The Paul Frankenstein Labor Day Film Festival

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I also saw a whole bunch of movies this weekend—I was trying to catch up on all the summer movies that I haven't seen but have been meaning to (that, and pretty much the entire population of Manhattan had abandoned the island for the long weekend, so I didn't have all that much else to do). To review them, I'm enlisting the help of my imaginary friend Herb (not to be confused with my other imaginary friend Frank). You could say that it was a mini-film festival, kinda sorta.

winged.jpegWinged Migration

Paul: This is a beautiful, plotless film about birds. Yeah, the things that fly up in the sky and have feathers. Made over four years, it has absolutely stunning cinematography and quite a few "oh my gosh, how did they do that" moments. It tracks the seasonal migration of a number of different kinds of birds: assorted kinds of geese, cranes, puffins, eagles, and so on (they even spend some time with penguins!). Because the camera operators were able to get so close to the birds, you can actually see how they fly, and some of the different solutions that each species uses to solve some of the same problems of flight. It's an ornithologist's wet dream. It also managed to achieve a rare grace and elegance; it's 87 minutes of visual poetry. One curious thing is that the birds featured tend to be waterfowl of one kind (geese, ducks) or another (albatrosses, puffins, cranes). Highly recommended, and highly recommended that you see it on a big screen. I saw it as a 35mm print projected onto an IMAX screen, which was probably not the best way to see it, but it was still pretty amazing.
Herb: No plot, no girls, no gunfire. Next!

The Medallion

medallion.jpegPaul: For the past few years, Jackie Chan has split his time between making Hong Kong-style films (Who Am I?, The Accidental Spy) and big Hollywood films with western stars (Rush Hour, Shanghai Noon, The Tuxedo). The Medallion is an attempt to meld the two genres: made in Hong Kong and Ireland, it features an international supporting cast (Julian Sands, Lee Evans, John Rhys-Davies). It also features Claire Forlani as the female lead/love interest, which is a horrible, horrible mistake, as the two of them are utterly unbelievable as a romantic couple, despite their best thespian efforts. It was certainly an entertaining diversion and there are some very funny bits from Lee Evans, but it's hardly one of Mr. Chan's best efforts.
Herb: I don't think that I'm giving anything away by telling you that half-way through the film, Jackie Chan's character dies and then comes back to life as a supernatural power. Up to there, it's a by-the-numbers chopsocky flick, with some great, great stunt work. After the guy dies, though, it's turns into a computer-generated extravaganza. Put it this way: it turns bad. Real bad. And the whole love interest thing doesn't work on so many different levels. People were laughing at it when I saw it. For one thing, Claire Forlani is about 30 years younger than Jackie, and for another, when she smiles, she's got waaaaaaaay too many teeth. Plus the fact that they have zero—ZEEEEE-ro!— chemistry doesn't help.

Swimming Pool

swimmingpool.jpegPaul: It's cool, it's sexy, it's got a great twist at the end, and it's completely different than the director's previous film, 8 Women. It's also the first English-language film for Ludivine Sagnier, who gets around the accent problem by playing a Frenchwoman (it also helps that for much of the film, she's not burdened by much—if anything—in the way of a costume) who's at that uncomfortable age straddling the border between being a girl and being a woman. Charlotte Rampling is fantastic as a overly-buttoned up English writer of Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries -- it's a performance that's measured in millimeters, and it's a wonderful display of the actor's art. One of the things that I really liked about the film was how it moves naturally between French and English, similar to the way that Wings of Desire flipped between multiple languages (a pet peeve of mine is when movie characters indicate that they're speaking a foreign language by adopting ludicrously heavy accents).
Herb: Whoa. Hot naked French chicks and a surprise ending? Ok, it moves a bit slow (ok, very slow), but I can live with that.

American Splendor

americansplendor.jpegPaul: This is an amazing movie. It's based on the comic book series American Splendor, wherein Harvey Pekar, file clerk for a VA hospital in Cleveland, chronicled his grimly sardonic and frequently hilarious life. You'd think that a film about a chronically depressed and angry man who lives in Cleveland would be depressing, but it's not. It's actually kinda uplifting. The film, which also features the real Harvey Pekar as himself, not to mention his wife and his co-worker Toby as themselves, veers between biography, docu-drama, and outright documentary (real clips of Harvey visiting the David Letterman show are used, for example). Paul Giamatti, the actor who plays Harvey, wanders throughout the film with a curled lip that seems poised halfway between puzzlement and hostility; an unrecognizable Hope Davis plays his wife Joyce in a long black wig and huge glasses. What's interesting is that the real Harvey Pekar is actually better-looking than the actor who plays him in the movie (he's kind of a cross between Carl Sagan, Neil Young, and Earl from the comic strip Red Meat), but Giamatti looks more like the comic-book version of Pekar than Pekar himself (since Harvey can't draw, the comic books are illustrated by a number of different artists, the first of which was Robert Crumb).
Herb: This movie blew me away and made me realize that my suck-filled imaginary life could be a lot worse. Definitely check it out.

dirtyprettythings.jpegDirty Pretty Things

Paul: The English-language debut of another French ingenue, this movie by Stephen Frears is a small, dark thriller set in a demimonde of illegal immigrants in London about a doctor who's a wanted man in his native Nigeria; a Turkish immigrant who's seeking refugee status, and a sinister trade in human kidneys. Mostly set in and around a small, semi-sleazy hotel in central London, the film has a star-making performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor as the doctor on the run. Audrey Tautou, the luminous star of Amelie gets around her accent problem by playing a Turk and adopting a fairly indeterminate "foreign" accent (for what it's worth, either she's really really good at learning scripts phonetically or she spent a lot of time working very hard on her English, 'cause I remember when she was doing PR for Amelie and her English was only slightly better than my French (which itself begins and ends with "steak frites, c'est vous plait"). It's not a great, landmark, groundbreaking film, but it's certainly a very entertaining diversion.
Herb: Yeah, it was pretty cool. I dug the Chinese guy who worked as a porter at the morgue. You could see the twist at the end coming a mile off, though. Note: despite what the movie poster promises, ya don't get to see Ms. Tautou with her shirt off. Still, I say check it out.

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I saw a whole bunch of movies over the Labor Day weekend—I was trying to catch up on all the Read More


wooo - i like herb's comments.

of you're list i've seen winged migration and loved it, amazing camer work. and swimming pool - ou la la! but, the story lacked something or other.

have seen all but Swimming Pool, which I regret having missed, and the Jackie Chan movie, which I don't. The only films of Chan's I really like are the ones he made early on in his career that have no American/Western actors in them. Those are truly hilarious. Chan excels at martial arts and slapstick and he has a lovely, charming, eternally boyish face imo. Liked all the the movies on your list I have seen, especially the Pekar flick which moved me - unexpectedly - to tears (the cancer year part) and the adoption of the girl, which says a lot about Harvey's character. Loved loved loved the reenactment of the scene on Letterman where he confronts Letterman and NBC. I guess the original footage is locked up tight. If you have the opportunity to see Thirteen, it's another excellent film/documentary with a surprisingly good ending (not at all as harshly cynical as Nick Park).

Jeez, Paul, you saw more movies during this weekend than I've seen this entire year!

I can't talk anyone into watching The Medallion with me, which is probably a good thing, but I'm going to see Swimming Pool and American Splendor sometime soon.

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