Thursday, April 22, 2010

Prom Night In Mississippi (2009)

Authors note: I started writing this review on April 10. I was anticipating it being finished by the next day. But, as it often is, the best laid plans of mice and men often go arwy. I finished half of the review, but was unable to finish the other half until about five minutes ago. My real life got in the way, and I have been busy. My goal is to become more regular with this blog in the coming months.
Also, I'm not really happy with the way this review is written. I do not feel that it is my best work. But check it out anyway, and tell me what you think. Now that I've gotten that message out of the way, (and everyone has likely stopped reading by now), on with the review:

I’m a fan of documentaries. They are always interesting to watch, shedding light on interesting people and events. I also watch documentaries that bring important issues to the forefront of the Western consciousness, that call for changes in the way our society acts. Prom Night in Mississippi, directed by Paul Saltzman, falls into the latter category, with a story of discrimination that is sadly still common today.

I watched the documentary this week after reading the latest news story about Constance McMillen. McMillen, for those who haven’t been paying attention, went to the administration of the Itawamba County School District asking permission to take her girlfriend to the senior prom and to wear a tuxedo. How does this school district in 2010 respond? By canceling the prom and trying to blame McMillian for it. After rightfully getting sued by the ACLU for this, the school reinstates the regular prom, but organizes a private prom for the rest of the student body, presumably so they don’t have to be in the same room as a same-sex couple. Total number of students attending the school sponsored prom: seven. The theme of separate proms runs both in the film and this recent news story, showing that some places in America still have a long way to go before equality for all can be achieved.

Charleston, Mississippi was one of the last places in America to desegregate high schools (this happened in 1970). But, one of the last things that remained segregated was the senior prom. The schools would hold a prom for both black and white students. In 1997, Morgan Freeman, a resident of Charleston, heard about this, and spoke out against these proms. He even made the school board an offer – he’d pay for the prom if they integrated it. He was turned down. Students started to pressure the school board, and finally, in 2008, the school accepted Freeman’s offer.

The documentary looks at the struggles that people had in making the integrated prom a reality. The school and students have to deal with pressure from certain groups of parents and students, who don’t want the prom to go on. Some students, who were speaking out against the racism, were interviewed in shadow, obviously worried about the potential harm that could happen to them if their identity was public. Many of the students were open to the idea of the prom. It was the parents that were against it. A group of white parents even held a whites-only prom in private, similar to what happened in the McMillan case. Saltzman is unable to film inside the white-prom, but finds a creative way around it. Whenever Saltzman can’t film an event, the film will shift in art style. He will have a person relate what happened, and show the events in stylized comic form. It is a creative idea for a documentary filmmaker to use in order to work around the limitations he may encounter.

There is one really interesting story in the film, concerning the interracial couple at the prom. The film interviews the father of the white girl, who is going to the prom with her black boyfriend. The father admits that he is prejudiced, and he has problems with his prejudice, but he will do anything for his daughter. It is powerful stuff, and gives the documentary an emotional centre.
At the end, the prom goes well. Prom Night in Mississippi was an interesting film, and very eye-opening. It shows that we still have a long way to go for true equality to happen, but we see that each passing generation is making changes, and doing their best to make bigotry a thing of the past. But, work still needs to be done to ensure that everyone, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, are able to receive the same rights that the majority of the population has.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008)

The next movie that I have decided to review is a different one. It didn’t make as big of a splash at the box office as other movies, it wasn’t an award winning movie, and stars quite possibly the most disliked actor today. But, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist kind of holds a special place in my heart; it was a movie that reminds me of my last relationship; just two young kids bonding over music. Of course, the relationship ended a few months after we watched the movie, but I haven’t let this cloud my perception of the film. It’s a flawed film; many films are, but I enjoyed it.

Right away, you can tell that the filmmaker’s were going for a Juno vibe. The first person you see is one of the film’s co-stars, Michael Cera. There is a partially animated opening credits-sequence with similar font. The soundtrack is comprised of seemingly every band deemed “Best New Music” on, and a couple of these artists appear in the film (Devendra Banhart and Bishop Allen). It even has Diablo Cody style wannabe dialogue that you can’t imagine anyone would say in real life. Perhaps that is a reason why the film didn’t do as well at the box-office as it should have.

Cera plays Nick, the only straight member of the queercore band The Jerk-Off’s. At the start of the movie he has been dumped by his girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena), who, as revealed later, has been cheating on him for their entire relationship. Nick still hasn’t gotten over the relationship, and keeps making mix-CD’s for Tris. She doesn’t appreciate them. Norah (Kat Dennings), thinks Nick is the coolest guy ever based solely on his music taste. The two of them meet by accident at the Jerk-Off’s show after Norah asks Nick to pretend to be her boyfriend for five minutes. Both Nick and Norah’s group become intertwined over the course of the evening, searching for a mysterious band, and Norah’s drunken friend Caroline (Ari Graynor), while avoiding the temptations of their former flames (Jay Baruchel plays Norah’s on and off boyfriend who uses her for her connections), and their latent feelings for each other.

I know it is the cool thing to hate Michael Cera these days. He has played the same basic character since Arrested Development, and he is dangerously close to the overexposure that ruined Jon Heder’s career. Though to be fair, I don’t think he has a lot of say in the scripts that he is offered, and opinion on him could change when Scott Pilgrim is released in theatres this summer. Still, there are few young actors who can pull off the nerdy, awkward guy with the dry sense of humor like he can (Jesse Eisenberg is the closest in my opinion). Kat Dennings should be a bigger star than she is right now. Her and Cera have great chemistry together, a feature that is lacking in many romantic comedies these days.

The movie is lively, fitting for its subject matter. When watching it, it feels like one of those wild nights you spend with friends running around the city. The dialogue, while awkward in spots, feels more authentic than anything Diablo Cody has written. I can actually believe that people would talk this way, which I didn’t feel while watching Juno. The movie, while not completely approaching the level of one, felt like a John Hughes style comedy, focused more on emotion and authenticity, rather than cheap sight gags (though there is the matter of that gum…)

Finally, I feel that I need to address the supporting performances, specifically Thom and Dev, Nick’s band mates; hats off to the filmmaker’s for presenting gay characters as real human beings. They never feel stereotypical, or have scenes that say “Look at them! They’re gay and wacky!” I’m getting sick of the gay friend stock character that talks with a lisp and doles out relationship advice.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is based around a formula. You know how it is going to end, but it’s all about the ride. It is an injection of heart into a standard story. It isn’t the greatest movie in the world, but it never fails to leave a smile on my face.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Lost In Translation (2003)

First thing I'll say: This is an awesome poster. I wish that there was a way to get a print of this poster that wouldn't set me back $100. Not to knock the other poster, which is awesome and can be viewed here, I just prefer this one. It's colorful, eye catching , and lets face it, Scarlett is a little easier on the eyes that Bill Murray in a bathrobe.

I remember wanting to see this film when I was fifteen. I was wanting to develop a more sophisticated taste in films that my peers, and I was also interested in the art of cinema. I ended up buying the movie when it was released on DVD, and I watched it in the afternoon when I got home.

I shut it off after 20 minutes. My God it was boring. Time to go back to the populist movies that everyone liked. Fuck the Academy.

I held onto the DVD for some reason. I don't know why. Maybe fate. so, flash forward to my summer as a sixteen year old. We didn't have air-conditioning installed in my house yet, and the heat made it unbearable to sleep in my room. So, I did what I always did whenever it was too hot; I took my pillow and blanket and camped out on the couch in my basement. I still couldn't sleep, so I decided to put a movie on, and I noticed Lost in Translation on the shelf. I grabbed it and put it on, knowing that I'd be asleep in 20 minutes.

It didn't happen.

I stayed up late at night, totally engrossed in the movie. I don't know why I did; maybe my tastes matured, maybe the film is better at night. I don't know. I fell asleep at night with pleasant dreams of Tokyo and Scarlett Johanssen. This movie kick started my interest in the country of Japan and my crush on Scarlett Johanssen, but everybody knows that already.

Enough about my personal bullshit, I'm going to talk about the movie. Lost In Translation is about two people in Japan. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an American actor getting paid $2 million to appear in a Suntory Whiskey commercial. Bob is very much washed up, doing the commercial for the money, when he "really wants to be doing a play somewhere." His marriage is lacking communication; his wife sends him carpet samples and faxes him to let him know he forgot his son's birthday. Charlotte (Johanssen) is 25 years old, a philosophy graduate from Yale, who is tagging along with her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribsi). Charlotte is wondering about her purpose in life, and whether or not her marriage was the right thing to do. Bob and Charlotte meet by chance at the hotel bar, and a friendship develops. They decide to make the most of their time together in Tokyo, hanging out and having adventures around the city.
Most of the humor that occurs in the film is based around the culture shock of Japan. One example During the commercial shoot, Bob is getting instructions in Japanese from the director in Japanese (and his instructions are not subtitled, so unless you speak Japanese, you are as lost as Bob is), and he gets a pithy translation. Here is the exchange:
Director [in Japanese, to Bob]: Mr. Bob. You are sitting quietly in your study. And then there is a bottle of Suntory whiskey on top of the table. You understand, right? With wholehearted feeling, slowly, look at the camera, tenderly, and as if you are meeting old friends, say the words. As if you are Bogie in Casablanca, saying, "Here's looking at you, kid," -- Suntory time!
Interpreter [In English, to Bob]: He wants you to turn, look in camera. O.K.?
Bob: Is that all he said?

Director and Screenwriter Sofia Coppola made very wise choices with this film. She never once falls into the romantic movie cliches. Bob and Charlotte's relationship is very much platonic. Sex between the two of them never comes up (it would be gross, considering Scarlett was only 18 when this movie was made). It is a relationship of understanding, of similar circumstances, and a connection that you may only make once in your life. The film deals more with concepts such as loneliness and relationships, and not being where you want to be in your life.

This is the role that Bill Murray will be remembered for. It was written with him in mind, according to Coppola. There is a lot of subtlety to his performance. He could very easily turn on his charm and crack jokes for the entire crew in Japan, but his body language suggests that he is tired and not willing to be Bob Harris, Hollywood star and life of the party anymore. Bob Harris was written with Bill Murray in mind, and Coppola has gone on record saying if he didn't sign on, she would not have made the film. Scarlett, at 18, does a great job exploring the nuances of being young and unsure of yourself. I think the phrase "wise beyond their years" is such a cliche, but it is appropriate here to describe her performance. Ribsi is in a supporting role, along with Anna Faris as a ditzy Hollywood actress, but they are both superb in the small amount of screentime they're given. Supposedly, they are based on Spike Jonze, Coppola's ex husband, and Cameron Diaz, though Coppola denies this.

Two more things help make this film enjoyable. First, the cinematography is absolutely stunning. It gives Tokyo a real dream like quality, especially at night. Secondly, the soundtrack, consisting of shoegaze artists like Death in Vegas, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Kevin Shields, also adds to the dreamy effect, allowing the viewer to get lost in the movie.

Lost In Translation is one of those movies that needs to be watched in multiple sittings in order to appreciate it. It takes a while for it to unfold, but it is worth it in the end. It is one of those films that works best when watched alone, allowing you to think about life and what you want from it. If I recommend one film that everyone should watch, this it the one.

The Blind Side (2009)

I figured that a good choice for my first review would be the most recent movie that I watched. My mom bought two movies this week, and this was the only one that I would actually watch with her. (The other movie was New Moon. Ugh. Can’t believe my mom likes that garbage).

Back to The Blind Side. When I first saw previews for the movie, I rolled my eyes. It looked like a schmaltzy, Hallmark presents movie with a higher budget and bigger stars. The kind of movie that has a future being played on cable television following reruns of Friends. But, it had strong word of mouth, was a sleeper hit at the box office, and managed to score Sandra Bullock her first Academy Award. So, there had to be at least something good about it. The Academy is still about quality, right?

The Blind Side is based on the second half of a novel of the same name. It focuses on Michael Oher (Quinton Aron), who currently plays for the Baltimore Ravens. Michael has had a rough life. His mother was a crack addict, and he has been in and out of foster homes. He is an outsider at the all-white Christian school he attends. He is poor, and seemingly unmotivated in the classroom. A number of his teacher’s have given up on him. Things look bleak for Michael, until one night, while walking home, he is stopped by the Tuohy family. Mother Leigh-Ann (Sandra Bullock) offers him the opportunity to stay at her home, and Michael accepts. With the help of the family, Michael gets a new lease on life, and finds a place where he belongs.

Due to his hulking size, Michael is a natural pick for the football team, but has difficulty mastering the rules of the game. Leigh-Anne, in an effective scene, teaches Michael to use his protective instincts (the one area in his aptitude tests where he scored in the 98th Percentile) and pretend that the team is his family. This motivates Michael, and soon University’s are recruiting him. But, Michael needs to raise his GPA to meet minimum levels so he can go to a Division 1 college. I’ll stop talking about the plot here. Needless to say, you have a good idea of how it will end, considering Oher is a starting left tackle for a decent NFL team.

Sandra Bullock has had one of the most inconsistent film careers ever. She’s like able, and has enough charisma to make a movie watchable, but she tends to pick poor material as often as she comes across a good script. For every Speed and Miss Congeniality, there is a Premonition and an All About Steve alongside it. She even produced that latter flick, ending up with a Razzie Award the night before she won the Oscar (She actually accepted the Razzie in person). But, she gives the performance of her career so far in The Blind Side. I’ve come across women like Leigh-Ann, the middle-aged Christian sports mom, and she basically nails that personality type. There is a fair bit of depth to her performance, and none of the melodramatics that are common in these types of roles. She instead plays it subtle, letting the viewer realize there is more to Leigh-Anne than blonde hair and a cross around her neck. Whether her performance was better than the other actresses nominated, that is another question. I’ll answer it when I watch the other films.

There are good supporting roles. Kathy Bates is her usually reliable self as Michael’s tutor. Quinton Aron had a very difficult role to pull off as Michael. It takes a lot of skill to play a young man that is so traumatized by his past that people think he is a mute or stupid, and then to finally open up. He does it well, and I am interested to see if he gets more work. And I still have difficulty recognizing Tim McGraw without the cowboy hat or goatee, but he was okay in the film.

The movie is padded in several spots, and it could have been trimmed down to improve the pacing. The brief subplot of whether Michael really wanted to go to Mississippi State or whether the Tuohy’s influenced him to go there was introduced and resolved in such a small amount of time that one wonders whether or not it could have been left on the cutting room floor. But, I find it to be a rather small complaint for this movie. The movie itself is a little formulaic, but the formula works, so I’m not complaining. You’ll feel happy when you see the actual footage of Michael Oher being drafted and celebrating with his adoptive family.

Despite the flaws, The Blind Side is a solid movie, worth a rental for the strong performance of Sandra Bullock. Here’s hoping that there is another performance inside Bullock in the future.


Greetings to all who will read this. My name is Charles Lefebvre, and I will be using this space to review all sorts of media that I come across, but mainly focusing on film, books, music, and maybe the occasional video game or television episode/season.

I want to get back into writing for pleasure. This year, I've mainly been writing for school and for academics, and some of the papers I have been writing have almost killed my love for writing. I'm hoping that this third attempt at a blog will reinvigorate the creative spirit inside of me.

One thing about my reviews to note is that I will not use star ratings or any sort of grading to denote whether I like the film or not. I find star ratings absolutely meaningless. The content of the review is what determines if i want to see a film, and not the rating. Think about it. If you are interested in a film, you'll see it regardless of a rating. If a film is rated ****1/2 instead of *****, are you less likely to see it? No. And the grading system (used by Pitchfork) is flawed too, even though it is the content of their reviews that matter most. Again, what makes an album that scored 8.5 better than an album that scored 8.2? So, there will be no grading in my reviews.

These reviews will be written mainly in an essay format, with some stream of consciousness writing to break up the flow. I don't always plan out what I am going to say For music, I plan on doing a track by track review. I'm still working the kinks out of the system, so expect it to evolve over time.

I guess I should give you an idea about me and what I like. I write reviews for Stylus magazine at the University of Winnipeg. I am very open minded in regards to what I'll read,k watch or listen to.

My eleven favorite movies are as follows:
1. The Crow
2. Schindler's List
3. Memento
4. The Usual Suspects
5. Almost Famous (director's cut)
6. No Country For Old Men
7. The Dark Knight
8. Hot Fuzz
9. The Wrestler
10. Lost In Translation
11. Blade Runner

Some albums I enjoy:
"Back in Black" - AC/DC,
"Wish You Were Here" - Pink Floyd,
"The Downward Spiral" - NIN,
"Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" - Smashing Pumpkins
"From A Basement on a hill" - Elliott Smith,
"OK computer" - Radiohead
"Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" - Wilco
"Is This It?" - The Strokes
The Ramones self titled album
"The Marshall Mathers LP" - Eminem

TV I like
Seinfeld, 24, Friends, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Frasier, The Office, Big Bang Theory. (I don't watch a lot of television).

I will review a lot of my favorites in this blog, and feel free to suggest something for me to review in the comments. I'll have my first review up shortly.

I'm Charles.