Monday, June 28, 2010

Kisses (Monday, June 28, 2010) (60)

Kisses is a small Irish movie about a super poor boy and girl who live in the outskirts of Dublin. They both have terrible abusive families with drunk, uncaring parents. One day, the son gets in a fight with his father and the girl and he run away. They end up in downtown Dublin at night and have a wild time of it enjoying their freedom and spending the bit of cash the girl was able to steal from her brother's stash. Eventually, the darkness and depravity of the city catches up with them and they have to return to their miserable homes.

The film is shot is a very cute way, where it opens as black and white, and then as they escape, it moves into a washed-out color, then full color and then moves back to washed out and then black and white again as they return to their homes. This is a bit overdone, I think, but I appreciate that director Lance Daly is trying for something. It has the overall look of Medicine for Melancholy, but none of the elegance.

It is a very sad film about the desperation of these two kids' lives, but I think it's not immediately apparent how sad it is. I think we are generally moved to feel that anything about kids is sweet and nice, and the real pain they feel is hidden here, not only beneath the treatment of the color ratio, but also because the kids seem happy (because they don't know any better).

The kid actors are good, but I don't think that means much - I think kids are generally cheap cyphers in whom we put anything we want. If we like them and we want them to do well, we can say they're great actors; if we don't like them, we can say they're bad. It's a bit unfair, I think, to have them around.

This is an OK film, but nothing brilliant. I am not too wild about it, and I don't think I like how much of a downer it is. Warning: there is some unexpected sexual violence in this that sort of comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere. This is pretty ugly, I think, and a bit manipulative, or even exploitive.

Stars: 2 of 4

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Restrepo (Sunday, June 27, 2010) (59)

Restrepo is a documentary by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington where the two filmmakers spent a year with an Army platoon in a dangerous outpost in Afghanistan. Just before the filming began, the Korengal Valley was one of the most dangerous places in the war as the Taliban had close connections to the local people and were fighting back the U.S. military with extreme force. The Second Platoon set up a mountain-top outpost, named Restrepo after a fallen comrade, and dug in for a long fight. They helped to win the Korengal and turn a corner in the war (at least for a moment).

The film is presented as a series of interviews with the solders who were there as well as the footage was shot. The soldiers describe what was going on and what they felt at different times. They are very frank about their emotions and the importance of their mission. Getting control of the Korengal was (and still is) a key part of the greater effort in Afghanistan.

A lot has been made about the intimacy of the film and how it puts us into the role of a solder in a mountain camp. I guess this is true, to some degree, but what we see onscreen never really feels all that scary. It is clear that they are being shot at now and again, and the solders tell us about how dangerous it is there, but we never really see it or experience it. For most of the soldiers, the most important part of the their tours was the death of Restrepo and another platoon-mate who was shot on the same day. These deaths occurred before the filming, so we can't see what happened in that situation (the stories probably work better in print than onscreen - a formal issue with the film medium).

There is one fire-fight that we do experience, but it is done in such a way that it doesn't seem all that worrisome. Maybe it's just hard to translate the terror one feels when there are bullets and things flying at you, possibly killing you - but it never really came through to me.

Beyond the absence of fear that I had, I also didn't like that it relied so heavily on the thoughts of the soldiers. I'm sorry to be rude, but these are guys who are not really good at talking about their emotions or explaining their actions. They are do-ers not thinkers. I know the point of this is that they *do* have feelings too - but they are simply not articulated well or in any way that I can understand them.

Still, there are a few very interesting moments that are shown onscreen. One is a time when there was a blood fight on another mountain and several American soldiers were killed. The commanding officer of our platoon says something to the effect of "I want to you to mourn and then get back to work". He then goes on to say that they will fight to kill the people who killed their friends. This sober matter-of-factness is very interesting and I'm sure rather common on the battlefield. I was interesting to see it. Beyond this, it is never totally clear what the hell the mission is that these guys are fighting (and dying for), and it's interesting that they basically make up their own mission - kill the guys who killed our buddies. In the absence of direction, go with the personal.

I appreciate the irony that these guys name this camp after a beloved buddy of theirs, but they also hate this place because it's dangerous and just not that comfortable. It is still a mark of respect to name a shithole after their friend. But this is about as deep as the film gets. It never really moves beyond the cliche of brutish solders talking dirty and being stuck in a really bad place who are heroic because of their sacrifice and devotion. I get that, but I guess I would like more. It is impressive that Junger and Heatherington did what they did (there are not many journalists who risked as much as they did), but that doesn't make a great movie.

Stars: 2 of 4

Cyrus (Sunday, June 27, 2010) (58)

Cyrus is the latest film from Jay and Mark Duplass, two directors who first made a name for themselves with mumblecore films. Their two major works to this point, The Puffy Chair and Baghead, are both interesting pieces and both fit much more squarely into the mumblecore world than this one does. I think both films have good stuff in them, but they both rather fall apart in the would-be third act as the story goes slightly off the rails.

Cyrus, despite being a much bigger production with bigger stars and a more conventional script suffers a similar fate. It starts out well, if a bit weird, and then turns a corner in the third act that makes the whole thing a bit less than wonderful.

John (John C. Reilly) is a 40-something loser living in LA, still friendly with his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener). One night she gets him to join her and her new fiance at a party. He joins them expecting to have a terrible time, but at the party meets Molly (Marisa Tomei) a 40-something hottie. They hit it off and end up back at his place. After their second date, he follows her home and meets her 20-year-old son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill) who lives with her. Cyrus and Molly have an unusually close relationship that John has to get used to. Cyrus and John begin to resent each other for taking their time away from Molly.

True to their mumble roots, the Duplasses present the film in a very low-budget-looking style. Most of the camera work is hand-held and the score is minimal with basically no fancy cutting or tricks. This adds a nice level or matter-of-factness to the story. The problem I had is that it feels so natural, but the story is pretty inane. There is no way this woman would have a son as weird as Cyrus and would interact with him the way she does. Their characters are a bit exaggerated, I think, beyond the naturalistic skeleton of the film.

John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei are both great and play the more dramatic, more serious parts of the film well. Jonah Hill is a bit too silly for the film, I think. He is very funny at some points (like when he's playing his own techno music for John), but it's too ridiculous at other times (like when he tries to sabotage a wedding). I feel like he doesn't meld well inside the film, but is more of a hat on top of it. It's sorta like Cyrus, featuring Jonah Hill - which is rather annoying.

Again, the film begins well and has some good stuff in it, but I think the last third are a bit of a throw-away. There is not enough time given to several key ploy points, which results in a disorienting series of scenes. This is a shame, because just like with Baghead that was 70% good and 30% dumb, this never reaches that top level it comes so close to.

I really do think the Duplasses have some good stuff going for them. They seem to be able to direct actors well and have a good sense of technical stuff, but they need to work a bit harder on their scripts. It might be OK in mumbleworld to have a sorta scruffy or less-than-perfect script, but in big budget world, this sort of thing stands out in a bad way.

Stars: 2 of 4

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Dogtooth (Saturday, June 26, 2010) (57)

More than a movie *about* anything, Dogtooth is really an artistic exercise, as much about the medium and about art itself than anything else.

The film focuses on a middle-class Greek family who live in the remote suburbs outside of town. The film opens with the three kids, all in their late teens listening to a tape recording of new vocabulary words. The "sea" is an armchair; a "motor way" is a really strong wind (later we see that a "telephone" is a salt shaker). Then the kids then devise a game where they hold a finger under the hot water and the last person to remove it will win. "What will we call this game?," asks one of them. The sister who has invented the game looks blankly at the floor. She has no idea what the game would be called.

This play with definitions, naming things and people and control of language is the central point of this film. The parents have set out a world where their kids are kept in the house and the small yard of the estate and told that on the outside of the wall are horrible, violent "cats" that will kill and eat them. They have no access to anything other than exactly what their parents give to them. No access to language, ideas or dreams. The parents have told them that they can leave the house when one of their dogteeth (canines) comes out. Of course, being the age they are, this is unlikely to happen ever. The kids seem to have been socialized to be dogs, rather than humans.

The father brings a woman over to have sex with the son. It seems this is part of his training as a man (to be a sexually dominant being) and also, possibly, a way to keep him in line (it might otherwise be tough to control a hormonal 19-year-old young man). This woman doesn't ask questions and plays along with some of the kids weird games. When she starts trading things from the outside world, uncontrolled things, with the older sister, the strict rules of the house start to go out of whack.

This is a totally fascinating post-modern experiment. The interplay between what the kids know from their parents and what they can make up themselves is wonderful. The idea that they can remain at the developmental level of young children without the influences of culture or society is shocking and pretty convincing.

The parents are cruel in their ways, and there are several suggestions that the father is prone to acts of violence. As a result, the children interact with one another frequently in violent ways. Just as sex is disassociated from it's cultural mores, violence has no position on a scale of right and wrong. Everything is OK as long as it's done inside the house - a world built up and protected by the parents.

This split between a thing and the meaning of a word that describes it (the sign and the symbol, as semiologists would say) is fascinating, not only because it tells an interesting story in the film, but also because of how we react to it as viewers. Is cutting someone with a knife across the arm necessarily a bad thing if the people involved in the act don't know it's bad? If a person doesn't have a name, is their existence different from those with names? Is incest bad if there is no concept of brother/sisterhood and social convention?

Director (and co-writer) Giorgos Lanthimos does a brilliant job of separating film convention from the core of the presentation format. There is no score, there are almost no moving shots. Scenes play out in full, generally with one static camera before being cut away, rendering editing almost totally unnecessary.

The result is a beautiful, tight piece that has almost nothing more than pure story-advancing material. Much of what we see is pretty funny, though we are basically laughing at the people onscreen, rather than laughing with them (the parents are certainly not funny people and the children don't seen to know what humor is).

I think this is another important part of the experiment: we laugh at things that make us uncomfortable (in this case, weird, disassociated violence or weird misunderstandings of people who can't comprehend most of what they experience). We do this because we understand the whole context of things and where an outlier fits in (or doesn't fit in) to that situation. These kids, for instance, only see a very small view of things that have been specifically explained to them. Part of why they don't laugh more is because they don't know enough to know when something is not totally right.

I have enjoyed thinking about this film and breaking down the meaning of parts. There is a lot of fun and interesting material to work with. I will say, though, that there is somewhat of a limit to the depth of meaning I can find. It might be fun to examine the mother's role, say, in the development of the kids, or to look at why the parents might do this in the first place. Unfortunately there are not a lot of answers to these questions, because the material presented is so limited, the film is just so tight.

This is a difficult piece to be sure - but I really enjoyed it. It's weirdness is what's great about it. It constantly surprising us and shocking us with unexpected things. It's really a brilliant work of art.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Toy Story 3 (Sunday, June 20, 2010) (56)

I am a fan of the Toy Story movies. I liked the first one and loved the second one. For me they are fantastic buddy movies that smartly pull from film history to make wonderful, contemporary stories. There is a ton of John Wayne and Dean Martin from Rio Bravo in them (they are basically Westerns) and I love that.

Toy Story 3 fits in beautifully with tho previous two. This film is funny, sad, poignant, scary and exciting. I was surprised by how frank and adult some of the characters are and how death and loss was dealt with.

Since the last time we saw Woody and Buzz, Andy, their kid owner has grown up and stopped playing with them as much. He is now about to go off to college, but his mother makes him clean his room before he goes. Most of his toys are put in a box to be donated to the local preschool and once they get there, they think they're in toy heaven with tons of kids looking for hours of playtime all day long. There are hundreds of toys there, all happy to have this second-life as toys for new youngsters.

It turns out the preschool is run by a mad purple bear, Lotso, who is bitter because his owner abandoned him. He takes out his rage on the toys he doesn't like, forcing them to work the room with the very young kids who play rough. Lotso has a posse of enforcers, including Ken (Barbie's boyfriend), Big Baby (a big baby doll), Twitch (a big Alien insect) and Chunk (a rocky tough). They reset Buzz's memory so he becomes one of them and forgets his friends from Andy's house. It then becomes clear that the group has to escape, but to where? Andy has given them away and they have no other home.

Like the ones before, this is a very funny and fresh film with some great jokes that work for adults as well as kids. There's a whole love story between Ken and Barbie, suggesting that Ken is a clothes horse and rather vein. There are several great action/escape sequences that keep you on the edge of your seat.

One thing that was a big surprising to me was how Lotso is a very dark, angry character with almost nothing good going for him. He comes off as gregarious and bright at the beginning, opening his school to the new arrivals. But this is an act - and he is really an unfriendly, unloving character. I think this would be hard for kids to understand or deal with, especially because he comes off as a friend to begin with and then turns bad. Beyond this, his meanness seems to come from deep down inside him and he is unable to grow or change - even when it means the imminent deaths of the gang of friends. I guess he gets his just desserts in the end, but I'm not sure his punishment (which is basically a life of torture... also sorta dark, by the way) fits his crimes.

There are a few moments that seem more like a kids movie than an adult movie (like how Andy drives himself to college, which I don't buy considering his mother is so over-protective), but overall this is a sweet and fun movie, good for basically all ages.

I liked it a bit more than the first one and a bit less than the second one, but it was great overall. I did not see it in 3D, because I don't like the format very much and didn't want my feelings about that hurt my enjoyment of the film. Regardless, it worked well in a "2D" version, nonetheless. I guess there's a chance for a 4th one in the franchise... and I'm sure that one will be wonderful too.

Stars: 3 of 4

American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein (Sunday, June 20, 2010) (55)

This is a small documentary about American academic Norman Finkelstein who has made a career out of being a Jew who does not supported much of the recent Israeli policy toward Palestinians. He has been an outspoken critic of U.S. policy in the Middle East and has worked tirelessly to get the world community to see the conflict from the Palestinian point of view. As the son of Holocaust survivors, he has been an interesting voice in the debate, comparing Israeli treatment of Palestinians to his parents' treatment in the Warsaw ghetto by the Nazis.

The film briefly shows Finkelstein's roots in Brooklyn and how he made a name for himself in the early 1980s writing a piece that criticized a popular book that only took the Israeli side of the conflict. Most of the film takes place in the past few years as he went on a college campus debate tour over his latest book. In the middle of the tour, he got into a fight on the radio with Alan Dershowitz and then made it his mission to condemn Dersh and prove him to be a plagiarist. This got him into hot water with his employers, Hunter College and then DePaul University.

Finkelstein is certainly a weird guy and basically doesn't know when to shut the hell up. He is not wrong about Dersh copying footnotes from an earlier book into his recent one (I have read about this and it seems pretty clear that he plagiarized), but so what?! This is not a battle worth fighting.

At a point, Finkelstein goes even further off the rails by claiming that Hezbollah is a force for good. Certainly they are doing some money-giving work on the ground in Beirut, but it's hard to argue that they are an absolute force for good (their policy of wiping Israel off the map isn't "good", no matter how you slice it).

He seems to enjoy being a firebrand, more than being a serious public intellectual. It is interesting to see before our eyes him move from the latter to the former.

This is an interesting film, though rather wonky. You have to be interested in the Middle East and the "peace process" to even remotely enjoy or understand this. Still, it's an interesting work.

Stars: 2 of 4

Waiting for Armageddon (Sunday, June 20, 2010) (54)

Waiting for Armageddon is an interesting documentary about how right-wing American Christians support very rigid Israeli right wing efforts to get Palestinians out of Jerusalem, figuring that Jesus will only return when the city is controlled by Jews and the Temple is rebuilt. It is a bit of a cautionary tale for American Jews (or really any Jews) who support a one-dimensional approach to Israeli policy. It is about how these people are not looking to be friends with Jews, but are looking to use Jews for their own devices. Jews to them are place-holders with a false religion who represent a possible deliverance from their terrestrial lives. This cynical view is particularly sickening to me (not only the people who think it, but also the Jews who allow themselves and their people to be used in such a way).

The film is done very nicely with interesting interviews from both sides (from the Christians and from skeptical Israelis) and interesting perspective from academics and historians. It has a nice, tight look and seems well put-together overall.

The best and freshest thing (and really an amazingly lucky documentary moment) is a sequence at a gathering of Christians where a speaker talks about how "post-modernism" is the worst thing in the world, because it allows you to split the meanings of words and actions. Calling post-modernism horrible because of its fluid definitions! How amazing! How post-modern!

Still, there's nothing much very original about this film. It's not bad at all, but it's not really anything that I haven't seen or read before in the (left-wing) press. Yes, the Christian-Right generally hates Jews and only cares about Jesus' second coming... it's not all that interesting.

Stars: 2 of 4

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Killer Inside Me (Saturday, June 19, 2010) (53)

The Killer Inside Me, directed by Michael Winterbottom and based on the novel by Jim Thompson, is the story of Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), a tightly wound small-town deputy sheriff who gets into a relationship with a local whore Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba). It seems that several men in town are also having affairs with her, including rich oilman Chester Conway (Ned Beatty). Ford also has a beautiful fiance Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson) who seems to need more love and attention than he is willing to give her. When Lou strikes out in a violent, misogynistic, cruel streak, killing several people, his life beings to collapse and his options close in on him.

Strange misogynistic violence and weird sex has never really done it for me. From a pure story-telling view, this film goes from pretty normal and quiet to pretty loud and wild in a split second with basically no warning (aside from knowing that any story that comes from Jim Thompson's brain should devolve into blood and gore). In the first half-hour, Lou is a pretty normal guy who does like kinky sex (asphyxiation, spanking, etc.), but seems like a pretty nice guy. I don't like how Winterbottom turns the story to violence so quickly.

I think this format celebrates Lou's horribleness by making it more shocking than it would be if we were better prepared for it, possibly by planting a few more seeds early on. He seems to fetishize Lou's sickness. There is no context or background given for why Lou would do the things he does - it's just that he's a bad seed or something. This isn't really very artistic even - it's just pure unassociated violence.

Casey Affleck, who I normally love, seems a bit dead behind his eyes here. I don't really see much motivation for his actions and he seems to coast along strangely quietly with moments of action. Clearly this is a choice between Winterbottom and Affleck, but it seems a bit shallow to me - a bit harder to decipher.

Perhaps the director's biggest achievement is that he gets two pretty solid performances out of both actresses, both of whom I think are terrible at their so-called craft. Both Hudson and Alba are very good as two confused women who try to do what they can for their mad lover, but can never communicate effectively with him. I don't know where either of them got this performance (neither one has been anywhere close to this level of execution in the past), but they deserve credit for jobs well done.

The overall look of the film is typically yellow and brown and mostly burnt out - as one would expect from a story taking place in West Texas. The cinematographer, and past Winterbottom collaborator Marcel Zyskind, does a nice job, but it's a bit tired. Yes - everything looks properly faded and old, but it's all a bit trite. Yes - it's in West Texas; yes, it's brown and faded. Bah!

The film feels like a limp story hanging on the skeleton of unexplainable ultra-violence and cruelty. There's no way of approaching this story and understanding it. Lou is sick and acts without boundaries. I don't think there's much of a deeper level to his actions other than just that he's nuts. The rest of the characters around him either are there as foils for his rage. There is too much detail in the story outside of him, and basically none of it is interesting at all.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Cropsey (Thursday, June 17, 2010) (52)

Cropsey is the name that kids on Staten Island gave to a boogie man who allegedly kidnapped kids, cut them up and dumped their bodies in the woods. We are told at the beginning of the film that this was always an urban legend there until the late-1970s when a few kids actually did start going missing and at least one of their bodies was discovered in the woods. This documentary shows the police chase to find the murder and the media and legal trials that followed for the man they caught.

Soon after the massive man-hunt began on Staten Island, loner and homeless man Andre Rand was caught. He had been an orderly on the island's child mental hospital which was notorious for its inhumane living conditions for the kids. When the hospital was shut down, he stayed in the woods near the hospital ling in tents and scavenging.

At the time of his arrest, an unfortunate picture was snapped of him, looking insane and with drool coming out of his mouth. The local newspaper ran this photo under a headline suggesting that the "drifter" was arrested for the murder. This sealed his fate in the minds of his would-be jurors. Now in the present day, he is being tried for the murder of a second girl that same summer and the filmmakers go out looking for more information on Rand's past and the crimes themselves.

At it's core, this film feels like a poor-man's Paradise Lost, the brilliant documentary by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky about two unfortunate teens who were charged and convicted with murder because they dressed weird in their rural school. Here, directors Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman suggest that part of Rand's problem is that everyone was looking for a killer and he fit the bill, so he was convicted. They do suggest that he was probably guilty - and certainly was weird - but there is certainly an understanding that he didn't get a totally fair trial (and there is a suggestion that the trial in the present day is also not totally fair either).

My least favorite part of the film is that Brancaccio and Zeman become characters in the story as they hunt around for information. I don't really care about their story - I care about Rand and the story of the murders. To bring the story back around to them, I think is a sloppy byproduct of a badly conceived script (the movie is not called "Cropsey, Brancaccio and Zeman" after all).

This is a good movie, but not a great movie. It's interesting and shows some interesting stuff that I didn't know about mental health in New York up through the '70s. Still, I think overall this is a bit of a good story base that never really pans out. I'm not sure what their idea was with this doc (to make a movie about Rand, about the search for hard-to-find information), but the end result is not totally satisfying and rather choppy.

Stars: 2 of 4

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Father of My Children (Saturday, June 12, 2010) (51)

The fact that this film is called The Father of My Children is a bit mysterious to me. Such a title would suggest the film is about a woman looking at her husband from her point of view. What this film is, really, is two separate films awkwardly joined together, with only one half sorta from the perspective of the woman. The misleading title is only part of this film's problems.

Gregoire is a Parisian independent film producer who is working on several projects at once. His business is running on fumes as he is having trouble finding money to make all the projects he wants to make. A few of the films that have already started are running well over budget and he has to make it all work and keep his directors and investors happy. He has a close-knit family, a loving wife and clever teenage daughter, along with a few younger kids as well. When the money gets too difficult, he suddenly commits suicide, leaving his wife to settle his debts, finish as many projects as possible and close up his company.

The script here is quite a mess, I think. There are basically two halves of the story, the part before Gregoire kills himself and the part after. There is basically no connection between one and the other aside from the fact that they both have something to do with movies and share several characters. The first part of the story is actually pretty smooth and interesting, seeing how he gets movies made. I guess the intrigue in the second half is that the wife realizes her husband kept bad accounts and was more of a loser than she thought (despite a very successful run of strong movies he made). It isn't really all that interesting, the way it's presented. That Gregoire is the father of his wife's children is utterly irrelevant to the second part (maybe I'm being too literal).

I guess the acting is good throughout, especially Gregoire's daughter, played by Alice de Lencquesaing, who is a clever young woman who knows what she wants and knows how to get it. Her role is a bit dumb, I think, and more central in the narrative of the second-half than is necessary. Still, it's nice to see a talented new young star (she was also in the French family drama Summer Hours last year, playing a 13-year-old girl who smokes... hey - it's France!).

Writer/director Mia Hansen-Love took this story from the true events of a Parisian producer who recently committed suicide and left many questions about why he did it. I think she lost the thread, though, or at least didn't come about it in the right way. I think a more even plot, where the characters and story were more balanced between acts would have done a lot to help this film. Instead we get two movies that don't really have anything to do with one another and don't really tell a full story by themselves.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Winter's Bone (Saturday, June 12, 2010) (50)

There is a recent trend in independent American cinema, a neo-Southern Gothic movement that seems to have come about rather organically over the past few years. Starting with the films of David Gordon Green (especially George Washington and Undertow) and then the brilliant films Ballast, by Lance Hammer, and Shotgun Stories, by Jeff Nichols and also the (TV and film) comedies of Jody Hill, these filmmakers have brought us into our backyard and showed us how ugly and burned out the grass really is on the other side of the fence. Debra Granik's brilliant Winter's Bone continues in this proud tradition of small movies with a big impact showing stuff that we might not know about and probably would prefer to keep that way.

The story is rather simple. Ree Dolly (played brilliantly by Jennifer Lawrence), the eldest child of the Dolly clan is told one day that her father, who had been locked up for cooking meth, signed their house over for the bail bond and is now missing. Unless he shows up at court soon, the house will be taken from them. The Dollys are dirt poor and have to beg for scraps of meat from their slightly-less-poor neighbors. Ree has to go out into the wilderness of Southern Missouri to track down her father, running into his crooked associates along the way.

For me, part of the beauty of the story is the simplicity of the story and how the film is much more about the atmosphere inside the settings that than the plot itself. It takes place in winter, and everything is cold, worn out and dead. There is a beautiful blue-gray tone to everything and basically no bright colors throughout. Granik (who adapted the screenplay from a book by Daniel Woodrell) and cinematographer Michael McDonough do a beautiful job making this place of icy hibernation seem familiar and intimate.

The beautiful look of the film helps to convey a heavy sadness and desperateness. Though Ree is a determined young woman, she has a lot of stuff weighing her down (not only that she is the main caretaker of her younger siblings, but they they are so poor they would not survive being homeless... and her good-for-nothing father's associates seem to want to kill her more than help her). Still, she moves forward, knowing that if she stops to consider her next move or feel sorry for herself she might freeze in place.

Lawrence's performance is breathtaking. She doesn't speak much, but her strength and smarts come through in every shot. She knows that her father is a bad man and she knows there's a good chance he is dead, but she goes out looking for him as seriously and dead-set on her target as John Wayne in the Searchers. She won't be pushed around and won't be told "no".

The supporting cast is also fabulous. John Hawkes (who previously played Sol Star from Deadwood) is wonderful as Ree's loser, criminal uncle who might be the only adult who sorta gives a crap about Ree and her siblings, but doesn't really give that much of a crap. Garret Dillahunt (who was Wolcott in Deadwood) is great as the sheriff who doesn't want to see any harm done to the Dolly kids, but doesn't have much power to stop anything. Dale Dickey plays the wife of one of the big criminals in the area who is one of the nastiest, stone-cold women I've ever seen on screen. Her performance is unflinching and brilliant.

It's interesting that two of the actors come from Deadwood, because that show (at its best in the first two seasons, at least) is very similar to this film. There is a griminess and matter-of-fact darkness that pervades both. The world is a cold, terrible place where horrible people do unthinkable things. It's a ballet of sin and depravity that is beautiful and fantastic.

Stars: 4 of 4

Friday, June 11, 2010

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Friday, June 11, 2010) (49)

I grew up knowing Joan Rivers as a comedian, but knowing her best as a woman with bad plastic surgery who sold crappy jewelry on QVC and did a shrill red carpet show on cable with her daughter. This documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, tries to show that she is much more than just those things. She is a much more complicated person who lives the life of a queen, is desperately paranoid of not being able to work tomorrow and has lost most of her friends over the years. This is not entirely a bio-doc, per se, but rather an examination of the comedian: who she is today and why.

Joan is a workaholic who takes basically any job that is offered to her, from the Donald Trump Celebrity Apprentice show (which she won), to stand-up gigs in remote Wisconsin casinos (in the winter!). She lives in a gigantic apartment in Manhattan with 20-some-foot ceilings, gilded pillars and a staff of housekeepers. She has an agent, a manager and an assistant, not to mention her daughter Melissa who is frequently around. Her life seems like somewhat of a Mobius strip, where her fancy lifestyle forces her to work all the time and her working all the time gives her money to afford the fabulous lifestyle.

We see her history and how she got her start as a favorite of Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. When she was offered her own show on Fox that would compete directly with him, she left him (having been a frequent fill-in host for several years) and he dropped her forever. To make matters more tragic, her show never happened and she was left with no show, a lost friend and an unwritten ban from NBC late night TV. Clearly in retrospect this was a bad decision, however it is sad that Johnny dropped her the way he did - and did so in such a permanent way.

The sadness pervades her life and career, from her husband's suicide to the loss of a dear friend who serves as her manager and then vanishes during the filming (it's unclear what happens to him at all). She has outlived many of her contemporaries and her material is basically unknown to the younger generation of comedians. In one uncomfortable scene, she is driving to her own Comedy Central Roast and talking to her assistant about how all the jokes will be about the plastic surgery. Then there is a montage of bits by comedian after comedian making fun of her face and her surgeries. These jokes are cheap and clearly don't really spend the time to get to know her hilarious routine, which is about sex, gender roles and families (to name a few topics).

Overall this is a good and very funny movie and is interesting in its treatment of Rivers. You have to imagine she had some say in what went into it, but it still feels frank and unflinching (if slightly on her side). She is a generally sad person, I think, who keeps herself busy as way to deal with her shit. She has an interesting life - and is funny as hell.

Stars: 3 of 4

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Let it Rain (Wednesday, June 2, 2010) (48)

My general working theory with French Cinema is that most of it, especially the most banal stuff, is about guilt over the French role in World War II and or guilt about the colonial era in North Africa and the subsequent place for Algerians in modern-day France. This film, Let it Rain, is a super typical French movie, that falls back on tired cliches and guilt over Algeria and Algerians.

In the film, Karim (played brilliantly by Jamel Debbouze) is a documentarian who is shooting a movie about Agathe (Agnes Jaoui), a local politician who is also the daughter of the family his Algerian mother has worked for as a maid for decades. Immediately this sets up an interesting relationship. The two of them were mostly raised together, but of course in totally different worlds (him the son of an immigrant and her the daughter of a wealthy white family). His co-filmmaker, Michel (Jean-Pierre Bacri), is a one-dimensional fool who seems to do and say the wrong thing at every moment.

From this set up comes a series of silly comedic scenes where the duo constantly screws up the interviews (the duo that couldn't shot straight, I guess). She deals with a boyfriend who has issues with her success, and her family deals with their decision to no longer employ Karim's mother. There are several very typical and trite family luncheon scenes, and several uses of Nina Simone songs (seriously, French people, I love Nina Simone too - but stop using her in your movies. It's getting old!). Throughout I guess there's a theme of rain - but this doesn't really seem important, not nearly enough to mention it in the title.

Agnes Jaoui, who also co-wrote the film with Bacri and directed it, clearly has talent (and almost all the vowels in her last name!) - there are some very nice moments in the film - but the problem is the sloppy script. It feels like a bunch of unconnected story threads that are randomly twisted together, rather than carefully woven or sewn (phew, that was an analogy almost gone overboard!). There is really no good plot here and the good moments are lost in the midst of a lot of other junk that doesn't work.

The best part of the film is the wonderful performance of Jamel Debbouze, who is a comic by training. He is honest, vulnerable and smart in this role - and makes the scenes he is in really come alive. I'm sure Jaoui deserves credit for getting this performance out of him. I hope to see him in more stuff in the future.

I would say this film is good, but not great. There are enough nice moments that it comes off as overall positive, however there is so much stuff holding it back that it's hard to give much higher praise than that. I generally dismiss French films about Algerian guilt as lazy - and this is very close to that designation... but is a bit better, I guess. Jaoui does use classical music very nicely for the score - and this is a nice, elegant touch. I think the big problem is the script which is rather messy and needs a re-write.

Stars: 2 of 4