Saturday, July 31, 2010

Birdemic: Shock and Terror (Saturday, July 31, 2010) (86)

Birdemic is one of the worst movies ever made. It might be the worst movie I've ever seen in my life. Everything about it is terrible from the story and the script, to the acting, the editing, the sound and the special effects. There is no reason in the world to watch this film, and yet it was one of the most enjoyable movie-watching experiences I can remember in a long time.

In a recent piece in Harper's, Tom Bissell wrote about the film The Room as what he called a "post-camp cult film." That's the best description of Birdemic I can find. "It's so bad that it's good" is the general force at work here. Bissell beautifully explains the film as the "movie that an alien who has never seen a movie might make after having had movies thoroughly explained to him."

To describe the story that director James Nguyen wrote and directed is sorta silly, but I feel formally obliged to do it here. Rod works for an Internet sales company and one day bumps into hottie Nathalie in a diner at lunch. He asks her out and she says yes. They go out and fall in love.

At some point, totally unrelated to the romance, a flock of killer eagles begins attacking people in the Bay Area and killing them. Rod and Nathalie have to escape the terror from above and kill as many of the birds as they can in the process. Not to ruin anything (not that it matters if you know), but the birds ultimately give up and fly away for no reason. There's really no shock or terror in this at all.

The film is basically a re-hash of M. Night Shyamalan's terrible work from 2008, The Happening. In that, there was something weird where nature was killing people with wind and trees. In this, it seems nature is mad a humans for being bad to the environment, so it sends mad eagles to get the people. (By the way, if there was ever evidence that Shyamalan was a terrible writer and director it is that this movie - which is totally ridiculous - borrows the entire story, including small details, and it comes out totally silly.)

It it hard to explain how terrible every aspect of this film is. Aside from the silly story, every other technical aspect of the film is bad. The acting is beyond wooden (I'm guessing these are non-actors and maybe just Nguyen's friends), the editing is terrible, frequently cutting scenes off before they are finished. The sound is even horrible, cutting in an out as actors are speaking and leaving gaps of silence between visual cuts.

Maybe what makes the film so deliciously horrible is the special effect birds we see throughout the film. They look like birds you might have seen on a computer screen saver from around 1989. They don't move much and seem to hover in the air flapping their wings slowly, like giant, slow humming birds. Some of them are able to hang in the air without moving their wings, as if they were soaring, but also remain still as they do it. They are totally ridiculous and over-the-top.

It seems that this film, which was released in New York this past March, is already a cult hit. I saw it at a midnight screening where the audience was there to see something horrible and knew what they were getting (some of them might have seen it before, as they seemed to be laughing in advance of terrible things happening).

I'm not sure this would play well watching soberly in one's home. It's a bit like a really bad Rocky Horror Picture Show (there's even an amazing musical scene in a bar with a guy singing solo - though he apparently has invisible back-up singers and band). It looks like Nguyen is already working on a sequel to this film (The Resurrection). I look forward to that.

Stars: 0 of 4 (or alternatively "A Billion Stars")

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (Tuesday, July 27, 2010) (85)

The opening sequence of The Radiant Child shows a few title cards where director Tamra Davis explains how the film got started. She writes that she was a friend of Jean-Michel Basquiat in the early- and mid-1980s, and interviewed him in 1986. After the interview she put the footage aside for awhile not knowing what to do with it. When he died of a drug overdose in 1988, she decided to put the interview away and not use it. Recently she came back to the footage deciding she could do something with it now.

In this introduction, Davis leads us to believe that this film would be based on her interview with Basquiat, maybe leading us to new insights from the never-before-seen reels. What we get though is really nothing of the sort; this is a pure bio-doc, and a very good one at that. Through interviews with contemporaries, ex-girlfriends, art critics, downtown scenesters and friends, not to mention the 1986 interview, we see a very thorough and clear picture of this brilliant, troubled artist.

I am interested by the fact that in all the years I studied art history and have admired Basquiat's work - and felt very viscerally affected by it - I have always felt the need to "understand" it better. The mystery in the layers and layers of paint, images and text always bemused me; I wanted to get to a deeper level with the works, always feeling left somewhat on the outside. This film, in explaining who he was and how he worked, showed me that there is no real "deeper" understanding of this work. His work is almost purely emotional with touch points of (sometimes obscure) cultural literacy and identity peppered throughout.

At one point in the interview he speaks about how when he goes to paint, he turns on the television "for source material". This is totally revelatory to me. What might seem like a trite or cute line by a young artist working today, totally encapsulates how I would understand his work now. Yes, there are many levels to his work, but like with a television, there's a lot of stuff that is there that you don't need to worry about. His work is a cypher for the cultural world.

Davies employs a great soundtrack in the film, much of it being the artists and musicians who were in the same downtown scene that Basquiat was in (Blondie, the Velvet Underground), some being music of the era that might not have been downtown per se (early hip hop from the Bronx), and lots of be-bop, which Basquiat listened to constantly. The use of the bop here really underlines how much his paintings have in common with that style. That Charlie Parker or Dizzie Gillespie could improvise and chop up standards into smaller interesting bits is very similar to the technical and aesthetic qualities of Basquiat's work.

The film is really wonderfully directed. It moves along very smoothly and seems to tell his whole life story, getting into his psychology relating to his complicated relationship with his parents, showing how he came on the scene with tons of talent and no access and became a millionaire looking to become friends with the cool kids (Andy Warhol). Davis cuts the film beautifully, especially the montages showing his paintings and still photographs of him working in the studio.

I don't know why she started the film with this suggestion that it would use her '86 interview so much, because we really only get about 10 or 15 minutes of it at most (and most of it is not very interesting as he's clearly rolling on heroin during it). This documentary really is a great work of biography and is illuminating, even for an art lover like myself.

Stars: 3 of 4

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mugabe and the White African (Saturday, July 24, 2010) (84)

The White African in this film is Mike Campbell, a farmer in Zimbabwe who grows mango on his large plot of land. He is fighting to keep his farm and trying to withstand the attacks and threats from local thugs who have been encouraged by the government to kick him and his family out. Campbell is fighting Mugabe in court in order to keep his land from seizure.

As part of Robert Mugabe's land redistribution program that began several years ago, white farmers are being rushed off their land in Zimbabwe so it can ostensibly be given to the poor peasants who live in the area. In actual fact, the white farmers are being beaten and terrorized in order to get them off their land. Once gone, their land ends up in the hands of local ministers, Mugabe supporters, judges, members of parliament and their families and associates. Because these people are not farmers, but just corrupt bureaucrats, they don't know how to grow anything on the land, further killing jobs in the already miserable economy.

There are actually two white Africans in the story. The other is Campbell's son-in-law, Ben Freeth, an equally tough young man who doesn't see how Mugabe's plans are fair or good in the slightest. Mike and Ben travel several times to Windhoek, Namibia for their trial at the Southern African Development Community's high court. Each time they go there, the Zimbabwean government postpones the case, and ultimately walks out of the court without presenting their side.

It is clear that Mugabe's land plan is illegal and racially bigoted and that if he wanted the white farmers out of his country he could have gone about it in a less violent and destructive way. It is also clear that Mugabe does not have a legal leg to stand on and that he cannot just void the land sales to the whites from years before merely on a whim.

The film is rather simplistic, however and somewhat disappointing. It relies on our emotional instincts, rather than explaining things to us with historical facts. It is much easier to show how scary the armed thugs are who constantly show up on Mike's farm, but it doesn't really explain why these particular guys are there. Throughout the film, I constantly wanted more information and more detail, and what I always got was more emotional heart-twisting.

For instance, Mike's lawyers explain that he bought the farm "after independence" (by which I gather they mean after 1965), though they do punt on the question of who he bought the farm from. If he bought the farm from another white person, it's not unreasonable to see that the blacks in the area might be upset by that. What we do see a lot is the bloody aftermath of white farmers getting beaten up by gangs of thugs. Of course this translates to us -but it is a rather cheap way of telling the story.

I don't mean to take the side of the thugs at all, but some more analysis of the situation would have been nice. Clearly the fact that Mike is providing jobs to hundreds of locals wheres the thugs who would take his farm would not is a compelling reason by itself to keep him around (aside from the human rights issues involved).

This is a good movie, but not a great movie. It does generally tell an effective and compelling chronological story. I just wanted a bit more here that I didn't get.

Stars: 2 of 4

Salt (Saturday, July 24, 2010) (83)

Salt is a totally ridiculous, recycled and dumb summer action blockbuster. There is absolutely nothing fresh about this film- I've seen it a hundred times before.

Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a CIA agent who one day interviews an ex-KGB general who says that she herself is a Russian sleeper agent who is going to kill the Russian president the next day in New York. Surprise, surprise, she escapes her D.C. office and runs up to New York by Bolt Bus (I'm not kidding... I wonder if she used the free wi-fi on board). There she seems to kill the Russian president and triggers a series of events that nearly lead to nuclear war (omigod - yes! Nuclear was with Russia is totally something that is going to happen tomorrow).

Her boss and main buddy in the CIA is Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) who doesn't believe she is a Russian spy and tries to defend her to all their spy buddies. At some point he has no choice but to admit that she probably is a spook, but then she gets away again and gets into the White House for a meeting with the President because she's dressed like a drag king (again- I'm serious). Now the question is will she start the nuclear war, will she kill the Prez or will she stay loyal to the United States.

It seems to me the only reason you would cast Jolie is because she's hot and gets you that vavavavoom t&a scene where she strips off her clothes or gets nekkid with some hot foreign dude. But for no reason, there is no sex to speak of in this whole film. And the film comes in at under 100 minutes, so it's not like they had to cut the sex scenes. I don't get that. Maybe director Phillip Noyce and writer Kurt Wimmer thought that would have been too cliche to put in. Instead they went with a movie about nuclear war with the Russians... in 2010.

The writing and direction in this film is so terrible it's surprising it was released at all. At one point when there is a gunman shooting at people in the White House (because, of course, you can attack the President inside the White House) a short bald man turns to the assailant and says, "don't kill me, I'm just the National Security Advisor." Really?! That passes for good dialogue in Hollywood these days? That's a joke of a parody of action movie dialogue. If you were making a movie making fun of dumb action movies, that line might be too silly to include.

Beside this, the action scenes are terribly done and totally unbelievable. For a moment I'll forget that one of the big action scenes takes place inside the White House where the secret service agents around the President are basically stuffed suits, no better at fighting than ninja movie bad guys (one karate chop to the neck and they out cold). One of the big chases is in New York, after Salt has apparently killed the Russian president and after she escaped the CIA in D.C. the day before. The NYPD (why they're involved is beyond me) take her in a police cruiser across the 59th Street Bridge for some unknown reason - but then get caught in traffic on the bridge, giving our heroine enough time to break some windows and escape. Again - really?! That would happen? That's even hard to believe in the world of dumb action flicks.

This film gave me nothing. The story is totally unoriginal with a few requisite dumb twists that are not all that surprising. The writing is terrible overall and the directing is laughable at best and horrible at worst. Who gives a crap about the acting? - it was lukewarm throughout (though why Schreiber has a southern accent in the film is bizarre and his execution is horrible). There is no reason to see this movie. It's not even stupid summer fun. It's terrible.

Stars: 0 of 4

Friday, July 23, 2010

Life During Wartime (Friday, July 23, 2010) (82)

This film is a follow-up to Todd Solondz's 1998 piece Happiness. I loved Happiness. I think it's fresh, hysterical and biting. This film has none of the power of the first and just feels like more stuff that was not good enough to make it into the earlier work. It is basically totally not funny and most of the jokes just come out as dull lines you'd say to somebody to gross them out.

Trish (Allison Janney), now-ex-wife of pedophile Bill Maplewood (Ciaran Hinds), is raising their three kids in Florida. Trish's loser sister, Joy (Shirley Henderson), is still not having any luck with men. Apparently she married Allan (who was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the last one, but is now Michael K. Williams - Omar from The Wire), though she wishes she married Andy (Jon Lovitz in the last, but Paul Reubens in this). Fancy sister Helen (Ally Sheedy) lives in a world of money, sex and coldness, and doesn't really have her stuff together either. All the characters deal with how to move on from their painful pasts and have happy futures.

In one scene, Trish comes back from a date and talks to her 12-year-old son Timmy about how great she feels and how when the guy touched her arm "it made [her] wet". He then asks, "are you still wet, mommy?" This is totally not funny and overdone. It has has the general cadence of Happiness, with none of the elegance. (I am reminded of the scene when Bill talks to his son Billy about his sick obsessions and his son asks him, "did you ever fuck me in the ass, dad?" and he answers, "No, with you son, I just masturbated.") The dialogue in this film mostly feels like a lines for cheap laughs, but nothing more interesting.

The film is not really a satire - because it doesn't really take aim at anything in particular. So what that everyone has pain and everyone is trying to deal with it? That is not really a jokey thing to laugh at - it's just a state of life. Besides, these people deal with their pain by ignoring it - by forgetting it generally. Undermining the whole point of the film. It's not about people struggling with forgiving or forgetting - it's about people who have forgotten pretending they still have an internal struggle... which they don't have at all.

Every scene seems to take five minutes longer than it should. Sometimes actors talk back and forth with one another and you forget what they're talking about because it's so dull and unimportant. The writing is really bad throughout.

I'm sure it's hard to cast actors in roles that the audience identifies with other actors, but I still feel like the actors here are just not as good - or not as good in their roles - as the actors in Happiness. Dylan Baker is much more sympathetic than Ciaran Hinds as Bill - and that is an interesting element in the first film (that you like Bill even though he's a monster). Jane Adams will always be Joy for me (in basically anything she does), so Shirley Henderson really doesn't have a shot here.

Mostly I feel that this film is just extra stuff that was left out of Happiness, for good reason, and cut together here to try to *say something*. What it says, though, is not really that interesting and doesn't make me really think more about the human condition or anything the way good satire can do well. It's just a bunch of bad jokes with no particular narrative.

Stars: .5 of 4

Farewell (Friday, July 23, 2010) (81)

Farewell was the codename the French intelligence service gave to a Frenchman living in Moscow in the early 1980s. This guy made contact with a disillusioned KGB general (Gregoriev)who felt that his country was headed in the wrong direction. Gregoriev began giving Farewell documents about the KGB spy apparatus in the West, who in turn passed them on the the CIA. At some point it became clear that Farewell and Gregoriev and their families were in some amount of danger. As an electrical engineer by trade, Farewell was never trained in proper protocols of espionage, so he made several mistakes.

I generally think that French filmmakers don't make good Hollywood-style action films and this doesn't do much to change my mind about that feeling. It is interesting that it's based on a true story (something that I had never heard of), but it is rather dull and slow-moving, as if it was a typical French drama.

Gregoriev is played by the great Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica. I know that he has acted before in things I've seen, but I don't think he's ever had such a big role. I think he's great. He's totally believable as a Russian communist who did believe in the Bolshevik dream, but now sees how repressive and counterproductive the Soviet regime is. He drinks, he screws, he has a loving family and adores his thoroughly modern teenage son. For me, Kusturica is one of the best things about the film. He lights up the screen and is a total natural (I hope he continues to act more).

The story is rather typical, even if it is real. There's not all that much intrigue here. OK - so it's a spy movie, that there are people following you and tapping your phone is totally typical, not specifically interesting.

Director and writer/adapter Christian Carion does a good job with the material (the film is totally harmless and good), but doesn't stretch very much. I think Farewell and Gregoriev might have been super important people in world history, but I never really see here how what they did is more important than any other spies in the world. I am told throughout the film that what they did was very impactful, but I never get a real visceral sense of this. I trust what I am told, but I wish I could have *see* it specifically.

Stars: 2 of 4

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Around a Small Mountain (Thursday, July 22, 2010) (80)

I have written before about how much I've liked some of the new work by great French New Wave directors. That Agnes Varda, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette are still working in their 70s and 80 is amazing by itself. Around a Small Mountain, sadly is not a wonderful film and suggests to me that Rivette might be on the way to losing his chops. It's wildly elliptical, with such a dull story that even if the narrative was clearer, it wouldn't even be that interesting.

One day Jane Birkin, Kate, is stuck on the side of the road with her SUV not running. A rich Italian man, Vittorio, pulls his Porsche up next to her and silently fixes her engine. He then drives off without any comment. She is pulling a circus tent as she works for a small troupe of clowns, acrobats and strongmen that plays through the the South of France. The Italian falls in with the circus, befriending the players in an effort to win Kate's heart.

Throughout the film, Rivette cuts several times to weird Brechtian sequences where the actors speak directly to us in the audience or have these weird mini-plays (on a stage with dramatic lighting) explaining background secondary stories. All of these seem like a bit much, as the whole film is so small, a good percentage of it becomes these meta-stories. They just didn't work for me.

I guess the story is rather sweet, if totally banal. The Italian man is rather lost in life, we have to imagine (though we find out almost nothing about him, really), and he feels safe and at home in the circus with other lost souls. I think my main objection is that the story never really develops very much. None of the characters grow or change and the fact that the story focuses on these particular scenes and days comes off as rather random. There is no real sense of forward movement or any kind of inertia.

It is clear that Rivette is a master. The Brechtian bits alone are daring and interesting (and I give all sorts of credit to any filmmaker who breaks rules). I just wanted a bit more. More of a story, more analysis of the characters, more of a conclusion. The film sorta ends with a silly open question that doesn't really go anywhere and this is frustrating more than thought-provoking.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (Saturday, June 18, 2010) (79)

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno is a fascinating French documentary that opens simply enough with a voice-over by co-director Serge Bromberg explaining how this work came to be. He says he got stuck in an elevator one day with a woman who was the widow of the great French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot. During their hours trapped in one of those tiny elevators in French apartments, she told him about the reels and reels of footage her long-deceased husband had shot for a film that was never released. This charming, intimate and unconventional approach pervades the film, showing us how this film was being made and how it ultimately fell apart mid-way though.

By 1964, Clouzot was one of the greatest filmmakers in the rich traditional of French cinema and was heading into the winter of his career. He became obsessed with his next project, a film called L'Enfer ("Hell" or "Inferno"), about a young couple where the wife is outwardly sexual and flirtatious with both men and women and the husband goes crazy as he thinks he wife is cheating on him. The central creative point of the film is that Clouzot wanted to show the man's inner turmoil and growing madness in a vivid way onscreen by using optical tricks and visual distortions, not to mention bizarre music that would give the same impression.

In order to do this, Clouzot spent many months working with photographers and artists shooting op-art pieces as well as visual and sound distortions trying to capture insanity for an audience. He worked tirelessly with costume designers and the actors to shoot tests and experiments all in the hopes of perfecting what were new techniques in visual communication.

At one point he decided that the film, which was shot in black and white, would have segments of color when the man started going mad. To heighten the drama of these scenes, he would invert the colors, so blue water would become red. In order to do this, he would have to make up the actors in blue and gray clothes and makeup so they would look naturally pink and lifelike in the inverse. As a result, much of the color footage we see has a ghostly gray palette.

This documentary is mostly a compilation of these screen tests and amazingly beautiful experimental material as well as interviews with Clouzot's technical collaborators (photographers, sound mixers, assistants, visual artists, electrical engineers, not to mention actors and friends).

One element that doesn't work as well and feels a bit unnecessary is that Bromberg and co-director Ruxandra Medrea use modern-day actors reading the film's script and acting out the story as a way to tell us what is happening in the narrative of the Inferno. I get what they are doing here and why they do it (it's nice to know the general outline of the story as we watch it), but it's a bit confusing and seems to be beside the point of the documentary. I think these segments could have been left out without any damage being done to the end product.

Clouzot was not a New Waver - he was from a time before that movement, from a golden age of French cinema with Jean Renoir and Jean Cocteau. But this film would have shown (and the footage we see does show) how he was aware of what the "younger generation" was doing in Paris at the time and how he was pushing the envelope of of traditional filmmaking to answer these cutting-edge newcomers. His response is utterly non-New Wave (and his process was so traditional he sometimes couldn't communicate with younger tech people on set) and at the same time totally fresh and innovative. Th footage we see reminds me of the last act (the trippy light show) of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (made four years later).

Ultimately Clouzot got lost in his own obsessive-compulsive spiral - effectively being driven mad by a film about a man being driven mad. I think the two directors of this film also run a bit off-track in the madness of the footage and rather lose track of the totality of the piece. The third act here is a bit sloppy as we see the Clouzot film is falling apart. We never totally see what happens and what ultimately runs the project into the ground.

There is unquestionably some amazing visual footage here, but I would have preferred a bit more structure to the documentary. That could have taken a very good work and made it great. Then again, the exact same could be said for the Clouzot film itself.

Stars: 3 of 4

Valhalla Rising (Saturday, July 17, 2010) (78)

I am a big fan of Nicolas Winding Refn's film Bonson from 2009. For that reason alone, I went to see Valhalla Rising, which looked like a big piece of shit in the trailers I saw beforehand. Well, I should learn a less and believe my eyes more than the past work of a filmmaker because this film is even more of a turd than I expected it to be.

There is basically no story here, but what I can best make out is that there is a guy named One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen), who is a tattooed slave in what might be England or Scotland or Scandinavia (with British accents) in the middle ages, who comes from a world of horrible violence. He escapes is current owners and kills them all. Then a young boy comes over and begins to follow him. At some point they meet a group of guys who are going to the Holy Land on a crusade. He follows them for awhile too. Then some more people die in extremely violent and bloody ways.

Throughout the story One Eye has weird fractured flashbacks to extreme violence he has seen in his life and visions of the world through a red filter (which I guess means something about blood). There is a lot of nothing going on too. We see people staring off into the distance blankly and then we see vast natural expanses or waterscapes with nothing going on. This gets pretty tedious.

The photography, by Morten Søborg is actually wonderful and looks very blue-green throughout. It is always foggy and gray, but there are glimpses of wonderful colors. If these plastic images don't do anything emotionally or story-wise, at least they look nice.

I really feel like I'm missing something with this film. It almost comes off as an art piece, more than a narrative, but I don't think that on purpose. I think it just has a bad script and bad execution without any of the poetry or beauty of his earlier work.

Stars: 1 of 4

Inception (Saturday, Jul 17, 2010) (77)

Inception is a complicated, but beautifully presented blockbuster that is a lot of fun to watch, but is a bit too clever and a bit too neat and tidy in the end. What we get is a very interesting puzzle-world where we follow three coincidental stories involving a group of people as they move between different layers of consciousness and dreams.

Dom Cobb (Leo Dicaprio) does what is called "extraction," where he is paid to go into people's dreams and steal things from deep inside their subconscious. He works with a team of people including an "architect" and a fixer. The architect designs the world that this "group dream" takes place in - the spaces and buildings of the world in the dream, so the extractor can interact with the subject in a more predictable dream space. The fixer is there to assist the extractor in anything he needs done inside the dream.

The dreamer subject would be unaware the extraction is occurring, but just think they're in a normal dream of their own. In order to go into the dream world, all the team members have to be sleeping and dreaming themselves - but, of course, this shared dream state is really their office... and it can get rather hairy.

As the extraction goes along, the subject gains more and more sense that the dream is not really their own. Their subconscious begins to put up boundaries so at some point all the people in the dream begin looking at the extractor and his team or actually fighting him (especially if that person has had training to guard against extraction - which rich and important people do). Ultimately the world of the dream, the world the architect has built, will begin to crumble, killing the people in the dream and waking them up (if you die in a dream, you wake up).

On top of this, sometimes the extraction requires going into a dream inside the dream, a meta-dream, for secrets that are hidden even deeper in one's brain. As the team goes to the second level the timing of the world slows down, so what is a minute in the real world, becomes five minutes in the first level of the dream, which becomes 25 minutes in the second level of the dream. The deeper dream level, the more unstable the architecture of that world is and more violent the people in the dream world become.

As the film opens, Cobb is working on an extraction from Saito (Ken Watanabe), a rich Japanese industrialist. On his team is his right-hand man and primary fixer, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Saito is testing their abilities and trying to find their weaknesses. It turns out he has a job for Cobb and his crew. He wants to make a business rival sell him the competing company. To do this, Cobb and his team must do the opposite of what they normally do. Rather than extracting an idea, they have to plant one - a process called inception.

Apparently this is something that extractors have worked but never achieved. It's the most powerful way of harnessing the power of dream control, but because of human psychology, it is very hard to do. Cobb and his team hire a new architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page) who is a gifted American student in Paris. They hire a "forger," Eames (Tom Hardy), whose job it is to forge documents in the real world, but also create fake devices in deeper dream worlds. They also hire a chemist who can give them a strong tranquilizer so they can sleep deep enough to get down three levels of dreams (an extremely unstable level of the psyche), Yusuf (Dileep Rao).

Everything goes swimmingly until Cobb's now-deceased wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard) haunts his subconscious and corrupts the dreams that he and the team share with the subject. As he tries to plant the idea of selling his company in the subconscious of billionaire Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), he and his team have to fight Fischer's own defenses as well as the roadblocks Cobb and Mal put in the way. One unlucky twist is that if you die in a dream while under significant sedation, rather than simply waking up you drop into a deep world of "limbo" where you can live for decades with no hope of returning.

This is clearly a complex world filled with a long list of rules and contingencies to those guidelines. Every time you think you have figured out what is going on, there is another bump that re-confuses you. This method of storytelling also feels like a bit of a gimmick - that you're never really comfortable and writer-director Christopher Nolan always has three thoughts ahead of you. It's beautiful in the way a finely woven tapestry is, but it's a bit overdone. I think we would have been fine with a bit of a less baroque narrative. I think much of the detail and embellishment is showy and beside the main point of the story. (I fully realize this is a stupid argument on my part - that the story is complex is what it is... but it felt a bit like gilding the lily...)

Ever since I saw this movie, I have been trying to figure out if it's a really slick and smart movie or if it's just a gimmicky puzzle where once you figure it out, the fun is lost and it becomes pedestrian. It is a lot of fun and seems "intellectual", but I don't know how worthwhile it is. I tend to think it's more of a game that becomes humdrum the more you think about it. I don't think Nolan is really "saying" anything. I think it might just be fun and it's my mistake for making more of it than that.

The film is really great on a technical level. The look of the work is very smart, sexy and refined. Nolan works well with frequent collaborator, cinematographer Wally Pfister. The colors are generally subdued and frequently gray, brown and blue. This works well in a film about dreams(I can't remember the last time I had a dream in vivid color). The score by Hans Zimmer is really powerful and impressive. There are all sorts of non-musical themes that come along throughout, more sounds and noises than pure music. It's reminiscent of Michael Giacchino's score for the Lost television show or Philip Glass' brilliant score for Godfrey Reggio's Koaanisqatsi.

The costumes, sets and interiors are also sumptuous and felt particularly tangible and realistic. Every room was beautifully designed and every costume looked great (like James Bond, it's pretty awesome to get in a gunfight in a suit).I read one reviewer who wrote that its good that everyone has a unique costume - because it's not like the bad guys would go shopping together or have a bad-guy uniform. I agree with this.

Some of the CGI special effects were less crisp and clean than I would have hoped for. In one particular scene when Cobb is explaining "architecture" to Ariadne, he shows how things can explode. Sadly the exploding fruit and flower stands just looked like cartoons, shocking me back into my seat in the movie theater. I wish Nolan had used real effects with real explosions or redesigned this sequence differently.

(One weird thing is that the sound mix seemed off to me as the dialogue in many scenes was much too quiet compared with other sound effects and music. This made for a difficult experience, where I had to struggle to hear what the actors were saying. I don't ever recall this happening before. It's not a naturalistic use of low sound like in Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, I think it's just a mistake. For a while I thought it was a problem with my theater, but then I heard similar complaints from friends.)

One frustrating thing for me about the presentation is that even understanding how the time is decompressed the deeper you go into the dream world (which explains why you can have a really vivid dream, even though you're only asleep for a moment), there is not a consistent ratio of time from one dream level to another once they get into the inception phase of the story. According to the rules, there should be a lot more time in the second dream level than the first - and an even greater amount of time in the third level. Instead all the story-times seem to function co-incidentally with all the stories climaxing at the exact same moment. This was disorienting and a bit annoying. Don't give me a rule and then make an exception right away - and then not explain the exception.

There are a ton of detail questions left unanswered, and not to create mystery and intrigue, but just because Nolan seemed to not get to these issues. Most of these things don't matter too much (for instance: who is the company that Cobb works for and are there other companies who do this too?), but one thing that frustrated me is that Fischer seems to know a lot about extraction because he has been trained to fight it off in his dreams. Meanwhile, Ariadne has never heard of it and needs it explained to her (and to us). If extraction is so widespread in this world to the point that there are specific defenses against it, everyone should know about it. This exposes Ariadne as a clumsy cypher and a device for Nolan to move the story along. She really serves no other purpose than to poke and prod and ask questions. I think such information could have been presented better.

This film leaves me with a lot to think about, but almost all of what I’m considering relates to the narrative or the chronology of the story rather than the meaning behind those situations. There’s just not that much about why characters do things; it’s much more about what they are doing. This is ultimately is a rather shallow sandbox.

I'm pretty sure this is just a very clever and fresh heist movie and nothing more. Nolan clearly gives us a few small tidbits to use to spin off a whole other story and explanation of our own, but I don't think that's necessary. I think it's enough to read the film exactly as it is given: A rather Matrix-y action film that begins to question the borders between dreams and reality, but doesn't have an answer to that question.

I think it doesn't really go near anything Freudian or anything deep in terms of dream interpretation (which is amazing considering it's literally about dreams). I don't think it really takes a serious look at any deep issues, but just presents little slices of depth and moves on... for more spectacle. Perhaps a bit less polish and a bit more gritty realism would have been nice - but I guess that is simply not what this film is.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Kids Are All Right (Friday, July 16, 2010) (76)

The story of Kids Are All Right is so precious it's hard to write about without my heart and ovaries exploding into a million pieces (joking). Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) are a married lesbian couple in Los Angeles who have two teenage kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Each kid came from one one of the women being artificially inseminated in a clinic. Now that Joni is 18 and is about to move off to college, Laser wants her to get in touch with the sperm donor "father" so they can all meet.

Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is that donor and he's a now a highly sexed organic farmer and restaurateur in LA. His life has never totally become serious as he sleeps with whatever hot women is currently hanging around his businesses. When he's contacted by his offspring, he falls in love with the idea of being part of a family and immediately becomes a fixture in the lives of his kids. He hires Jules, who is trying to get a landscape business off the ground, to re-do his back yard. All of this does not sit well with Nic, who is only happy when she's in control.

To say the script is banal or unoriginal would be a huge understatement. We expect each plot turn almost exactly where it occurs and there is basically nothing more fresh to the story at all. More frustrating is the sloppiness of the writing and the reliance on over-written or nonsensical details to advance the plot (like how Paul is contacted by the sperm bank on his cell phone rather than in writing, which is good for the screen, but unrealistic - how did they get his cell number? Or how Nic and Jules are overprotective parents who say they shop at Whole Foods, but somehow don't know about organic foods).

(By the way, Laser is not a name. Laser is an acronym. Lazar is a Jewish name - like Lazar Wolf in Fiddler on the Roof - but Laser is dumb. I'm going to name my kid Nato... or Scuba... or Fifa.)

This is basically a super-trite Hollywood film wearing a button-up shirt and tie. I guess I'm supposed to be impressed that the normal family drama plays out over a "non-traditional" marriage, but I really don't care. There's nothing especially political about the film - to the contrary, Nic and Jules take on rather traditional masculine/feminine roles with Nic being the dominant provider and Jules being the submissive nurturer.

The acting between the mothers is good (actually its very good) - and also between the kids and their father - but I never really saw much of a motherly connection between the kids and their moms. Now that I think about it, there are not all that many scenes with the kids and the moms - most of the scenes are just between the moms, just between the kids or just between Paul and other characters. It's hard to make a movie about a family when the family is never in the same room together. The film is not really about the kids (as the title would suggest), but also not really about the parents either. It's sorta about family in that stuff happens in a family and people have to do stuff - but it's not really that interesting.

I think I mostly mind that the film rather comes from nowhere and goes nowhere - but makes us think that there's growth and development. Nic seems to be a cold bitch (I say that as an objective analysis and not to be misogynistic) who is basically never honestly happy. She never accepts Paul because she is threatened by him - but also because she has a dead heart. When he actually does something worthy of scorn, she continues to hate him - but for the wrong reasons and not totally fairly. She was never going to like him, so that he did actually mess up doesn't make her right to continue to not like him.

On top of this, the mothers are overbearing and that their kids respond, well, like kids, has nothing to do with the inception of Paul as a catalyst in their lives - it has to do with them growing up and seeing their mothers for what they are. Paul is basically totally unnecessary to this story as all the things that happen could have happened without him being around.

I object to repackaging a story I've seen a million times as something fresh and new - and **gay**. Give me something I've never seen before or give me something more traditional and interesting. I've seen this shit before and it didn't excite me the first time.

Stars: 1 of 4

Alamar (To the Sea) (Friday, July 16, 2010) (75)

Alamar is such an emotional film that it's rather hard to explain it with words. It is more a story about the simplicity of natural beauty and the emotional connections we have to it and to other people (wow- that sounds pretentious!). It's more or less a documentary about a father teaching his son how to catch fish in his home waters on the Mexican Caribbean coast. Jorge had his son Natan after some sort of torrid romance with an Italian woman on vacation. Natan lives with his mother in Rome, but this summer is visiting his dad and learning how to do the work that his father and grandfather do to make a living and eat.

I say "more or less a documentary" because there is clearly some sort of script the guys are sometimes playing off of and there are some actions done twice and captured in two different camera angles.

But that is basically it. There is no real narrative her other than a series of vignettes with Jorge, Natan and Jorge's father out on a boat catching lobster, barracuda and snapper. They sell some to a local fish buyer and some they keep to make fish soup and fish tacos.

The peace and serenity of the film is rather overwhelming. Director/Writer/Cinematographer/Editor Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio does a beautiful job of setting a gentle and lyrical tone throughout the film. He is certainly helped by the amazing scenery and other-worldly colors of the tropical water and skies. But he keeps the action, the sounds, the movements small, letting the natural tenor of the world there take over.

There is a lot of silence in this film (there is a minimal small score that is used rather sparingly throughout and not much dialogue either). Much of what we see are rather mundane shots of guys on a boat holding a line or in their cabin sitting and looking at the water. This is super relaxing and poetic.

There is not much to this film, but its beauty and simplicity is powerful. Its a great father-son story (even a multi-generational father-son story) that shows how one very patient, loving man teaches is son small lessons in quiet ways. He lets the boy use is imagination for some tasks but also gives him firm instructions for others. The emotional qualities of the film are beautiful. I don't think the film is really trying to *say* anything - it's just a simple document of the lives of a few people.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

44 Inch Chest (Tuesday, July 13, 2010) (74)

44 Inch Chest is written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, the duo that also write the clever Brit crime film Sexy Beast. There is a good amount of that earlier film in this (it is a story about the domestic lives of underworld wiseguys, there's a lot of talking about mundane stuff, the characters are clearly dark and dirty), but overall it lacks the brightness and joy of that first film.

This is a one-room play that I could easily imagine having been adapted from the stage to the screen (although I do think it's original). Colin (Ray Winstone), a criminal, is furious that his wife has decided to leave him for a younger guy. He panics and goes crazy tearing apart his house. His underworld buddies, Meredith (Ian McShane), Archie (Tom Wilkinson), Peanut (John Hurt) and Mal (Stephen Dillane) all sit with him around their clubhouse talking about his options (kill the guy who slept with his wife or let him live) and razzing one another. Ultimately they get the guy into the house and beat him up before talking more about other stuff.

There is almost no action in this film and it is super talky. It's a writers/actors piece with very minimal directing. The cast is clearly fantastic and they are all really good in their roles. McShane's character is gay, apparently, and he talks about fucking men and the relative sizes of their dicks. This is sorta funny, but is really just cheap, though his delivery is fabulous. John Hurt, who looks older than his 70 years, is very funny and and very good. This might be the perfect role for him now, as he gets to be old, cranky, drunk and swear a lot for it.

There is basically no violence in the picture, despite the crime world setting. By the time we see the guy who cheated with Colin's wife, he has already been beaten up and has dried blood caked to his face. This is certainly not nice to see, but it's interesting the way it's presented (this clearly is good work from director Malcolm Venville) so we only get the talking and shouting after the hitting, but not the action itself.

I think I wanted more out of this film. It's really not bad at all, it's just not what I expected. It's pretty funny and clever, I think it's just a bit boring. I like what it's trying to do, but I'm not sure I love the execution. It seems like a bit showy to have such a big cast and just have them talk the whole time in a single room. I guess there's nothing wrong with this, but I think it could have been more.

Stars: 2 o f 4

Monday, July 12, 2010

Remember Me (Monday, June 12, 2010) (73)

Remember Me begins very well. There is a n'er-do-well kid Tyler Hawkins (Robert Pattinson) who bumps around Greenwich Village with a loser roommate drinking, working at the Strand and auditing classes at NYU. He and the roommate get arrested one night for talking back to a nasty cop and his rich dad (Pierce Brosnan) bails him out of the lock-up.

It seems he and his father don't get along well because his father is a sonofabitch and unloving. His family has been shattered by the suicide of his older brother several years before and all Tyler cares about now is his 11-year-old sister, Caroline (Ruby Jerins). When his roommate realizes that the daughter of the asshole cop, Ally (Emilie de Ravin), is a classmate of theirs, he gets Tyler to ask her out on a date, in hopes of getting revenge on her father. Of course the two fall madly in love with one another and their love story begins.

The script is pretty terrible. It's so recycled that you spend most of the film waiting for things you *know* are going to happen (like the big reveal when Tyler admits to Ally that he only asked her out to get back at her father, or the blow up when Tyler confronts his father for being a piece of shit). It's pretty awful.

Still, there are some moments in the film that I could only classify as *great*. After Tyler and Ally have sex, there is an overhead shot looking down at the two of them lying in bed (possibly an hour or so later). She rolls over to him and starts cuddling, and then they begin to go at it again. This might sound rather typical, but I gotta admit, I don't know if I've seen a frank sex moment like this in a long time (mostly on-screen sex is hot and then over and then a cut to the next scene). When real people (kids) have sex, they frequently cuddle after - and sometimes begin to go at it again.

As amazing as it sounds, the best thing in the film is the acting and the chemistry the actors have with one another. I have ranted in the past about how Robert Pattinson is a bad actor, but he is really believable and honest here. I totally bought that he is a semi-depressed kid looking for direction in his life. His loudest moments (like when he confronts his father about being a schmuck) are really good and reminiscent of Joaquin Phoenix at his best (or of Michael Shannon).

But more than his great performance is how he interacts with the other actors. He and Emilie de Ravin are absolutely magical together. They seem totally madly in love with each other. She's great too - though I only know her from Lost (where I thought she was generally overdone as the crazy Claire) and Brick (where she was good, but overshadowed by other more fantastic actors). Perhaps the most surprising acting comes from 11-year old Ruby Jerins. She's earnest and fragile and clearly very precocious. Her relationship with Pattinson is magnetic and fantastic. I look forward to seeing more from her in the future.

Of all the non-Americans playing New Yorkers here, surprisingly Brosnan (who I normally think is great) has the hardest time with his accent. He's supposed to have been born in Brooklyn, but his accent is somewhere between Ireland and the gutter. That's not the only problem with his character - he's totally ridiculously written. He's the worst father on earth and as a named partner of a law firm, is not able to get out of the office for a few minutes to go to his daughter's art show. This is so silly it's distracting. His character could have been a jerk without being this much of a jerk. This is just hard to buy.

But it does come back to the writing. The film has one of the worst endings in the history of cinema. It's cheap and ridiculous. There is no reason this couldn't just be a nice, if banal, love story. Instead it's a trite story with a horrible ending. How sad.

Stars: 2 of 4

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Racing Dreams (Sunday, July 11, 2010) (72)

Racing Dreams is a nice documentary about three kids who race go-carts on the official national go-cart circuit. Karting, as it's known (please let the red-neck jokes at the door), is the first step up the tall ladder to greater racing fame, culminating in IndyCar and NASCAR.

The three kids are Annabeth Barnes, 11 at the time of filming three years ago, Josh Hobson, 12, and Brandon Warren, 13. Each one of them hopes their success on the kart track will lead to further victories down the line. They race in two groups, one for kids 11 and 12 and on for kids 13. This puts Annabeth and Josh in the same division and Brandon on the verge of being too old for the sport and having to either retire or move up to small-sized stock cars.

But first, they all are teens and pre-teens dealing with typical stuff that kids deal with then. Annabeth is a popular girl interested as much in boys and hanging with her friends as she is with racing. Her friends don't get racing or why she would want to do it - and for awhile she sees the life as a civilian girl to be very attractive. Her parents eat and breathe racing and push her along, but she is also passionate about it and loves the attention she gets as a girl in the driver's seat.

Josh is considered the best student in his school (his vice-principal tells us so), but is a bit of a goody-two-shoes dork solely focused on racing. His sweetness is a bit nauseating (he's so fucking middle-American, I sorta want to hit him), but he means well. He seems to have no interest in girls yet. He spends time at home practicing his very well polished victory interview, studying how NASCAR great Jeff Gordon does it. This kid wants to be the next Jeff Gordon, and he looks like he's moving in that direction.

Brandon is another story entirely. He's a bad boy, being raised by his grandparents while his folks are in and out of jail and in and out of his life. He acts out in school and is very interested in girls (even dating Annabeth for awhile). His family has a limited budget, so despite the fun he's having and his clear talent at the sport, he might not be able to continue purely for financial reasons.

The narrative moves along very well, following the five-race season over the Spring of 2007. There is some good built-in drama (director Marshall Curry probably got a bit lucky with that), some romance and some racing excitement. Curry does do a few annoying things, such as using a looped-in announcer over footage of the race to keep us up on where our stars are, but these things do help to tell the story better (even if such a voice over is a bit hokey).

This is a very nice and clean movie - well cut and very polished. It's nice to get a look at kid sports stars in such an intimate, honest way. The focus is not really on their parents, but there is a certain level of "stage parents" pushing their kids too hard that is unavoidable with a work like this. Still, it is clear that the kids are having a great time doing what they love, which is a lot of fun to watch - very fresh and honest.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire (Friday, July 9, 2010) (71)

This is the second film in The Girl With/Who trilogy based on the books by Stieg Larsson. Continuing with several of the same characters from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, this film opens with a laconic giant trying to extort the police file of heroine Lisbeth from her disgusting financial guardian. At the same time, Blomkvist the magazine editor, is approached by a young journalist who has written an investigative piece on an Eastern European white slavery ring in Sweden. Somehow these two stories are connected through the giant and ultimately the young journalist and Lisbeth's financial guardian are murdered. As the cops begin to investigate, Blomkvist and Lisbeth (working separately) do as well.

The story is very fast-paced and moves along smoothly, but it feels even more trite than the first one. It feels like layer upon layer upon layer of detail and subplots, many of which don't really add up to much. The film feels rather like a massive Rube Goldberg device where one thing leads to another and to another, which seems sorta obvious if you're following along with each step, but convoluted if you're just looking at the overall picture. Director Daniel Alfredson (who seems to have worked almost entirely in Sweden ever) does a decent job, but not a brilliant one with this narrative.

One thing that does upset me is the treatment of Lisbeth. She is a smart woman who is acutely aware of people trying to take advantage of her. She has a hot, naked, lesbian sex scene with a hot girl, which is a bit of a throwaway (as are the several bare-ass shots Alfredson gives us) but it does establish at least that she's into women and (presumably) not men. We know that she was raped and abused by her financial guardian in the first film and we see in this that her father abused her mother (she threw gasoline on him and burned him, ergo the title). She is rather masculinized (at least a butch), I think, riding motorcycles, hacking computers, wearing jeans and t-shirts and keeping her hair rather short.

Yet Alfredson misses no opportunity to sexually objectify her and turn a cynical male gaze on her (for that matter, the poster for the film is unnecessarily super sexy, I think). I don't like that a character who has no interest in sex with men, and who we like specifically because of how she survived her rape, is being made to be a sexual object. I think this is misogyny at it's most sick and trite.

Despite the direction, the acting is still top-notch from Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist. They are both still very good in their roles and fit naturally into the scenery they're in. Sadly the script has them onscreen together for mere moments, so it's only one or only the other all the time, losing the wonderful chemistry and camaraderie they had in the first film.

Again, the film feels very American and not really Swedish at all. It is a pretty simple story, actually, but I think its complicated by weird sub-stories that don't go very far. It's not quite as long as the first, but it's over two hours and I'm not sure it needs to be. I think at least 15 minutes could have been cut out (although considering its based on a beloved book, that probably wouldn't go over well with audiences). It's a decent film and generally a fun ride, but nothing brilliant.

Stars: 2 of 4

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Twilight Saga: Eclipse (Thursday, July 8, 2010) (70)

So this is the third installment of the Twilight movies and I'm pretty sure I'm happy I never read the books - and sorta regretting watching all the movies now. The story is going deeper and deeper into dull teeny melodrama, stuff that isn't even that fresh, with a story that is based on dumb stuff and ridiculous bad choices.

In this one, there is a mysterious band of wild young vampires on the loose in the Pacific Northwest killing people like crazy. It seems they might have designs on capturing Bella, though it is not totally clear why. Meanwhile, she is still moody and somehow is torn between vampire Edward (to whom she's engaged, more or less) and Native American wolf-boy Jacob, who basically can offer her nothing.

The Cullens, Edwards "family", are worried that if she is not made a vampire soon, the Volturi, the head king-judges of the vamp world, will be upset and seek to punish or kill her and them. They are also worried about this wild band of murdering vampires and arrange an elaborate battle with the young vampire army that is coming to take (or kill) Bella.

This whole story about the wild vampire army seems totally dumb and unnecessary, not to mention the fact that (sorry for the spoiler) the Cullens basically beat them all without even breaking a sweat. The reason for this fight in the first place is that Edward killed the boyfriend of some vampire chick in the first movie and she is getting revenge. To say this story line is tertiary would be an exaggeration. That is is brought up to the front so much is a mark of a terrible script and story.

That Bella has to decide between Jacob and Edward is dumb. She has basically never shown more than mere friendship to Jacob (ok, fine, they kisses a few times) and has always been in love with Edward. She says she's still totally in love with Edward, but Jacob doesn't believe her for some reason. Clearly all hell will break loose with the Volturi if she picks Jacob and doesn't become a vampire - but nobody ever breaks her options down like this. This is bad teen romantic melodrama at its worst.

Director David Slade (who previously did the indie piece Hard Candy, and that's about it) gives the film no particular look or feel at all. The first film had very nice photography and the second one had a nice indie rock soundtrack, but this one has neither. It's basically as dead as the story - just a lot of stuff happening on screen but not elegant or pretty or interesting at all.

Even worse than the writing is the acting. I don't know how this franchise could come out with three of the worst acting leads in a generation, but it has done just that. Taylor Lautner and Robert Pattinson are both laughable in their difficulty with basic emotions and line reading. Kristen Stewart rises to a new level of mediocrity with her craft. She is dead behind the eyes and doesn't even play a melancholy teen well. I hope to god that after this terrible series of films is done, Hollywood will wake up to the fact that she can't act and stop casting her in stuff. She's still young and if she keeps working for the rest of her life, it will be a very sad thing for me.

Stars: .5 of 4

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Winnebago Man (Wednesday, July 7, 2010) (69)

Winnebago Man is a documentary about the search for a man who is in what is apparently one of the most notorious viral videos ever made - the so-called Winnebago Man or Angriest Man in the World. Director Ben Steinbauer introduces us to the video and shows us how ever since it was made in 1989, it has been a favorite source of hilarious laughs for two decades of fans. Long before YouTube, this video moved across the country and around the world by people copying their VHS recordings (with the picture quality deteriorating with each new generation of tapes).

Steinbauer sets out to find the Winnebago man, Jack Rebney. With help from a private investigator, he tracks him down and they agree to meet for a talk. At first, Rebney is happy and friendly, suggesting that he was having a bad time back then, but his view is very different now. But this happiness does not last for long as Steinbauer soon gets a bunch more calls and letters from Rebney saying he would like to use Steinbauer's film to get his anger over the present political situation out to the world.

It turns out that Rebney is still as foul-mouthed and out-spoken as he was on the Winnebago videos. His anger might be directed more toward Dick Cheney these days, but he is generally angry at everything and more than happy to drop a few "fucks" into every sentence.

Steinbauer and Rebney then work on a way to help get his opinions out and help capitalize on his notoriety. They argue back and forth about small stuff and big stuff, about the documentary itself and Rebney's ideas of where he fits into the world.

There is no question that this is a funny and sweet documentary, it just is a bit thin, I think, in terms of its impact and value. I had never actually seen or heard of the Winnebago Man before this (even considering myself above average in the cultural literacy department, I guess I missed that day of YouTube 101) and I'm not sure tracking down this guy means all that much to me. So what - he's a crotchety old man... big whoop.

This is a lovely little character study by Steinbauer, but it doesn't do anything more than just show an old man with a bad mouth. The third act of the film seems to be a bit useless, which makes me thing that this would have been a much better 60-minute doc short, rather than a feature.

On top of all of this, it is a bit strange the way the film is presented. The only reason Rebney comes back to Steinbauer to make more of the movie is to get his opinions out into the world about how he thinks Dick Cheney is a monster. After putting this idea out there, Steinbauer doesn't really let Rebney speak about his political feelings. This adds a second level to the exploitation of Rebney that I see in the film. We basically are laughing at the guy for 90 minutes and we never really find much sense in his anger (we all get angry - but why does this guy get so very ridiculously upset by dumb shit?). That we also don't see the one thing that was the condition for him doing the movie is rather upsetting to me.

This is a funny movie and generally an entertaining one - but I'm not sure it should be a feature-length project. It shows us a weird guy and shows him acting bizarrely, but that's about it. Big whoop.

Stars: 2 of 4

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector (Tuesday, July 6, 2010) (68)

The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector is a very complicated documentary about the great music producer, the early part and heyday of his career and the amazing music he wrote and produced, all set over the background of his recent murder trial. Annoyingly the film does not really do a full treatment of any of these aspects to items and we are left with a bit of a biodoc, a bit of a historical look at the music scene in the '60s and '70s and a bit of a doc about the trial. None of these parts really come out as a main focus of the piece, which is very frustrating.

Most of the film is an interview with Spector done in his LA home around the time of his first trial in 2007. He generally speaks frankly about how he got into writing and performing music and his thoughts on some performers (he seems to weirdly hate Tony Bennett and has mixed, but somewhat bitter feelings about Bob Dylan). We see chronologically how he moved along writing primarily teeny pop songs about love and breakups and marriage and how he ultimately hooked up with bigger stars like the Beatles.

As we hear him talk about each song we hear that song played in the background and sometimes see footage of the performer singing it. As this is happening, we see a critic's take on each song, describing the sound and the broader impact of the music in the greater recording world.

Meanwhile, as these things are happening, we see clips from the courtroom video tape recordings of his murder trial. In many cases we see the music subtitles beneath the trial scenes - sometimes we see the subtitles as the song is playing over people talking during the trial.

To say this is an ineffective way of presenting material would be an understatement. It is basically impossible to get all the information presented (at least in the theater - at home on DVD, it might be easier). To make matters even more complicated, most of the critical subtitles come on the screen for a very short time so that even if you are only reading the titles, it is still hard to get through the whole thing before it is off the screen.

By far the highlight of the film are Ike and Tina Turner (well, really just Tina) performing the song Mountain High, River Deep on stage. Tina kills the song - she's amazing. I have never seen this footage before. She is so good here it reminds me of her amazing performance in the Maysels' film Gimme Shelter of I've Been Loving You So Long, where she equally steals the show and leaves us gasping for air. She's an amazing talent. (Spector weirdly seems to take some credit for her, which makes no sense at all).

One other very funny moment in the film is when Spector talks about his i

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Last Airbender (Monday, July 5, 2010) (67)

Before I saw The Last Airbender, I read and heard a ton about how this was one of the worst movies ever made. This did not surprise me at all all as I'm not sure that writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has ever been capable of making a good film. Some of his recent works, like The Lady in the Water and The Happening, are some of the worst movies I've ever seen in my life. His ineptness when it comes to straightforward direction and camera-placement is shocking to me. His scripts are terrible with laughable dialogue and ridiculous plot twists. How he didn't learn basic filmmaking or screenwriting by now is staggering - and even more stupefying is that he's still given money to make these turds.

Suffice it to say, I was well prepared to loathe this film, but I didn't. It is not a good film, by any means, but it is a decent action/adventure story with a dumb, but easy narrative. Many of the technical aspects of it are a mess and the acting is terrible throughout, but it is not a horrible film.

The story is about how there is a world where there are people who live in tribes based on one of the four elements: fire, earth, water and air. It seems that there are people in each element group who can control their element and use it as a weapon, or "bend" it. The Fire people are trying to control the whole word and do so with help from their firebenders and their big metal machines. None of the other groups can stop them. Oh, and it also seems that the elemental groups are generally different ethnic groups too - so water people are Inuit, Fire people are South-Asian Indian, Earth people are East Asian and Air people are also East Asian, but maybe more Tibetan.

The film opens with two water people (who are curiously white in the middle of their Inuit families - whatever) who discover a big ice ball in the ocean. Out of the ice comes a small white boy who turns out to be an airbender. Legend has it that there is an airbender who is able to control all the elements, he is called the Avatar.

It seems this airbender is the Avatar (how convenient!), and as soon as he is thawed he is hunted an captured by the Fire people. It seems there's a Fire prince Zuko (played by Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire) who was kicked out of the Fireking's house for some reason. He wants to bring the Avatar to his father to regain his name and his status in the court. But the prince has a rival in a cousin (or something) Commander Zhao (played by Daily Show comedian Aasif Mandvi) who sees the Avatar as a chance to gain status himself and end Zuko's chances at reconciliation with his dad. They race around as the Avatar and the two white water kids try to escape.

The story comes from a well-loved animated television show that I have never seen. It is a bit typical of the fantasy genre, but nothing too offensive or difficult once you're in the world. The worst part about the script is not the sequence of the narrative, but the horrible dialogue. Somehow all the people sound like they're speaking words that were written in another language and translated into English - or worse, that they were translated from English to another language and back to English. At any rate, the dialogue is laughable at best and shameful at worst.

Everything technical about the film is really bad (I only saw it in 2D, but I hear it's not better in 3D) from the costumes to the sets to the computer graphics used in some of the bigger shots. The Iceworld fort at the end looks like it is made of foam-core board and never is convincing that its anything other than a back-lot stage.

M. Night's direction is really the worst. He doesn't understand that you need tight shots for some things and medium shots for other things and long shots for other things. It's all mixed up here, so you'll be in the middle of an action fight scene and you'll just get close-ups of the characters faces, not knowing what's going on below their chins. In one of the climactic scenes, we get an overhead shot, rather than a horizontal one, dramatically cutting down the impact of the event.

The acting is a joke throughout from the white water kids and the Avatar to Aasif Mandvi. You'd think one of the actors would do a good job, even just by chance - but no such luck. It's all horrible. That the main kid actors are white and not whatever ethnic people their tribes are is pretty sad. It's not as if these kids are good actors anyhow.

Perhaps the reason I don't hate it more is because the story is fresh enough and I don't have an personal connection to the television show. I can see why people would like the show (I might try to watch it myself now) but I also see how M. Night is still a really terrible director and an even worse writer. Don't get me wrong: this is a bad movie - it's just that I was expecting the worst movie ever and it wasn't that.

Stars: 1 of 4

Sunday, July 4, 2010

South of the Border (Sunday, July 4, 2010) (66)

This is a polemic piece by Oliver Stone about the rise of Leftist/Socailist leaders in Latin American politics and how they have all succeeded in kicking off the shackles of the U.S.-backed IMF. Oliver Stone, a man nobody needs to hear from ever, is an ass who tells about a third of the story of each of the leaders he concentrates on. This is not really a full picture of the Latin Left, but merely Stone's view of it. It is also as much about him as it is about these leaders, an arrogant twist on an already silly project.

I'm about as Left as you get politically, and have a specific, if limited, interest in Latin American politics. I think I know a fair amount about most of the players involved in this piece, so there was nothing all that new about the material. This is yet another arrogant and silly part of this work: It has a limited audience of people who are interested in the topic, but it doesn't go very far past the surface level of newspaper headlines describing any of the politicians. It's an introduction to these people, with basically no analysis of them or their positions.

The first person Stone visits is Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. He accurately tells Chavez's story of how he tried a coup d'etat in the early 1990s, but failed, went to jail, ran for president and won in 1999. Stone talks in glowing terms about how Chavez has helped the poor, gotten rid of IMF regulations and been a super-popular, super-great person in his country. Stone says nothing about Chavez's critics, nothing about his iron-fisted control of media, nor how he shut down television and newspapers critical of him and nothing of the persisting poverty that surrounds him. As a Leftist, I can say that Chavez is far from perfect or desirable.

Stone then goes to a bunch of other leaders, including Evo Morales of Bolivia (who has never said much that I have been able to argue with or support - he's still a bit of cipher to me until he takes a stronger position on things), the Kirchner's of Argentina (who are more center-left than anything, but strongly anti-IMF), Lula of Brazi (also a center-leftist who got rid of the IMF) and Raul Castro (a favorite among American Leftist elites, despite his documented cruelty during his brother's long tenure). Several times the leaders suggest that it's an honor for them to meet Stone (and of course he keeps these lines in the film, as if we are supposed to know that Stone is a great man too).

Interestingly Stone never mentions Michelle Bachelet of Chile who was the president when he was shooting most of the other interviews in early 2009. It is not clear what he didn't like about her - though she does seem a bit more even-handed with her rhetoric, and much more of a French-type socialist than a Bolivarian firebrand.

The whole film says nothing about the bad things these leaders have done or their failures. I never mentions anything negative about Castro or Chavez, two men who could have books written about their dark sides, and never really examines the net effect of the re-valuation of the Argentine peso under Nestor Kirchner. This is mostly a vanity piece for Stone to show off how special he is because he can get to interview these leaders. It's frustrating and incomplete.

Stars: .5 of 4

Anton Chekhov's The Duel (Sunday, July 4, 2010) (65)

The Duel, based on Chekhov's short story, is a fun period piece about an indebted ne'er-do-well who has an affair with a married woman in a resort town in the Russian wilderness. Laevsky loves to drink, gamble and spend his days in bed with his lover, Nadia, a rich woman whose husband lives far away in the city. Laevsky's behavior shocks and offends everyone in the area, particularly Von Koren. He is a scientist doing research in the area who thinks Laevsky is ruining the good behavior of the townspeople. When Nadia's husband dies, the two lovers have to figure out whether they will formalize their relationship or continue to live together in sin. Von Koren has hopes that this decision will help to get rid of Laevsky one way or another.

The film is directed by Dover Koshashvili with a mostly British and Irish cast. It has the overall polish of the best period stuff to come out of the UK in a long time - and generally matched up well with any top-notch Merchant-Ivory production. Everything from the costumes to the settings feel totally natural and authentic.

Andrew Scott, as Laevsky, is fantastic as is Fiona Glascott as Nadia. Both of them are a bit flaky and seem to see their situation as a somewhat silly and unimportant until it becomes very serious. They have a lot of chemistry and ooze sex all the time.

This is a fun ride of a story. I'm sure a lot of this has to do with the original story (which I've never read), but it seems to have been adapted well - at least entertainingly. It's a bit of a farce, but it's totally enjoyable.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

I Am Love (Sunday, July 4, 2010) (64)

I Am Love is a technical work of beauty, but rather pedestrian as a narrative. Writer/director Luca Guadagnino does a beautiful job creating a sumptuous world, filling it with joys for all the senses.

The trite story revolves around a super rich family in Milan who have one of the biggest homes I have ever seen in my life or onscreen. It is a marvel of Art Deco decoration with 30-foot ceilings throughout. The wife, Emma (played by Tilda Swinton) is a bit bored with her life, though and looking for distractions. Her son is about to take over the family business and her daughter has moved to London for an art school and has come out as a lesbian. One day she meets a close friend of her son who is a chef. Between his delicious food and his beautiful Italian youth, she falls in love with him, and he falls in love with her. They begin an affair that could ruin her marriage and her family.

To begin with, the score, by master minimalist composer John Adams is absolutely transcendent and fabulous. From the opening titles, this puts you in a super modern setting. It is unquestionably Adams and also fits in beautifully in the lusciousness of contemporary Milan. For his first film score, Adams does an amazing job.

Then Guadagnino gives us shot after shot after shot of absolutely delicious food. Like other great food movies (Babette's Feast, Like Water for Chocolate, Big Night) this makes our mouths water and is so vivid that we think we can smell the steam as it wafts above the plates. It's best not to see this on an empty stomach.

All of the sets are magnificent and perfectly Art Deco, like the house. Because of the size of the rooms, the furniture is all oversized giving the sense of extreme comfort, but also jarring perspective (will I get lost in the enormous sofa?). The last shot of the film is of the massive golden carpet that covers the entry atrium of the house. This massive yellow field fills up the screen and is both powerful and dramatic - even though it is monochrome. Of course, being in Milan, the costumes are totally fabulous as well. This is an extremely wealthy family and they dress immaculately.

Overall the rather dull story is masked by a beautiful operatic style. I guess the melodrama fits in well with such a format, but it does get a bit tedious - as the woman's choices are to leave the amazingly privileged and loving environment of her family and home for a poor chef she has a crush on, or to go off with him and maybe find another happy life. It's a bit of an unbalanced choice, I think, and a bit of an overdone, over-romantic look at the world (in a million years this woman would never make such a choice - only in an opera).

Swinton is very good as a Russian/Italian mother (she moved from Moscow at some point in the past and became Italian the moment she got off the plane, she says). She's warm, elegant and loving, if a bit self-concerned and short-sighted. Her son, played by Flavio Parenti is also very good. He is proud and traditional and wants to make his parents happy. He's a bit of a dreamer, and, I think, has massive oedipal issues that come out very realistically.

If we can separate what we see and experience here from the story itself, this is be an easy one to break down. It gets top points for everything technical (score, production design, costumes), but very low points for the script. Overall it's a beautiful movie and one that really does excite all of our senses (including taste, smell and touch - a very hard thing to achieve on film). It's just a lousy story vehicle to get to that stage.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Friday, July 2, 2010

Mademoiselle Chambon (Friday, July 2, 2010) (63)

Madamoiselle Chambon opens with a delightful scene of a young husband and wife sitting in a park helping their son with his grammar homework. Being that its French grammar, the rules are complicated and impossible to follow. They all sit there scratching their heads as they try to parse a sentence. The boy, about 8 years old, ultimately comes up with the right answer after the father and mother both fail to get it. This sets up a beautiful story of a loving father who always try to do the right thing, until unexpected things get in the way.

The father, Jean (played by Vincent Lindon) is a stone mason who one day helps out his wife by picking up their son at school. As he arrives he sees the eponymous teacher, Véronique, (played by the lovely Sandrine Kiberlain) and pauses for a moment as he realizes he's attracted to her. She has a similar reaction to him, but that is that and he leaves with his son. She ultimately finds a way to be alone with him and the two have a few interactions filled with extreme sexual tension, but never fulfilled as they both know that an affair would be disastrous to his family. Still, they are magnetically drawn to one another and both are lost in their fantasies about the other.

The direction and writing by Stéphane Brizé is really wonderful (and it's extra special that she is from Rennes, a town I lives in during my junior year of high school). She allows the characters to sit and think for minutes on end - not allowing the shots to become uncomfortable, but letting us see their full thought process working inside their heads. This is a slow film with very little action, but it never gets dull. Both main characters are totally appealing and sympathetic. You can't blame them for falling in love, but also understand the difficult situation they are in. The beautiful long shots of them staring off into their deep thoughts make us feel closer to them. We all feel like we could be in such a situation in our own lives.

Of course a large part of the reason we can sympathize with them is that the acting is so fantastic. Vincent Lindon is wonderful as a loving father and husband who gets stuck in this world where he doesn't want to hurt his family, but doesn't want to live without Véronique either. There is a beautiful scene where he uncomfortably describing his work to the kids in the class. He is not used to talking about what he does and clearly is not much of a thinking man. He is immediately sympathetic, like a lost puppy out in the world for the first time.

Sandrine Kiberlain is equally fabulous in her role as the proud, strong-willed teacher who has a habit for leaving a town before she can make any connections, always trying to escape her over-bearing Parisian mother and her failed career as a violinist. She is also vulnerable emotionally, but also smart and forthright.

I think this film is an analysis of different kinds of people in France. We see that Jean and his family who live in the South are a tight unit (despite his cheating heart), where he and his wife will do anything for their son. They both work blue-collar jobs, but are proud and happy with a loving family (Jean takes care of his crotchety old father as well).

Véronique, who comes from Paris, is less outwardly expressive, even keeping her talent as a violinist to herself (clearly she's ashamed because she has disappointed her family to some degree). At one moment we hear an answering machine message from her mother who is arrogant, cold and judgmental - a far cry from Jean and his wife.

I think this is a beautiful film - and a very French one too. I love the long, long takes looking at Véronique thinking about what her next move might be, knowing that she and Jean have very limited options. The ending is a bit neat, but I think it's nice and works well with the story to that point. I think Brizé deserves a lot of credit for making such a beautiful, interesting film.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Wild Grass (Friday, July 2, 2010) (62)

So Alain Resnais is 88-years-old and still making movies. It's not a record, but it's damn impressive! His most recent, Wild Grass is a very fresh version of a film he might have made 50 years ago at the height of the New Wave movement. Like a classic Resnais film, it's about the relationship between a man and a woman. In this case, the man, Georges, finds the wallet that was stolen from the woman, Marguerite. He takes it to the police and then contacts her directly about it. He becomes fascinated by her and falls in love with the idea of her - and then with her directly. He is married to a beautiful younger woman, but this does not stop him or slow him down. At first she is stunned and upset by the unwanted attention, but ultimately she comes around and falls for him as well.

As the title suggests, love can spring up anywhere it wants to - like how wild grass pops up in the crack in a sidewalk or a patch of dirt. There's no way of controlling it.

Resnais is very aware of film conventions and he plays with it throughout this work. He uses many different tricks to tell the story, frequently with a wink. There are crash zooms, iris-ins and iris-outs, reverse motion shots and a (somewhat silly) voice over. One scene in particular is an allusion to his Hiroshima Mon Amour, but again, with a wink.

This feels a bit like a happier, brighter version of his last picture, Private Fears in Public Places, which also starred the same man and woman (André Dussollier and Sabine Azéma) (a good film, by the way). It's almost as if he's responding to the coldness and formal starkness of that work with this - rich, indulgent and warm.

I appreciate the silliness of this film, but I can imagine that some might be annoyed by it. I read it as an old director making a smart movie, knowing exactly how we will react emotionally and how we can be manipulated. This might come off as foolish or naive to some, but it generally worked for me. It is not a brilliant film (it's basically a new New Wave film with old people in it), but it's a nice film. I get what he's doing and I like it.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Please Give (Friday, July 2, 2010) (61)

Please Give is a twee dramedy about a young family who live in a fancy building in the West Village. The wife, played by Catherine Keener, carries with her an enormous amount of guilt and is neurotic about always giving money to homeless people and always being super generous with people. She and her husband, played by Oliver Platt, have a teenage daughter, played by Sarah Steele, and a store that sells mid-century modern furniture, which they buy from families of people who have just passed away (another thing for Keener to be guilty about).

They are looking to expand their already-gigantic apartment and take over the one next door, where an old lady lives. She is looked after by her two granddaughters, Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet. Keener, always feeling upset about everything she has and everything she wants, tries to be nice to the old lady, but the lady is totally rude and a pain to deal with. Platt gets into an affair with Peet and feels guilty about it, because he loves his wife and daughter so much.

On the surface, the story is pretty annoying. I don't really care that Keener is always guilty or that she feels like she has to give money (sometimes big money) to street people. I guess there's a joke in there somewhere about urban white guilt, but it comes off as rather shallow and dumb to me.

I feel like the story never totally goes anywhere or does anything interesting. Writer/director Nicole Holofcener makes it a dramedy because it never totally becomes a comedy nor a drama. Much of the story is funny with clever, snappy dialogue, but much of the story is very sad and dark, like the fact that the old woman is a nasty person who nobody in the world likes. I really wish it had been either more funny or more serious and dramatic.

The characters are pretty basic and cliche right out of Central Casting. Aside from Keener, Platt is a fat husband who is bored but ashamed of his desires for another woman; Rebecca Hall is a mousy nerd who has low self-esteem, can't get a date and is a devoted granddaughter; Amanda Peet is a beautiful woman who is able to get rich men to sleep with her, but can't keep them once she has them. They're all a bit too perfect and a bit too predictable.

Meanwhile, Sarah Steele is really great in the role of the daughter. She is embarrassed by her mother's worrying and looking to make an independent life of her own. Rebecca Hall is also very good as the shy younger sister always living in her older sister's shadow. (It's insane to think of Rebecca Hall as mousy or shy, by the way, but she does a great job with it here).

The movie is a bit too neat and tidy and frustratingly writerly. I'm sure the script looks perfect and all the action develops precisely where a textbook would say it should develop. Sadly for me, all of this was a bit too exact, and got in the way of some very nice directing work by Holofcener (she does a nice job with some interesting fade-outs). This is not a bad movie, but it's an annoying one. I think I would hate Keener's character if I met her on the street. Perhaps that's what the film is about - but I found her too annoying here to really enjoy it.

Stars: 2 of 4