Girls Rock! (2007)    2008-03-15 20:51:43 ET
Palace Webb, P.L.A.I.D., and Juicy Tangler. They're coming to your town soon! Well, okay, they're not, but they are in a new movie.

This movie is a documentary of a girls' music camp somewhere in Oregon. Every year they bring in girls age 8-18, separate them into bands, teach them how to play instruments and write songs, and then turn them loose in front of an audience at the end of the week. Along the way they get instruction from the likes of Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein, and kick some ass in self-defense class.

Specifically the movie focuses on four girls. Palace is a seven-year-old metalhead in training who can break glass and eardrums when she wants to. Laura is the death-metal loving Korean girl who seems to be a reasonably good songwriter and has a great stage presence. Misty is the troubled one, a bass player and would-be hip hop artist ("would-be" since her band's music stops being hip hop very early in the process). Amelia is the endearlingly weird one who plans to write 14 songs about her dog, "How Do You Tune a Taco?" not being one of them, but still containing the best lyrics ever committed to music. These four are in separate bands, and, if I remember correctly, never actually interact. Through their varied ages and interests we see the teaching and creative processes, as well as the personal epihphanies and occasional bits of drama.

Overall, it's a very enjoyable film. The kids are likeable (Laura is clearly enjoying what she does, and she's good at it), the insights from the staff are interesting, and the music produced at the end is often better than you'd expect. You really do get the impression that this program does a lot of good for the people involved.

The negatives are a little nitpicky, but here goes: while the riot grrl soundtrack is totally appropriate, the lo-fi DIY sound gets a little confusing when it's accompanying shots of kids practicing their instruments. At least three different times I caught myself thinking "Wow, they're pretty good!" before I realized that it was not, in fact, them that I was hearing. Also, while I understand the need for structure and perspective, I wonder what dictated the decision to focus on some girls rather than others. In particular, Palace's bandmates complain at one point that she always has to be the center of attention. I wonder what they thought when she turned out to be the star of the movie?

This is a feel-good movie. It's small in scope, and it won't exactly shatter your view on life, but it's an enjoyable look at what some people are doing to encourage talent and self-confidence. It's not per se a "children's" movie, but it's a better movie for kids than a lot of crap out there. You'll probably like it.

 Winter Light (1962)    2008-03-14 03:33:22 ET
While they were not made in sequence, do not have any common characters, and are stand alone stories, Ingmar Bergmanís "Through a Glass Darkly," "Winter Light," and "The Silence" are often considered a trilogy on the subject of faith. Having reviewed the first one a few weeks ago, itís time for part two.

Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand) is a pastor in a small Swedish village. He is in bad health and has lost his faith. His girlfriend Karin (Gunnel Lindblom, and not the same Karin as in "Through a Glass Darkly") is the local schoolteacher, an atheist, and is pressuring him to marry her. This more or less covers all you need to know of the characters, except that Max von Sydow plays a small but vital part as a suicidal fisherman with a pregnant wife.

Once again, Sven Nykvist, the cinematographer, deserves much praise for the stark yet beautiful footage of rural Sweden. As one IMDB reviewer put it, the movie is in black and white, but if it were in color it would look no different. Itís cold and solemn and perfectly fits the tone of the movie.

Honestly, it took me a few days to write this, since I first had to process what I felt about it. Itís an incredibly depressing film, even by Bergmanís standards, and has enough angst to make Kierkegaard seethe in jealousy. Itís easy to write it off as a diatribe against Christianity (and, for all I know, maybe it was even intended that way), yet there is more going on here. Some elements are ambiguous enough that, I think, itís something of a Rorshach test. What you see says a lot about you. The final scene, to me at least, carries a certain amount of hope.

It would be interesting to make a double feature of this movie with Robert Bressonís "Diary of a Country Priest," which follows a nearly identical premise, but with the protagonist never losing his faith. There is no evidence Iíve been able to find that "Winter Light" was intended to be a counterpoint to it, but they are so close thematically, down to individual scenes, that the question is fair.

So itís certainly not a happy film, but itís a good character study, as well as an interesting use of ambiguity.

 The House That Screamed    2008-03-08 12:44:09 ET
In 1975, Peter Weir made "Picnic at Hanging Rock," which was a movie about turn-of-the-century schoolgirls. It was a truly great movie, sexy and absolutely terrifying, despite the fact that nothing actually happens. Six years earlier, a similar concept was attempted in Spain. It was called "The House That Screamed" (La Residencia), and its results were somewhat . . . different.

Theresa (Cristina Galbo) is the new girl at a fin de seicle French girls' school. It is run by Mme. Fourneau (Lili Palmer), a tyrannical headmistress and ringer for a dyspeptic Carol Cleveland. She has an unhealthy relationship with her weird son (John Moulder-Brown), and lesbian archbitch Irene (Mary Maude, if I remember correctly) has an unhealthy relationship with everyone. Featuring Conchita Paredes as the girl with the big knockers.

Despite how the synopsis reads, very little actually happens in this movie. There are a few stabbings, which are "stylish"(read "weirdly shot"), but a vast majority of the movie is Theresa wandering around looking concerned. And before you accuse the movie of just being softcore porn, it's not that either. Despite the lesbian overtones and the ample opportunities for nudity, the movie never indulges itself, implying that it was made in good faith by people who honestly thought they were making a very scary movie.

I saw this at a midnight showing in a theater, and literally every scene elicited laughter. The scary scenes aren't, the characters are absurd, and the subtext is blatant. It was also dubbed in English, which usually pisses me off, but in this case only added to the comedy. I think every B movie made in Europe in the 70's was dubbed by the same three people.

The ending could have been creepy, had it concluded a better movie. As it is, it just comes off as too little too late. You can't make us care this late in the game.

The one good thing about this film is the music. While it's not always effective, the main opening and closing theme is a thing of beauty. It's a melancholy orchestral piece that reminded me of "The Abominable Dr. Phibes," dream-like and haunting. It deserved a better film, and is a relic of the days when horror movie soundtracks were done by people other than Slipknot.

This one is really hard to find, perhaps justifiably so. It's really not worth watching, unless it's with friends for the sole purpose of laughing at it.

 The Black Pirate    2008-03-08 02:53:49 ET
I should begin this with a disclaimer. Just before I started to write movie reviews, I finished a six month (or so) long project of watching all of Buster Keaton's movies. As such, right now I expect all silent movies to involve porkpie hats, deadpan expressions, and virtuoso physical comedy. I'm pretty sure none of those happened in this movie, and if I say they did, I'm probably hallucinating.

"The Black Pirate" involves the sole survivor of a pirate attack (Douglas Fairbanks) swearing vengeance, which he goes about doing by joining their crew and plotting to bring them down from the inside. Along the way, he and the pirate captain (Anders Randolph) vie for the attentions of a female prisoner (Billie Dove), and it ends with a big sea battle.

I understand that this is not intended to be Shakespeare. It's more or less an excuse for Fairbanks to do his "Prince of Persia" act up in a pirate ship's riggings (as I understand it, this movie is the first use of the "ride a knife down the sail" bit). However, it goes out of its way to hit all the pirate story cliches, and it's a fun yarn. Considering that was more or less the purpose, method, and result of Robert Louis Stevenson's original "Treasure Island," I can't really complain. My one point of contention is that the entire story takes place over a fairly short time period. I could be wrong, but I got the impression it was all within a week. It just seems like an epic should take longer than that. No matter how eventful an afternoon you have, I think on principle it can't be an epic.

The pirates themselves are appropriately salty and rough. One guy even has what has to be the best wooden leg I've ever seen, and credit must be given. Billie Dove's princess is pretty, and, as fits the story and the times it which it was made, is either cowering from the captain or swooning over Our Hero. Donald Crisp has a strong supporting part as a one-armed Jewish Scottish pirate, which must be the character actor's holy grail.

This was one of the first "color" movies. It was made with an early form of technicolor that isn't exactly convincing, but was good for its time. It certainly looks better than anything Ted Turner has ever done (in life, not just bastardizing movies. Zing!)

Despite its technical achievements and its place in film history, there's not a whole lot to this movie. It's a fun pirate flick, it's silent, and it's sort of in color. If you're looking for more than that, you're likely to be disappointed. If you're just looking for a way to spend the afternoon, you could probably do worse.

 Chicago 10    2008-03-06 20:23:17 ET

I love unusual animation. By this I mean the weird stuff, obviously, but also just animation from unusual sources (like outside of Disney and Japan). And when animation is used in totally unexpected ways? Very much so. So what about an animated political docudrama?

Chicago 10 is just such a docudrama, detailing the events surrounding the riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and the conspiracy trial against the "Chicago Seven" (plus Bobby Seale and their lawyers and we have the movie title) that followed in the aftermath. The movie is made up partly of stock footage of the events and people, but the courtroom scenes are dramatic readings of the trial transcripts set to animation. Notable among the cast are Hank Azaria as Abbie Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright as Bobby Seale, and the late Roy Schieder as Judge Julius Hoffman.

Ok, I'll just say it up front: the animation is awful. I realize it's a low-budget indie flick, but seriously it sort of resembles The Sims Court. There are a few animated non-court scenes in the movie, such as one involving Abbie Hoffman addressing a crowd in front of a giant American flag, Patton style. These aren't especially well-animated either, but it's still a night and day difference. Were those scenes so expensive they couldn't just do all the animation like that?

The voice acting was quite good. Obviously Hank Azaria grabs most of the attention, partly because Abbie Hoffman is a larger-than-life character who is always the center of attention, and partly because we're trying to figure out which Simpsons character he most sounds like. At first I was a little underwhelmed with Scheider's performance as the judge. I thought he was too cartoon villain-ish for a portrayal of real events. However, as the movie progressed, the judge really did become that much of a bastard, so I guess his acting choice was validated.

Which brings me to the main point. This film is fascinating and even, at times, horrifying. The events of the riot are told throughout the trial, sometimes simply as flashback, sometimes as witness testimony. This allows both the event itself and the trial to crescendo at the same time, leading to one of the tensest and most emotionally draining third acts I've ever seen. I admit to a certain amount of ignorance on the details of the event, and I went in expecting to be manipulated, but, considering most of the movie is stock footage and actual court transcript, the portrayals of the 1968 Chicago Police Force and Judge Julius Hoffman are damning ones.

Finally a note about the music. It's pretty hit or miss. Some of it is period music, which is fine with me. Some of it is modern angry political music, like Rage Against the Machine and Eminem, which seems a little out of place, but if you don't overthink it, it sort of fits. Seriously, though, even if you're trying to draw a parallel, namechecking Bush and Iraq in the soundtrack comes off as either sloppy or ham-fisted. On the other hand, there's a scene fairly early on where footage of Chicago cops in full riot gear and SWAT tanks (or the contemporary equivalent) sweeping hippies out of Lincoln Park is set to Black Sabbath's "War Pigs." It's one of the most chilling combinations of image and music I've ever seen.

So "Chicago 10" is a flawed movie, but its flaws are far outweighed by its merits. Definitely worth seeing.

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