Friday, February 4, 2011

San Francisco IndieFest 2011 - Gold Farmers/Second Bodies Review

I'm going to get straight to the point here: neither of these films are very good. Both films deal with our digital age and niche social ideas, but fail to portray any sense of scope. It's a shame too, because both movies deal with fascinating types of people and topics.

Ge Jin's Goldfarmers deals with teenagers in China who play World of Warcraft 12-hours a day to acquire gold (the game's currency) for other players to buy with real currency (through websites like PayPal.) I've seen this phenomenon briefly portrayed in other documentaries akin to working in a sweat shop, but all the goldfarming companies we visit in this film feed, house, and provide decent working conditions for the teenage workers. I expected a negative message toward goldfarmers, but Ge Jin only scratches the surface of the practice. I appreciate the approach of this film, but it didn't have any sort of impact on me.

Just a few days ago, I found an article about Blizzard (the makers of World of Warcraft) seriously cracking down on goldfarmers. It will be interesting to see what sort of impact this has on the beefed up economy that goldfarming has created. More interesting than this next documentary.....

Second Bodies. This little documentary had me excited: a film about three women dealing with self-image and how deep-rooted insecurities get transformed into the avatars and lifestyles they choose in Second Life. I was so ready to find out the appeal of such a program, the types of people who gravitate toward it, and the effect it has on their lives. Sadly, Director Sandra Danilovic let me down. While the women interviewed were interesting and different enough, they felt very one dimensional. Danilovic, who also was a subject and created all the machinima for the film was dull as a narrator. The whole thing is just awkward - from the machinima scenes lasting way too long and zoomed in way too far, to the dry commentary, to the scrolling quotes that scroll too long and too zoomed in.

I wish I could recommend either of these films because the nerd inside me empathizes, but I just can't.

San Francisco IndieFest 2011 - MARS

Stick with it. It gets better. Mars takes time to grow on you. It won't be easy. You might lose focus, but be resilient! Your unwavering commitment won't be in vain.

Led by a sarcastic d-bag at central command and the coolest president ever, Geoff Marslett's Mars takes us along side three astronauts in their quest to be the first humans to land and/or find other life forms on the Red Planet. At first, the characters all suck -- they are one-dimensional and impossible to like or side with. But the longer we spend with them, the more their personalities open up until soon we're laughing with them - not at them.

Mars isn't full of action or sci-fi effects. The only "effect" is the Rotoscoping used to stylize the film, giving it a comic book feel and giving the filmmakers more liberty with special effects. The Rotoscoping helps makes the movie more vibrant. With space movies, there ends up being a lot of grays and browns and black. Lots of black. Mars is colorful and funny - a good contrast to the psychological grays and blacks that the characters deal with. Rotoscopting is still weird though - I swear everything moves at half speed.

Take a few minutes after watching the film to talk it over with some friends. It's one of those rare flicks that means a lot, but doesn't feel pretentious. I felt like that as I was exploring the cosmos, I was also exploring previously uncharted territory with the main characters. Progression like that deserves some attention.

If nothing else, watch this movie for A.R.T.'s Dream Mode.

Friday, December 31, 2010

German Gems 2011: Keep Surfing

What do you do when you live in Munich, Germany, love to surf, but happen to live in Munich, Germany? You have to get creative. Keep Surfing is a truly endearing documentary by Bjoern Richie Lob that (most likely) introduces the viewer to the sport as well as providing a history of its formation 35 years ago. The majority of film takes place in Munich, focusing on the Eisbach river as the catalyst that started river surfing in Germany.

We follow a handful of adamant surfers on their quest to find new and exciting rivers to challenge. The personalities of these guys evokes a Guy Ritchie assemblage of characters, but they are so wonderfully real and likable. In fact, my favorite part about Keep Surfing is the kinship between everyone and their happy, radiant spirits. Where I feel other surfing films focus on the majesty of the ocean and its waves, I find this film focusing on the beauty of people doing what they love to do.

The footage is beautiful and effortless probably due to the fact that Lob is a surfer himself. We are taken to other places in the world, albeit briefly, but the quick tour rounds out the experience nicely. The only thing that would make this movie better was if it were in 3D! Just kidding...

There isn't much to complain about with this one. Watch it if you like surfing, watch it if you don't. You'll like it either way. Go see it on January 15th at 2pm and you can meet the director in person. If he's anything like the dudes in this film, you'll want to meet him.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Movie Review - A Real Life

Originally, I dismissed A Real Life as a chick flick with a grubby thief love interest and began watching it with low expectations. Sometimes movies are better that way - with no hope. Well, color me surprised and pleasantly proven wrong, because A Real Life is quite enjoyable.

The story focuses around a petty thief, Bruno (Guillaume Depardieu) who forges a lasting impact on a young school teacher named Isabelle (Florence Loiret-Caille.) Their relationship quickly turns from a simple crush to a passionate love affair - meanwhile running, hiding, and dodging police. There isn't much explanation as to why Isabelle is madly attracted to Bruno other than their first, somewhat tragic encounter. Around the halfway mark, Bruno raises the suspicion of the local police and they are sent to investigate him. Since he is staying at Isabelle's house, she is forced to either rat him out or save him. Of course, ratting out you lover wouldn't be very romantic, so Isabelle decides to save Bruno and thus begins their foray into the forest and a life of caution.

There isn't a lot of dialogue in A Real Life. Instead, director and co-screenwriter Sarah Petit relies on conveying intense feeling and emotion rather than clever quips between the lovers. The outcome of this approach is refreshing and genuine. Seeing their relationship blossom and the care they provide one another is beautiful. If the dialogue was more wordy, this aspect could have easily been lost.

I tried to play tough guy and blot out A Real Life from my "must-see" list, but the engaging chemistry between Depardieu and Loiret-Caille is too good to pass up. If you have a romantic movie aversion, suck it up and get in touch with your emotional side. You won't regret it.

4 Stars

Friday, October 22, 2010

Movie Review - The Robber

I think we're all guilty of hyping or dismissing movies in our heads. The conclusion we reach beforehand becomes the pivot to our criticism. In that sense, I wasn't prepared for The Robber - a thriller based on on the novel "On The Run" by Austrian author Martin Prinz. When I heard about a film that focused on a marathon runner who robbed banks on the side (or was it the other way around?) I expected a more comical, light-hearted approach to such a scenario. Instead, what transpired before my eyes was a beautifully intense and hypnotic story about a man faced with reforming himself or returning to his previous destructive tendencies.

The Robber focuses on Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust,) an ex-con released to the free world in hopes to start an honest life. We don't learn much about Johann through dialogue (or any of the other characters for that matter,) and it's hard to love or hate him. On one hand, he's this hero marathon runner who wins many big, countrywide races; on the other hand, he is a successful serial bank robber - threatening but never hurting anyone. He is easily one of the most complex and interesting characters I've witnessed in cinema this year.

A love interest, Erika (Franziska Weisz) throws an extra layer of intricacy into the story with a relationship that unfolds in a complex manner such as Johann's character. To try and explain the strangely unconditional romance would do it a disservice and ruin the sense of awe and mystery wrapped up in these two interesting characters.

I can't begin to explain the beauty of the shots in The Robber. The composition between sprawling vistas and intense human emotion evoked within each wonderful scene is breathtaking. I am literally at a loss for words when it comes to describing this film. It is nothing like I expected and I am so grateful for that. It is a tragic tale of addiction and conflict within the soul. While you won't walk away feeling happy per se, you will walk away fulfilled and awestruck. I believe Benjamin Heisenberg has truly created a work of art with The Robber.

Score: 5 Complex Stars

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Film Review - Everyday Sunshine

I have a confession to make: before watching Everyday Sunshine, I had never listened to Fishbone. As an avid connoisseur of all things musical, I had heard of them and their influence on popular music, but I just never got around to actually listening. After hearing many of their songs, I can't say I'm a fan, but their mark on the music world is indelible. Everyday Sunshine chronicles Fishbone's tumultuous history, making it a fantastic place for any Fishbone newbie to start.

If you've ever watched other band documentaries or even been in a band yourself, then you know the extreme highs and desperate lows involved with the art. We follow Fishbone from their birth in the heart of South-Central Los Angeles to headlining world tours to small, half-sold out venues in their later years. The pacing starts off really well and we watch the members of Fishbone all meet each other in cartoon form, which adds some nice humor. The blend of Laurence Fishbourne's narrative and the actual members' recollection is spot on. As the movie progress though, we get less of a general narrative and more individual time with each member. While I like this exposition as it rounds out the band, it tends to drag at points - especially areas of conflict within the band. After most of the members have left the band, we are left with what I think is the weakest part in the film.

I get why the filmmakers chose to focus on Norwood (bass) and Angelo (main vocals/sax) during the last third of the film, but sadly the pacing gets ruined. Seeing two punk rockers aged and hardened is sad and it adds the reality of the fickle music business in there, but it gets boring hearing them talk about it. It's strange after the climax to have such a long downtime before seeing things pick up again, but maybe that's because I'm expecting the film to behave in the classic format it started out.

All in all, Everyday Sunshine succeeds in telling an interesting history to an extremely eclectic band in such a way that even if you don't love the music, you love the guys for completely putting their souls into their art and for doing so for over 20 years.

3.5 stars

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Movie Review - Dogtooth

A movie to completely arrest my mind and leave me speechless after the credits roll is a rarity. Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth is not some overblown cerebral snorefest too heady for its own good. It is a carefully crafted tragedy tackling issues of free-market trade, American culture, governmental suppression, absolute truth, and the frailty of words.

The basic premise of Dogtooth is centered on a family of five who we learn quite quickly, do not live normally. The patriarch and matriarch of the family control their college-age kids in mysterious and sadistic ways, keeping them trained never to leave the property. They engage in violent games of submission and family challenges in order to earn stickers as approval from the father. Slowly though, the eldest daughter begins to uncover things hidden by her parents and strives to escape the stronghold.

I'm sure a lot of other reviewers will talk about the satire of all these elements, but what really stuck out to me were the ideas of teaching wrong meanings of certain "harmful" words and challenges of right and wrong. I am fascinated at how fragile our language is - only carrying as much meaning as we learn and give. Why is a porcupine called a porcupine and not a branch? Is incest wrong if we're never given any other alternative and have a basis for right and wrong? In the closed system that the parents create in their house, the kids are not taught morals. Are morals inherent or learned or a combination of both?

These kinds of questions flooded my mind after watching Dogtooth. It's not necessarily a fulfilling movie and you won't feel warm and fuzzy inside after watching it. It is a brutal and violent, beautiful and provocative experience that will raise far more questions than it answers. Dogtooth is hard to watch, but is sure to bring out some deep moral questions within everyone who takes the plunge.

3 1/2 stars