Sunday, November 29, 2009

Home (Sunday, November 29, 2009) (180)

This film is one of the very few that I have been to recently just because of the actors in it. All I knew going in was that Isabelle Huppert and Olivier Gourmet were the co-stars. They are two of the best French-language actors working today and two of the most powerful actors in any language, for that matter. Huppert's role in Michael Haneke's La Pianiste is breathtaking and Gourmet is fabulous in films by the Dardenne brothers (especially L'Enfant). I got lucky with this film, which is a really fresh and interesting movie, by young director Ursula Meier.

I think the only way to describe the genre of the film is 'absurdist tragi-comedy' (OK, now I feel like an asshole for having written it - oh - it's so French!). The film opens with a weird family living in a home on the edge of an unused highway. Their front yard is the asphalt road and they spread their crap everywhere - beach chairs, inflatable kiddie pools, street hockey goals, clotheslines. They seem like a wild bunch, with three kids and two parents, who all play together, bathe together and love one another.

One day, the government decides to re-open the highway without any warning for the family. A road crew comes in to repave the blacktop and the next day the highway has traffic on it again. From here, the film becomes a wonderfully strange story where the family members go a bit crazy as the car exhaust fumes cause their lives to fracture and worsen. All they do all day is listen to traffic reports on the radio and television a the young daughter performs scientific tests on the air quality.

I guess you could watch the film as a critique on government stupidity or pollution and environmental degradation - but I think that would be missing the point. I think this is a wonderful look at the strangeness of family life and a farce about modernity in general. It is more a stylistic experiment, I think, than a narrative story, in many ways, as the over-the-top but straight-faced tone makes us appreciate the differences between this family and normal people becomes clear.

No surprise, the acting performances are wonderful. Huppert and Gourmet are great, as are their kids, played wonderfully by Adelaide Leroux, Madeleine Budd and Kacey Mottet-Klein (OK, you might never hear of these actors ever again, but they deserve mentioning). The oldest daughter, played by Leroux is out of high school, but seems mostly interested in tanning in the front yard. She's a kid who is much too cool for her family, but still loves them (ah, France, where kids never leave home!). The middle daughter, played by Budd, is serious and clinical, studying the effects the highway is having on the mental and physical health of the family. The young son, played by Mottet-Klein, is joyful and loves the adventure of living where they do, but worried about the breakup of their group.

Meier's style is sarcastic and weird. Moments remind me of films by Emir Kusturica, especially Arizona Dream, and the quirky and wonderful L'Iceberg by Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon with it's fantasy and off-kilter tone. It is also rather sad, dark and gritty at times, which brings to mind the Dardenne brothers' La Promesse. The cinematography by Agnès Godard (who also did a nice job with 35 Shots of Rum this year) is central to the emotional storyline.

This is a small, small movie, that I hope will be released on DVD- though there's a good chance it won't be. I'm a bit upset that the title is so dull (I believe it is the same in French), but it does bring out some interesting associations: "home, home on the rage"; "home is where the heart is"; "home sweet home". It feels like a pure work by Ionesco, following in a long tradition of French absurdism.

Stars: 3 of 4

Wiliam Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (Sunday, December 29, 2009) (179)

This film follows in a line of recent documentaries made by children of famous people who are dealing with their parent's legacies. Similar to how Nathaniel Kahn dealt with the troubled history of his father, Louis Kahn, and how Aiyana Elliott dealt with her own absent, but brilliant father, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, here Emily and Sarah Kunstler deal with the legacy of their father, ultra-liberal lawyer William Kunstler.

Kunstler become famous for being the main defense attorney in the trial of the so-called Chicago 7. In that case, he turned the courtroom into a stage to show the world that justice in America is not blind, but totally subjective and relative. From there he went on to fight for the rights of prisoners in New York's Attica State Penitentiary, for Native American rights and a slew of leftist causes in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the film, the two daughters speak directly about how they grew up in an era when their father was past his prime and frequently took cases they disagreed with. The knew very well about his history, but sometimes found it hard to defend his actions to their friends. This is a loving and intimate look at his whole life, showing his growth from a rather typical suburban father and lawyer in the 1950s to a long-haired radical fighter who talked openly about drug use in the 1970s.

We see how he was on the forefront of social change through the years, though, from helping the NAACP with Civil Rights cases in the South in the mid-1960, to defending a political group who burned draft records in the late 1960s to the Chicago 7 trial and on. He was not a passive, armchair critic, but an outspoken voice of change.

Overall, the analysis is interesting and compelling. The style is nice, involving many interviews with his colleagues, friends and past relations as well as footage and court sketches from his many famous trials. More interesting than his own history, is the personal, human aspect of the story. The two filmmakers do a very nice job showing how they began to look at his career with a rather skeptical eye and ultimately came to understand their father as a human being with typical faults and several bad choices. Perhaps it is a bit one-sided and possibly too complimentary, but this is not too much of a problem in this affectionate documentary.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Collapse (Sunday, November 29, 2009) (178)

Collapse is a very interesting and clever documentary by filmmaker Chris Smith about professional gadfly Michael Ruppert. To say that Ruppert is a conspiracy theorist is to miss the point. He thinks that everything in the world is screwed up and has a critical comment on just about every aspect of foreign, energy and economic policy. He is mostly an autodidact, having been an LAPD officer for many years working with the DEA and CIA on drug trafficking. Ever since the early part of this decade, he has been an avid reader of all sorts of journals and published a newsletter on all of his theories.

The film is simply a long and interesting interview with him getting his opinions on a wide variety of topics. Smith uses a very "Errol Morris" style where he shows Ruppert seated and talking with cut-aways to found-footage from old newsreels, cartoons and propaganda films. This feels very much like it could have been made as a chapter in Morris' First Person television series.

Ruppert's basic theory of the universe is that you should not trust government because the it lies and deceives in order to make more money for rich business interests. He says that renewable energy sources are over-hyped as they are either entirely inefficient, not thoroughly thought through or rely too much on a fossil fuel infrastructure. He says we should face the fact that we use oil and will need to remain on oil for a long time to come. He advocates that we are past the point at which we've used up most of the planet's oil reserves, so he foresees the collapse of the world population in the years to come. All of this is rather bleak and sober - but very interesting and hard to argue with.

The style is very nice and effective, with Ruppert at the center of the story, and keeping us interested along the way with all the interesting footage. The score, by Didier Leplae, Joe Wong and Noisola (all three!) is certainly inspired by many of the Philip Glass works composed for earlier Morris works such as The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time.

I like that Smith, in true Morris fashion, does not judge the subject and just lets him speak for himself. It is up to us, as viewers, to make an opinion about Ruppert. Is he full of crap or the smartest guy in the room? Is he a conspiracy theorist or does he really see the plain, unvarnished truth? Should we listen to him or just blow him off as a wacko? It's fun and very interesting.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Me and Orson Welles (Saturday, November 28, 2009) (177)

Me and Orson Welles? Orson Welles and I? Orson Welles and me. Whatever.

It's hard to figure out if this movie was written first and then they cast actor Christian McKay as Welles, or if they looked at McKay and constructed a Welles movie with him in mind. Either way, his resemblance to the young Welles is uncanny and stunning (his resemblance to John Lithgow is also pretty close - so I guess he would have the lead in that biopic as well!). Other than the casting choices, there is not much going on in the movie.

The story is about a high school kid in suburban New York who cuts school and gets a role in the famous Welles-Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar. That production remains today a grand historical achievement setting the Shakespearean history in fascist Italy. Along the way, the boy, played by teeny heart-throb Zac Efron falls in love with Claire Danes, an assistant in the theater company and gets bent out of shape when Welles seduces her. Danes is still gorgeous and shows herself here to be very good - it's a shame she doesn't work more.

One of the most fun elements of the movie is seeing some of the famous actors of the Mercury Theater. Oh - look there - it's Joseph Cotten; Oh - there's George Coulouris; Hey - there's John Houseman. Overall, the actors cast here look a tremendous amount like the real people they're playing. But that's about all we get from the film. The main point of intrigue, which only comes in around the middle of the third act, isn't all that interesting. It's great to see how the theatrical production came to fruition - but most of what we see is Welles behaving badly and still being a genius (of course he could behave badly because he was a genius - because he had a world class ego and because he knew he was talented enough to get the job done in the end). That's not all that interesting.

One very curious thing is that one of the big points of tension in the story is Welles' belittling treatment of Efron's character. Strangely, nobody ever makes a comment that in 1937 Welles himself was only 22 - only four or five years older than Efron's character. This is very strange, of course, because the whole point of the movie is that Welles is a genius. In this film there is no comment on Welles' age - and he comes off as a man in his mid- to late-30s. There could easily have been a line, like: 'Wow-Welles is so talented and so young!' (This is where everybody over 27 should feel shame that they didn't make one of the greatest films of all-time by that age!)

I generally think director Richard Linklater is an interesting director (though I certainly don't love all his movies). This film, however, feels especially anonymous and almost Disney-Channel-esque (and not just because of Efron). It feels very amateurish and superficial. Like a glossy history of a bygone era, with almost no grit and no psychology to speak of.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

La Danse - Le Ballet de l'Opera de Paris (Saturday, November 2, 2009) (176)

Frederick Wiseman has made a career of very interesting documentaries with a clinical, dispassionate style. In this film he spends a few months with the Paris Opera Ballet company showing an 'all-access' look at the troupe's creative and administrative process. This is a long film, to be sure - 160 minutes long - but it does not drag much and keeps our interest throughout pretty well.

Wiseman's style is consists of setting a camera in a room and recording what goes on in front of it. There is no commentary and no particular 'director's voice'. It is documentary filmmaking in the Maysles model. It is as pure a document as one can imagine.

Much of the film shows the dancers rehearsing their routines with their choreographers and creative directors. We see at least six different numbers (maybe more - I might have lost track of a few of them) from their early stages through their final productions on stage. The rehearsal spaces, in the cupola of the old neo-Baroque Paris Opera theater, are themselves something wonderful to behold. But more than that, it is fascinating to see how the choreographers work on the most subtle movements of the dancers to change the entire tone of a work.

In addition to the artistic side, we also see the business and management side of things. We see Brigitte Lefèvre, the creative director and force of nature that has her hand in every part of the company from casting to fundraising. She's a tough lady, but clearly brilliant and totally respected by everyone we see (of course they have to respect her on camera because they would be cut if they didn't). In one scene, we see the development committee talking about an event for the 'American Friends' of the ballet, organizing events for the $5,000 and $25,000 donations. (Unintentional laughs result from a comment about Lehman Brothers executives giving money. Ooops!)

Wiseman gives us a glimpse of almost every small part of the production and every small support department. We see a guy vacuuming the boxes and cleaning the aisles of the orchestra, we see the costume designers working on upcoming shows, we see the cafeteria where administrators and dancers eat lunch side by side, we see the union labor discussions. It's all rather fascinating.

What I find especially interesting is the fact that this movie, which really has no particular 'point-of-view' and no directorial 'voice', feels rather strange because of it's nonchalance. That is to say that the film works as a mirror on the current documentary films and how nearly everything I have seen recently has a specific slant - and much of it being outright polemic. When faced with a film like this one, the *unbiased*, document-ness of it feels rather uncomfortable. Am I that corrupted by contemporary directors and their opinions?

For me, this is as much a formal exploration as it is a cinematic experience. The film is basically one scene after another with very little (other than some general chronology) linking one moment to the next. I think one of my frustrations with it is that ends rather abruptly - but it would be impossible to know how else to end it, I guess. It is as if the film is counting upwards with scenes - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc. - moving easily from one thing to another. That it ends, say, on 25, rather than 20, is totally fair.

It does bring to my mind similar frustrations I had with Christo's mega-installation The Gates in 2005. That was also a formal exercise, I think. It's scope was breathtaking, but it's execution was sometimes mysterious and hard for me to follow. I had trouble with the fact that the individual gates were different in size and strangely varied different in distance from one to the next. This might have been part of a greater scheme, but to me, it felt too random and unfulfilling.

I get the same general feeling from this film. I recognize it as a beautiful work of art, but there are some editing and pacing decisions that don't totally make sense. But they don't make sense on a more fundamental level than a spot level. That is, I think there might be a big design that Wiseman has for the structure of the picture, but I can't see it and don't know what it is. I can say that I want to know more about the precess and the thinking behind the film - and hope there's more to learn.

I think this is a very beautiful and interesting movie. It might be a bit too long for casual viewing, but it probably is not a film that should be casually viewed. It is might be a bit too serious - but that's the point, I guess. (Like saying a war movie is too bloody or too violent.)

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Mammoth (Saturday, November 28, 2009) (175)

Mammoth is basically an updated version of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 2006 film Babel. Just like how that work followed people at different points on the globe not being able to communicate well with others, this film focuses on people in three locations dealing with difficulty in their lives. In New York City, Michelle Williams is an ER surgeon working night shifts while her Filipino nanny looks after her daughter. Her husband, Gael Garcia Bernal, owns an online gaming site and goes to Bangkok to sell the firm for tens of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, the in the Philippines, the nanny's two young sons deal with life without their mother as their grandmother cares for them.

Similar to Babel, all three stories play out separately and only seldom come into contact with one another. Michelle Williams is very isolated from her daughter because of the hours she works and the hours she sleeps. Her job is high-stress and the costs do not necessarily outweigh the rewards. Gael Garcia Bernal finds himself bored in Thailand as the lawyers work out some details on the purchase deal, so he goes to a tropical beach to where he meets a persistent hooker. The two Filipino boys are sad they can't see their mother more and deal with the dangers of living in their poor city on a daily basis.

Basically none of this film feels fresh or interesting to me. From a stylistic point of view, Swedish director Lukas Moodysson does not bring a lot to the table that we can bite into. The story feels very recycled and there is nothing especially interesting from a visual standpoint. There are a few pop songs used throughout the film and even these are retreads from recent pictures. (One of them, Cat Powers' 'The Greatest', was recently prominently featured in Wong Kar Wai's My Blueberry Nights from last year.)

I really like Williams and think she generally gives very nice performances. There is no difference with her work here which is solid and interesting. I do wonder why she seems to only pick the weirdest and tiniest movies to work on, when it seems she could make bigger, more commercial films (considering her Dawson's Creek pedigree). Looking at her career, Brokeback Mountain seems to be the biggest film she was ever in - and she's a secondary character in that. Bernal is good in this film, but his role is so bland he does not have much to work with.

Solid acting, though, cannot solve this movie's problems. It is utterly obvious, vapid and beige.

Stars: 1 of 4

Kassim the Dream (Saturday, November 28, 2009) (174)

This is a small documentary about Ugandan boxer Kassim Ouma who fled to the U.S. after being trained as a child soldier in the civil war in his homeland. The first half of the film shows his training and some of his fights as a young professional boxer in America (still fighting today). He has sheer talent and drive and lots of potential to become a great champ, though his attention is somewhat broken up by the riches that come with his success.

The second half of the film shows him going back home to visit and re-connect with old friends and loved ones. After working with the Ugandan embassy in Washington to get his visa (which was complicated by the fact that the rebel leader in whose army he fought is now the president of Uganda and Ouma has spoken out against his regime), he makes the trip there as a returning hero. Once there he finalizes some loose ends and visits his home village he goes back to the training camp where he learned to kill.

Overall this is a nice movie with a good soul. Ouma is a charming man clearly haunted by his past, but doing well to make a better life for himself and his family. The main problem with it, though, is that director Kief Davidson loses track of the narrative and we end up with two very different movies - one about boxing and one about African child soldiers - with no real historical or stylistic connection between them. He could have cut back and forth between the two narratives and used his achievements in the ring as a foil for the misery he felt as a boy. Instead, we get two unrelated movies that are each less powerful and rather boring.

As I watched the second half of the movie I was reminded of another documentary from earlier this year - My Neighbor, My Killer, about the community truth and reconciliation trials following the Rwandan genocide. In that film, the powerful human message is amazing, but the filmmaker doesn't cut or structure the film in a way that makes for an interesting movie. With that one, I felt that I wanted to like the story (I wanted to love it, really), but I couldn't because it didn't tell an efficient story. Similarly with this one, the story is amazing and Ouma himself is lovable, but I can't help but feel unfulfilled with the result onscreen.

As a sociological case study this is a powerful story, but as a cinematic experience it leaft me somewhat cold. I love the shots of the boxer in an African village street with hundreds of kids clamouring to see him and touch him (reminiscent, of course, of the great When We Were Kings - and now Soul Power, from this summer), but such a set-up is somewhat superficial and trite at this point. I wanted more of a psychological journey from where he started to where he is now. Sadly, I didn't get that at all.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Ugly Truth (Friday, November 27, 2009) (173)

For reasons I can't explain, recently Hollywood producers seem so bored with the romantic comedy genre that they've decided they should freshen up the films by adding a lot of really dirty language and imagery to them. At least that's how it feels with a movie like The Ugly Truth. For reasons I can't explain the dialogue in this movie is totally graphic and dirty, while the story is totally recycled crap.

Katherine Heigl is a local news reporter in Sacramento who is forced into hiring public access gross-out host Gerard Butler. Butler's show is about how men and women are looking for different things romantically - that men are looking to get laid and women are looking for love and romance. Long story short, Heigl gets Butler to coach her to be a better sex vixen as she woos her hunky next door neighbor, but, of course the two of them end up falling in love. (I couldn't have guessed that from the movie poster!)

I don't get the appeal of Heigl. I guess she's blond and has big boobs (though her boobs are totally unmemorable to me), but she has absolutely no personality and doesn't have the prettiest face on earth. I don't know - maybe it's the Gray's Anatomization of America. People in lousy television shows go out and make lousy movies and sad people go to see those movies and - voila! A star is born! (Interestingly, Heigl seems to have been born 45 days before me in Washington, DC where I was also born - so I guess I feel some cosmic connection to her.... no -wait - that's gas.)

Nothing really moves in this story. Butler seems to be a good father-figure to his young nephew, but then that story is dropped by the second act; there's a trite Pygmalion sequence where Butler is teaching Heigl how not to be an uptight nerd with men, but that goes nowhere; there's another trite Cyrano de Bergerac sequence where he feeds her lines when she's out with a guy on a date, but this goes nowhere too. It's sorta a 'throw pasta against the wall and see what sticks' approach to narrative structure. It's as if the writers (there are three of 'em!) collected a bunch of tired bits from other movies and put them in a pot to make stew. You get a bit of this and a bit of that in every bite.

What you also get is a totally sophomoric script and a film with an R rating for no purpose. It would not have been much different with tame dialogue and, say, a PG-13 rating. Just because you have an adult concept (which this really isn't) doesn't mean you have to season it with stupid expletives. Sorry to sound like a prude here, but there's a place for everything - and for a dumb rom com, there is no need for the foul language.

Stars: .5 of 4

The Narrows (Friday, November 27, 2009) (172)

The Narrows is a small film produced and set in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. In it a guy from the mostly-Italian neighborhood works as a livery cab driver for a small-time mobster. When he's not driving the car, he goes to NYU to study photography and sociology. There he meets a cute ritzy girl who has no idea what his life on the other side of the river is like.

The problem is the story never rises above a totally cliche, stereotypical level. The guy's guido girlfriend walks around in tights and high heels, snapping her gum and playing with her overly teased hair and caked-on makeup. His father used to work as a garbage man until he got injured on the job. The mobster boss wears fancy silk suits and sends the guy on runs to pick up mysterious packages. The love interest at school has a sharp tongue and seems to be the first modern woman the guy has ever met. You see, the title not only refers to the geographic area called the Narrows at the end of New York Harbor, but also to the space between the guy's two worlds. Oooooh. Oy vey.

Basically nothing on screen is interesting and the script is terrible with some horrendous dialogue that would make an junior high theater troupe weep. It ends in such a convoluted and ridiculous way that it might as well be the finale to a different movie. Along the way some characters (like the neighborhood girlfriend) are totally dropped and plot points (like the hot-shot neighborhood stud who survives a tour in Afghanistan but might not last in the mafia) become totally forgettable and insignificant. Worst of all, most of the story is told very efficiently in about 80 minutes, but the film runs almost two hours. I can't explain why there are another 26 minutes or what happens in them - it gets really dull and more banal the longer it goes. This is just not a very good movie.

Stars: .5 of 4

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Wednesday, November 25, 2009) (171)

To begin, I must admit that I have not read any of the Twilight books and really have no interest in doing so. Vampires don't really interest me that much as a genre and teeny bloodsuckers might be worse. I did see the first Twilight movie, though, on DVD (is that one now going to be renamed 'The Twilight Saga: Twilight'?) and was surprised that it was pretty OK. I really liked the photography and the blue-green-gray color palette of the film. The acting was terrible, but I thought the story was passable.

This second film loses whatever charm the first one had and works only as a bridge to the next film. I felt like most of the story was narration catching us up on what goes on in this baroque world and what to expect later on. This film absolutely does not stand up on its own and works only in conjunction with earlier or later stories. It is incredibly frustrating as it has no beginning and no end. There are a bunch of stories in it that go nowhere and it feels like a long episode of a teen serial - like an endless episode of Gossip Girl or 90210.

One thing I can't figure out is why Bella, the protagonist, is so beloved when she's just a dark, bratty, sad girl who makes bad decisions and seems incapable of taking care of herself. There might be two scenes with her smiling in the whole film. She seems like a jerk to her non-vampire friends and buzz-kill to anyone around her. When her toothy boyfriend Edward abandons her (for reasons that don't make sense, by the way, to the unread viewer) she falls into a pit of sadness that seems beneath her 17-or so years.

At any rate, left alone, she befriends a local Native American boy ('Look - an Indian boy,' says Cindy Brady) who doesn't go to school, but is a great mechanic. He falls in love with her, but she still longs for her Eddie. Then there's something about how the Native American boys in her town are all gigantic wolves and change from men to wolves when they sense there is danger around. Then there's something with Bella going before a council of aristocratic vampires in Italy or something.

I wish I could say that the stylistic elements that I liked from the first film remained in this one, but they do not. Director Chris Weitz loses track of the style with too much substance. The story is so choppy that we never really stay in any one place for long enough to see any beauty in it. Also, with the vampires out of town, there is no need for the over-cast skies that dominated the first film and allowed them to be able to go out during the day. These clouds led to the lovely muted color scheme of that movie. Overall, the look is pretty anonymous.

I would say the film is anti-feminist and a bad influence for young women, but that might be too late for such a warning. Bella is a totally passive player in everything she does. She makes no choices herself and needs either Edward or Jacob to guide her. When they're not around, she pouts and waits. I don't know if it was screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg or book author Stephenie Meyer who created such a lame and self-loathing character. (OK, Bella, so your boyfriend left for no reason. Pick yourself up and get back to life. You too can be an active participant in your own life!)

This is not a very fun movie to watch. It feels way too long and totally boring if you don't know what is coming next. What's worse is that there is no real discernible narrative and no beginning, middle or end, so it just feels like a collection of unconnected vignettes with no direction. Why it ends where it does is rather curious to me as there is no real resolution at that point. Why it couldn't have ended three scenes earlier, say, is not clear to me. I wish it had ended a lot earlier.

Stars: .5 of 4

The Road (Wednesday, November 25, 2009) (170)

I'm sure it's really hard to make a movie based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. And Cormac McCarthy's The Road is not an easy book to adapt. There is not much of a story to it. A man and his son are on an journey on foot in some post-apocalyptic hell-scape from nowhere in particular to some beach far, far away. Along the way, they encounter a bunch of people who want to kill them, rob them, rape them or eat them. This is a world where suicide is a real option for conscious people, an escape from the terrible bleakness of their lives.

The film by Aussie director John Hillcoat (don't worry, I've never heard of him either) gets this bleakness really well, but that's about all it captures from the book. It is mostly bloodless and boring and never captures the gist of the book.

When dealing with a post-apocalyptic narrative, you can either show how the world ended or just accept that it did end and move on from there. Zombieland recently did this beautifully, simply showing us that at some point in time, zombies took over the world leaving sentient beings to fend for themselves. This film, however tries to explain what happened to lead to where we are now. It suggests that most life on earth died due to some environmental disaster similar to global warming. We see several flashbacks of the man's life with his loving wife before everything went bad, and at different points, characters talk about what happened.

Worst of all, there are terrible voice-overs by the man (From the future? From another dimension? Speaking directly to us?) explaining what he's feeling at different moments. Voice-overs are almost always bad and ill-conceived - I think in most cases they're a sign of lazy filmmaking. It's the director and writer being unable to show us what is happening or what has occurred and needing to tell us directly. I think the point here is to have the man speak in voice overs what the narrator of the book would be telling us - but the narrator of the book was never so blunt or inartful. It just feels ham handed and annoying here.

There is some really shamefully bad directing here. For example, in one sequence they look at a map showing an eastern coast (possibly the Texas gulf coast) and the man tells the boy that they will go to the coast and walk south. Yet, once they get to the beach and continue south, the water is on their right side - meaning it's a western coast. This is basic stuff and bad to get wrong. Either they should get a different map or set up the shot from the other direction so the directional orientation is correct.

But the poor job doesn't stop there for Hillcoat. He manages to get product placement into a movie about the end of the world showing people eating Cheetos and drinking Vitamin Water and Coke. Really?! Vitamin Water survives as long as cockroaches? Really? (I shouldn't get into it, but it is curious to me that the only black man in the film is also a pitiful robber. I'm sure Hillcoat is not racist, but it is curious how almost everybody who survives in this world is white - and almost all of them is treated with more respect.)

The adaptation of the novel by Joe Penhall (again, I don't know him) has so many holes in it, but I think the worst is the way the boy comes out. From what we see, he was born into this world, yet now, around age 8 or 10 or so, he is totally unable to cope with his surroundings.

I would think that children who grow up in certain situations learn to adapt to those situations and take them as a matter of fact in their lives. This boy, however, seems to have grown up in our world and doesn't understand basics of his own (for instance, when you're hiding from cannibals, don't make noise). At one point, the man makes a comment about a Christmas tree to his son - but I can't imagine that the kid has any idea of what a holiday is, let alone what Christmas is. This feels like it was written for our benefit rather than the boy's. This is very sloppy.

Overall, the film is sentimental and boring. I would have much preferred a gritty, scaled-down story rather than the plodding narrative we get here. In the novel, the man and boy are two characters who seem to represent types - they're rather picked-at-random. Their story feels rather universal in the greater scheme of this universe. Here, however, the man and boy are people that we are supposed to care about for their individuality and humanity. This approach might be more appealing to film-going audiences, but I think it misses a big part of the story.

Stars: 1 of 4

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Messenger (Sunday, November 22, 2009) (169)

As a liberal, I am very conflicted about the film The Messenger, which is anti-war and pro-soldier, but not especially good. The main character, Staff Sergeant Montgomery (played beautifully by Ben Foster) is a young, injured Iraq War vet who gets a new post in an Army base in New Jersey (probably Fort Dix) where he lets families know about the death of their loved ones. His commanding officer is Captain Stone, (played by Woody Harrelson), an Operation Desert Storm vet who has been in this position for several years and has learned how to navigate the difficult psychological and inter-personal duties.

Stone, a recovering alcoholic, begins as a hard-ass taskmaster for Montgomery, telling him to check his emotions at the door and perform his duty totally by the book without any human element. As the two grow closer as friends, they butt heads about this protocol vs. tenderness conflict. Montgomery, dealing with some war injuries and light PTSD, has trouble returning to state-side life, and a difficult time squaring the clinical nature in his day-to-day job with his somewhat angry nature.

The first half of this movie is pretty good. Foster plays his role very well. He is filled with intensity and rage at his seemingly impossible situation and at the same time is pitiful and sad. Harrelson is a lovable jerk who is funny and crude and pretty sad in his own right. He is clearly proud of his military record, but slightly hurt that he missed out on the recent Iraq action that engulfs his daily life.

Sadly, writer-director Oren Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon lose focus on the guts of the story in the second half as the film turns into a rather common, banal tale about an ex-soldier who can't deal in the non-war world. As it moves along, it becomes more and more anonymous, culminating in a really trite "ex-soldier drunk-at-a-wedding" sequence. Ugh.

At the end of the day, this film basically feels like the film Stop-Loss from last year. It has so much promise - a story that shows the war as a bad thing because of what it does to break the men and women who serve in it - but ultimately it goes rather low-brow, cheesy and dull. The acting performances are very good - especially Harrelson, who is having a really great 2009, by the way - but ultimately the totality of the work is very bland.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

The Sun (Sunday, November 22, 2009) (168)

The title of this film refers to the fact that in Japanese mythology, the Emperor is considered a descendant of the sun. In the years before World War II, this concept was taken literally - he was the sun and a god on earth. This film tells the story of Emperor Hirohito in the final days of the war as he comes to terms with his own mortality and the fact that he is not a deity on earth, but just a man like any other. The film is about his psychological journey moving from a position of extreme pride and confidence to a point of striking humility and humanity.

It is set after the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were dropped, but before the terms of the surrender were finalized. He is living in a rural house with a bunker in the basement. His daily routine is rather mundane as he goes to meetings with his war council, does scientific experiments (which is apparently his passion) and speaks to his butler and other servants. They limit is contact to the outside world as a way of protecting him from the outside reality.

, the film is directed by Russian Aleksandr Sokurov and not a Japanese filmmaker (he is also the director of photography). The style of the film is wonderful, beginning in the bunker, where there is a powerful sense of isolation and claustrophobia. As the emperor is slowly allowed to go above ground and ultimately outside, the atmosphere is misty and gray, not clear and beautiful. The physical power of the bunker and its formal heaviness is a very strong symbol for the Emperor's status. As his mental process proceeds, until he ultimately proclaims his non-God status, the architecture moves to a more standard wood, glass and light screens - a very beautiful approach.

It is hard to watch this film and not think of Oliver Hirschbiegel's recent Downfall, about Adolph Hitler in his bunker in the final days of the war. Aside from the fact that the atmosphere is very much alike, the psychological structure of the film is very similar as well. Both films show a once great men (at least great in power and status) dealing with his own flawed judgement and the fact that he lost on the biggest scale imaginable. Both men are surrounded by yes-men who continue to tell them what they want to hear (that they are in fact winning the war despite the reality outside of their bunkers) and hide important truths from them.

But another important corollary that I see is Robert Altman's Secret Honor (one of the smallest films of Altman's career and one of this most interesting), about Richard Nixon in his later years (in the 1980s) frantically and obsessively going over his history and shouting about how he is truly not a crook. Hirohito, in this film, sits in stark contrast to Nixon, as he is dignified and comes to his important conclusion without the histrionics and entirely on his own. He is the sanest man in the bunker (which Hitler might also be in Downfall), while Nixon is the craziest man his office. All three films deal beautifully with men working out and coming to terms with their legacy at the end of their runs. Hirohito easily is the most elegant with this struggle.

Issei Ogata plays Hirohito beautifully as a smart man with a child-like interest in the things that surround him and a loving normalness rarely seen in royalty (in film at any rate). He deserves acclaim and awards for this performance. (As I look at his recent film credits, I notice that at least two of them are also wonderful - Edward Yang's Yi Yi from 2000 and Jun Ichikawa's Tony Takitani from 2004, both of which were on my best of the respective year lists. Clearly Ogata knows how to pick his roles well and does magnificently well when he gets a part!)

The most glaring negative to this film are the fact that a few actors playing American military men are pretty bad. I think many of them are Russian actors with dubbed-in voices. However it is done, it's rather cringe-worthy when they're onscreen speaking.

This is a much more simple and approachable film that other recent works by Sukurov, namely Aleksandra and Russian Ark. Both of those films were visually stunning, but left me a bit cold with story and content. This film is visually interesting, but also fascinating as a narrative and a mental journey. It is certainly the best of the Sukurov films I've seen and is well worth watching.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Sunday, November 22, 2009) (167)

Continuing in the rash of ultra-hip young directors who make movies about long-loved kids books, Wes Anderson comes out with this film, based on the classic Roald Dahl book. There has been some press over the past few weeks about how Anderson didn't really *direct* this film in the way an animation director normally does - rather, he instructed deputies about his general will for tone and look and left the details to them. However it was done, though, this is a fun, funny and charming movie.

In the film, Mr. Fox, voiced by George Clooney, is a devoted family man who has a passion for bird and cider robbing from the poultry and apple farms near his house. He gets into a war with the three farmers nearby over his penchant for elaborate heist schemes. When they kidnap his tail, he enlists the help of friends and family (of the animal kingdom, of course) to exact revenge.

There is a lot to love in this movie, but the best part is its stop-motion animation and wonderful texture of the characters. It feels like a warm animated show that one might have seen in the 1970s or 1980s - before stupid, and ubiquitous CGI animation took over. There is a lot more warmth to the footage here and a lot more interesting details than in computer animations. In the close-up shots of Mr. Fox and the other characters, the individual hairs on his face blow in the wind. It is wonderful to look at it and think that you can reach out and touch the characters and settings. Of course, everything looks very much like a Wes Anderson movie - all super-stylized and packed with kitschy specifics. It works here (better, I think than in much of his live-action films), as this feels fresh and new and furry (the stop motion is not just clay, but little hairy dolls).

The script is very good (adapted by Anderson and Noah Baumbach of The Squid and the Whale) - and the dialogue is very snappy and funny. The voice acting, especially by Clooney and Jason Schwartzman (as Fox's son, Ash) is rather matter-of-fact, smart and full of irony (for the adult viewers). However it is recorded, it sounds very much like I remember stop-motion films sounding in the past - like Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. Almost like the sound is put on top of the images in little drops, rather than being mixed in with the pictures to create a real-ish atmosphere. This is a nice effect. I guess it might be lost on kids, but it worked well to make me feel nostalgic and warm.

It's hard for me to figure out if I liked this movie more simply because it was charming and well done, or because it felt like a Wes Anderson movie without too much Wes Anderson in it. I am pretty tired of his shtick and this felt like a taste of his stuff without being too strong with his style. At the end of the day, it feels like a fun animated film that might be an allusion to Anderson's oeuvre, but not an Anderson film per se. It borrows strongly from Wallace and Gromit, but only in a good way. It is original, keen and very entertaining.

Stars: 3 of 4

Broken Embraces (Sunday, November 22, 2009) (166)

To say this film is 'lesser Almodovar' is like saying that The Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Scoop are lesser Woody Allen films. Yes - it is totally true that these are not good, but these films are basically as good as Woody is going to get in his winter years. Everything that Almodovar has done in the last ten years has been 'lesser Almodovar' - though this film might be even less than most of those.

In this film, a blind film director (oooh, the symbolism), finds out that a one-time film financier has died, so he recounts to his assistant the complicated story of their business relationship. Of course, the director had an affair with the millionaire's mistress and there is also a creepy gay son who worked with the director at some point. Considering it's Almodovar, there are three stories inside the one story and several different love affairs (strangely mostly between straight folks this time) with a few different betrayals and mistaken identities.

For a rather easy story (man tells story of falling in love with another man's mistress), this feels like a very complicated (probably too complicated) movie. Almodovar is, as always, obsessed with Hollywood cliches, so there's a playfulness, and a tiredness to the whole thing. Some of these trite elements are outright inventions by themselves - where they feel like old banalities, but are totally fresh (in art, one would call these 'simulacra').

Still, it does get rather old to see the same things again. Of course the director is blind; of course he is a sex machine and lady-slayer who can lay any woman he meets, and has no problem getting the most gorgeous ones (not that he would care if they were not beautiful); of course there's a young man with mommy issues who has unknown paternity; of course there's a story within the story and a story within that story. It's all a bit overdone at this point. I don't care that there's a subplot about the director re-inventing himself with a new name, so he essentially has two identities. That's boring at this point.

One thing Almodovar does well is make movies that look pretty. Most of his shots are filled with bright colors and interesting decorations. The photography is crisp and clear and always looks great. His characters look amazing, both old and young, and everyone is dressed in the most beautiful clothing.

But nice costumes can't cover up the lack of anything close to a cohesive or compelling story. It seems like Almodovar is on auto-pilot recycling plot points and narrative switchbacks from older films just for the sake of doing it. What we get is an overly-complex, dull story. It's not loathsome, but it's far from good.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bad Lieutenant - Port of Call: New Orleans (Saturday, November 21, 2009) (165)

To simply dismiss this film as a trite cop melodrama would be to miss a great deal about it. Let me be clear: this is not a great movie. It is over-the-top, silly and cartoonish - but that is all done on purpose. It is a Film Noire genre farce, and much better understood as a tongue-in-cheek view of the cop drama than as a pure mystery man-hunt scenario. Director Werner Herzog is one of the smartest people in (or out of) Hollywood and if you watch this film as poking fun at banal shoot-em-up Hollywood fare it will be much more enjoyable.

More than a sequel to Abel Ferrara's 1992 cult classic Bad Lieutenant, this is a re-invention of a similar story - a corollary to the original. Much like Harvey Keitel in the earlier one, here Nicholas Cage plays the eponymous policeman who is addicted to any number of narcotics and pain meds, has a hooker for a girlfriend (played by Eva Mendes), has a bad gambling habit, enjoys forced-sex with out-of-luck civilians, is on the take from any number of underworld bad guys. All the while he gets promoted for what appears to be his totally legal and ethical work. The main drama here has Cage hunting a New Orleans drug lord who killed an immigrant family who stepped into his territory, but as he gets closer to an arrest, he loses track of the case because of his own messy life.

Herzog does a very nice job of holding the narrative together well and telling a pretty good story. It does not drag too much, nor does it fetishize Cage's problems. He re-interprets some of the most salient moments from the first movie, as a nod to what came before, but does not replay them exactly. At one moment, Cage shakes down white clubbers for drugs (for his own use) and then forces the girl to have sex with him, threatening her with jail time if she refuses. Cage's lieutenant is similar to Keitel's in his love of vice, but is ultimately a new character entirely. Herzog also has a few wonderful moments seen from Cage's toxified eyes - drug-addled fantasies that are beautiful and hilarious. Throughout the film, a dusty, oldish visual look gives the film a cheesy, almost 1990s quality that helps show the actions as foolish and silly.

My main problem with understanding this film is Nick Cage's performance. He is normally such a bad actor that it is not clear that he's in with Herzog on his joke. It almost feels like Cage is doing his normal, terrible super-earnest over-acting style here (think: The Weather Man or World Trade Center). In fact, his terrible acting partly adds to the wonderful terribleness of the picture. He is every bad big-name actor who has ever played such a screwed up cop. He is Denzel Washington in Training Day (yes - I know he won an Oscar for that, but he was terrible in that horrible film), Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon or Daid Caruso in Kiss of Death.

Viewed as a totally sarcastic story, this movie is mostly enjoyable - though not at all perfect. It is nearly post-modern and pretty funny. Part of the reason I like it is because it is so terrible - lovably terrible. I do hope it doesn't become a franchise and that this is just the second of a limited set of these movies. (God help us if not!)

I guess that after having said all of this, the film could be for Herzog what The Rainmaker was for Francis Ford Coppolla or what Jade was for William Friedkin - a sign that a once great artist is willing to make a movie to put food on the table and is happy to sell his craft for peanuts. I don't think it is one of those cases; I think this is a great, smart director thumbing his nose at the cliches of a tired genre and laughing to himself that there are people who won't pick up the subtlety.

Stars: 2 of 4

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Treeless Mountain (Tuesday, November 17, 2009) (164)

Let's face it - there are so many small foreign films that it's easy to miss the very, very small ones. Treeless Mountain is one of those, which I saw a trailer for this spring, but then missed when it was briefly in theaters in New York. I just got the chance to see it on DVD - and I'm thrilled that I did.

From writer-director So Yong Kim, who also made the lovely In Between Days in 2007, comes this story about two little girls (about 6- and 4-years old) who are basically self-sufficient in a Korean city while their single mother struggles to make ends meet. Ultimately the mother gives the girls to their aunt while their mom goes off to find work and love elsewhere. The aunt is in worse financial shape than the mother, and she also is a drunk. She does not allow the girls to eat outside of the home, and frequently forgets to feed them when she comes back from a night out. The girls basically take care of themselves, starting a small business cooking grasshoppers as snacks for school kids.

What is really refreshing about this film, and about So Yong Kim's eye, is that it is very respectfully from the point of view of the girls. There are a lot of low-angle shots and the girls are almost always seen at their (short) level. We do not see them, for instance from an adult level, looking down over the top of their heads. This can be hard to do, I think. It's not condescending and not infantalizing either. It's very matter-of-fact. As with In Between Days, Kim has a beautiful natural-realist style that is very frank and appealing. The film has a poetic grittiness and a natural, sometimes dirty, look.

Child actors are almost always difficult to criticize. They're generally super cute (which is how they get the roles) and mostly don't have their acting chops developed yet. These two girls are very good and natural and do not overplay their sweet-ness too much.

Much of the film is about the two girls basically being bored to death as they wait for their adult supervisors to engage them. For most of the film, they are not in school, and have very minimal contact to the grown-up world. Still, I didn't find the film boring, rather it feels very careful and exact.

Again, this is a very small film. There might be 20 lines of dialogue in it total - most of the film is pretty quiet or silent. It's an atmospheric exercise and it is really pretty.

Stars: 3 of 4

Shrink (Tuesday, November 17, 2009) (163)

There might be nothing that Hollywood likes better than a movie about Hollywood. The self-obsessed, inside-the-bubble culture of Southern California is shown on the big screen so outsiders can sit in wonderment at the magnificence of the views from the pools of the Hills and insiders can say, 'Oh, yeah - that's true - my [fill in the specialist] also works with [such and such star]. I do see celebrities all the time - I'm just like them.'

This movie, Shrink, represents the worst of all of these terrible cliches. There is a shrink who is so busy dealing with his own neuroses that he's having trouble helping his patients; there is a drug dealer who is much wiser than all of the educated people around him; there is an OCD super-agent who is a prick but looks after his drug-addict client; there's a black high school girl who loves old movies and lives under a bridge (I'm not kidding, she lives under a bridge); a young screenwriter who has terrible writer's block; a super-star couple whose marriage is falling apart.

But the plot is not just cliche - it actually has so many moving parts that it's rather hard to follow. Kevin Spacey is the therapist to the stars who wrote a self-help book after his wife committed suicide. He's deeply depressed himself and not dealing well with life. He has a parade of odd-ball Hollywood types as patients. Unusually, all of their lives overlap in one way or another outside of the doctor's office. The movie seems to be about the shrink's redemption and how by helping his patients they help him get better.

I really don't like Spacey because I feel like he always has to be the biggest person on screen when he is on. Small and subtle characters always have to be big and loud. I feel like he should have a sign around his neck saying "LOOK - I'M ACTING!!". I hate that crap. In addition to Spacey, there are also clumsy cameos by Robin Williams (who has a terrible, terrible New Yorkish accent), Saffron Burrows and Gore Vidal. Dallas Roberts is ridiculous and laughable in his role as the jerky agent who needs his coffee served in a porcelain mug with latex gloves.

But, ugh!, the story is so stupidly complicated that I lost track of the direction and lost interest. It felt like Altman's Short Cuts but with a more choppy story and less interesting characters. There is one inside-baseball joke about the now-defunct Orion Pictures that is not at all worth the price of admission (and, again, nice joke for the self-loving Hollywood jerks who would watch the film. That one will play great in Kansas!).

I felt the whole time that this film never would have been made if the subject matter was not entirely masturbatory for the producers and actors involved in it. Why couldn't we have had a movie about a shrink in, say, Oklahoma? Well, I guess the answer is that it would have been rather boring. Sadly, the makers of this film didn't realize that a shrink in LA is equally dull and uncreative.

Stars: .5 of 4

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Management (Friday, November 13, 2009) (162)

This film might be the most mundane, formulaic independent comedy I've seen in a long time. It is filled with incredibly banal cliches and has such an obvious narrative that it is totally boring and frustrating to watch.

Steve Zahn is a shy loser who lives in his parents' motel in suburban Arizona where he is the night manager. One day, hottie Jennifer Aniston arrives and checks in for a few nights while she does her job, selling hotel/motel artwork lithographs in the area. (You see, the fourth rule of independent films is that you have to have at least one character with a weird job you've never heard of - the weirder the better.) Apparently Zahn has never seen a woman as beautiful as Aniston (really?!) so he loses his mind and begins to solicit her in creepy, inappropriate ways. He asks her if he can touch her butt, and she lets him - though it's unclear why. At some point the two have a quickie in the laundry room before she hits the road again. Zahn, having lost his shit already, follows her around the country for awhile awkwardly stalking her, hoping he can wear down her resolve not to date him.

Zahn is actually one of the best things in the movie. He does well with the terrible material he's given (the script of this is pretty bad) and moves from shy and pitiful to quirky and weird very well. It's hard to be too upset with him because he's very sweet, and it's clear that he painfully has no game, and doesn't at all have a mean agenda with regard to Aniston. Still, the movie moves in bizarre directions for reasons that could only come from an indie screenwriter.

Aniston is as terrible and lifeless as she ever is. I absolutely cannot understand what her appeal is or why people would think of her as a good actor or a above-average beauty. She's totally monotone, bitter and mean and aside from her very common girl-next-door looks, it is unclear why Zahn's character would pursue her. Somehow in the third act, Woody Harrelson is Aniston's ex-boyfriend/future husband, but that whole part made no sense to me.

The only other nice thing to say about the film is that there are a handful of songs from the indie collective band the New Pornographers in the soundtrack. These are nice to have, as they give a few moments of relief from the otherwise unfunny story - but they are extra frustrating that something as good as the Pornographers music would be tied to such a sinking ship as this movie.

This is not a movie worthy of scorn. It is teeny-tiny and would never have been made without the star power behind it (that is Aniston and Harrelson - though I guess Zahn has some indie cache). It is just so awfully trite that it does not deserve any love.

Stars: 1 of 4

Medicine for Melancholy (Thursday, November 12, 2009) (161)

I have to admit, I only learned about the independent film movement 'mumblecore' recently. This summer, I was speaking to a friend about the film Humpday and he asked me if I had seen other mumblecore movies. I didn't know what he was talking about, so I started researching. The rather ad hoc genre focuses on young post-college kids in their 20s and 30s who are sometimes lost in life and entirely hip or post hip hipsters. The films are made on shoestring budgets and with basically no special effects, digital or camera optics. They frequently employ improvised dialogue and amateur actors. It is sometimes called 'bedhead cinema' both for the unpolished look of the pieces and for the general zeitgeist that pervades the films. After seeing Medicine for Melancholy, I have now seen two mumblecore movies. Because of this film, I am definitely interested in seeing more.

Easily the biggest draw to the picture is the lead actor, Wyatt Cenac, the infrequent but funny contributor to the Daily Show. In the film, he plays Micah, a San Franciscan who wakes up one morning after a one-night-stand with Jo, a woman he barely just met. Awkwardly they go for breakfast where he tries to make conversation with her. She sits stone-faced, ashamed and embarrassed by her reckless behavior from the night before. After he cracks a few jokes and is able to break her tough exterior, the two set off on a weekend-long date adventure getting to know each other and exploring a world outside of their mundane lives.

The film is a modern-day romance, a cross between Noel Coward and David Lean's Brief Encounter and Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It. There is an intense immediacy to the action and an urgency to their love affair. The feeling that it could be all over the next minute pervades every shot. It is interesting to see these two characters, who have no reason to trust one another and no reason to tell the truth, fall into a profound relationship in a few scenes - a relationship that has an expiry date of a few hours later.

Director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton do a very interesting job with the visual style of the film showing most of it in super exposed color stock, leading us to see it almost in black and white with some dull accent colors. More than standard black and white, which can add depth and plays with shadows and light well, this technique mutes and flattens everything and gives a dreamy quality to the couple's story. At specific moments, the outside world is seen in full color, which reminds us that the inside story here might be a fairy tale or a dream.

This is a very small movie. There are not big scenes in it, there is basically no action and there are certainly no special visual effects. It is mostly shot on hand-held cameras with what looks like totally natural lighting. The film has a very cool soundtrack filled with hipper-than-hip bands. In the credits, there is a roll of music linked with stills of the scenes where the songs were played, as if it was another actor in the film.

There is a very 'home-made' quality to this movie - almost like a very polished film-school piece. This is not a negative comment - it's a sign of the film's freshness. I don't think this film could have been made in the standard Hollywood structure - or if it was, it would have been totally banal and uncreative. I would not say yet that I'm totally sold on mumblecore (I really didn't like Humpday, for what it's worth), but I'm very interested by the frank, fresh nature of the movement and the un-processed view of the world it allows. This film gives me hope that not all independent movies have to have super-edgy, wordy scripts with Parker Posey or Donal Logue. A good, solid story is sometimes all you need.

Stars: 3 of 4

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Precious (Saturday, November 7, 2009) (160)

It might be unfair of me to say this, but I worried about this movie before it began because I knew that Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry had come in as producers after it was a big hit at Cannes. There's nothing wrong with that, but I worried it would be somewhat saccharine or 'feel-good' in the end. It is actually neither of these things - it is raw and dirty and sweaty and gritty, with lots of bad language, some graphic rape and some light nudity. I'm rather shocked that Winfrey, especially, would connect herself to such a dark film - but give her credit for doing so. This is not a perfect movie, but it is admirable for its frankness and contains some striking memorable moments.

This film opens with the reveal that Precious (played by Gabby Sidibe), a 16 year-old obese girl living in Harlem in the late 1980s, is pregnant with her second child. She lives with her abusive mother (played by Mo'Nique) who sits in front of the television all day not working and collecting welfare checks. Through the film, we see Precious get enrolled in a school for remedial education and begin to confront her painful history, including rape, incest, HIV and a massive amount of horrifying abuse.

As we see all of the shocking reality that Precious has to deal with, we also see her fantasy life: She is a celebrity who marries a submissive light-skinned man who loves her. The paparazzi follow her, snapping pictures of her in elegant ball gowns - a stark contrast from her gritty, painful, dirty day-to-day life. She is simple, engaging, and funny in voice overs telling us about her feelings at certain times. At one point, when she visits her teacher's house, she says that 'they speak like people on a TV channel I don't watch' (a great line!).

But the pain of her life is absolutely stunning. Basically every bad thing you could imagine might happen to a person happens to her. (If this wasn't based on the book author's autobiography, I would say it was a bit too much to dump on a single character.) Potted plants and television sets are thrown at her (dropped on) head, she is raped by family members, she is cursed at and yelled at every night.

Director Lee Daniels pulls absolutely no punches in telling his story. At one point, in a flashback of Precious being raped (for the second time in her life), we see the family member assailant's fat, sweaty torso, and then a quick cut to a hand going into a tub if Vaseline, and then him sticking his hand down his undone pants. It is one of the most amazing and frightening things I've seen in film in a long time - and yet almost abstract in it's continuity.

But Daniels makes some decisions that equally ring totally bogus and insincere. As we see Precious in her English class, the camera spins around her as images of 20th Century history flash on the walls and a clock spins *showing the passage of time* (ugh - it's beyond banal). The pacing of the film and the narrative of the scrip is rather inconsistent, so it is unclear how fast Precious is learning to read and write. (I am told this is executed well in the book, where much of the story is written in her developing voice, with misspellings and dialect typos; Sadly, this does not translate to the screen.)

I think the movie loses some power when after about the second act, it is unclear what is left to cover. The movie feels rather resolved and it is not clear that there is another 35 minutes left.

What we do get, though, is one of the most powerful scenes in recent years, where the mother details the origins and history of Precious' sexual abuse. This is Mo'Nique's Oscar entry - and it is powerful, fabulous and heartbreaking. She does a magnificent job delivering the graphic, sickening material with an almost-self-righteous attitude. My only problem here is that this scene is needed earlier in the film - and seems like just another heap of shit to throw onto Precious, not to mention that it's largely material that we already know about. I mean, the scene itself is beautiful - but it works better as a stand-alone short film, rather than a moment at the end of a longer work.

Gabby Sidibe is really wonderful in the lead role, moving well between the timid, abused and shy girl who has had mountains of garbage loaded on her back and the elegant, powerful woman of her fantasies. I believe she is a non-actor - that this is her first professional role - and she deserves a ton of credit for such a wonderful performance. Mariah Carey does a good job in a small role of the welfare councilor - cast as much for the money she would bring the film on the back end as for her talent in the part itself. Lenny Kravitz has a momentary cameo as a nurse in the hospital - which he's fine in, though the character is totally unnecessary.

This is a film that I fear will get an insane amount of attention as being the "best movie of the year" and an "Oscar hopeful". It does not deserve this praise, but it is a very interesting, shocking picture with at least one brilliant performance (Mo'Nique), another very good one (Gabby Sidibe), as well as some very visceral and memorable moments. It is not a great film, but a good film. It's biggest problem is the script and some directorial decisions that don't translate well for an audience unfamiliar with the book.

Stars: 2 of 4

The Men Who Stare at Goats (Friday, November 6, 2009) (159)

I first heard about this movie in mid-September when Stephen Colbert interviewed author Jon Ronson who wrote the book the movie was based on, The Men Who Stare at Goats. The interview and segment, I thought was hilarious, and the Army program he described was totally bizarre and amazing.

The story goes that at some point after the Vietnam war, the Army began experimenting with 'new-age' psychic and transcendental meditative powers to be able to use love in their military work. Ultimately, they used these skills to kill their enemy with mind-powers and hippie-artstuff rather than using traditional weapons. They created the secret First Earth Battalion, a group of soldiers who were trained to be psychics and extrasensory perceptors, and actually worked to kill goats by exploding their hearts through deep concentrated thoughts.

Suffice it to say, after watching Colbert and knowing that George Clooney and Ewan McGreggor were in the film adaptation of the book, I was totally excited for the film. Sadly, the movie is terrible. It takes amazing material with tremendous potential (I think) and turns it into such a banal comedy with no discernible plot and modernizes the story until it basically trivializes the American tragedy in Iraq.

I have to blame director Grant Heslov and writer Peter Straughan for the changes of narrative and tone (I have not read the book, but it is a work of non-fiction). For reasons I can't figure out, the main character of the movie, Ewan McGreggor, is a journalist at the start of the Iraq war in 2003. He finds out about the secret Army force and tags along on one of their missions in Iraq. The suggestion is that the First Earth Battalion was active in the early stages of the Iraq war.

But it wasn't - the program was ended in 1995. This is not a huge problem (I'll give them poetic licence to change historical facts), but it becomes upsetting when they suggest that some of the torture that happened in the early stages of the war was done by these super-soldier psychic clowns (clowns gone bad).

Clooney, as the one somewhat rational and serious First Earther is pretty good in the role. He's very earnest and convincing. Jeff Bridges, as the head guru and creator of the battalion is also funny. Kevin Spacey, as the self-obsessed, maniac present-day leader of the unit who led the group from good to evil, is terrible - but we shouldn't forget that he forgot how to be a good actor sometime in 1997, so this is no surprise.

The biggest problem I had was that as I watched it, it was totally unclear what was happening and what was going to happen next. The plot was totally invisible and meandering. The story should not have been about some over-the-hill soldiers in their 50s still holding on to their old powers from 20 years ago - it should have been about the program that existed in the 1970s and 1980s and how they did what they did. It also should not have been a screwball Austin-Powers-like comedy. If it had been a bit more sober, I think the comic elements (staring at goats, bending spoons with your mind, something called 'sparkly eyes') would have been more powerful.

In the end, this is a totally unsuccessful movie. If you really want an interesting and hilarious explanation of the First Earth Battalion, watch the Colbert interview with Ronson and his skit on goat staring here and here.

Stars: 1 of 4

Monday, November 2, 2009

Duplicity (Monday, November 2, 2009) (158)

I have never been a huge fan of writer/director Tony Gilroy. Most of his previous screenplays (Michael Clayton - which he also directed, the Bourne movies, State of Play) have left me cold. Although I understand that he's a smart guy making smart movies, I never really connected to anything he's had his hands in. His stories are super elaborate and fold over and back on themselves four or five times, so that sometimes it hard to know which way is up. Here, the whole point of the story is that you don't know which way is up - and it works really well.

Clive Owen and Julia Roberts are two professional spies working at times for the CIA and MI6 or for private contractors doing corporate intel. They meet and fall in love and then hatch a plan to work for two rival multinational businesses against one another in order to steal trade secrets and sell them to outside buyers. Throughout the film, it is never clear whether what is happening on screen is an honest conversation between them or if it is a ruse as part of a greater scheme to co-opt the information they're supposed to be protecting and stealing for their bosses.

Unlike Gilroy's last writer/director effort, Michael Clayton, this is not a powerful drama about corporate malfeasance and corruption. This is a pure action heist comedy with fun characters and a tricky narrative.

The style of the film is ultra sleek with fresh and modern interiors and elegant moving camera shots. The whole look and feel, from the sets and costumes to the editing, score, structure and snappy dialogue leads to an overall clever, mature atmosphere. As we see the story unfolding in the present, we flash back at different stages to see how they got to that point from actions in the past. This before-and-after style also leads us to question the authenticity of what they are saying at almost every point - putting us in a position of doubt and paranoia just as they are. (It might be slightly more complicated than is necessary, but it is still enjoyable.)

I am not a big fan of Julia Roberts (I know, I probably shouldn't admit this), but I think she works well in this role. My problem with her normally is that she seems on-screen to be very conceited and cocky - as if she thinks she's better than everybody else, better than the character, better than us. Here, that arrogance works well: She is better than every one. She's a top spy and has all the moves figured out before we even know what the game is. She also has great chemistry with Owen (who I think is a great actor). The two are a great on-screen match and can verbally parry back and forth totally convincingly.

This is totally a movie for grown-ups - it's intelligent and intricate and also fast-moving and fresh. It also has one of the best uses of a classic MacGuffin in recent years. The story is not about the ultimate score, but is about the strategy and chase to get there. It's a smart movie for smart people and is totally enjoyable fun.

Stars: 3 of 4

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Coco Before Chanel (Sunday, November 1, 2009) (157)

At some point in the near future we will reach a time when absolutely everyone who lived before 1950 will have a biopic made of their lives. This day will mark a small celebration when filmmakers will feel free to make movies not tied to dull life stories of semi-famous people. We will all dance in the streets as we realize that we don't have to worry about the casting of the William Techumsah Sherman movie (Willem Dafoe) or the life story of Babe Didrickson (Elizabeth Moss) or Jacques Cousteau (Scott Glenn), as all of those films will have been made. (For the record, I have not heard of any biopics of these people, but I would hope that if they ever come, they will cast these people in these roles.) In the meantime, we are left with yet another dull movie based on a dull life- Coco Before Chanel.

I guess Coco Chanel's life sounds good on paper. She was raised in an orphanage and got into 'cabaret' singing in Paris in the nineteen-aughts. ('Cabaret singing' in this film looks a hell of a lot like hooking - but I guess it was different and classier somehow.) She got set up with a rich dude who lived in the country. She was too low-class for him to introduce her to his friends, but she still lived with him and had lots of sex with him. Then she met an English friend of his who she fell in love with. Sadly he wouldn't marry her either because she was a filthy whore-like woman. Still, he got her set up in Paris as a hat designer in the later nineteen-teens - and somehow in Paris, hat designers also made lots of fancy clothes - so she became a fashion icon.

That summary is actually very fair to the movie - where almost 100 minutes are spent with her at her lover's chateau basically doing nothing. It's not even that we see her doing fashiony things like designing ball gowns or something. She spends most of her time on her back in bed with one of two men or bitching about how she wants some independence (as she eats bonbons off a silver tray in the living room of a castle). There is one scene where she makes her friend a rather frumpy dress for a costume party. There is another scene when she finds herself on vacation without an evening gown, so she goes to a dressmaker and asks for a black velour dress with no corset. Big freaking whoop.

Audrey Tautou as Coco is almost asleep, she's so boring. She's cute-ish, but not at all sexy and it's very hard to understand why men would be attracted to her. Her personality is direct and stern and almost never bright or positive. She generally seems like a serious downer who is unaware of her place in the world. (I'm not advocating for the subjugation of women, but it seems silly to me that she should be upset about her low standing in the world in a time when all women were treated as chattel.)

Mostly, the problem here is with a bad script. I think the concept of a biopic of Coco Chanel preceded the research that found that she was a rather unremarkable person before starting her fashion house. In addition, it is not explained why this has to necessarily be a story of her pre-fashion days - and not just a biography of her entire life. It would seem that if one were making a movie of her life, all the content in this film would be one scene when she was 'getting started' (the same way there was one scene in this film about her childhood in the orphanage).

I would have loved to know what she did that was so amazing for fashion (uncorsetted dresses; lower necklines; knit suits in two pieces), how she was inspired and what happened to her in the last 60 years of her life. I don't know these things about her and I would like to. I think that would all be more interesting than this forced, sad romantic tragedy.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Gentlemen Broncos (Sunday, November 1, 2009) (156)

From the team that brought us Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre comes Gentlemen Broncos, another highly kitschy gonzo comedy set in the Mountain West. This time, Benjamin, a talented home-schooler who loves low-level Science Fiction attends a weekend program for young writers. There he meets his idol, Ronald Chevalier, played brilliantly by Jemaine Clement, and gives him a draft of his manuscript, Yeast Wars. Chevalier steals the story, changes a few names and publishes it as his latest hit novel. Meanwhile, Benjamin gets involved with a local video filmmaker who tries to produce his book into an indie film, despite many creative reservations.

The first act of this movie is truly hilarious - probably better than anything in Napoleon Dynamite (which has grown on me) or Nacho Libre (which was and has remained pretty stillborn). Sadly, after this strong part, the wheels come off the wagon and the remaining two acts are pretty bad.

As with his other films, director Jared Hess' biggest strength is the kitschy, early 1990s look of the picture. We want to avert our eyes because the fashions and hair and makeup is so terrible - but of course we all remember when everything looked this way. I happen to think this look is funny and impressive, but it is getting a bit tired. I think it's a crutch that takes the place of plot development and scripted comedy.

The acting is actually really solid throughout the film. Michael Angarano, as Benjamin, is very good and both proud and dorky (he was also very good in David Gordon Green's under-seen movie Snow Angels from last year). The center of the film is Clement as Chevalier. I am very impressed that he has been able to create two hilarious and different characters in such a short time. I guess I would normally expect Clement to base Chevalier on elements from his character on Flight of the Conchords - but this is entirely fresh and new. Some of the small parts are also wonderful - like Mike White as a slow, red-necked beau to Benjamin's mother and Sam Rockwell as Bronco, Benjamin's fantasy of a masculine sci-fi superhero. (The Bronco sequences are all very funny and have a wonderful 1970s made-for-tv sci-fi look.)

Again, though, the film dies after the first 25 minutes. The script is not funny or original after this point, relying on seemingly recycled material from Dynamite or other hackneyed comedies. I wish I could like the movie more - it looks great and I laughed a lot in the first few minutes - but it is very difficult to get through. Overall, the first act is well worth watching - but turn it off or leave after that point.

Stars: 1.5 of 4