Thursday, June 30, 2011

Suspension (2008)

     Though billed as a Sci-Fi piece about a man who discovers he can stop time, Suspension (2008) is more of a deeply effective and insightful presentation of obsession.  It acknowledges the "I don't know why" early feelings and motivations to be a positive part of the object's life (and I cannot think of a better term for how obsession absolutely dehumanizes the people upon whom it is focused).  It highlights the easy path into questionable and illegal behavior under the guise of having the right to take such actions because the need to do them is so strong.  It doesn't shrink away from how the intensity of an obsession can lead the afflicted to believe that it can only be love, that it must be a miraculous, strong, and undeniable love that must be made real.
     Suspension effectively starts with work-a-day family man Daniel Bennet (Scott Cordes) awakening from an auto accident that has killed his wife and teenage son.  His entire world shattered, Daniel is left emotionally adrift and attempts to navigate the early transition from pre-accident to post-accident as well as he can.  He understandably makes himself distant from friends and absent from work, choosing instead to spend time in his house mourning what he has lost.  In his exploration of his son's belongings he comes across a video camera (VHS) that has the ability to stop time.  He doesn't know what to do with it at first.
     Daniel has chance to encounter Sarah Caine (Annie Tedesco), the widow of the man who caused the accident that ended Daniel's family.  Daniel decides to not pursue a lawsuit against Sarah, in his mind imaging that, because of the accident, the two of them share some transcendental bond.  Daniel becomes obsessed with Sarah.  He moves out of his house -- an especially vivid depiction of how his obsession is driving him from his old, stable, normal behaviors.  He keeps an eye on Sarah without her knowledge (easy to do when he can control time).  His behavior grows darker throughout the film, but it always feels like the real progression an obsessive experiences, especially when there is no outside force keeping the obsession in check.
     Directors Alec Joler and Ethan Shaftel do an amazing job with the limited budget.  The locations (the movie was filmed in Kansas) have a very anywhere in America feel to them.  Both leads, Cordes and Tedesco, fully inhabit their roles.  Cordes especially gives Daniel an air of cool, sometimes calculating, menace.  Tedesco plays Annie with understandable vulnerability and a strong survival instinct.  A few of the supporting cast distract from the tone with substandard performances, but not enough to draw the audience from the suspension of disbelief the film has banked by those points.
    I would caution any viewer going in expecting more from the Sci-Fi angle.  The camera is a plot device that allows for Daniel to indulge in his obsessive thoughts and behaviors.  It drives the movie forward because it is what helps Daniel have the access to Sarah's life to realize his desires.  As such, a viewer not especially incline to Sci-Fi may just as easily dismiss the implications of the camera as a Sci-Fi fan could ponder them.  Suspension is, quite frankly, the best film representation of obsession I have ever seen on film.  While it may not be a fun movie to watch, it is a rewarding experience.
[Suspension is available from Netflix by DVD and streaming.]

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Restrepo (2010)

    Restrepo (2010) could best be described as footage in search of a point.  Not so much a glance into the real war in Afghanistan as a jumbled, but rather somehow emotionally distant collection of on-site footage and post deployment interviews.  Right or wrong, Restrepo makes the American soldiers appear to unworldly, albeit well-trained (if not supported) for combat, pawns in a political strategy that has no clear method of succeeding.
     I cannot fault the combat camera work; were people shooting anywhere near me, I would not at all be concerned where my camera was pointing (even if those were the shots which I was endeavoring to capture).  Yet it is the lack of kinetic impact that makes this seem listless and without urgency.  Instead of giving the viewer a better understanding of who Juan "Doc" Restrepo was (or even how his name came to be chosen for the outpost), he is simply the most mentioned of the early casualties of Battle Company.  This decision leaves the project without any emotional weight -- absent what the viewer may bring to it based upon feeling about the war in Afghanistan or war in general -- and can leave the audience asking the unfortunate question: "Why do I care about these people?".  That question is wholly in mind as the death a Staff Sergeant is supposed to bring some emotional weight but instead makes one particular soldier appear to be unable to endure the stress of combat and the loss of his NCO while the rest of the men continue to do their jobs.  To me -- and I am shocked at my response -- I found this affected soldier to be weak, to be a detriment to those around him for losing his shit before the fighting was done.  It had the wrong kind of emotional impact.
     While there is no doubt that much of the tension these men are experiencing lies in waiting for someone to attack them, that doesn't translate in this film.  The most evocative and effective footage of the film shows up at the two and half minutes in and is not only never matched, but not even approximated in the remaining hour and a half.  The roughhousing and crude camaraderie of the men plays as juvenile.  The interactions between the locals (shuras) showcase the lack of understanding and cooperation on both sides, which is undoubtedly accurate but without any further insight to what this actually means for the stated goal of the mission in the Korengal Valley.
     In watching Restrepo, I felt neither emotionally invested nor intellectually satisfied that I had achieved a better understanding of what these men had gone through.  I didn't feel the weight of time on these men as they lived for over a year with daily attacks on their OPs and even more on their patrols.  I felt I was left with an immature, semi-professional assemblage of footage and added (and much needed) follow-up interviews that simply didn't contribute a better understanding of the men or the mission.  I know this film has received a lot of love, but my advice would be to find a better documentary or seek out one of the better books written about the war in Afghanistan (to date).

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Black Death (2010)

     Black Death (2010) is a mildly entertaining sword & blood, medieval-looking story for about an hour or so. Then the action stops cold and the audience is treated to some lengthy leaden dialog and torture. It closes with a disconnected voice-over (the VO is personal pet-peeve and I find that stronger writers/directors know how to avoid it). It does have some deft camera work and good choreography for an early fight scene. But the acting is uninspired and the pacing leaves much to be desired. The costumes, also, gave the feel of a project on the cheap (while the rest of the production felt like it was a mid-budget independent film). I have a feeling that this would have made for a better short story or novella. There are some attempts to be clever that come off as non-committal which probably would have worked better in print.

Mongol (2007)

     Sergei Bodrov's seemingly revisionist (I am not particularly strong on Temujin's personal history, but much of this version feels different and arbitrarily changed from what I have read) take on Genghis Khan features beautiful cinematography, well-done (if not breathtaking) effects, and fine acting. The story is told in a somewhat haphazard manner, leaving out many important moments -- I'm supposing these would appear later in the trilogy -- in order to focus on "Temudjin" the man who is dominated by his "love" for his bride. I clearly did not understand some of the imagery, but I don't think that affected my appreciation for the look of the film.
     I was disappointed with Bodrov's direction and Staenberg & Óskarsdóttir's editing, making a film that could have at once been both a sweeping epic and intimate portrait (into the driving forces behind one of the world's most successful warlords) into a lumbering, too-modern feeling homage to a figure largely unexamined even as he was being presented. I would probably give the next movie a chance, but I am hoping for tighter storytelling.

Bigger Stronger Faster* (2008)

     Bigger Stronger Faster (2008) has the feel of a less angry, less manipulative Michael Moore documentary, right down to director and front-man Chris Bell's nasal Great Lakes accent.  Starting with the proposition that the muscle-bound stars -- especially including the professional wrestlers of the then WWF -- of the early-to-mid 1980s inspired a generation of children to do anything to look like them, BSF* takes the viewer through the world of steroid culture (which has demonizers and apologists) and American sports culture with the conclusion seeming to be that there is no comfortable workaround for the twin "American" desires for victory (competitiveness) and integrity.  
     The viewer may be left with the impression that anabolic steroids are something that every serious athlete or gym rat should be taking.  Bell's arguments against the use seem flimsy, outside condemnations backed by the Bible or his father's views on attaining one's potential by honest means.  However, Bell does make every effort to present both sides of the issue; the time dedicated to the pro-use camp is larger because the general awareness of the American citizen is that steroids are "bad" and will "kill you".  BSF* rightfully acknowledges that there are no long-term studies on the use of anabolic steroids (and there will be no controlled studies) because: a) those studies would be deemed unethical, and b) anabolic steroids are illegal without a prescription, making the majority of people using them for muscle mass gain and maintenance criminals.
     The one sad conclusion one can draw from Bell's brothers -- perhaps attributable to other steroid users -- is that there are twin driving forces of narcissism (because it goes well beyond vanity) and dependence at play when it comes to their on-going use.  It is striking that the steroid users interviewed continuously caution against children using steroids but believe it is the responsible course of action for adults seeking better physical performance, even when many of these people began using in their mid-teens.  The sensible arguments here are that teens do not have the means to ensure their product is safe, that the correct amount is being administered, or that the cycles are being adhered to.  None of those are made, though.  There is a complicity here, one that nicely dovetails with those who would wipe sports-related steroid use from the face of the earth, in trying to keep things pure and honest for the children.  It is a fantasy, but it is this very fantasy that Bell struggles to comprehend throughout the project.
     It is clear that Bell has some more to learn as a film maker.  His pacing is iffy at times.  He often leaves a question half asked and may or may not return to it later.  But, like Moore, he has done an excellent job of acquiring existent footage from other sources and using it to frame his vision in a very professional and entertaining manner.  While overlong by at least fifteen minutes, BSF* is a solid effort and well worth the time for anyone interested in an ambitious layperson's adventure into the connection between American culture and steroid use.

Gigging Frogs?

If anybody has ever used the practice of "gigging frogs" to impress a woman, please let me know.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

No, it is not...

How funny is it that almost immediately after I write my first post here that Netflix decides to eliminate the context in which it existed?  Maybe a little.

I wonder what I'll waste time doing now if I cannot identify who is writing what.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A lack of confidence

     Few things can sap your self-confidence as much as being told the position you have, the job you do and do quite well, no longer needs you.  Learning that you are replaceable isn't that bad; it can free you to pursue other, loftier goals.  But hearing that your hard work, your dedication, and your (perceived) excellence doesn't really matter to your now former employer.
     We don't want to be dismissed.  We don't want to be told, or shown, that those who are much less reliable, less competent, and less professional get to keep earning their paychecks while you have to go and search out a new source of income.  And it is the sting of this dismissal that leaves us weak, almost queasy as we step into whatever interviews come next.  When you go on an interview while still employed, you are filled with confidence and the knowledge that you are seeking a change for your benefit.  When you go in without a job, you are filled with a sense -- one that will not go away no matter how much you wish it -- that this potential employer may decide, like the one before it, that you are not worthy of consideration.  You may be judged as lacking no matter how well or over-qualified you are for a position.
     What makes it worse are that there are not an excess of positions out there for people to take.  The judgments that come now, while still as likely to be wrong as before 2008, can have the devastating effect of keeping you unemployed for an extended period of time.  Will you be willing to take a position that you know will frustrate you, hamper your search for better positions in the future, and that pays substantially less than you need simply because having an (immediate) income is imperative?
     What became of the Stormtroopers after the Empire fell?  It seems that having a gun and a good deal of civil unrest is good for the mercenary/thug market, but I wouldn't wish for that.  Here's hoping that things can turn around for this country, because killing off the job market is killing American confidence.

Tiger kittens never learn to purr.

     It is hard to argue that large, fierce, and scary as all hell predators be allowed to roam free.  A type of lion (perhaps the prehistoric cave lion) used to roam in England.  Central France used to be rife with packs of wolves.  The Siberian Tiger, according to National Geographic's Tigers of the Snow (1997), used to roam from the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, into eastern Mongolia, north to the Stanovoy Mountain Range, and east to the Sea of Japan.  Much of this area is now settled and populated.  It would be downright irresponsible to allow massive predators to roam about to feed off of your livestock or pets.  So how does one make the argument that the Russian government needs to make an effort to preserve the Siberian Tiger? 
     Unfortunately, Tigers of the Snow doesn't make much of an argument.  At time of production, the estimated wild Siberian Tiger population was estimated at a mere 300 (which would mean that even if the species were to survive, it would face a worse genetic bottle-necking than the cheetah did); the World Wildlife Organization places the wild population at approximately 450.  It is noted the the Soviet system did a much better job of keeping poachers from decimating the population (selling the "parts" as medicine in Asia, and the pelts to whoever had the money to buy one).  Indeed, it would appear that this immense predator would just prefer be rid of man and left to inhabit the mountains and forests of eastern Siberia.  Those forests, however, are filled with valuable timber and that habitat (at the size the tigers require) will not endure.
     What of the film?  It is more an examination of dedicated, but underfunded scientists risking their lives (and the lives of the tigers they tranquilize) in an effort to both understand and preserve the species.  Much of the movie is men moving about the forest (or in helicopters) with radio tracking devices -- which reminded me of Red Dawn (1984).  Men perform artificial respiration on a tiger (this seems insanely dangerous) and move a foreleg up and down to try to stimulate breathing in order to ensure one being fitted with a radio collar will survive the encounter.  We learn that tigers in captivity are still wild but perhaps somewhat confused by both what humans do (insert a fake tiger into the environment to test territoriality) and their own instincts. There is an absolutely heartbreaking scene of neglected tiger cubs -- apparently common in captivity -- having to be rescued from a den and attempts to keep one alive. 
     The camera work is nowhere near the quality of the BBC productions such as Life (2009), Planet Earth (2007), or Blue Planet (2001).  Richard Kiley makes a great narrator (of course), but he doesn't have a great script with which to work.  The simple fact of the matter is that there is so much we don't understand about these creatures, or even that we might not understand the meaning of what we do know (tiger kittens never learn to purr), that the viewer is left with a sense of awe of the creatures, admiration of those involved in trying to keep the species alive, but an utter sadness that more money is spent on a league-minimum baseball player than in funding the operation that keeps two of the tigers in captivity.  More of a last-generation documentary, but good nonetheless.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Is this helpful?

     If you have a fair amount of free time and don't want to spend it doing something worthwhile -- charity work, exercise, learning a craft, mastering an intensive hobby, reading something more substantive than Stephanie Meyer or J.K. Rowling -- you may find yourself, as I have, distracted by Netflix.
     However, I have become oddly fascinated (and, at the same time extremely frustrated) with the customer reviews of movies and television shows.  There are many things which could draw my attention here, but I tend to focus on three trends that make me wonder if I am part of the same viewing community as the people offering up their reviews.
     First, a good number of reviewers are all too happy to inform everyone that they were so frustrated/disappointed/enraged by the film or show in question that they did not watch it to conclusion (frequently mentioning that they turned it off within the first 5-10 minutes).  This seems, to my mind at least, to be an immediate disqualification for reviewing a subject.  I am not asking people to suffer through to the end, but if you gave up on the movie (or show), maybe you aren't qualified to speak to the overall value -- or lack thereof -- of the product.  If you abandoned the movie, give it the 1 star rating and be on your way. If you insist on writing a review that is essentially a grievance, there are ways to make it appear as legitimate criticism.  I would point to AS 1746221's review of Black Death (2010):
                 "Sadly, I cannot review this film on its merits. All I can say is that they 
                  invented the Steady-Cam for a reason. I haven't gotten this motion sick 
                  off a non-3D film ever. [Fifteen] minutes in and I had to shut it off."
Now, this isn't as much a criticism as it is an overstatement of a pet peeve, but it informs the potential viewer that there is shaky-cam in the movie and that it was handled in such a manner that AS 1746221 found it to be a major distraction from the story and action of the film.
     Second, many people feel the need to inform other Netflix subscribers how a movie falls inline with -- or is horribly opposed to -- their political and/or religious views, and little else when reviewing it.  Many people have somehow made it well into their adulthood without realizing that there are many people who do not subscribe to their ideologies, or they feel that the reviews on Netflix is the proper forum to champion their causes.  I would point to qqr 824293'sreview of Black Death (2010) as a prime example of this:

                  "Probably worth a look for those of you who are subtle readers. This in 
                   fact is a clear enunciation of a brutal truth: that the truest evil in the 
                   past 200-years of this world is religion itself. A elucidation, if you will, 
                   that nothing has driven more evil into the world; nothing has de-valued 
                   life to a greater extent than the worship of well as the backlash 
                   to that cult. In all, a very deep treatment of a fact that our modern cults 
                   have happily brushed under the carpet. This movie is well directed, well 
                   written and well acted. Metaphorically speaking, the Black Death might 
                   be seen, in this viewer's humble opinion, as fanatical worship, itself. One 
                   might only complain that it ought to have been shot on film. S. Bean might 
                  have cost them a bit too many dollars, and that likely impacted the overall 
                  quality--but alas, that sort of thing is a well-known trade-off in itself. Props 
                  to these actors for sticking with a movie that ought to have been a film. 
What the other members are told here is that religion is a horrible plague born into communities by foreign (or at least, not-local) travelers and leaves only death an misery in its wake.  This may be an informed opinion (I happen to disagree with its simplicity), and it tangentially related to movie in question, but it is also an attack on what may be the core beliefs and inform the principles of the other members who are looking for some level of insight as to whether they may enjoy watching something.  This doesn't seem particularly helpful.
     That brings me to those little buttons underneath the reviews others took the time to write: You found this review [Helpful]  [Not Helpful]  [Inappropriate].  It would appear that many people understand this metric to mean [This agrees with my esteem for the movie], [This somehow runs contrary to my esteem for the project OR This disagrees with the rating I gave the movie], and [How dare you!].  Most reviews are only read by a few people, and even then only within the short window when they are displayed on the first couple of pages of reviews; nobody is sifting through 58 pages of TRON:  Legacy reviews to decide if they should see the picture.  It is, without a doubt, a bit of an ego-stroke to see that other people read what you wrote and agreed with you (or at least clicked the [Helpful] button).  For that matter, it is a little bit of an ego-stroke just to see how many people voted on what you wrote. Still, I really don't think people are evaluating the quality of the review as much as they are voting for the ratings that fall in line with their own estimation.
     At any rate, I have taken the time to write some reviews -- I think most of them are underwhelming, but honest efforts to evaluate both the product and my level of appreciation and/or enjoyment of it.  I think I am going to be cross-posting them to here, along with my musings on books, current events, and general outlook on a life that has been largely wasted up to this point.  But rather than change that, I can always go and watch something from Netflix.