Friday, July 31, 2009

Orphan (Thursday, July 30, 3009) (101)

I'm not really a fan of slasher/horror movies because I think they are either entirely hackneyed or so post-modern, self-aware and *different* that the story gets lost in the middle of the formal acrobatics needed to avoid banality. Of course what makes these later movies different boils down to more dullness - as if the writer/director is pulling ideas out of a hat and keeping the ones that are the most unusual. You end up with stories that are so far fetched they're totally stupid; where the audience laughs at the movie and somehow that's a sign of genius. I don't get it. Orphan is one of these post-horror pictures that maybe has the most insane story I have ever seen in a movie.

One other classic device used by horror film makers is to distract people with layer upon layer of hum-drum details that they then forget all the holes in the story. In Orphan we are told that this wife and mother of two is a dry drunk who gave up the sauce when she had some accident involving falling in an icy pond with her deaf daughter when she was pregnant and was rescued by her husband. (I'm already lost.) So she lost her baby (I think) and for some reason they decide to adopt a girl to take the lost daughter's place (because the two kids they already have are not enough, I guess). So they go to the orphanage and find the creepiest girl in the house and bring her home.

Esther is an amazing 9 year-old. She was born in Russian and speaks perfect English with a vocabulary that would make a college professor jealous; she is fluent in American Sign Language and communicates flawlessly with the deaf daughter; she is a genius naive artist whose work is reminiscent of Henri Rousseau and Modigliani; she has a Victorian sense of style, which for unknown reasons is never questioned by the mother and father. Oh - and she wears ribbons on her wrists and neck and insists on bathing and changing in a locked room with nobody around - both totally normal. Whatever.

As the story unfolds, we see Esther being more and more bizarre and everyone slowly realizing it other than the father who thinks she's totally normal. Maybe I'm being too dense here, but this mostly created frustration for me. It would be one thing if the girl was doing evil things and they couldn't get rid of her (like the Exorcist or even Friday the 13th), but to accept totally messed up stuff as normal just served to alienate me from the dad. It's not really *dramatic irony* when we see the same stuff he sees and then he comes to a different, stupid conclusion. I think things like this are the foundation of the genre, but they're banal and useless as a device.

OK - so I've tried delaying it for awhile now, but here it is: SPOILER ALERT!! (Sorry - I have to tell the big reveal to continue this. The rest of this post will be a spoiler.) It turns out that Esther is a 33 year-old 'proportional dwarf' who was in a mental hospital in Estonia (you see - Estonia, not Russia! aha!) and somehow hurt her wrists and neck on her straight jacket (huh?) and then escaped and is playing a 9 year-old girl because she's a sex addict and likes seducing and sleeping with men who are her adopted fathers. Then she kills the people and burns their houses down. Got it?

So I have a few questions that I'll ask, risking being accused of having no sense of humor and not being able to suspend disbelief or something (and I won't even get to the elephant in the room about the proportional dwarfism). What happened to the third baby who was stillborn and why can't they try to have another kid rather than adopt? What is the point in the young daughter being deaf? Why does it snow every day in Connecticut and does it really ever get cold enough there to freeze a pond? If you were am Estonian proportional dwarf, why would you pretend to be 9 and not 14 (at least then you would be honestly sexual and not pre-sexual)? For a 33 year-old, isn't Esther still massively talented? What's the point of showing a gun (in Act 2) if it really doesn't ever go off? If you're a proportional dwarf woman trying to sleep with men, why would you pretend to be their daughter and not, say, their next door neighbor girl? Don't men normally shy away from sex acts with daughters (adopted or genetic)?

I don't know - I guess I have no joy in my life or something. Sure - it was fun to watch to see how ridiculous the movie was turning out to be - but that was more of a 'laughing at it' rather than 'laughing with it'. Even considering the gigantic leaps of logic in it, the dialogue was almost entirely wooden and tired. Ugh. Who cares?

Stars: .5 of 4 (It gets a half because it is about a crazy Estonian proportional dwarf girl who sexually seduces adopted fathers and is an art genius.)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Great Buck Howard (Sunday, July 26th, 2009) (100)

This is a small, silly movie about a kid who drops out of law school because he's a bit lost in life, and ultimately ends up as the personal assistant to an eccentric 'mentalist' hypnotist. The cast is much more impressive than the film itself - with John Malkovich as the eponymous Buck Howard, Colin Hanks as the kid, Emily Blunt as the love interest, Ricky Jay as the talent manager (as if you could have a movie loosely about magic without Jay); Colin's dad Tom as the kid's dad; Brooklyn hipster rockers Clap Your Hands Say Yeah play in one scene and the credits.

Overall the picture is rather lifeless and thin. Malkatraz is super earnest as only he can be; Colin is rather anemic; Blunt looks great in a small dress, but her attraction to Colin is a bit mysterious. Not a heck of a lot happens and then a few small things happen and then the movie is over.

Writer/director Sean McGinly clearly has a lot of connections in Hollywood to assemble such a cast, but it's unclear to my why they would all agree to do this movie, where I forgot what happened at the beginning before the end came 85 minutes later. This isn't a loathsome movie, just not a very good one.

Stars: 1 of 4

In the Loop (Sunday, July 26, 2009) (99)

The movie is a screwball comedy about a mid-level British bureaucrat who make a misstatement and unwittingly gets the US and UK governments geared up for war. At least I think that's what it is. The problem is that I really can't say what this is about because it was such a mess and so sloppy that I couldn't totally follow it.

I guess it's supposed to be funny and supposed to have clever and sharp dialogue - but I didn't feel either of these things. Mostly it's too frenetic and the jokes (some of which are funny) feel mostly forced and out of place in most moments. I guess it could be a very cynical look at modern Western government (where a White House department head is 22, for instance), but I thought the critique was thin and watery at best.

Easily the best thing in the movie is the performance by Steve Coogan in a very small cameo part. He's very funny and his timing is excellent. Sadly, his scenes are the only really funny parts of the movie (even if I have no idea where they fit in the plot). This is not a good movie.

Stars: 1 of 4

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Wednesday, July 22, 2009) (98)

I've read all the Harry Potter books and seen all the movies to this point, and yet for some reason the details of the stories absolutely don't stick with me. Maybe this has to do with the complexity of the narrative and the fact that I never obsessed over the minutiae nor re-read any of the books. Still, I do thoroughly enjoy the universe that Rowling created and have found the movies, by and large, to be enjoyable distractions, if somewhat banal. This sixth installment is no different.

This movie is mostly about 16 year-olds having sex. They're horny and want to do it in their parents' home, on the train to school, in the dining hall, in their castle houses, in potions class, in the face of imminent death or suffering. The movie is basically a magical version of Larry Clark's Kids, but with fewer homeless dudes on the subway.

Harry has a thing for Ron's sister Ginny; Ron has a thing for Hermione and Hermione has a thing for Ron; Lavender has a thing for Ron; McLaggan has a thing for Hermione; Dean Thomas has a thing for Ginny; Ginny has a thing for Harry and Dean; Romilda has a thing for Harry. When they're riding their brooms in quidditch, the boys look like extras in a John Holmes movie with, broomsticks standing erect between their legs. The sex is not subtle.

Other than sex, there's also the story of how Billy Zabka look-alike Drako Malfoy has been tasked by Voldemort to perform some gigantically evil task that many don't think he is capable of doing that will shake up the magic world when it happens. At the same time, Dumbledore has Harry try to get a memory from Professor Slughorn (wonderfully played by Jim Broadbent) that will be some key to the Dark Lord's ultimate demise. That's basically it - oh, and more teeny sex!

Director David Yates (who also did the last Harry Pooper movie and will do the last two) has a very easy style that moves the story along smoothly. I never felt bored or that scenes were especially dull,but that is mostly because there are only about three non-frenetic scenes (dealing mostly with kids screwing or talking about screwing). I like the use of new parts of the castle - like the horary tower - and the buildings in general looked great.

The biggest problem with the film is the script, which includes some scenes that are unnecessary or wasted and also never explains the need for some details well enough. Once Harry is able to get Slughorn's super-duper important memory from his brain and he and Dumbledore are able to see it (magically, of course), it feels like a big rip-off when we find out what it is. On top of that, it seems that Dumbledore already knew the important detail in the memory as he was already ten steps ahead of Harry. Once this happened, I realized they could have cut 20 or 30 minutes out of the picture and come to the same end.

Overall this is fun, but should only be seen if one has seen the other films. It moves nicely and looks great as always (the Hogwarts castle looks especially great here). It's not totally amazing and fabulous, but it will do.

Stars: 2 of 4

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Two Lovers (Tuesday, July 21, 2009) (97)

This film tells the story of a guy (Joaquin Phoenix) who lives in his parents' house in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Around the time he is introduced to the daughter of his father's business partner (Vinessa Shaw) he also meets a pretty neighbor (Gwyneth Paltrow). He is more interested in the blond neighbor as she is slightly sexier and not connected to his domineering parents, however she is in a relationship with a married guy. So he strikes up a relationship with the daughter of the partner as a diversion while he pines for the neighbor.

Going into this, I wasn't sure what exactly to expect. I knew it was based on a Dostoevsky story (whatever that means) and that the writer/director, James Gray, had made two interesting films (both of which I thought were not entirely successful for different reasons - but very interesting, at any rate). I also knew, of course, that Joaquin absolutely lost his shit during the promotion of the film this past winter - and ultimately he 'retired' from acting.

Despite all this craziness, this is a good solid movie with a compelling story and a very interesting style. Gray, true to his name, seems to shoot a lot in the dusky hours just before sunrise or just after sunset. This atmosphere gives the picture (all his pictures, really) a blue-grayish atmosphere that's not entirely New York as we know it, but also not entirely foreign either. His color palate is limited - unlike the reality of the bright city around the characters - but it's effective in setting a dreamy and yet claustrophobic tone.

The acting is very good - from top to bottom. I frequently have trouble with Paltrow's acting, but she's very convincing here as a woman rather unaware of her beauty and naive to the ways of powerful men in the city. Joaquin is frustrating in his stuttering stubbornness and two-timing, and comes off well as a troubled and confused man who is merely looking for a break to go his way. Shaw and Isabella Rossellini (Joaquin's mom) are both great in supporting roles.

This film gives an honest and true-feeling look at a rather painful dilemma and feels very classic in its plot (after watching, the fact that it's based on Dostoevsky is very apparent). This is easily Gray's best film to date - and his progression from 'The Yards' to 'We Own the Night' to this is very nice and clearly moving upwards.

I like this film. I think it's effective and subtle and smart and sweet and clean and modest.

Stars: 3 of 4

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (Sunday, July 19, 2009) (96)

I have to admit, I had never heard of the Goldbergs before I heard about this movie. Sorry. I guess it's a generational thing. Though, I think this is also part of the reason that Aviva Kempner made this documentary - to bring to light a remarkable and significant woman whose legacy has been somewhat forgotten.

This documentary traces the life and work of Gertrude Berg, a playwright, radio and television writer, actor and arguably the first media superstar of the broadcast era. Her show, the Goldbergs, was a huge hit on the radio in the 1930s and 1940s and then an even bigger hit on television in the late 1940s and early 1950s. She wrote every script and played the matriarch, Molly, the whole time.

Similar to Kempner's style in her previous doc on Hank Greenberg, she interviews people about their memories of the show and what it meant to them. Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Norman Lear are just two of the people who talk about how she was the most important pop cultural figure of their childhoods. (After Greenberg and Berg/Goldberg, one has to wonder if a Ginsberg doc is up next for the film maker ;).)

Largely forgotten now, Berg won the first Emmy for lead actress in a comedy (in 1950) and was basically Lucille Ball/Arnaz before Lucy was on the air. (Lucy apparently took the Goldbergs' time slot when the show was cancelled due to advertising pressure during the Red Scare in the early 1950s.)

Overall, this is a very interesting movie filled with info and details that I never knew. It was done well and was generally compelling. I must say, it is a bit antiseptic in its content and style, though I don't know how Kempner could have gotten away from that. Overall a nice film, if a bit unexciting.

Stars: 2 of 4

(500) Days of Summer (Sunday, July 19, 2009) (95)

I went into this movie expecting to be annoyed by its painful hipness and saccharine romantic non-lovstoryness. All the advance press I saw and heard about it made me cringe. The soundtrack was apparently *so very important* and the director gave the actors ipods with moody tracks on them to get them in the right frame of mind. Oh - and the couple is doomed because they both love the music of the very unlucky-in-love Smiths. Bah! I have to admit, however, that I was pleasantly surprised by the final product, which was a very mature, fun and interesting take on a romantic-ish comedy.

The story is told in a choppy way where we jump around in time looking at different points (different days) in the relationship between and young man and young woman. Through the course of the film, we get the full chronology and understand the relationship pretty well. They meet in the office, he falls in love with her; she is oblivious to him. They rather fall for each other, but she doesn't want to be in a relationship. They break up and try to be friends and see what happens next.

The soundtrack is an important part of the film. It's quirky and clever featuring songs by the Smiths, Regina Spektor, Feist and Simon and Garfunkle (to name a few). They all add to the interesting atmosphere of the film - somewhat nostalgic and retro and also very ultra hip(ster). I must say, I could have done with a bit less hipster skinny retro fashion. It felt a bit forced and silly at times.

The acting is generally very good. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great and his performance here is as good as his work in Mysterious Skin, Brick and the Lookout. He plays very well with Zooey Deschanel, who has always been cute, but actually pulls off a good performance here. He comes over very honestly as a wide-eyed optimist and hopeless romantic; she is a very believable modern urbanite who doesn't believe in conventions like 'relationships' and 'love'. (In her one scene, Minka Kelly, Lila Garrity from Friday Night Lights, is very good too).

Overall I'm rather impressed by the direction by Marc Webb. At times it does feel a bit showy and trite, but there are some very fresh moments too. There were some clever post-modern touches from the first moments where a voice over says that this is *not* a love story and Brechtian titles throughout. There is some very nice use of split-screens including a clever 'fantasy/reality' sequence.
The use of music and animation is very nice and effective.

I guess lots of people (reviewers and viewers) are talking about the interesting dynamic here where the man and woman switch typical gender roles so the man is the romantic and the woman is the dispassionate rationalist unable to love easily. I feel, however that there's not much to this role twist - knowing this switch doesn't really change my feelings about the characters much or make them particularly more interesting. It's a bit of an obtuse detail, honestly.

Overall this is a nice movie. I would absolutely watch it again - partly for the interesting style and partly for the great acting and the dynamic relationship between Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel. I think there are some corny moments in it, but there are a lot of nice moments too. It is romantic, yes, but it is also realistic and set totally in our world. That's a nice change.

Stars: 3 of 4

Friday, July 17, 2009

Humpday (Friday, July 17, 2009) (94)

Somehow this movie currently has some buzz - from a few positive reviews and from being a darling at Sundance (from what I understand). And yet it's not a good movie. The idea is sorta simple and dumb, where two college friends meet after several years in the real world - one is married and has become a 'square', while the other is a wild vagabond and artist. When they meet they decide that for an 'art project' they will have sex together on camera - but because they are both straight, it's not gay and it's art. Or something like that. The married dude gets his wife upset by this (no surprise), but tells her that he 'doesn't know why, but it means a lot to' him. We never really find out why that is either.

This is a teeny tiny movie with a cast of amateur actors - who are really not good at their craft. At times it felt like I was watching a painful high school play - or a film school production (with low grade production values). The script is also terrible, with characters making irrational decisions that work only in a scripted scene and would never happen in life. The direction, by Lynn Shelton (who previously edited the mediocre 'Diggers'), is amateurish and uninspired at best.

Mostly the film was dull. After the two guys decide to have sex together, they spend the next 45 minutes talking about it and figuring out how best to do it. At best, with a good script, this would be thought provoking or interesting. But here, it's just two loathsome asses who talk about their salad days in college and try to out-masculine the other by not being too *gay* as they screw each other.

I would have much preferred they cut to the chase and just did it quickly rather than drawing it out the way it happened.

Stars: 1 of 4

Somers Town (Friday, July 17, 2009) (93)

Somers Town is a nice story about a young boy who has run away from his home in the Midlands and ends up in London where he meets an immigrant Polish boy who lives with his father in a small flat. The two strike up a sweet friendship that focuses largely on their mutual crush on a French woman who works at a cafe nearby. The story is very sweet and simple and doesn't get in the way of the wonderful acting and beautiful atmostphere and technique.

Director Shane Meadows has a very interesting style. He mostly shoots with a hand-held camera in static shots, so you get the idea that you're standing there watching the action very intimately. This movie is in black and white, which I sometimes feel is annoying and manipulative, but here adds to the wonderful texture of industrial London. For me, this is a wonderful movie about style and texture, even more so than the story (which is, honestly, rather forgettable).

Actor Thomas Turgoose, who debuted in Meadows' very good last film, 'This is England', is again very good. He totally honest and without any real 'style' - which is to say his performance is entirely believable. I am interested that his character here, Tomo, could be a continuation of his character in the earlier film, Shaun. Both times the kid is very nice and friendly and believes deeply in the goodness and honesty of others. He has a wild streak in him, but he's generally under control - even when he's being aggressive. His tongue seems firmly planted in his cheek and yet his serious actions are self-confident and self-aware.

Meadows feels like a new Mike Leigh. Showing real English situations and places and people without judging them negatively and giving the smallest character lots of respect. Leigh generally deals with the quirky happy side of things (maybe his Naked is an exception, though that's a bit cheeky at times too), while Meadows deals with average lower-level elements that are a bit sad and less goofy.

This is a nice and good movie, but very simple. Meadows' direction is probably the best part of it - but Turgoose's acting is delightful too.

Stars: 3 of 4

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Thursday, July 16, 2009) (92)

In 1997, there was Volcano and Dante's Peak; in 1998, there was Armageddon and Deep Impact; 2009 was the year with Observe and Report and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Somehow when it rains it pours in movies. I have never understand how movie makers come up with similar ideas and release them in the same year. Whether its exploding volcanoes near urban centers, asteroids hurtling toward our planet or mall security guards, these things seem to come in pairs.

The biggest difference between all of these duos and this one is that Observe and Report (which sadly was released before I began this weblog) is an excellent film and currently on my Best of the Year list; Paul Blart is the piece of crap that you'd expect from such a silly movie - and more in line with all of the other partners above.

Strangely, both Observe and Paul Blart share some very specific details. Both films focus on mall security guards who are reaching for higher police jobs; both of them have health issues that keep them from those better gigs; both are in love with young lady mall workers (who both work in disposable fashion); both live at home with their single mothers; both fight off a tremendous assault from armed robbers.

is dull and unfunny and brings in stupid elements (like an X-Games-inspired gang of robbers who skateboard and The biggest difference, I think, is the writing. Paul Blart, written by Kevin James and Nick BakayBMX bike around the mall, or Segues the mall cops ride on) that add nothing to the story. Observe, on the other hand, written by Jody Hill, is dirtier (which leads to it being funnier), deeper and more bitter-sweet. At times it's downright touching. Blart feels like 3rd grade; Observe is a graduate-level class.

Mostly Paul Blart is silly and dumb. I'm sorry to be hard on a movie that really doesn't aspire to be more than a dumb movie (at least I don't think it does) and is generally rather modest. It's just not very good.

Stars: 1 of 4

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Confessions of a Shopaholic (Wednesday, July 15, 2009) (91)

There's a line near the beginning of this film about how 'cost and worth are very different things'. Renting this film was a negligible cost for me through Netflix, but it was worth an hour and 45 minutes of my life that I'll never get back.

This is a terrible, unfunny, sexist, trite and dull movie. I've liked Isla Fisher in the past (she was good enough in The Wedding Crashers and good in The Lookout), but here she takes a few steps back to shitiness. But she's really not the problem with this movie.

The story in a nutshell has a so-called 'shopaholic' (of just a girl with no sense of her credit limit and an over-inflated idea of designer label clothes) who is something like $10,000 in credit card debt (seriously - that's all?!) who is laid off from her job as a journalist at one magazine. She then takes a job at a business magazine partly because the editor is hot and partly because she hopes that it will lead to another job at another magazine - some Vogue sort of thing. I don't know - from there she writes, uh, one column about investing in fashion or something and turns into a media superstar. Then she goes on TV and is outed for being in debt (again, she's in $10,000 of credit card debt, which somehow is a big amount of debt).

I couldn't figure out if the writers/director/producers thought that it was just Fisher's character was an idiot whose idea of journalism is to google the topic and copy from a For Dummies book, or if they felt that all women were idiots and would align with Fisher's character and waste their money on this piece of trash.

One of the worst things about this is for a movie about a clothes horse, Fisher didn't have a good fashion eye at all. Not a single outfit looked good on her. I couldn't figure out if they did this on purpose, but if they did, I didn't understand what kind of point they were making. Also - if your making a movie about being in credit card debt, you have to use a bigger number than $10,000. It seems to me that a real shopaholic could spend that much in one spree. Shouldn't she be, like, $100,000 in debt or more?

Whatever. Writing any more about this garbage is a waste of my time. This is a movie with absolutely no redeeming qualities. The acting is bad, the writing is terrible - even the directing is dull (if I have to see another 'Going to Miami' sequence in a movie begin with a helicopter shot over the Biscayne Bay, I might die).

Stars: None of 4

Sunday, July 12, 2009

My Neighbor, My Killer (Sunday, July 12, 2009) (90)

This is a documentary about the Gacaca genocide trials in Rwanda that ran from 2001 until 2008. Somewhat similar to the Truth and Reconciliation commissions in South Africa after Apartheid, these trials had communities confront the men who murdered their family members in the brutal Hutu genocide of the Tutsies and were overseen by community-member tribunals. The film follows the trial in one small village over the course of about 8 years.

At first we see a woman whose children and husband were butchered with machettes in the middle of the night. She knows the man who did it, as he had lived in the village before the incident. That man is released from government custody around 2001, as part of the first step in the Gacaca process. He is interviewed and he denies killing the family.

Over the course of several years, we see the trial proceed and the man's story changes. At one point he says that he doesnt' know who killed whom, but he knows he didn't kill people in the village; later he shows where the people were killed; later he does admit to killing the people.

The Gacaca process is clearly an an amazing and cathartic one. Through the trial, the people of the village are able to tell their
experiences and share their pain. In the end, the purpetrators of the crimes get off with what we in the West would consider an incredibly light punnishment - and then they are sent back to live in the village again. It's really amazing.

I think there is some confusion through the film about time frame and some details of the events we are examining. I would have liked a bit more explaination from the director (possibly through the better use of titles), as I felt I missed some important points at times. I think the Gacaca process is more amazing than the movie itself, which in the end is much closer to a good 60 Minutes or Frontline report.

Stars 2 of 4

Soul Power (Sunday, July 12, 2009) (89)

There's an age-old question about which is the best concert documentary. The Last Waltz, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter are my top three. Soul Power is not as good as those, but it is very good.

In 1974, in advance of the Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, Zaire, two concert promoters organized a gigantic R&B festival showcasing some of the best musical acts of the era, as well as some big Afro-pop acts. The talent includes, James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, The Spinners, Miriam Makeba and Celia Cruz.

The film begins with a title that says that the concert was paid for by a Liberian investment group, who also put up money to make a movie about the show (though, it's never explained why it took 35 years to make the film). We see footage of the stage and venue being set up in Kinshasa inter-cut with the performers getting from New York to Zaire. This background material is wonderful as it allows ample time for the performers to speak about Black Power and 'going home to the motherland', all the while, we see white Suits (literally - and in the African summer heat) freaking out about details and logistics of the show.

There are three nights of concerts where the American R&B artists alternate with African musicians. The three nights of concert are split up with footage of the life in Kinshasa including local musicians performing on the street and the stars talking politics. It's a whole lot of wonderful texture and edited beautifully. There is a wonderful moment where we see conga drummer Big Black playing the drums and then a cut to Muhammad Ali beating on the chair he sits on as he waits for an interview.

Oh, and Ali. He's in the film a lot and he's wonderful. He's funny and quick and clever. He's totally himself and totally original.

The music in the film is totally amazing - really, really great. Happily, each artist gets one full song. Sadly, only James Brown gets more than one song. Running around 90-minutes, there's no reason I see why other artists couldn't have played a few more songs too.

Bill Withers plays a beautiful version of 'Hope She'll be Happier' - which was totally wonderful, but sad because it's certainly one of his less known songs (I imagine that night he also played 'Grandma's Hands' or 'Ain't No Sunshine' or 'Sweet Wanomi' - and those are all better known. Maybe this is good to expose people to smaller songs, but I think it was a missed opportunity). At another point, B.B. King talks about his set list and I was dying thinking of all the amazing songs he was going to play. Then we see him play only one song, which was again very sad.

The costumes the artists wear onstage are amazing - so was their hair. It's hard to give anyone credit for this, as they were wearing what they wore at the time, but it was great. James Brown wears a jumpsuit with G.F.O.S. (Godfather of Soul) in rhinestones on the belt. He did the splits a handful of times and was amazing. The Spinners wore white suits with lightning bolts all over them. Miriam Makeba wore a great dress and had the coolest braided mohawk I've ever seen. The logo for the show, Zaïre '74, is fantastic and is used throughout the picture.

Again, it's strange that this movie is just put out with no explanation about what took so long to make it. The director, Jeffret Levy-Hinte, was a producer on 'When We Were Kings', and the director of that film, Leon Gast, appears in one scene of this film and is a producer of it. I wish I had known more about the background here.

This is close to an 'instant classic' in terms of concert films - but not in that top tier of amazing ones. I can see really enjoying the soundtrack, assuming it comes out, and watching this again. It just is lacking a few details that stop it from being perfect. If nothing else, it's a bit too short and I wish there was more.

Stars: 3 of 4

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Brüno (Saturday, July 11, 2009) (88)

I'm a big fan of Sacha Baron Cohen. I really liked Da Ali G Show and thought the Borat movie was very clever. In the TV show, I always felt like the Brüno was a second-rate gag and not as good as the Borat character... and the movie basically bears that out.

Don't get me wrong, this is a somewhat funny movie with a lot of good physical comedy and Baron Cohen has great timing throughout. His earnestness is amazing (in Borat and here).

One thing that was a problem in the Borat movie and is still a problem here is the suggestion that the people in the movie are random people who are not in on the joke. This is clearly not the case always - and in this film, it was shockingly apparent in a few scenes (particularly when he was interviewing parents about putting their kids in unusual photo shoots).

The problem is that the only way the
Brüno/Borat joke works is if people are totally being taken advantage of and are honestly being fooled/laughed at. When we feel that the other person is in on the joke, it's just a dumb joke - or not even really a joke - just an idiot saying stupid and shocking stuff. Sadly this movie spent a lot of time in this area where it was totally clear that we were watching scripted dialogue with actors playing common people.

On top of this, the framing story, that
Brüno was kicked out of his fashion show in Austria, so he goes to look for fame in America, was sorta thin and tired. I prefer the Borat angle, where he was simply touring the country to show true America to his home nation. By the time he started trying to be converted to straight-dom, I was totally bored.

(One more problem, and I think it might be the first time I've ever seen it, is that the so many of the laugh lines of the movie were used either in the trailer or in the press calls on TV. On at least the Today show and the Letterman Top 10,
Brüno told jokes about how he's the most famous Austrian since Hitler and how Arnold Schwarzenneger is gay. I laughed when I saw those on TV this past week; when I saw them in the movie, they were stale.)

Still, there is some funny material here. I guess I just wish it was better. I'm always amazing that people don't know what they're up for when they agree to an interview (like Paula Abdul or Ron Paul). As performance art
Brüno is an amazing project (that's cliché, I know, but it's true). As a movie, this is dull and not wonderful.

Stars: 1 of 4

Monday, July 6, 2009

Fired Up (Monday, July 6, 2009) (87)

Thank god for airplanes when you can watch big pieces of shit movies and not feel guilty about wasting time. This movie is a great example of that. I think this is supposed to be Hangover-style gross-out humor for teens, but I'm still not totally sure about that, as much of the content felt more adult than that.

The story goes that there are two jock man-sluts in high school who realize that if they go to cheer leading camp instead of football camp, they can fuck more girls - seriously - that's what it's about. So they go to cheer camp and fuck a bunch of girls and then one of them falls in love with one girl. Uh, and then there's a cheer competition that they lose and .... oh, who cares.

I really hope that high school kids don't talk this dirty in today's world, because about every other line was totally cringe-worthy and foul. I'm still not totally sure how this got a PG-13 rating... maybe I saw an unrated version. Who cares.

Fun fact: Philip Baker Hall plays the football coach for three scenes and his thing is that he says 'shit' every other word (which is funny, but mostly because it's PBH). Hall is the only positive thing about this piece of crap.

Stars: 0 of 4

New In Town (Monday, July 6, 2009) (86)

I guess all actors need to make a living - and somehow Renée Zellweger falls into that category of 'actor'.

I can't figure out if this movie pisses me off because it is frustratingly anti-feminist just because it's plain stupid. Either way, it's totally banal and dim.

Dumb story: Zellweger lives in Miami and moves to Minnesota to work in a food packaging plant for her heartless company. She immediately missteps with them by insulting them and saying horrible things. The she falls in love with hottie Harry Connick, Jr. who is also the union rep. Then her company decides to close down the plant and everyone hates her. Then she figures out a way of making tapioca pudding in the plant to keep all the jobs - and everyone loves her and she and Harry screw on the plant floor... er....

I felt the director (it doesn't even matter, but his name is Jonas Elmer and this is his first American picture - congratulations, dude) forced down our throats that she was super duper skinny and much skinnier than those funny-speaking people up north who wear lots of wool and eat pudding. She gets ahead in life by being a bitch and not making friends - all the while dressing like a million bucks - even when it's not totally appropriate. There's something faintly Sarah Palin about her (or maybe Palin is just on my mind) - but the way that she is blood-thirsty and thinks that the only way to play with the boys is to castrate and be mean to the boys, while using her sexiness to throw them off their games is very reminiscent of the Alaska governor.

With all the stupidity around, there are some good supporting actors, including HCJ, J.K. Simmons (who is always great) and Frances Conroy (who is also always great). Still, they can't save a really bad movie whose moral is you catch more flies with honey (or tapioca) than you do with vinegar... very original. The other moral is that if the union rep is not a hunk and can't sing real good, then being a bitch is totally cool.

Stars: .5 of 4

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Lion's Den (Saturday, July 4, 2009) (85)

This is a movie about a woman in Argentina who is put in jail for murdering her boyfriend. When she is sent in she is pregnant and she is put in a cell block for mothers and expecting mothers. Her prison experience is far from normal and much more like a nursary school with bars on the windows, as there are screaming kids (up to age 4) and toys strewed around everywhere. The woman, Julia, gives birth and begins raising her son in the prison with the help of her prison wife with whom she has a brief sexual affair.

I'm trying to separate the film from the amazing situation in Argentina where little children are kept in jail while their mothers serve their sentences. Lots of the shocking and amazing moments are as much about the reality on the ground in this prison system as they are about the film itself.

But there are some very interesting touches here from director Pablo Trapero, such as extra long shots and a very good use of moving cameras - especially tracking and dolly shots. One great shot, used in the trailer, is a tracking shot that shows the women in the block standing at the doors of their cells shown from their necks down - showing mostly their pregnant or fat bellies - as the roll-call is being read. In the last shot of the film, there is a five-minute-or-so take that goes from one side of a river, then onto a ferry to the other side of the water, and then back... it's very interesting and effectively conveys time and space relevant to that point of the story.

The acting is very good here to - especially the lead, Martina Gusman. Much of her character is rather intuitive to us, as we see a woman in a tough spot responding in a rather understandable fashion. Still, she brings more depth to the role and makes us understand that she is a smart and likeable woman.

Stars: 3 of 4

Friday, July 3, 2009

Séraphine (Friday, July 3, 2009) (84)

This is a film about the important years of French naive painter Séraphine de Senlis' life and art. She is played beautifully by Yolande Morreau who has already won a few awards for the performance - and very deservedly so!

The film begins with Séraphine as a simple house maid in 1915 who lives in a convent and paints pictures of flowers and foliage with supplies and paint that she makes herself. She has no training and is hardly a strong intellectual force, but her pictures are delightful. She is a woman with tremendous faith who claims that her artistic ability is a gift from God. When a German art dealer rents a house she cleans, he discovers her paintings and gets very excited. He is an expert and dealer of naive art and immediately buys all of Séraphine's works. Over the next 30 years, the money she makes from selling her art, as well as the psychological pressure the attention puts on her, drives her crazy, until she is ultimately is put into an asylum.

The story is very simple and typically French and slow. I wish we could have seen more of her work - or even more of her making her work. Rather director Martin Provost spends most of the time showing Séraphine simply dealing with daily life. (Then again, I guess that's what it means to be a naive artist - you have a life and a job and you paint at night or whenever.) I felt like I could never connect to the art well enough (though when I saw it, I did really like it). I wish Provost had done a bit more of an Andrei-Rublev-style concentration and display of the art. (That's not totally fair to compare it to the best movie ever made, but whatever.)

This is a fascinating story, as what made this woman known and relevant now is also what essentially killed her in the end. Had her art never been discovered, she might have happily lived out her days as a simple maid with a deep faith. Instead, her art - which she never did to find fame or attention, but because she was moved inside to make it - exposed her to a life that she could never have been mentally ready for and ultimately ruined her.

This is a nice film, but not totally worth the 130 minutes it takes. I didn't love the structure and think it could have been tightened a good amount. Some of Séraphine's stranger actions were tied to her psychology, but never totally explained in dialogue or on screen.

Again, Yolande Morreau's performance is magnificent and deserves to be remembered in American award season next winter.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

The Beaches of Agnès (Friday, July 3, 2009) (83)

I admit that 'Cleo from 5 to 7' is the only Agnès Varda film I've ever seen. I don't think this fact got in the way of enjoying this fascinating and wonderful documentary.

This is a very fun and fresh take on an autobiography. We first see Varda on a beach near her birthplace in Belgium organizing a crew who are setting up mirrors so she can literally look at herself and so we can see her through them. Visual and literal puns like this run through the film and always keep us excited to see what is coming next. At one moment, she says that she can't remember her childhood; then she shows a picture of her and her sister as girls in bathing suits; then she shows two present-day girls dressed in the same suits that were in the picture playing a scene from her childhood (or whatever she interprets that to be). At another point, she has two men, who are the sons of two actors she once worked with, push a cart down an alley wile a projector on the cart shows footage of their father pushing the same cart down the same alley. Very clever.

She traces her career from still photographer, to filmmaker, to 'member' in the New Wave and her romantic relationship with Jacques Demy. Her style is frequently multi-media (including a cartoon cat sitting in for director Chris Marker), using montages and interviews as well as dramatic re-enactments. She has an uncanny sense of humor with the treatment, but this does not get in the way of the seriousness of the content.

I really like the fact that the film as an autobiography and reflection of her films also is an excellent example of the form and style of her oeuvre.

Stars: 3 of 4

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Chéri (Thursday, July 2, 2009) (82)

Michelle Pfeiffer is totally gorgeous. She lights up the screen with her beauty and is a totally wonderful actress. She is one of the best aspects of this very sweet and pretty movie.

This is a very nice film by Stephen Frears about an aging whore in Belle Epoque Paris who falls in love with the significantly younger son of a fellow working women. I've never read the Colette book that the film is based on, but the story is not all that surprising. The duo fall in love, the son is then married off to another young woman so they can have children (as Pfeiffer is presumably too old), he gets bored and longs for his older, more erotic and passionate lover. Their lives end up totally wrecked by their inability to connect on the same level with one another at the right time.

I really liked the oedipal relationship between Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend. Their sexual attraction is totally tied to his needing guidance and mothering (as his mother, Kathy Bates, is totally self-possessed). Pfeiffer infantilizes him, frequently nuzzling him as if he were her child. She is a narcissist who needs attention from her rivals and him, and she clearly loves the youthful feeling she gets from spending time with such a younger man. Ultimately, her mothering of him (which is, again, self-centered) begins to suffocate him and he gets out. It's a fascinating psycho-sexual drama of a classic kind.

Pfeiffer is the totally perfect (English-speaking actress) for this role. She, herself, is just over 50 and it totally believable as an older lady with lots of experience who can get lost in love with a younger, hot man. She's also totally physically appealing so it totally makes sense that Rupert Friend's 19-year-old character would fall for her.

The sets and costumes are wonderful in this and make every shot beautiful and bright. Pfeiffer's Art Nouveau house is absolutely gorgeous, as is her bed (where many scenes take places) and her wardrobe.

The script drags a bit more than it should, and though I never totally felt bored, I also never was totally excited or thrilled with the comic elements of this. Overall everything felt tight enough, but the final impact was not overwhelming. The psychology is very interesting, but I think it's mostly on the surface and pretty overt. I would have liked a bit more subtlety from the story.

I liked this movie, but feel like it is small. It looks wonderful and the acting is great, there was just something missing in it that didn't totally lock me in.

Stars 2.5 of 4

Public Enemies (Wednesday, July 1, 2009) (81)

This film is a great example of an amazing opportunity totally missed. You have a dynamic anti-hero who has lots of machine guns, set in perhaps the most aesthetically beautiful era with great looking suits and dresses and cars and buildings. Add to this a gigantic cast and a top-level director ... and yet this is a dull and sloppy movie that goes into directions it shouldn't and never gets to a real pay-off.

This is the story of John Dillinger's year-long bank robbery spree and the F.B.I. chase that worked to catch him and his gang - and ultimately killed him.

The script is totally messy. There is some snappy dialogue, but those moments are few and far between. The plot meanders in sometimes non-linear-feeling directions (I'm still not totally sure if the opening jail break happens at the chronological beginning of the story or if that's a middle-point shown first). I think small touches - like small titles telling you where you are and when you are - would have made the flow much clearer. Many times I was bored or lost and could never totally get my head around all the secondary characters and their names and relationships to Dillinger.

One of my biggest gripes with the script and direction is that so much time is wasted time on Dillinger's love life with a half-French lady. Though it might be historically accurate, who the hell cares? Dillinger is a bank robber. That he screwed a lady - and that she happened to be half French - means nothing to me. (I can't help but think that the half-Frenchness of the lady had a lot to do with the producer's desire to cast Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard... that the character wasn't just American never totally made sense to me and just read as an unnecessary layer of complication.)

This is a problem I have with lots of movies - like Kasdan's Wyatt Earp - I don't care about Earp's background - I only care about the OK Corral. I don't care about Dillinger's sex life - I care about his bank robberies. It would be one thing if his love life was used as a window into how charming and masculine he was - or better yet, if his love life was somehow his Achilles heel and the cause of his ultimate downfall. But instead, we just seen him flirting with a lady at a dance, then moving in with her and then falling in love with her. So what?! We never get any psychological depth from the Dillinger character.

From a directing point of view, I expect a lot more out of Michael Mann. He has done wonderful tight stories in the past - and this is anything but that. All the great actors fall flat - especially Christian Bale, whose character is totally forgettable.

One thing I hate is that there are a ton of sloppy mistakes that could have been easily fixed. For instance, there's an important scene when a bunch of men are listening to a baseball game on the radio in downtown Chicago. Dillinger comes in and asks what the score of the game is. One man answers something like, 'Cubs are winning, 7-5'. The next thing we hear is the radio announcer saying, 'And the Yankees come up to bat'. But in 1934, the Cubs and Yankees never played each other. This is sloppy and stupid and would have been easy to fix. It could have been a White Sox-Yankees game or the Cubs could have been playing the Cardinals or Giants or any other team in the National League. Dumb.

Probably the best thing in the movie is the wonderful costumes and art direction. The beautiful Art Deco style of the time is captured wonderfully and makes the most mundane scenes visually delicious. At one point, Cotillard mentions that she's wearing a $3 dress (that's 1933 $3 - so adjust for inflation - but I gather that that's cheap), but it looks amazing. If only the producers spent as much effort and money on a script and concept as they did on the look of the picture.

Overall this is a movie that looks good and plays bad. I wanted to like this movie a lot, but I just couldn't. There was too much wrong with it - and that's really terrible for a veteran director like Mann.

Stars: 1 of 4