Monday, August 23, 2010

Sweet Land

Sweet Land is a movie that caught me completely by surprise. My wife had watched it while I was away, and insisted that I watch it too, as it was one of her new favorite movies. She has good taste, so I assumed it would be good, but I didn't expect to love the movie as much as I did. It's an affectionate look at the courtship of two farm working immigrants in Minnesota, just after WWI. He, Olaf, is Norwegian and has lived in the States for many years. She, Inge, is German, speaks no English whatsoever, and is actually Olaf's mail order bride. Many in the community give her a cold welcome, seeing as we'd just been fighting the Germans, and Olaf begins by protecting her from the acidic response she receives from some folks in town. They slowly, throughout the movie, begin a more proper courtship, which includes her doing such blasphemic things as dancing with Olaf on their porch, in broad daylight, which totally distresses the God-fearing little Lutheran hamlet.
Not only is Sweet Land a lovably thoughtful love story, it's also one of the most strikingly beautiful movies I've ever seen. It's wonderful to watch a film take the time to pay attention to the little things that add up in a relationship. The fleeting looks across the dinner table, the body language from two people trying to find a certain calm in the storm surrounding their lives, the helplessness and even the humor inherent in not speaking the same language as those around you. But to set all that against such breathtaking artistry just makes the movie that much more special. Writer/director Ali Selim's background is in commercials and advertising, which would normally signal the exact opposite of this type of movie, but he takes the care to give us the understated sweetness of the movie. He actually must've used his background to help manipulate the film in a way that gives us the almost unnatural beauty of this movie.
I love the heart of this movie, I love the silent film-like approach to the love story. So many movies these days don't have any clue how to visually tell their story, so it's wonderful to see a movie so intent on giving us so much to visually engage us with. And to engage us with a movie that's not all pretentious art house bullshit, but sweet, lovable romance in an early 20th century setting. It's a movie I wish would have a bigger audience, and one I'd recommend to anyone looking for something gorgeous, good hearted, and completely lovable. Sweet Land is it!

David Gordon Green and George Washington

David Gordon Green is one of the best and most talented directors working right now. The film your average moviegoer would know of Green's is 2008's Pineapple Express, but your average cinephile knows Green as the director of the low key indie movies All the Real Girls, Undertow, and Snow Angels. I wrote previously about Snow Angels in December of '08, but I just recently watched Green's debut movie George Washington and felt the need to write a bit about it as well. Working with a budget under $50,000, Green and his most essential collaborator, cinematographer Tim Orr, created a movie of understated beauty and feeling.
Working with a cast of mostly non-actors, Green gives us a sort of rural, quiet coming of age story. A group of kids hang out, play, talk, and sometimes just look at the unexpected elegance of their bucolic surroundings. A tragedy befalls the group, and each child deals with it in a different way. The quiet, odd George, who due to the plates in his head not fusing correctly isn't supposed to get his head wet, saves a kid from drowning in the local pool. Both kids survive, with George branded a community hero, a badge he may wear a little too seriously as he begins dressing up as a superhero and trying to do good deeds around town. But none of Green's movies are about plot. They're about feeling, sometimes articulated, and sometimes not. Also, a little nostalgia. This is one of those summers that changes everything for these kids, they're becoming teenagers and this is really their last moments of childhood, cut even shorter by the startling accident.
This would actually be the movie I would only recommend to someone who's seen Green's other movies and liked them. His brilliant All the Real Girls is a bit more accessible, as a story of teenage romance, even if it doesn't deal with it in the same light we usually see from teen romance movies. They have a lot in common, as they're about a certain loss of innocence. About moving on and growing up, even if you don't think you're ready for it. Green's most easily watchable is certainly Undertow, with Josh Lucas's crazy uncle chasing after the fortune he believes his nephews have run away with. It's a terrific movie, as usual for Green it's gorgeously filmed, and is his most conventional movie. Actually, strike that. Pineapple Express, even though a bigger budgeted "mainstream" movie is still quite unconventional, though is certainly more accessible to your average moviegoer. His next project is called Your Highness and is a fantasy/comedy starring Zooey Deschanel (his leading lady from All the Real Girls), Danny McBride (his friend from college who was in Real Girls, as well as Pineapple), James Franco (who did the best work of his career in Pineapple), and Natalie Portman (working with Green for the first time). So he's branching out and trying new things, which I think should always be admired in the world of cinema where it seems a quest just to find new things. I think Green is a director I will continue to admire for a long time to come, and one whose new movie will always be anticipated by me.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Let the Right One In

As a fan of international cinema, I've heard a lot about the Swedish romantic-horror movie Let the Right One In over the last couple of years. I've heard it was "the best movie of the year" "the best vampire movie ever" and many other things, but I gotta say, I didn't find it to be any of those things. I purposefully let the hype settle down on it before I checked it out, so that I wouldn't be swayed even a little bit by anything but the movie. Well, the two young leads are good enough, but the movie as a whole just kinda lays there like a bump on a log. I'm all for slow moving movies (Hou Hsiao-Hsien is one of my favorite filmmakers), but this one was just flat out boring.

It's a vampire movie, but with enough different about it to add some interest. Our androgynous vampire and "her" friend lead us through this slog of a story where essentially nothing that we couldn't see coming a mile away happens. I thought in the first 30 minutes or so that we're being set up for a slow moving movie, with some decent atmosphere. After 30 more minutes of nothing of interest coming onto my screen, I actually considered shutting it off. Glad I didn't, since the final 30 minutes or so are actually quite good. The poetic finale especially is well done, but it comes as too little too late. There are plenty of great foreign films out there, and this has been a great decade for foreign cinema making into the US, but I would not recommend Let the Right One In as a shining example of that fact.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Toy Story 3

Okay, to begin with, 3-D sucks and sucks bad. We all know it, they're gonna keep forcing it on us until the fad has run its course again, and I won't devote any more time to it here. It's used as well here as it has ever been used, and it still added absolutely nothing to the experience of watching the movie, except for adding the annoyance of having to wear those damn glasses again. Thankfully, nothing about it ruins anything inside the gorgeously animated new masterpiece from Pixar, Toy Story 3. We get back to Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Rex, Potato Head and the whole gang yet again, and although I think the second entry in the series is among Pixar's weakest efforts, the third time is certainly a charm.
Andy is now 17-years-old and getting ready for college. His beloved toys lay in his toy chest, unplayed with for years. Misunderstandings ensue, and the toys are donated to the Sunnyside Daycare. There they meet a host of other toys lead by the fluffy, strawberry scented, Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear (voiced by Ned Beatty), and Ken (Michael Keaton), who immediately falls for the Barbie doll that Andy's sister had donated. They're told that Sunnyside is an ideal place for toys. They're played with all day, 5 days a week. But after one day in the "caterpillar" room, with the youngest kids (or, "not age appropriate" as Buzz says), they begin to doubt the sincerity of Lots-O and the other toys. Meanwhile, Woody has been snatched up by a sweet little girl named Bonnie and taken to her home where he meets another set of lovable toys, but he's determined to get back to his friends and to Andy.
There was something about Toy Story 2 that didn't connect with me. It didn't have the simple magic that the first Toy Story had, but didn't have its own magic to ride on either. Toy Story 3, on the other hand, has that magic. There's an amazing amount of heart poured into this movie, the characters and relationships (both positive and negative) drawn with more care and developing in much more interesting ways. I was afraid at one point that it would simply be a case of "heroes triumph over villain" and I'd have to leave the theater telling myself "Yeah, it was good. I just wish it had been more than that." Thankfully, I didn't. I even found Lots-O's backstory fascinating on its own in how it shaped the toy we see. There's also a wonderful development between Jessie and Buzz, made most hysterical when Buzz gets accidentally switched to Spanish mode, taking on the over-the-top poetic lover mode of a Spanish hero.
So, unsurprisingly, Pixar has delivered us another masterpiece, with the best ending since the perfection of Monsters, Inc's. Pixar has to mess up eventually, they can't keep up with this kind of excellence forever. Sadly, I have a feeling that next summers Cars 2 will be that slip up. We don't need a sequel to their worst movie. A movie I still liked, sure, but their weakest movie by a wide margin. Regardless, this time they've given us another movie to stand alongside their best. I've previously given 4 Pixar movies my highest rating (4 stars, 10/10, or whatever you want to quantify it as), and Toy Story 3 will join them. It may not reach the poetic brilliance that Wall-E did, or cut straight to my heart like Remy's love of food in Ratatouille did, but Toy Story 3 easily sits next to the family saga/action bonanza of The Incredibles and the unadorned majesty of the original Toy Story as not only Pixar's best work, but among the great gifts the art of animated cinema has ever given us.