Film reviews May 2003

The films are rated on a 4 star scale. Any comments should be addressed to Mike Weston at mike@misosoup.com.


Peuple migrateur, Le (3 stars, English title: Winged Migration, 2001, seen 5/21/2003, 1:38, rated G):

The cinematography in this film is beautiful, spectacular, and amazing. You see birds at extraordinarily close range. The most amazing shots are the ones of the birds in flight, with the camera seemingly in the same formation with them. Often the birds are flying just above a body of water, perhaps for the reduced drag caused by a phenomenon known as “ground effect” (not that this is explained in the film, but as a sometimes pilot of small planes, it occurred to me). There are also shots of huge numbers of birds, and many impressive shots of birds diving into water. There's even one shot of birds in flight with the World Trade Center in the background, which must have been filmed before 9/11.

The basic structure of the film is to introduce a type of bird, telling the name of the species, and where it flies from and to. Then there are a series of shots of the birds on their journeys. The film was shot over a period of 4 years, so there are shots of the birds at various points along their annual cycle South and back North again. There are some scenes showing the frequent dangers in a bird's life, both from Man and from nature. My biggest complaint would be that the basic South/North flying pattern gets repetitive after maybe an hour, and the background information is so minimal that it doesn't help to hold your interest.

The film is from France, but the narration and titles have been redone in English, so that the only French is in some song lyrics. I think the French influence explains why I found myself thinking of Cirque du Soleil at more than one point while watching the film (and that's a good thing).

This documentary was nominated for an Academy Award, losing to Bowling for Columbine. In both cases there have been those who say that these are not true documentaries. Several of the scenes here, especially the ones of birds in peril, were staged. And the reason the birds let the cameras get so close is that many of the birds were specially raised with close human contact so that they would not object to an ultralight aircraft flying in their formation. So while what is seen here could happen, many of the scenes are essentially recreations of real scenes, but are not acknowledged as such during the film.

This is a film that is well worth seeing for the images alone, but it really could have been more. Even if you dismiss the non-documentary charges against it (and I largely do), the eventual boredom certainly detracts from the overall experience.


Matrix Reloaded, The (3.5 stars, 2003, seen 5/20/2003, 2:18, rated R):

I set my expectations low. The first film had created a new world, or perhaps more accurately, a new reality. How could this sequel possibly measure up?

I don't know that it does quite measure up, but it comes remarkably close. Many parts don't make much sense, the acting isn't anything to write home about, but it's way fun. See it on a big screen, leave the critical part of your brain at the door (some other parts might actually be useful), and you'll have a good time.

I was planning to write quite a bit more, but that's what's important. You've probably already seen it by now anyway.


X2 (2.5 stars, 2003, seen 5/18/2003, 2:13, rated PG-13):

This film is a disappointment. There is a great deal of talent in the cast (Oscar® winners Halle Berry and Anna Paquin, Oscar® nominee Ian McKellen, and Emmy® winner Brian Cox), but the story just doesn't give them much to work with. And the special effects don't make that okay.

As was true in the first film, the mutant problem continues to be a major issue in America (and presumably the rest of the world, but that is never directly discussed). This is exacerbated early in the film when a mutant rampages through the White House and comes close to killing the President. There is an evil plot to... Does it really matter? The good mutants spend the rather long running time of the film figuring out what the evil plot is, and then stopping it.

The cast is large, and while the story does concentrate on some more than others, it is often hard to keep track of exactly who has which power, is romantically interested in who, has some relevant historical connection with who, and so on. And in the action scenes the shots are sometimes just too quick to be sure that you know who did something. This problem left me not really caring what happened.

The comparison of discrimination against mutants in the film with discrimination against oppressed minorities in the real world is rather thinly veiled. At one point someone says something very much like, “we're here, we're mutants, get used to it.” The message is a good one, but the delivery is neither subtle not particularly illuminating.

Is the film worth seeing? Maybe, if you have some time and someone else is paying.


Mighty Wind, A (3 stars, 2003, seen 5/10/2003, 1:31, rated PG-13):

A great of the folk music world, promoter Irving Steinbloom, has died. His son Jonathan (Bob Balaban) decides to put together a tribute with three of the most successful groups that his father was involved with, at the Town Hall theater in New York City. The New Main Street Singers is really a new group formed in the mold of the original Main Street Singers, so the members (including Parker Posey, who was so memorable in director Christopher Guest's previous film, Best in Show) don't really remember Irving, but they seem willing to be involved if it will help sell records. The second group is the Folksmen (Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer), who sang some songs I actually found myself enjoying. And last but certainly not least is the duo Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy, who co-wrote the script with Guest, and Catherine O'Hara), who had originally been a couple but had a huge falling out both personally and professionally, years ago. Mickey has since married a man who is into model trains and also owns a medical business that seems to help the incontinent, while Mitch has become quite a nut case. Other significant characters include Fred Willard as an annoying television personality whose time has passed (or is passing very quickly) and Ed Begley Jr. is public television executive.

The film is quite funny. To me I found it much better than Guest's Waiting for Guffman, and in the same league as Best in Show. If you are not already familiar with these previous films by Guest, or This is Spinal Tap (written by but not directed by Guest), I would probably recommend Spinal Tap first and maybe Show second. If you are familiar with these films, then you know about what to expect. If there is a difference and/or drawback to this film, it is that the characters might be just slightly too likable and believable, on average.


Charlotte Sometimes (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 5/4/2003, 1:25, unrated):

Michael (Michael Idemoto) lives in a duplex in a city that looks like it could be San Francisco. As the film opens it's evening, and Michael can obviously hear the fairly loud sounds of lovemaking next door. He leaves for a while, and after he comes back there is a knock at the door. His neighbor Lori (Eugenia Yuan), who was the female half of the previously mentioned lovemaking and who has a serious case of “beautiful woman's disease,” has come over to hang out. They seem to have a comfortable, platonic, almost silent relationship, which feels both sweet and a little sad.

A few days later, Lori visits Michael at work (he's an auto mechanic). She offers to set him up up on a date, but he says no, and we wonder if he's really in love with Lori. But soon thereafter at a local club he sees a woman across the room. After some fits and starts, they begin to talk and seem to hit it off, but the woman (Darcy, played by Jacqueline Kim) says she's only in town for a few days.

That pretty much sets up the story. The only other significant character is Lori's live-in boyfriend Justin (Matt Westmore).

The film moves very slowly, with occasional movement between the long pauses, and this will absolutely be a problem for some viewers. What is highly unusual is how little is explained. A note is read, but we don't see it, for example. The extremely sparse dialog, especially from the men, is also notable. I didn't really find myself identifying very closely with any one character, but yet somehow I still cared about them. The acting seemed real, but without any moments that made me go, “wow!,” but also without any moments when I saw the actors instead of the characters. And I found the story both interesting and highly respectful of the audience.

On the downside, I found the music distracting at times. Also, the image source is digital video, although it looks substantially better than most non-high definition video films look, with little if any gratuitous use of SpastiCam™.

I sometimes hear an inner voice when what happens next in a film is highly likely to be a tired cliche. It says “Don't do it! Don't cop out!”This is a film that consistently seemed to listen to my inner voice, and it is a wonderful example of a film which is non-Hollywood in every sense.


Camera Cinema Club: I saw this film at the Camera Cinema Club in Campbell, CA, and it opens in the area on May 9, 2003. Eric Byler (writer/director/producer/editor), Robert Humphreys (cinematographer), and actors Idemoto and Yuan were there to answer questions afterwards.

The director had a clear vision that what he wanted was a feeling of reality. Towards this end:

Perhaps contrary to a sense of reality was the frequent use of jump cuts. These resulted from placing the camera differently for different takes of a scene, which seriously breaks the usual rules. It meant that if parts of different takes were used, jump cuts were practically inevitable. The director's theory was that the audience would get used to the effect over time, and I have to say that it was never too distracting to me.

The director had story boards but up until filming started was toying with the idea of making the film feel more like Dogme95, with a constantly shaking camera and so on. His cinematographer convinced him to stick to his story boards.

The film was shot in 12 days and was completely privately funded by Byler and his family and friends. It was filmed in the Silverlake part of Los Angeles because it looked like San Francisco but was less expensive. The duplex belonged to a friend.

Byler took six years from when he started this project until now. He could have made it sooner if he had been willing to make it without casting Asian-Americans in the lead roles, but he felt that was important. But in a seeming contradiction, he complemented our audience for not mentioning their Asian-ness during our question and answer session.

I really enjoy opportunities like this to hear more about the decisions that go into making a film. This was one of my favorite Club events in some time.


External filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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Copyright © 2002-2003 by Michael S. Weston. All rights reserved.