Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Movie Review: It Might Get Loud

(For the radio version, please click here).

Air guitar is silly. I know this, yet in private, I shred my air axe. Do you strum your thigh, finger your palm, and weirdly jerk around, to the straining guitar of a good rock song, as if in a seizure? If so, then “It Might Get Loud” is for you.

Very roughly, “It Might Get Loud” is about a meeting of three guitar greats, Jack White of the White Stripes, The Edge of U2, and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. They discuss their early days, seminal music influences, and the moment they found themselves as artists over mere guitarists. On this simple framework the filmmakers hang cutaways to concert footage, old news reels, and even animation, to help us visualize their stories.

There is no storyline so much as free flow of anecdotes, air guitar (oh yes, Jimmy Page does awesome air guitar), and impromptu jams. There is not much context. You are not with any one guitarist too long before another narrative begins. It’s a little disconcerting, but covers a lot of territory, and is helpful in keeping the movie clipping along. The movie only settles down when the players stop talking and start playing.

Not much time is spent trying to convince you these guitarists are great. If you are unfamiliar with any of these performers (as I was with Jack White) it’s best, I think, to latch onto the story of the guitarist you are most familiar, and allow them to convince you the other two are worthy.

For me, it’s The Edge. I listened to U2’s the “Joshua Tree” for months and memorized every song. When the film shows U2 concert footage of “Where the Streets Have No Name” it hit me in the gut. If you’re a little older, maybe it’s Page and Zeppelin. And if you’re a little younger, maybe it’s Jack White. All the same, this film is about their, and our, love of authentic music, music that makes us pull over the car and listen, music that changes culture, illuminates our place in the world, and reconnects us to our roots.

Jack White comes across as a 14 year old prodigy who is sullen and resentful because no one appreciates his genius. The fact he is in his 30s and is recognized by millions makes him all the more obnoxious. Mr. White is not a sympathetic character. Yet, his passion is clear and his talent is considerable. And that’s the sign of a good documentary. It does not bathe Mr. White in a golden light. He’s kind of angry. And where I might not have him over for dinner, I will definitely be looking at his stuff on iTunes.

The elder, Jimmy Page, is a delight. There is a scene that depicts the love and respect Jack White and The Edge have for this man. The guitarists jam on some of their famous licks in the film. When it’s Page’s turn, the first riffs from “Whole Lotta Love” begin. Jack White picks up his guitar, reconsiders, sets it down, and just listens. The Edge never even bothered to pick it up. And for a blissful moment, the master plays. Jack White and the Edge beam like little boys.

“It Might Get Loud” plays at our beloved Gold Town Nickelodeon this weekend, Thursday through Sunday. This is Clint Farr, alone at the movies.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Movie Review: Paranormal Activity

(Sorry no audio available yet)

“Paranormal Activity” ought to provide some lessons for Hollywood. You don’t need millions of dollars to craft an engaging film, nor do you need graphic depictions of violence and buckets of blood to horrify audiences. “Paranormal Activity” is minimalist filmmaking at its best; proving our imaginations conger more horror than celluloid. The movie demonstrates no amount of money replaces the fundamentals of cinematic storytelling: an original concept, a good script, better acting, and ruthless editing.

How this 11 thousand dollar movie became a 100 million dollar grossing behemoth is, itself, worthy of a movie that I hope to review some day. As it stands, this little movie is worth your money – depending on your tolerance for low budget filmmaking.

The director and screenwriter, Oren Peli, is smart enough to make the low budget a key plot point. A couple uses a single video camera to document a home’s strange bumps and noises. And that’s it. That’s the movie, a couple filming each other reacting to the strange things going on.

Many are comparing this film to the “Blaire Witch Project”, a jerky little film with a few decent scares. For me though, this film is better compared to the attacking sharks, and super low budget of “Open Water”. “Open Water” and “Paranormal Activity” are about more than just terror of an uncontrolled presence (say sharks or ghosts) but also how a loving couple deals with the pressure. These films depict how the couples support each other, blame each other, contribute and detract from a solution to their predicaments. This focus on the dynamic relationship between two lovers in an impossible situation elevates these films from mere shock-fests to, dare I say it, art.

“Paranormal Activity” is not a perfect film. There are a couple of scenes that drag and there are a couple of “frights” that are silly more than scary. There is a lot of hand held camera action, which can be a little jerky. If you are susceptible to car sickness, you may find yourself looking at your hands occasionally during the first thirty minutes. Once the tension begins to ratchet up though, I stopped noticing the camera work and started freaking out.

I love that there is little blood or graphic violence. The camera does not give us a surgical view of the bloodletting like some of the higher budget torture porn popular these days. This may have been a choice necessitated by the lack of a budget. But having your mind fill in the blanks is much more terrifying than what any cheap special effect could have produced. The lack of budget, the lack of blood, forces the filmmaker to use their imaginations to encourage us, in turn, to use our imaginations. Combine that with a wham-bang ending, and you’ve got yourself an effective little horror movie.

With decent acting and some choice bits of comedy to contrast and heighten the horror, I like this movie. My old creaky house is all the more freaky thanks to this film. Yeah, next time I check on that loud bang in the basement holding a bat and expired bear spray, I’ll be thinking, “Thanks Oren Peli. Thanks a lot”. Paranormal Activity plays this weekend a the Gross Alaska Glacier Cinemas. This is Clint Farr, alone, and freaked out, at the movies.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Movie Review: The Horse Boy

(For the radio version, please click here).

In The Horse Boy, we are introduced to Rowan straight away: a screaming child with bandaids over his eyelids from where he’s clawed himself, and soiled pants from an inability to be potty trained. We learn he is autistic.

We then meet the parents, Rupert Isaacson and Kristin Neff. Kristin teaches college psychology and Rupert writes books on traditional cultures, including traditional healing. They are people of means, with land, goats, and horses. They also exhibit an unanchored spirituality that allows them to approach their son’s illness from outside the strictures of western medicine and science.

That said, the film allows national autism experts to weigh in. We learn there is no single definition of autism. Rather, autism is a spectrum of behaviors from merely anti-social all the way to self-destructive, say from the Ph.D. physicist to the institutionalized. Autistics are united by an overriding ability to focus to the exclusion of all else. In Rowan’s case, the obsession is horses, all else includes self-inflicted pain and soiled pants.

Fortunately for Rowan, animals seem to like the boy. The only time he relaxes is on the back of a big, kind mare. Horses, then, are the needed gateway to a calmer child. Through his knowledge of traditional healers, Rupert discovers the shamans of Mongolia who use horses in their healing. And just like that, the family and a film crew are off to Mongolia.

Rupert is an exceedingly strong personality. He clearly loves his son. He desperately wants to do the right thing for his son. Yet, he’s just as desperately neds to be acknowledged for doing the right thing for his son. My gosh, he took a film crew to Mongolia. I couldn’t help but feel a mix of admiration and exasperation with this guy.

And in Kristin, you see her own mix of admiration and exasperation for the guy. All she really wants is for her son to be potty trained, so much so that she’s willing to horseback across Mongolia. Yet, she maintains a needed skepticism of the whole enterprise. Her tempered expectations and emotions contrast to Rupert’s whose moods ranged from soaring highs on Rowan’s good days to self-pitying lows on the bad days. It’s funny, the shamans suggest Rowan’s problems derive from Kristin’s mentally ill grandmother, but as I watched Rupert I thought: bipolar?

But I left this film not thinnking about mental illness, or Rowan, his mom, or even Rupert. By movie’s end I realized the film is about the unknowable, the mysterious. What do we know about the healing power of a parent’s love? For that matter, what do we know of the healing power of a horse, or a shaman? So whether from the mare, the parents, or the twitching fingers of a Mongolian reindeer herding shaman, all we know is by film’s end a child changes and the parents smile.

Of course, not to be too cynical, the child better change or all that money for the film crew and travel would’ve been wasted. So see, this film really is mysterious.

The Horse Boy plays this weekend, starting Thursday night, at our beloved Gold Town Nickelodeon. Frankly, I was fascinated. This is Clint Farr, Alone at the Movies.