Category Archives: B

Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine (2010): United States – directed by Derek Cianfrance

Rated R by the MPAA – contains language, a scene of violence, and strong sexuality

They don’t make a great deal of movies like this anymore.  Truth is, they rarely did, even back in the day.  Perhaps Ingmar Bergman was the last to tackle subjects like these, in ways like this.  Blue Valentine details a marriage through the course of a couple days, with flashbacks to how it used to be.  One storyline is decidedly more cheerful than the other.

American culture is so intensely trained on how to fall in love, but there are few paragons in life or culture that teach how love changes and how couples can stay in love.  Love at first sight is a popular element of many romantic comedies, and much literature.  But what happens next?  Why does it go so wrongly for so many couples?  Blue Valentine does not answer these questions, and perhaps it shouldn’t.  Instead it observes, quietly, the beauty and joy and love experienced as Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) first meet, and the bitterness, anger, and hardship they endure after six years of marriage.

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008): United Kingdom/United States – directed by Mark Herman

Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains some mature themes

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has an immediate obstacle to overcome.  While it might not have been practical to film in German, many other World War II films have at least attempted German accents.  Judgment at Nuremberg even utilizes an effective technique to allow characters to speak in English and the audience to believe they’re speaking German.  Here there is not even an attempt; all the Germans speak British English, very properly.  This is a small complaint, but one that taints the entire film.

At the beginning it is difficult to tell if this is London or Berlin, with small children running around the streets, and fancy state dinners replete with silver and china.  But then the father of the primary family announces a transfer to another post, in the country, and it becomes clear that this is the German side of the war.

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Black Swan

Black Swan (2010): United States – directed by Darren Aronofsky

Rated R by the MPAA – contains sexual content, some language, disturbing material

With Black Swan Darran Aronofsky again proves why he is one of the most interesting directors of this generation.  His string of films is perhaps only rivaled by Christopher Nolan’s.  From the low budget mathematics thriller Pi to the most powerful film of the past ten(ish) years, Requiem for a Dream [thoughts here], and through The Fountain [review here] and The Wrestler he’s proved he can handle intense dramatic material with a special flair of style and resonance.  With Black Swan he turns his attention to a new sub-genre.

Black Swan is a psychological drama horror/thriller.  Think Mulholland Dr. meets All About Eve [review here], with a dash of Suspiria [review here] and Persona thrown in.  It’s an intense portrait of obsession that would make Hitchcock proud, and is held together by an incredible performance from Natalie Portman.  She stars as Nina, an aging ballet dancer in a reputable company in a large city.

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Blood Done Sign My Name

Blood Done Sign My Name (2010): United States – directed by Jeb Stuart

Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains violence, mature themes, intense moments

Blood Done Sign My Name is a good example of a film that lets the historical account of its story get in the way of the film.  In its attempt to be accurate it loses its heart, even going so far as to allow documentary style footage to invade the beginning and end of the film.  This is unfortunate, because the story is interesting and worthy of an accurate and engaging portrayal.

Bizarre documentary-like interviews open the film, as people recall the events of 1970 in a town called Oxford, in North Carolina.  It isn’t clear, particularly when similar interviews appear at the end of the film, if these are people who lived through those events or if they are actors pretending that they did.  After this short and bizarre sequence the actual film begins.

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Best Worst Movie

Best Worst Movie (2009): United States – directed by Michael Stephenson

Not rated by the MPAA – contains some strong language

Some years after the release of Troll 2 [review here], correctly regarded as one of the worst films ever crafted, some of the cast started hearing reports that the film had become popular in certain circles.  After years of hiding the film on their resumes (who, after all, would be willing to hire anyone who appeared in Troll 2?), some members of the cast eventually started to come to terms with the idea that their movie might have found an audience.

Best Worst Movie is the story of Michael Stephenson, who played young Josh in Troll 2.  He has grown up now, and embarks on a personal quest to rediscover the old cast and learn why a new generation of people have fallen in love with his wretched film.  The star of Best Worst Movie is George Hardy, who played Josh’s father in the film.  George is, and was even before the film, a dentist in a small Alabama town.  A gregarious figure, he is well-known around town and well-liked.  He starts receiving calls from fan clubs to appear at their annual screenings of Troll 2.  He soon learns that there is an underground circuit of Troll 2 screenings, and their popularity is growing.

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A Brief History of Time

A Brief History of Time (1991): United States/United Kingdom/Japan – directed by Errol Morris

Rated G by the MPAA – contains some highly scientific discussions, and potential nerdiness

A Brief History of Time is another outstanding documentary from the most revered of modern documentarians, Errol Morris.  After breaking onto the film scene in 1975 with Gates of Heaven, an amazing look into the lives of people obsessed with burying their pets in style (the movie is perhaps better known for causing Werner Herzog to eat his shoe after losing a bet that Morris would never finish the film), Morris continued to pursue offbeat or difficult subjects.  His best-known film is perhaps The Thin Blue Line, a look into a difficult murder case.  Along the way he also compiled such quirky material as Vernon, Florida [review here], a simple tale of folks in a small Florida town.

A Brief History of Time is yet another weird subject for the master of documentaries.  Stephen Hawking’s 1988 book by the same name provides a backbone for the film, filled in with a look at Hawking’s own life.  It turns out that Stephen was the only normal one in the family, growing up in a home full of super-intellectual academics.  In interviews with his sister and mother it becomes clear that Stephen, though abnormally intelligent, was quite interested in pursuing a normal school-boy life.

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Blowup (1966): United Kingdom/Italy/United States – directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

Not rated by the MPAA – contains sexual content, some nudity, mature themes, drug use

Blowup is a very interesting film, and, for some, a very infuriating film.  But if a viewer is aware, going in, that director Michelangelo Antonioni intends to undermine the audience in unexpected ways they may be a little wiser and a little more appreciative of the film.

Blowup is split into two sections.  The first hour drags a little as it sets up the mod world of 1960’s London and the main character.  Whether he is a protagonist or an antagonist it is hard to tell; he is incredibly narcissistic and has no qualms verbally and emotionally abusing those around him.  His name is Thomas (David Hemmings) and he is an esteemed photographer.  Women from all around clamour for him, begging him to take their picture.  Some offer sexual favors, which he accepts in the manner of a hedonist mired in worthless actions and behaviors.

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Bébé(s) (Babies)

Bébé(s) (Babies) (2010): France – directed by Thomas Balmes

Rated PG by the MPAA – contains naturalistic nudity

Babies is not an ordinary movie, and not even an ordinary documentary.  The premise is simple but well explored, the story nonexistent, but the themes universal.  As a whole the film provides an uplifting look at the most basic and primitive human emotions and experiences.

Many documentaries are insightful looks at a condition or a situation, often accompanied by the filmmaker’s probing questions.  Babies is a documentary in the style’s truest form; it documents the lives of four babies as they grow.  There is no narrator providing an amusing and forced storyline, there are no talking heads explaining the psychology of infants or the differences in child rearing between vastly different cultures.  There are only babies, and the simple lives that they lead.

The opening shot is one of the best.  Two African babies (in a small village in Namibia) sit together on the dirt floor of a straw hut.  They are pounding rocks with stones, as their mothers will later do to create colorful powders.  They imitate each other’s actions and learn together.  But then one of them grabs for a plastic bottle, which the other suddenly realizes he wants.  A power struggle erupts, complete with hitting and slapping, tears and wailing.  A snapshot of the human condition.

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Big Night

Big Night (1996): United States – directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott

Rated R by the MPAA – contains profanity

Big Night is a tale of two brothers and their vain attempts to conquer the vast cultural and culinary wasteland of America.  Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is the first born, as evident by his name.  Primo and his young brother, Secundo (Stanley Tucci), have immigrated to the East coast to start an Italian restaurant.  Primo is the artist, given to carefully crafting exquisite cuisine.  Secundo is practical and business-like.  He understands that there is a bank loan to be repaid and something to be said for giving customers what they want.

An early scene establishes their respective identities.  Secundo has served a plate of risotto to an American customer.  She is dissatisfied: there is no pasta and no meatballs.  She orders a side of spaghetti and is dismayed to learn that it does not come with meatballs.  She orders a side of meatballs.  Secundo, trying desperately to appease the customer while informing her of her cultural ignorance, relays the message to the kitchen, where Primo nearly blows a fuse.  Pasta on top of rice, what is she thinking?

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The Blind Side

The Blind Side (2009): United States – directed by John Lee Hancock

Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains mature themes, and some bad language

There are a number of things that make the first half of The Blind Side so interesting.  There’s the vast cultural divide that is honestly portrayed, a divide rarely looked at in mainstream American cinema.  The fact that this divide exists within American cities across the country only makes it more powerful.  And then there’s Sandra Bullock’s performance as Leigh Anne Tuohy (for which she will most likely be awarded an Academy Award the day after this review is posted).  Leigh Anne is a fiery, sprightly woman, surprisingly attractive and decidedly determined.  Her vim and vigor is what makes the first portion of the film so engaging.

But then the football is introduced and the movie can hardly help descending into standard sports-movie mode.  This is where the cliches and cheese abound.  This section is not bad, as far as sports movies go, but it is a letdown.  And then there is the ending, as a variety of last-minute obstacles pop up to extend the movie and “heighten” the drama.

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