Sunday, January 31, 2010

Creation (Sunday, January 31, 2010) (8)

This film tells the story of Charles Darwin's scientific research and journey of faith in advance of publishing his masterwork, On the Origin of Species. As he set out on his scientific studies, he was simply a curious researcher with a strong faith and loving wife. His daughter died tragically in the middle of his studies and he could not square the horrible malady she suffered with his understanding of God or the fact that what he saw on the ground led him to believe that plants and animals developed without divine assistance.

This created a tremendous amount of tension between him and his wife (a woman of unyielding faith), especially as his scientific colleagues were pressuring him to publish his findings after years of struggling with the ramifications.

The film, directed by Jon Amiel (with script from John Collee), is told in a terrible, choppy way, where Darwin's memories of his daughter, his fantasies of her still being alive and his present struggle are all inter cut to make figuring out the narrative mind boggling. It is not clear to me why the script couldn't have been more straightforward. There really isn't anything positive added to the film by this jumpy chronology and it's mostly just frustrating.

Paul Bettany, as Darwin, and Jennifer Connelly, as Mrs. Darwin, are both good in their roles, though it seems almost like they less important than the complicated script. Overall this is a disappointment of a movie. It's interesting from a historical point of view but it's a mess as a viewing experience.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

The Girl on the Train (Sunday, January 31, 2010) (7)

All French women are gorgeous and in all honesty I have a hard time watching a French film these days without falling in love with the lead starlet. Oh - and then there's Catherine Deneuve. There are no words do describe her magnificence. Now at 66, she remains on of the screens most gorgeous, most talented actors.

I realized after I got out of The Girl on the Train that my appreciation for Deneuve and the lead, Emilie Dequenne (hubba hubba), probably colored my view of the piece overall. It is a good movie, but there are some major problems with the script. Director and co-writer Andre Techine does a very nice job introducing stylized elements and music into the piece, but the story meanders in unnecessary directions until it finally settles on the real point at the end of the second act.

In the film, (which was based on a true story) young Jeanne lives at home with her mother in the Paris suburbs. She's totally beautiful and men hit on her constantly. One day on the train she meets a guy who sweeps her off her feet. He's a collegiate wrestler, is good looking and seems to have a good head on his shoulders. The two fall in love and move into a room over a garage where he gets a job as the night watchman. It soon comes out that the garage is a front for drug runners and when the boyfriend gets into trouble, Jeanne's life spins out of control.

Meanwhile, she and her mother are concerned about a rash of anti-Semitic attacks occurring on the RER train (they're Catholic, not Jewish, but they're still interested). The lawyer involved in these infractions is an old flame of Deneuve - and a rich an powerful man now. As her life begins to fall apart, Jeanne cuts and hits herself to claim that she too was attacked on the train because a group of youths thought she was Jewish. This brings the two old lovers back together to get to the bottom of the girl's story.

The problem is that there are about six movies buried in here. There is a story about Deneuve and her ex-beau-cum-rich-Jewish-lawyer; there is a story about a mother nagging her daughter about getting her life in order; there is a story about a young couple in love and things going bad for them; there is a story about the Jewish lawyer's son being a disappointment to him. It's just too much and not tight enough.

Techine has a really beautiful style (I also liked The Witnesses from 2008 as well). He uses pop music very well throughout, stopping the action to show people dancing to the radio (somewhat similar to what Cedric Klapisch does as well). There are a lot of stylized elements used throughout that are nice to see. This is a nice change, I think, from the very style-less, script-focused films that have come out of France in recent years (see: The Christmas Tale and The Summer Hours, both of which are virtually anonymous).

I think with a re-tooled scrip this could have been a really great movie. Instead it's good, but not great... except for the female actors who look amazing.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Still Bill (Saturday, January 30, 2010) (6)

OK - let's face it - Bill Withers is one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the 20th Century. He basically didn't write any bad songs and most of his work is excellent. Ain't No Sunshine, Lovely Day, Sweet Wanomi, Grandma's Hands, Use Me, Lean on Me and Just the Two of Us are just a few of the amazing songs he wrote and performed for more than a decade. This documentary tells his story from being raised in rural West Virgina, to making aircraft toilets in California, to hitting big in the 1970s and ultimately moving out of the music business in the 1980s. Now in his 70s, he talks here frankly about his life choices and his career.

Withers has many deep thoughts throughout the film, talking about his dislike of the music industry white 'blacksperts' who think they understand R&B music better than black people do themselves and talking about his aversion to the 'fame game'. He says how 'on the way to wonderful you might pass through alright - and that might be as far as you go'. How clear and concise! He seems to lead a comfortable life in the hills above Los Angeles and certainly makes a good amount of money each year from publishing rights. He is a family man who has two kids that he loves dearly.

The film, directed by Damani Baker and Alex Vlack, sadly lacks any real structure and flails about with small episodes that don't totally connect well. This is especially apparent as it bounces back and forth between the past and the present. A strictly chronological narrative would have been much easier - even inter-cut with contemporary interviews.

The big questions for Withers since his departure from the music world has been whether or not he would write another hit song. In this film, he works with a young Latin artist, Raul Midon, to write a Spanglish song dedicated to a Cuban friend of his. The song is really not very good and this sequence is actually pretty annoying and they write this turd. This scene is especially bad in light of one that shortly follows it where Withers' daughter Kori sings a song she has written. She totally blows him out of the water as she sings a fantastic piece.

All of this seems to add up to nothing. Yes, it does illuminate stuff about a lesser known man, but it's not easy to get through and is frequently frustrating. I think the directors would have been well advised to start with a general idea of a structure and worked from there. It seems like they threw random scenes on screen with no regard for the flow or our reactions. It's very disappointing for a film about such a great musician. The best part of the movie is Withers' music. I think one would be better served by listening to his records rather than watching this movie.

Stars: 2 of 4

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) (Saturday, January 30, 2010) (221)

This documentary shows the rise and fall of Daniel Ellsberg, the defense wonk who ultimately made the Pentagon Papers public, illuminating truths about the Vietnam War and how the defense department did not believe it was a winnable effort. The story focuses mostly on Ellsberg and his career path from the Defense Department to the RAND Corporation onto and off the ground in Vietnam and around the United States.

This is a very interesting story and one that the directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith tell very well. It could be rather complicated and difficult to understand, but here is told told in a straightforward, unflinching way. It lays out the complex diplomatic and military struggle as a clear narrative and shows that what Ellsberg did in outing the secret papers.

The biggest problem with the film is that it does show Ellsberg to be a contemporary superhero, which is somewhat hard to digest. He's shown as the only guy in the world who did this one heroic thing. He's also seen as a mad genius who risks his family's well being on this obsessive quest to tell the world what he learned. I would have much preferred a bit more restraint, possibly showing him as a career bureaucrat (which he was, albeit a well informed one with a good soul) who did a single daring thing. I don't need the hero worship - it's a bit silly. It also makes Ellsberg seems like a narcissist, which makes him harder to like.

This film is one of the five documentaries nominated for the feature doc category in the Oscars and it might be one of the best of that group (I did like Burma VJ and the Cove as well). Still, I wish the directors showed more of the contrary point of view, allowing me to see on my own that what Ellsberg did was a good thing (giving up state secrets and all).

More than anything, I appreciate how this is a subtle condemnation of Colin Powell, Lawrence Wilkerson, George Tenet and any number of Bush-era defenders who didn't speak up in the lead-up to the Iraq War, but sat silently in their offices. It doesn't matter that they now regret their silence. Today they are as guilty as Bush, I think. Ellsberg's story shows another path they could have taken.

Stars: 3 of 4

Off and Running (Saturday, January 30, 2010) (5)

The set-up for this documentary is fantastic: A black girl is adopted by a single Jewish lesbian who meets another single lesbian who has an adopted black son and the two settle in to a married life together in Brooklyn. They ultimately adopt a Korean son and live as a multi-ethnic upper-middle-class family with three self-identified Jewish children. At some point in her high school years, the girl, a nationally rated star track runner, discovers tidbits about her personal history and biological family who gave her up and begins to rebel against the loving mothers who raised her. Wow!

Sadly, the film does not live up to it's potential wonderfulness. Part of my problems are with the true history of the girl, Avery, and the fact that there is not a magical end to her personal story (the filmmakers had no control over this, of course), but part of my problem is that the film goes off track story-wise and veers in a direction it should not.

Avery is a gregarious, compelling young woman who speaks frankly about her feelings and thoughts on her story. We see her struggling with the desire to learn about her birth mother and her birth family, while remaining respectful to her adoptive mothers. Her mothers decided to put her into public high school after she spent her elementary years in a private Jewish day school. In public school, she looks like just another black girl - despite the fact that she is Jewish and has a more uncommon nuclear family story. As she develops a group of mostly black friends and an understanding of a shadow life she could have lived in Texas with her birth family, she struggles with her identity, which suddenly doesn't feel natural to her.

As this is happening, director Nicole Opper unwisely focuses on Avery's mothers who fight to understand their daughter's mindset. In the end, we only see Avery explaining her feelings in retrospect rather than as she is experiencing them (for all I know she wouldn't talk to the filmmaker as she was dealing with the situation - in any event, it feels strange). This movie is really Avery's story - so a whole act barely dealing with her (just dealing with her absence) doesn't really work well.

In my view, part of biographical documentary making is dumb luck - one needs the subject to have a good, compelling story and one cannot do anything if the story falls apart in the middle. That Avery makes tragic decisions cannot be changed by the filmmaker, but Opper or editor Cheree Dillon should have steered the story in a better direction. The focus on the mothers and the family is totally the filmmakers' fault - not that of Avery or any ethereal force.

Avery's mothers come off as aloof and somewhat unkind to the girl's delicate situation. This is also sort of unfair, I think, as I'm sure they are doing what they are doing because they're hurt, threatened and love their daughter deeply. Still, they come off as very white and superficial. Avery also comes off as foolish and rash. Again, I think a good amount of these feelings come from the true chronology itself, but I don't think it's all that fair to the people involved. Why do I want to watch a film where all the priciple people are unlikable?

All in all, I think this is a big wasted opportunity. This is a good example of a badly executed documentary. I this is also a good example of how a good editor can tell many stories with the good footage, some interesting and some off the mark. Unfortunately the story told here is not the best one, I think.

Stars: 1 of 4

Friday, January 29, 2010

No Impact Man: The Documentary (2009) (Friday, January 29, 2010) (220)

This film follows the year-long life experiment of Colin Beavan, the self-proclaimed No Impact Man, as he tries to avoid any carbon-based energy sources for an entire year. To do this he and his wife and baby daughter have to give up carbon-based things like electric lights, refrigerators, cars, elevators, televisions and supermarkets with their mass-produced food. (Special exceptions are made for a laptop, so Beavan can blog about his experience, and trains, so the family can travel to Upstate New York to visit organic farms. What would a self-imposed rule be without a few exceptions?)

We see chronologically how Beaven and his wife Michelle Conlin make behavioral changes to show they can live a no-impact life. Some of the sacrifices are easy (no TV, no junk food) and some are harder (no refrigerator), but the couple deals with the situation in a very grown-up way. They fight on camera, but make up on camera as well. At times they both seem unfair to the other and unfairly attacked by the other. It's as much an interesting relationship expose as it is an environmental one.

This is not a polemic - it merely shows one family's journey. At no point does Beaven suggest that everybody should do what his family is doing. This is simply a document of an experiment. (Not giving anything away, but there is a suggestion at the end that the family will keep some behaviors and give up others returning partly to life as it was before).

The film is also very unapologetic. Both Beaven and Conlin are aware that they seem like twee urban elitist eco-wonks and the reaction they get as they embark on their project is nothing if not negative, sarcastic and cynical. Beaven and family, who got a good amount of New York-based media attention during the project as a result of his blog, were featured in a New York Times article and many other eco-blogs (the fact that they were giving up toilet paper was the most talked-about element of the project). They talk openly about the criticism against them - and sometimes talk to those criticizing them. There is something very post-modern about the subjects of the documentary talking about how they are being portrayed in the documentary about themselves.

It is interesting to make a documentary about a blogger. There is really no need for it as it is simply media about media. All you need to do is read Beaven's blog and you will might understand much of what you get from the film. Still, there is a kindness and humanity to the movie that might not come across on the computer. Beaven is a good husband and father; Michelle is a good mother and wife. They struggle as individuals with their own pitfalls and struggle together as a unit.

It is a shame that film is called No Impact Man, a title that comes from the blog, because the film is really about a no impact family. This not only shows the non-carbon impact of the people, but also shows the no impactness of the relationship between the members as well. It shows us how in the middle of busy urban lives, there should be time to stop and smell the relative roses. Go to a park or a museum in the city; enjoy spending time with your family; share a dinner with friends and neighbors; enjoy life and, if possible, don't hurt Mother Earth. How nice.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Four Seasons Lodge (2009) (Wednesday, January 27, 2010) (219)

Four Seasons Lodge is a small documentary about a Jewish Catskills bungalow camp where a group of several dozen Holocaust survivor families spend their summers. Now in their 70s, 80s and 90s, these men and women look back at their pre-War lives, reflect on the painful memories of life in the concentration camps and play politics in and around the community.

The summer the film was shot was an important one in its history as the members had previously voted to close and sell the camp to an outside group. As the summer proceeds, many of them have second thoughts despite the vocal grumblings of the camp president who spends his days doing upkeep on the failing infrastructure.

The structure of the film is very straightforward as we see the opening ceremony party on the first night of the summer and follow individual guests throughout getting each one's story. We see how each of these people survived their terrible histories and lived to create successful lives in the U.S. We see how some have re-married and some have created lives of mutual care with dear friends.

There is a certain comedic element to the film, which might on paper seem like a dramatic story. Both the camp president and superintendent are asked to work the entire day to make the fastidious guests happy. They constantly make faces at the camera and back-handed comments. All of this is done with love after twenty-some years of knowing everybody. Old people are funny - especially when dancing and telling jokes. There's something sweet and kitschy about the borscht-belty comedians and singers who come to the camp to entertain the people.

In the end, this is a cousin to films like A Walk on the Moon and Dirty Dancing, but not a replacement for them. This shows one reality of a camp in this region, but it is clearly a specific one connected to the Holocaust. The survivors each have their own stories and their own perspective on the War. This is a very nice film, if not totally brilliant.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

My Fuhrer (2009) (Tuesday, January 19, 2010) (218)

The tag-line of this film is "The bastard love child of Chaplin's Great Dictator & Mel Brooks' The Producers". This is about right, although I think it's much closer to Brooks than Chaplin (and anyhow, the Chaplin film is not one of his best, aside from the iconic scene of the Hitlerian dictator bouncing an earth-like beach ball around the office).

It is a very weird, small comedy about a Jewish acting teacher who is hired by the Nazis to coach Hitler in preparation for a major speech he is giving in 1945. As the Nazi forces begin to lose in post-D-Day Europe, Hitler gets more and more depressed until he finally loses his speaking mojo. Goebbles, knowing the Fuhrer needs to address his people in order to restore some pride and joy in the country, takes Adolf Grunbaum out of the concentration camp and gets him to work with Hitler on his public delivery. Grunbaum is, of course, faced with the moral dilemma of helping his people's greatest enemy, but is taken in by Hitler's kindness to him and his almost pitiful innocence. He leverages his work to get his family our of the camps as well, but then faces pressure from them to take action to kill the dictator.

The tone of the movie is very strange. It's a very silly, over-the-top comedy that has some very sad, touching moments in it as well. Hitler is portrayed as a bumbling fool and an almost childlike relationship to the world. His high command keep information from him and spy through holes in paintings around the office wall. It is in fact a very Brooksian view of the guy - really he's just a punching bag, and we mostly laugh because we can laugh at him, rather than because his actions are necessarily funny or clever.

It is never clear that this story is either historical or fantasy - it doesn't go nearly as far as Inglorious Basterds in showing that it's all a big fake joke, but it also doesn't totally seem all that serious. Writer/director Dani Levy, a Jewish man from Switzerland, seems to be mostly retaliating over a grudge (OK, a grudge is not really what it is), more than giving us any real incisive critique or comedic piece.

Grunbaum is played by Ulrich Mühe (who beautifully played the Stasi agent from The Lives of Others a few years ago). He is very good, as are most of the other actors. But they are somewhat left out flapping in the wind with the film lacking much of a story. I didn't really feel there was anything for them to grab onto thematically or tonally throughout. Are all the characters other than Hitler supposed to be straight men and the whole thing is some massive joke (that goes rather above my head)? Are these great dramatic performances or comedic ones? This is mostly a silly and small movie - two adjectives that don't fit well naturally in connection to the Holocaust. I don't think it's terribly successful or insightful.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Big Fan (2009) (Tuesday, January 19, 2010) (217)

Big Fan is a small gritty drama about a loser parking lot attendant (Patton Oswalt) who is obsessed with the New York Giants. He works nights and spends time in his booth listening to sports talk radio and writing long slams at the Giants' next opponents that he reads on air when he calls in to the show. One night, he sees his favorite player pumping gas near his house in Staten Island. He and his buddy follow the guy into Manhattan and into a strip club. When Oswalt approaches the player to talk to him, the player beats the crap out of him. Oswalt then has to decide whether he will press charges against the player and possibly hurt his beloved team by getting the player suspended.

The story is very clever, tight and follows a pretty honest, realistic path for any superfans around the world (I could easily see a similar story playing out in England with soccer or Canada with hockey, for instance). It moves along quickly and keeps a good pace throughout. There are a few details, though, in the script (or in the direction) that are frustrating and badly executed (like how Oswalt doesn't make his calls to the radio station from a mobile phone outside of his mother's house where he lives, rather than in his childhood bedroom where his mother can hear him and get upset that he's keeping her awake). This is the first directing gig for Robert D. Siegel (who also wrote this film as well as The Wrestler) and perhaps with a bit more time, small things like this will be ironed out in his work.

Oswalt's performance is really great (he had a fabulous 2009, by the way, with this and two supporting performances in Observe and Report and The Informant!). He is pitiful but likable and is totally convincing in his blind dedication to his team and his sad life. He knows it's sad, but it's good for him. He's lazy and somewhat limited, but he enjoys the power and attention he gets from his nightly talk radio calls. He likes being seen as someone who knows something about stuff and enjoys the power he feels from his minor celebrity with listeners.

I think part of what makes the movie enjoyable is that we all know people roughly like Oswalt. We see the guy at work with the football team flag or schedule; we know friends who travel out of town for their team (even for a sure loss); we know people who do fantasy leagues sports and are obsessed with minutiae of sports. This movie feels like a plausible scenario in the modern world of superfandom and it's intimate, small-budget look lends a nice patina to the little story.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Best and Worst Films of 2009

So here it is - my Top Ten list for movies released in New York City in 2009. Out of 214 films seen in the year these are the best. Forgive me for listing so many honorable mentions, but I couldn't hold back and, hey - it's my freaking list, so I can do what I want. You might notice that some of the films did not necessarily get four stars from me when I first saw them. I guess I should say that some movie stick with me a bit longer than the time it takes to write the blog, some of them getting a bit better and more solid over time. I've linked to the reviews, when available. Of course films that I saw before June (before I began this blog) don't have reviews. I'm thrilled with this list - I think it was a pretty solid year for movies and these are all really fabulous.

Best Films of 2009
Police, Adjective

2) Hunger

3) 24 City

4) The Sun

5) In a Dream

6) Katyn

7) The Windmill Movie

8) Hurt Locker

9) Two Lovers

10) Inglorious Basterds

Honroable Mentions:

Medicine for Melancholy, Revanche, The Country Teacher, Goodby Solo, The Informant!, District 9, Lorna’s Silence, Treeless Montain, Observe and Report, Beaches of Agnes, Still Walking, Home

Worst Films of 2009

1) Julia

2) Antichrist

3) Avatar

4) Tyson

5) Gamorrah

6) Lymelife

7) Whatever Works

8) Public Enemies

9) Orphan

10) The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Fish Tank (Saturday, January 16, 2010) (4)

Andrea Arnold appeared on my radar a few years ago with her live-action short, Wasp, which ended up winning the Oscar for that category in 2004. It was a gritty neo-realist picture about a poor woman living in a somewhat rural area with a few out-of-wedlock kids without the financial ability to raise them.

Her follow-up film, Red Road, which was released in 2007, was also about the English lower classes, but this time from the point of view of a woman voyeur. She is not as poor as some, but she watches them and ultimately gets into a relationship with a lower-working-class man.

In her most recent film, Fish Tank, Arnold again delves into the world of poor people living on state assistance with little chance of a future. This is a relative thematic mix of the two previous films, dealing with children in trouble, voyeurism and hopeless poverty. The film focuses on Mia, a 15-year-old girl who loves dancing an hopes to use dancing to get out of the terrible world she's in. She lives with her single mother and her little sister (possibly from another father). She never goes to school, drinks beer all the time and picks fights with girls (and boys) in her area.

She meets a young man who is out of work and down on his luck and begins what seems to be a non-sexual relationship with him. At the same time, her mother meets a man, Connor, who is a decent-seeming guy. He loudly and wildly has sex with her mother, but also cares about her and her sister. He is clearly the most stable male force in her life, but the way her mother goes through men, it's clear he will not be around for too long. At some point her sexuality is peeked by the two men in her life and she begins to play with the idea of acting on it.

This is a world where nothing can really go right for Mia. She knows that life sucks and that she should keep her hopes to a minimum, but she can't help herself sometimes - leading to great disappointments along the way. The gritty frankness of the film is very appealing and puts us directly into the world we are seeing. There are no real flashy techniques used to tell the story - mostly it's a hand-held single camera that takes long shots. This realism helps to make us feel as desperate as Mia and as pitiful and hopeless.

Stylistically the film is wonderful, and is very reminiscent of other neo-realist fare from recent years - movies like Ballast or In-Between Days. The story here is a bit too complex, though, and this doesn't turn out as well as those films. The third act here is a bit sloppy with the story going in a direction is should not. It is a two-hour film and it needs to be only 90 or even 85 minutes.

The acting throughout is very solid. Mia is played by Katie Jarvis who seems to be a non-actor, or a new actor. She is very good and very believable. Connor is played beautifully by the Irish-German Michael Fassbender. This is a really great performance. Connor is a cool, nice happy guy who seems to not see the terrible world that surround him. It is easy to see why Mia is excited by him - he's a really dynamic guy.

I think Arnold really could have used a better story editor for the script - and I think this could have been a very good movie with some minor cuts. There is the nucleus of a good movie here - it just goes on a bit too long. I have generally liked the three films of hers that I have seen - and I look forward to seeing more.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

The Last Station (2009) (Saturday, January 16, 2010) (216)

This movie has a somewhat strange setup for a little romantic dramedy. It takes place in the last days of Leo Tolstoy's life, when he was living in his country estate after publishing his masterpieces. He has become a cultural and folk hero in the early part of the 20th Century and his manager is trying to influence him to donate the copyrights of his works to the Russian people, rather than keeping them in his family's name.

The movement that has taken off as a result of his writing is in full swing and there is a hippie community on his estate that believes in shared property and no sex. Tolstoy, played by Christopher Plummer, is a lively old man with a long beard. He doesn't totally believe in the message of his followers (he loves sex and, despite dressing like a farmer, likes the riches that come with his life), but lets them fawn over him without correction.

His manager, played by Paul Giamatti, hires a young academic, played by James McAvoy, to be the old man's secretary, hoping he can steer the writer to his will. Tolstoy's wife, played by Helen Mirren, hates Giamatti and doesn't care at all about her husband's proto-socialist movement. She loves her wealth and wants to keep it and grow it.

The Tolstoyan ban on sexuality becomes hard for McAvoy to deal with when he meets a woman, played by the lovely Kerry Condon, who is in the movement on the estate. They fall in love and McAvoy has to figure out if he's going to listen to the passionate, romantic Baroness Tolstoy or the more severe, rational doctrine of the Tolstoy fundamentalists. As this is happening, Tolstoy himself has to figure out if he's going to listen to his brooding manager and give his books to the people or if he's going to listen to his wife and keep them in the family.

The film is a bit too convoluted, I think, for a rather silly and light story. There are too many layers of detail, when all that is needed is a light story about a man torn between his social beliefs (in abstinence) and his passionate heart. Generally the dialogue is snappy and funny, though it does get a bit more serious at times, especially as Tolstoy gets closer and closer to death. I can't figure out if maybe the problem is that it is trying to be a comedy at some level and that it should not be. Perhaps a straight light drama would have worked better. At any rate, it needs about 20 minutes cut out of it.

The acting here is getting a good amount of praise nowadays - and generally there are good performances here. Helen Mirren is very good as the grand old lady who sees her way of life under attack (of course it will come under further attack in a few years with the Bolshevik revolution). She is sensible and passionate and rather at her wits end with her husbands followers. Plummer is also good as a somewhat devilish old man who loves life and thinks all the attention on his is rather fun. He does deal with the copyright question, but this is not an issue that really presses on his mind too hard at first. Giamatti is basically the same character he played in the Howard Stern Private Parts movie - Pigvomit. He is a stuffed suit with no soul and no sense of humor. This role is a bit thin, and Giamatti's performance is OK - but seems a bit recycled. McAvoy is very good throughout the film and plays his character well dealing with the political mess he gets himself into.

I think this is a movie that probably comes off well as a script. It looks interesting, with a dynamic central character (Tolstoy), at least two main points of tension, including a love story. When put on screen, though, it is a bit dead. There is great scenery and nice costumes and everybody has a nice English accent (English accents being a stand-in for people speaking Russian, of course), but there is not much depth to the story. All the issues that the characters deal with feel very superficial and not all that emotional.

Stars: 2 of 4

Love Happens (2009) (Monday, January 11, 2010) (215)

Long cross-country plane trips are great for one thing: seeing terrible brainless movies that you've missed during the year. On my recent trip to Los Angeles, I was able to see Love Happens, a totally lifeless and recycled rom com with the lifeless-est actor in the world, Jennifer Aniston.

In it, Aaron Eckhart plays a guy whose wife died in a car accented and has turned the tragedy into a pick-yourself-up-and-dust-yourself-off self-help empire. It's not totally clear if he's a bad guy or a good guy who likes living dangerously or if he's just a good guy that seems like he might be bad but is actually just good. Whatever. He meets Aniston, a florist who is unexplainedly unlucky in love. The two meet and get off to a rough start and then fall in love. Then some more stuff happens with his self-help club. Then they go to a concert for a band I've never heard of.

I realized most of the way through the film that basically the filmmakers had given up trying to care about making a decent movie and were just putting out scenes with actors speaking words. It is totally boring and unoriginal. I'm not sure if Aniston and Eckhart have any chemistry together, I could barely pay attention to them. For some reason Martin Sheen and Frances Conroy are also in the film - I guess they need to pay their mortgages too.

There is nothing good in this film. It's not hateful, but it's very not good. Everything from the dialogue, to the acting to the direction is boring and hackneyed and bad. It shocks me that a Hollywood studio would put money into a turd like this. I guess it's cheap and easy to recoup the production investment. Whatever - that's a terrible reason to make a movie.

Leap Year, you're on my list for my next long plane-trip in mid-June!

Stars: 1 of 4

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Garbage Dreams (Sunday, January 10, 2010) (3)

The only real reason I went to see this movie is that it is on the 2010 Oscar Feature Documentary Shortlist and it is one of the few movies I have not seen from that list.

It is a very small movie about the Zabballeen, a Coptic Christian minority who live Egypt and are the only garbage collection service for most of the millions of people in and around Cairo. These are very, very poor people who have been collecting waste for more than 100 years because it was a job that needed to be done and it was the only job they could get as non-Muslims. We see how they recycle nearly everything they collect including plastic and glass bottles, metal, paper and organic materials. We see a team of social workers who take the people's children, who are not in formal school (because they work basically full time), and teach them tools like reading, writing and basic business skills.

At some point, we see the future of the Zabballeen being threatened by foreign waste removal companies who come in to make money in the rich neighborhoods of Cairo. These firms do not have the same pride in their work that the Zabballeen have (they see trash as a gift from God to them directly) and are not nearly as efficient as their poor competitors. Some estimates thrown out in the film are that the international firms are able to recycle only 20% of the garbage, while the Zabballeen are able to recycle 80% of it. (We have to take these numbers as true, but they are totally uncorroborated.)

The focus of the film is a group of a few young boys between 12- and 18-years-old. They bring a more intimate look at this world and we can see how these international firms bring with them a real getting-food-on-the-table worry for these people.

There is nothing especially brilliant about this film. Cute, naive kids are always a cheap and easy way of getting sympathy, but these youngsters are rather harmless. The middle of the film goes a bit slack and at times it feels a bit repetitive. Overall, this would have been a very good PBS special; it's only OK as a movie.

The best moment comes when a few of the boys are selected by a Welsh trash firm to visit Wales and see how garbage is collected in the developed world. (Garbage diplomacy! Who knew!) When the boys see what the Welsh do with their trash, they go a bit crazy as they see the tremendous waste that is not culled and recycled. It seems that the Welsh trash company is only 28% efficient with recycling. These boys try to explain to the management that they can recycle more, but their pleas fall on deaf ears.

This juxtaposition brings a fabulous, lucky moment. The indigent boys are brought in to learn lessons from the developed world, but they actually know more than their rich hosts. Brilliant.

Stars: 2 of 4

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Youth in Revolt (Saturday, January 9, 2010) (2)

At some point in the future, Michael Cera will be too old to play a high school kid. Until that time he will be in 36 movies a year playing the same nerdy high school kid. Always very smart, always geeky, always looking for the hot girl who won't give him the time of day, always lovable and funny to us, but invisible to the rest of the world. (The corollary to this point is that some day in the future there will be a comedy that does not have Zach Galifianakis in it playing a fool... someday.)

But until then, Youth in Revolt is the most recent chapter in what feels like a never-ending string of films. In this one, Cera plays Nick Twisp, whose mother and her loser boyfriend (Galifianakis) take him to a trailer park in rural California for vacation. He is a bookish lad who loves nothing more than Frank Sinatra and Sinatra vinyl records. At the camp, he meets a hot, smart girl, Sheeni (Portia Doubleday... boy! That's a show-business name!), who is equally strange and bookish, but much more sexually advanced than he is. He sets out to impress her and win her heart.

She falls for him, but says that he has to be a bad boy to keep her interested. To do this, Nick invents an alter ego, Francois Dillinger, who is a bad-ass with a silly moustache, tight white slacks and a devil-may-care attitude. Francois and Nick (as a pair) get into more and more silly trouble to keep Sheeni interested and wanting more.

As is typical of a silly comedy like this, the first act is pretty strong and funny, the second act is rather dull and wasted and the second-half of the third act is funny, leaving a big directionless hole in the middle. This trap is so easy to fall into that it is hard to particularly blame director Miguel Areta or screenwriter Gustin Nash, though it's totally their fault. It's only a lonely few gross-out comedies that can do better than a half of a funny movie.

The script is based on novel by C.D. Payne, so perhaps some of the issues of the narrative should be laid at his feet too. I think the biggest problem with the film is that the Francois Dillinger character is not used more. This is perhaps Michael Cera's funniest, screw-ballest character ever - the role is really hilarious. Sadly it is only used for about four or five sequences. Much of the hijinks that Cera gets into is done as Nick Twisp and not Dillinger. This is a big waste, I think. The core of the story is fine - that a dork has to be a bad-ass to get the cute girl - but then the film should have been about this reckless, edgy alter-ego fighting with his angelic, safe id.

Doubleday is totally cute, in a girl-next-door kinda way - not a va-va-va-voom, Megan Fox way. She's funny in this role and not annoying like Ellen Page in Juno. I don't know if she has chops to do much else, but I look forward to seeing her try.

This is a small, silly movie that is definitely a must-see, but is enjoyable enough for a shot. It's worth seeing just to get a glimpse of Michael Cera with bad facial hair. I'm not sure he is actually shaving yet - but it is a look he should never try without irony.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Friday, January 8, 2010

Sweetgrass (Friday, January 8, 2010) (1)

Sweetgrass is a small documentary about sheep herders (shepherds, I guess) who take their sheep up to the mountains in Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, public land in South-Central Montana near Yellowstone National Park. It is basically the same people who were in Brokeback Mountain - but with no gay sex and with a bigger crew of cowboys. The film follows them for about a year (though it was apparently filmed over the course of three years, from 2001-2003) from a late winter snow, when the sheep are sheared of their winter fleece, to the summer in the mountains and then again to the cold of autumn.

We follow a group of about ten cowboys (and a few cowgirls) on their trips into the back-country and see how they interact with one another and with the animals. One old cowboy, who seems to be at least the spiritual leader, if not the actual boss, is the central player in the story as he gives bits of context as the movie goes along.

The style of the film is very straight-forward. There is no narration and no explanation of what is going (until at least the very end, when there are a few titles that come on to explain grand-scale shepherding in the American West and how public lands are used for private business). We see a rather point-of-view camera showing what the sheep are seeing at their level, or what the cowboys are seeing on their horses. The context of each scene is pretty self-evident, however, there is nothing framing the story, so it is rather structureless. There is a sense that things are happening in chronological order, but this is not explicit, so scenes are rather interchangeable, if not entirely haphazard.

The film is nothing if not brutally honest and frank, though, and we see everything these cowboys and sheep go through, including some rather gross things. There is an elaborate scene showing the birthing of lambs and the lengths the cowboys have to go to to make sure all the babies have a mother. One orphaned lamb is curiously put into what looks like a little lamb sweater. Then the shepherd tells us that this is because he has to have the smell of another lamb so an adoptive mother will feed him. It turns out the 'sweater' is actually the skin of a dead lamb from that same mother sheep. Gross.

Also totally genuine (and hilarious) are the portrayals of the cowboys, who are rough, angry, lonely and sometimes hilariously bawdy and crude. One shepherd launches into a five-minute diatribe at the sheep (as he sits alone on horseback while wearing a microphone) calling them 'sour cunts,' 'goddamn motherfuckers' and 'little fucking pieces of shit'. It's hilarious and goes on and on (and on) with his tantrum.

At another time, two cowboys sit by a campfire at night discussing what kind of animal it is that is sneaking into their camp at night and stealing sheep. One says, 'It could be a bear - or worse, a wolverine.' The other responds very slowly, 'Well... you know... there's only one thing worse than a bear... and that's a wol-verine'. This is the level of most of the dialogue in the film. That is, most of the human dialogue. There is a ton of sheep dialogue. Baaaaaah. Baaaaaaaah. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

Stars: 2.5 of 4