Sunday, August 23, 2009

Passing Strange (Sunday, August 23, 2009) (121)

This movie is simply a taped performance of the stage musical Passing Strange. According to the credits, Spike Lee directed this movie. I don't totally understand what this means as the musical was already directed for the stage (by Annie Dorsen) - but I guess Spike figured out where the cameras should be... or something.

I actually saw this musical on Broadway - which is unusual for me. I thought it was rather dull and I didn't love the music. My feelings aren't really changed after seeing the movie.

The story is about a young black man who grows up in Los Angeles and then moves to Amsterdam where he discovers sex and drugs and then moves to Berlin and then goes back to LA.

As a movie, there's nothing really here. This could have been shot on Spike's home movie camera for all I know. There was nothing especially cinematic about it. I guess if you liked the show - or didn't see it but wanted to - it's interesting to see. But, whatever - I'm not into it.

Stars: 1 of 4

Paper Heart (Sunday, August 23, 2009) (120)

This is a mocumentary - or hybrid documentary - about Charlyne Yi who is some sort of comedienne/performance artist/singer-songwriter who says she doesn't believe in love. The movie is ostensibly an exploration of peoples' concept of love and Yi's search for it. She travels around the country doing real, unscripted-ish interviews with Americans who have something to say about love. She also meets actor Michael Cera along the way and falls in love with him sorta.

I think the biggest problem with this is that Yi herself is not a very likable or compelling person. She's almost entirely without personality - which is amazing because we are led to believe that she's does some performance stuff for a living. She speaks without moving her mouth. She hardly ever smiles. I don't care that she says she doesn't believe in love because I can't imagine anyone loving her.

On top of this, I don't get the faux style at all. Why not make a real documentary? Why add scripted stuff in? Why have actors playing real people in the movie (one actor plays director Nicholas Jasenovec)? It all feels like too much concept and not enough meat.

In the end, I think we find out that love is basically in the eye of the beholder... wow! That's original!

Stars: 1 of 4

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Julie & Julia (Saturday, August 22, 2009) (119)

This movie is a mashup of Julie Powell's blog and book by the same name and Julia Child's book 'My Life in France'. Written by directed by Nora Ephron, the movie is mostly annoying - or at least half annoying - with an annoying lead character and a twee storyline.

In the movie, Julie Powell, a writer in New York who works for the some post-September 11 government aid organization, has reached a low point in her professional life. She has a bunch of horrible, unloving friends who seem to be more successful than she is. She has a wonderful husband, who she seems to treat like crap, and they move to Astoria to a nice apartment - which she thinks is totally terrible (for the location and the space).

To turn her life around she starts cooking and blogging about every recipe from Julia Child's cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Her blog becomes a sensation and she gains some feeling of self-worth or something.

All along the way, there is a parallel with Julia Child in Paris where she learns to cook and writes her cookbook.

Meryl Streep is very funny as Child, although her performance is very much in the realm of imitation rather than interpretation. Add this to the long list of funny voices in Meryl's quiver. Still, she's very likable and not painful to watch.

Amy Adams, on the other hand, is very annoying and whiny and annoying to watch. It's actually hard to say if this is the writing or her performance (I do normally like her). The character is an ungrateful girl and doesn't seem to have anything to offer. It's never clear why she has to begin the project other than to have something to keep her mind off what she considers her terrible life - which isn't that terrible at all. Her husband is supportive throughout and she seems totally self-absorbed and totally uninterested in him or the nice things he says. She constantly bitches about living in Queens - as if Astoria was three hours away from Manhattan (it's not - it's more like 10-15 minutes from Midtown - much closer than I am actually). (The whole Astoria thing, I think is much closer to a status thing - that she's upset because it's not cool to live in an outer borough - let alone Queens. This is stupid and unrealistic and baseless and hateful.)

The Julia parts in Paris are mostly delightful and light and nice. If the movie was just about Julia Child in Paris, it would have been a nice movie, probably.

Julie does finish her cooking project, but never really seems to grow or learn anything. It wouldn't be crazy to think (in an alternate universe) that over the course of the process of cooking the whole book and working so closely with a woman (Child) who she sees (and we see) as a saint Julie would become a better person and rise above her hateful, commercial-obsessed friends. But no - she is in the end as she was at the beginning - a dumb girl.

Probably the most frustrating thing for me about this movie is that is could so easily be a great food movie like Babette's Feast or Big Night or Like Water for Chocolate where you walk out of the theater salivating and hungry for great stuff to eat. Instead we're shown only very limited food-stuff and the cooking and eating seems to be background. Throughout the film, Julie is haunted by the fact that the last dish she has to make is some de-boned duck with some ground meat stuffed inside. This sounds great and looks great for the brief seconds we see her preparing this on screen - but it would be wonderful to see more if it. I would love to see the finished product and imagine what it tastes like. I don't understand why we don't get this chance. It's a tragic decision by Ephron.

Stars: 1 of 4

Race to Witch Mountain (Saturday, August 22, 2009) (118)

This is a re-tooling of the old Disney classic Escape to Which Mountain. In this version Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson is a taxi driver who picks up two kids that are actually aliens. They convince him to take them into the distant desert where they find some alien road map to their crashed flying saucer. They encounter some alien bad guy and also get into crap with the F.B.I. Ultimately they find their ship with the help of scientists at a sci-fi convention and escape the G-Men and the alien cop guy. Oh - I guess I just gave away the ending. Sorry.

This is not a good movie - and is much too hard to follow. The Rock is actually pretty good and fun - as is Ciaran Hinds (who is always good). But it's too complicated and almost nothing is explained about what is going on and I really didn't care about what happened. I don't think this was only because I'm no 9 years-old and that I'm too old for it - I think it's just not a great movie.

Stars: .5 of 4

Five Minutes of Heaven (Saturday, August 22, 2009) (117)

This is a very small and interesting movie about a man who was an IRA thug in the 1970s (Liam Neeson) who went to jail and is now out working for an organization that puts IRA killers in touch with the families of their victims. It focuses in on the day when Neeson is meeting with the brother of his first victim (James Nesbitt), who as a boy witnessed his brother's murder.

Both men deal with who they were then, what they did or did not do on that day and the pain it caused. Both men are nervous about their meeting and has strong emotional feelings about the other. The title comes from a nice monologue Nesbitt gives as he talks about his fantasy to kill Neeson - and that it would give him five minutes of heaven and heal the pain he has had for some 30 years.

The movie is very gentle and sweet. It's a very simple plot - but that is very nice. It's an interesting psychological study and is told in a respectful, loving way. The acting is very good - both Neeson and Nesbitt are excellent and both are very easy to believe.

I liked this movie, even if it's a bit simple and easy.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

The Baader-Meinhof Complex (Saturday, August 22, 2009) (116)

This movie, as the title suggests, is about the Baader-Meinhof Group - sometimes known as the Red Army Faction or RAF - that terrorized West Germany in the 1970s. Similar to the Weathermen and Weather Underground in the United States in roughly the same period, this group was generally leftists, anarchist and anti-establishment. They saw the West German government as neo-fascist and saw violence including bombing and kidnapping as their main tool for changing that.

The story here follows the main people involved in the group - Baader and Meinhof and their immediate associates. It shows how despite being put in prison in 1972 (only two years after the group's creation) splinter and copy-cat factions of the group continued to act for the next eight to ten years.

As historical fiction or historical narration, this is a very gripping and interesting movie. As a movie to sit back and enjoy, it's a bit clinical. It think part of this is that pace is a bit slow and draggy. I also think this has to do with the subject matter itself - at the end of the day it's simply hard to make terrorism and prisons very bright and

I think I was much more enthusiastic about this movie right after I saw it - but over several days of marinating, I now see this as a good and not great picture. I don't not like this, but it's hard for me to be very passionate about it after living with it for a bit. I like it; I just don't love it.

Stars: 2 of 4

Inglorious Basterds (Friday, August 21, 2009) (115)

I think if you were planning a big-budget movie to not make money in America and to be totally unpopular with erstwhile fans, you might conceive of Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. This is all a bit unfair to open with as this is a very good movie. The reason it's a tough sell is actually the reason why I like it. It's long and cerebral and moves from serious to camp very easily. Basically half of the film is in German or French with subtitles. The biggest marketing aspect - Brad Pitt - is in only about a half hour of the 2:30 that it runs.

The beauty of the film is in the long, long dialogue sequences and in the violent outbursts that separate them. I have not really liked much that QT has done since Pulp Fiction (Jackie Brown was ok and had some good moments), but this is very different from those. Those were almost all genre silliness - but this is genre on top of substance (this sounds pompous of me to say - sorry).

There are two basic story lines in this movie. One is that of Nazi SS Col. Hans Landa, played brilliantly by Christophe Waltz. He is the so-called 'Hunter' because he has an uncanny ability to track down Jews living in hiding in France. In the opening sequence he finds a Jewish family living in a French farmer's cellar. After murdering the parents and almost all of the kids, one daughter gets away. He spends the next few years trying to track down that girl.

The second story is about Brad Pitt, as Lt. Aldo Raine - a quirky Southern American officer whose main passion in life is killing Nazis (or 'Nahtzees', as he says). To do this he enlists Jewish American soldiers to his violent and bloody crew - the Inglorious Basterds. The Basterds scalp Nazi soldiers and beat their heads in with baseball bats. They're ruthless and totally over-the-top in their methods.

The two stories meet when the Basterds attend a movie opening (hosted by Shoshanna, the then-grown Jewish girl, at her Parisian movie theater a few years after the opening) where the Nazi High Command are showing a propaganda film. They plan to kill the Nazis by guns and bombs.

As a friend said to me, the film is basically 20 minutes of dialogue followed by five minutes of extreme, if silly, violence - making it hard for many to sit through (for either the boredom from too much talk or sickness for too much blood). Meanwhile, I loved this flow. The dialogue is fresh and funny and interesting. Characters, like Landa, will spend five or ten minutes talking about their passions and souls - not entirely seriously and almost silly - but totally believable. At one point, when Landa is speaking to the farmer in the first sequence, the farmer pulls out a common pipe to smoke. Landa responds by pulling out his own pipe - a gigantic ivory and silver thing - totally lending his character an air of arrogance and ridiculousness. This is beautifully written and played.

The supporting roles are also interesting and fun. Eli Roth (yes - the same director of schlock horror pics in the Hostel series) is great as the baseball bat wielding Sgt. Donny Donowitz and Melanie Laurent is fantastic as Shoshanna Dreyfus (ok - and she stunningly beautiful).

I love that Tarantino plays with gender/religion/race roles that would be in a B war movie (like the original Inglorious Bastards that this one takes its name and spirit from). Part of our connection to Shoshanna is her freedom and smarts - at one point symbolized by her romantic relationship with a black man. This is a throw-away genre detail - but at the same time a twist of the cliche and genre-bending. The forgettable black man in the B-movie is totally self-aware of his low, disposable status and their deep emotional relationship is a change from the purely carnal erotic relationship of a black man in the typical genre picture.

I've read a bit of commentary about the angry violence directed at the Nazis and at Hitler specifically. Some say it's not constructive and serves to foster less, rather than more, healing. I disagree with this. I think it's wonderful to finally (FINALLY) be able to laugh and enjoy the pure delight of seeing Hitler die in a gruesome and painful way - I mean why not?! We get the emotion and intellectual and moral discussion from the background story. We get the pure visceral delight from seeing Hitler die.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Earth Days (Sunday, August 16, 2009) (114)

This is a documentary about the history of the environmental movement from the early 1960s until the mid-1980s. The structure is rather interesting, following nine people who all had a hand in the movement from a organizational, scientific or political side. Each person's work is described and it is show how what one did affected the others.

The beginning of the film shows how with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, people began to become aware that air and land can be hurt by pesticides and chemicals use in large-scale agribusiness and how dumping chemical waste in rivers hurts ecosystems and drinking water. From there, it shows how there was a steady growth in environmental movement up to Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book Population Bomb about how overpopulation will also end up straining the earth's resources and food supply.

These two seminal books helped to lead young radicals and some main-stream politicians to being to fight for environmental protection. In 1970 the first Earth Day was organized across the United States and was a massive success.

The politics of the time are also shown very clearly with Kennedy raising the issue, Nixon ultimately passing some of the most important legislation (the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species List, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency) and Reagan effectively ending some of the most important regulations.

All in all, this is a very sharp, good looking movie. The director Robert Stone uses footage of 1950s and 1960s advertising and mundane-ness very well to give the atmosphere (so to speak) that he's looking for. It's very clear that the 1950s was all about commercial and economic growth and richness and the country paid for it environmentally by the 1960s. There is also a lot of great little factoids about history - such as how on Thanksgiving day 1966, some 400 people died in New York City due to terrible air quality or that the isotope Strontium 90 didn't exist on the planet before the nuclear age, but how now every living thing (plant and animal) contains trace evidence of this. This is a very interesting and nice-looking movie.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

It Might Get Loud (Sunday, August 16, 2009) (113)

This is a documentary by Davis Guggenheim about three guitarists, Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White, and their personal guitar histories and their musical styles and influences. Each man is given a bit of time to tell his own story, explaining how he got into music and what drives him musically. Then the three gather on a stage to discuss their guitars with one another and jam a bit. It's a very simple concept.

What comes out from this is an interesting correlation between the three in terms of their individual stories. Each one came from modest roots and came to music at a period of relative sonic turmoil and growth. Page started playing skiffle in the 1950s during that craze in Brittan. The music was rather dull with only a few chords and not much variation. He was a session guitarist for some of the early rock bands of the late 1950s and early 1960s in London and hit his prime just in time for the post-Beatles Brit-rock explosion of the late 1960s and 1970s.

The Edge grew up in Dublin in the 1970s and grew up having to listen to and hating the saccharine disco and stadium rock bands of that day. He says in the film, somewhat ironically, that he wept at 'Spinal Tap' because it was so close to reality. He was seriously influenced by the Brit punk movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

White started playing music in the late 1980s when bubblegum rap records were all that urban and suburban white kids (who would otherwise listen to rock) would listen to. For him, playing rock and blues in that era was a counter-cultural fight.

Strangely, only Page and the Edge go back to their childhood haunts (the schools where they got their starts or the locations of early sessions they played). White does not go back to his childhood home or neighborhood in Detroit, instead setting his story in rural Tennessee and telling his story through blues iconography and narration. Honestly, this was a bit annoying to me. His lower-middle-class background in Detroit would be just as important for me to see, I think, as the Edge's elementary school. What we get, in the end, is a rather constructed autobiography, set in the South and with all sorts of silly 'blues man' costumes including a three-piece suit, fedora and suspenders. Guggenheim goes to far as to unnecessarily animate one of White's memories. I think White comes off looking like an ass as a result of this.

Overall this is a very interesting story of rock history, and the music is interesting and great. When Jimmy Page plays Link Wray's 'Rumble' and explains how important it was to him - and then stands quietly playing air-guitar in his music room - it is very powerful and expressive. Seeing how The Edge uses sonic effects to change his songs is also very interesting - especially in stark contrast to White's ultra-low-tech approach to sound.

Guggenheim is a talented filmmaker, though I think he gets a bit too wrapped up in the hagiography of these three 'legends' (by the way, I'm not sure that Jack White is a legend or that he will be a legend - he is a very talented musician, but I couldn't name more than three of his songs). I think he gets lost in the amazingness of having them all on stage talking about their art and forgets to include a real story or structure to it. The sections of the film are rather arbitrary and the middle parts are a bit muddy and undefined.

Stars 2 of 4

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ponyo (Saturday, August 15, 2009) (112)

This is the latest animated film by master animated director Hayao Miyazaki. It is set much closer to a child's world than some of his past efforts like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, but it still has his wonderful touch for magic and imagination.

In this, a boy who lives by the sea finds a fish-girl who hopes to become human by the shore and they become friends. When she magically transforms into a girl, they fall in love. Her father, a wizard who lives under the water gets angry and he sets off a chaotic ocean storm sending magic waves to find her. Once she is caught she explains to him and to her magical mother that she is in love with the boy and wants to be a human. They tell her that the only way this can happen is if he fully accepts her and totally loves her.

The story is rather obtuse, however some of the details are wonderful. Setting the waves of the ocean and the tides as characters is a great detail. And seeing the flooded town with all sorts of fish swimming up the streets is great too. I imagine this will be immediately loved by kids who see it.

Still, I wish the story was a bit more grown up and less banal. It's a fairy tale that I've seen/read before (basically the Little Mermaid). Of course I won't get into the silliness of five-year-olds falling in love with one another for eternity.

The movie is visually stunning - as you would expect from Miyazaki - and a totally fabulous thing to behold. His vision is beautiful and his love for nature, humanity and spirits is great.

Stars: 2 of 4

District 9 (Friday, August 14, 2009) (111)

This is a very interesting sci-fi film about an alien spacecraft that comes to Johannesburg, South Africa. After a long time of the ship just hovering over the city, humas go into it and discover aliens living aboard with no clear leadership. They are asked to go town to the surface and live in a walled ghetto/shanty town on the outskirts of Jo'burg. After 20 years of living side by side, it's clear the aliens don't have any drive to do anything at all. They eat canned cat food, they collect and make guns and bombs and they trade items with Nigerian black market mobsters for more cat food. They can be erratic as neighbors and enjoy setting fires and destroying things in the human world - not for an agenda, but just for fun.

At this point, the South African private firm that has been given the contract to monitor and guard against the aliens has to move them from their enclave of District 9 to a new area, District 10, hundreds of miles away in the desert. When the firm goes in to the area to give the aliens notice, they're met with angry reactions and lots of violence. The leader of the human mission is sprayed with some alien substance that slowly changes him into an alien.

The story is fresh and wonderful and totally embraces the violent and despicable apartheid history of South Africa and it's townships as well as its current situation of mass immigration from poorer northern countries. The white humans in the movie are very hard to trust and the director, Neil Blomkamp, uses this idea well. We don't know if we don't like the whites Afrikaaners because we don't trust any of them ever since apartheid or because they are bad people in this situation.

The aliens, on the other hand, are harder to like than every-day humans because they look different and we assume they are all violent and unpredictable. Yet, when they are served with eviction notices and told to pack up and move to District 10, their reactions are very human and we easily feel pity for them. That there's a black market (including inter-species prostitution) in the district is only a sign of the poverty and loss of hope that must run through the area. The symbolism is clear here that the massive imprisonment of large populations of poor people with no voice in South Africa is bad.

The style of the film is very clever too. Much of the story is told though a faux-documentary style where the main human is showing a film crew how one rounds up aliens and lays down the law. There are news-like interviews with 'experts' and witnesses to the action. These sequences are inter-cut with faux-news footage of the scenes, as seen from helicopters covering the story. This format makes it very easy to buy the story. It doesn't raise many questions or issues because it is so earnest and sticks so strongly to the conceit that this is real history.

I think the story does lose its way a bit in the second act, and I also don't love that there's an alien child who plays a pivotal role in the ultimate storyline (I generally think kids in movies are cheap and corny and would have much preferred the actions of this kid done by a grown alien). Overall this is a fresh idea that is very politically interesting and visually lots of fun. The military gear and machines (like big Humvee trucks) and the alien guns all look great.

Stars: 3 of 4

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cold Souls (Wednesday, August 12, 2009) (110)

This is a quirky movie somewhat similar in tone and concept to Being John Malkovitch. Paul Giamatti plays an actor named Paul Giamatti who is having trouble with the emotions of his work. He finds out about a service that will extract your soul and store it for you, somehow lightening your spiritual load. When Giamatti sees what his work would be like while he lives with the soul of another person for awhile he realizes that his own soul was probably good enough for him all along. He goes back to the firm again to have his old soul re-installed, but finds out it is missing. It has been stolen and taken back to Russia, from where many of the 'rental souls' come.

This is a very high-concept idea and very clever. It doesn't waste much time at all in the explanation of the science, instead putting the focus on the characters and situations. Giamatti is perfect for this movie as he's an actor one can see might actually do this (if he could).

The art direction is great and the interiors of the soul storage company are modern and fantastic. The soul extracting machine is a beautiful architectural detail - that looks even better in a dark and cruddy Russian warehouse.

I like the concept of this movie - that you can live a happy life without a soul or with the soul of another person. I also love the idea that's explained here that there's always a residue left when extracting a soul.

I do think the script gets a bit weak in the third act and begins to drag there. I also think the ending is a bit of a cop-out, considering the elegance of the first act. Still, I really love the long, contemplative feeling that pervades the movie. Seeing Giamatti on a bench staring off into space for several minutes at a time might not work normally, but does well here.

This is a fun and interesting movie, if not entirely successful.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

12 (Tuesday, August 11, 2009) (109)

This is a remake by Nikita Mikhalkov of Twelve Angry Men. This time the kid who is accused of murder is a Chechen boy who was adopted by an ex-Russian general after he had fought in the region. When the man is found dead, the mountain of evidence against the kid on top of the fact that Russians mistrust Chechens across the board, seem to make the kid's odds of acquittal look dim. It's only after these twelve men discuss the situation for awhile that the truth comes out about the boy's innocence.

This is a nice movie with interesting characters and sharp dialogue. It is a bit of a mystery why this was made, as I don't think this totally improves upon or updates the original story or movie. It does move it from the Bronx to Moscow, however that's the only real difference.

Each character represents a different modern Russian archetype - there's the Western-educated media mogul, the Jew, the post-Soviet partisan, the young gadfly, the ex-soldier. They each play off one another very well here. The dialogue moves along very well and is pretty clever. The setting, as in the original is a modest room where the men walk around as they discuss. Overall the acting is really wonderful here.

Still, the film is much, much too long - at 2 hours and 40 minutes. Length is a silly criticism, I'm aware, but here it smacks you in the face. Nothing more is gained from having each man talk for a long time, and if the long monologues were each cut by even four minutes, it would be a big help.

There is an interesting view into the modern Russian psyche about how they see Chechens as low-level animals (clearly the director does not agree with this) and it is interesting to see this idea challenged. I would have liked a bit more analysis of the Chechen issue and even an examination of the war itself. All we get is the Chechen standing in as a character for the American Black or Latin.

This movie is not as good as Mikhalkov's earlier efforts, like Burnt By the Sun, but it is nice.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Laila's Birthday (Tuesday, August 11, 2009) (108)

This is a small Palestinian film about a man who was trained as a lawyer and judge, but now drives a taxi in the West Bank. It is his daughter's birthday and he has to work his shift and be home by night in time to celebrate with his family. As he goes about his mundane day, he gets increasingly frustrated by the situation in the area, telling people they can't ride with him if they have guns out, being harassed by the police, and telling riders he won't take them to check points. The Kafkaesque nightmare of the Palestinian bureaucracy is impossible for him to navigate as he tires to keep his cool.

The main actor in this, Mohammaed Bakri, is absolutely wonderful in the role. He's clearly a very proud and elegant man and loves his family. He understands the political situation he's in and recognizes that to keep everyone safe, his best bet is to stay far away from it. It is only when the situation of the environment comes to his (car)door, that he gets involved.

The film runs just over one hour (about 72 minutes) and its a nice, tight little short story. You get all the drama of a much longer story, but on a small scale. I like this movie a lot.

Stars: 3 of 4

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Fast and Furious (Wednesday, August 5, 2009) (107)

I think I saw the first movie in this series, The Fast and the Furious, but I think I missed the second, 2 Fast 2 Furious, and the third, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Still, the latest one, Fast and Furious (no articles, please) is a lot of fun and a great action ride. (By the way, is that Fitzgerald book 'The Beautiful and Damned' or 'The Beautiful and the Damned' or 'Beautiful and Damned?)

Vin Diesel is upset that his girlfriend and fellow car criminal Michelle Rodriguez (who is gorgeous as always) was killed when a drug deal she was driving a fast car in went south. He teams up with Paul Walker who is an FBI G-Man who also has a soft spot for fast supped-up cars (Walker likes Japanese imports, Diesel likes American muscles – this is tension in the auto world, I guess). The two infiltrate a Mexican drug gang who bring drugs across the border via fast rides. The gang's m.o. is to bring drugs into the U.S. through the desert border in Arizona or Eastern California in fast cars - a totally unnecessary and device, but one that allows for fun races through mountain interior cave roads.

The story is incredibly simple and nice. We don’t need six layers of complexity and crosses and double crosses. The car chases are exciting and well shot with lots of near crashes and jumps and explosions. There’s one especially clever race at night in L.A. where the drivers have to follow a GPS device along a specific route in order to gain a coveted spot on the gang’s car convoy. As Walker is going along and gets off the recommended path, he finds himself with an angry GPS-device lady-voice – the way many of us have found ourselves in the past.
It was fun.

Overall this is not a work of high art, but it is easy and tight and well done. I probably would not seek this out to watch again, but I would watch for a bit if I ever found it on TV or an airplane.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Woman in Berlin (Sunday, August 2, 2009) (106)

This movie is an adaptation of a journal/memoir 'Anonyma - A Woman in Berlin' written by a woman who lived in Berlin right after the Red Army 'liberated' the city in April and May of 1945. The story is really amazing. Virtually all of the Berliner men were either still away fighting, in prisons or dead and the female population of the city was effectively turned into hapless sex slaves. The Soviet soldiers would go into the bombed out apartment blocks where the women lived and grab one or more of them to rape. (It's really difficult to watch, actually.)

Ultimately, the main character, played wonderfully by Nina Hoss (who had another fantastic performance earlier this year in the fantastic film Jerichow), realizes that if she becomes the personal pet of the senior officer on the scene, she can get gifts (including hard-to-find food) and protection from the hordes of lower-level soldiers who would otherwise take advantage of her and her friends.

Of course doing this means that she becomes a willing whore rather than an unlucky victim. But it does allow her some control over her body and is better than the alternative. It's a fascinating moral dilemma. As a way to protect herself and save her own life, she has to debase herself lower (morally).

On top of this, the Soviet major who she befriends, seems to not be an animal and has a good heart and an elevated mind. He never excuses his actions (that he's letting his men rape the German women and that he personally has taken up an illicit mistress effectively against her will), but he's so charming and nice with the woman that he makes us forget at times the terrible situation he's taking part in and allowing. It becomes unclear at times whether the woman really doesn't want this life, or if it's exciting for her to be with this handsome man with a cultured mind.

The film has a beautiful look, directed by Max Farberbock (I don't know his work, but he's apparently been actively working in Germany for the past 20-some years). Almost all of the city that we see is bombed out rubble heaps with buildings peppered with bullet and mortar shell holes. The exterior scenes are overexposed and have a beautiful white and yellowness to them. The interiors are dark and show what remains of the rich rugs, paintings and wooden furniture that filled the places before the war. The costumes are simple and inconspicuous, but are used well to convey the woman's state of mind and view of self at a particular moment.

This is a very effective and interesting film and brilliantly questions our ideas of victimhood. Many of the women (including the main woman) say that they are avowed Nazis and were proud of their husbands and countrymen for their work. Do these women deserve pain and suffering because they support a morally reprehensible political belief? Clearly not, but didn't they support worse atrocities their army was performing? It is hard to rank *evil*, but that is what we have to do here. These women might support bad things in the abstract, but when specific bad things befall them, we are clearly not happy (as we might be in another film where female Nazi supporters get what we feel is their comeuppance).

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Flame & Citron (Sunday, August 2, 2009) (105)

I guess ultimately all Nazi-occupied countries will have a movie about their national resistance movement during the war (Paul Verhoeven has had two Dutch ones - Soldier of Orange and Black Book). This film is Denmark's entrant into that class. It shows the story of two of the most famous anti-Nazi fighters of the country, nicknamed Flame and Citron.

Flame (whose name comes from his shock of orange hair) is a young guy in his early 20s who is a bit wild and very vengeful. His partner, Citron, is more methodical and internal and not as comfortable with his role as a murderer. The two get orders from Danish resistance channels (from U.S. and British forces through a contact in Stockholm) to kill Danish Nazis. Ultimately, they find their orders are being filtered and tainted by a middle-man who has his own political agenda. When they start killing German Nazis, they raise eyebrows in the SS and become hunted themselves.

This is a compelling story and reminds me a lot of Soldier of Orange. It's rather episodic in structure and moves along at a pretty quick pace. The two main actors are great particularly Mad Mikkelsen as Citron (who looks sweaty and full of a near-palpable angst throughout the film). Mikkelsen's previous work in After the Wedding and Casino Royal are just the tip of what he gives in this performance.

The costumes and art direction are also wonderful here showing Danish fashion of the era, with wonderful cars, suits and dresses. The whole film has a blue-green quality to it - suggesting a coldness in temperature and emotions as well.

I would have liked a bit more background for the characters to know exactly why they were doing what they were doing. This was the focus of Black Book - the reasons why the resistance did what they did. Were these Danes simply jingoists who hated that Germans had invaded their homeland or were they upset that the Germans were killing Jews? At one point, Flame says he had been dating a Jewish woman around the beginning of the war and when she was taken by the Nazis, he decided to fight them. This is fine, but seems rather thin for a man as passionate about the resistance cause as he seems to be. For Citron, we know almost nothing about his reasons.

Overall a good and beautiful looking movie. It's shortcomings are forgivable as it is a dynamic story with great characters.

Stars: 3 of 4

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Adam (Saturday, August 1, 2009) (104)

This movie might have the dullest name of all the movies I've seen this year. It's fitting, though, as the film itself is super-duper boring and trite. Adam, the eponymous lead character, is a rather high-functioning man with Asperger syndrome who lives alone in his Upper West Side apartment. There he meets a young woman who is his upstairs neighbor. Somehow the two fall in love (I don't know - something about her needing a 'reliable man' and having daddy issues and him being turned on by her casual friendliness to him).

There's some silliness with the woman's father - played by Peter Gallagher - who is a bully that walks all over her mother - played by Amy Irving (ah, Amy Irving, mmmmm). Much of the time is spent with him being weird and 'Aspergery' (for laughs, of course) and her trying to re-train him to act more standard-like. This is boring for the most part. A few times the two get in fights because he doesn't always know how to behave in normal situations and she gets frustrated. But this is stupid because she should expect at least a few of these moments when she gets involved with him (it's not as if he's more normal sometimes and she can forget his situation - he's always a bit off-normal).

The acting is actually pretty good. Hugh Dancy is believable as Adam (although I always wonder if it's easier to play a character with a mental handicap rather than a 'normal person'); Rose Byrne is good as Beth; Gallagher is fine as a jerk; Amy Irving looks magnificent though her role is limited; Frankie Faison is funny as always as the old wise friend.

Mostly my problem is with the writing and directing with is silly and boring. I love to think about how sill the pitch was: 'The movie is Say Anything meets Rain Man. A woman with an Electra complex meets an guy with Aspergers and they fall madly in love. Will he be able to replace her daddy when he fills his shelves with cereal boxes? Will she ever be able to understand that he likes to be touched - but not too hard?!' Oy vey.

Stars: .5 of 4

The Cove (Saturday, August 1, 2009) (103)

This documentary focuses on the legal capture and poaching of dolphins in a remote Japanese village. Some of the animals are caught and selected by dolphin trainers for shows at places like Sea World and the less desirable ones are sold for food. Though the trade in dolphins and dolphin meat is generally frowned upon by environmentalists, there is no international regulation on it. The group that would be the most able to regulate it, the International Whaling Commission (dolphins genetically very similar to whales), is dominated by Japan who not only is trying to loosen whaling laws but also block dolphin regulations from being installed. This movie could otherwise be called 'Japan is full of a bunch of jerks who are trying to kill marine mammals.'

Ric O'Barry, one of the creators and dolphin trainers on the TV show Flipper is now one of the leading advocates (probably THE leading advocate) against dolphin capture for aquariums and food. He has been banned by the IWC meetings for life and is followed by police when he goes near the town of Taiji where the eponymous cove is. He explains clearly how cruel it is to have dolphins in zoos and aquariums as their sense of direction and sanity is based on their natural sonar, which is messed up when penned into a small space.

On top of the cruelty for the living animals, the meat is highly toxic in human consumption. As one scientist in the film says, dolphins are swimming toxic waste dumps with mercury levels thousands of times above World Health Organization recommended levels. Considering most Japanese people react to the thought of eating dolphin the same way westerners would (with horror), most dolphin meat is marketed as whale meat - which is a much more acceptable protein in Japan. Due to a massive stock of dolphin meat, the Japanese government has also tried to put it in the mandatory school lunches eaten by millions of children every day, effectively poisoning school children.

In the film, the director, Louie Psihoyos, gathers a motley crew of eco-insurgents to set up hidden cameras in the cove where the dolphins are forced and ultimately slaughtered to document the brutal hunt that happens there. They build fake boulders to hide cameras on the hills next to the water, set up underwater apparatus to see things from down below, and night-vision cameras to see what happens after dark. What we get is one of the most shocking and bloody scenes in recent cinema. The fisherman stab blindly into the water and kill the animals violently. They are then hauled into boats and later tied to lines and dragged to be butchered (because they're too bloody inside the boats).

As with other recent food or nature documentaries (Food, Inc., The End of the Line), the film makers are very powerful with their message and make you feel rather guilty for sitting by and letting this happen. I can't say I have ever or would ever eat dolphin, but I'm shocked that people do and saddened by the brutality of the hunt for them. This movie is not a 'must see', but it is effective and interesting. The violent images are quite powerful and it is very nicely done for environmental polemic. Still, it is so one-note and flat that it doesn't rise above that PBS 'Frontline' index - why this isn't on TV rather than in a theater is somewhat beyond me.

Stars: 2 of 4

Funny People (Friday, July 31, 2009) (102)

This is the third film from director Judd Apatow (not counting the dozens he's produced) and it is easily the third best of the bunch. This is not to say this is a bad movie - but it's not a great movie either. It's a comedy with a lot of serious talk and the humor is not as silly or juvenile as in his past movies.

Adam Sandler plays a guy who is familiar to him - a comedian who was big 15 years ago and has spent the years since making terrible family comedies for ridiculous amounts of money. On a visit to the doctor, he finds out he has cancer and is told he will die soon. He goes to a stand-up comedy bar to do a show and meets Seth Rogan who is getting his start in the comedy circuit.

Sandler hires Rogan to write jokes for him and the two become strange friends. Strange, I say, because Sandler relies on Rogan to be his personal assistant, but treats him like a low-end servant and insults him nonstop. Slowly Rogan convinces his boss to re-connect with old friends and his ex-wife, Apatow's real-life wife Leslie Mann. The two re-connect and fall back in love, causing everything in Sandler's life to unwind.

Unlike the previous Apatow efforts, the
sophomoric laugh lines and are not the central focus of this movie. This is a slightly more grown-up story where the emotional parts are more important. For long stretches of the film - particularly in the second act - the only really funny parts are in the sequences showing stand-up routines. This is not necessarily a negative thing - it's just unexpected. There are lots of very funny parts and some very memorable lines.

Rogan is challenged as a dramatic actor here, and I'm not sure he entirely succeeds and sometimes is rather flat. Sandler, on the other hand, is very convincing in the dramatic role that is mostly his life story. Like his performance in Punch Drunk Love, Sandler mixes funny and sad very well. I'm not sure he can play much more serious than this, but he is good here. Mann is also good as are the Apatow daughters (who play Mann's kids).

Like in Knocked Up, Apatow hammers home the point that a solid family is the most important thing in life. The erstwhile family scenes are very sweet and mix well with the sillier scenes between Rogan and Sandler. When Mann's new husband, played by Eric Bana, insults her in later scenes, there is a strong sense that he doesn't fit into this idyllic domestic world.

The script needs a lot of work structure-wise and about 30 minutes should be cut. Mostly this could be done by getting rid of Rogan's buddies (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman) and shortening some of the longer Sandler buddy reunion parts (such as the Eminem one).

There's a good movie buried under a lot of other stuff here. I liked that movie once I was able to find it. I just with some of the other mess was left off the screen.

Stars: 2 of 4