Posts Tagged ‘United States’

Oh, Don’t Be A Creep All Your Life

December 2, 2007

BMX Bandits

BMX Bandits
Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith

bakinakwa says:

My interest in this film stems purely from the fact that I consider Nicole Kidman to be one of her generation’s greatest actresses.  Sure, she takes roles every so often that are beneath her (The Stepford Wives remake, most glaringly), but she also steps outside the bounds of expected roles (The Others, Birth, Bewitched, etc.) and goes out of her way to work with major directors like Stanley Kubrick, Lars von Trier, and, they say, Wong Kar Wai, not to mention her breakthrough with Gus Van Sant.  With that in mind, I’ve long wanted to acquaint myself with her beginnings, however humble (read: cheesy) or mediocre they may have been.  With The Golden Compass on the horizon, it felt like a natural time to begin a trip through her life’s work.  BMX Bandits being her first full-length film role, it’s the obvious starting point.  If the preceding reads like a disclaimer that’s because it partly is: back in the day I enjoyed BMXing up the block just as much as the next kid, but childhood passions do not necessarily make for great films.  If Kidman weren’t in this film, I would’ve probably gotten around to seeing it eventually, but certainly nowhere near as soon as now.

For the most part, I have no regrets.  I don’t feel taken advantage of.  The film is highly enjoyable.  This is the kind of film for which adjectives like “amusing” and “cute” were invented, and I use them not to damn with faint praise but because they most accurately convey my reaction.  I could try to tackle this film with something resembling meaningful criticism, but that would be a waste of time.  I think a play-by-play of what stood out to me would be much more fun, thus: the opening scenes with the BMXs is hilarious.  I already confessed to owning a BMX as a kid, but we never biked like the actors in this movie.  How do they bike?  They bike funny.  They have Aussie accents, not surprising for an Australian film but still remarkable.  Nicole Kidman’s hair is nuts.  Nothing will prepare you for that.  The scene of Kidman’s Judy and James Lugton‘s Goose discussing horror movies in the dark is good.  Zombies.  Major highlight: Goose tries to make a move on Judy while they’re trapped in a crypt with two goons running around.  At some point, some one utters “If only we had our wheels”, and that got a pretty good-sized laugh out of me.  Reality check: it’s impossible to believe the criminals pulled off a bank-robbery and can’t contend with a few kids on bikes.  Gotta love the breakneck-paced 80s music.  The bikes make laser noises, mine never did that.  What a concept: an army of BMX bikers coming after big time criminals.  Just begs for a remake.  Couldn’t believe I watched them attack the criminals with flour.  Foam fertilizing everywhere.  End: Nicole Kidman walked away with the biggest trophy.  A sign of things to come, perhaps?  The best moment of all comes near the beginning, when Kidman says the line we’ve chosen for our title; I’m not ashamed to admit it made me hysterical.

Verdict: highly entertaining, in unexpected ways.  I imagine that this film would be enhanced greatly by watching it with a few kids who had just recently gotten their first BMXs and would be wowed by the bike tricks and hair-dos.  Worth seeing for chuckles, for Kidman or if you yourself happen to be a BMX fanatic.

bakinakwa’s rating: 3 Stars

lakelia says:
This movie was nothing short of entertaining, and more so than I’d expected. I think what I enjoyed most was recognizing those staples of movies for the 8-13 age group – cheesy montages of something awesome (perfect choice: bike tricks), chaste flirtation and the suspense of who-likes-who, corny puns, the fat kid chowing down on ice cream, and the hallowed Home Alone tradition of incompetent villains variously crashing into things and having things crash into them, thanks to some kids’ heroic and unrealistic stunts. In this case, a quick-thinking girl distracts her kidnappers with a summary of a horror movie plot, while her army of BMX-biker friends is on their way to attack the criminals with…bags of flour. BMX Bandits had a few of its own above-average comedic moments, as in the series of mishaps that occur when the kids’ walkie-talkies invade other conversations on the same frequency – at one point, a construction worker is waiting to be told, “Now,” before he drops something from a crane…need I say more? – or when a drunken man sees the spookily-masked villains climb out over the gates of a graveyard, takes one look at his liquor, and pours the rest out.
I liked seeing Nicole Kidman in this early role, recognizable but dated enough to get a laugh out of me, with her rounded young face and that curly, curly red hair. Her accent was a blast. Accents are always a blast. And what a master of them Nicole Kidman is. There’s no way to know if she was that good when she made this film, but hearing her Australian accent reminds me how amazing it is that she manages to sound like a native U.S. English speaker in so many films, and I feel sure I’ve seen her pull off other accents too. I’m looking forward to hearing her British one on the big screen pretty soon…
lakelia’s rating: 3 Stars


What’s Next?

November 24, 2007

West Wing Season One

The West Wing: Season One
Created by Aaron Sorkin

lakelia says:

The West Wingmakes great television, and it makes even better six-episodes-a-night, four-nights-in-a-row DVD viewing. This show is set far apart from the majority of television, and even from many feature films, for the quality of its scriptwriting (both storylines and dialogue), by its acting and direction, by its characters, by its production (even the lighting is compelling and meaningful), and of course by how much I absolutely love it.

I love how fascinating it can be politically, philosophically, and personally all at once, and at the same time be funny and endearing. I love watching the relationships of the characters. All of the actors embody their characters brilliantly, and John Spencer stands out even among this group. He isLeo to me. I love when C.J. finds out her Secret Service code name is Flamingo; when they decide to nominate Roberto Mendoza to the Supreme Court; when Toby and Sam get so intent on producing a phenomenally worded “birthday message” to some assistant secretary. I love learning about the census, guns and drug policy, international issues, political maneuvering and image and retribution and the constant damage-control going on. I love when Bartlet paints a verbal picture of the worst-case scenario to impress upon Zoey how important her Secret Service protection is; when Donna tells Josh she was just looking at him with her regular face; when Leo tells Bartlet about the people so patriotic that they’d kill the President. That moment reveals the depth of their friendship as much as any of the other more emotional ones. After everyone wanting to make sure Bartlet didn’t hear about that comment, Leo brings it to the President as a friend, and makes him laugh. Their other shining, even electrifying, moment, is when the two of them make that decision: Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.

One more thing I love: being provoked to think about how and why policy decisions are made. It’s easy, very easy, to criticize United States policies and paradigms in domestic and international matters, and I do. And it’s very important to think about them from different angles and to develop a better understanding of the interplay of influences, inspirations, and constraints that shape these paradigms and policy decisions – which I don’t always do. I realize The West Wing is not necessarily the best place to learn about these things, but it’s certainly a valid source to include, if for no other reason than that I find it tremendously thought-provoking.

I admit though that I don’t really have any idea how realistic it is. It seems plausible, the show has political consultants, some people on the DVD special features said it was realistic… But still, how can you really say? I do know that it has romanticized American politics for me in an unrealistic way, like any compelling story of beloved characters can do for any way of life. And I do know that it’s something of a fantasy. It’s a fantasy about a White House full of people who, even if they are guided by their egos a fair amount of the time, truly care about public service, public debate, leadership, loyalty, right and wrong, and the continual development of a better and better country, for its citizens and for the world. It’s a fantasy that gives hope, even inspiration and a stronger fighting spirit.

At this point I suppose I can bring up the only two things that ever bother me about The West Wing. One is the music. The compositions themselves are fine, but I don’t like how they’re used. Thankfully we’re not in laugh track territory, but the music is sometimes almost that bad. Strings come in soft and swell just as something profound is about to be said, like a sign held up to a studio audience reading Be Moved. But, usually I am moved, so it’s not too terribly annoying. My other criticism is that sometimes, with “enemies,” I feel that the scriptwriters take the easy route to making them offensive. In the first episode a leader of the Christian right misstates the First Commandment and then heatedly demands to know what the commandment actually is. (This sets Martin Sheen up to make his first entrance, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt into a room full of suits, uttering the words, “I am the Lord your God.”) How likely is it really that a man in that position would mis-cite something that well known with such confidence? And even if it’s likely, doesn’t it seem a bit too convenient, having these people not know what they’re talking about just before we tell them off? The other example is when Charlie confronts the guys in the Georgetown bar who are harassing Zoey, and they start making inanely racist references to various hip hop artists, telling him to rap and such. It’s not totally implausible, but it does seem pretty unrealistic, and it’s an easy way to make sure we know these guys are jerks who deserve what they get. Of course, both of these scenes could happen, and they’re balanced out by plenty of occasions when the Bartlet crew make asses out of themselves or when political opponents are interesting and sympathetic characters with understandable arguments – so these few eye-rollers are not that big of a deal to me.

After every single episode, and especially after the cliffhanger at the end of #22, my sentiments could best be expressed in Bartlet’s own words: What’s next?

lakelia’s rating: 4.5 Stars

bakinakwa says: 

Watching The West Wing‘s first season, it’s hard to believe that this is television, let alone network television.  The quality of this show is easily on the level of most major motion pictures, and many it surpasses altogether.  For starters, there’s the set, which is monstrous.  I’ve never been to the White House, but this set certainly looks the part.  The music and lighting too represent a high-mark for television; these two elements, to paraphrase Martin Sheen, are like secondary characters.  The score, while at times manipulative, does an excellent job of translating what’s really going on inside a character into genuinely emotive music.  The lighting too provides a kind of psychological insight into the heart of a particular scene.  These three things make their presence felt peripherally: you don’t have to pay attention to them directly, but they work their magic on you all the same.

The fourth ingredient that makes The West Wingremarkable is Aaron Sorkin’s writing.  Sorkin has managed to create the most dynamic, compelling and flat-out watchable show on television.  This first season alone makes me incredibly eager to go back and discover Sorkin’s previous writing projects, like The American President and Sports Night.  One of the DVD extras makes a convincing argument for the symphonic nature of Sorkin’s writing, and while that may sound ridiculous it is definitely felt in the fast-paced, layered dialogue he supplies nearly every character with.  It’s almost surprising that the show was allowed to be made, such is the intelligence and depth of the writing.  The West Wing does not pander, does not assume the audience won’t be able to keep up, and those are two major differences to its credit.

The final ingredient, or at least the last one I’m writing about, is the quality of the acting.  I have never seen this level of acting on television, not from The Sopranos, not at all.  The fact that Sorkin and his casting department were able to rope in such quality actors across six co-leads is a miracle.  Much of the attention has focused on Martin Sheen, as well it should: watching him as President Bartlet feels like redemption for anyone who’s ever seen Badlands.  You might not know it from the numerous shitty roles he’s endured through the years, but Sheen is one of his generation’s truly monumental acting talents, and The West Wing finally gives Sheen a worthy outlet for that talent.  Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford and Allison Janney are all stunning as well, so stunning that it’s really hard to believe actors like this are out there, just lying around underused.  I say underused because most television, most films for that matter, are sadly not employing this caliber of actor, and no one stands in contrast to that fact more than John Spencer.  Spencer as Chief of Staff Leo McGarry is the definition of brilliance.  In nearly every episode he manages moments of indescribable emotion with the most economical of means, simple movements and unique phrasing.  A glance sideways here, a dropped syllable there, a pause, a voice barely raised and Spencer has created one of the richest characters I personally have ever been introduced to.  lakelia and I are going to have a John Spencer marathon down the road, such is the excitement with which his performance on The West Wing inspires one to discover his body of work.  Rob Lowe is the weak link among the major characters: a testament to how great his colleagues are more than a criticism of his own ability, which is to say he holds his own.  The reality is this The West Wing is an ensemble piece to end all ensemble pieces, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve already grown extraordinarily attached to each character.

Ultimately, however, The West Wing still somehow manages to be more than sum of its parts.  Its consistency is mind-blowing: episodes like “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” and the season finale “What Kind Of Day Has It Been?” take the cake, but there’s nary a dip in quality throughout the whole first season.  If for no other reason, I know that The West Wing is unique “entertainment” simply for how provocative it is.  Provocative, in fact, is the number one word I would choose to describe it.  Never have I felt more challenged, moved or inspired to really think and feel than I am regularly by this show.  The issues raised through the first season are meaningful enough to warrant deep consideration and thought, but it’s the degree to which I feel inspired beyond watching to go out and get involved in this great experiment known as democracy that says the most about the quality of The West Wing.  Granted, I can see how the show might come across to some as escapism; it is fantasy, the fantasy of hope, the fantasy of wanting and demanding more from government so badly that one is willing to take matters into their own hands.  At the end of the day, it’s less about politics than it is about the fundamental needs and desires that lead one to get involved in the first place and that not only cuts across party lines, it cuts across all lines.  I dare say, it’s universal.

bakinakwa’s rating: 4 Stars

Be Happy Something’s Happening

November 2, 2007

Schultze Gets The Blues

Schultze Gets The Blues
Directed by Michael Schorr

bakinakwa says: 

One thing lakelia and I did this summer was visit family in Germany.  We declared the month before we left German Film Month and limited our viewing to films that we thought might help to prepare us for German language and culture.  Films like Downfall and Good Bye Lenin!, among many others.  Schultze Gets The Blues was a film we intended to watch during German Film Month but, for whatever reason, we didn’t get to it before trip-time.  It’s too bad too because Schultze, more than any other film we did see, paints a straightforward portrait of the German countryside and its inhabitants, circa these days.  Of course, I only know that now, having experienced it firsthand.  In that way, I suppose seeing it after our return also worked out quite nicely.

I wouldn’t be telling the full truth if I didn’t admit that I expected something more from the film.  I attribute this to the huge splash the film made on my radar in 2005 when it finally received limited release in the United States.  At the time it felt like everywhere I turned there was Schultze with a rave review or, later, on a year-end list.  My experience with Schultze is proof positive that expectations serve no purpose quite so well as spoiling an otherwise pure reaction.  That reaction with Schultze was one of delight.  The concept, the characters, the acting, the music – I’d say everything about this film is endearing, perhaps to a fault, but certainly not in any way that takes away from its appeal. Horst Krause in the lead role is the definition of one-dimensionally charming. When he hears that new sound on the radio for the first time and cocks his head, he’s laugh-out-loud funny in the least familiar way.  He is completely watchable and relatable and by the end of the film I felt more than a little attached to him, yet his demise didn’t evoke sadness in me so much as acceptance spiked with confusion, and that’s with it being completely unexpected.

Why does this film leave one wanting more? Many will point to the pacing, which I’m sure tugged/will tug at the boundaries of the attention spans of US critics and audiences, but that wasn’t a drawback for me. Nor was the relative lack of dialogue. To wit, I read the entire script in less than five minutes, but that is no matter. No, for me Schultze disappoints for the same reason it appeals: it’s quite content to tell its simple story about the last days of a quiet, charming musician. Nothing more, nothing less. Schorr directed this film armed with the knowledge that not all lives flare out or rise to dramatic, do-you-have-any-last-words heights in their final moments. Some just stop. That’s true, and Schultze never comes off as complacent in that truth, but nor does it offer much reason to ponder that truth for much longer than the first half hour after the film ends.

There is one area in which the film succeeds unconditionally though, and that is as an aural experience. Shots of landscape and sky are accompanied by crisp, clear sounds that build until finally their cause is revealed. Minimal background is used allowing the real sounds of the story to be heard.  Ordinary sounds, from breathing, eating, walking, the wind and lawnmowers, to the sound of bicycle tires on road to, of course, Schultze’s accordion are given the utmost opportunity to make their presence felt in a natural, honest way. The main reason it’s remarkable is because other films don’t sound like this; they muck it up with expensive schlock (an oxymoron, I know) and unnecessary noise. I applaud this film for having the ears to forgo all that.  To a lesser extent than it succeeds on an aural level the film also succeeds visually: the shots of Schultze cruising the swamps (or are they marshes?) are a real feast for the eyes.

I must add, nothing Schultze plays or is exposed to in Texas sounds like the blues so much as it does Zydeco, which basically defeats the purpose of the film’s double entendre title.  Indeed, the jambalaya he prepares and most of the music used in the film support the idea that the title was chosen more for its catchiness than for its accuracy.  Anyone coming to the film expecting to see Schultze sing or play the blues will be left hanging.  Other than that, Schultze Gets The Blues is a-okay in my book.

bakinakwa’s rating: 3.5 Stars

lakelia says:

I think that when people are in an unfamiliar setting, attempting to communicate in a foreign language, there’s a childlike quality about them. I’m thinking of a few recent examples – myself, for one, arriving in Munich this summer with maybe a few more words in German than Schultze had in English, some tourists who tried to get directions from the driver of a bus I was on a few weeks ago, and Schultze himself, lucking out that “zupa-markt” sounds reasonably close to “supermarket.” Between the lack of vocabulary, the inability to have or understand nuanced conversation, especially jokes, and the earnest hope for understanding, a definite vulnerability, even innocence, comes through. This foreign lostness accounts for some of Schultze’s charm in the latter portion of the movie, but the truth is he was endearing in Germany too. The sight of him sitting in the garden near his little gnome, coughing intermittently; the expression on his face when he went back for the second and third time to hear the alarming music coming out of the radio; the way he listened obediently to the televised instructions for cooking jambalaya; and his bewilderment and self-consciousness at his newfound musical passion – all made quiet Schultze lovable from the beginning.

So it happened that as the credits to Schultze Gets the Blues started rolling, I felt saddened, a little bereft, vaguely indignant. It seemed something had been tugged suddenly away from me, a small and recent treasure that I was quickly growing very fond of. Now it was disappearing without even a just farewell. No resolution. But, no particular lack of one either. Schultze ended the way it was throughout – bare, simple, and slow, with no more or less meaning than all of our everyday experiences.

Schultze was strikingly lifelike. Great emotional and psychological events took mundane forms, and no explanation followed. Generic moments of daily life got the same cinematic treatment as Schultze’s wordless, troubled turning of his father’s picture to face the wall. The ending could be said to have been foreshadowed, or not – sometimes a cough or a radio program about what happens to coal miners’ lungs indicate something about the future, and sometimes they don’t. I know I didn’t expect it. Schultze seemed utterly realistic, and yet it was also fantastical. His meandering through the marshes had the quality of a mythological journey, from the unexplained appearance of a boat to the revolving cast of characters he came upon and asked for aid. These last few days – or weeks, or however long it was – of Schultze’s story were like a dreamy tangent from his former life. Fascinated by a foreign music, hampered by familial and cultural expectations, with an unprecedented amount of time on his hands and some supportive long-time friends, Schultze drifted away to another world, struggled silently with his memories and creativity and self-consciousness, wandered, and departed.

Some might leave this slow-paced film like most of Schultze’s acquaintances walked away in the final scene – chatting, distracted, already moving on; but I felt more like Schultze’s two closest friends, who hung back, trying to let it sink in.


lakelia’s rating: 4 Stars