Archive for January, 2009

Award-winning documentary recreates, animates early 80s Lebanese war

Posted in Reviews on January 23, 2009 by Steve Mesa

One of the best documentaries and frontrunner for this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar, as well as Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Film, Waltz with Bashir splices the filmmaking world of animation and documentary to create an unforgettable film.
A pack of 26 zombie-like dogs rampage through a crowded street. They are outside the apartment of the man who killed them, stalking him and looking for revenge.
Though it sounds more like the intro to a horror film, this is how the documentary starts. It is a nightmare told to Ari Folman, the film’s director, that one of his army buddies consistently suffers from.
Folman was one of many Israeli men who were in Lebanon in the summer of 1982, when the Israeli defense forces pushed through the southern part of the country toward Beirut. Most of them were present when Christian militiamen slaughtered 3,000 civilians in order to avenge the death of Lebanon’s newly elected president, Bashir Germayel, who was assassinated days before.
The two men conclude that there is a connection between the dream and their Israeli Army mission in the first Lebanon War in the early 80s. After finishing the conversation with his friend, Folman is haunted by a weird recollection of naked soldiers walking on the beach in Beirut as the city’s destroyed skyline is illuminated by flares.
This is the only memory that Folman has of his participation in the war. This sparks an interest in Folman as he decides to interview other soldiers that were with him at the time. As he interviews his army and anyone he knows who was involved with the Lebanon War, certain memories start to resurface in Folman’s mind.
Waltz with Bashir is unlike any documentary that I have seen as it feels like the story is told as a combat picture, such as Saving Private Ryan. Without spending a lot on realistic recreations, Folman recreates the stories told to him by his interviewees through animations that are vivid and surrealistic.
It is more fascinating watching the art that goes into recreating certain events in the Lebanon War, rather than the more common format known as talking-head documentaries that use photos and archival footage to support the documentary.
The animation used in this film is nothing new. This style of animation was used in Richard Linklater’s film Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly and Brett Morgan’s Chicago 10.
In order to create this odd and fascinating documentary, the collaboration of art director David Polinsky and director of photography Yoni Goodman allowed Folman to unravel the memories and bloodshed of the war he participated in.
Waltz with Bashir also brings you to question how well prepared the Israeli soldiers were for the Lebanon War.
For instance, a young group of soldiers storming the beach fire their guns at the first thing they see – a car occupied with a family of three. Another sequence of the film shows the young soldiers shooting off the canons on their tanks wildly despite not knowing why they do so.
The final sequence of the film is deprived of any animation. At the end, rolling graphic footage of the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps’ massacre show the moviegoer the impacting reality of what happened in the Lebanon War.
WALTZ WITH BASHIR: 5 stars out of 5


Notorious; Biggie Smalls biopic blends film, music in solid tribute

Posted in Reviews on January 16, 2009 by Steve Mesa

His name is Christopher Wallace. He has been known as Biggie Smalls, the corner freestyle rap king. The Notorious BIG is what he called himself when he became a music superstar and now the biggest name known to the hip-hop/rap world finally gets the silver screen treatment in Notorious.
The film begins in 1983 where the young Wallace – played by Wallace’s real-life son Christopher Jordan Wallace – is a Catholic school honor student and his mother, Voletta (Oscar-nominee Angela Bassett) does everything she can to keep him away from the world of drugs.
Feeling he does not get enough respect, Wallace begins dealing drugs in order to buy himself some spoils such as Izod and Le Tigre shirts and jewelry.
Years later, an adult Wallace (newcomer Jamal Woolard) becomes a freestyle rapper with the gift to spit out rhymes that reflect on his life and his surroundings. One day, he makes a demo tape of his rhymes in a basement for fun.
The tape finds its way to young, upcoming record producer Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke), who signs Biggie to his newly formed company, Bad Boy Records. Just as Biggie starts to solidify his musical legacy as the creator of one of hip-hop’s greatest bodies of work with his vivid rhymes, fate has other plans.
The acting in Notorious is better than expected with the exception of Angela Bassett’s portrayal of Voletta Wallace. While the real Voletta Wallace has a Jamaican accent, the accent Bassett uses slips in and out through the movie. At one point, Bassett sounds like she is channeling a leprechaun. Despite this problem, she does her best to become the only woman Biggie will never stop loving.
Luke might not look exactly like Combs, but his portrayal recreates the ambition and determination that showed Combs how to cement his first client’s legacy as a hip-hop artist.
Anthony Mackie has an eerie resemblance to the late West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur and embodies his arrogant and sometimes paranoid personality. Ironically, Mackie has played Tupac before in an off-Broadway play called Up Against The Wind, which was also produced by Mackie at Juilliard earlier in his career.
The actor that really shines in the movie is newcomer and Brooklyn rapper Woolard. He not only personifies the legendary rapper, he submerges himself in the role whether he is battling a local “wannabe” rapper or letting his emotions out – physically or musically.
The script infuses some of the lyrics from the Notorious BIG’s songs in the dialogue, including a scene where a young Biggie writes down his first rhymes on a notepad.
Notorious could have been the type of movie that follows a formulaic plot, but the movie manages to avoid such clichés. The true source material comes from one of the screenwriters, Cheo Hodari Coker, who wrote a biography of Biggie and was the last person to interview him.
Coker’s writing helps capture the gritty reality in Wallace’s life. He also captured the essence of the Notorious BIG and the main figures in the rapper’s life including his mother and Combs.
The soundtrack is definitely the highlight of Notorious. While some songs that are featured are sung by the real Notorious BIG, Woolard brings his game to the table to recreate Biggies’s trademark baritone and commanding tone.
Aside from Woolard providing the film voice of Wallace, Antonique Smith plays the rapper’s widower, Faith Evans. Smith has a tremendous voice when she sings one of Evans’ songs, “You Used To Love Me.”
Another actress that sounds identical to her on-screen persona is Naturi Naughton as former Junior MAFIA member and artist Kimberly “Lil’ Kim” Jones. When Jones sings “Get Money” with the rest of the Junior MAFIA crew, she recreates the sultry, sexy and raw sound and performance that made Lil’ Kim recognizable.
Jones is not a newcomer to the music scene, as she was in a girl group called 3LW and made her Broadway debut by landing a role in Hairspray.
Notorious mixes the genre of a musical biographical picture and a coming of age drama to tell the story of a man who continues to impact the world, well beyond the boundaries of hip-hop.
NOTORIOUS: 3.5 stars out of 5

Smack Down; Aronofsky, Tomei take on Globe-winning Wrestler

Posted in Features on January 16, 2009 by Steve Mesa

The Wrestler, recent recipient of two Golden Globe awards including Best Actor in a Drama (Mickey Rourke) and Best Original Song (Bruce Springsteen), is about Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a has-been professional wrestler (Rourke) who retires from the sport after a severe heart attack.
Feeling like his life is worthless, he looks to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and begins an enticing romance with a stripper (Marisa Tomei).
I had the opportunity to talk to the film’s director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) and Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei, who were on hand for interviews at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
Though the screenplay for The Wrestler was written by Robert D. Siegel, the idea was one Aronofsky had been playing with since he graduated film school.
“I wrote down the idea and wondered how come no one has done a wrestling picture in a serious way,” Aronofsky said. “People think that wrestling is a joke, but when we started meeting these wrestlers in their 40s and 50s, a lot of them could not even tie their own shoelaces.”
When it came to casting the lead actor in the film, Aronofsky chose to cast Mickey Rourke in the role.
“I felt in my gut that he was the right guy for the part,” he said.
Tomei got involved in The Wrestler in “the boring usual way,” she heard that Aronofsky was directing a new project with an interesting story.
“I met with him again a couple of months later and got the part a month before shooting began,” Tomei said.
Aronofsky said that casting Tomei in the role of Cassidy was an interesting and unexpected choice.
Both Aronofsky and Tomei had their own difficulties when it came to the shooting. For Aronofsky, it was trying to get his lead actor to be comfortable performing the supermarket scenes where Randy works.
“The supermarket scenes were tough because Mickey connected to the shame of working at the supermarket,” he said. “Mickey can feel the embarrassment and it was hard for him to get in the mood.”
It took Aronofsky a while to understand what Rourke was doing with the character. Rourke said that it was great because the change he was aiming for as an actor poured a little bit into the character.
For Tomei, the most difficult part was auditioning for a play while The Wrestler was in its last week of filming.
“I was audtioning for this intelligent English play with tattoos covering my body and my hair a mess,” she said.
When it came to preparing for filming the movie, Aronofsky told The Beacon that even though Rourke had a boxing background, he had two months to unlearn
everything he knew about boxing and take up the theatrics of wrestling. Tomei prepared for the role by talking to Aronofsky and going through her scenes line by line.
“I went to a bunch of strip clubs, talked to a lot of dancers and watched a lot of ‘Rock of Love,’” Tomei said with a laugh.
Both Aronofsky and Tomei had good things to say about each other after working on the movie.
“Marisa is vey sexy and has a lot going for her,” Aronofsky said.
“I was so lucky to work with Darren, an incredible genius,” Tomei said.
Reel 2 Reel flips movies, reviews and previews every Friday. Email Steve at

The best movies of 2008

Posted in Best of... on January 5, 2009 by Steve Mesa

2008 was an interesting year for movies. This year has given moviegoers men dressed in suits fighting crime, assassins with superhuman abilities and broken old men looking for redemption. Here is a top ten list of the best movies of 2008.

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