Sunday, October 31, 2010

Marwencol (Sunday, October 31, 2010) (145)

Filmmaker Jeff Malmberg brings us the film Marwencol, a light-gonzo and wonderful documentary about Mark Hogancamp and his weird "hobby". Several years ago, Hogancamp had the crap beaten out of him (apparently for no particular reason, although maybe there was...) as he left a bar in Kingston, New York. After spending months recovering in the hospital, he found himself back in his modest house with serious brain damage.

At this point he began playing with large-size G.I. Joe-like action figures and created a world in his backyard where he re-enacted fabulous World War II scenes involving the Nazi occupation of the Belgian town of Marwencol (I'm not sure such a town exists). Hogancamp populated the village with figures representing himself (much taller and better looking, but plastic, of course), several of his friends and relations (his lawyer and the DA got figures for themselves), and a world of female bartenders and whores (though really nice and gold-hearted ones, dontcha know). Of course there is also a gang of Nazi soldiers who live in the town.

Hogancamp then began photographing the stories he would create to document the War and the day-t0-day life in the village. Sometimes the Nazi gang would take Mark's double and beat him (like he was beaten outside the bar), sometimes the American soldiers would beat up on the Nazis... because Nazi's are dicks. Sometimes they would all drink peaceably in the bar. Without knowing it, Mark created his own sort of "art therapy" to deal with the psychological pain (PTSD, to be sure) and get a handle on what happened to him.

Malmberg treats Hogancamp's work with the utmost respect and non-judgement. He also frequently puts the camera down on the ground level so we are inside the world of Marwencol interacting with the toy figures. As Mark narrates the story of each scene, we feel the drama of the story he creates. It is really a beautiful presentation.

Ultimately Mark's work is discovered by the New York art world and he is offered a one-man show in Chelsea. We see him struggle with the trip down to the city... and with several secrets that he lives with on a daily basis (I'm not going to tell the secrets here, because they are revealed so wonderfully). Again, Malmberg's gentleness and respect of Hogancamp is wonderful to see in how he deals with his unusualness.

This is a very small movie, but also a very powerful one. I expected this to be rather silly, but it was deeply moving and interesting. What I love is that Hogancamp's "art" is really interesting and aesthetically fabulous and that he basically came up with this "therapy" entirely on his own... and that he wouldn't consider what he's doing either "art" of "therapy".

The presentation is fantastic and I particularly appreciate that Malmberg didn't try to do more with this film than just present the story. There are no significant interviews with art world elites, nor is much time spent on the medical background for what is happening. Malmberg's restraint in this case is especially admirable.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Kids Grow Up (Saturday, October 30, 2010) (144)

The Kids Grow Up is an interesting documentary from Doug Block, and impressive just for its gigantic scope of time. Block presents a movie here that document's his relationship with his daughter Lucy from her birth through her going off to college. Block, a documentarian who has turned the camera on his own life and family before, always seems to have a camera running in his apartment.

Although the film shows lots of footage throughout Lucy's life, it primarily focuses on the last year that she is living at home, her senior year of high school. We see his ambivalence with her dating a French boy she met on a recent trip, we see how the two fight and she asks him to stop filming her, we see that when his wife begins to suffer from depression, he copes with the pain. Mostly, though, this is a film about the documentary format, a reflexive piece, a meta piece.

There is an unusual, unsettling aspect to the film that Doug is shooting almost everything we see, we hear his voice either through the camera's mic or through voice over, but we almost never see him on screen. He's both always there and never there. This is a very powerful examination of the "director as God" concept.

This is also about piece about the photographic form in general and how our memories of our lives are greatly shaped by photographs and videos we see of ourselves from before we have hard memories. I remember many events and places because I've looked at pictures of them over the years, but if you were to show me a new picture from the same place in time, I might not have any connection to it... because it would be new to me. Similarly, Doug's experience with his daughter is specifically tied to filming her (and I imagine her memories might some day be tied to footage like we see here).

This is a very intimate story - one that is normally a very internal family thing between a father and a daughter, but here it is done in public for all to see. This is also a bit unsettling, and reminds us of the violence of film making - that Lucy really doesn't have a choice but let her father film her, violating her privacy, whether she likes it or not (I'm sure Doug is a nice enough person that if she said "please don't make this movie and release it in theaters, he would listen"... but still, we see everything about Lucy and her family and that feels like a violation, no?).

There is something inherently dark about real people becoming the subjects of documentaries. Somewhere between their real lives and what we see on screen, they become characters who we can analyze and discuss, as if they were creatures of fiction.

But then there's also the issue that Doug films his daughter finishing high school and going to college, but never really experiences it himself. This is a sad thing, and one that Lucy comments on at one point. Clearly, this might be the only way he can deal with the situation, but it is still uncomfortable to see. At times we want to shout, "Doug - put the fucking camera down and hug your daughter."

In our digital age, I think it's interesting to ask whether all the pictures and footage we shoot every day to put on Facebook or Vimeo or Flicker really mean anything. Are we going to really go back and look at all of them? Are we just collecting experiences and would it be better to put the cameras down and really experience life? I don't know.

I am very interested in the questions this film raises for me. It is a movie about families and how they grow and change over time, but it is also a movie about movies. I think it gets slightly slow in the middle, but overall, it is very well done.

Stars: 3 of 4

Conviction (Saturday, October 30, 2010) (143)

Conviction tells the true story of Kenny Waters who was wrongfully convicted of murder in the early 1980s and how his sister, Betty Anne Waters got her G.E.D., then went to college and then got her J.D. so she could fight to get him exonerated. It falls in line with A Civil Action and Erin Brokovitch, books/movies based on amazing court cases that all end happily (if boringly).

So in this one, Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is a loser from the Massachusetts outback who gets in bar fights and is well known for acting out in his hometown. One day there is a murder and it is pinned on him. He says he's guilty and his sister Betty Anne (Hillary Swank) knows he is, so she begins fighting for him. She is married with two kids and in her mid-30s or so.

Along the way she meets a chick named Abra (Minnie Driver) who is also a bit older as a law student than the other kids in class. They become friends. At some point they get the Innocence Project involved and find out that there is no DNA evidence. They also find major amounts of corruption and malfeasance in the local sheriff's office and the county DA's office (that was Martha Coakley, the woman who lost Ted Kennedy's Senate seat to Scott Brown).

There is not much to this movie or the story itself. It seems pretty open-and-shut the way it's presented. He was fingered as the murderer by a cop who had a grudge against him; he had a record so he was easy to convict; 20 years later when DNA testing gained legitimacy he was exonerated. I guess there's some inner drama with whether Betty Anne would be able to pass all her tests and get her degrees, and later about whether she'd be able to recover the evidence that had blood on it, but there's not much tension through most of the film.

The best thing in the film, though is the remarkable performance by Juliette Lewis (really!) who plays a strung-out meth head who testified in 1983 that Kenny had bragged to her about the murder, but now is recanting her testimony, saying she was coerced into saying it. She is really remarkable in the small role. She's totally pathetic and disgusting looking, has a perfect accent and it totally, totally believable. For me this is honestly one of the best supporting performances of the year. Brava, Juliette!

Director Tony Goldwyn gives us pure vanilla here. There is no texture or particular style to speak of really. It's a totally forgettable movie.

Stars: 2 of 4

Friday, October 29, 2010

October Country (Friday, October 29, 2010) (142)

More than a documentary film, per se, October Country is a visual artwork about the Mosher family in in the Mohawk Valley of New York. Co-directors Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher present us with a taste of real-life Americana: big, complicated families struggling to pay bills and stick together, helping one another, fighting and dealing with drinking, drugs and jail and watching the July 4th fireworks from the parking lot of their WalMart.

What we see is certainly a document, but it is so visually gorgeous that the narrative we're presented with, the lives of these honest working-class people, is almost less important than the overall stylistic feeling of the work. I once heard a film described as impressionistic in tone and style, and have to say that if there was ever a work that met that concept, this is it.

This is the story of the Mosher family through several generations. The grandmother Dottie and her husband Don lead the clan. She's a smart and good woman and the most stable person in the family. He is a hard Vietnam Vet who struggles with PTSD as much as he struggles to be a father and grandfather. He has good instincts about people, but can't deal with stuff on the ground.

Their daughter is Donna, a likable woman who constantly gets involved with destructive men. Donna has two kids we see onscreen, Doneal and Desi (I assume Donal is either Donna's son as well, though it is never said directly, I don't think). Doneal is now a mother herself and struggling with her own abusive baby-daddy. Finally, throw into the mix Chris, a local boy who Dottie and Don have tried adopting, but who can't stay out of trouble and Denise, Don's sister who is rather estranged and now practices Wicca. This is a fucked-up family, but probably a very normal family. Over the course of the year we see them, they act and react to things in very normal ways, but it's the texture of the film that really adds their story beauty.

There is an overwhelmingly melancholy tone here, but melancholy brought up to the artistic, expressive level of Hamlet. It is dripping with frankness and powerful sadness. I know this is an inconsiderate thing for me to sit here and just their lives as pitiful, but I can feel nothing other than this. I am not sure the Mosher's would disagree much, but they just wouldn't think about it much. What we see is that their lives don't involve much reflection or analysis; they know their positions, they push ahead and they deal with stuff as it comes up.

Ghosts are a powerful theme throughout this film. We are told that the Herkimer County, NY is considered one of the most-haunted parts of our country (by people who measure these things) and the Mosher family is clearly haunted by their past decisions and actions. We see the family celebrating Halloween and, of course, see aunt Denise practicing Wicca.

The cinematography, editing and beautiful music (by the two filmmakers as well as Danny Grody and Kenric Taylor) all capture this haunted and dark quality of the setting and the story as well. Much of the film is shot at night, with the jet black sky looming over everything. The interiors are illuminated with cheap bulbs and strings of holiday lights, giving everything a yellowish, muddy quality - but the camera's own pure white light makes everything jump out bright and crisp. It has the feeling of Kadachrome prints in that to colors are bright, but backgrounds are dull (of course there's a long history of Kodak in melancholy Upstate, New York).

Part of me feels like it could be a bit unfair and manipulative for Donal Mosher to present his family in this way. How are we to react to them other than feel deep pity and embarrassment for their situation? But of course, he's not really judging, he's just presenting us with their story and adding an aesthetic frame of reference, which could easily come out of his own experience. This is after all a film he wrote, so it is not ridiculous to think that this is his way of working through his own ghosts and feelings about the region and his family. That is exactly what art does, no?

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Oath (Sunday, October 24, 2010) (141)

The Oath is a very powerful documentary made by filmmaker Laura Poitras for the PBS series P.O.V. (and later released in theaters). This is the second installment in what is supposed to be a three-part series of life in the Middle East and America in the so-called "post-9/11" world. This is the follow-up to her brilliant documentary in 2006 called My Country, My Country, about the first post-Saddam election in Iraq.

This film is formed around two parallel stories of two men who were once very closely linked in terrorism, but now are less so. Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni man, was arrested in Afghanistan during the initial American invasion there in 2001. He has become known as "Osama bin Laden's driver" and was brought up on charges of providing material support for terrorism. (Ultimately he became better known for challenging the terms of his imprisonment and trial. The U.S. Supreme Court found in his favor, which led to a more standard military court marshal trial.) We see his legal team of American military officers fighting in his favor and speaking to the press at his trial in Guantanamo Bay.

Separately, we see Nasser al-Bahri (a.k.a. Abu Jandal) who was at one point Osama bin Laden's bodyguard. Also a Yemeni, he was involved in Al Qaeda in the late 1990s and was arrested in Yemen in 2000 in connection to the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. He was ultimately released in 2002 after it was clear he was not directly involved in that action, however during his time in detention, he was instrumental in giving interrogators information on the architecture of Al Qaeda and locations for their bases in Afghanistan. Most of the film is spent with al-Bahri in his home in Sanaa, Yemen as he teaches a new generation of young men about his views of Islam and Jihad.

Al-Bahri still deeply believes in the Jihadi struggle against the West and is still a general supporter of Al Qaeda and its actions around the world, but does not feel good about the tremendous loss of human life its attacks have created. He is very torn on this issue. He talks very frankly about how bad he feels when innocents die, but he knows it is for a bigger purpose. He says that he won't be able to stop all the violence and that it's coming regardless of what he does and says. He advocates that people read and study more than fight, but that he'll be ready to fight when the battle gets to his doorstep.

Much of what he talks about also relates to the oath he gave to bin Laden that he would be a soldier in his Jihad. Many in the jihadi world and in Al Qaeda see him as an apostate and a scoundrel because they believe he has backtracked on his oath, which in fundamentalist Islam is an offense punishable by death. He struggles with his because he is also a fundamentalist and he knows what he has done. He talks in circles about how he didn't so much play with the West against Al Qaeda because he doesn't believe he should be forced to kill people. He is clearly a very reluctant soldier, and his humanity comes through strongly as worries about death and damnation.

What is fascinating, of course is how the two stories are shown next to one another. The two men (who are brothers-in-law through al-Bahri's sister, by the way) were on the same path at one point (I believe al-Bahri got Hamdan into Al Qaeda) rising up the power ladder of Al Qaeda together. Then al-Bahri slipped and changed direction leaving his comrade on the field of battle. What is even sadder is that Hamdan was at most a driver, a rather low-level worker in the greater Al Qaeda machine, while al-Bahri is out as a free man - and he's talking about continuing with jihad. In basic terms, the man who couldn't stand the heat of battle and quit is now the free man paying less for his actions than his more devoted brother-in-law.

Poitras is an absolutely brilliant editor and director when it comes to creating powerful juxtapositions. She shines in transition, particularly with the beautiful landscape shots of Sanaa and Gitmo. She'll follow an important statement by al-Bahri or Hamdan's lawyers with a beautifully colored sky, say, that helps to seal the meaning of what was just said. It is because of beautiful transitions like this that this is not really just a political/historical/current events documentary. This is a really gorgeous film to watch.

I also love the juxtaposition we see between al-Bahri's constant questioning of his faith and his actions and the Pentagon's sureness of itself with regard to the fairness of holding Hamdan for seven years without a trial and the honesty of the trial itself. These two parts are beautifully cut back and forth to show how the former is a constant struggle, while the latter is barely examined and totally a done deal.

There is also a very sensible, easy-to-follow story structure to this work, that is not only reminiscent of a good newspaper article, but also a powerful narrative drama. Poitras lays out all the information we need very carefully and slowly so we can get a grip on who each person is and how he relates to others and to the bigger story. I don't believe she is really giving us a specific view one way or the other about how to think of these men. We don't come out thinking that one man was screwed, say, and one man was guilty. It's much more gray here, so we see how al-Bahri has some good and powerful points about jihad and Al Qaeda and he's neither a villain nor a hero. He's just a man, full of fear and doubt.

At one point, when talking to his students, al-Bhari says about Americans, "They can't live without planes, girlfriends, pizza, macaroni. A jihadist can live on stale bread." This is a very important point, very well said and a clear definition of the Jihahi's view of the world. It is made even more powerful when Poitras shows him taking a swig of a Coke bottle moments after he finishes speaking.

(One interesting note, is that al-Bahri says that the United 93 plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was actually intended for the White House rather than the U.S. Capitol building. I had never heard this before, but it is interesting.)

Al-Bahri is not a robot. He is a man with normal human emotions. This is important, I think, in an age when politics and international media have settled on treating terrorists as mindless drones doing the bidding of higher-ups. We see here that sometimes these pawns are actually fully-formed humans who share the feelings we all would. Blind faith is so challenging and even in the situation of jihad, it is not a binary black or white dilemma.

Poitras presents for us here a magnificent balance of two men who took divergent paths and had different faiths. One is in a jail cell in Gitmo serving his time (he was ultimately released in 2009) and the other is sitting in his living room in Sanaa talking to students... and to a filmmaker. They are both men of deep faith and belief, but are very different. It is very interesting that Hamdan is never on screen here, but his story comes across just as powerfully, through his lawyers and his back story.There are lots of elegant parallels and intersections in this film. It is well worth watching.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Videocracy (Sunday, October 24, 2010) (140)

Videocracy is an Italian documentary about how Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi controls his country and his power through the garbage he puts on television and the greater media that surrounds his terrible reality shows. It is pure political polemic of the most bitter and cutting variety. It doesn't really work totally as an effective documentary (or polemic), but there are some amazing moments in it.

We see some of the history of Berlusconi's reality shows and how he came to power. We see how he made Italian women want to be "velinas" or TV game show models - like Vanna White, but more mindless and with less clothes. We then see how he keeps his friends in the entertainment industry close, like Lele Mora, a super-agent for TV stars - especially those who want to go from Big Brother to music recording. Finally we see Fabrizio Corona, a major Italian paparazzo and how Mora and Corona and the television stations keep the gossip and celebrity nonsense swirling in the atmosphere, ultimately helping to keep Berlusconi popular with the people.

In many ways, this is a bit of a glimpse at what America could be in 50 years. Politics is basically taken over by demagoguery and the only entertainment is absolute garbage gossip. People are generally unhappy, but they don't really fight it because their minds are so numbed by the situation.

Director Erik Gandini clearly has a beef with Berlusconi and basically calls him a criminal and a murderer several times through the film. He uses a voice over narrator who sounds like he's spitting acid when he says the prime minister's name. I think some of this political hatred should have been modified as what we get is much less effective with it in there.

This is a fun movie if you are interested in Italy (and don't like Silvio Berlusconi), but it is not one that is incredibly important. It's basically a very good 60 Minutes story - or really, three stories - but with a lot more animosity.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

BearCity (Saturday, Octoer 23, 2010) (139)

BearCity is a very sweet movie about a young gay guy in New York City who comes out as a bear lover, a lover of big hairy men, and falls in with group of bear couples. It's basically Sex in the City but with bears.

Tyler (Joe Conti) meets bear Fred (Brian Keane) at a casting gig who then introduces the youngster to Roger (Gerald McCullouch), the king (or queen) bear in Chelsea. Tyler falls for Roger right away, but is nervous because his sexual exploits are legendary and he worries he's not ready for such a guy. Tyler has to gain confidence as a bear lover to win Roger's heart so they can fall in love and live happily ever after.

The story is totally silly here, but I appreciate that it sets up a world where everyone is gay and everyone is a bear. It's rather a gonzo world where there are simply no straights to be found and the spectrum of people goes from twink to polar bear.

The script by director Douglas Langway and Lawrence Ferber is very funny, though not all that amazing. Were this not a gay movie marketed specifically to gays, this probably would not have been made.

Most of the actors are very funny and great in their roles. Joe Conti, as Tyler, is a very likable kid who is clearly in love but isn't get comfortable enough in his own skin to feel very confident about himself or his feelings. He's funny and flirty in a very engaging way. Gerald McCullouch, as Roger, is also very funny and rather over-the-top - but in a charming way. He's a good mentor to the young Tyler, but also shows some real depth with his emotions... something I didn't expect from such a film.

This is not a movie that needs to be seen, but it is totally enjoyable if you do decide to see it.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Friday, October 22, 2010

Boxing Gym (Friday, October 22, 2010) (138)

Fredrick Wiseman has a beautiful and incredibly pure documentary approach. He basically turns on a camera in a location in front of whatever he's looking to shoot and captures whatever is in front of the lens. After he's amassed a certain number of hours of footage (normally more than a hundred hours) he carefully edits it, creating a film that is more experiential than necessarily narrative. There is basically no editorial commentary in his works, no directorial voice and whatever dialogue shows up is just what the people in front of the camera are saying, totally unscripted. This is a document in its most raw state.

In his most recent picture, Boxing Gym, Wiseman looks inside Richard Lord's boxing gym in Austin, Texas. We see the passage of several weeks (or months) as people come in to train, either learning to box for the physical workout or training for professional fights. We see men and women, kids, fathers, mother and grandfathers, Whites, Blacks, Latinos. Everything we see is inside the gym (with a few shots in the parking lot where clients run short sprints).

The film is basically divided into short chapters, each about six or ten minutes long. They function almost like shorts, with the common theme of boxing. There is no particular plot that pushes the film along. As with a collection of shorts, there are certainly some interesting (if light) parallels that link one sequence to another, but the order is essentially emotional, which is to say somewhat arbitrary and hard to verbalize. Most takes are long, running several minutes each, leading to a very peaceful tone overall.

One of the most interesting elements of the film are the sounds we hear inside the gym and Wiseman's use of the poly-rhythms of the boxers punching bags or trainers' gloves. Boxing training is an act of repetition and we get the wonderful sense of the patterns inside each training routine. It is interesting when the patterns change - when there is a cut from one boxer to another - and how that affects us in the audience. Add to this the sound of electronic alarms letting the boxers know that a certain amount of time has passed and they can move on to another exercise, the film is a percussive symphony.

What makes the film so enjoyable is that the members of the gym form a nice community and all seem like friendly people. It is clear that they come from very different backgrounds, but they workout together on this neutral ground. At one point in the middle of the film, the Virginia Tech shooting takes place. The members gather around one man, who seems to have had a relative in the middle of the action, recounting the story. They are all sober, curious and all have very real reactions. Through this scene, throughout the whole film really, the people seem oblivious to the camera that follows them. This adds a level of real-ness that is hard to capture in our very mediated, reality-TV-based world. This is true cinema verité - and it is incredibly beautiful.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Hereafter (Wednesday, October 20, 2010) (137)

Hereafter is a pretty annoying movie directed by Clint Eastwood (and written by Peter Morgan) about a man who is legitimately able to communicate with the dead and two people who desperately want to speak to him about dead people in their lives. George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is a sweet man who had some brain injury as a child after which he became able to talk to the dead. For awhile he was a professional medium, but ultimately retired because dealing with so much pain and death became too much for him to take every day.

Marie LeLay (Cécile de France) is a French journalist who is on vacation in Southeast Asia exactly when there is a tsunami that comes ashore and kills thousands of people. She witnesses a girl getting killed in the melee that follows and is haunted by her. She begins investigating people who communicate with the dead and finds out there is a massive international conspiracy of doctors trying to cover up this work.

Marcus is a boy in London who has an identical twin, Jason. One day Jason is killed in the street and Marcus desperately misses him and hopes to communicated with him. Both Marcus and Marie find George on the Internet (because even though his business is closed, his website is still up and these are the only two people who have found it.... uh.... OK) and they track him down in London and ask for his help. At some point George tries being a normal single guy and meets a girl named Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard, who is remarkably good here - possibly her only good performance ever), but ultimately can't become romantically involved with her because when they touch, he sees her dead parents. (Oh c'mon. Fuck - really?!)

There is so much terrible stuff in the script its rather difficult to get into this film at all. The premise of the story has so many dumb holes in it that it falls apart with the touch of a feather. How can George shake hands with anyone if he'll see their dead friends when they clasp hands? How is it that there's a massive conspiracy against people talking to the dead? Why is it that George is the only real medium in the world and all others are frauds? Why on earth do we need some ridiculous medical explanation as to how he talks to the dead because his brain is different?

There is one well-made scene that shows Eastwood as the talented director he is (though I think his reputation exceeds his actual body of work). There's a lovely scene when George and Melanie are in a cooking class and playing a blindfolded name-the-vegetable game. It's shot very tightly and Eastwood uses sound and lots of anticipation to create a very intense, erotic moment.

But that's about all that's good in the move. The rest worthless is drivel. Somehow this movie about a medium and talking to the dead is neither religious nor is it new age. It's just banal Hollywood garbage.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Carlos (Sunday, October 17, 2010) (136)

Just a quick note about this film before I begin: I saw the full three-part 5.5-hour version of this film. I know there is a shorter 2.5-hour version of it and I cannot comment on that. All I will say is that I can't imagine it would be improved by being shorter and I do think it would run the risk of truncating some of the longer-format story development. Having seen the full version, I don't know what could be obviously cut out. I'm sure one could pull out several chapters from a long book and read them and enjoy them, but that would not be tantamount to reading the whole book.

Carlos, directed by Olivier Assayas and written by Dan Franck and Assayas, is a very long and beautiful film. It follows the life of Carlos the Jackal, a 1970s-era super terrorist whose life story is almost a high crimes and espionage version of Forrest Gump. He was directly involved in or very closely connected to some of the major terrorist crimes of the late 1960s and 1970s. Born in Caracas, he was educated in Moscow and ultimately in London. He ultimately got involved with the group called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was trained in their camps in the Middle East and ultimately rose up their ranks through a series of violent crimes.

The first part of the film follows Carlos as he beings his work with the PFLP and gains traction with an assorted band of Leftists (from the Japanese Red Army to the German Revolutionary Cells). They are basically the gang that can't shoot straight and despite their devotion to the liberation of Palestinians and anti-Zionist rhetoric, they mostly screw up their attacks, rather than executing them well. This doesn't stop Carlos who is wildly self-impressed and sees himself as one of the most significant people in the political world of the era.

The second part of the film shows the gang's highest profile job, taking over and kidnapping the 1975 OPEC meeting. This was a job paid for by Saddam Hussein in an effort to wrest control of the organization away from the Saudis and bring it closer to Baghdad. After the get-away was bungled by Carlos, he was demoted by PFLP head Wadie Haddad. It was because of this demotion that Carlos was not involved in the PFLP hijacking of a plane that ended in Entebbe, Uganda (an operation that was also screwed up).

The third part of the film focuses on Carlos trying re-group and operate is organization from Budapest. He was becoming more and more a mercenary-for-hire, once taking a meeting with the KGB and top officials from the Iraqi regime to organize the assassination of Anwar Sadat of Egypt. Ultimately Carlos found no safe harbor and after he was booted from Hungary (who had previously turned their back on the fellow communist comrade) and then Syria, he moved to Sudan, where he was ultimately captured by French officials.

Assayas' story here is really about a wild psychopathic narcissist. The film opens with Carlos (played beautifully by Edgar Ramirez) posing naked in the mirror and marveling over his beautiful body. He continues this self-love throughout the film (despite his ever-growing and shrinking waistline), never catching on to the outside world's feelings about him, never self-aware enough to know how his friends and allies fear or hate him. Sadly, there is not a lot of depth to the character development throughout the film. Carlos is in the end exactly what he was at the beginning, a self-diluted maniac with a strong self-righteous streak of violence.

Technically the film is beautiful. The photography by Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir is beautiful and moves beautifully from the slightly richer palette of the late 1960s (somewhat reminiscent of New Wave films of the era) to the more washed out colors of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Assayas also uses a rock 'n' roll soundtrack throughout the film, frequently employing punk rock to convey an emotion and not just a time marker. When we hear The Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer" played over a montage of Carlos' gang getting ready for an attack, it's more an aesthetic connection to wildness, freedom and youth (Carlos was only in his mid-20s at the time) than it is a time marker of the late 1970s.

Somewhere in the moments between part 2 and part 3, Carlos' tone changes a bit and he becomes a bit darker than he had been before. This is a bit of a shock and makes this guy who is previously very charismatic and compelling into a supreme self-centered asshole. He speaks nonstop of himself in glowing terms, not realizing that by this point, in the late 1970s, he has already become almost totally forgotten.

There is an interesting scene that takes place in Damascus in the early 1990s where Carlos goes on a diatribe about how George H.W. Bush is out to ruin him, to which one of his friends explains that they are dinosaurs and have been entirely relegated to history books. This scene is particularly reminiscent of the scene in Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall, where Hitler is planning on his final attack against the allies, to which his generals and associates have to tell him that the war is lost. Carlos is so wrapped up in his own cult of personality (to which he is the only subscriber), that he has lost track of the fact that he is no longer a political radical, but merely a former thug who won't throw in the towel.

Throughout the film I was struck by the similarities in how Assayas dealt with Carlos' psychopathology and how David Fincher dealt with Mark Zuckerberg's sociopathology in The Social Network (whether he is or is not a sociopath, I think Fincher presents him as one). Both directors gave us fully formed psyches in their lead characters right out of the gate. These are characters who never totally grow or change much throughout their stories. Clearly Zuckerberg was not as dark and violent as Carlos, but both of them are diluted by their own strong feelings of themselves. In both cases we see the characters at the end almost exactly as they were when the films began. I think this is a bit of a disappointment in both cases. I would have preferred to see some growth or development in each one. Perhaps this is the nature of such character disorders, that they don't change much, but it doesn't make for the most interesting film.

What this film did very well, though, was to tell a very long and complex story in a very straightforward, beautiful way. We are never confused about who different characters are and what their motives are. Considering the grand scope of the picture, it is impressive that everything makes perfect sense.

Stars: 3 of 4

Monday, October 11, 2010

Secretariat (Monday, October 11, 2010) (135)

Secretariat is based on the biography of the great horse by Bill Nack that he wrote in 1975. It is important to note that the official billing says the film is "suggested by" Nack's book, which is an important distinction because it really plays fast and loose with history. I guess one reason for this is that the film is really a story about Penny Tweedy, the main owner of the horse, and some details were added to make her more of an interesting character.

In 1969, Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) is a Denver housewife with four kids and a loving husband. She's busy doing typical housewifey tings when she gets a call that her mother has just died and her father is now suffering from dementia. She flied back to Virginia to her family's horse farm that her father has turned into a successful business. While there, she is told that due to the estate taxes involved after a death, the family would be better off selling the farm and all the horses.

Penny seems to be a very smart lady with a nose for horses and she resists her brother's and husband's pleas to sell, instead deciding to fire the horse trainer who has been stealing from them and hire Lucian Laurin (John Malkovich) a trainer with a good reputation. Lucian quickly begins to train the farm's newest foal a big red horse that will ultimately be called Secretariat.

Secretariat is a tremendous horse from the get-go. He has a tremendous lineage a huge size. He begins racing as a 2-year-old in 1972 and wins a ton of races and ultimately is named Horse of the Year, an unusual achievement for a horse of his age. Just as this happens, Penny's father dies, bringing back the calls for the sale of the horse to pay for the taxes. They might be able to get as much as $7million for him - a record price. Penny doesn't want to sell him and instead sells shares in him, but retains control. She then has to hold her breath during the Triple-Crown season of 1973 to see if her decision was wise or not.

There are a ton if things wrong with the story, it's hard to know where to start. For one thing, Penny Tweedy was actually involved in her father's farm for awhile before she is in the film, and even owned Riva Ridge, the horse that won the Derby and Belmont in 1972 (the year before Secretariat won those). The really interesting story (as it is beautifully told in the book) is that Penny loved Riva Ridge more than Secretariat and rather resented that the red horse took attention away from her favorite. I guess this story was cut out for efficiency, but I think it could have been rolled in somewhere - especially if the film is really about her and not the horse.

The film is made by Disney and has a very saccharine, boring feeling about it throughout. Diane Lane does a good job with the role, but it is so shallow there's not much for her to work with. Director Randall Wallace does a very bad job here and misses at least two of the most exciting parts of Secretariat's story almost completely. The scene when they are selling shares in the horse is told in the book in a wonderfully dramatic and cinematic way (when reading it, I thought about how it would be turned into a scene in a film). Here, the scene falls flat and never really raises any excitement or interest at all.

One thing I'm really upset about it the treatment of the Preakness. Secretariat's most famous win is certainly the Belmont, which he won by 31 lengths, but possibly his most dramatic was the Preakness where he started out from behind (as he did in nearly all of his races) and then made his move to the front of the pack on the first turn. This is really never done in horse racing because it requires the horse to take a wider line around the bend, effectively running a longer race than the others. That Secretariat did that in this race was for many the most impressive feat. In this film, we see the race on the television in the Tweedy house and can barely see the move on the grainy TV screen. What a shame!

I would not recommend this film at all, but would strongly recommend Nack's book, Secretariat: The Making of a Champion. I think that is a much more interesting and exciting telling of the story than this very polished and trite film.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mid-August Lunch (Sunday, October 10, 2010) (134)

Mid-August Lunch takes place around the Italian holiday of Ferragosto, which is the equivalent of Labor Day. In the film, Gianni is a guy in his 60s who lives with his mother (a not-uncommon thing to find in Italy, apparently). On the weekend before the holiday, a neighbor in his apartment building comes to him to ask if he would look after the guy's elderly mother for the weekend, and in return that he would waive some of the money Gianni owes the building. Seeing this as a wise economic trade-off, Gianni agrees.

The next day the neighbor comes with his mother and an aunt. Now Gianni has three old women to take care of. A bit later in the day, he sees a doctor friend of his for a check-up. The doctor tells him he has to go out of town for the night and asks if Gianni could look after his mother too. Figuring one more woman won't be a problem, he agrees to this too. Now he has to look after four elderly women on one of the hottest days of the year in a rather small apartment.

This is not a particularly brilliant film, but it is really fun, wonderful and sweet. I really liked the lead actor, Gianni Di Gregorio, who also wrote and directed this (and also wrote Gomorrah from last year). He's a very normal guy who reacts to this situation in a very natural way.

I appreciate the smallness of the film and that it's a very tight story without any fancy tricks or elaborate set-ups. This is effectively a short-story turned into a movie. Di Gregorio wonderfully uses a hand-held camera throughout the film putting us right in the middle of the action with the crazy women and him in the tight quarters of the modest apartment. This is a small touch, but it's very important and smart. This totally adds tons to the intimacy of the story and dramatically helps our experience here.

Again, there is nothing here that is particularly deep, but it is very nice and enjoyable.

Stars: 3 of 4

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Inside Job (Saturday, October 9, 2010) (133)

Inside Job is a documentary about what led to the enormous economic crash of 2008 that we are still suffering from today. Director Charles Ferguson, who previously did the powerful Iraq War polemic No End in Sight, does a great job of telling the story from a historical look at banking in America to specific policies that changed in the 1990s to how unregulated money forced us into our current hole.

This is polemic, to be sure - but it is also the most efficient and complete history of the past 10 years of finance that I have ever seen or read. There are few revelations in it, but I appreciate how well Ferguson shows and tells us how small moves several years ago helped to loosen previously tight seals.

I have few small gripes about this, but nothing incredibly important that really gets in the way of the effectiveness of the piece. There is a section in the middle of the film where a shrink to finance guys talks about how much the young Wall Street bankers are obsessed with fucking whores in nightclubs and doing cocaine (this actually comes up twice in the film). This thread really has nothing to do with the economy or anything judgement-wise. I think Ferguson is trying to suggest that the young guys in the firm loved the amazing piles of money they were earning and the power that came with it - but that's a pretty shallow point, really.

There is also no mention of Fed Governor Ned Gramlich's speeches and writings about the looming Sub-Prime lending crisis from the early and middle parts of the decade. This is a shame, because he really saw the problem before it hit and should have been listened to more.

What is great about the film is that I felt like I had heard about or knew almost everything in it, but couldn't see how one thing really lead to another. Ferguson's presentation is clean, efficient and mostly fair. If only the bankers could have been any one of those things.

Stars: 3 of 4

Friday, October 8, 2010

Jack Goes Boating (Friday, October 8, 2010) (132)

Jack Goes Boating is the directorial debut for Philip Seymour Hoffman. The film is based on a play by Robert Glaudini (a play I know nothing about) and focuses on one really unlikeable guy and his efforts to date an unlikeable women after they're set up by an unlikeable couple.

Jack (Hoffman) is a New York loser who drives a livery cab. His best friend and fellow driver is Clyde (John Ortiz), who is married to Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega). The two take care of Jack to some degree, always thinking of him and his happiness (because he is not at all happy). Lucy decides to set Jack up with a new co-worker of hers, Connie (Amy Ryan), who is almost as much of a loser as Jack is.

The two meet and sorta don't really hit it off, but also have no other options, so they begin to date and fuck. From there a series of events happen that set the four-some off on a crazy spiral of dissatisfaction and loathing.

Throughout the film, it was unclear to me if it was really a film about terrible people, or if it was just a film about people who I found to be terrible. At first it was off-putting to watch a movie and realize that I could identify with nobody and didn't even want to spend time with any of them. Over time, though, I felt as though I dropped completely into this world of jerks and losers and that was merely the texture on the wall. I ultimately found the characters to be pretty interesting, beneath their unsavory surfaces.

More than anything, this is a really well directed film and shows that Hoffman could really have a future as an interesting artist behind the camera. At several moments, he framed shots really interestingly and inventively. The first scene has Jack and Clyde sitting in their town-cars talking, but it is shot with such a long lens that the space surrounding their heads fades out of focus. They seem to be facing one another, but are somehow both behind the wheels of their respective cars. Ultimately we see a wider shot that shows they had merely parked their cars so the drivers' windows were next to each other. This is a subtle thing, but very clever and nontraditional.

I think the script is what really got between me and the emotional content of the story. The story is a bit boring and goes off into directions that are too symbolic and not naturalistic enough (considering the realistic nature of the movie). There's a whole section about Clyde teaching Jack to swim and Jack and Connie going boating (ergo the title) that never really connect to the otherwise interesting interpersonal drama.

I guess this is like complaining about there being too much mafia in The Godfather, but I think there's some really good stuff here and then some stuff that is not so good. I think a re-write of the script and a re-thinking of the whole concept would have left us with a better result.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

It's Kind of a Funny Story (Friday, October 8, 2010) (131)

The worst thing about It's Kind of a Funny Story is that it's a movie about a teenager who goes to a mental hospital where he learns that he's basically normal after all. The best thing about it is that it's much better than almost every mental hospital movie out there.

Craig (Keir Gilchrist, who also plays the son on The United States of Tara) is a typically mixed up Brooklyn teen whose life is full of anxiety, self-doubt and disappointment. As the movie opens he is flirting with the idea of suicide, so he checks himself into a hospital. It seems that the teen psych wing is under construction, so he's put on the adult psych floor.

He soon meets Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), who seems to be the leader-sorta-dude of the crazy people and takes Craig under his wing. Ultimately he also meets Noelle (Emma Roberts, Eric's daughter and Julia's niece) who is a teen cutter. They begin to flirt and fall for one another in a very sweet way.

The film is written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (based on a book by Ned Vizzini) who are also the pair behind Half Nelson and Sugar, two films for which I have tremendous respect. These two have a very good ear for dialogue and a wonderfully creative view of the world.

One thing they do particularly well is editing and montage. Boden is an editor and she's fantastic at it. Montage is a very subtle art that can be wonderful and powerful when done well, or really dull and hackneyed when done badly. Boden does it really well. There are two wonderful montages in this that really add a lovely depth to the film, suggesting the confusion and joy of being a teen. Kudos to her for this!

Of all the acting performances (a who's-who of top-notch indie talent including Lauren Graham, Jeremy Davies and Matthew Maher) the one that really sticks with me the most was Viola Davis who plays the head psychiatrist in the hospital. The psych doc is normally a totally throw-away role in these mental hospital movies, but she's really wonderful here. She's warm, funny, honest and seems to live in the real, rather than some ridiculous psych world that many characters like this inhabit. Again, I give a lot of credit to the very naturalistic writing - but Davis does a wonderful job with the role that would otherwise be banal.

I was also very impressed with Keir Gilchrist's performance. I have only known him from The United States of Tara where he plays a very flamboyant gay teen. Here there is no suggestion in the slightest of anything gay in him. I was partly moved by the honesty of his performance, but also his clear ability to move from one very specific character (a faggy, gay teen) to another (a typically anxious teen).

There's a lot of really nice stuff in this film. It's very well written, well directed and well acted. The thing I keep coming up against when I think about it is that it's a really dull story that I've seen hundreds of times. I really don't need to see another psych hospital movie. Let's retire the concept. I will say that if there was ever a mental ward hospital movie that rose above the constraints of the setting, it was this one.

Stars: 3 of 4

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Solitary Man (Wednesday, October 6, 2010) (130)

OK - let's be clear. This film is called Solitary Man and should not be confused with the Coen Brothers' film A Serious Man or Tom Ford's film Single Man. It couldn't be confused with those because it totally sucks (Ford's film sucked too, but at least it looked nice). The movie is really the story about how if you have the right connections in Hollywood, you can make any garbage you want - and big stars will sign up to work with you.

It is co-written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who previously collaborated on the scripts and direction of such wonderful works of art as the Girlfriend Experience (the film that gave us the first painful look at porn star Sasha Grey trying to act with clothes on), Rounders (a film ahead of its time in terms of male drinking culture and parlor games) and Knockaround Guys (yes - that Vin Diesel piece with Barry Pepper). It is directed by Koppelman who has never directed a film on his own (because he needs the genius mind of Levien to balance him).

The story is about Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), a super-successful car salesman in New York City whose life is coming apart. He somehow made hundred of millions of dollars selling cars (ooookay....), but then got into some trouble with the government for wrongdoing and now is sorta between dealerships and bored. To keep busy he fucks any and all women he meets. His daughter, played by Jenna Fischer, is embarrassed by his titanic libido and frustrated that he's a flaky grandpa to her son.

His girlfriend, played by Mary-Louise Parker, is the daughter of a guy who has something to do with getting his next dealership up and running. She has a hot 18-year-old daughter (played by the magnificent Imogen Poots, who was also magnificent in Centurion) who wants to go to Ben's Alma mater. When they go for a visit there, they sleep together. This begins to unravel the business, personal and financial parts of his life.

There is basically nothing interesting in this film. Ben is a jerk who talks too much and gives his dumb advice about success in business and love to anyone who is stupid enough to listen to him. Of course, most of his advice is bad advice, which some of the characters understand sometimes - but we have to listen to it all the time.

There is way too much going on in the story. You have the legions of women who Ben screws and leaves, then there is some story about Ben wanting to start a new dealership in the burbs, then there's something about how he's avoiding a heart examination at the doctor's office, then there's something with his ex-wife (played by Susan Sarandon, who is basically the same character as she was in Wall Street 2, but a bit more successful) who he's still friendly with for no good reason, then there's something with Jesse Eisenberg who is a student at the college and wants to have sex with Olivia Thirlby, oh - and there's something with Danny DeVito who plays Ben's friend who owns a diner in the college town... It's all just too much and really dull.

The film mostly feels like a bad re-make of Wonder Boys, but with a much less interesting style and a really bad script. I wish I knew all these Hollywood people so I could make a bad movie recycled from an older film that was good. Alas, I just have to sit through ones that others make and wait for them to end.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Freakonomics (Sunday, October 3, 2010) (129)

Freakonomics is a fun and interesting documentary based on information taken from the 2005 book by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Due to the very braod and weird nature of the book, the movie is made up of four shorts that are each individually written and directed by some of the most impressive and talented young documentarians working today.

Morgan Spurlock is probably the best known director, previously creating Super Size Me, and he has a great segment here about how given names either are or are not a predictor of success or failure in life. Alex Gibney, who recently made the brutal and brilliant Taxi to the Dark Side, has a nice piece about cheating in sumo wrestling and what it tells us about cheating in the banking industry. Eugene Jarecki, who did the interesting documentary Why We Fight, gives us a rather shocking and well-made short about how the rise in abortions in the 1970s led to a lowering of the crime rate in the 1990s. Finally, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who made Jesus Camp, bring us a story about how a Chicago-area school district is experimenting with paying kids money for good grades.

Each film is introduced by a brief discussion of the general context of the piece by Levitt and Dubner (these segments are directed by Seth Gordon who made the documentary The King of Kong - one of my recent favorites). These intros as well as the shorts themselves almost all employ wonderful animation elements, some more than others. Jarecki's piece is almost entirely animated with news footage cut into it, while Gibney's and the Ewing/Grady one have only a little in theirs.

Spurlock's short is a great example of his quirky style and very reminiscent of the best moments from his 30 Days television show - that is thankfully off the air now (he really ran out of ideas and it went down the tube). Several of the directors use Levitt and Dubner as interview subjects in their pieces to make the toughest freakonomic positions.

I think I was most affected by the Jarecki short for it's elegant animated style and totally mind-blowing conclusions. It's hard to argue with the economic and sociological findings through all of these pieces (particularly in this one) because the concepts they're working with are so immense. We have to assume that they checked their work and know what they're talking about - so we just have to have faith that what we are seeing it totally correct. I think Gibney's short is probably the dullest, though it has the best photography and might look the best aesthetically of the four.

There is a definite small-screen element to this film, and I almost feel it would work just as well, if not better, on television, rather than in the cinema. This could have easily been a small series on AMC or IFC or some cable channel - and in fact I would hope they continue to make other shorts along these lines.

Stars: 3 of 4

Saturday, October 2, 2010

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Saturday, October 2, 2010) (128)

Once more into the breach, dear friends. Woody Allen is at it again in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the most recent item of evidence presented in the desperate case for his long-overdue retirement. This time the story is set in London (I guess he's finally paying attention to Manhattan's pleas to stop making movies in her) with a much too complicated ensemble-cast story.

Sally (Naomi Watts) is a woman in her 30s who lives in London with her American husband Roy (Josh Brolin). She works in an art gallery and her husband, who finished medical school but is not a doctor, is an unsuccessful novelist. They are supported by her mother, Helena (Gemma Jones), a divorced woman in her 60s who regularly goes to see a fortune teller (played by Pauline Collins) to look into the future. Her father, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), left her mother during some sort of mid-life crisis and now is married to an ex-hooker named Charmaine (Lucy Punch).

None of them are happy with their lives and all of them are looking to improve their situations, either through sex with new people (Roy falls in love with he neighbor, played by the magnificent Freida Pinto; Sally falls in love with her boss, played by Antonio Banderas) or major career moves (Roy steals a dead friend's book and publishes it as his own; Sally wants to open her own art gallery with a friend). I guess the inside joke in the film is that Helena is just about as overbearing as a WASP as a Jewish mother would be, were the film typically set in New York. Who cares?!

Woody has this idea that men sit around in groups at cafes, pubs and poker tables talking about stuff. This doesn't really happen. Men sit around bars or dens and watch football games, but men don't really gossip the way they do in his movies. Sometimes this construction works in his films (like in Broadway Danny Rose), but most of the time it's just dumb (like in Whatever Works or here). Beyond this, it is totally unclear why Roy lives in London and not New York. Why do we need an American in the cast at all? Having him in the story brings up more questions than it answers.

More than anything, this film is totally unmemorable and lacks any emotional or sensory connection to anything. I feel like I've seen this film six times already from Woody (Oh - a guy upset in his marriage - maybe it's Husbands and Wives, or Crimes and Misdemeanors, or Match Point - ugh).

The film has no style to is and the script is just recycled. At times I feel that he makes movies as an excuse to work with talented actors he hasn't worked with before (like Freida Pinto or Pauline Collins). But I wish he would either write better material for them or hold off on making two movies a year to make a great movie and really show off the actors' abilities. This is not a movie that I was begging for him to make. I've already almost totally forgotten I saw it.

Stars: 2 of 4

Let Me In (Saturday, October 2, 2010) (127)

Let Me In is film mysteriously set in Los Alamos, New Mexico - yes, that Los Alamos that you think about when you're looking for a really cold and snowy place. It apparently is pretty cold and pretty snowy, but why this film is not set in Minnesota or Wisconsin is totally beyond me. Sure there are beaches in Alaska, but would you set a Spring Break movie there?

The film is based on the Swedish book Let the Right One In, which was made into a very good film in 2008. The story transcends the vampire genre. Owen is a 12-year-old kid who has no friends and is the main target of the school bully's cruelty, both physical and psychological. His family is broken and he lives with his mother in a sad apartment complex. One night when he is sitting on the jungle gym outside of the apartment (in the snow - because when it's cold and snowy outside it's totally normal to sit outside) he meets Abby, a strange girl who doesn't wear shoes and immediately tells him that they can't be friends, "because that's just how it is."

It turns out that she's a vampire and the older man she lives with kills people to harvest their blood to keep her happy and healthy and protect her from her own nature. When he's unable to get the blood, she goes wild and attacks people like a demon. Of course she keeps this all a secret, but slowly we discover this as she and Owen become friends.

She is a source of happiness in the middle of his lonely life. She helps him stand up to the bullies in school and respects him as a friend - becoming his only friend. The problem, of course, is that she is not a girl and she doesn't live a normal life.

Most of the scenes in the film take place at night, and many of them are outside in the snow. This lends a sense of peace and beauty, despite the violence that underlies the story. The only problem is that writer/director Matt Reeves uses a score (by Michael Giacchino) that is constantly present in every shot of every scene. In moments of calmness and docility, we always hear music, as if we need reminding of the quietness of the scene (rather than just letting us have silence). In scenes with more drama, the score is also there, as the tools of the genre dictate. This is just one example of how Reeves has the opportunity to make a film that is truly beyond the slasher genre, but falls back into the bloody hole of the style dictates time and time again.

I would have loved a movie about a real-world vampire girl who has to live and move around in the real world. The setting for the film is totally real-feeling and seems like a place we might remember (from the 1980s). The problem is that when she sees blood or needs blood, her eyes become cat-like and yellow and her skin gets gray, transforming the sweet girl into a horrible monster. This comes down to just schlocky slasher-flick crap and it totally doesn't fit in with the tone of the film. There are about three scenes that are significantly more bloody and gory than they need to be - again because Reeves is happier to give the blood-thirsty audience something to hoot about rather than something that would fit in well with the film.

The acting throughout is very good. Richard Jenkins plays Abbby's older man friend/father, a man who loves the girl and can't get out of his bizarre relationship with her. Chloe Moretz (who was previously in Kick-Ass) is Abby and is very good as is Kodi Smit-McPhee as Owen (who was previously the boy in The Road).

There are a lot of silly things in the film as well as some things that are simply unnecessary. Owen's mother's face is never seen as she is always shot out of focus in the distance or from behind. I guess this is supposed to lend a sense of isolation and alienation - and underlines the messed-up nature of his family - but it's way too heavy-handed (we could have had the mother talk like Charlie Brown's teacher and it would have been about the same result). In one scene with a woman who has become a vampire, she is seen sucking her own blood. I guess that could happen in some weird, kinky vampire circles, but it would seem to be outside of the general vampire mythology. (Mostly this whole sequence with the other vampire is just an excuse for more blood and gore - but is totally separate from the Owen-Abby story.)

I guess it's fair that Americans wanted to re-make a successful movie - or re-adapt an interesting book about vampires (they're so hot now!), but I don't think this does enough different from the first to be totally worthwhile. I have not read the book, but just comparing this film to the last, it seems to me that it's basically the same (it even looks the same - and I'll forgive the fact that Los Alamos in the winter is not as cold as Sweden in the winter) with a lot more blood and violence. In fact this film is much less sympathetic and psychologically connected than the first one was. I think this is a shame as it was those elements that made the first one stand out among other vamp fare.

Stars: 2 of 4

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Social Network (Friday, October 1, 2010) (126)

I think Mark Zuckerberg is a fascinating person. From everything I have read and seen about him he is a computer genius who was able to synthesize technical code-writing with the youth zeitgeist at the exact moment it would work best. Later he was able to make some very significant business moves (some of them unethical) that led him to more than $1billion in worth and his company to significant cultural relevance. All the time he was doing this, it seems he was never able to make human connections, letting his feelings of low self-esteem and his deep sense of pride in his own knowledge-base get in the way of his connections to friends and business associates. I might call him a bit of a sociopath (or at least someone with a disorder somewhat like Asperger's) - someone who does not have violence in him, but rather the complete lack of tools to deal with the world emotionally.

Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher's film The Social Network attempts to look at Zuckerberg and understand what drove him in the early years of Facebook and what made him who is his (and his company what it is as a result). Sadly we really don't get much depth at all beyond the superficial character assessment I wrote above. The characters in the story, Zuckerberg most prominently, don't grow over the course of the film. Some of them make smart moves, some make dumb moves, but almost all of them are kids behaving the way people in their early-20s behave - no matter how good their ideas are or how much money they have.

The punchy script by Sorkin is much more an example of his showy, high-polished dialogue style, than of anything any 19-year-old would ever say. The film has no particular visual or emotional style from Fincher (who previously made one of the most beautiful emotional stories of recent memory in Zodiac). Much has been written about how this is an "important" movie or a "defining" movie of our times. I didn't see that at all. I thought it was a very well-crafted story that is based on a true Shakespearean and Classical narrative. At no point did I see depth or significance on the screen.

The story is told through the framing device of two depositions for two lawsuits involving Zuckerberg and the ownership of Facebook. The film opens with Zuckerberg(Jesse Eisenberg), a brash Harvard computer science undergrad, on a date with his girlfriend who goes to Boston University. He is talking on and on about the importance of getting into one of the elite old-fashioned social clubs on campus. The girl doesn't understand why he's so fixated on it (and frankly, aside from the sad psychology of a high school dweeb looking to finally fit in, we don't understand it either). He makes a thoughtless comment about how she's not as smart as he is and she breaks up with him and verbally slaughters him, calling him an asshole (which he seems to be).

In response, he goes back to his dorm room to blog about what a bitch she is and then as he gets more and more drunk, writes a website to rank girls on campus in terms of hotness. (I guess we are supposed to think that Zuckerberg's brain is so juvenile that he responds to one woman by attacking all women. It might be realistic, but it's pretty facile, no?)

In the drama that follows, he ultimately is contacted by the Winklevoss twins (along with a cohort devoid of any personality) who try to get Zuckerberg to write a website they've been thinking about for a long time: a social network like Friendster or MySpace but with the exclusivity of only listing Harvard students, thus making others on the outside want to get in. Zuckerberg catches on to the idea immediately.

He goes to his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who comes from some tremendous amount of Brazilian money and agrees with him to create a website they would call "The Facebook" (ultimately the article would be dropped) that does what Zuckerberg has been asked to do - but never telling Saverin about the prior agreement.

After a few months, launches, kicking on a long story of Winklevoss emotional, social and legal battles. Zuckerberg and Saverin, meanwhile are constantly butting heads in their endeavor as Zuckerberg has one vision for the company (to make it very big, to keep it ad-free and exciting for as long as possible) and Saverin has a different idea (to monetize the site as soon as possible and see the ad-dollars roll in).

Zuckerberg ultimately consults with Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) a party-loving wildman who had previously created the online music site Napster. Parker has lots of money contacts and a lot of experience with online companies. He drives a wedge between the Facebook partners that ultimately results in a lawsuit.

Throughout this story, Zuckerberg is constantly faced with questions of who his real friends are, how he can make new friends, and what he has to do to keep his old friends. There is a constant reminder the the main character is obsessed with fitting in and that he's responsible for this site that brings people together - but that he's unable to do connect to people in his own life. To me, this is lightly interesting, but mostly really trite. It's like a movie about a blind man who can see the future. It's a particular Classical concept, but not anything particularly deep or interesting.

The writing throughout is very Sorkiny, to coin a term. Aaron Sorkin loves very fast, punchy dialogue where characters speak in full, perfect sentences, never pause to think of their next line and never are at a loss for the most perfect, cutting and funny metaphor or figure of speech. I find it exhausting and totally unrealistic. You might as well have 20-year-old drunk American undergrads speaking Finnish or Tagalog - it's equally true-to-life.

Meanwhile, the portrayal of Zuckerberg is very fair and rather complimentary, I think. He does not come off nearly as dark as I might have thought. He is at his core a nice guy who just has no social graces. He says exactly what is on his mind and he lives with he constant knowledge that he's the smartest guy in the room.

He also is clearly very lonely and not incredibly comfortable with women (strangely for all the wild sex in the film, we never see him even kiss a girl). He is always looking to fit in, but is never really able to do the follow-up work that friendship requires. The very reason he was able to write the program code for the Facebook site is because he was able to lock himself in a room for weeks on end with only limited social interaction. (This reminds me of a Malcolm Gladwell thesis... oy vey.)

This is all very nice, but it is not really deep. Eisenberg does a good job with this role, but I don't think there's all that much there in terms of emotion. Zuckerberg is a dork who wants to fit in. I don't know - that doesn't seem like the hardest character to play.

I was also a bit annoyed that aside from the fast-talking girlfriend in the first scene and the lawyer in Zuckerberg's deposition (played by Rashida Jones) there are absolutely no women of substance in this film. Beyond that, all Harvard and Stanford women shown here are hot sluts looking to bang computer science students - who are all hot guys in their own right. It's a big ridiculous, dontcha think? (We couldn't have gotten one pimple-faced four-eyed dork on screen, even for a moment?)

Aside from the sometimes clever, mostly disorienting switch between the two depositions and the flashbacks, there is really no style in this film - something I think Fincher has done beautifully in past movies. Everything is so very straightforward that it feels like it could have been directed by just about any Hollywood hack (which is basically the same thing I felt about Benjamin Button). This is upsetting to me. If there was any director who I would think could direct a film about a young man's psychology and darkness (because I think screwing friends and unethical business dealings is dark), it would have been Fincher. But we get almost nothing aside from the super banal facts about his character that we already know from news reports.

Again, I don't see this as an important movie. Is it important because it's a film about a man with no social connections making a website about social connections and that is somehow emblematic of our society? My answer to that is: Meh. Who cares? I could get that insight by watching a two-minute segment on the Today Show on a Tuesday morning. People are weird and have all sorts of weird views of social interaction. So what?

This is a very old, traditional story of friendship and betrayal. Unless you're going to give me something deeper than superficial psychology, I'm not really interested. This is a well crafted film, to be sure - I would certainly aspire to speak to my drunk friends as well as Sorkin's characters speak to theirs - but it is not interesting at all.

Stars: 2 of 4