Monday, September 28, 2009

Fame (Monday, September 28, 2009) (135)

When I was growing up, my mother owned three cassette tapes that she would play on rotation in her car. They were Carly Simon's 'Boys in the Trees,' the soundtrack to Flashdance, and the soundtrack to the 1980 Fame movie musical. (My mother loved Irene Cara- what a feeling!) Over the years of listening to this in our Oldsmobile station wagon, I developed a deep love for the music - and ultimately grew a strong connection to the movie.

When I heard they were re-making Fame (again), I got excited and nervous. It seemed like an obvious choice nearly 30 years after the original. It's a rather universal story of teen angst with a setting that fits in naturally to the musical format. It would seem that an updated story would deal with more drugs and sex and a different arts environment (like kids with MySpace pages or releasing videos of themselves on YouTube). However I knew it could easily be screwed up.

My worst fears were met as this updated Fame is really bad. It's lifeless and timid and dull with almost no interesting characters - and somehow not a single memorable or good new song.

The story is basically the same as the original. It's about eight or so students at the New York High School for the Performing Arts who are dancers, singers, actors and musicians studying their crafts and dealing with normal high school drama - like cheating boyfriends/girlfriends, drinking and suicide. The original structure is also the same so you see four years of school compressed in a bit under two hours. Whereas this format worked in the original, here is feels forced and rushed so you barely blink, and after one scene freshman year is over.

The characters are totally dull and comically trite. The one black male is a budding actor, writer and rapper - whose father left when he was an infant and whose sister was gunned down in a drive-by shooting (I mean, you couldn't do any better than that?!). The hoity-toity white dancer girl has over-protective ritzy parents who don't like that she dates a Puerto Rican kid (in New York City - really?!). The one black female is a professional-level pianist whose parents are so uptight that they don't want her singing R&B - because that's hoochie music. To say the characters are out of central casting is an insult to central casting.

Perhaps the most unforgivable part of the re-make is that they used only one and a half of the original songs (which are mostly great, if a bit dated and electric guitar heavy) - and replaced them directly with new songs that totally suck. In one early scene, you see the kids in a cafeteria and you're thinking, 'Oh - cool - Hot Lunch!' But it turns out it's a totally new song that has nothing to do with eating a hot lunch - and it totally forgettable and boring. In the graduation scene, there's a big performance with all the kids from the story and rather than doing The Body Electric, they use a new, unmemorable song.

Strangely, it's the first musical I think I've ever known where the lyrics don't drive the songs, but the music overpowers the words. In other words, the way the songs are mixed, I can't even say I understood a single line from them. There are no memorable lines - no 'fame! - I'm gonna live forever;' no, 'Out here on my own;' no 'I wanna go crazy like the dogs in the yard;' and no 'I sing the body electric.' It all a bunch of half-hip-hop/R&B, half ballad-y rock songs that are all shapeless and all dull.

Music-wise, the best part clearly is the piano and voice solo by Naturi Naughton (who also played Lil' Kim very well earlier this year in Notorious) performing the one original song they did use, 'Out Here On My Own.' It was great with Irene Cara did it - now it's great again here. (There's a new arrangement of the song Fame in the end credits - but it's not a good as the original.) Naughton is easily the best part of the film overall.

I think I'm mostly upset that the whole movie is a gigantic cop-out and barely scrapes the surface of what it could be. There is basically no sex in the movie to speak of. There are two suggested couples, but we don't really see them do much couple stuff and I don't think they ever kiss. There's one almost-sorta gay kid - a dancer of course - who just talks with a sorta gay affect. I mean they took such a great gay character from the original, Montgomery, who really struggled with being gay and different, and turned him into a neutered kid who almost considers suicide - but only lamely.

Throughout the whole film, it felt that the filmmakers were trying to compete with High School Musical. In the end they got a totally banal and safe movie with dialogue, choreography and music only about as good as a low-end made for TV movie - and not even as good as that (I can remember some of those Disney songs, at least). This movie should be missed - it bad. (But try to see Naughton's performance on YouTube.)

Stars: 1 of 4 (Naughton gets 4 on her own - so she brings the film up from 0 to 1 star)

Crude (Sunday, September 27, 2009) (134)

Joe Berlinger is an immensely talented filmmaker. His movies Brother's Keeper, Paradise Lost and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster are among the best documentaries of the last 20 years. He takes compelling stories and turns them into amazingly sober narratives, frequently more compelling than if they had been created by a screenwriter.

Crude is a true story about rural, indigenous Ecuadoreans who are suing Texaco (now Chevron) over the massive pollution the oil company created and left when they drilled for oil in the Amazonian back-country from the 1960-1990s. The main person in the film is Pablo Fajardo, a poor Ecuadorean man who lives deep in the rain forest in the town of Lago Agrio and went to university and law school on scholarships from the Catholic Church. He filed a lawsuit in the mid-1990s against the oil company in conjunction with an American lawyer, Steven Donziger.

For almost a decade, Chevron delayed the trial with legal motions, and ultimately got the case sent to Ecuador, figuring it would be easier to control there with corrupt judges and a more fluid legal system. Donziger explains at one point that drawing the case out for decades and decades was in the interest of the oil company - who had virtually unlimited financial resources. The longer it took to get a ruling on the matter, the harder it would be (both financially and emotionally) for the David to fight this Goliath.

Throughout the film we travel with the two lawyers from Lago Agrio and Shushufindi in the Amazon to Quito, San Francisco, New York and London as they gather money and attention for their cause. We also see the entire trail - with lawyers for both sides, plaintiffs, the judge and scientific experts - visit the sites in the forest where there are massive pools of oil on the ground - where we see (toxic) water draining from the bottom of the lagoon and into a stream that gives drinking water to the people of the area.

What has always made Berlinger's films powerful are the amazing characters he finds and highlights. Fajardo is a good looking, bright and happy man who has a positive outlook on life, despite his Herculean challenge he faces. He has a magnetism that is nearly unparallelled in the environmental world (which, clearly, is part of the reason he was befriended by Sting and his wife and taken on a press tour of America during the Live Earth concert series in 2007)

Perhaps Berlinger's biggest problem with some of his recent films is that he specifically takes a side of right and wrong in the films -and leaves not much room for the viewer to disagree (this was also a problem in 2001 with his film Paradise Lost 2). One could argue that there is no such thing as 'unbiased' documentary filmmaking - that the director always has a point of view and can't help but tell the story in that voice - but this is more extreme than that, I think.

Berlinger says emphatically that Texaco created the toxic mess in Ecuador and didn't clean it up and should be held responsible for the present health issue facing the people who live there, and also clean up the mess. I have a hard time arguing against this - but at the same time the Texaco/Chevron people who speak on camera tell an equally compelling tale that much of the left-over waste was a created by the company who bought the drilling rights from Texaco in 1992. Berlinger, being an avowed supporter of the plaintiffs (as the double-meaning of the title suggests), gives very short shrift to this argument and doesn't explore if this is possibly true. I felt that I was supposed to dismiss these arguments and move on along with him, but I couldn't - rather, I ended up somewhat confused and frustrated about the course of events.

Overall this is a good movie, though it does not rank in the top tier of Berlinger's oeuvre. It runs a bit long and gets a bit off-topic (especially when it gets to the Live Earth festival). Still, it's a very bold and interesting story - and it does not at all feel like a 60 Minutes story (as a less interesting film and talented director might). I like this movie - I just wish a few of these wrinkles had been worked out.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story (Sunday, September 27, 2009) (133)

I'm getting sorta sick of Michael Moore. I'm glad he's an outspoken advocate for progressive and populist causes and generally very rational, but his shtick is getting old. I am especially getting sick of his movies being considered plain documentaries rather than polemical arguments, which is really what they are. It has been a long time since Moore actually *documented* anything - at least since Roger and Me, if he ever did it. His films are more angry now and much less connected to reality-based thinking. His logic has gone out the window and he is mostly shrill and behaves like a prick.

The love story Moore describes in this film is between capitalists and their money - how original! He shows how when he was a kid, everything was wonderful and how government regulations and the tax code made corporate profit irrelevant and how everything was wonderful. The he shows how Reagan deregulated stuff and lowered the taxes so rich people could become super rich. Then he shows how everything went to hell after that. Then he interviews New York intellectual/actor/writer/bon vivant Wallace Shawn about economics - because, uh, Wally once took a class in college called Econ 101.

The biggest problem with the film is that there is absolutely no structure and it is paced so slowly that it feels like it's 4 hours long and dull the whole time. It's as if Moore wrote all his little beefs on slips of paper, put them in a hat and pulled them out randomly - and then filmed them all and put them all on screen. It list feels like it's one totally random point after another with nothing connecting them (for 130 minutes!).

Somehow Moore's argument (I don't mean to ruin it for you) is that democracy is the antidote to capitalism. Uh, I have no idea how that works, actually. Is he suggesting that we don't currently live in a democracy? I totally hate greed and gigantic multinational organizations as much as the next guy, but I would also concede that America is a democracy. Sure, people with money are able to adjust laws to make democracy work better for them than their poor neighbor, but capitalism is not the opposite of democracy. (For that matter, Michael, New Orleans didn't flood because of too much capitalism either.)

By far the most frustrating section of the movie, for it's sheer partisanship and foolishness, is the last part dealing with Obama. Moore totally pulls his punches and basically lets off Obama scott-free with barely a minimal amount of criticism of his financial program. This omission is most visible in the opening sequence where we see a family in Peoria, Illinois being evicted from their now-foreclosed home. The time stamp on the video shows February, 2009 - a few weeks after Obama took office. If Moore was the least bit consistant, he would criticize Obama for not freezing foreclosures (which was a plan offerecd by Hillary Clinton, for whatever it's worth). Instead, the eviction of this and another family are symbols of a broken system, and Obama remains a heroic change agent.

Later, Moore mentions that Tim Geithner was the president of the NY Fed and oversaw the massive bailout of New York companies before becoming Treasury Secretary - but he literally mentioned that Obama made him Treasury Secretary. (In other words, he says that Geithner is a bad guy, but doesn't say that Obama gave the bad guy a more powerful job.) This is simply lazy and not the whole truth of the story.

I'm just sick of Moore's shtick. I generally agree with his overall message, but they are hard to like because his movies are so sloppy. By the time he goes to Wall Street to 'collect our money' back from the banks who got the TARP funds, I was just watching the clock hoping the movie would end. It is a cheap stunt that doesn't move the story along at all and just makes security guards at the banks look like jerks. How very middle class of you, Mike!

I would love for there to be more regulation of banks and real estate, but capitalism isn't the bad guy - deregulation and low taxes and old-fashioned greed are. Moore needed a better writer and editor for this movie. It was all over the place and didn't say anything new at all. Everything that was said was so unfocused that all his points were undermined by their fuzziness and silliness.

Stars: .5 of 4 (He would have gotten 1 star if he had not been on every news and talk show for the past month saying absolutely nothing constructive, original or rational.)

Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo (Sunday, September 27, 2009)

This is a wonderful documentary by Bradley Beesley about the Oklahoma State Prison Rodeo. The title refers to the women who participate in the events (competing directly against the men) who are the main focus of the film. We see that most of them are incarcerated for drug possession and dealing charges (mostly cooking and distributing meth); one woman is in jail for murder. One male rodeo participant, Danny Liles, is also featured as he is a 13-year event veteran and is rather the philosophical and soulful center of the story.

Beesley has an amazing knack for making bright and optimistic films - even about situations that could otherwise be a bit dark or contorversial. As with his earlier efforts, including Okie Noodling and Summercamp!, this film is a perfect example of the happy spirit that pervades his works. The story could have easily gotten into the unfair sentancing and parole rulings or the fact that, as is repeated a few times in the film, Oklahoma has a female incarceration rate roughly twice the national average. It doesn't go down these roads so much, and instead concentrates on the women (and Liles) who are mostly optimistic about their lives, knowing they screwed up in the past but can be better in the future. They talk poetically about how being on the back of a bronc or bull is the closest thing to freedom they feel in their life behind bars. The fabulous acoustic country/bluegrass score by Jason Quever adds a lot to this positive feeling.

My only major criticisim of the film are that I think Liles, despite being a great character, doesn't totally fit into the film so well. It feels like a movie about women in the prison rodeo - oh, and this other guy too. I think he should have either not been in the film, or he should have been used differently - not as a unique character per se, but as a person with experience who has wise things to say about particiapting in the event.

So far this film has not had a theatrical run, however it did play at South by Southwest earlier this year and just recently premiered on Cinemax and is now playing on that channel. It will certainly get to DVD soon and, hopefully, will make it into theaters at some point soon. It's a really great movie with a nice, tight narrative, good action and great characters.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Friday, September, 25, 2009) (132)

I've owned the book of 'Brief Interviews with Hideous Men' for about five years now, but have never read it^1. David Forster Wallace wrote in a neo-gonzo style that is non-linear and includes many different narration styles and, of course, lots of footnotes. I think it would be difficult, to say the least, to make a movie that moderately represented one of his books^2.

The film was the passion project of John Krasinski who adapted to book for screen, directed and acted in it. He shows himself to be a very clever filmmaker - and though the movie is not entirely successful, it is, I think, probably as close to David Foster Wallace as one could get on screen.

I'll try to explain the jumbled story - but having never read the book, if I get it wrong, forgive me, as I'm just trying to tell the story as I understood it. Basically, the movie focuses on Sara^3, a grad student who interviews men about their sexual fetishes, hang-ups and desires. She seems to be getting over a sexual relationship of her own. She is a totally beautiful woman who attracts a lot of male attention and has to deal with this as she works on her research and her relationship fall-out.

The structure of the film has a parade of 'hideous' men speaking to Sara interview-style (in a university research office) about their sexuality. Some are brief and some are more long-winded. The men are played by a line of known actors of the moment (Will Forte, Will Arnett, Domonic Cooper, Bobby Cannavale, Frankie Faison and Clarke Peters - who is strangely uncredited)^4. Cut in between these moments are small scenes of Sara's life. Overall this format is effective for understanding the non-linear structure of the book - though, at times, the plot is slightly opaque.

Sadly much of the dialogue in the film feels fake and stagey. It's hard to say if it's the writing or the direction, but there are moments when the actors sound as if they're in a high school play reciting lines, rather than actually acting. Krasinski is the worst culprit as his monologue in the last act is really not very good at all^5.

I do give Krasinski a ton of credit for taking a book that must be incredibly difficult to understand and turn it into a movie that generally makes sense. It's interesting, once you figure out what is going on, and generally not a bad effort^6. It's not something to rush out to see, but it is pretty good.

Stars: 2 of 4

^1 I think I picked it up on a 'free giveaway' table in and old apartment building. I think I thought I liked the cover and I knew of DFW, but had never read anything he wrote. I think at the time I knew that he was incredibly difficult to understand.

^2 After not reading Interviews, I've actually read another book and a few Harpers articles by DFW and have really enjoyed all of them. I recently tried again to read Interviews, but it is really difficult. Maybe I'll make this a resolution to get through soon.

^3 Sara is played by Julianne Nicholson who is absolutely gorgeous. It's silly to comment on how beautiful she is, but she is really very beautiful. For me, the idea of telling her my sexual hang-ups is both compelling and frightening because she is so beautiful. I don't know if this was done on purpose, but I assume it was - and for that I commend Krasinski and the casting director.

^4 It seems like the male cast of Saturday Night Live and The Wire were raided for the cast. There's nothing wrong with this - it's just amusing. These performances are generally very good.

^5 I'm not totally sure if this is a comment on Krasinski's acting chops in general or just his dramatic acting chops - or just simply that his script and direction were not good- but that in different circumstances, he would be good. But he was not good here. And I normally think he's very funny in The Office and was good enough in Away we Go from this past summer.

^6 I actually really like that there's a scene right at the end where Sara talks about her research and explains exactly what the whole point of the movie is. It's a clever bit of writing and very effective - and I could imagine DFW writing something like this. After winding your way through the whole tale - the point of the story is handed to you at the end. Of course, I've never read the book, so I don't even know if this is Krasinski or DFW.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (IMAX-3D) (Sunday, September 20, 2009) (131)

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, based on the classic Ron and Judi Barrett children's book, is a fun, funny and fresh movie. It is definitely a kid's movie, but it has a lot of very smart stuff directed at adults so everyone can have a good time at their own level.

In the film, after a string of hair-brained inventions (like a walking television, 'rat-birds' and a 'monkey thought translator'), young inventor Flint Lockwood creates a machine that (if it works properly) will transform water into food. The drab town he lives in, Swallow Falls, is down on it's luck since the main employer, the sardines factory, close recently. At a major town event, Flint's food machine goes haywire and gets shot up into the atmosphere above the town. The machine works and begins to rain down hamburgers.

The town, re-named Chew and Swallow, becomes a tourist hot spot (who wouldn't want to go somewhere that has bacon, eggs, hot dogs and steak from the sky!) and Flint begins to flirt with the weather woman, Sam Sparks, who is based in the town covering what it is raining each day. At some point, Flint's machine begins to malfunction and starts dumping out super-sized foods - ultimately endangering the people of the town.

My favorite part of the movie is the character of Steve the monkey. He is given a 'voice' by Flint's 'monkey thought translator' - but rather than taking what I would think to be the trite, easy route and having the monkey be a genius, Steve is an idiot. Most of his 'thoughts' are repeating his name or thinking about eating. It's really very funny. (I generally like monkeys and think they're much better in movies than dogs. Animated monkeys who talk and do stupid stuff are hilarious. I would watch a movie all about Steve.)

Another great thing about the movie is that the adult relationships seem really real. Flint and Sam meet and immediately have a connection. He's a geeky inventor who was mocked as a kid; She is an ex-geek who likes science and has always had a passion for chemistry and meteorology. The flirt in a real way and then fall in love. The relationship feels very natural and normal - much more normal than most romantic comedies out there.

The animation itself and look of the characters are very funny and creative. Flint's dad has bushy eyebrows that cover his eyes and a and moustache that covers his mouth. He doesn't emote well partly because he can't with so much hair on his face - which is used effectively for laughs later in the film.

I love that unlike many animated films where the two levels of comedy are juvenile and subtle sexual euphemism, here the two levels are sweet and young for the kids and intelligent, almost New Yorkery for the grown-ups. Kids won't understand the adult jokes not because they shouldn't get them, but because they're not intellectually adept enough.

I saw this movie in IMAX and 3D. I'm not totally sure the IMAX did more than just make it really big - but I would say the 3D was used very effectively. You won't really see meatballs flying off the screen into your face (which they could have done, I'm sure), but seeing the falling foods at different levels of depth on the screen is very effective and enjoyable. I would only recommend seeing it in 3D.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Saturday, September 19, 2009

35 Shots of Rum (Saturday, September 20, 2009) (130)

This Claire Denis film tells the story of a black father and daughter who live in the Parisian Banlieue. Lionel is a train conductor for the RER and Josephine is a college student, who also works part time at a record store. They are very close with their neighbors. Noe, an international business man has some dating history with Josephine and lives above them. Gabrielle, a taxi driver who lives down the hall, is a mother figure for Josephine and an almost-girlfriend to Lionel. The story is a slice-of-life drama that follows the group as they go about their every-day lives for a few months.

By far the best element in the film is the performance of Alex Descas as Lionel. He's quiet, but strong and always proper and respectful. We easily see that he's a good man who loves his daughter and his friends. (He was also great in the Jim Jarmusch's not-totally-successful film The Limits of Control from earlier this year - he's a really good actor!)

The biggest problem with the film is that it's incredibly simple, but small details are presented in a much too opaque fashion. It takes a few scenes of seeing Lionel leaving his work for us to realize that he actually drives the trains rather than simply working for the train syndicate. It takes at least two scenes to figure out that Lionel and Josephine are father and daughter rather than two loves. It is only clear late that Gabrielle is not Josephine's actual mother. These elements are small, yes, but there's no reason not to tell us these things straightforwardly. Rather they are presented elliptically, which is frustrating.

I liked the small fresh style of the film. At times it feels like a French Mike Leigh film - small, tight, intimate, with interesting characters doing mundane things and a wonderful atmosphere. There are beautiful shots of the train tracks around Paris as Lionel rides around for his work. There are great small details of banality about how the
characters move around their apartments.

But it is a poor-man's Mike Leigh film. At the end of the day, nothing really happens in this and it's rather much ado about nothing. Not to say that that is always bad - but I wish here there had been a bit more substance to the story. I wish there had been a bit more about the black life in the Banlieue - about people who live happy lives near one of the world's greatest cities, but very separate from it. Sadly there was almost none of this.

Stars: 2 of 4

The Informant! (Saturday, September 19, 2009) (129)

It sometimes feels like director/writer/producer Steven Soderburgh makes six movies a year mixing big Hollywood films with the biggest stars with small (sometimes microscopic) pictures that are gritty and not always totally successful. Clearly that's an exaggeration - he has only directed about two movies a year since he did 'Out of Sight' (with the big box office draws George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez).

When looking at the list of these titles, there are several that are over-hyped, I think, and lack much substance (such as Erin 'They're Called Boobs, Ed' Brokovich, Traffic, Oceans Twelve, The Good German and the two Che movies) and several interesting, smart and unusual ones (such as The Limey, Ocean's Eleven, Solaris and the HBO K-Street show). Overall this is not a bad career. The Informant! (yes, the exclamation point is in the title) is probably the best of this group of good films. It's smart, very funny, entertaining and a totally fresh style.

The movie tells the true story of the rise and fall of Mark Whitacre, a whistle-blower for Archer Daniels Midland who in the early 1990s started working with the FBI to expose an international price-fixing ring on agri-chemicals. Whitacre is an enthusiastic, naive numb-skull who cooperates with the government in order to further his career (at ADM) by getting his bosses charged and arrested so he can take over the firm (at least that's his plan). He has a love of ostentatious cars and abstract floral-print ties, a wonderful moustache and a killer hair-piece. He's always optimistic and almost never says or does what the federal agents working with him want him to do. Ultimately, it turns out that his grand life-style is being paid for by a major embezzlement scheme he has going on where he steals from ADM and puts money in various accounts around the world. As he becomes the main witness in the government's case against ADM, he is also brought up on federal charges of tax evasion and embezzlement.

The movie works because Matt Damon is fantastic in the Whitacre role. His foolish, bright-eyed performance draws us in right away and makes us think he's a harmless dolt. He talks technical corn chemistry at the kitchen table with his family and seems to not understand how little the world cares about what he does. Soderburgh uses voice over one-line 'deep thought' non-sequiturs as he is in meetings with various people, suggesting that his mind is always moving and wrestling with mundane things - and probably not paying attention to what he should be concentrating on. He's a sad goof-ball and we really root for him early on. The exclamation point in the title is clearly from his point of view - he thinks it's faaaaaantastic that he's working with the government. He's the informant! The screenplay, by Scott Burns, is fresh and hilarious and brings to life a guy who could otherwise be a pitiful Decatur, Illinois suit.

The texture of the film overall is also fantastic. Everything from the costumes, makeup and art direction is perfect with that late-1980s, early-1990s post-fluorescent print aesthetic common in America. Damon's mustache and terrible wig are fantastic; his beige and grey suits are perfect; the convoy of high-end cars that he goes through over the course of the film are wonderful; the office and hotel interiors are perfect. All of these design elements establish an uncanny environment for the action.

Perhaps the most important element of the atmosphere is the brilliant score by Marvin Hamlisch. At times it's quirky and sounds like a 1970s sit-com, at times it's fast and active like a bad 1980s comedy (like Meatballs or The Cannonball Run). It's a mixture of the crappy albums found in thrift store record bins - Herb Alpert and the Benny Hill theme song. Wooop, wooop, wooop! It's a cliche that I hate, but here it's true: the score really does become an important character in the story.

The supporting actors are great here. Scott Bakula and Joel McHale are fantastic as the straight FBI agents who can't believe how stoopid and amazing Whitacre is at every turn. Whitacre's wife, played by Melanie Lynskey, is perfect as a simple Midwesterner with gigantic hair who always has dinner on the table for her husband and sticks with him even after his scheme is exposed.

This is a really fun and totally enjoyable movie. It's always interesting to me how Soderburgh is effective at making movies across the genre spectrum. He has certainly made some bad movies (like the Girlfriend Experience from earlier this year, or the Good German - which was a really terrible noir war film), but he should get credit for not being pigeon-holed into one category. This film stands as his best comedy (including the Ocean movies) and one of his best films over his career.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Sunday, September 13, 2009

9 (Sunday, September 13, 2009) (128)

This is an animated film that despite having a mechanical rag-doll as its main character is not totally a kids' movie. It shows a post-apocalyptic world where humans no longer live after a massive war with robots they created. This post-singularity nightmare is presented with very minor explanation (one newsreel shows most of the back-story), and virtually no emotion - it is simply what it is (which, of course, is very reminiscent of the Terminator mythology).

The opening scene shows the lead character, 9, waking up in a robotic workshop amidst the hellscape. He finds a small talisman on the ground next to his deceased human creator and puts it in his pocket. As he goes out to explore he finds ruined buildings and a robotic, skeletal dog-monster roaming around. Soon he meets another thing like him, 2, who is and older, wiser being, who has clearly been around for longer and knows how to survive in this hard world. 2 is captured by the dog-monster and taken away along with the talisman. Ultimately 9 meets up with a group of other rag-doll robots, led by a king, 1, and a bruiser, 8. 1 has decided that the world is too dangerous so they should stay in their ruined-church home. 9 is curious about the world he is in and goes out to search for 2.

9 finds 2 in an abandoned factory/mill inside a cage. He frees his friend and finds with the help of the the sexy lady robot, 7 and gets back his talisman. When he begins playing with the object, he awakens a mega-robot that begins manufacturing an army of machines bent on destruction. It turns out this super machine was the undoing of the humans and possibly the robot friends.

The computer animation in the film is very nice and I really like that it has a dark and dirty look throughout. I don't watch much Japanese animation, where I think the theme of the post-Apocalypse is more common, so I was glad to get a taste of it here. Director Shane Acker worked on the visual effects of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King so he has a good background in hellish wastelands. The use of organic, fabric materials that make up the 'skin' of the robots and the mechanical objects that are inside of them and around them are a wonderful visual juxtaposition.

At times the film feels like John Ford's The Searchers and at times it feels like Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo and Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (which, of course, are two sides of the same coin). Westerns are the core of Sci-Fi/Fantasy and I like that Acker really embraced them. The question for 9 is not whether he can survive, but how he can survive with others - with his friends. Living alone or leaving his fellow beings to die is unthinkable to him. As he sets out to find 2 he is only joined by 5 and is spurned by the others (like Will Kane was), but is ultimately joined by other beings he meets, the crazyish 6, 7 and two twin 4s as well as 1 and 8 who decide to come along later (similar to John T. Chance's story). I loved these classic Western elements.

I also love the spiritual level of the story. It deals with many eternal humanist questions. What happens when we die? What happens to the world after humans die out? Can humanity continue after we are gone in robots and computers? Is there a human spirit and can robots can it be transferred to robots?

I think the script is a bit rough, structure-wise and there is a false ending too early that feels like a false ending and is a bit juvenile. Still, the content of the script is wonderful. This is a movie that kids could watch, but it's a bit dark and I don't think they would understand. This is a grown-up movie with mature subject matter and very interesting.

Stars: 3 of 4

Friday, September 11, 2009

American Casino (Friday, September 11, 2009) (127)

This is a very small and interesting documentary about the housing bubble and collapse of 2007 and 2008. The filmmakers, Leslie and Andrew Cockburn are both ultra-liberals (he's a columnist for The Nation) and clearly and concisely tell the story of government deregulation, banking greed and private pain.

There are two main villains in the story. The first is former Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) who was the chairman of the Senate banking committee in 2000 and got legislation passed at the end of the term to deregulate the banking industry in a way never before seen in American history. The other bad guy is Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, who continually told congress (really from the 1990s through the end of his chairmanship) that the free market was totally foolproof and honest.

The actions of both of these men (along with help from others) got the economy into a gigantic mess. The film shows how housing lenders free of laws that formerly regulated and kept them more honest, began selling sub-prime mortgages to poor and fixed income people and minorities living in tough urban neighborhoods. It shows how these mortgages were bundled, chopped up and resold and then given high grades by rating agencies who were involved in the deal.

The structure of the film has these historical and technical parts alternating with stories about individuals who were sold these mortgages and subsequently lost their homes. These stories are rather banal at this point - we've read and seen the tear-jerking stories for the past year or more. There's not much new here. But one sequence that's really wonderful has a man in Southern California whose job it is to monitor the health and safety of swimming pools. He shows how the amount of homes with unused pools went up dramatically during 2007 and 2008 (people losing their homes would push their garbage into the pools rather than cleaning up their yards). The amount of mosquitoes in these pools also went up dramatically in this period as people stopped cleaning and using them.

This is a very good movie and I like that it only runs an hour and a half. The filmmakers are very economical with their storytelling and use very evocative imagery (like the mosquitoes) to tell the emotional part of the story. Still, I wish there was a bit more detail in the narrative. I think some people - especailly centrist members of Congresss - are let off too easy. There are a ton of villians in this story and I think it's simplistic to only mention two of them. (What about Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin and Larry Summers? Weren't they a part of this too?).

Stars: 3 of 4

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Paris (Thursday, September 10, 2009) (126)

Cedric Klapisch's Paris is a French version of Robert Altman's Nashville. The movie follows 10 or so people around Paris as they go about their daily lives and get involved in rather mundane things. The main story, and possibly the most gripping, involves Elise (Juliette Binoche) who moves into her brother Pierre's (Romain Duris) apartment after he is diagnosed with heart disease. She is a single mother of three kids who has relatively lost some of her passion for life. The two help to keep one another bright and happy.

Elise gets some help from daily visits to the market where she becomes friendly with Jean, a fruit seller who works with his ex-wife and friends. We also meet Roland (Fabrice Lucini), a Parisian historian enamored of one of his beautiful students (Laetitia, played by the beautiful Melanie Laurent - onscreen again after Inglorious Basterds) and Philippe (Francois Bluzet), his brother, an architect dealing with typical urban anxiety.

Just as in Nashville, the story winds around all of these characters (and a few more smaller ones) who pass each other on the street or seek one another for assistance with their work. Just as Nashville had musical moments, Klapisch uses wonderful musical and dance sequences throughout the film. At one point there is a wonderful fantasy sequence with Pierre, a former dancer, in his old costume with his old troop while electronic music plays over top. It's quite well done. Later there's another scene with the very sick Pierre dancing with his friends at a party. Possibly the best dance and music sequence has Roland romancing Laetitia by goofilly dancing to an R&B song. It's very funny and makes us like him (and feel embarrassed for him) more than we already do.

Overall the film is delightful and has beautiful photography - though I would say that using extensive overhead helicopter shots and amazing views from apartments at the top of hills in Paris makes 'beautiful photography' easy to do. It's like shooting a movie in Antarctica or the Himalayas - it's easy cinematography.

Sadly, the movie doesn't amount to much of anything significant. The style is rather old and trite now (I mean, Nashville was made in 1975 and it seems there has been a stylistic knock-off every few years since). Most of the characters have very small amounts of growth through the movie, but because there are so many of them, it's hard for them to develop too much. The acting is good throughout, but sometimes the dialogue was a bit less than I would have liked.

Overall, though, a nice movie that will make you want to visit the 'City of Lights'.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Monday, September 7, 2009

Lorna's Silence (Monday, September 7, 2009) (125)

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are two of the smartest and most talented film directors alive today and would easily fit into an all-time pantheon of great directors. Their style is simple and frank. They focus on common people and mundane stories and match them with a no-frills direct style. The Promise, The Son and The Child are three of their best works - and should be required viewing for any contemporary cineaste.

Lorna's Silence fits in nicely with those three, even if it does not reach the majesty of them. In it, Lorna, is a Eastern European immigrant woman who has married a Belgian junkie, Claudy. Her scheme is to get her Beligan citizenship, then get a divorce and get remarried to a Russian man who will pay her for the service. All of this is done in order to get some money so she and her boyfriend, who is also not Belgian and works far away back East, can get married and open a snack shop. Things go a bit haywire when she realizes that her druggie (first) husband will die or be killed as a result of the scenario, so she panics and changes the plans suddenly.

The beauty of the film is in the elegance of the banal, working-class or lower working-class world. The Dardennes have an amazing ability to imbue their characters with love and passion and dark elements in a few short moments of a scene. Their interiors are absolutely natural (I can't imagine their art director has to do much because all the settings seem totally honestly real) and reflect on the characters that inhabit them. The handheld cameras and natural lighting they use add an immediacy and believability to their works.

They have a stable of rugged actors who are absolutely wonderful and reminiscent of John Sayles' or middle-Woody Allen casts. They add texture and gritty reality to the story, sometimes without opening their mouths. Jeremie Renier, Olivier Gourmet and Morgan Marinne are all fantastically used to show how dark this world is. Especially Renier whose previous work in The Promise and The Child sets up a lovable and complicated character. (If you have seen the previous works, it is hard to see Claudy as anything other than a grown up Igor/Bruno - a lovable boy who went off the rails, but has a good heart.) Arta Dobroshi, who plays Lorna as a smart and strong but emotional woman is also fantastic.

Seen in a vacuum, without other Dardenne movies as background, the plot is just one step beyond being considered 'simple'; when compared to other films by the brothers, this is downright complicated. Sadly, I think this is one of the problems with the film. Telling one simple, strong story has been the cornerstone of their films to this point, and I don't think they are as successful with a more complex plot. Especially in the last act, the pace gets too frenetic and the story loses its direction. I appreciate what they were trying to get at, but I think it feels more Hollywood than it should. The Dardennes are brilliant, but they are decidedly not Hollywood.

Stars: 3 of 4

The September Issue (Monday, September 7, 2009) (124)

I went to see this movie because I was told that when Anna Wintour told me to do something (wear more fur, wear black, wear thongs) I should do it. So I went to this documentary about the behind-the-scenes production of the 2007 Vogue September issue.

My first reaction to this is how very 2007 the movie is. People are spending money at a silly speed and the concept that the entire publishing industry is going down the toilet (or that the economy will be in the toilet in 12 months) is never mentioned or thought about. At one point, Grace Coddington, Anna Wintour's creative director, comments that when Anna scrapped three pictures from a shoot she had just done, she threw away more than $50,000 worth of work. We then see her scrap dozens more shoots. They travel to Rome and Paris in high style and organize a re-shoot in the Hamptons on two-days notice. I understand that Vogue makes a ton of money, but some of the spending seems silly and extreme.

The second thing I notice is how totally in their own strange world fashion people are. The film opens with Anna Wintour talking to the director R.J. Cutler about how many people laugh at fashion because it 'scares them'. But this is silliness, Anna - we laugh at fashion because fools like you make comments like that. We laugh at fashion - just as we see you laughing - because sometimes its silly and unwearable. We laugh when Vogue design honcho Andre Leon Tally goes to play tennis with a Louis Vuitton blanket around his neck and has a LV tennis racket case and an LV Fiji water bottle caddy. This is silly stuff.

I like this movie - it's interesting and moves along rather well. I would have liked a bit more narration or direction about what was going on at different moments aside from that it was 'three months until deadline' or 'six weeks until deadline' (in the fashion vacuum where I live, those points mean nothing to me). Cutler does an admirable job of showing Wintour as a cogent decision maker rather than simply a heartless bitch. He also shows how some things might look wonderful but might end up on the editing floor due to space or taste needs

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Extract (Sunday, September 6, 2009) (123)

This is the new film by Mike Judge who previously made Beavis and Butthead and Office Space, among other things. This has been widely praised as a hilarious, smart comedy and some sort of logical follow-up to Office Space. I don't think it is any of these things. I think it's boring and dumb and sophomoric in a dull way.

The movie has Jason Bateman as the owner of a company that makes chemical flavor extracts. He bitches all the time to his best friend Ben Affleck that his wife, Kristen Wiig, isn't interested in sex with him. At some point a young con artist, Mila Kunis, starts working for his company as part of an elaborate long con where she seduces a man who was injured at work (when he lost a testicle - get it! get it! that's funny!) and convinces him to sue the company so she can rob him of the settlement money. Batement, who is interested in having an affair with Kunis, hires a gigolo to sleep with his wife so he can feel less guilty about the infidelity.

My biggest problem with this is that I didn't find it funny. I might have laughed once or twice. One repeating joke had Bateman's neighbor constantly coming up to his car as he was rushing to get home and not giving up speaking to him. This happened about six times and was never funny. J.K. Simmons (who I normally like) had a totally flat role whose only purpose was to constantly not remember names of the employees of the extract company - this was also not funny. I think most of the humor is banal and easy and not very memorable and funny.

On top of this, the story was totally unnecessarily complicated and layered. For a 91 minute movie, there was no need for there to be four major plot lines. Part of what was so fresh and easy about Office Space is the simplicity of the story. This had none of that and got buried underneath the sidetrack stories.

The acting is fine. Bateman has become an honest and funny fratboy actor and is fine enough in the role. I absolutely don't understand the appeal of Mila Kunis who is OK as an actor and as a beauty, but nothing special. Ben Affleck is funny enough as a dull bartender druggie, but it seemed that he was there simply to have a funny, dirty haircut onscreen. Whatever - I think none of these actors had much to work with script-wise and they all did as well as they could have done.

I'm not a big fan of this movie and I don't understand the appeal.

Stars: 1 of 4

Still Walking (Sunday, September 6, 2009) (122)

This is a very lovely Japanese film about a one-day reunion for a traditional but dysfunctional family in a seaside town outside of Tokyo. The oldest living son, Ryo, is married to a widow who has a young son from her first marriage. His older, more traditional brother died several years ago, and now he is seen by his father as the next generation in the proud family medical practice. He doesn't want anything to do with his father's old-fashionedness or his parents' small-town lifestyle. His sister is married to a loving fool who drives the parents crazy with his simpleness and childishness.

This film is really about the meeting of opposites. The old father who would rather spend time alone in his office looking over old medical documents who comes in contact with his young, fast-moving grand children; the modern, city loving city-dwelling son who is spending time in a sleepy old-fashioned town; the tradition-loving family who has to function in a modern world and knows they don't like all the rules they follow, but follows them anyway. I would love to understand the title in the original Japanese - because I'm very interested in the oxymoron of stillness and walking. Is that just a great translation to create the double entendre or is that what the title was like before it was translated?

The style is very simple and beautiful. Almost all the shots are static with very few camera movements. As the film moves along, there are a scattering of moving shots that suggest a greater importance for the scene. Hirokazu Koreeda deserves credit for t
his subtle direction and elegant style.

The acting is also wonderful - especially the son and main character, Ryo, played by Hiroshi Abe and the father played brilliantly by Yoshio Harada. I wish I knew more about Japanese actors, but these two especially are fantastic.

This is a very nice and quiet movie and totally worth a viewing.

Stars: 3 of 4