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I had no intention of letting a perpetrated hoax slip through my hands again.  The first, as everyone knows by now, is I’m Still Here, the Joaquin Phoenix documentary that was revealed to be completely fake and staged from beginning to end.  I had wanted to see it, mainly to see what actually happened to Phoenix during the year he decided to pursue a rap career.  Instead, when it was let known that it was all staged, I became strangely disappointed.  Seeing it really didn’t matter anymore.

So, when it came to Catfish, and discovering that it was opening up shortly after I’m Still Here, I decided to see it immediately, and to make up my own mind as to whether another documentary is staged, or, in all probability, real.  And, for the first time in forever, I’m writing the review the day of seeing the film (sorry Temple Grandin, your turn will have to wait until after the weekend).

The trailer, after re-watching it, doesn’t reveal much, or rather, misdirects the original direction of the movie.  Nev receives a package from Abby, an eight-year-old girl who likes to paint, and upon seeing a picture Nev took, sends a painting to him (the film was originally about their relationship, of him taking pictures and her painting them).  He engages in correspondence with her, her mother, Angela, and eventually Megan, her half-sister.  It’s with Megan that Nev starts a sort of Facebook/internet pseudo-relationship with, though over time Nev grows suspicious of whom Megan really is.  It’s decided between Nev, his brother Ariel, and their friend Henry (the latter two are film makers) that they make the trip up to Michigan to meet Megan to get things figured out.

And… well, I’m not going to spoil it.  Rather, I’m going to mull over, as cryptically as possible, whether this is a hoax.  A part of me thinks it is, when viewed again from beginning to end, especially when the characters announce the specific date and time during the earlier moments.  Maybe it’s to establish the time frame, or maybe it’s to suggest that they went back to do these scenes after what occurred in the second half of the film.  It could go either way.  Parts of what you see in the trailer suggest that too: the cutting and pasting of Megan’s picture onto Nev’s, the paintings (the large amount of paintings actually) that are sent to Nev’s office, etc.  The second half of the film has some of these moments as well, or at least the idea that this was all staged and presented to the audience.

They’re quite good at being able to pull that off if that’s the case.  Even with the suggestions of the movie being staged, everyone involved doesn’t acted surprisingly alarmed or exaggerate anything.  I would say that’s caused by everyone involved being real people, not actors, and as such, there’s more of a connection being made, knowing that these people aren’t performing on a stage.  We feel for them emotionally like a character, yes, but there’s more involved because we know anything can actually happen to them.  The danger is actually real.

Which is what makes this film awfully disturbing as well.  Even if it’s staged, it’s also sad what occurred.  It’s unsettling at what some people do to make a connection with others; the age of the internet makes things that much easier, but also that much less forgiving.  The film presents something of a cautionary tale: who do we trust?  Who is lying to us?  What are our reasons for doing the things we do?  The internet, and especially Facebook, in general, has made those questions even harder to answer because of the distinct blurring of everything socially and culturally in the world today.  Social contact is a click away, yet do we actually know who we’re contacting?

So, is it a hoax?  I really don’t know, but taking the film for what it is, it’s definitely thought provoking.  We’ll never know who we’re talking to on the other side of the line.

B

Note: the grade is just a general one, and isn’t meant to reflect the overall quality of the film (if I could, I wouldn’t give it a grade, but that’s the rules I’ve got to deal with).  The film work is competent, the editing is fine, and the presentation works to give us this final product.

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I’m trying to understand the social backlash that has plagued Ben Affleck a lot until recently.  He isn’t a terrible actor – quite good at times, especially in this movie – but I supposed he suffered through making some poor decisions, like Gigli and Surviving Christmas, to name a couple movies.  Maybe a couple years away from the limelight helped, since a lot of what he’s done recently (which I’ve only seen a couple) was well received, if not for him, than for the ensemble casts that he was in.

Actually, he was great in Extract in a smaller role in a movie that really didn’t do a whole lot for me.

Coming back to the Town, which is the second film he’s directed (the first being Gone Baby Gone, which was great), and he’s found himself a niche in directing.  He does a commendable job here, creating a tense, often chaotic environment interlaced with the quieter sequences involving Doug (his character) and Claire (Rebecca Hall), a bank manager that he takes as hostage and eventually develops feelings for.  The editing could have used some work, especially in the latter sequences just mentioned, but all in all, it wasn’t bad.  The action sequences, which include several gunfights and a car chase though narrow Charlestown streets, are easily the best filmed sequences in the film.  Especially the car chase: the narrow streets and the multi-storied residential buildings that the bank robbers and police cars fly through create a kind of claustrophobic feel that threatens everyone at every turn, not knowing who or what will jump out or fly out at them at every turn.  It’s great stuff.

The story itself is involving, and relies on some solid acting from everyone, including Affleck, Hall, and Jeremy Renner, who plays the often-times psychotic one in the group of robbers.  Doug wants out of the bank robbery business, often saying that he’ll do just one more hit before calling it quits.  He finds his way out of Charlestown with Claire.  It’s actually this relationship that provides some pretty good material for the film: she’s heavily affected by being taken hostage after the opening bank robbery, and initially, Doug – who has her license courtesy of Jem (Renner) – is out to keep tabs on her, seeing if she knows anything about who the robbers were (and she knows, but I won’t say).  Doug walks a fine line throughout, between his relationship with Claire, his familial relationship with Jem and the other robbers, the florist Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite, who comes away with the best line in the movie), and the FBI, relentlessly in pursuit of Doug and the others.

The last third of the film wraps as nicely as possible, though it stretches credibility a little bit, especially in the epilogue.  The film the work though, since everything that occurs has some sort of establishment during the film.

In short, another great effort from Affleck, who is making a nice career resurgence that started with Hollywoodland and continues here.

B+

Note: I still need to see Hollywoodland as well.  Just adding that in there.

Ah, that was a mighty fine thriller indeed.  And this is a mighty quick write up.

It was nothing spectacular really, but in terms of a thriller, it was pretty much near perfect in presentation.  Essentially, a ghost writer takes on the job of writing the British ex-prime minister’s autobiography after the previous writer was found dead.  Much mystery ensues, including finding out how the previous writer died, and discovering the truth about who the prime minister really is.  Everything is plausible, which is hard to get in a thriller nowadays, but Polanski does it well.  The acting is good, especially with McGregor carrying the central lead as the ghost writer.  Not one to miss.

I had myself a good chuckle when I saw Josh Brolin’s name at the end, having him listed as the narrator for The Tillman Story.  Given his anti-Bush views, he seems to be the only one that could have narrated this.  Surprisingly, his own views are quite limited, as he just narrates the action – and does a good job at the job, playing it straight while leaving the overall question open for debate: who covered up Pat Tillman’s death?

Which, while I’m at it, I’m going to mention the one crucial failing of this film.  The film makers decide, much like Brolin in his job as narrator, to just go with the proceedings.  They don’t offer their own insight, instead just relying on the Tillman family and their point of view.  The biggest point that this appears at is towards the end, when Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and other high ranking generals and officials within the Bush administration are questioned about the cover up and the memo that was leaked that basically told President Bush not to mention anything about the actual events that resulted in Pat Tillman’s death.  There’s a strong suggestion that Rumsfeld knew and instigated the cover up, but nothing is followed through, either proving it or dismissing it.  The work is still on going, though mainly by Pat Tillman’s father.

That’s about the only thing wrong with this film, and if you can overlook that (kind of hard to do, since it is one of the last things shown), this is quite a strong presentation about Pat Tillman, who walked away from an NFL contract, joined the Army Rangers, and did two tours of Afghanistan and a tour of Iraq before being killed in a friendly fire incident during the second tour of Afghanistan.  Tillman was an inspiring individual in general: he grew up, played college football and signed an NFL contract with the Arizona Cardinals and made the team, despite his shorter than average height for a defensive back.  He was a free thinker who spoke his mind and didn’t hold anything back (for example, he agreed with Afghanistan but didn’t understand why the U.S. had to enter Iraq for fallacious reasons).  His youngest brother, when interviewed during the film, spoke of their mother as their inspiration for not giving up (she finished dead last in a marathon).  His reasons for joining the Army Rangers were never explicitly given, though many draw his views from an interview conducted with the Arizona football players the day after 9/11.  And he refused to allow the United States to use him as a recruiting tool either, making sure that he was given a private funeral and not an Army ceremony if he died.  That obviously wasn’t followed through.

There was a lot of detail given over to the day of Tillman’s death, which started off as quite confusing and ended even more confusing, with Tillman and an Afghan soldier killed in the incident.  The resulting cover up stemmed from the fact that it was Pat Tillman who was killed, though I imagine that, if anyone else were killed, their actual death would have been concealed as well*.  Much of what was done that day was to prevent Tillman’s younger brother (not interviewed, as he went into seclusion after his three year service was concluded), who joined the Army Rangers the same time as Pat did, from learning what occurred, as he was at the incident but didn’t witness the event.  The cover up was quite convincing, complete with a Silver Star awarded to Tillman after his death, but bits and pieces of information started leaking out.  It was Tillman’s mother that did a lot of the work in breaking down the cover up and exposing what really occurred on the day of her son’s death, going all the way to a House hearing to find out exactly who or what covered up her son’s death.  All signs pointed to someone really high, but we’ll never know for sure.

An excellent piece of film making, if mainly for a biography of Pat Tillman and his family, but also about the dangers of covering up a loved one’s death and the work that went to exposing the secrets and lies.

A-

* A couple of days after seeing this film, I came across a story about a U.S. soldier who committed suicide after refusing to be an accessory for humiliating captured Iraqi soldiers.  Her death was covered up, but like Tillman, the true story was discovered.  This is just to make the point that anyone’s death can be covered up, whether or not that person was well known like Pat Tillman or little known, like the soldier in the article linked.

Note: this review will contain heavy spoilers, but given the history of this individual, I will say spoilers are warranted, and what I will write won’t spoil the overall viewing experience.

A figure so infamous he gets two movies? Where are my two movies?

Actually, given the extent of Jacques Mesrine (pronounced Ma-reen, or something akin to that) career as a bank robber, it’s worth two films, and by god, these two films are quite explosive.

I will note that it’s probably easier to see both of these films consecutively, as both have the same exact structure and would work better in one uninterrupted flow. I can also note that both of these films can be seen independent of each other, and in fact can be seen in reverse order (both films open with the same scene, or just about the same: the death scene of Mesrine), though I’m sure it would be weird seeing two films out of sequence.

The cast of characters don’t reappear from film to film though, save for Vincent Cassel as Mesrine. His father has one scene in the second film, though it would be good to see the first film to understand that particular death bed conversation. Outside of that, the supporting cast changes from the two films. Most everyone from the first film ends up dead or written out, the latter of which occurs because of their lack of importance in Mesrine’s life.

And what of the man himself, who knocked off dozens of banks, escaped from prison four times (of which two are shown, the first one being the more daring escape to me), murdered (supposedly) around 40 people, and wrote an autobiography while in prison, and which three-fourths of this film is taken from?

He was definitely eccentric and full of himself, loving his persona more and more with each passing day. He revels when he hears his name on radio, sees his face on television, and reads the front page article about himself. He also gets angry when he isn’t the news (the scene recounting the rise of Pinochet in Chile is quite hilarious). He’s often controlling, easily convincing women to stay with him, even when he gets violent (the one wife shown in the film – Sofia (changed from real life) – has three kids with him before leaving all of them to return to Italy). His Bonnie and Clyde mistress, Jeanne Schneider, was probably his most adventurous, and also probably the one who broke his heart the most: he wanted to spring her from jail, but with only a few weeks or months to go, told him no, and goodbye forever. His last girlfriend, Sylvie Jeanjacquot, was young and naive, and fell in love with his allure, but stuck around till the end, even when he started trying to be a revolutionary.

Mesrine was most successful as a bank robber, especially when he was settled in Quebec. He met a “free-Quebec” revolutionary, Jean-Paul Mercier, and together they robbed banks endlessly, often hitting two on the same stop. It was with Mercier that he staged the first breakout, and was nearly successful in leading a second, more massive breakout of the same prison. These and other sequences highlight the two films.

Which, incidentally, is what these films really are, just highlights in a long and illustrious career in crime. There is no narrative cohesion; rather, there are sections and frameworks that tells a particular part of the story, but don’t really lead into the next part. Often times, characters show up and nary a peep is made of their disappearance. Sofia we know returns to Italy because it’s mentioned, but other characters, like one of Mesrine’s future associates shows up and leaves, and I’m not even sure if he’s named. Like I said, highlights. Though, if we were given a full exploration of Jacques Mesrine, I think we’d need more than four hours.

Back to Vincent Cassel. His performance drives these films. I’ve only seen him once before I believe, in Eastern Promises, and his performance was excellent in the film (along with everyone else in that film). He encapsulated the full scope of Mesrine’s personality, from being despondent with the army to a minor robber to a full blown celebrity, showing the anger, rage, and passion he had for everything in his life, which mostly involved women, money, and enraging everyone around him. Mesrine, while we’re at it, had no sense of morals either, though I don’t think he killed anyone that he robbed from (though he did execute an innocent Muslim in the opening army scene). He started gaining some morality when he shifted to revolutionary (at least of the leftist militant variety), but even then his greatest concern was robbing banks and spending lavishly. Credit to Cassell where it’s due: his is probably the best leading performance I’ve seen thus far this year.

So an impressive achievement all around, though more for Cassel’s performance than anything else. It’s an impressive look at Mesrine’s life, and I definitely recommend seeing both, hopefully at the same time too.

Both films: B+