Friday, April 30, 2010

Furry Vengeance (Saturday, May 1, 2010) (39)

I saw this movie mainly because I was surprised and delighted by the title and the poster. In the world of urban legend underground sex fetishes, furry loving is a thing where people get turned on by and have sex with people dressed up in full-body animal costumes - like high school bear suits and whatnot. I'm not at all sure that this is a real thing, but it is a recent meme that comes up a lot on The Daily Show and e-mail forwards. The poster for this movie shows star Brendan Fraser being attacked by a big bear - but it almost looks like it could be a person dressed up in a bear costume. That this was also supposed to be one of the worst movies of the year made this all the more enticing to me.

Well - it was really neither of these things. It was not a movie about weird sex fetishes that nobody has (to paraphrase Roger Ebert's great line about David Cronenberg's film Crash) and it was also not the worst movie of the year. It was a nice family film with a nice message and basically totally harmless. Surprisingly it has one of the biggest casts in recent memory for such a weird family film.

Dan Sanders (Fraser) is a nice family guy with a wife, Tammy (Brooke Shields) and a son. He works for a company that is building a housing sub-division in the middle of a big forest. As he begins to tear down some of the trees to put up houses, the animals in the forest turn against him and begin to torment him for his anti-enviro business. Dan is just a middle-man, though, and the real villain is his boss and company owner, Neal Lyman (Ken Jeong - who is everywhere these days). Dan's family begins to think he's crazy as the animals torment him more and more.

Other the the main actors, the cast also features lots of cameos from actors (some of whom are recent parents): Angela Kinsey, Samantha Bee, Rob Riggle, Patrice O'Neal, Jim Norton and Wallace Shawn, to name a few.

The story is perfect for kids and easy enough for adults as well. There is nothing really challenging here and it ties up nicely with a good happy ending message about loving nature and animals.

It feels like a 1980s comedy with John Candy or Chevy Chase - but in the best possible way. Like a PG version of The Great Outdoors or The Money Pit. There is no reason to hate this movie - it is exactly what it says it is - a sweet family comedy that is safe for all ages.

Stars: 2 of 4

Breaking Upwards (Friday, April 30, 2010) (38)

Breaking Upwards is a very small and very sweet indie comedy about a young twenty-something couple in New York who love each other dearly but are getting somewhat bored with dating. They decide to begin to take 'days off' from dating to try to live independently. At first this is difficult as they both contact one anther non-stop on the phone, email and Internet. Ultimately they realize that they are drifting apart more and more and they have to come to terms with the reality of their individual single lives.

The film was made on a shoestring budget, but has a really nice feel about it. It's rather hand-made, but there is much more of a script and a structure than anything particularly mumblecore (it's not mumblecore at all - just low budget). It was co-written by lead actors Zoe Lister Jones and Daryl Wein (who also directed the picture) along with Peter Duchan - and the concept is really nice and well done. There is nothing fancy here other than good, if simple, story telling. The dialogue is very punchy and clever - and feels very natural for New Yorkers of this age and background.

I have to say, as much of a fan of mumblecore as I am, it's nice that there are still independent movies being made in New York that are not just mumble. The normalness of the form (the three-act structure and scenes with real beginnings and ends) is refreshing. At the same time, I think part of what's charming about this film is its smallness - the fact that there is an intimacy and a familiarity with the places and things we see. As good a concept as this is, I don't think it would work well as a bigger budget project. It would just feel fake and forced in such a situation.

I also have to mention, of course, the similarities between this and the recent German film that I loved, Everyone Else. They both deal with the same concept - two people who love each other but can't stay together - but in very different ways. They're interesting to see close to one another - especially because this one doesn't have the tragic, sad elements of the Everyone Else, and that one doesn't have the funny smallness of this one. I guess lightning can strike twice but have very different results.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

The Ghost Writer (Friday, April 30, 2010) (37)

I was a bit surprised that with all the press Roman Polanski was getting with being arrested in Switzerland recently there was not more attention given to him having new movie out, The Ghost Writer. Somehow this movie snuck up on me and I didn't really know it was a Polanski movie until a few people told me about it. Regardless, I was interested to see it not only because it stole its title from one of my favorite Philip Roth novels, but also because Polanski has had an interesting voice, at least in the past.

This film tells the story of a man (Ewan McGregor) who is hired as the ghost writer for the recently-retired Prime Minister of the UK, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), as he tries to complete his memoirs. It seems that his last ghost writer mysteriously killed himself a few weeks before. As McGregor sets into the task, he discovers more and more unusual stuff in Lang's past. As this is happening, Lang is being accused of helping the CIA torture terrorist suspects - a fact that makes the writing of the memoirs even more difficult.

Overall the story is rather straight-forward and silly. There are a few twists that you might expect from a film of this nature, but nothing is all that surprising. The big reveal at the end is rather dull and visible from miles away.

There is not really all that much here to be all that critical about. The film looks good and the story generally hangs together well and moves along well enough. I found it a bit dull somewhere late in the second act - but that's also not a surprise for a big budget film like this (perhaps the story could have been shaved by a few pages around that point).

The acting is good, but nothing really remarkable. Brosnan and McGregor are generally always good; Olivia Williams, as Mrs. Lang, is very good, I thought - and I look forward to seeing her in more stuff (she's got the more down-to-earth appeal of Liz Hurley, with a bit more acting chops). The one casting decision I was surprised by was Kim Cattrall in the role of the PM's chief of staff. She is really not a very good actor and I thought struggled through this role. Considering she was born in the UK and studied there a fair amount, I was surprised that she seemed to have trouble with the English accent she had. I don't know - too much sex in New York can take the Brit out of any woman, I guess...

One funny thing - which, again, I am surprised hasn't gotten more press - is that Lang is hanging out in the U.S. after he's been charged in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The U.S. doesn't sponsor this court and as a result does not extradite people to it. This of course is weird as Polanski has been living in France and Switzerland for 30+ years because they wouldn't extradite him to the U.S. to be charged for his statutory rape of a girl in the 1970s. I don't know if this was a thumb in the eye of the American judicial system or not - but it's an interesting real-world rhyme with the picture.

This is not a great movie - but not a bad one by any means. It's very OK. It's a clever ride and ties up nicely, if predictably. There's nothing particularly Polanski about this - it feels rather anonymous - but it's a decent effort nonetheless.

Stars: 2 of 4

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Have You Heard from Johannesburg (Sunday, April 25, 2010) (34-36)

I normally don't review documentaries like this - made for television and multi-part - but I watched this one at Film Forum, where it played for two weeks, so I'm counting it and reviewing it. This is a seven-part, nearly-nine-hour history of the anti-Apartheid movement. It follows the early political actions of the 1950s through the 1980s and the American movement to divest from South African firms who were complicit in the racist movement.

Much like Eyes on the Prize, it tells a beautiful story of how over time, people such as Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Govan Mbeki led the movement in its early days in the streets of Soweto and how they were all arrested and jailed or exiled from the country. It shows key points in the movement, like the murder of Steve Biko, the Soweto riots and the government beat-down of activists in the 1970s.

Through the different chapters many different parts of the movement are shown. One part deals with the sporting arena and how by the 1970s, South Africa was not allowed to participate in many international competitions as they couldn't find opponents who would play their all-white squads. Another part shows the rise of anti-Apartheid sentiment in the United States and how university students forced their schools to sell stock in South African business.

There is not much here critical of the movement - all the leaders come across as saintly men and women who do nothing but good throughout their lives. This is clearly not the true case. Just as in any political movement, there were misplayed moments and even some outright bad stuff. But what they did to end the Apartheid system is important enough for me to let the omissions slide.

This is a great work and one that should be taught in classrooms around the world.

Stars: 3 of 4

The Secret in their Eyes (Sunday, April 25, 2010) (33)

I was curious to see this film because it won the Oscar this year for Best Foreign Film, beating out The White Ribbon and A Prophet, two movies that I either liked or loved. Last year the Oscar winner, Departures, was a very safe and sweet movie, but not even close to the brilliance of The Class, Revanche or Waltz with Bashir, three other films that were nominated and were superior to the victor.

And once again, the Academy picked the safe, easy, boring movie over two more interesting, difficult pieces.

This film is basically a Hollywood-style murder mystery with an Argentine accent. Benjamin Esposito is a retired lawyer who was a long-time clerk and assistant to a federal judge in Buenos Aires. He is now working on a novelization of an old case that has haunted him since he first investigated it 20 years before. At that time, a woman was brutally murdered while her husband was at work. Over the course of the investigation, Esposito found an old flame of the woman who he thought was the probable murder. The man was not convicted and then went missing.

Part of the story he constructs in his book involves Irene Menéndez Hastings, a young judge investigator (sorry, I don't totally understand the Argentine judicial system to know who does what) who worked with Esposito at the time of the murder. He was in love with her, but she had a husband and dating her was out of the question. As he finishes his novel, he reconnects with Hastings and falls back in love with her. He then goes off to see if he can finish the investigation and find out who really killed that woman so many years ago.

There is nothing particularly interesting or fresh about this story. It could have easily been written by John Grisham or the like. Director Juan José Campanella, a veteran of American television like House and Law and Order: SVU seems to borrow heavily from his small screen work. The characters are quickly sketched out with only a bit of depth and the story is rather simple - even considering its long, 127-minute run-time.

The best thing about the film is the performance of Ricardo Darin as Esposito. Darin, who was recently in the beautiful and brilliant XXY, is a natural talent - reminiscent of George Clooney and Javier Bardem. He oozes charisma and familiarity - as if he was your favorite next-door neighbor. The character is not all that special - but Darin makes him kind, lovable and sympathetic.

There is nothing really bad about this film other than the fact that it feels mostly recycled. What is great about contemporary Argentine cinema is the freshness and smallness of the stories. The movies deal with very matter-of-fact and frank stories on the ground. There is nothing all that fabulous or special about the stories - other than the fact that they are totally honest. This film seems much more over-constructed and complicated than any other recent Argentine effort. Much like how Tell No One was a failure of a French film because French filmmakers don't make Hollywood movies, this is a mess of an Argentine film for the same reason. Campanella has spent too much time making American TV shows and should return to his homeland for further study.

Stars: 2 of 4

Saturday, April 24, 2010

No One Knows About Persian Cats (Sunday, April 25, 2010) (32)

This is a small movie about two twenty-something musicians, a man and a woman, who live in Tehran and want to get a permit from the government to perform in public and get their passports and visas so they can tour the world and play outside of their country. They are young rockers, not very different from young people in any country. They love music of all kinds and want to be able to enjoy it away from the government censors.

There is not a heck of a lot of plot in the film - basically you have the musicians trying to get their government documents and working with one musician after another to convince the authorities that they are safe and can be trusted. They work with one musician who has his visa, thinking that if they're in his band, they can get their documents too - but that doesn't work. Then they work with two women who are traditional Persian folk singers, hoping that if they have more than one female voice, the government will have less of an issue with their band. This doesn't work either.

As time goes on and they collaborate with more and more artists, they create a beautiful texture of musical and creative diversity in and around Tehran. The variety of styles is not different from what you would get in Williamsburg, Brooklyn or the Lower East Side. There is alt-indie-Rock, hip hop (in Farsi, but with a strong West Coast influence), traditional Brel-like French chanson (again in Farsi) and more straight-ahead singer-songwriter fare.

The music throughout the film is absolutely amazing. What director Bahman Ghobadi does brilliantly is to have the musicians meet their band-mates-of-the-day and start playing music, while he cuts to background, documentary footage of Tehran during the day and night. There is a quality reminiscent of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisquatsi here where the documentary footage gets tied to the music in a way that both the visual and the audio seem almost tied together. (Since seeing the movie, I have bought the soundtrack and can say that the diverse range of music is amazing just to listen to without any visual aide.)

This whole film is as much an ode to Tehran and it's creative energy as it is a narrative story. The fact that the story has this mumblecore-like non-structure helps underline the point that this is about freedom. Not freedom in a trite political sense - but freedom to think and breath and move and create without the bureaucrats telling you what to do. This film is saying that Iran is basically the same as Brooklyn - and would be considered exactly that were it not for the current oppressive regime. But the politics here are underneath the surface - the film is really about how art has no boundaries and is non-partisan. It's a lovely tale along the lines of the 2007 film Once - but with a much stronger focus on music and less on story.

Stars: 3 of 4 (4 of 4 for the music alone)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Friday, April 23, 2010) (31)

Exit through the Gift Shop is the directorial debut of Banksy, the mysterious English street artist-cum-celebrity whose identity is shrouded in mystery. The film falls somewhere between a documentary, a mockumentary and a narrative film, mixing interviews that may or may not be scripted with documentary footage that was supposedly shot in the past to tell the history of the street art scene.

Street art, as we are told, is more than just graffiti, but is a much more elevated form that uses posters, stickers, spray paint and other media to do any number of creative things to the sides of private and pubic property. It is always outside and because the artists don't get permission from the landlords, it is almost always illegal.

The window through which we see the story is the camera of Thierry Guetta, a French ex-pat living in Los Angeles who owns a vintage clothing store. One time, on a visit to Paris to see his family, he spends time with his cousin who is a street artist called Space Invader.

Space Invader was putting his pieces up through Paris - these were a series of aliens from the 1980s arcade game. Guetta got hooked on the excitement of following his cousin around and documenting the works. He then met several other artists doing similar work throughout the world, from London to New York to L.A. At some point, he met Shepard Fairey, now known for his Obama "Hope" poster (done in a decidedly street art style), but back then doing his signature Obey posters showing wrestler Andre the Giant's face.

As exciting as it was to work with Fairey and others, Guetta's hero and holy grail was Banksy - largely because he couldn't get to the guy, even after taping most of the great street artists on the planet. Well, Guetta's luck changed suddenly, when Banksy arrived in Los Angeles one day and needed a fixer on the ground. The two became friends Banksy let Guetta tape him, as long as his identity remained protected.

From here we see how Guetta began making street art himself and then using a massive promotion machine to create a gallery show in Los Angeles after only a few months of work. He lost all connection to reality or decency and became widely hated by the street art sub-culture for being a fraud.

In many ways this is a brilliant structure that Banksy sets up for telling his story and the story of this movement - and very "street" at the same time. Rather than just showing footage of artists working and having talking heads speak about what they all do, Banksy has Guetta show it all to us. On top of this, Bansky is Guetta's personal Jesus Christ (almost literally) so he gets tons of praise from the man. Then - in the ultimate screw you to the traditional form - Bansky shows Guetta as a mad man freak who has lost all his credibility in the world they are in. Bansky's biggest fan and our sole source for the material we see turns out to be crazy and hard to believe.

To make matters even more challenging, it seems the whole time that Guetta might not actually be a real guy at all - but maybe just an elaborate creation (of Bansky?) to give us this background. It is certain that a man did walk around Los Angeles in the 1990s and 2000s with the name Thierry Guetta, but it is not clear that is a real identity. There is a bit of a wink in the eyes of all the interviewees about Guetta and the tone of the narration (by Rhys Ifans - who seems to be everywhere now, doesn't he) is entirely sarcastic. (Apparently there is a lot of speculation on the Internet that Guetta is a hoax created by Banksy - simply an elaborate street art creation to screw with the art world and show that people will buy anything if it's sold right).

Regardless of the facts on the ground, this is a totally fun and interesting movie. I like the idea that the whole thing is a big performance art piece - set up as a documentary. There is a lot of true stuff in there - about Fairey and Banksy and the history of the movement - but there must also be a lot of shit in it. The fun is to figure out which is which.

Stars: 3 of 4

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Kick-Ass (Saturday, April 18, 2010) (30)

In Kick-Ass, Dave Lizewski (played by Aaron Johnson) is a dorky high school kid who has a small group of friends that treat him like crap and can't get a girl to speak to him, let alone date him, to save his life. After getting mugged one night and having his nervous system changed so he feels basically no pain (OK - it's a stretch, but go with it), he buys a costume online and becomes a super hero, Kick-Ass, who stands up to criminals.

The main villain in his town is mob boss, Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) whose son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is in Dave's class and seems to be more of a geek than Dave. Frank's criminal operation is being threatened by a mysterious masked super-hero who apparently looks like Batman- or so say the guys who are beat up by him.

It turns out they're not far off. Damon Macready (Nick Cage) is a former cop who now works with his daughter, Mindy (Chloe Moretz), as a crime-fighting superhero duo, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. Big Daddy looks and talks just like Batman (at least the Christian Bale iteration of him). The pair realize that Kick-Ass is a good ally in their fight against crime in the city - and against D'Amico more specifically. Together, with no super powers, but a lot of guts and money, they take on the bad guys.

For me the most fun of the film is the freshness and tongue-in-cheek tone of the story. It's sarcastic throughout and knows well what its doing. Dave is a big fan of comic books and is a dork - so when he becomes Kick-Ass and gets his ass kicked (there are a bunch of lines in the script that make this joke), it's particularly funny because it feels realistic even as over-the-top as it is.

There is no doubt that the story takes place in our world - or a very close world to ours. Kick-Ass makes a name for himself through a viral video circulated online of him getting beat up. Big Daddy and Hit-Girl buy a hover-pack loaded with guns online with a credit card and joke about how they're going to pay for it. When Chris D'Amico becomes a super hero himself (to foil Kick-Ass) his action figures and t-shirts take over prime real-estate in the comic book shop, pushing the Kick-Ass gear to the sale table. (One thing that is disappointing is that the film is clearly shot in Toronto, though it is supposed to be New York City. Either more effort should have gone into masking the location or no city name should have been given.)

The film is somewhat reminiscent of Mystery Men, another story of losers who become ad hoc super heroes. But it's better than that. That tried to walk the line between kids movie and grown-up comedy. This is totally an adult movie and is really only tied to kids movies because the general genre is 'comic book movie'. This is not a movie for kids.

The story is fun, but it is a bit too complicated and too long. There are about three layers to the story, which is perfect for launching a franchise with tons of sequels, but a bit too much for a small movie like this to support. Big Daddy's back-story was explained but never really examined and seems a bit of an unnecessary appendage in this context. It might come out more clearly after a sequel comes out, but was not totally needed here.

Despite the screenplay, director Matthew Vaughn does a nice job with the material he has. He pulls no punches with blood and action, getting Dave stabbed and beat up badly without flinching. Young Mindy says words that you would never want and 11-year-old to say - and she does so without any apologies. He also uses a rock 'n' roll soundtrack brilliantly to heighten tension, wink at the knowing audience and joke about the content. There might not be a better use of Ennio Morricone or Elvis than in the final sequence of this film.

The acting throughout is very good. Aaron Johnson is very good as a dork who we can all sympathize with. He's a good guy who doesn't know exactly why he is seen as a dork. Chloe Moretz is great in a role that seems older than she would otherwise be playing. She steals the show with her great delivery of vulgar dialogue. Christopher Mintz-Plasse is basically the same guy as he was in Superbad, Fogell/McLovin, the dork who is cooler than you are. Nick Cage is as wooden as always here - but it sorta works for this role. (Again, I'm not sure if he's a really bad actor or a brilliant one.)

Kick-Ass is a raw, grown-up comedy and not a kids comic book movie. It's a fun ride filled with tons of funny, dirty language and some blood and violence (though it's not nearly as violent as some have suggested). It needs about a half-hour cut out of it, but I thought it was a lot of fun.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Beeswax (2009) (Sunday, April 11, 2010) (226)

Beeswax is the latest film from writer/director Andrew Bujalski, the so-called "Godfather of Mumblecore". He was the originator of the movement with his 2002 film Funny Ha Ha, and has remained to the genre's a pioneer and major collaborator. Sadly, this film does not rise to the level of his past works like Funny or Mutual Appreciation.

The wonderfulness of mumblecore is that they're not really *about* anything other than young people doing stuff and screwing. This film has more of a plot, though, than most - and only a limited amount of coitus. In it there are twin sisters, Jeannie and Lauren, who live in Austin (because Bujalski followed the hipsters from Boston to Brooklyn and then down to Texas - like birds migrating south for the winter). Jeannie, who is physically handicapped and is in a wheelchair, co-owns a vintage clothing store but is having trouble with her business partner. She asks for legal help from a friend and sometimes fuck-buddy Merrill. Lauren has just broken up with a boyfriend, but is then offered a job to teach English in Nairobi by the ex-boyfriend's brother.

I normally love the dullness of mumblecore movies - that they're just small relationship stories and are made in a scruffy, inventive ways with available materials, small crews and non-actors - but this one didn't work for me at all. There is *too much* plot here and the sitting around and talking has too much direction. Unlike something like Medicine for Melancholy, which is a love story told in a mumblecore style, this is a mumblecore movie telling a dull story. It doesn't work.

I don't care that Lauren is looking for a job or that the job happens to be with the company of her ex - that's too high-concept for what is needed. I don't care about Jeannie's legal trouble (which is really never spelled out - and it's not clear what her dead-beat partner could possibly sue her over). Mublecore movies are not supposed to deal with things like lawsuits - because directionless 20-somethings simply don't get sued.

Jeannie and Lauren are played by non-actor twins Tilly and Maggie Hatcher. Maggie is totally fine, but her role is mostly supporting. Tilly is much too angry and mean for the role. She's not all that nice as a boss, and it's very difficult to like her or respect her. She's much too clinical with bullshit that goes on. When one of her staff asks to go to a gay rights rally, she hounds her for five minutes that she might get arrested so she should call a co-worker to back-up her next shift. This is totally dumb and unnecessary and makes her come off as a cold bitch, which I don't think is what we are supposed to feel - and I don't think is helpful for the story. I think she's passive aggressive and I only caught her smiling three times in the film. I don't get that. (I should admit that I have strong negative reactions to people in wheelchairs -seriously - so might just not like her beyond her acting.) Bujalsi does not act in this film (as he did in his previous pieces). I think this is a big mistake as his nervous nebbishness generally adds great texture to the pictures he's in.

I guess you could say that this is 8 years after Funny Ha Ha, so these characters are bit more grown up than earlier ones in Bujalski's films - that it's still the style of the earlier fare, but with a story dealing with slightly older people. To that I would say that while are there still elements of the loser, hipster stories of classic mumblecore - like kids going back to school, not knowing what to do in life and having casual sex with their friends because it's available - it's too much of a typical narrative story to work well. It's neither a good independent film, nor is it a good no-budget, DIYish mumblecore movie.

I really like Andrew Bujalski's other films, but this one just didn't work for me. I think the high praise it's received (it was on several best of 2009 lists) is unwarranted. I hope Buj can pull it back together for his next film.

Stars: 1 of 4

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Everyone Else (Saturday, April 10, 2010) (29)

Maren Ade's film Everyone Else is a beautiful and heartbreaking work about two young lovers, Gitti and Chris, who are on their summer holiday on Sardinia relaxing and spending time together. She is a free-spirit, artist who is much more likely to joke around than be serious. He is a traditional Teutonic worker who can be playful, but only for regimented periods of time. They split their time between erotic sex sessions and daily excursions to the beach or the mountains for a hike. Over the course of the film, their relationship continues to be punctuated by moments of uncomfortable tension, until it is clear that it is falling apart. This is a devastating, unromantic look at the reality of communication and how two people might not be right for one another.

All the elements of the film work beautifully together. The script, also by Ade, is really wonderful and she directs it beautifully. There are long scenes with very little dialogue that are excruciating because of the uncomfortable silences. The acting by Birgit Minichmayr and Lars Eidinger is really superb. It is clear they love each other, but they both are incredibly convincing in their very particular character. Technical elements of the film as well, like the cinematography, by Bernhard Keller, and the costumes, by Gitti Fuchs are simple, but elegant.

This is a long film. It only runs two hours, but feels every minute of it, as Ade rolls out the story in deep detail. She gets the most out of every scene - but it might be too much for many viewers. I didn't really mind the speed and pacing of the film, but I could see many finding it dull. You have to let the total film wash over you. It is Bergmanesque in it's painful detail. Imagine being on a terrible roller coaster ride that you can't get off. It's thrilling and difficult, but when it's over, you want to ride again.

This is about those relationships where you are madly in love with somebody, but reach a point where you are clear you are not right for one another... and still continue together out of sheer momentum. It's easier to stick together with the help of an occasional white lie, than to break up and face the loneliness of singlehood. Gitti and Chris have a ton in common and like spending time together most of the time, but simply don't connect on a basic level. She's too playful and too silly for him and he's too stern and too academic for her. She tries to become serious for him, but stumbles; he makes an effort to be goofy for her, but she doesn't buy it. Sex for them is a salve and a retreat - but it doesn't last all day.

I think this is also about the German-ness of Germans and how they can't deal with people who are less German than they. This is probably the same thing for virtually any group of people, I'm sure. An outsider is always an outsider and is hard to reform and make part of the greater group.

I love Ade's frankness with the subject matter and her honesty and kindness to both characters. She does not judge either party. It is neither Gitti's fault nor Chris' - it is a state of nature that they would love to be together, but simply cannot. They have a magnetism to one another, but are a very bad, destructive match of each other. There is a lot of power in the quiet moments of this film. I think that takes a true artist's touch to convey. I look forward to other work by Ade - not to mention future efforts by Minichmayr and Eidinger.

Stars: 4 of 4

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine (Wednesday, April 7, 2010) (28)

OK - Hot Tub Time Machine is one of the best titles for a movie in a long time. When I first heard about this I figured it had to be a joke - but it's not.

The story is pretty straightforward. Three middle-aged college buddies, John Cusack, Rob Corddry and Craig Robinson, take Cusack's grown nephew and go to a ski resort where the three guys had gone when they were in school in the 1980s. The town and resort have fallen on hard times, but they want to enjoy a relaxing weekend. They get into the hot tub in their suite and begin drinking. Somehow the hot tub is a time machine (of course!) and it goes haywire and sends them back to the '80s to a fateful weekend that apparently set up a lot of the difficulties they would encounter later in their lives. They have to figure out how to enjoy themselves there, but not change what they did the first time around - to avoid a Back to the Future-type paradox situation. Okaaaay...

The concept of the film is so fucking stupid, all you can do is accept it and not ask questions. I think it's supposed to be a gross-out comedy, but it mostly comes off as a poor-man's The Hangover (which I also didn't love that much) - or rather The Hangover meets the 1990s terrible classic Ski Patrol (which I grew up with endlessly looping on late-night movie channels).

The dialogue here is pretty weak - as if they writers wanted to suggest offensive stuff, but not actually use the bad words. The most shocking stuff is the stupid amounts of drugs the guys use (I get that it's supposed to be a joke that they used lots of drugs in the 1980s, but it comes off as stale and sad in the context of the movie).

Overall this is not really funny or really gross-out offensive. It's cheap and easy and closer to a PG-13 than an R (which is like having a kids movie rated R - it just doesn't work). I actually was impressed that the story tied up well in the last 15 minutes (at least the writers got a few pages right in the script), but that was not enough to save this turd. I can't say I hated it, but it was not much of anything. It is a waste of a great title. Very sad.

Stars: 1 of 4

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Vincere (Saturday, April 3, 2010) (27)

Vincere tells the story of Benito Mussolini and his relationship with an early mistress and their bastard son. It shows him rising from the Left as a demagogue journalist and then switching to the Right and gaining power. Along the way, he meets Ida Dalser, a young political radical, and the two fall madly in love with one another. The only problem was that Mussolini already has a wife and kids. As he rises up the power structure in Italy to become "Il Duce", Ida gets pregnant and has a son. He initially acknowledges the boy is his, but then turns around and locks her up in an insane asylum, claiming she's crazy to be speaking of their relationship.

Clearly the historical tale here is fascinating - and something that I did not know about before. Mussolini is known to have been a power-hungry moron, not unlike George W. Bush or Andrew Jackson. He was able to rule with an iron fist... but sometimes that fist would change its mind and contradict itself. I'm not totally sure that that part of his personality really came out in this film. (Imagine a film about W. where he was portrayed as a fearless, genius leader who had a direction and a goal - this would be super frustrating, no?).

The story itself, as a tragic, romantic tale is particularly operatic. A young 'prince' falls in love with a woman, while he is married, as he takes over the kingdom, he has to shed his past and scorns his lover and son. Once he becomes the king, he can erase both of them entirely. But the story is not the problem as much as the structure of the script. After about the middle of the second act, Mussolini becomes a phantom character. At first he's in every scene of the film, but then it turns to focus only on Ida and he, as Il Duce, is somewhere else off screen. This was particularly frustrating to me.

Director Marco Bellocchio does a lovely job using Russian Avante Garde techniques of stylized titles over plastic footage to transition from one segment to another. But all this style doesn't totally work in this film. Yes, much of the action is happening in the 1920s, when Russian filmmakers like Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein were making their masterpieces Man with the Movie Camera, Strike and Battleship Potemkin, but it feels rather out of context. (Like if there was a film set in Sweden in the 1950s and Jackson Pollock influenced the visual style). It looks really good, but I think it doesn't really add up to much of any significance.

The acting is nice, especially Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Ida, but the whole film never comes together all that well. I never totally understand why I should care about any of the characters. I certainly never feel much pity for Ida or any compassion for Mussolini (I think it's hard to feel much of anything for a demagogue- you either follow them or yo don't). I appreciate the effort here, but I don't particularly love it.

Stars: 2 of 4

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Sun Behind The Clouds (Friday, April 2, 2010) (26)

The title of the documentary The Sun Behind The Clouds refers to the Dalai Lama and how at some point in the future he will be able to regain his position as a cultural, political and religious figure for the Tibetan people. Just as clouds might cover the sun on an overcast day, it is still there; when the clouds clear, the sun will shine on the land and the people.

This is the central theme of this film - a historical look at the Tibetan liberation movement and the relatively new conflict within the Tibetan people after the Dalai Lama changed his position slightly several years ago. His Holiness does not directly advocate for the ouster of China from Tibet, but rather for a "Middle Road" approach for the right of his people to live in their homeland, which will remain in China and practice the religious they choose without government pressure to not practice. He also would like to see China relax its efforts to wipe Tibetan culture (its music, clothing, customs, etc.) off the map by imposing more traditional Chinese culture on the remaining Tibetans living in Lhasa and throughout the nation.

The film lays out a very easy-to-follow history of Tibet in the 20th Century and how the Chinese came in an how the Dalai Lama fled to India. It shows how the Free Tibet movement has gained cause celeb status and how passionately the Tibetan people inside and outside Tibet feel about it. The filmmakers follow a march from the Dalai Lama's current home in exile, Dharamsala, India, to Lhasa by hundreds of faithful Tibetans in advance of the Beijing Olympics of 2008. This march led to riots in Tibet as the people got excited and mobilized for a fight with the Chinese Communists. As this is happening, the Dalai Lama is touring the world speaking out about peace and understanding.

There is a very interesting moment when one Tibetan activist talks about the schism the Dalai Lama has created within his people. He is both head of the Tibetan government in exile as well as its spiritual and cultural leader. What he says is generally taken to be a divine truth, however, he is a political human whose followers sometimes disagree with him. There has developed over the years a group of strict liberationists who see anything short of the return of absolute sovereignty to be a failure. These people cite as evidence earlier statements of the Dalai Lama from 30+ years ago. There is another group who follow what the Dalai Lama says directly as gospel, so as his opinion has evolved and become more moderate and even-handed, they have changed their minds too.

All of this is a very big problem for a peaceful nation with no standing army. Their options are rather limited - especially when the Chinese government treats them with such contempt (if they even 'treat' them at all). The Dalai Lama has an impossible dilemma of whether to keep fighting a battle he probably can never win while his culture gets slowly erased from the planet, or to give in to the reality and build "a new Tibet outside of Tibet" for the survival of his people and their way of life.

This is a very interesting movie that tells a good, clear story in a very approachable way. It shows the difficulty of the situation and does not advocate one position or another.

Stars: 3 of 4