The Sea Inside (2004)

November 20, 2008 § Leave a comment

For those of you who were a little alarmed by Javier Bardem as the killer in No Country for Old Men — so unstoppable he seemed like fate itself — here he is in an utterly different role.  He’s no less excellent as real-life quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro, who broke his neck as a young man when he dove into shallow water, spent the rest of his life bedridden and cared for by his family, and fought unsuccessfully to have the legal right to end his life, arguing that he no longer lived with dignity.

Regardless of your position on that particular argument, this is a great drama, with a supporting cast of well acted, interesting characters.  Sampedro wrote a book before passing away with the assistance of friends who agreed to help him along, so it appears the filmmakers had lots of material to work with.  It also appears he was a remarkably charming and intelligent man, and people tended to visit with reverence (though a sequence where he argues with a self-satisfied priest about the right to end your life is an exception to that).

The scene where he imagines himself able to fly out the window is near the middle of a film, and it’s a beautiful centrepiece to an otherwise solid, fairly straightforward but interesting drama.

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Starting Out in the Evening (2007)

November 13, 2008 § Leave a comment

Slow and measured but flawlessly acted, Starting Out in the Evening features a great performance by Frank Langella as elderly New York writer Leonard Schiller, author of four carefully crafted novels now out of print (but highly praised by some), and at work on a fourth he hopes to complete before his death.

Langella has made a career out of note-perfect supporting roles such as Perry White in Superman Returns, but here gets the lead role, an opportunity he must have relished and certainly didn’t squander.  Lili Tayler is also excellent as his concerned and loyal daughter, and Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) as a determined young student (Heather Wolfe, and giving the character the name “Wolfe” is about the only heavy-handed element in the film) working on a thesis about Schiller and making visits to his life that come closer and closer to disrupting it.

Schiller has already had one heart attack, and explains to Wolfe in an early scene that at the hospital “They cracked me open like a lobster.”  It’s typical of the good writing to be found here, and nice to see a film that isn’t hurried in the way it realistically portrays the elderly writer and student as a sort of slow-motion accident, with Wolfe slowly becoming a bigger and bigger part of his life. This isn’t to say the Schiller character gets nothing out of it — as calm and gentlemanly as he is, it’s hard to imagine a character that detests adoration. But I do admire a film that takes its time, given that some dramas hurl their characters into suffering straight away and expect the viewer to care despite not taking the time to illustrate who it is we’re supposed to care about.  Even Wolfe, as potentially harmful as she is, is given a scene at a party where the competitive academic world is illustrated well enough to demonstrate what motivates her. Recommended as a nearly flawless drama that manges to be about writing, ageing, relationships, ambition, and even certain peripheral elements, like New York.

Once (2007)

November 3, 2008 § Leave a comment

I wonder if the term “organic musical” makes any sense, in terms of describing a musical that has naturally occurring music instead of… well, you know, hundreds of people on the street suddenly grabbing umbrellas to dance with, and breaking into song with a tune that comes out of nowhere.

Once is such an organic musical, as it’s the story of a busker on the streets of Dublin who meets a woman who inspires him, and for a while they team up as musical talents and produce an album. That’s it, that’s the story. What’s great about the film is the low-budget charm, the sincere performances, the not entirely  predictable storyline (and, I’m not revealing here if they become romantically involved, you’ll have to see the film) the excellent music that takes up about half the film, and as I’ve said, the fact that it blends perfectly into the film.

I suspect the title refers to those times that the tides sweep a few people together to accomplish something or at least inspire each other to feel differently somehow, and then sweep them away again… just as chance allowed an indie filmmaker to produce a little gem with an obscure cast of actors that will likely never work together again.  A film like Once only happens once in a while.

A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash (2006)

November 2, 2008 § Leave a comment

“Oil is the excrement of the Devil,” begins this documentary, and I have to admit,the rest of the film makes a pretty compelling argument to support that statement.

It’s hard to review a film that’s certainly well made when the pressing issue it reveals is so much more important.  The argument the experts provide is basically this: oil is a non-renewable resource, a mineral slime we’ve counted on for a long time, but it’s finally safe to say with the population explosion “demand is on the march, and supply is flattening out,” even as we’re not working as hard as we should be on alternative sources of energy.  Statements like “We are coming to the end of the first half of the age of oil,” suggesting the age of cheap and readily available oil is over do make a kind of instinctive sense, given that the United States has charged out to secure their oil interests more than once since the 1990s.

The idea that we’re counting on oil to last many more decades while we casually work on alternatives, and work even less on implementing them in a practical way is an important enough (and an alarming enough) message for any film.  Add to that, a sputtering end to the oil age without alternatives (hydrogen, solar or wind power) would lead to an economic depression greater than the depression of the 1930s, except it might be harder to recover.  Air travel might be available only to an elite few, and life in suburbia would involve trying to figure out how you’re going to get forty or fifty miles to work (something European cities might have less trouble with, if they were built before the advent of the car).

Regardless of all this, oil is “a magnet for war,” and self-reliance without any need for conflict over dwindling resources is certainly ideal.  So, it’s a well made documentary, yes.  But more importantly it clarified all these ideas for me.  More people should see this film, and needless to say, more people should be pressuring our government about this issue.

It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958)

November 1, 2008 § Leave a comment

In 1958, it must have been hard to imagine life in the fifties wouldn’t go on forever, because the small crew returning from Mars (in the distant year 1973) has several woman on board just to serve pie and coffee. The ship is returning with a prisoner — a man suspected of killing the rest of his crew when a first ship crash-landed on Mars, but in fact a fearsome monster from the planet is on board, and his innocence is proven when it begins picking off members of this new crew.

Director Ridley Scott once described Alien (the first film in the Sigourney Weaver series) as a well done B-movie, and he’s right. Both films are monster movies, or a haunted house in space, with the major difference that Scott was a more skilled director with a decent budget, and better actors (or, if not better actors, at least actors that don’t have to deliver clunky dialogue that make it difficult to believe it’s the distant year 1973). Still, it’s also fair to say Alien (1979) borrows heavily from its predecessor, and It! is entertaining enough, despite the low budget, the early reveal of the monster and the fact that it’s a guy in a big rubber suit. In fact, Alien even borrows the kitchen scenes with the crew sitting around talking, though the actors in Alien get reel-feeling dialogue like “Can I finish my coffee first?  Thanks, it’s the only good thing on this ship.” As enjoyable as the 1950s film happens to be, the two films together are a perfect example of the tremendous difference more time, money and care can make.

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