Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Prince of Broadway (Tuesday, August 31, 2010) (111)

Prince of Broadway is a pretty typical story that I've seen at least a few times before. In this case Lucky is an illegal immigrant from Ghana living in New York City and hustling fake sneakers and handbags in the Garment District. One day a woman shows up while he's working on the street and gives him a young boy (maybe 2 years old) and says he's the kid's father.

Lucky doesn't believe it and can't figure out what to do with the kid. On top of all the problems of taking care of the baby, he is worried about how this will get in the way of him selling his merch. He bitches about his situation to anyone who will listen to him - basically bitching for most of the film about how much his life sucks. Lucky tries to get his girlfriend ho help him, but she leaves him when he can't get his act in gear fast enough. He is forced to grow up quickly and learn to be a father overnight.

In the mid 1980s, this same basic story was called 3 Men and a Cradle or 3 Men and a Baby. (OK, those were about three men, not just one, but in the big view they are the same story.) In the 1990s it was called Big Daddy; now it's called Prince of Broadway. I guess the original twist this time is that it's about a poor illegal immigrant guy rather than the other films about more established white guys. But Lucky's illegal-ness is not really what this movie is about. Yes he says he can't go to the police with the kid because they'll arrest him for his status, but the movie is really about how the kid helps Lucky grow up - the same way Adam Sandler, Steve Guttenberg, Ted Danson and Tom Selleck (and those three French guys) were forced to grow up in their movies because of their kids.

What makes this movie especially frustrating is how much time Lucky spends complaining about the baby and how little time he spends actually engaging with him. He pushes the kid around in a stroller for a few months before giving it a name (when he gets the kid from the mother he doesn't know his name). One day well into their time together he starts calling the child Prince and decides he likes him. We don't really see the growth from disliking him to loving him - it's much more binary than that.

Director and co-writer Sean Baker uses a rather effective hand-held camera for most of the shooting here, putting us directly inside the back rooms where Lucky sells his fake goods. This is a nice touch, but doesn't fix the larger problems with the script that are still here. Ultimately this is a pretty trite story that spends too much time covering recycled material rather than examining the world of New York's illegal immigrants, which would have made for a much more interesting story.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Change of Plans (Sunday, August 29, 2010) (110)

Change of Plans is a very tidy, writerly dramady about a big group of friends who gather for a dinner party. In the group there are at least two couples whose relationships are on the ropes and another few people who have major secrets they are hiding from the others. We see each story play out over the course of the night before jumping to the same night exactly a year forward.

One year later most of the stories have either come to a head or have been washed away by other events. One woman was hit by a car and is not in a ridiculously complicated wheelchair, one couple is in the process of getting a divorce, at least two of the people who are not married are having an affair together.

This is a cute, but ultimately over-written film that ties up much too neatly. The ensemble cast is good throughout, though none of the characters are particularly complicated. The best of the actors is Christopher Thompson (who also co-wrote the film with his brother Daniele, who is the director) who plays the most outside-the-circle character in the story. He and his wife are clearly on the rocks on the first night and having a rough divorce a year later. He's very good navigating the rough waters of this weird clique and maintaining his very posh, snobby demeanor.

There are some very nice directoral moments from Daniele Thompson, though most of the movie is rather beige and style-less. There is really nothing bad about this film, but there's also nothing very great about it either. It's nice enough, but utterly trite.

Stars: 2 of 4

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mesrine: The Killer Instinct (Saturday, August 28, 2010) (109)

The Killer Instinct is the first of a two-part biopic on French super criminal Jacques Mesrine who tore across France and Quebec from the late 1950s through the 1970s robbing banks, kidnapping billionaires and killing scores of people.

The story opens as Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) is in Algeria in the late 1950s torturing a few insurgents along with his fellow French soldiers. When he gets back from the war, his loving father has arranged a nice, respectable job for him in a factory. He wants none of this and falls back in with his childhood best buddy, Paul, who introduces him to crime-boss Guido (Gerard Depardieu).

Mesrine stars running small jobs for Guido (robbing houses, beating up rogue pimps) and builds his reputation and his lust for blood and violence. At some point he goes to Spain with Paul and knocks up a woman there who he marries and has three kids with. Ultimately he has to leave France on the lam and ends up in Montreal with his new girlfriend Jeanne. There they keep robbing, kidnapping and killing, ultimately getting caught and locked up in maximum security prison. Mesrine breaks out, of course, and then returns to the prison to take out his frustrations on the warden.

More than a proper narrative, the story is simply a string of action pieces, one leading to the next, leading to the next. There is very little motivation for these sequences. Mostly he commits a crime, gets away from it, and just when you think he'd be wise to stop, he commits another crime - as if addicted to the thrill. Characters come and go with little explanation (only minutes after his wife leaves him to return to Spain, we meet Jeanne who picks up with him on a robbery with no explanation), and locations change dramatically from one moment to the next.

Vincent Cassel is good in the role, however the writing of the character is so limited there's not very much for him to work with. We never really understand what drives Mesrine or what he gets out of the violence. We see that he gets bored with a simple domestic lifestyle, but we never totally understand why he does what he does. Depardieu is also a good enough actor to make Guido work enough, but in the end he is just another banal "type" - the crime boss - and not really three-dimensional.

Director Jean-Francois Richet has some very elegant moving camera moments and adds some rather nice touches to the work. At moments in the early going of the film, it feels like we're watching Goodfellas. We see the back-room deals that run the crime world and see the access that criminals have in Paris (especially with pimps and whores). What follows is mostly fun, but it's all over the place and hard to follow. I would hope the second film will have a bit more structure and a bit more insight. At least it will have a lot more Ludivine Sagnier. Thank god for that!

Stars: 2 of 4

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cairo Time (Tuesday, August 24, 2010) (108)

There is not a heck of a lot of story in Ruba Nadda's Cairo Time. Juliette (Patricia Clarkson), a middle-aged American woman visiting the Egyptian capital to see her husband who is a U.N. aid worker in Gaza, meets Tareq (Alexander Siddig), a youngish good-looking guy who had worked with her husband but is now "retired." As her husband is being held up by his the work and she is left to explore the city by herself, she and Tareq consider a romantic fling, but never really fully commit to it.

I guess there's something romantic about the "almost-romance" here, but I found it pretty dull and unmotivated. Juliette seems to be pretty happy in her life. She complains a bit about how her grown kids now have their own lives, and she's certainly not thrilled to be abandoned by her husband, but all in all, she seems pretty happy. There is no real reason that wee see that she would fall for Tareq, aside from the demands of the banal script and the romance of beautiful post-card vistas she sees around her.

Throughout the film the dialogue is laughable and Tareq suffers most from this. At one point Juliette is speaking about how she's never been to the Middle-East and he quickly interrupts her saying, "I don't understand why they call it the 'Middle East.'" Uh - I don't know how to explain it to you, dude, but if you're speaking a language developed in the West, there's the Far East and the Middle East. That's about it.

Moments later she says something about how her daughter is in college studying creative writing, to which Tareq jumps in inquisitively saying, "Well, how will she make money doing this?" This is not a rhetorical thing, the way two Americans might joke about how there's no money to be made in artistic endeavors - this is a serious questions. To begin to explain "creative writing" here is ridiculous, let alone suggest that Egypt is home to a long history of great "creative writers".

On top of both of these things is the concept that Tareq is supposed to have worked in the U.N. for a decade or more and the idea that he is so un-cosmopolitan is ridiculous. He's never visited New York or Geneva? It's not like he's some scarf-wearing Bedouin who's never seen Western stuff. This is just sloppy and silly.

One of the most significant problems with the flow of the story is that Juliette and Tareq really only begin their almost-romance at the start of the third act. Before that they're hardly onscreen at the same time. Most of the first two acts have Juliette walking the streets and back-alleys of Cairo in silence (well, actually there's a beautiful piano score and a very nice use of traditional Egyptian music, including the magnificent Umm Kulthum). Basically nothing happens in this film before stuff starts happening.

This film is basically the recent Irish film Once, but with no music and no story. It's about how easy it is for two people to almost fall in love. That is suggests that this is some mid-life, mid-marriage crisis for Juliette is rather beside the point. Nadda would have been much smarter to re-write the script a bit and focus more attention on the couple's relationship instead of making such a tribute to the gorgeous sights of Cairo.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Tillman Story (Sunday, August 22, 2010) (107)

I have to admit that even as a pretty avid football watcher (college and pro) I had never heard of Pat Tillman until he was killed in action in Afghanistan in April 2004. (In my defense, I don't really care about Arizona State football and the Arizona Cardinals were going into their 70th or so year of cellar dwelling around the time he started playing for them.) For me the original story I heard about him made total sense: As a meat-headed jock he decided to enlist in the Army the day after September 11, 2001; he was tragically killed by enemy fire in Afghanistan. He immediately became a national hero, in part because he played our national sport and in part because he gave up lots of money to serve in the Army.

Of course, almost none of that story is actually true. What came out over the next months and years was that Tillman was a wild individualist who did join after September 11, though his motives for doing so were always a bit murky. He was a very smart guy and by the time he was killed, he was basically totally against the war in Iraq and much of what was happening on the ground in Afghanistan. He hated George W. Bush and was a proud atheist. He was killed by friendly - not enemy - fire, although the Pentagon hid this fact for at least a month after his death.

The Tillman Story is a very interesting and heartbreaking documentary about how Pat Tillman's death was used by the Bush Administration and the Pentagon as a political cudgel, burying the truth and never owning up to the disgusting lengths they went to create a fantasy universe of heroes and American Exceptionalism. Director Amir Bar-Lev does a very nice job of weaving in the facts of the story with the emotional experience of his family and friends and the greater political meaning of these strands.

The film walks us through the main points of the narrative, from his background as a foul-mouthed wildboy jock (he and his brothers never met a use for the word "fuck" they didn't love), to his college career (with a 3.8 GPA... not bad!), to his days busting his ass to make an NFL team despite his rather average height, to his enlistment and service in two tours of duty. We see how his family was informed about his death and how immediately facts of the case were being kept from them.

For his family, there was the Pat they knew and the Pat they saw on the TV news. Senator John McCain made a sickening speech at his memorial service about how he was being "reunited with his God" or some such nonsense - of course Pat didn't have a God... but that was not something a politician or a 24-hour news outlet could admit to. The heroic prop he was turned into was disheartening to his family, and his mother, Dannie, began doing the job no journalist was willing to do: looking into the friendly-fire killing and finding out why it was covered up and never owned up to.

We should not forget that by April 2004, the war in Iraq was not going brilliantly. The administration had been embarrassed by the fraudulent Jessica Lynch rescue story and the damning torture photos from Abu Ghraib had just been released. The tragic death of a professional athlete (even an obscure one) became a life raft for military support. It could re-position the war as a battle of good against evil and lift it up out of the mud it was in.

The film is as much as condemnation of the press (especially cable news) as it is a condemnation of Rumsfeld and Bush (who are shown to be the dark, evil men that they are). We see how brazen the news companies were to tell a binary story of an uncomplicated man who died in action. Once it came out that he was killed by a fellow American soldier, it became a double tragedy, and he became a symbol for the confusion of battle.

Bar-Lev shows how television news programs used the term "fog of war" dozens of times to hold nobody accountable for the tragedy (lest the troops who actually fired on their fellow soldier be disciplined). And with nobody accountable, Bush and his cronies got away with turning Pat Tillman into something he never was. Even after all the facts of the cover-up were on the table, we see Wolf Blitzer still talking about how some general at the Pentagon "bungled" the story. There was no mistake made by the Pentagon. That general was following orders to lie and cover-up the friendly fire - orders he got from higher up the chain of command. Of course we never get that view of the story.

This is a very well crafted, well structured film. It presents the story in a way that shows the Pentagon, the news media, Bush and his posse as well as main street America all complicit in the cover-up of a truly terrible story. It is not preachy, but it is very powerful.

Stars: 3 of 4

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Soul Kitchen (Saturday, August 21, 2010) (106)

I strongly believe that Fatih Akin is one of the greatest active filmmakers working today. Both Head-On and The Edge of Heaven are brilliant and they suggest to me that the young German writer/director will have a long and interesting career ahead of him.

His most recent effort, Soul Kitchen, is not brilliant, however, and is only sorta good at moments. It suffers from a very messy script and what seems to be a loss of direction or an unclear goal when compared with his earlier works. That it is a screwball comedy is a bit strange from a man who brought some of the most indelible, painful material to the screen in recent years, but screwball material can work when done well. Sadly it's not done well here and is a bit all-over-the-place.

Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos) is a restaurant owner in Hamburg. His place, the Soul Kitchen, is a ex-factory-cum-open-dining-room where he serves up microwaved and deep fried frozen food to a devoted, modest clientele. When he meets Shayn (Birol Unel, who had previously brilliantly played the lead role, Cahit, in Head-On) he decides he would like to up-scale his menu and serve fresh stuff that costs more.

Meanwhile Zinos' brother, Illias, is on a work-release program in jail (because he's a criminal) and starts working in the restaurant to get his life back in order. Zinos also bumps into a guy who wants to buy the building the restaurant is in to turn it into a mall. (There are about six further, smaller sub-plots in the film that are too ridiculous to get into.)

I admit that I really wanted to like this film because of my high esteem for Akin's previous work, but I was unable to connect to anything or any characters in particular. Much of the story doesn't make much sense, jumping around between sillier and sillier substories. Frequently the motivations of characters are totally impossible to figure out. That the restaurant is called the Soul Kitchen and there are a few classic American Soul and R&B songs used throughout (though not that many, really) is totally beside the point of the movie. In the end, it could have been called Opera Kitchen or Heavy Metal Kitchen and we could have had the exact same movie. The music is totally secondary to the banal narrative.

I can't figure out if it means something that the story is about a German man of Greek ancestry considering Akin's own Turkish ancestry (and his previous examination of Turkish people in Germany). I think it's a bit of a gag to have done this, but I don't totally understand what he's getting at. Unlike his portrayals of lousy Germans of Turkish extraction in his previous films, here Illias seems like a shallow and sad scumbag with basically no redeeming qualities (despite the fact that the tone is so light that nobody is totally condemned here).

There are some very nicely directed moments here, despite the bad script. Akin uses moving cameras beautifully and tells some clever visual jokes with some of these movements. At one point he shows a drunk woman staggering around before falling on her face. He mimics this with a hand-held shot that jerks around before falling over sideways (a somewhat obvious trick I don't remember ever seeing before). Even with second-rate writing material, he still manages to produce a few great visual moments.

I wish Akin had taken the time with the script here that he had taken with Head-On and The Edge of Heaven (both of which had beautiful scripts). It's possible (and likely) that he's just not a great comedy writer. To that, I say, "stick with what you're good at, Fatih. Please."

Stars: 2 of 4

Monday, August 16, 2010

Centurion (Monday, August 16, 2010) (105)

For my entire life I have always wanted to be able to use the word "pictish" in a sentence. Thank goodness for the movie Centurion that I am finally able to do that!

This film is in the second century A.D. as the Romans are beginning to lose their control of Britain. They are fighting the Pict people, native to the middle-to-upper part of that island, and are losing badly. The 9th Legion is the last effort by Rome to push north, but they are severely routed by the Picts who are more familiar with the environment.

Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) is one of the last officers left from the regiment (the singular eponymous centurion) and he has to hightail it out of the Pictish land and back to the newly constructed Hadrian's Wall. On the way he is joined by a handful of Roman soldiers as well as an outcast Pict lady (who is totally hot!).

The film is sorta high-level popcorn fun. There is nothing particularly brilliant about it, but also nothing really terrible either. It's incredibly violent and bloody (writer/director Neil Marshall comes from the world of slasher thrillers) and it's not uncommon here to see heads chopped off or smashed in, or eyeballs gouged out with sticks.

I have become a big fan of Michael Fassbender, from his work last year in Hungar (one of the best films of 2009) as well as his very troubling, interesting role in this year's Fish Tank. He is quietly confident and immediately likable. I think his character is written a bit light (with a focus more on his brawn than on his brains), but this is clearly Marshall's fault and not his own.

This is a fun, gory twist on a more typical "sandals and swords" flick. It is a modestly sized film (even the battle scenes seem to have fewer extras than many movies from this genre), which I appreciate. Again, there is nothing amazing here - and it's certainly not something that one needs to rush out to see - but what it does, it does well enough.

Pictish. (I just wanted to be able to write that again.)

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Making Plans for Lena (Sunday, August 15, 2010) (104)

The French title for this film, Non Ma Fille, Tu N'ira Pas Danser, means "No, my daughter, you will not go dancing." This wonderful phrase refers to a sequence in the film when the main character Lena is talking to her son about a story he's reading. In it, a young Breton woman who loves to dance has a competition where she will marry the man who can dance with her all night. Every man she picks to dance with her dies because she's is so talented. After burning through several men, she finally begins to dance with my mysterious guy, who turns out to be the devil. He ends up killing her because he is so much more talented at dancing than she is.

Much of this poetry is lost in the English title for the film, Making Plans for Lena (a reference to the XTC New Wave song from the early '80s Making Plans for Nigel), but the gist is still there. Lena is a middle-aged woman who has two kids and leaves her husband after she discovers him cheating on her. She quits her job and her life begins to fall apart from the pressure of the children and her family who try to tell her what to do at all times. Her family is very close and to them, she is a grown child who needs pushing and prodding at all times. They try to get her a new job, they try to set her up with new boyfriends, they try to get her to reunite with her husband, they try to give her advice about how to raise her kids.

Clearly the subtext here is that she is dancing around in circles to such a degree that she is risking her life (and the lives of her dependent kids). Lena is a flake, to be sure, but she's also a good person who is really trying to do the right thing all the time. She's not abusive to her kids, but she does put them in bad situations. Her family is probably too overbearing for her, and possibly if she was to get more space she would figure things out herself - it's just the pressure of her life that throws her off tilt.

Throughout the film, the acting is wonderful, but particularly Chiara Mastroianni (daughter or Marcello and Catherine Deneuve) as Lena. She does a beautiful job with the rather difficult role. She has clearly been a more put-together person in the past, but is fraying at the edges right now. She's capricious and youthful, but also serious when it comes to mothering.

Director and co-writer Christophe Honore does a nice job of creating a very naturalistic world, even inside the few fantasy or story sequences. The colors are rich and vibrant and the apartments and houses have a nice internal geography and are filled with real crap that you'd find anywhere.

One thing I did not like was that the story frequently jumped around from one place to another without much explanation, leaving us a bit confused for the first moments of the next scene. This seemingly arbitrary continuity got rather frustrating as the story moved along and I had some trouble following it at times.

I really wanted more from this film. I really liked what I got in general, but it felt rather whimsical and not all that well formed. Not a heck of a lot happens in it. Basically we spend a few months with a woman while her life is falling apart. I'm not sure it really ends anywhere in particular - it just ends. I really love the symbolism and presentation of the fable of the woman dancing to death, but that doesn't really tie in to Lena's story on a deeper level. It's just a beautiful moment in a bigger, rambling tale.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Animal Kingdom (Saturday, August 14) (103)

Animal Kingdom tells the story of Josh who moves in with his grandmother and four uncles after his mother ODs on heroin. His extended family, who he does not know very well, are all drug pushers and gangsters. His grandmother, Janine, is a weird lady who seems to not be upset if her kids die from their life of violence and substances. Her oldest son, Pope, is wanted by the cops for any number of things and comes and goes when he things the coast is clear from them. Three other sons work as deputies to Janine and Pope in their world of crime.

Josh is taught how to survive and work inside this family. He has a girlfriend who seems oblivious to what is going on - and he likes it that way. He pretends that he has a normal life as a way to guard against the chaos he actually lives in. When a murder by his uncles goes wrong, he is interrogated by and becomes friends with detective Leckie, Guy Pierce, who wants to break his family's crime ring for good.

The film has a good-looking style and visual look, with lots of interesting, quiet set-ups, but the script by writer-director David Michod is mostly trite and uninspiring. The movie plays much to slow and way too long. By the end it seems like there are about four false endings, one more dull than the next.

Perhaps the worst part of the film is that it's hard to identify with any of the characters. Clearly we are supposed to align with Josh, but he's so quiet and internal with his thoughts and actions that it's hard to feel much sympathy for him. His uncles and grandmother are all bat-shit nuts so it becomes hard to understand why he sticks with them at all. By the end it seems like we're watching this family through a dirty window, rather than being inside the family, which I think would have been a much more effective view.

There isn't really that much crime in this crime movie. By the time we're up and running in the family house, most of the uncles are already done with their violent lives and looking to get out of the game. We see about three illegal acts, but we don't see all that much that would lead them to become such a serious target of the police. That we don't see how totally bad these guys are from the outset really hurts our conclusions about them.

This is just a very slow, boring and banal crime movie. There is nothing very special about it. The acting is good enough, but most of the characters are under-developed and weird (especially Pope and Janine) and that gets in the way of any real positive or negative feelings about them. At then end of the film I was mostly happy that it was over at all rather than happy or upset with the way the story ended (which felt rather random and unnecessary, by the way).

Stars: 1 of 4

Lebanon (Saturday, August 14, 2010) (102)

The first shot of the film Lebanon is the prettiest and most colorful and open. We see a horizon in the distance behind a beautiful field of sunflowers in the foreground with a clear blue sky above. From this moment on, everything else onscreen is dark, tight and dirty. This film is a super-intense, super-intimate look at the early days of the 1982 Labanon War from inside an Israeli tank. Other than this early shot, everything is seen from inside the tank and the only views we see outside are through the scope and cross-hairs of the tank's gun.

This is very different from other films in the spate of Lebanon War movies that have come recently (Waltz with Bashir and Beaufort, to name two). Those movies are more about an intellectual level to the fight - what the men felt at the time and how they see their actions 25 years later. This movie is really about the exact moment these things are happening. The men in the tank are not able to sit and dream about marrying their sweetheart - they're getting shot at and they're worried about not crapping in their pants or getting killed.

There are four solders inside the tank with us: Assi, the commander; Herzl, the rocket loader; Schmulik, the gunner; and Yigal, the driver. Each one is new to war (this is the first day of the conflict) and deals with his fears in different ways. Yigal constantly asks for his mother and asks that the commanders let her know he's safe. Schmulik is easily unnerved and misses several shots because he has trouble pulling the trigger (which leads to the deaths of several friends). Assi is new at leading and doesn't yet know how hard to push these weak men serving under him.

More than anything this film is about the textures, sounds and smells of war. From very early on, we hear the hatch on top of the tank clanking as it opens loudly. We see the water dripping from above into the hold. We see a box that the men piss in so as not to get out and risk getting shot - this of course, however, makes the place smell like piss.

Every surface is covered in grime, oil, blood and soot. Each rocket they launch is a huge explosion inside the pod. When the machine begins to smoke and break down, there's a visceral sense of a human death. This tank is an old man and is falling apart. It groans and aches from its years in service (maybe it was used in the 1967 Six-Day War).

Writer-Director Samuel Maoz doesn't really comment on value or ethics of the war at all - this is much more intimate than that. He merely presents us with a bunch of soldiers in a particular position and shows us how stressful and difficult that spot is. This is much more a comment on the act of war itself, rather than whether or not this is a good or bad fight.

What we see through the rocket scope is very interesting. It is a very small view and it puts us directly in a seat inside the tank. Our view is very limited so we quickly realize that there could be people (enemies) directly outside of our field of vision and we wouldn't know it. We soon learn the blind faith these guys have in trusting the radio orders they're getting and the allies on the ground (the Lebanese Christians). Without these connections, they would be totally lost in a tin can in the middle of a hellscape.

I should say that at times, I did find the frame of the scope and the cross-hairs rather heavy-handed - that everything becomes a possible target and that we become so incredibly vulnerable. I think the use of it is important for the emotional experience of the film as well and is more good than bad - but it was a bit manipulative. Perhaps Maoz overused this view a bit and could have shown it less.

One amazing thing about the film is the use of the quiet spaces between the fire-fights. We get two or three minutes of loud shooting, smoke and explosions and then we get 10-15 minutes of nothing. In these spaces the soldiers reflect on what they're doing and become paranoid at what's coming next or what they've just done. There is a ton of unnerving hurry-up-and-wait in this film and it's these "wait" moments that are sometimes the most dramatic. It's in these spaces your left with your thoughts and worries, not to mention the drips of the decrepit tank and the growing stench of shit, sweat, dead bodies and grease.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Friday, August 13, 2010

Eat Pray Love (Friday, August 13, 2010) (101)

Eat Pray Love is based on a book by Elizabeth Gilbert that was gigantically popular a few years ago with women (in particular). The story falls somewhere between "nth-wave" feminism and treacly white urban cosmopolitanism. I fucking hated this stupid film - and hate everything it represents and says about dumb American culture. It is the story about how in an effort to come to terms with female self-dom, women are somehow only able to take cues from men, that women's self-worth is entirely dependent on men and that white people in general use the developing world as their toilet in an effort to sell goddamn herbal soaps and moisturizers.

Liz (Julia Roberts) is a travel writer (that's a real serious fucking job!) who is married to a nice loser of a man, Stephen (Billy Crudup). She grows tired of him, possibly because he's a loser with no direction and possibly because she's a fickle bitch, and gets a divorce. She then moves in with another loser - an actor and yoga, new-age freak, David (James Franco). She complains to her black best friend Delia (Viola Davis) (Ooooh! Look! How cool that she has a black best friend) about her dumb life and decides to travel for a year to find herself because she has never spent time examining who she is inside - rather, she has spent her life bouncing from one guy to another.

She goes to Rome for a few months where she eats and learns to give up counting calories (which we never see her doing before); then she goes to India to meditate with a guru and comes to terms with the pain she feels from losing her two men (which is weird because she was the one who left them - so now she regrets it?); and then to Bali, where she talks to a healer-guru guy who helps her recharge and learn to love again - I guess this time not as a fucking self-centered witch.

In each place she meets white people who are rich enough to not work and fuck around all day. In Rome she falls in with a group of people who love to eat and travel and talk about the rest of the world. In India, despite the fact that the guru is apparently a woman who we never see, she mostly talks to an American guy, Richard (Richard Jenkins) who has some pain in his life that he's working through. (In all fairness, Richard has the most interesting view of things where he says that she fills her head with bullshit and if she were to clear her head, she would experience stuff much better.) In Bali she meets Felipe (Javier Bardem) who is also recovering from a hard divorce, but is a Brazilian fuck-machine and fucks her brains into submission (and love).

All of the white people seem to be totally unaware of the ethnic specialness of their surroundings or the deep socioeconomic differences between their own lives and those of the native peoples they live among. Yes - in Bali, Liz does try to raise money for a woman who has lost all her money in a divorce, but this is presented so lightly that it seems that she doesn't understand that there are probably twelve women down the road who are in similar situations or the amazingness of the ability of woman to get divorces in Indonesia - which most woman cannot get throughout most of the developing world. This moment is pure tokenism and rather upsetting for what it exposes about her aloofness.

The direction of the film by Ryan Murphy (and the adapted script by Murphy and Jennifer Salt) is almost entirely terrible. We barely see Liz in her day-to-day New York life to get a good picture of her. When she suggests that she married a guy when she was "young" and is now "older," it is confusing because the flash-backs to her wedding have her and her husband as the same age they are now - suggesting she got married in her 30s or 40s rather than her teens or 20s. We never really she where she starts to know well enough how much she has grown at the end.

Murphy uses a ton of moving camera shots to make scenes fancier-looking. Some of these shots are clever and actually nice and poignant, but mostly they are overdone and unnecessary. By the end, I was nearly screaming for him to stop moving the camera and give us a simple, straightforward shot with a level horizon. Just because it looks fancy doesn't make it interesting; if what you give us is dog shit in the first place, when you twist it around you just get pretty dog shit.

Ever since Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts has re-made herself into a bitter woman with an acid tongue ("They're called tits, Ed!"). This role is no different. She's very hard to like because she seems like such an antagonistic person, that it ultimately gets in the way of the story. In the end I just don't like Liz - because she's just another version of the same Julia Roberts character I've seen before and disliked before. I understand that as an actress she has some power over people - but I will never figure out why that power exists or where it comes from. To me Julia Roberts is just Julia Roberts. She's bigger than any character she's ever played and doesn't relate to me as a sympathetic person.

(One more totally unfair thing that I'll say is that this film has a shit-ton of marketing tie-ins from jewelry to food to soaps and skin-care products. Meanwhile the film is not really about this stuff. It's not about consumerism at all - though buying shit is really in the background of everything that happens in the story, even if it's never really examined. Is the idea here that if I liked the movie I can go to the Fresh beauty supply store and buy Eat Pray Love soap and become like Liz? I recognize that the marketing effort has nothing to do with what I see onscreen, but this tone-deafness in licensing is exactly and amusingly the same as the tone-deafness that you find in the film.)

What am I supposed to take from this movie? That we should all get in touch with our inner selves because white men who have tons of money and can afford to not work tell us we should? That if you're lucky enough to lead a life of pure pleasure you will be happy? That brown people are more in touch with the earth and can teach us things about it - but that their poverty makes us sad so we should ignore that?

What I particularly hate about this film is that on the surface it's about how a woman gets in touch with herself by stopping to smell the roses, but it never examines how she has roses at all to smell. I never get the sense that she comes to terms with her inner (or outer) bitch, so I don't know why I should care about her self-proclaimed growth.

Stars: .5 of 4

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Friday, August 13, 2010) (100)

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a wildly fun take on dating in the video-game age. Based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, smartly adapted by Michael Bacall and video game/comic book lover Edgar Wright (whose Spaced series is totally brilliant and serves as a wonderful corollary to this film) and directed by Wright, this film is totally fresh and funny, taking itself seriously enough to connect with the characters, but being silly enough to know what its doing at all times.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a dorky bassist in a dorky emo punk rock band. He is in a year-long recovery from a long-term girlfriend who broke his heart when she dumped him. He starts seeing a girl much younger than him who becomes more of a buddy than a sexual partner (because she's too young for him). All of his band mates and friends mock him for his lame non-sexual relationship.

One day he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who he falls in love with immediately. They go on a few dates and he soon learns that she has seven exes who she broke up with over the years. These exes have formed a league of villains whose mission it is to destroy Scott and re-take Ramona's heart.

On his team, Scott has his gay best friend, Wallace (Kieran Culkin), his sister, Stacey (Anna Kendrick) and a passel of hangers-on. As he fights successive exes, he is wrapped up in his own nerdy self-doubt and never totally confident in his actions. He's the anti-super hero and totally relatable every-man.

Typical of Wright's earlier work, this film uses 1980s and 1990s video game references throughout to enhance the dramatic moments. When he defeats each ex, their bodies turn into coins that he can collect to move up to a "new level". Small, clever details decorate each scene, so when he goes to take a leak in the bathroom, we see his "pee level" go from 10 to 0, or when he gets a jolt of self-confidence, he wins an "extra life".

Wright also uses a wonderful score by Nigel Godrich, a frequent collaborator of Radiohead and Beck, that uses 64-bit sound effects and musical cues to underline critical moments in the story. Perhaps it's a bit obvious to use Nintendo sound cards to make some of the music, but it still works well in this context.

Michael Cera is a bit annoying as an actor (and has super-annoying hair here) mostly because he plays the same dweeby role over and over again. He's always the less-than-confident-but-secretly-brilliant teen or twenty-something - and he remains that in this movie. But I think he's very sympathetic here and helps convey the emotional story very well. At one point he worries that because Ramona changes the color of her hair without much thought that she might be flaky and could dump him with as much thought as well. This is funny because we have all been in this position of self-doubt and vulnerability - and that is exactly who he is in every movie.

This is a very light and easy movie and a ton of fun. Wright has a fantastic ability to mix a geeky tech theme into a very realistic emotional world, making a story that is both reminiscent of childhood feelings of deficiency with a more heady barrage of cultural references. Even as a person who really never had a deep connection with video games or comic books, this film totally works for me. Dating is like a bad video game where you constantly just miss the ledge and always fall into the lava pool - but then you get a new life and begin again from the last saved level.

Stars: 3 of 4

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Most Valuable Players (Thursday, August 12, 2010) (99)

This is a very small documentary about high school musicals in the Lafayette Valley of Eastern Pennsylvania (Bethlehem, Allentown, Easton). Apparently the public schools in this area all have very good musical theater programs and as a result of the quality, there is a local award spectacle set up by a community theater and a local television station. This show, the Freddys, gives Tony-like awards to actors and technical departments and is considered a major honor in the region.

We see how different schools and different theater directors deal with the pressure of putting on the shows differently and how they view the award process in various ways. One teacher is very arrogant, suggesting that his kids are better because they have a bigger budget and put on a bigger and better show than their cross-town rival school, which is smaller. Another theater director emphasizes that the kids should do the musicals simply because they have a passion for it and not because they can win awards.

About half of the film shows the putting together of the shows themselves and the second half shows the build-up to the Freddys and the presentation of them. At some point the story goes a bit off the rails as one of the main production members of the Freddy team gets cancer and struggles to keep the show going on while fighting his own medical battle.

The content of this documentary is not all that amazing. It's basically a bunch of awkward kids doing awkward kid things. I certainly had flash-backs to my (very brief) personal history in my high school theater (basically back-stage in two productions) - but those memories are about as visceral as what I saw onscreen here. I never really felt very connected to many of the people in the film and hoped that I would see more out of everyone. That much of the content revolves around a secondary man's fight with cancer is a bit silly. I care about him even less than I care about the kids.

The best thing about this film was a pair of precocious best friends (Ali and Katie) who have a very sharp view of the goings on in the theater world. Basically everything they said was hilarious and they showed that if filmmaker Matthew Kallis had spent more time talking to interesting kids about what they were going through (with no painted-on bullshit), it might have been a much better film.

Stars: 2 of 4

Catfish (Thursday, August 12, 2010) (98)

Before I saw this film the one thing I heard was that it's important that you don't know anything about it before you go in, otherwise you would risk ruining the hook of the piece. I will respect that warning and try to say as little as possible as a synopsis and criticism here.

Catfish is a documentary about a New-York-based photographer, Nev, who gets into a "relationship" over Facebook with an artistic family in the Michigan Upper Peninsula. He initially receives paintings inspired by his photographs that are done by the youngest daughter, Abby, and then is contacted by her mother, Angela, and finally falls into a romantic back-and-forth with the oldest daughter, Meg, though only via the interwebs. Curious about who these people are in "real-life" he sets out to visit them.

This is a fascinating examination about ontology and the human experience in the mediated world of the present. Things are not always what they seem on the surface and even deep, emotional interactions can be fractured and digitized.

Filmmakers Ariel Schulman (Nev's brother) and Henry Joost do an adequate job with the presentation, though I think they slip at some point into pure voyeurism and less documentation. They show us the emotion and then keep the cameras rolling in a rather sensationalistic way that I think feels rather uncomfortable and sometimes mean-spirited.

I'm not totally convinced there's much to this film other than "caveat emptor." There's not a lot of discussion of the meaning of Nev's experience and I think it's generally oversimplified to very pop-ish psychology. The story here is really interesting (and I have to trust that it's totally true, though sometimes I had doubts), but the conclusion and evaluation of it is less than brilliant. I'm not convinced that these filmmakers have much more in their tank, but that they just got lucky with a good series of events here.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Green Zone (Tuesday, August 10, 2010) (97)

Green Zone is an action film that really should just be an office drama. Army Chief Roy Miller (Matt Damon) is in charge of a team of soldiers searching for weapons of mass destruction cashes in Baghdad in the early days after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Every time they're sent on a mission, his team comes up blank finding absolutely nothing. Miller gets upset and seeks help from CIA spook Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), a Middle-East expert who doubts the source of the Pentagon's intelligence.

It seems that Brown and Clarke Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), the Pentagon intelligence head, are bitter rivals. Brown doesn't like how political Poundstone is and how he has not put in adequate time in the region. When Miller and his team come upon a secret Baathist meeting and arrest a few of the minor players a series of events leads him (and us) to doubt the entire reason for going into the war.

There is really no need for any action or any gunfighting in the film at all. Most of the interesting action is the discovery of different layers of deception they Pentagon went through in the build-up to the war. That there are car chases and explosions, not to mention helicopter heroics, seems sorta beside the point of the movie. Most of the time, the chases are teams of American soldiers chasing other American soldiers - not really bad guys chasing good guys, but guys with one mission chasing guys with a different mission. (Morals are strangely never discussed after Miller kills some fellow solders who chase him - killing comrades generally being something the Army frowns upon).

The film is very anti-Bush and anti-war, to the point that it's all a bit silly. Director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland show how extremely guilty the architects for the war are of starting such a campaign and not having any idea of how to fight it. Once it becomes clear that the case for war was entirely made up, Poundstone basically says, "so - sue me!" He goes off largely without any punishment.

Making this all even more strange is that the details of the film are presented as fact, yet I'm not sure these things actually happened. Certainly the case for the war and the suggestion of WMDs was mostly fabricated, but it never came out that the Pentagon invented intel sources to prove their case. As far as I know, the amazingly named "Curveball" (who said that Saddam met with Al Qaeda in Prague) has been largely dismissed as a fabulist, but never outed as an invented person.

The film was adapted from the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran - but it seems like it was mostly written fresh by Helgeland with some light inspiration from the book. In one scene when Miller goes to the main palace in the Green Zone and sees American diplomats drinking and playing games by the pool as if they were on vacation. This is about all the movie has to do with the book. Overall Greengrass' style, with handheld cameras and a very immediate point of view, helps to underline the reality and non-fiction-ness of the story, but I think this is rather unfair to the uninformed viewer.

The end result of this film feels to me like Greengrass and Helgeland (or someone else) wanted to make an anti-war movie and the studio said they could only do it if it was an action flick. In the end it's not really a good action flick (it's too heady and the action isn't really thrilling because there aren't really any bad guys) and it's sorta a silly spy movie (because the spying has already been done and now we're just trying to put the pieces together about what happened).

Considering this, it is a lot of fun to see a movie tell the truth about the Iraq war and show how everything from the lies told during the build-up to the war, to the mismanagement of the troops, to the horseshit stories we were fed about WMDs once we got there, to the disastrous decision by Paul Bremer to fire the Iraqi Army all add up to a massively terrible situation. The film reminds us of how guilty people like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bremer, Pearle, Wolfowitz and all their underlings are. Sadly, it tells us these things underneath totally dumb gunfire.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Bluebeard (Saturday, August 7, 2010) (96)

Catherine Breillat is one of the most interesting contemporary feminist filmmakers working today. Her 2001 film Fat Girl (A Ma Soeur, en francais) remains one of the most interesting works of the aughts and one of the most powerful works on feminine sexual liberation, jealousy and vengeance.

Here, in her adaptation of the Bluebeard fairytale (which she adapted and directed) she gives another fascinating portrayal of ownership and possession of female sexuality, femininity and freedom. She does this not only on a story level with the script, but also beautifully integrates formal, technical elements to this too. Bluebeard is as much an essay on the use of color and the power of color as it is about the power of gender and traditional sex roles.

The traditional story of Bluebeard (as written by Charles Perrault) is that there is an ugly, rich man who lives in a lavish castle. He marries a series of girls who are never heard from again. One day he goes to a neighbor lady and tells them that he'd like to marry one of her two daughters; the younger girl decides to marry him, despite the fact that he is incredibly ugly (and has a blue beard!).

As the story goes, he gives her a key to a secret room and tells her not to go into it. She's not able to not see what is forbidden so she goes in and finds the bloody bodies of all his previous brides. When he discovers that she disobeyed him, he insists on killing her too (clearly this is how her predecessors met their ends as well).

In the context of this film, however, that traditional story is shown to us by a more modern girl (maybe from the 1930s or 1940s) reading the story to her older sister. In other words, you have two different levels of sisters and two levels of sisterly jealousy spanning centuries. Interestingly it is never obvious which story is the framing story and which one is the story within the story. At times they are both either the primary or secondary stories.

This is very important - especially how it relates to the growth of the girls' views of sexuality (even as preadolescents). In one moment the old and new stories merge, suggesting the modern younger sister is liberating herself by seeing herself in the fairy tale. (Does "self-liberation" have to necessarily mean masturbation if it involves a prepubescent girl? I really don't know.)

Breillat uses color here beautifully. Cinematographer (and Emir Kusurica alumnus) Vilko Filac does a wonderful job of giving the film a very muted color palette. It almost looks like what technicolor films from the 1960s and 1970s have come to look when shown today. It is colorful but somewhat muddied and gray overall. Still, within this more somber color scheme, bold colors stand out - and convey power.

Clearly Bluebeard has power because his beard is, well, blue. But beyond this, when the brown-haired younger sister becomes his wife, she puts aside the black smocks her mother has dressed her in after her father's death and puts on a brightly colored red cape and a green silk gown. (Interestingly it is her older red-haired sister who is the most vocal against the convention of wearing black for mourning; the younger sister is rewarded for her conventionality with a shower of color and freedom).

I love that both the Bluebeard story and the more modern story feature sisters with red and brown hair respectively. In the former, it is the older sister who has red hair and is generally more free-thinking; her younger brunette sister is more aloof. In the latter, the younger sister is red-headed, but has more power than her older, brunette sister and takes a dominant role. This back-and-forth is very reminiscent of the relationship between the sisters in Fat Girl, a discussion about sisterly jealousy and the power of sexuality.

The simplicity and economy of the film is also very refreshing. Clocking in at a mere 81 minutes, the film opens a world of interesting debate about the role of female sexuality in the feminist world of today. There is only a minimal score and Breillat beautifully uses the repetition of shots (showing one shot three consecutive times) to show the passage of time or movement across space - almost in a dream state.

The story is highly symbolic (as is the fairy tale, I'm sure). With the "keys" to the "doors of the castle" Bluebeard gives to his young bride being very overt symbols for her own sexual identity and expression. He respects the young bride because she reacts to him in a non-submissive fashion - almost a masculine view and knowledge of things. The young wife becomes a proto-feminist by embracing her self-ness, showing him that she will control her own sexuality, rather than letting him defile her at his own whim. The unwashable blood on the key she drops in his secret room is clearly blood from her auto-defloration.

The more modern sisters act as a Greek Chorus here - but a very contemporary chorus, despite the more mid-century clothing they wear. There are moments of their part where it almost appears to be documentary-like. It's not clear to me if everything these girls say is scripted or if it might be two young women in the present day talking about sexual and social mores - through the eyes of children.

At one moment, one girl mentions that "marriage" between a man and a woman is something of a "homosexual" act. That marriage is about self-love rather than love of one another. That marriage is in its essence a non-sexual pact, but a narcissistic or masturbatory one. (I wonder if this idea works better in the context of the French reflexive verb construct, s'aimer.)

I think it's important to remember that this film is a feminist appraisal of sexuality by a woman through the prism of the male gaze - Breillat is showing us how men see women sexually. Considering this, there is a good chance that the "girls" in the film are not really girls at all, but the slanted male view of sexual women. Throughout our culture women are infantilized and reduced, particularly in sexual ways (here Bluebeard makes his wife sleep in a child's toy bed).

Women do not own their sexuality the same way that children are not responsible for their actions. I think it's entirely possible that the girls in the film are really grown women in control of their sexual destinies who are seen by men as silly girls with no understanding of things. Breillat shows us directly what society thinks of women - that they're all just "girls." (This would also make the concept of masturbation easier to understand.)

Near the end of the film, Breillat invokes the Salome story and suggests that female sexual liberty threatens men with decapitation or castration. This is really interesting to me. She says that for women the devil you know (sexual liberation) is better than the devil you don't know (sexual repression). The young wife is not afraid of Bluebeard because she is sexually open and interested. Were she a more traditional girl of the era, she would be scared of him because he represents raw sexual power.

Stars: 4 of 4

Friday, August 6, 2010

Spring Fever (Friday, August 6, 2010) (95)

I admit that I am not an expert on so-called queer cinema. As much as I see movies that are necessarily gay or gay-focused, I really don't seek them out or know much about the genre or the merits therein. I don't think I have ever seen a gay Asian movie before, let alone any gay movie that was this interesting.

This is a film that if it were American would be a mumblecore movie. It basically has the same non-three-act structure of most mumblematerial and the same approach to the technical aspects of the filmmaking process as well as the same view of sex and relationships as cultural commodities. I am very interested in whether director Ye Lou knows the American mumblemovement or if this is just a wonderful parallel evolution.

As the film opens up, we see Wang Ping and Jiang Cheng, two professional men in their late 20s escaping the city to have a sexual tryst in a remote country house. We soon see they are being followed by another young man, Luo Haitao, who has been employed by Wang Ping's wife to spy on her husband and see if he's cheating on her, as she suspects.

Luo Haitao has his own girlfriend, but as he continues to follow Jiang Cheng (past the deal with Wang Ping's wife) he begins a sexual affair with him, which clearly threatens his relationship with her.

Basically the movie is about young people fucking other young people despite relationships they might have and despite their necessarily prescribed "sexuality," inasmuch as society deems them gay or straight. On a more specific level, the film is about how Jiang Cheng is a catalyst for the sexuality of a whole group of people, either leading them to have sex with him (homoerotic sex) or leading the women to act in ways they might not otherwise act.

In many ways this is a generally gay twist on Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig's 2007 film Hannah Takes the Stairs. Sexuality is a fluid thing that strikes you at unexpected moments. It can be traded with people for power, love or companionship, but the suggestion is that there is always a transaction of some sort - something is being traded for the sex. (In Hannah's case, she used sex as a way of gaining power over men and killing boredom; in Jiang Cheng's case, sexuality is a way of giving love and friendship to lost people as a way of relating to them.)

I think this is fascinating and very modern, especially in the setting of modern-day China which is so super-capitalistic. Sex and sexuality is merely another service that can be bought or sold (metaphorically, at least). Some people, like Jiang Cheng, are "rich" because they are sexually liberated, an object of attraction for many and get a lot of it; some people, like Luo Haitao, are purchasers on the market because they are in need of a connection and less comfortable in this world.

The style of the film is very beautiful and simple. It was shot digitally by Jian Zeng, much like its mumblefriends across the globe, and transferred to celluloid which gives an eerie grainy quality to the images. It's mostly blue-gray and dark, which is a very evocative look in general, but also relates well to the general melancholy, secretive tone of the film.

The one non-mumblething about the film is the score and musical sound track, which is quite beautiful and sad - but much more polished than the rest of the film. It is not used throughout the film, but comes in to heighten moments of drama and emotion. (I think the score might be the evidence that Ye Lou just happened to make a mumble-like movie by chance rather than by design. No mumblecore movie has a score nearly as traditional as this one. But that's a happy variation in this case, I think.)

My main problem with the film is something I'm rather embarrassed about. Through my non-Asian, Western eyes, the story is a bit hard to figure out as the two main women look a hell of a lot alike and play almost the same role (a woman whose husband is having an affair with Jiang Cheng). On top of this, the actors who play Wang Ping and Lou Haitao look somewhat alike (and also look a bit like another secondary character), making following the narrative a bit tricky. I do not mean to say "all Asians look alike," but these actors happen to look very similar. Considering I don't speak the language, it was a bit confusing (especially because the story has effectively two cycles and an AAB form, where the story repeats itself in the second act with different characters).

But I really do like this story structure and like it's mumbleness - how the three-ish acts really flow into one another and are not as clearly delineated as they would be in a traditional script. I like the gentleness of the film and how Ye Lou lets characters sit and gaze into the distance (into their deep thoughts) without interruption. This is not a fast-paced movie and I really like that. It's slow, steady and quiet with a very interesting and powerful message about love, relationships and sex.

Stars: 3 of 4

Middle Men (Friday, August 6, 2010) (94)

Despite its two-hour runtime, Middle Men is not much of a movie and not really interesting at all. Apparently it's based on a true story (or rather "inspired" by a true story, whatever the hell that means).

Jack (Luke Wilson) is a business man living in Houston in the late 1990s with his wife and kids. He's called to LA to help a friend fix a problem because Jack is good at fixing things. Once he gets there he ends up working with two losers, Buck (Gabriel Macht) and Wayne (Giovanni Ribisi) who have somehow invented a way to pay for Internet porn with a credit card online (apparently this couldn't be done before these two schmucks came around). Jack works with them to grow their business and keep it clean.

Along the way, they get into a partnership with the Russian mafia (because as a fixer, Jack thinks this would be a good idea), kill a Russian mobster and Jack falls into a relationship with a young porn starlet and leaves his wife (who is bizarrely still in Houston while he's swinging his dick around Southern California).

The story would be more frustrating for it's holes if it wasn't totally trite. You can expect every little plot twist long before it comes onscreen. Buck and Wayne are such fools it's totally impossible they could have designed the program they designed or set up a website to feed porn through. More than anything, Jack seems like a character from another movie. He's very straight and normal, but he's surrounded by over-the-top cartoon characters like the Russian mob boss, the slimy lawyer and these two stoned freaks. Even the murder and the money are not good enough reasons for him to stick around.

There are a ton of topless women in this movie - but that is about all the excitement you get from it. Most of those tits are plastic and surgically enhanced - which is a good metaphor for the film. It's big and round and has a big cast, but it's totally phony and doesn't move much (when lying flat).

Stars: 1 of 4

Thursday, August 5, 2010

When You're Strange (Thursday, August 5, 2010) (93)

This documentary by Tom DiCillo uses nothing but archival footage (much of it never-before-seen) of The Doors to document their rise from nowhere in 1965, to super stardom in the late '60s, to their ultimate demise with the death of Jim Morrison in 1971. There are no interviews with any band members, historians, producers or fans. It's simply the footage with a very smoldery voice-over narration by Johnny Depp.

The film is really just about Morrison and shows clearly how he was basically constantly high from when they started to when he died. He was high for every single interview he did and for most of those he was totally incomprehensible. Most of the band was also high most of the time too, for that matter. Morrison liked acid, pills and ultimately alcohol. He fancied himself a poet (though I admit I find his poetry overdone and much too psychedelic for my tastes).

The film has wonderful likes, like "some people say Jim was a poet caught between heaven and hell." Really? Who are those assholes who think that? Jim was a talented guy who overused drugs and drink and had a gravely, untrained voice that fit the carnivalesque music he wrote with his band. That's about it. He was not a divine power.

Ultimately this film is a very good history, but is much too glowing about Morrison and really just a fancy Wikipedia entry, beginning at the start and ending at the finish. It seems that some of the footage is important because it's new to our eyes, though that doesn't mean much to me because I don't know much about Doors footage that's out there - other than the Ed Sullivan clip of him saying "girl, we couldn't get much higher." (Apparently it is also important that this footage shows that he didn't expose himself in a show in Miami for which he was charged with exposing himself, which made touring difficult for the band.) Oh, well - I don't really care. This is a good enough movie, but nothing too amazing.

Stars: 2 of 4

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Brooklyn's Finest (Wednesday, August 4, 2010) (92)

Brooklyn's Finest is the most recent heap from turd-factory Antoine Fuqua. In this, there are three consecutive cop stories that never totally connect as well as they should and just add up to another dull movie about mostly bad cops and how "the system" and New York City are bad.

The first story is about Sal (Ethan Hawke) who is a generally good guy with a loving wife and a bunch of kids. He is way underwater financially and lives in a house that has mold that is killing his wife (as she's pregnant with two more kids). He decides that his only way out is to steal drug money that he would otherwise report when he and his team go into a drug den. For him it's a very moral thing - he's using the money to get a new, clean house, and if he didn't, the money would go into the system and be lost. At some point he raids houses and "loses" runners just to steal a few more bucks.

The second story is about Eddie (Richard Gere) a 22-year veteran cop who is about to retire. He has never done anything particularly good nor anything particularly bad. He's been only a decent cop and the experience has lowered his opinion of humanity. He has to train a bunch of rookies about what he has learned, but he hates their young passion for justice. He's in the process of divorcing his wife, he's in a somewhat domestic relationship with a whore and considers shooting himself in the head about once a day.

The third story is about Tango (Don Cheadle) an undercover cop working in a bad housing project under the drug lord there, Caz (Wesley Snipes). Tango tells his police contacts that he's getting too deep into the organization and that he's having doubts about nailing Caz, who is a long-time friend of his. He says he wants out, but the cops running the show on the outside (and the DOJ) have other ideas for him.

None of these stories are particularly interesting and most fall back on very trite material - some of it directly taken from other movies. Eddie's story is basically Fuqua's Training Day, where and old cop teaches a young cop how things work. Tango's story is basically a bad Donnie Brasco story - or Donnie Brasco meets the first season of The Wire (Michael K Williams, Omar, is even in this part).

I guess the story Fuqua is telling is that all cops have their sins and the police department is messed up because of this. It's not particularly hopeful, nor very original, really. "So what?", is my question. Why do I care that a bunch of cops in Brooklyn are bad guys (or good guys). The film ends so elliptically that it's not really clear what Fuqua is getting at.

Are we supposed to feel bad for Sal because he takes matters in his own hands? Are we supposed to feel bad for Eddie because he's reached the end of his rope? Are we supposed to feel bad for Tango because nobody will listen to him and he's stuck in a no-win situation? I don't really care about any of these things. They all fall particularly flat and don't really do much of anything interesting.

Stars: 1 of 4

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, Rebel (Tuesday, August 3, 2010) (91)

The most insightful moment in the bio-doc Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, Rebel is near the end when Dr. Ruth Westheimer says that Hef has hurt his reputation as an activist and rebel by dating multiple women at the same time. He has become a caricature of what he once advocated and is now much more known for being a target of parparazzi flashes than any sort of force for social change. This disconnect between what he apparently once was and what he is today is the unexamined subtext of this film - a subtext that is really more interesting than the surface of the film.

Director Brigitte Berman shows us how Hefner got where he is now, with the history of the Playboy magazine and all the social causes it (Hef) championed over the years. From civil rights to anti-Vietnam, to obscenity and freedom of speech, to gay rights and women's rights, Hefner was on the forefront of the most of the major social issues of the second half of the 20th century. At least that's what his supporters and he says about him.

Most of the film is interviews with people who are friends or past collaborators with Hef. Some are former models or girlfriends, some are business people and some are old friends from his long-ago Chicago days. They all agree that Hef is a pretty fantastic guy all around.

Berman does have a few detractors on screen, but they are all people with "agendas", so they're easy to ignore. She has arch-Christian singer Pat Boone on talking about how the magazine traffics in sleaze and also how it has become not as interesting or cutting-edge as it once was (this second point is true - so why does the dismissible freak get this line and not someone more trustworthy?). Berman also has on Susan Brownmiller, a feminist writer, talking about the objectification of women as a counter point to Hef's claim that he is a feminist who has done more to help women gain control of their sexuality than anyone else on earth (an interesting, if unconvincing opinion). The big problem is that Brownmiller is a long-time foe of Hef and they once had a big on-air fight on the Dick Cavett show in the 1970s.

Basically other than these two, the whole film is totally laudatory. Nobody asks what to me is the most important question, which is what the hell happened to the magazine in the 1980s to turn it from an interesting magazine with top-notch writers and a sharp social compass (that also featured naked women) to the current trashy porno mag that has very little in the reading department. Yes, Alex Haley, Norman Mailer, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut once wrote for Playboy, but nobody close to them has anything to do with the magazine anymore. At one point Hef suggests that obscenity cases and Jerry Falwell in the 1980s hurt the perception of the magazine, but this is ultimately unconvincing as it's been a long time since then and the magazine is still dull.

My biggest objection is that the film is way too long, running more than two hours. At most this should be a 90-minute movie, spending just a few minutes on each era and coming off as more than just a laundry list of achievements and anecdotes. There is no question that Hef is an important guy who was on the right side and out in front of all of these important issues, but most of the stories in the film I knew from other sources.

I know well that Hef drove to the West Side of Chicago to buy the Marilyn Monroe picture that was on the cover of the first issue; I know that he helped Lenny Bruce out of jail when he was arrested during a stand-up act in Chicago; I know that the Los Angeles Playboy Mansion is a fuckfest and a destination for celebrities. None of this is interesting. I would rather have had more cutting analysis of Hef, like what Dr. Ruth gave 110 minutes into the film.

Stars: 1 of 4

The Extra Man (Tuesday, August 3, 2010) (90)

The Extra Man is a screwball comedy based on a Jonathan Ames book, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Rober Pulcini, who directed American Splendor (and The Nanny Diaries), and adapted by all three. It generally has the neurotic and silly frankness of Ames fare and feels a lot like the Ames HBO show Bored to Death. I don't think it's about as good as the TV show, which is to say not as good as American Splendor (or The Nanny Diaries). It certainly has moments of funniness, but overall takes itself much too seriously and has some very slow streaks, particularly toward the end.

Louis Ives (Paul Dano) is a young man who fancies himself a writer. He moves into an apartment in New York City as the roommate to Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), an older gentleman who has been a playwright in the past, but now passes his days pretending to be rich and perfecting the art of being the "extra man". An "extra man" is basically a walker, though maybe not necessarily gay. In the context here, Harrison spends his time looking after one woman in particular who is super rich and has a big apartment he would like one day to move into. Louis and Henry co-exist for awhile until Henry begins to teach his young renter how to be an extra man.

Meanwhile, Louis is obsessed with cross dressing and kinky sex and has a low opinion of himself with regard to sex (well, really with regard to everything in life). He has a crush on a cute woman at work, Mary (Katie Holmes), but she has a boyfriend, so he steers clear of her mostly.

One big problem with the film is that there is basically no plot - basically nothing really happens. There are a bunch of scenes where stuff happens, but they don't really push any story along. The film is basically the journey of Louis, but it's really a trip with no particular direction. The film starts out pretty strong and funny and devolves into cheap jokes and dull set-ups.

Aside from all of this, major chunks of the film are not really necessary - like the whole character of Mary, who Louis is not really all that interested in sexually. Other plot points and characters are present, but we don't totally know why.

I have been a fan of Paul Dano in the past, but for reasons I can't figure out, he frequently doesn't pick good roles (ever since Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood at least). This film has the general feel of a piece he did in 2009 called Gigantic, which was also about a lost twenty-something. That movie was a dud too.

Here Dano is pretty awkward and flat. I guess he's supposed to be awkward, but it's not clear why he stays in the weird situations Henry puts him in. He's sorta passive through the whole film and it's not totally clear why. Kevin Kline, on the other hand, is over-the-top and pretty funny, though the role gets a bit tired by the mid-point of the film.

Really the whole film gets tired by the middle. It feels like the writers ran out of ideas and just kept writing stuff to keep the camera running. That the movie comes out at 105 minutes is ridiculous; at least 15 minutes should have been cut out. Mostly it feels like four consecutive episodes of Bored to Death - but ultimately less funny and more annoying than that. At least those episodes end after about 25 minutes.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Monday, August 2, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks (Monday, August 2, 2010) (89)

Dinner for Schmucks is a pretty bad movie based on a pretty bad French movie from a few years ago. In it, Tim (Paul Rudd), is trying to get a promotion in his company. One day his boss tells him he can get the promotion if he can attend a special dinner the guys in the office have. The point of the dinner is to bring the biggest freak and loser so that person can show everyone their bizarre skills. Tim agrees to this, despite his girlfriend disapproving of it.

The next day he runs into Barry (Steve Carell) who is an amateur taxidermist who likes to stuff small mice and put them in costumes depicting historical or literary events. Once Barry gets into Tim's life, all hell breaks loose and just about everything that Tim loves or hopes to do is ruined.

The whole film should be about 85-90 minutes long, but this ultimately clocks in just under two hours. The only way this is possible is for tons of endless, unfunny scenes that go on and on for what feels like forever. Most of the film is the lead-up to the eponymous dinner, rather than the dinner itself - making the movie really "The Day Before the Dinner for Schmucks".

I normally really like Steve Carell, but he doesn't work here. He is much too annoying and overdone for me. I guess that's the point - but he was so obnoxious that it was mostly frustrating that nobody punched him in the face or left him on the side of the road in the desert. I get that it's a screwball comedy, but someone who is that annoying can't just pass as being "funny". It's just too hard to believe.

I really only laughed a few times in the whole movie. Some of the office set-up with Rudd and his co-workers is funny and some specific lines are funny (at one point, Barry says that he sleeps in the "fecal" position - that's funny). Most of the film is just stomach-turning and uncomfortable.

Somehow about 30 minutes should have been cut out of this - but you could really cut from anywhere as the story was utterly shapeless. I left the film with nothing but hatred for Barry, which seems to me to be the wrong emotion. I think I'm supposed to feel pity for it. But he seemed totally unapologetic for what he did. This was also annoying.

Stars: 1 of 4

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Dry Land (Sunday, August 1, 2010) (88)

The Dry Land is a pretty typical returning-to-home-after-war movie that I feel like I've seen a hundred times already (even a few times in the current Iraq war). It really adds nothing to the long line of these films, and falls back on predictable, recycled material.

James (Ryan O'Nan) gets off the plane in El Paso and is met at the airport by his wife Sarah (America Ferrera) and his best friend Michael (Jason Ritter). They drive into the wilds of East Texas and get to their trailer home where their family is waiting to greet him. James has been in Iraq for at least one tour and is now done with his military contract. He gets a job at the slaughter house owned by Sarah's father and slips back into his normal life.

At some point he begins suffering from PTSD and has night terrors and long drinking binges. It seems he was in a convoy that was hit by an IED. He doesn't remember exactly what happened and is dead-set on finding out. To do this he and his best friend Raymond (Wilmer Valderrama) drive to Washington, D.C. so they can talk to a platoon-mate who is there in re-hab and find out more details about the incident.

The story is very tired. Most of it feels like earlier films such as Stop Loss or The Messenger (neither one of those was particularly good, by the way), especially the bizarre decision to drive from El Paso to D.C. (only about 1900 miles... but no sweat - we'll do it in a weekend). Nothing here is new or interesting.

The best part of the film is the acting - which is pretty solid throughout. American Ferrera is fantastic - a big improvement on the shrill comedy she's been doing on television for the past few years. She is very good as a strong young woman who is in a nightmare situation with the man she loves. She's very sweet and lovable too - which is important for establishing their relationship. Ryan O'Nan (who I admit I sorta recognize, but not from anything particular he's done before) is very good in the lead role - at least as good as he can be with the bad material he's give to work with.

Much of the story and many of the characters in the film are not very necessary to the central story. James' mother is played by Melissa Leo, but she is totally not needed for the narrative. The same thing goes for the Michael character who just seems to be extra stuff - and an extra twist ultimately - that is not really important.

I would love for there to be another interesting, intense Iraq movie - like The Hurt Locker. I would welcome such a film. Instead we keep getting banal films about PTSD and how it's hard to re-adjust after fighting. I get it already. It's dull.
Stars: 1.5 of 4

Get Low (Sunday, August 1, 2010) (87)

Get Low is a little movie with a big cast. Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is an old hermit living in a cabin in the woods in the 1930s. He is crotchety only occasionally leaves his house to go into town, where he generally gets into fights with people there. One day he shows up at the funeral home run by Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and says he wants to throw a funeral party for himself so he can have people tell stories about him. He offers a ton of money to do it and Quinn and his assistant, Buddy (Lucas Black), agree to help him.

It seems that Felix has a story of his own he wants to tell. He did something bad a long time ago and he's looking to confess to his party and get absolution. Somehow this thing he did has something to do with Mattie (Sissy Spacek), a long-ago lover of his. It also has something to do with a black preacher (Bill Cobbs) who Felix helped at some point.

The whole film is built up for this one big reveal - but when it comes it's utterly unmoving. The pacing of the film, the script (by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell) and the direction of the film (by Aaron Schneider, who seems to have worked a lot previously as a cinematographer, but not much as a director) are all really bad.

There is a string of scenes to open the film that sorta give us some texture of the environment, but don't really move the story along well. Major scenes are framed so badly that you can't see primary characters behind trees or other obstacles. In general the film is not very funny. It's silly at times, but sorta cheap and uninteresting.

In it's best moments it has the feeling of a bad Ealing comedy from the 1950s - but mostly it feels like one of those bad Coen Brothers Ealing-redux movies from a few years ago (Intolerable Cruelty and the Ladykillers). Overall I am impressed that such a big cast would do such a movie - but the final product is not worthy of their big names. It's a very OK movie and nothing totally offensive, but really nothing brilliant.

Stars: 2 of 4