboy and Wild Wild West (so I guess all of the latter)

16. The Help
Emma Stone is wonderful, and if it were anyone else in the lead role I’m not sure it would make my list. I never read the novel this is based on, but the fictitious nature gives me some pause, especially when thrown in with the troublesome “white savior” vibe I got from the trailer. The story doesn’t appear to be all that groundbreaking or offering anything new, so I’ll likely wait to see which way the winds are blowing for this. Could be great though– I mean, Emma Stone.

With only 10 days to go before the release of Thor and the unofficial launch of the summer movie season, Jared and I thought we’d share the 25 movies we are most looking forward to this summer. We’ll start with films 25-21.

JARED

25. Bad Teacher – Justin Timberlake as a nerd, Jason Segel as a gym teacher with a heart of gold, written by two guys who did The Office and directed by a Freaks and Geeks/Undeclared alum means I’m giving this movie a shot.  Of course, Stupnitsky and Eisenberg were also the pair behind Year One, so let’s not get too excited just yet.

24. Hobo with a Shotgun – Sure, Machete disappointed and the elegant simplicity of a title didn’t entirely work for Snakes on a Plane but come on.  Check out this trailer and tell me you aren’t excited for some B-movie awesomeness.
23. Conan the Barbarian – The original is a classic, obviously, but not sacred.  An intriguing supporting cast (you are doing something right when you cast Stephen Lang and Ron Perlman in a brawny adventure flick), but clearly the fate of this movie is going to rest on the (extremely broad) shoulders of star Jason Momoa.
22. Another Earth – One reason I love The Twilight Zone is that it often changed one rule of science and showed how that change could affect humankind, often through the story of a single person.  I’m really hoping this film follows that path.
21. Hesher – The mixed reviews are worrisome, but I’m struggling to see how a Sundance Grand Jury-nominated film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman could be bad.
BRIAN

25. Cars 2 – Pixar has pretty much earned my respect enough that they could produce Shrek 5 and I’d be willing to see it. Cars 2 isn’t that bad, but it’s close. The decision to make a sequel to everyone’s least favorite Pixar film just reeks of commercialism and opportunism, and I have disappointingly low expectations for Cars 2. But its Pixar, so we’ll see.
24. El Bulli – The first of two documentaries on this list, El Bulli is among those films I failed to see while I was out in Austin for SXSW. Centering on the legendary and innovative Spanish restaurant of the same name, the documentary looks like a good hour plus of food porn, and since El Bulli is shutting down later this year, may be the last chance we have to get a look behind the scenes.
23. The Change-Up – Any time a movie trailer kicks off with a baby poop joke, it cant be a good sign. And when that trailer follows it up with a diarrhea joke and a genital grooming joke, those are even worse signs. But Jason Bateman, Ryan Reynolds, and Leslie Mann are all pretty funny, so I’m still willing to hold out and see what the word of mouth is.
22. Another Earth  — Originally this list was 20 films, but then I watched the trailer and realized I had to expand. What a neat concept, from a psychological perspective especially. Just as I love me some goofy action flick during Oscar season, I also love me an introspective, small brainy film during summer blockbuster season. Could be intriguing.
21. Tabloid –  I fell in love with Errol Morris documentaries when I saw The Fog of War many years ago. Tabloid, about the mindboggling path of “former Miss Wyoming, convicted rapist, and dog-cloning supporter Joyce McKinney,” has the potential to be another masterpiece and look into the mind of someone crazy like a fox, or just foxy and crazy.

Like most people, I can’t resist ranking stuff.  So, when I came across Pajiba’s ranking of the last 53 romantic comedies (with a wide release), I felt obligated to respond.  I’ve seen just under two-thirds, which I think is enough to contribute, and if I remember I’ll update this post as I get to more on DVD.

A few points, first.  I’m sticking with the author’s list.  There are a ton of definitions of “romantic comedy” out there, so you are never going to please everyone.  Here, Rowles says he picks “comedies where a romance was central to the story.”  I’d argue that Morning Glory does not fit the second half of that and probably not The House Bunny or You Again either, depending on how you parse that.  And I don’t think Love Happens is a comedy.  Also, going by Rowles’s definition, I would think you’d have to include WALL-E and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Second, I take some issue with how Rowles seems to think so many romcoms are bad and that it is weak genre overall.  Look, there are certainly bad romantic comedies.  But I’m willing to bet that if you made this list for any other broad genre, you’d get a pretty similar ratio of hits to misses.  There are a ton of bad action movies, bad Oscar bait, etc.  I’d say movies #20 to #29 are generally not fun, but only starting around #30 do they get unwatchable.  If you don’t really like She’s Out of My League, for example, then you most likely don’t like romantic comedies.  Which is fine, but then you don’t get the right to say all romantic comedies are bad, because it is on you.

Finally, as mentioned, the author takes a pretty narrow definition of romantic comedies.  When you include the two I mention above, plus films like Ghost Town, Run Fatboy Run, Charlie Bartlett, Bandslam, The Answer Man, Table of Three, The Trotsky, Nice Guy Johnny then I think you start getting a rather solid list.  Not to mention bromantic comedies (I Love You, Man) or action romcoms (Get Smart and Knight and Day both fit the author’s definition, I’d say).

Anyway, here’s my list.  And you can look forward to my 2010 countdown coming soon.

1. (500) Days of Summer
2. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
3. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist
4. She’s Out of My League
5. 27 Dresses
6. The Invention of Lying
7. Mamma Mia
8. He’s Just Not That Into You
9. Going the Distance
10. Love and Other Drugs
11. Zack and Miri Make a Porno
12. Definitely, Maybe
13. The House Bunny
14. How Do You Know
15. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past
16. Easy A
17. Morning Glory
18. Made of Honor
19. You Again
20. Love Happens
21. All About Steve
22. The Proposal
23. The Switch
24. Valentine’s Day
25. Fool’s Gold
26. Just Wright
27. The Ugly Truth
28. Leap Year
29. I Love You, Beth Cooper
30. When in Rome
31. Leatherheads
32. Couples Retreat
33. It’s Complicated

Haven’t Seen
The Love Guru
Bride Wars
Paul Blart: Mall Cop
Confessions of a Shopaholic
The Bounty Hunter
The Back-Up Plan
Just Go With It
You Don’t Mess with the Zohan
Sex and the City 2
The Dilemma
New In Town
Arthur
Hall Pass
Sex and the City
What Happens in Vegas
No Strings Attached
Four Christmases
Take Me Home Tonight
Sex Drive
Date Night

Well this look at the successful performance showcases, the complement to my earlier look at the failed ones, is ridiculously late. But it’s been sitting on my hard drive for a while so why waste it? Plus many of these are now available on DVD so you can go judge them for yourselves. Though you may as well leave the judging to me, right?

Animal Kingdom

There was a good chance that this one was going to land on the “failed” portion of these posts, but happily Jacki Weaver eked out a Supporting Actress nod for this very low profile film. Animal Kingdom is an Australian crime drama centered around a family of bank robbers. The opening credits made me think I was about to see The Town: Down Under with its images of bank heists. Instead, it’s a character-focused drama about the family unraveling as the crooked cops close in.

Weaver plays the family matriarch. She’s outwardly sweet and caring, but in reality is chillingly ruthless. Her daughter dies of a heroin overdose so her estranged grandson comes to live with her. Meanwhile, her son is hiding out from the cops while the Melbourne police become more brutal with their tactics. The cops begin killing off members of the gang, the gang retaliates, and the heretofore innocent grandson gets entangled in it all.

The movie is very good. I think some people may find the grandson character frustrating as he waffles between his family and the police and seems to willfully put himself in danger. But I think the film does a good job establishing the character and his passiveness. Weaver is quite memorable. I think it’s a role ripe for scenery chewing, but she dials it back and it makes her actions even more chilling. Hopefully her nomination will cause more people to seek out the film.

Rabbit Hole

This story of a couple mourning their recently-deceased son works in parts. Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart grieve in their own ways, which drives a wedge into their relationship. Kidman is prone to awkward public outbursts that can be quite uncomfortable to watch. The film is filled with these scenes and it can be hard to take.

But some scenes are just wonderful. Most of the scenes Kidman shares with her mother, played by Dianne Weist, are terrific and insightful. Eckhart has a nice scene in his son’s bedroom with a family looking to buy the house.

The film is a series of mostly successful individual scenes while some overall plot points fall a little short. I found the relationship between Kidman and a young man sort of contrived, but it yielded several nice moments.

I think your mileage may vary in a heavily dramatic movie like this. What rings true or connects emotionally for one will feel wrong to another. And that is fine, considering the film is about people who express their grief differently.

Kidman is very good and she grabbed the film’s one Oscar nomination for Best Actress. I enjoyed Eckhart, and he did land an Independent Spirit nod, though a few of his showcase scenes didn’t work very well for me. How much was him and how much was the writing, I don’t know. Finally, Weist is also very good and it’s too bad awards momentum for her stalled so early.

It’s a good film that I would recommend, but given its weight I’m not sure if there are many people I’d specifically recommend it to.

Biutiful

We all severely despised this movie. Javier Bardem landed a Best Actor nod for his role as a Barcelona black marketeer who is severely down on his luck. His illegal immigrant workers get deported and he has the heart to care about their families. His own ex-wife is unreliable, leaving him to worry for his children’s safety. He is sick. His dreams are full of tiresome artsy fartsy imagery.

The film received some critical malign for being such a downer. I contend that to be a downer a film must make the viewer care enough to feel the depression and Biutiful fails miserably at that. I wasn’t saddened by Bardem’s slog. I was bored. Very, very bored.

It severely drags. I started looking out for the ending, constantly expecting for the finale to be right around the corner and pondering if I liked certain developments as the denouement. In hindsight it turns out I started doing this about 45 minutes in. That is a bad sign.

Blue Valentine

I anticipated this being up my alley but it started losing me pretty quickly. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are a married couple with a young daughter. The film starts with their relationship in trouble and watches as it crumbles. Interspersed are flashbacks showing them meeting and falling in love.

It reminded me a lot of Revolutionary Road from a few years back. It could be a poignant look at the strains that are put on a relationship, but it’s really just about two people that shouldn’t be together. And at least one is a douchebag. It becomes pretty clear that there isn’t a lot of depth to their relationship and I began rooting against the pair because it seemed like they’d both be better off alone. By the end it was just tedious.

Williams got a Best Actress nomination but it’s surprising that Gosling was barely even in the picture. He didn’t even score any recognition from the Independent Spirits. Maybe the field for Best Actor was just more competitive. But I have a hard time imagining someone responding the movie and Williams’s performance but not Gosling’s.

Another Year

This one isn’t a successful performance piece but at least it did get some Oscar attention, receiving an Original Screenplay nod. Lesley Manville really should have been in the mix for Supporting Actress, but at least she was a contender.

My colleagues liked Another Year considerably less than I did and I understand why. It’s slow with a very understated plot. But it’s all in service of its themes. I’m not sure why, but I’m drawn towards films about the passage of time and the transient nature of lives in this permanent world and Another Year has these in spades. Four segments corresponding to each of the seasons follow English married couple Tom and Gerri as they host family and friends at parties and events over the course of a year. They are in love and appear to have a happy life, but the same cannot be said about everyone else in their coterie. Manville stands out as Gerri’s lonely middle aged coworker who drinks too much at the get-togethers and fancies her hosts’ much younger son.

The film does sacrifice plot for theme. In fact, it would be hard to claim there’s much of a plot at all as the action is all conversation. We do see the characters’ progression throughout the year though much of the action occurs between the seasonal meetings. Mary’s excitement to buy a car and subsequent troubles with said car later in the year is one more light-hearted example.

The slowness did get to me a little as some of the scenes aren’t the best at advancing the themes. I’m happy to accept subtlety when warranted, but sitting through some of the scenes that seemed pointless to me was harder to stomach. With a little tightening it could be more entertaining and packed a heftier punch.

I’m going to start spotlighting some lesser-known and/or underappreciated movie folk.  People whose association with a film has gotten me to put that movie on my queue, por ejemplo.  And I promise no more than 30% will be ridiculously attractive starlets from Veronica Mars.

Gotta go to Mo's!

So naturally, I’ll kick things off with Mo Henry.  I’m the type of person who doesn’t move from my seat until the credits have finished rolling.  I’m not entirely certain why.  I may have picked up the habit from my mom.  Part of it is that I like seeing what songs were in the film.  Probably a lot of it is just that I’m lazy.  Anyway, at some point I realized I kept seeing Mo Henry’s name in credits.  A lot.  So I investigated.

Typing “Mo Henry” into Google counts as investigating, yes?  Turns out that Ms. Henry is the negative cutter to the stars.  A negative cutter, near as I can tell, is the person who takes the final edits made by the editor (on a lower quality piece of film) and does the physical cutting on the final film that’s sent out for processing into prints.  It seems much more complicated than that, though, with lots of coding and logging and whatnot.  (Here’s an article about her that helps explain some of the finer points.)

Anyway, Henry’s imdb page is great fun to check out, as she’s worked on dozens and dozens of movies over the past couple of decades.  And it turns out I’m not the only one who has noticed her.  She has a fan club on Facebook that’s 163 members strong and gets wall posts nearly monthly.  She also has a slightly larger Yahoo! Group fan club.  And a tribute page on which someone  spent literally minutes.

According to this site, she babysat John Wayne’s kids and her first (uncredited) work was on Jaws.  Also, she’s left-handed, but film cutting has to be done right-handed for some reason.

So here’s to you, Mo Henry.  Thanks for giving me a reason to watch movies until the very end.

April 2011
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