Category Archives: 3.5 stars

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008): United States – directed by Kurt Kuenne

Not rated by the MPAA – contains strong language, incredibly difficult subject matter

There are few movies as emotionally devastating as Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father.  The fact that it is a documentary makes the story even sadder, and the possibility for hope more bittersweet.  To make the film even more challenging, the director is so close to the subject matter that it becomes almost impossible to separate the craft from the story.  Perhaps this is for the better.

Director Kurt Kuenne was best friends with Andrew Bagby growing up.  They played together, and Andrew always starred in Kurt’s home movies.  Andrew went to medical school, made more friends, influenced more people’s lives.  The film starts as a letter, as the title states, to Andrew’s son Zachary.  But Zachary doesn’t come into the film until about halfway through.  The less a viewer knows about this film, the better.  It is most certainly worth watching.

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Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986): United States – directed by John Hughes

Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains some language

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has become a classic, the epitome of 1980’s teen comedies.  For one day, during school, Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) manages to live out nearly every high school kid’s fantasies.  To carry out his schemes he must go through nearly as much planning as the Allied POW’s in The Great Escape [review here], and while the payoff might not be as dramatic in this film, it will speak volumes more to each generation of high schoolers.

Ferris is aware.  He is aware of how the world works, how his parents work, how the school system works.  And he’s aware that he’s in a film, or at least pretends it’s a video journal, as he breaks the fourth wall at key points to describe what’s about to happen and how.  His first step is to trick his parents, who seem to genuinely care but are naive, into thinking he’s just sick enough to stay home but not sick enough to go to the doctor.

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Waiting for “Superman”

Waiting for “Superman” (2010): United States – directed by Davis Guggenheim

Rated PG by the MPAA – contains some mature themes

An initial fear when hearing about Davis Guggenheim’s documentary on public education might be that it is one-sided, heavy-handedly liberal, unabashedly Democratic.  It is to the director’s credit that it remains centered, objective, and incisive, as it dissects a system that has evolved nearly to a point of no return.  It is clear something must be done with public schools, but he offers few solutions short of moving entirely to charter schools.  And maybe that’s what’s necessary.

I’m not an expert on public education, and neither is Guggenheim.  What he does is examine the system, and follow five families whose children are directly influenced by their public schools.  The premise is simple, but it rests upon the notion that these children will fail if left in public schools.  They will fail at school, fail at life, and be condemned to an incomplete, unsuccessful life.  To support this assumption he looks at a lot of statistics, using cute, old-school graphics to display pertinent data.

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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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Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010): United States/United Kingdom – directed by Banksy

Rated R by the MPAA – contains a little strong language

I’m not sure any of Exit Through the Gift Shop is real.  There’s a very good chance it occupies a strange place between the obvious prankery of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and the self-purported veracity of films like Paranormal Activity [review here].  It at first presents itself as an entirely possible documentary about a strange obsessive person, but then blossoms into something so much more that it is likely to be a mixture of performance art and hoax.  If you would rather know nothing about the film, please stop reading, as I will discuss much of it in detail.  The film is worth seeing, as it is one of the most intriguing films of 2010.

Thierry Guetta (if there is such a person), is an obsessive videographer.  After an early childhood trauma he began to videotape every aspect of his life, documenting every minor detail.  He is married, with children, and runs a boutique clothing store in Los Angeles.  He buys bales of clothing with odd designer’s names on them, for $50, then sells each article for $400.  He is able to make $50,000 off of one bale.  This is entirely plausible, particularly in L.A.

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The King’s Speech

The King’s Speech (2010): United Kingdom – directed by Tom Hooper

Rated R by the MPAA – contains some profanity used in a therapeutic context

The story may not be well-known to many Americans; it certainly wasn’t to me.  But it is a fascinating story, and, in some ways, a highly significant one.  A king, without power but beloved by his people, must deliver a stirring address as the nation approaches a war with a neighboring state.  But there is a catch, and a not-inconsequential one: he stammers.

The Duke of York, also known as Bertie (Colin Firth), is the second son of King George V (Michael Gambon).  His elder brother, Edward (Guy Pearce), is a philanderer, albeit an eloquent one.  The Great War is fresh in European memories, and a cad named Hitler is threatening trouble in Easter Europe.  King George V is ailing, and soon a successor must rally Great Britain around the government, lending them the support they will need to wage such a conflict.  But this blasted stammer.

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127 Hours

127 Hours (2010): United States – directed by Danny Boyle

Rated R by the MPAA – contains language, some sexual content, one of the single most brutal moments in cinema history

Aron Ralston’s (James Franco) story is fascinating on its own.  Much like Conviction [review here], it might be easy for a filmmaker to coast through the story, but 127 Hours manages to become something much more than just the story of a man forced to undergo extreme hardship to save his life.  It becomes one of the most life-affirming films of the year.

That’s not to say it’s a feel-good movie, or an easy watch.  On the contrary, the joy of life is so profound because of the pain and intense suffering that it takes to get there.  This is the same principle many horror fans cite in defense of the genre.  And 127 Hours, while not a standard horror flick, contains one of the single most graphic, brutal sequences in cinema history.  Worse than the curb stomp in American History X, more painful than the eye slice in Un Chien Andalou, more realistic and visceral than most anything in Cannibal Holocaust.  The only scene I can think of that might come close is a spine tingling stabbing in the Australian horror film Wolf Creek.

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True Grit (2010)

True Grit (2010): United States – directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains some violence, including a graphic moment, some language, intense thematic material

True Grit begins in a West that’s on the verge of not being so wild, and climaxes in something much less visceral, almost spiritual.  One might not be able to ever peg down a genre that the Coen Brothers can claim, but it sure is easy to tell if a film belongs to them or not.  True Grit most certainly does.

The material sounds dirty and dark, a remake (or adaptation) of the same source material used by the 1969 film that guilted the Academy into finally giving John Wayne an Oscar.  One might expect this 2010 update to be more in line with No Country for Old Men than Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? [review here], but the opposite is actually true.  True Grit is funny, downright enjoyable, and chock full of the same bizarre characters that makes Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? so memorable.  While perhaps lacking in some of the depth and darkness that characterizes their best films, it is more audience friendly and easier to enjoy.

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Tangled (2010): United States – directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard

Rated PG by the MPAA – contains some action

The story might be familiar, but there’s never been a fairy tale told quite like this before.  In a fashion reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino and Pulp Fiction [review here], directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard have taken bits and pieces of a wide assortment of popular media and assembled them into something contemporary and exciting. Granted, some of the tinkering smacks of Disney’s familiar marketing team, but the results are still fabulously entertaining.

The film opens with some back story, as it’s described how a king and queen have a princess with the help of a magical flower.  The flower blossomed from a spot of ground where a drop of sunlight had alit centuries ago.  The flower holds magical properties, as Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) well knows.  She’s used it for years to maintain her youth.

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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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