Better Late Than Never: Hoop Dreams

I watch TV when I exercise. Typically I watch one hour television programs (which actually run about 40 minutes). However, television programmers seem to be losing the ability of showing compelling fare. So, care of Netflix’ “Watch Instantly” service, I’ve been discovering media that has passed me by. My most recent Netflix selection was Hoop Dreams (Netflix, IMDB), a documentary film about two high school freshmen from Chicago’s inner city who are angling to make it in the NBA. As a fan of both basketball and doc films, it’s pathetic that I has not seen this sooner — I think the 171 minute (!) running time scared me away, as it seemed like such a commitment.

It turns out you can break that up into about 4 exercise-length viewings, and that ended up working out quite well. There’s a naturally episodic quality to the film, as it follow Arthur and William year by year. The story the filmmakers uncovered is remarkable, with twists and turns, ups and downs, highs and lows, and very real drama. Hoop Dreams is about so many things — family, race issues, class issues, basketball, motherhood, fatherhood, coming of age — but really what it’s about is America, thick and thin, better and worse. You have to give huge kudos to the filmmakers who stuck with this for four-plus years (and doubtless had so many hours of tape shot that figuring out how to pull together a story must have been beyond daunting), but you also have to show respect for the the film’s two subjects, who make *something* of themselves against extraordinary countervailing pressures.

Anyway, don’t be like me. If you have any inkling of interest in this film, but haven’t seen it yet, do not put off watching it.

Movie Review: Exit Through The Gift Shop

Care of Netflix’s Watch Instantly service, I just finished Exit Through the Gift Shop (Netflix, IMDB),a fun, and strange, documentary on street art, psychosis, the idiocy of the art world, and Banksy. The focus of the documentary is Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles with his wife and children. He’s something of a videomaniac, continuously recording his life. Through a familial connection, he uncovers the world of street art, which then becomes his obsession, first to document, and then to produce. He crosses paths with Shepard Fairey (of OBEY/GIANT and the Obama Hope poster fame), and, most notably Banksy, perhaps the most notorious street artist in the world.

The film tells the tale of how, at Banksy’s urging, Guetta stopped filming the world of street art, and started making some of his own. Under the moniker Mr BrainWash, he briefly engages in the kind of paste-ups and stenciling the Fairey and Banksy have made famous, but then quickly decides to have his own giant warehouse show. The lark being, his warehouse show, typically the kind of thing that comes after an artist works for years, if not decades, but for him happens after just months, is an overwhelming success.

More then anything, the film is fun. Street art is a great subject, what with all the surreptitious evening shoots and people going where they shouldn’t, doing things they shouldn’t be doing. Guetta is a great subject — outrageous French accent, seemingly crazy, but also with a strange ability to get others to rally in his support and pull off this monstrous show. I actually found that part endearing, because it spoke to a kind of karma — Guetta had given much of himself, his time, and his resources to help other street artists, and they ended up supporting him, too.

A conceit of the film is that it was originally going to be a film by Guetta about street art, but then became a film by Banksy about Guetta. This is important because a one of the film’s main themes is that, well, the art world is a load of bollocks. It starts small, with video of Banksy infiltrating the Tate with his art, then the ascendant rise of street art as a subject of auctions, culminating in Mr Brainwash’s surprisingly popular show, given he had no real art bona fides.

This has lead some to think the whole point of the film is for Banksy to flash a big “up yours” to the art world.

Some have even gone so far as to say the entire Guetta/Mr Brainwash story is a hoax or prank, perpetrated by Bansky and Fairey, to prove their point. A stance I find appalling, because, really, there is no evidence whatsoever of a prank. However, there’s a sad class of smart-erati who live in fear of being duped, and in order to demonstrate their smartness, level accusations such as “prank” or “hoax” on such things. Regardless of whether there is evidence. Really, this kind of thinking is no different than conspiracy theorists, piecing together a set of insubstantial “evidence” as a demonstration of a diabolical master plan.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a fun, quirky, pointed diversion, Exit Through the Gift Shop is definitely worth a look.

Movie review: UP IN THE AIR

About a week ago, Stacy and I saw Up in the Air for one of our cherished (and too seldom) nights out (well, it was an afternoon out, but close enough). I enjoyed director Jason Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking and felt that his Juno was better than the other 2007 best picture nominees that I had seen (yes, including No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood), and so was looking forward to his latest. And I knew a fair bit about the movie going into it — if you listen to public radio podcasts about movies and entertainment, Reitman had been on all of them.

This is probably his weakest effort of his three films. It’s not a bad movie, and I thought it was basically okay. I was never bored, and didn’t want to leave midway, which for me is a sign that the film has something going for it. But the idea that Up in the Air is seriously considered a Best Picture candidate, much less considered the odds-on favorite, is appalling. That such a trifle, a wisp of a film is accorded such plaudits confuses me (until I look at the other candidates and realize, Hoo-boy, this was a lame year for movies.)

My dad’s tweet about the film captures my feelings pretty well: “UP IN THE AIR is a balloon filled with the hot stuff; it justs floats aloft, going nowhere fast, then deflates and crashes with a dull thud.” And I don’t mind that for the first 2/3rds or so the film goes nowhere. But, yeah, when it decides that it needs a resolution, it turns a corner toward an unfulfilling climax and denouement.

I think where Reitman fell down was a matter of tone. As he explained in his various interviews, the film was first conceived in a pre-recession world, and was originally planned to play a lot more arch, perhaps more like Thank You For Smoking. The recession hits, and no longer can you play laying people off for laughs. However, Reitman couldn’t let go of the humor altogether (it’s clearly his natural inclination), and so you get this tonal mish-mosh, and the movie loses its emotional resonance. Compare that with The Informant!, a similarly-scaled film, also relying on a movie star to carry it, but where the director (Steven Soderbergh) unwaveringly struck the same amplified tone throughout the entire film.

All that said, there is one remarkably powerful element in Up in the Air, one that struck me on first viewing, and has haunted me since. As Reitman explained in interviews, most of the people we see getting laid off in the film are people who actually had been recently laid off, and were asked to re-create the horrible moment of their firing. There’s one guys in particular, an African-American man, who’s eye starts twitching uncontrollably, and asks the firer: “What are you going to do this weekend? You have money in your bank? You got gas in your gas tank? You going to take your kids out to Chuck E. Cheese?” That man’s performance (and it’s hard to call it a performance because it doesn’t at all seem “performed”) floored me. It’s the one thing in that entire movie that stuck with me more than a couple hours later.

Movie review: Objectified

I was hesitant to comment about Objectified, until I realized the people reading this blog are potentially interested in this documentary film about industrial design, directed by Gary Hustwit, who made the Helvetica.

Sadly, the film is simply not worth seeing. I say “sadly,” because I think there’s demand for a smart film on this subject. In fact, there’s demand for smart films on a range of design issues. Objectified, though, is a surprisingly disappointing collection of talking heads. It’s a bloodless film that communicates little passion for design. Hustwit has no discernible point of view, and simply presents a bunch of voices that add up to nothing. And the most compelling voice (and the only one truly critical of the role of industrial design), Rob Walker, gets perhaps the least amount of screen time.

I identified two primary flaws with the film.

1. The subjects were boring to watch
Unlike Helvetica, which had some quirky personalities and energy, the talking heads in this film were even-keeled energy sucks. The most obvious attempt at quirk, Karim Rashid, was simply insufferable.

2. Trying to do too much
It turns out “industrial design” covers so many potential topics, and Hustwit cruises over too many too fast. Whereas Helvetica had a remarkably narrow focus, Objectified touches on mass production, mass consumption, sustainability, interaction design, design processes, design as identity, and much much more.

Pretty much the only coherent thing about the film is that male industrial designers have an… interesting… relationship to facial hair, and closely-cropped head hair. There’s something going on there, but I can’t quite figure out what.

Movie review: Anvil! The Story of Anvil

Maybe it was because I was travel-tired when I saw it on the Virgin Atlantic flight to London, but the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil actually made me well up with tears. Most commentary on the film refers to it as “the real Spinal Tap,” and while there are similar moments of absurdity and tragedy (shouting matches with booking agents; way-undersold shows; Anvil’s drummer actually named Robb Reiner), there are also remarkably touching moments, largely centered around a couple of guys who simply won’t let go of a dream, no matter what shit life throws at them. Other themes include the importance of familial love and care; best friends who love each other no matter what; and the Jewish immigrant experience. Definitely worth seeing.

Movie Review: Slumdog Millionaire

Hold on to your hat, Andrew, as I’m about to proffer my second positive film review in a row!

On Christmas, my dad and I went to see Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s latest, set in India, mostly in Mumbai. If you’re looking for a good flick to watch this weekend, I heartily recommend it.

The heart of the film is exceedingly simple, a combination of “boy meets girl, boy loses girl,” and a tale of brothers taking different paths. On top of that simplicity, Boyle weaves intricate exposition with flashbacks, parallel stories, multiple film styles, all strung together by the Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? game that drives the movie.

Though ultimately joyful, and often fun, be prepared to witness brutality — this is not a standard happy Christmastime flick.

Though made long before the recent tragedy in Mumbai, the film has uncomfortable echoes of that situation — the initial incident that propels the entire movie involves anti-Muslim violence. You realize just how long and deep the animosity runs.

The film deserves an audience, and it provides enough of a cinematic experience to warrant theater viewing.

Movie Review: Synecdoche, New York

For the first time since the birth of our son, Jules, last night Stacy and I went out on a date to see a movie, handing the kid into the very capable hands of a babysitter friend. Given the rarity of this occasion, I scanned Metacritic to make the most of this choice. I dismissed our initial impulses towards safe, fun, and likely forgettable (Quantum of Solace) and we instead saw something that has polarized critics, Synecdoche, New York. Charlie Kaufman is not a slam dunk for me (I loved Eternal Sunshine, and deplored Adaptation), but I know that this movie would incite passionate response.

Well, this morning I woke up still thinking about the movie, which I take as a sign of remarkable success. Though I cannot say that I loved Synecdoche, it has captivated me, and I find myself turning characterizations and story points over in my mind.

Other reviews acknowledge how this film shares many similar themes with Kaufman’s other work (memory, neurosis, love, melancholy) though one crucial quality they neglect to point out is silliness. Whether it’s the New Jersey Turnpike in Being John Malkovich, the stoned techs in Eternal Sunshine, or in this movie, Tom Noonan’s initial appearances, or the house on fire, Kaufman revels in the silly. It’s probably worth remembering that Kaufman got his start in TV sitcoms, and he can still make an audience laugh. I don’t mean to suggest that silliness implies a lack of depth — in Kaufman’s world, it becomes a tool or irony or absurdity, the humor forcing us to reconsider just what it is that we’re seeing.

What most surprised me about this film, compared to Kaufman’s earlier work, is how he engages with the body. From the moment of Olive’s bright green poo, to the Caden’s head trauma, pustules, bloody urine, the therapist’s feet, tattoos, flab, thinning hair, and more, this Cronenberg-ian in it’s bodily obsessions.

The other filmmaker that came to my mind was David Lynch, in terms of the matter-of-fact surrealism that abounds. Perhaps Bunuel would be a more apt reference. This will be the single quality that most frustrates most viewers, because today’s audiences can’t handle the truly fantastic. Explanations are required. So, for example, *why* is Hazel’s house on fire? *Why* is there a divorced man living in its basement? The answer is, “Because.” I found that it felt right, and went with its flow.

The construction of the film made me think of Joseph Cornell’s assemblages. It’s remarkably taut, precise, and eclectic.

For the bulk of the film, I found the narrative to be so cerebral that while I was intrigued by what I was seeing, I wasn’t emotionally invested. That began to shift in the last quarter or so, where the heart-tugging actually worked. The performances in the film are solid throughout, but Dianne Wiest, who comes in around that last quarter, is amazing, and takes the movie to a whole new emotional depth.

(I must say I also love seeing Tom Noonan get a meaty role. His screen presence is so compelling, and pretty much always rewarding.)

Anyway, if you care about cinema, and are dismayed at how few filmmakers are trying to do anything interesting with the form or medium, I recommend viewing Synecdoche. You might not like it, but you won’t help but have a strong reaction.