Category Archives: 2.5 pirate flags

Winter’s Bone

Winter’s Bone (2010): United States – directed by Debra Granik

Rated R by the MPAA – contains some language, mature themes, some violent content

There’s a sparseness to Winter’s Bone, and a tone reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre [review here].  Winter’s Bone, like certain scenes in Chain Saw, is also very cluttered.  People live in run down homes, surrounded by stuff.  Stuff is scattered across their yards, into the hills and trees surrounding their property.  The inside of each home is even more cluttered with stuff.  The grown-ups stuff consists of disused cars and school buses, and they, too, clutter the earth.

This is the world of Winter’s Bone, one in which there can be silence as the wind whistles through the trees, or gunshots echoing through the hills.  Neither is strange.  It just is.  There’s a code, too, among the people who live in these Ozark hills.  Kin means something, and so does keeping your mouth shut.  Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) understands both of these concepts, and attempts to make the most of one while adhering to the other.

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The Fighter

The Fighter (2010): United States – directed by David O. Russell

Rated R by the MPAA – contains boxing violence, strong language, some sexual content

The Fighter is a passion project, on a number of levels.  Mark Wahlberg stuck with it for years, training on the sets of his other films until financing and a director could be finalized.  Darren Aronofsky, granted an executive producer credit, was attached to direct before moving on to complete Black Swan [review here].  David O. Russell stepped in, and managed to make Wahlberg’s passion project into a worthy film.  And, even if it is simple in its approach and execution, it is rousing, moving, and engaging.

Wahlberg plays Mickey Ward, a boxer with a host of problems.  His recent bouts have been used as stepping stones for other up and coming boxers, and he’s still waiting for his chance.  His brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), and mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), have been his trainer and manager respectively.  They’ve been responsible for all his success, and all his failure.

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Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole (2010): United States – directed by John Cameron Mitchell

Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains some language, mature thematic material, some drug content

This is difficult material, stuff that often ends up in Hallmark-style packaging, dripping in cheese.  Or it’s so terribly depressing that no audience wants to even continue living.  Somehow, director John Cameron Mitchell and David Lindsay-Abaire (adapting from his own play) have made it work, in one of the year’s most honest films.

The story is laid out gently, softly.  There is no overt exposition, and only one brief, restrained, and beautifully placed flashback.  Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) have experienced a terrible loss.  Gentle revelations occur as the story unfolds, but some of the details are clear from the beginning.  They had a four year old son named Danny.

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The Wildest Dream

The Wildest Dream (2010): United States – directed by Anthony Geffen

Rated PG by the MPAA – contains some mild language, intense themes

There’s a beauty to Mt. Everest, and a brutal ugliness.  There’s a romanticism attached to the mountain, even decades after honor, glory, and adventure went out of style in favor of pragmatism and narcissism.  Conrad Anker remembers the sense of adventure that enraptured brave explorers of the past, such as George Mallory.

In 1924 George Mallory made his final attempt to ascend Everest’s highest peaks.  Perhaps he attained the summit, perhaps not.  Regardless, he did not make it back down the mountain alive.  In 1999 modern mountaineer Anker discovered Mallory’s body.  This moment set his life on a path that would envelope him for the next ten years.

The first segment of The Wildest Dream reenacts Anker’s discovery (shot on location on Everest, the mere production of this documentary would be fascinating to witness).  It then launches into a historical discourse on Mallory’s life and exploration.

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The American

The American (2010): United States – directed by Anton Corbijn

Rated R by the MPAA – contains violence, brief language, nudity, sexuality

The American moves slowly, which makes for a pleasurable experience when filmed by someone with a photographer’s eye, such as Anton Corbijn.  A multi-national production (though financed with American funds), the film slowly explores a variety of themes through a simple story revolving around Jack.

Jack (George Clooney) is a hit man.  He is first introduced at an isolated chalet on the edge of a frozen Swedish lake.  He is accompanied by a lovely friend, Ingrid (Irina Björklund), but their relationship is brought to an abrupt halt.  Finding himself less than welcome in Sweden, Jack heads to Rome, where he is given new instructions; he is to hole up in a small hillside village and wait.

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Henry V

Henry V (1989): United Kingdom – directed by Kenneth Branagh

Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains some battle violence

It would be interesting to compare Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V with Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books [review here], another take on Shakespeare that turned out far differently.  While both use the Bard’s original text for dialogue, Greenaway’s version is a piece of celluloid turned into art, with a variety of unconventional editing and aesthetic techniques that give it a life of its own.  Meanwhile, Henry V is a perfect example of a standard adaptation, lushly staged with a focus on acting, the play’s original words, and little else.

Not that there’s anything wrong with using Shakespeare’s words verbatim; indeed, it would be almost sacrilegious to alter or modernize them.  With Branagh’s direction, Henry V feels the epitome of a British filmed play, albeit with enough cinematic flourishes to make it theatrically feasible.

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The Princess and the Frog

The Princess and the Frog (2009): United States – directed by John Musker and Ron Clements

Rated G by the MPAA – contains scary voodoo and evil shadows

The Princess and the Frog is a throwback, in a great many ways, to the Disney films of old.  The soft, hand-drawn animations and backgrounds look reassuringly familiar and markedly different from much of today’s CG animation (the exception would be Studio Ghibli’s continued output, like Ponyo [review here]).  The Princess and the Frog is done by Ron Clements and John Musker, the same pair of directors responsible for The Little Mermaid, Aladdin [review here], and The Great Mouse Detective [review here], and the result is a perfectly satisfactory Disney film.

Much attention has been given to the race issue regarding The Princess and the Frog.  And while the film does break new ground for Disney by having a black Princess, there’s more going on than just race.  In fact, the movie itself isn’t concerned with race much at all.  The heroine, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), is the young daughter of a seamstress in the opening scene.  Her mother sews dresses for the daughter of a wealthy businessman named “Big Daddy” La Bouff (John Goodman).  His daughter is named Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) and is Tiana’s best friend.

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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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The Snake Pit

The Snake Pit (1948): United States – directed by Anatole Litvak
Not rated by the MPAA – contains some mature themes and some creepy moments

The Snake Pit is primarily a star vehicle for Olivia de Havilland.  Two male stars round out the majority of the speaking roles, leaving the rest of the cast not more than a couple lines apiece.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, as Olivia effectively pulls off a mentally unstable woman trapped in an exceedingly difficult mental health system.

The opening scene does little to give away the plot.  Virginia (de Havilland) sits on a bench, alone.  But then a man speaks to her, and she is confused.  Eventually, the lady next to her also speaks to her, but she doesn’t know why.  Then she is led into a large building with big, strong doors, and is scared.  “Why am I in prison?” she wonders.  Upon talking to a couple different people inside, she figures she must be researching a novel, because she’s a writer.  But then she is introduced to a man who claims to be her husband.  Frightened, confused, she shrinks away; she remembers being married, but can’t recall a husband.

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The Terror of Tiny Town

The Terror of Tiny Town (1938): United States – directed by Sam Newfield

Not rated by the MPAA – contains some violence, not-so-good songs, and little people

The exploitation film didn’t really get underway under the sixties, at least in the mainstream.  Sure, there were niche pictures before then, but toward the end of the 1960’s and then throughout the 1970’s a wide variety of films were created interested in simply one thing: selling themselves by virtue of certain content, actors, or settings.  The world now has blaxploitation, sexploitation, nunsploitation, Ozploitation, Nazisploitation and a slew of just plain exploitation films, usually involving blood, gore, violence, and nudity.  But it all got started many years ago with something much smaller: midgetsploitation.

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