Daily Film Thoughts: Just Some Quips

Nothing major to address here. I’m not very good in formulating opinion on documentaries as they’re the single genre of film that solely relies on how you take to the story they’re perpetuating and hardly much else. Slightly too serious for me to completely indulge in, but I’ll give some opinions on a few I’ve caught as of late (and a ‘normal’ film or two). Nothing extensive – just opinions.

The Cove (Louie Psihoyos, 2009)
It has been raved; it has won critics awards; it has been done. If you’ve seen the 2006 feature The Bridge you know that documentaries nowadays try to do far more with the stories they project and find themselves following a rather cinematic formula. A beginning, a middle and an end. To me, a good documentary just is and needs not the task of being a palpable. Although this mindset does work in many cases, a perfect documentary shouldn’t find it necessary to fabricate a structure to make for suspense or climax and although The Cove’s purpose is thrilling on its own, I can’t help but feel how manufactured it all feels.

You see, I don’t care how ironic the life of one man’s journey is or how filled with vanity he and his crew members aboard the SS Cinematic Expression are or even that dolphins can commit suicide. This feature works as an agitator in that if you care for animals, you’ll care for the cruelty inflicted upon them in this film. It works — as a cinematic event. Making snide references to Oceans Eleven or speaking briefly about Minimata Disease does help peak my interest about all the factors that go into a project such as this, but when the story resorts to well-intentioned, but histrionic people yelling to ‘abort the mission’ under the blanket of dawn, it all seems too false. There are moments that indicate that the filmmakers want to squeeze every bit of exhilaration into the espionage moments — and it does create for at least a tad of suspense — but it all lacks true grit. Be it because the camera jumps from different vantage points that secures one’s belief that everything will go alright when the people on camera complain that it’s not or the incessant references to the proprietor of the story, Rick O’Barry something feels very off about the feature. Perhaps if the filmmakers took an Ari Folman type angle of approaching the film — you know, Waltz With Bashir and it’s mixture of the cinematic and the nonfiction — this would have been the spectacle these men and women wanted so badly to create.

That said, his message is honest, the perspectives of lesser seen participants are endlessly touching and the angle attacking big business/corporate Japan is eye-opening and induces a sense of shame for those who haven’t done anything to stop these people… even if they had only heard of this tragedy. It’s effective, but superfluous in execution. An entertaining and informative watch, but it — and pardon the pun — feels gutted.

The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, 2009)
More full of cheese than your average patron of Wisconsin, this film is more hamfisted, obvious and rigorous in portraying the thought that *gasp* not all high society white women are snooty. Sandra Bullock plays the archetype of a, well, decent woman turned saintly thanks to finding the missing piece in her and her family’s life; a down-on-his-luck teenager who has been abandoned more times than he’s been moved along in school just so the teachers could be rid of his mental abscess.

Though it’s formulaic as all hell, Hancock finds moments of clarity that do keep this from being a clunker. An assortment of scenes that show soft spoken Michael Oher (portrayed greatly by Quinton Aaron) coming into his own do allow for a breath of fresh air, even if these scenes often do lead to moments of “well I saw that coming” being uttered from its viewers.

It isn’t particularly that the story has been played out more than a piano on Broadway – it’s that it mishandles the entire portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy, the woman who takes in the youth despite the conventions of upper-crust society looking on in disdain. A perfect example to show how Mrs. Tuohy is the epitome of a rather disgusting person is in the scene where she pushes Michael to realize his potential as a left tackle on the high school football squad. In demonstrating what role he plays to his ‘family’ on the field, she humiliates two of the athletes on the team to make her point; making jokes at their expense. Sure, it’s fine if she’s a tad foul — audiences take to a nice lady being a bit demanding and crass — but this occurs several times throughout and as it strip the goodheartedness from the lady, it begins to reveal an ugly side. Maybe she isn’t entirely reformed from her old ways, but monologues and gasping at the tragic circumstances that have befallen Michael would make appear otherwise. A complete mishandling of a character’s persona done solely to get a smirk or chuckle from its audience — and it has worked, just look at the figures the feature has been putting up at the box office. Apart from these little tests of character, Leigh Anne Tuohy is molded as the patron saint of dystrophy. It is done in an utmost condescending tone and it is no question as to why some are calling this film racist – it does suggest that young black youths escape the ghetto and pursue their dreams, but the only way that the lead character of the film is able to do this is thanks to a rich white lady. Hancock’s writing runs circles in elementary idealism that is the definition of stupidity. Oh, and that Oscar buzz for Sandra Bullock’s performance? To call her amongst the best of the year in this role would be to consider the latest voyage to the moon a spectacle.

Every Little Step (Adam Del Deo/James L. Stern, 2009)
When viewing a documentary on a specific subject such as this, it helps if you’re fond of — or even better acquainted with — the concept at hand. With the recent boom found in shows like “So You Think You Can Dance?” about the effort that goes into audition and the gravitas it takes to compose yourself through the stages of achieving a perennial status, this documentary locates and captures the exhilaration and flood of emotions that flow naturally in the world of competition. Here the competition is a result of a cast needed for a revival show of A Chorus Line — as made famous in the mid 70s.

The main issue the director has with telling the stories of A Chorus Line – both the audition process and how the original play came to be – is that he doesn’t seem to know what is important enough to give an extended scene to and what to leave on the cutting room floor. As done in many other documentaries about competition, he puts a camera on the tail of a few participants and gives a back story to them. But only a few. These segments are tawdry and detract from the natural essence that exudes from this type of environment. To me, if you’re not going to highlight everyone’s reason for being there, don’t give the advantage to some. It’s manipulation to make you root for who the director wants you to root for and it feels as cheap as cardboard does rough; faintly, but noticeable.

The editing is also a tad mixed up. The duo slice together archive footage (of it all is contained segments about the first session recorded on tape that got the whole play going in motion) of Michael Bennett and how much of a character he was into the story jaggedly. It feels as if they looked at a documentary about the struggles of the stage and went “We need to add something extra to keep this from becoming like these vapid television shows”, and so they added the story behind the story. It works in that it does add more meat to chew on, but it also made me feel that a documentary devoted to the creative process of the play and Michael Bennett himself would’ve made for a more compelling subject.

It’s a fluffy documentary of the pedestrian kind that doesn’t do anything to incite a mind to ponder, but there is a good atmosphere generated by the ordeal of it all and a few nice quips about life that I found interesting (“I feel if you have something to fall back on, you’ll fall back” – one of the women audition in regards to what it takes to achieve what you want in life) that keep the 93 minutes rolling along nicely. Recommended to those that know the stress that comes with auditioning or people just generally interested about Broadway. It doesn’t take risks so it neither fails nor achieves greatness.

Seraphine (Martin Provost, 2009)
I had seen this before it won Best Actress at Los Angeles Film Critic Award, so to see the woman playing Seraphine, Yolande Moreau win that award sparked a variety of emotions within me; delight, annoyance and confused. Some were predicting Moreau to pick up an award or two through the season and the trailer was interesting, so I checked it out (plus Metacritic’s score for the film wasn’t bad either).

The story is inspiring, but dire – it oozes the essence that is found only in French cinema and if you hadn’t ever seen a French film before and picked up Marvin Provost’s latest in Seraphine, you’d have had a crash course in French filmmaking throughout the decades. Is it the best example of what France has to offer? Of course not, but it does offer insight into perilous times the French encountered during World War I, a definitive example of religious strain pushing people to greatness and beyond, as well as being (plainly put) a finely tuned, but organic little feature about life and doing what you love. It’s dismal, but embarks on a way of storytelling that Hollywood dares not to. This is highlighted by creating Seraphine to simply be a person in the world and not some great figure that was found out one day. She stays true to herself throughout and you happily feel as she feels because there has been no tampering of personification or cheap attempts at causing you sympathy that is often conjured in those dime a dozen melodramas.

Of course, this isn’t a perfect film. Tedium rises on occasion with the prolonged scenes of her in church or thinking about painting and stressing of her relationships with those she hardly associates with – outside of art critic Willhelm Uhde (played wonderfully by Ulrich Tukur) – like her landlady or other housekeepers does grow tiresome. It is an issue that Seraphine didn’t lead a particularly interesting life and that this film is exponentially more educational about culture than anything new to cinema, but it does find comfort zones between the unrequited romantic relationship between Seraphine and Mr. Uhde, as well as containing some of the most poignant cinematography the year has provided. Provost designs the world Seraphine admires from within so tactfully that to understand her inspiration for wanting to be a painter is to understand yourself. There are few ravishing shots, but it is the simplicity in arrangement that created this illustrious allure and the calmness of telling such a story that subsided any tedium-induced boredom I felt. A nice film that avoids the garish and sticks to what it knows — and that’s one lovely sentiment.

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