Friday, December 31, 2010

The Best Worst Movie (Friday, December 31, 2010) (170)

Troll 2 is considered by many to be the worst movie ever made. It was a 1989 passion project of Italian fimmaker Claudio Fragasso and was never released in theaters, but became a cult classic on VHS and cable. This documentary shows the current state of cult fandom and how the cast and crew react to the film and the national success it is having now.

Most of the film follows George Hardy, a dentist in Alabama who was the lead in the film. He did the acting gig knowing only that he was working with an Italian director and figured it was going to be a serious movie. It was only after he got the VHS tape of the film and watched it that he realized how bad it was.

Hardy's story is similar to most of the cast. They did the film in earnest, knowing it was a horror piece, but thinking it might be OK. When they saw the final project they realized what they had done. Some laughed it off and forgot about it, some had to deal with it haunting their careers for years to come.

Fans today flock to midnight screenings of the film because it is so incredibly bad. It seems to be something like The Room or Birdemic... although the daddy of those (with Plan 9 From Outer Space the grandaddy of them). One thing this doc doesn't do well is tell us really what the movie is about... so as a neophyte, I have no idea what they're talking about. This is a shame, because I really don't want to rent and watch this film... ugh.

It is funny to see how most of the actors have grown to embrace the terribleness of the film, but some, like Claudio Fragasso, still think it's a serious, brilliant film. What's sorta uncomfortable is that audiences love the film and laugh at it, but they also embrace the shitiness of it. When we see Fragasso watching it at a screening with fans, it is not clear that people are laughing at him. This is sorta upsetting.

This is a fun documentary, though it probably should have been a short, as it really loses steam in the last 30 minutes. I think it would have been much better at around 45 minutes. It's something in the vein of Winnebago Man or The King of Kong. Lots of fun.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Blue Valentine (Thursday, December 30, 2010) (169)

Blue Valentine is a beautiful and heartbreaking film by relative new-comer Derek Cianfrance. It is blue in tone and subject matter, but also in appearance. It is the story of Dean and Cindy (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) who meet and fall madly in lust and then start a family and then begin to dislike one another. It's a film about the beginning and end of a relationship - beginning and end because it is beautifully constructed where we see both story lines moving along together intermittently.

The film begins with Dean and Cindy in their (somewhat-suburban-looking) home looking after their little daughter Frankie (who seems to be about five or so). They seem to share the same space, but never totally connect. It is clear that Dean's approach to fatherhood is to be Frankie's best friend and to make her laugh. When it comes to eating breakfast, he wants to entertain her, while Cindy wants to be a responsible grown-up and wants her to eat. He really just wants to entertain everyone, considering charisma is really all he's dealing with. He's not a particularly smart guy, nor is he responsible. He's romantic, to a point, but also charming as hell.

Then there is a flash-back to maybe five or six years earlier, where both Dean and Cindy are single and embarking on their lives in different places. He gets a job as a mover in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and and she's a college student in Philadelphia looking to get an education and maybe go on to med school. The two meet by chance and he asks her out. She demurs, but ultimately accepts his offer; they fall madly for one another. Back in the present day, they are struggling to keep their family together, deciding they will go on a weekend sex jaunt to rekindle whatever low embers they might still have for one another.

More than anything, this film is about the two performances of the two lead actors. I think Gosling and Williams are two of the best actors of their generation (both are now 29). (Gosling is fabulous in Half Nelson and more fabulous in Lars and the Real Girl; Williams is amazing in Wendy and Lucy and also in the not-wonderful Mammoth) (Oh, and there's a very clever allusion to Wendy and Lucy in the opening of the film, if you've seen that one.) Both act from a very elemental, ground level position. Their actions are generated from the cores of their souls, rather than more method people who seem (to me) to act from the shoulders up. Both of them move along with a constant slow boil of energy, waiting to overflow the pot.

But Cianfrance's direction with writing by him, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne helps a lot too in setting a tone for the film. These people are sub-hipsters - they're not rich enough to be hipsters. Dean is a high school drop-out who moves from lifting boxes for a living to house painting; Cindy doesn't go to med school, but becomes a nurse and seems to be the responsible breadwinner in the family. Most of the scenes of the two of them are intimate and dark... and blue in color. When they get to their cheesy sex hotel, they're in a sci-fi-themed room that has a dark moonscape on the wall. Most of the shots here are with a handheld camera, putting us right in the middle of the action.

As heartbreaking as this film is, I found it less intense and a bit too cutesy with the formal construction. As an alternate presentation, I would offer Maren Ade's film from earlier this year, Everyone Else. I think in the long term, that film is more powerful and more deep-burning because it has no formal flair like this one has with the back-and-forth past-present stuff. There we see the couple madly in love at the beginning slowly falling out of love through the course of the film. We realize their relationship is over basically at the same time they realize it. I think this is more painful to experience (if we're judging effective filmmaking on painfulness). Here we see the relationship is basically over at the beginning and see how it got to that point. I think the former is more commanding.

There also is something annoyingly super hip here about the presentation, say, with the music. One of the main songs is Dean on a ukulele on the street serenading Cindy (early in their relationship) with You Always Hurt the One You Love (get it?! get it?!!) in a very Spike Jones style. Then there's the really, really, really wonderful Penny & The Quarters song You and Me (which I had never heard before, but LOVE!). Both of these are old-fashioned in an overly precious, hipsterish way. I think this almost hurts the cause of the film a bit by confusing us to think that Dean is a hipster... when, again, he's just honestly poor and wears ratty t-shirts because that's what he has available to him. Something doesn't work here for me about how he's very salt-of-the-earth and white trash, but he's also cute and likable because we could imagine hanging out with him on Bedford Ave with expensive mix drinks.

I'm being very picky, I know. There is a lot to like in this film and I appreciate the fresh voice Cianfrance gives us here. This is a very good film and is very powerful. The acting is amazing (I think Williams is a bit better than Gosling because she's not as showy) and the atmosphere is indelible. This is a film well worth watching (though I would still recommend one sees Everyone Else as well, as I think it is a more successful version of the same general story).

Stars: 3 of 4

Another Year (Thursday, December 30, 2010) (168)

Mike Leigh has a wonderful way of making the most mundane people and situations beautiful and interesting. What's even more amazing is that his films are always so dialogue-based and they are always gripping, even when generally about dull topics. Another Year is another great example of this.

In it, Tom and Gerri (funny!) (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) are a married couple in their early 60s. He works as a geologist and she works as a social worker in a hospital. They love to garden, cook and spend time together. They have a grown son, Joe, who is a lawyer, and spend a fair amount of time with Mary (Lesley Manville), who works as a secretary in the same office as Gerri. Mary is a rather pitiful woman who never has luck with love and barely ever stops talking for long enough to figure out what to do differently.

The film is divided into four parts, Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Through the course of the year, really through a major event in each season, we see how the friendships of Tom and Gerri with Mary change and develop.

There is nothing fancy about this story and no gigantic central thing (like some of Leigh's other films, Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake, for instance). Instead we get a warm and loving couple in a funny and normal relationship with their grown son and their nutty friends. This is a very gentle, character-driven story, one that moves very slowly, and doesn't really move all that much from beginning to end. Still, what we do see is so heart-felt and charming that it is a pleasure to watch.

All of the characters are full of depth and detail and are beautifully written. There is a certain quality to Mary that is somewhat reminiscent of Shirley Valentine. She's the loopy middle-aged woman whose dreams are bigger than her life will allow. She's totally lovable, if a bit annoying, and has a heart of pure gold. Lesley Manville does a wonderful job here, always talking and getting drunk with too many glasses of wine. She's aware of her situation, but feels like its not totally her fault. Broadbent and Sheen are a wonderful couple and come across as truly in love and in a fabulous marriage. They are able to warmly laugh with one another all the time and be supportive whenever needed.

Leigh uses wonderful cinematography (by frequent collaborator Dick Pope) to help tell the four-part story. The spring is bright and green and red; the summer is yellow and orange; the fall is blueish; and the winter is grayish. Such a transformation helps to move the story along (the narrative follows a similar path from brightness to darkness) and is lovely to experience.

I will say that at times I felt like Leigh was stronger writing and directing the scenes with poorer, less well-bred people than he was with scenes with Tom and Gerri and Joe. I think he is better in general with poorer people, like in his best film Life is Sweet or in Happy-Go-Lucky, where the people are struggling to keep their heads above water (like Mary here or Tom's brother Ronnie and his son Carl). I don't know why this is, but throughout his oeuvre, he always does better with less well-off people. There's something about the dialogue and how it works with the general design aesthetic. Interesting.

What is even more fantastic than Lesley Manville's performance here (which is sometimes a bit overdone), Imelda Staunton does a totally, totally amazing job here in a very brief role at the beginning. The film opens up with her going in for a check up as she is suffering from insomnia. She sees a doctor (one of Gerri's friends) and later comes back for a talking session with Gerri. She is a totally worn down and depressed with her terrible life. She is so powerful you identify with her immediately and want to scream out for help for her. She also really sets the tone of the movie, where Gerri is an upbeat woman dealing with very sad people who are not receptive to love and kindness. Even though she's only on screen for 5 minutes, Staunton totally deserves acting awards for her performance.

This is really a top-notch Mike Leigh film. Much of the last act has Mary talking to Ronnie, a sad and suffering man totally lost without his wife who did everything for him. Through most of the sequence, Mary does 90 percent of the talking (as she is wont to do), but we still get the most amazing interaction between the two. This is not a dull scene at all; it's painful, pitiful and uncomfortable, but it is exactly what is at the heart of Leigh's view of things and particularly of this film. People are searching for connections, some find them and some don't. Those who don't find someone grasp for anything they can find in the dark. It's very powerful.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Biutiful (Wednesday, December 29, 2010) (167)

Biutiful gets its name from a moment in the film where Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is helping his son with his English work. Rather than knowing the exact spelling of the word, the father lets the son get it wrong and moves on to some other catastrophe in his life without correcting it. This is exactly what this film is: a dirty collection of broken stuff, generally taped together, but mostly ugly and aesthetically unpleasant. This is not at all to say that I don't like this film. It is a good movie, but is totally challenging and sometimes repulsive.

The film is about Uxbal, an unusual man with a dark life in Barcelona. He's a black-market hustler, a loving, devoted, if imperfect father and a medium who speaks to the dead. We see him going about his every-day life, struggling to keep it together through mundane things and exotic things. He hatches a get-rich-quick plan with Chinese gangsters and tries to keep his fucked-up family from totally crumbling. He sorta fails at both, but not for trying his hardest.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu constructs a beautiful tale that keeps us always on our toes and on the edge of our seats. His style is always uncomfortable and always beautiful... if beautiful is unsettling and uncomfortable. There are things that don't really work, like the Chinese gangsters...and things that work beautifully, like their guest workers' deaths and them later washing up on-shore. I rally like that he presents Uxbal as a man who straightforwardly talks to the dead, but is not really thrilled with his "gift". (This is treated differently here than in Clint Eastwood's recent Hereafter... a film about talking to the dead. Here, the talking to the dead is just one of many things that Uxbal does.)

Uxbal's relationship with his wife is both very painful and very beautiful. She doesn't know how to deal with normal life with her kids and family, and he doesn't know how to deal with her sensibly, and how to protect their kids from her, but also make sure they have a relationship with her. He doesn't want to cut them off totally from her, but also doesn't want to expose them to her corrupting influence.

He is able to make money in many ways, but still insists on living in poverty and squalor because, like Jesus, a poor life is a comfortable one for him. It is this Jesus life that makes him feel good. This film feels a lot like the Leonard Cohen song Suzanne. Dark, melancholy, stormy.

I like this film, but it doesn't all totally come together for me. Somewhere between the talking to the dead and the sadness it just feels like a bunch of parts that never totally feels complete.

Stars: 3 of 4

The Strange Case of Angelica (Wednesday, December 29, 2010) (166)

So, how many movies did you make last year? None? Oh, well, Manoel de Oliveira who just turned 102 made two movies. You suck, you lazy-ass loser!

Following on the heels of The Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl, Oliveira comes back with The Strange Case of Angelica, a similarly magical, lyrical and lovely tale of love and loss. It is very similar to Eccentricities in its style and format, it also feels like a film version of a short story (though not as short as the former), and also stars leading man Ricardo Trepa.

He plays Isaac, a Jewish man with no traditional roots in a small coastal town. One night he's asked to visit the house of the village's wealthiest family and photograph their recently deceased twenty-something daughter. The moment he sees her in her death bad, he falls in love with her. When he takes her picture, he imagines she's looking right at him and smiling. He becomes obsessed with her and can't concentrate on his work without thinking of her. All he wants to do is spend eternity with her, but, of course, she's dead and he's living, so there are some basic problems with that idea.

The film is lovely and poetic in an unusually dramatic and beautiful way. Oliveira seems to have made a film that feels more 1920s than 2010s. He uses almost only static shots, perfectly composed and amazingly full of interest in life. Some shots go on for 10 or more minutes, most have action pass in front of them and tension arises when we don't know what is coming in front of the lens next. He does occasionally tilt the camera or crane it up, but these shots are few and far between. It feels like an UFA picture from before the sound era. Add a bit of wonderful color and you have almost the same film.

Oliveira also uses music in a wonderful way, with most of the score as a solo pianist playing mournful and sentimental tunes. The sounds work wonderfully as Isaac sadly suffers without the love of Angelica. Oliveira also uses traditional workman songs to break up the tone a bit. They give a wonderful texture to what we see on screen.

This feels to me to be a chicken and hare situation. Oliveira is clearly well established (he made his first film in 1931) and it seems like he's not running, but slowly walking here. He knows how to make an excellent movie; he's seen all the tricks and knows them well. He doesn't do anything flashy (other than some silly ghosty double exposure stuff), but he does it right and does it well.

I am very interested in the idea that this and Eccentricities are supposed to be viewed together or in close succession. That film dealt with the capriciousness of love and the fickleness of lovers. This film deals with the eternality of love and the deep, strong attachments people have to it - even if totally constructed in their heads.

I also wonder if Isaac in this film is Oliveira himself. The character is a man obsessed by photographic images of his lover. In the winter of his life (easy for me to say... he could live another 20 years at this rate), the director could be a man looking back at the photographs he's taken, having fallen in love with them. I think it is clearly significant that the man is a photographer.

I like how it is the same actor in both films and that he plays a different, but not totally dissimilar, characters in each. In Eccentricities he was a man shackled to his family and the role he was supposed to play in the greater story of his genetic line. Here he is an outsider (a Jew) who is somewhat not tied down by the heavy burden of local expectations. He is a total free agent without any duty. I think together the two films show us two sides of the same coin. Love can be fast and thoughtless and hard to figure out, or it can be deep and unwavering and without borders.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Monday, December 27, 2010

Prodigal Sons (Monday, December 27, 2010) (165)

The writer/director of the documentary Prodigal Sons, Kimberly Reed, was born as Paul McKerrow in Helena Montana. Her older brother Marc was only 11 months her senior and was adopted by her parents just before she was born. Placed into the same year in school the two McKerrow brothers were competitive for attention, but Marc always seemed to lose to his younger brother, who was the high school quarterback and a hunk.

Secretly Paul was struggling with his own identity and ultimately transitioned to become a woman. Around the same time, Marc got in a car accident that left him with significant brain damage that made him volatile and not the same guy he was before the accident. The two broke off contact for about a decade.

As this film opens, they both are going back to their high school reunion where they are different people (on the outside or the inside) from what they were before. Kim is now a woman, living as a lesbian with a wife in New York City; Marc is functioning at a different speed than he used do and suffers from mood swings that he controls with meds. The two try to work on their relationship and try to rediscover who each one is now at this point in their lives.

This is a very beautiful story, one that is so perfectly balanced and symmetrical that it nearly has to be made into a documentary. At one point in voice over, Kim says something to the effect that Marc only hopes to be the man that she never wanted to be. It's a pretty fabulous line in an interesting story.

As with many documentaries, I think the last third is a bit rocky and loses its way a bit. Marc has a breakdown around Christmas time and assaults their younger brother (who is also gay). He's put in jail for a spell. Once this happens, some of the air is taken out of the story, without an interesting foil, Kim becomes less interesting to us.

This is a good movie, but I wonder if that is helped dramatically by the amazingness of the true story that exists. I am not sure that I would see another film by Kim Reed... nothing against her, but I think this was her story and now that it's done, it's done. (I don't want to ruin anything, but there's a totally amazing revelation in the middle of the film about who Marc's birth grandparents were. The film is almost worth seeing for that alone.)

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Hadewijch (Sunday, December 26, 2010) (164)

Hadewijch is is film that I would like to quickly dismiss as a simple film about a girl who struggles with her deep and powerful faith in modern times, but it is actually much harder to deal with than that. This film, by the always challenging French director Bruno Dumont (who previously made the difficult films Humanité and Flanders) seems rather straightforward until you scrape the surface a tiny bit.

The title of the film comes from the name of the convent where the main character Céline is studying to become a nun, as well as a lesser known 13th century mystic poet who struggled with her transcendent devotion to god. Céline deals with a similar love of god, one that even her nun teachers don't totally understand.

The film mostly follows Céline, but also a young construction worker, David, who seems to go in and out of juvie every few months (or so he tells us). As the film opens, we see two old nuns discussing Céline and saying that her faith is too blind and too extreme that she doesn't really understand the meaning of the suffering she's putting her self through in the name of God. They send her back to the real world to experience more life and get her better prepared for life in the convent.

Back in Paris, she is the daughter of a super rich minister, living in one of the nicest apartments you've ever seen on Isle Saint Louis (not bad!). She has everything she wants. One day she meets a group of Muslim boys from the banlieue who begin flirting with her. She strikes up a friendship with one of them, Yassine, and goes to visit him in his project. There she meets his brother, Nassir, who is a Koran teacher and low-level zealot. They two become friends based on their love of God (of whatever name) and understanding of sacrifice.

There are long segments of this film where we see Céline watching religious services (watching musicians or praying) where not much happens. These parts are very slow and rather boring (with just close-ups of her face). Much of this film is rather overdone, such as when she begins working with Nassir. Still, the last scene helps to tie a lot of these disperate elements together well, so I forgive some of those problems.

Dumont does an interesting thing where he makes Céline's body always on display, even though she's not totally outwardly gorgeous. He sexualizes here a good amount, I think, showing her naked in one scene and then showing her nipples through her dresses in just about every other scene. At one point she says that she is so devoted to God that she doesn't like when men look at her sexually. At this point we realize have been looking at her sexually the whole time.

This film is about Holy Fools and True Believers. There is some fascinating stuff in it, but it never totally comes together all that perfectly. It almost feels like two movies (one with Céline in the convent and one with her in Paris) that don't totally connect. At times, Dumont is so elliptical with his narrative that big changes of direction are left out and leave us scratching our heads as to how we got there.

Sill, this is a beautiful looking movie with wonderful color saturation thoughout the cinematography (by Yves Cape... who seems to work with Dumont a lot). There are wonderful blues and greens and a soggy wetness that permeates the convent sections and makes it very intimate.

I wish this was a better film, because I think there's so much interesting stuff in it. Still, I think it's worth watching all the way through to see the fascinating ending.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Rabbit Hole (Sunday, December 26, 2010) (163)

Rabbit Hole is a movie directed by John Cameron Mitchell with a script by David Lindsay-Abaire (based on his play). It is about a youngish couple living in the New York northern suburbs who are trying to re-group after their five-year-old son has been killed when hit by a car. Becca (Nicole Kidman) is a very icy, high strung woman who seems to keep her emotions bottled inside and doesn't deal well with typical coping things like group therapy. Howie (Aaron Eckhart) is a yuppie who is trying to actively work through his pain and deal with his wife's coldness. The two are so white they're nearly transparent and they live in one of the biggest, nicest houses you've ever seen overlooking the Hudson River. As Howie flirts with a fellow grieving parent (Sandra Oh) at the group therapy place, Becca stalks, and then gets into contact with, the high school kid who hit their son.

At some point in the middle of this film, I realized that basically nothing had happened. We see two people coping differently with pain and moving around one another rather than working together. We see them (very, very) slowly move to places where they can begin to heal, and we see them fight. It's hard to like either character much: Becca is totally closed off to the emotional world and Howie is such a douchebag that I know I would hate him if I knew him in life.

I think part of my feelings about Becca are magnified by my feelings for Nicole Kidman. She is so wooden as an actress that it's hard to ever connect to her. Here she shows almost no emotion at all - only bursting into tears in the penultimate scene. But tears are a very shallow, outward display of emotions; I really want to see some subtlety or depth to her feelings. We get none of that. Eckhart is not as bad as she is, but he's also very closed and hard to relate to. I think the real problem here is the script, which doesn't really examine each one enough. Both of them function as "types", with her as the grieving mother (and that's all) and him as the loving husband trying to related to his superficial wife (and that's all as well).

Mitchell gives us almost no style throughout the whole film. The opening credits segment shows Kidman planting in her garden (Get it?! She's trying to make things grow around her house! Ooooohhhhh!) and there are some lovely cuts and a nice general look. I think this scene is the aesthetic zenith of the film, as everything else turns rather beige after this point. I am surprised coming from Mitchell, who, like him or not, has had some style in past movies.

There's really nothing bad about this film, but it's just not very good or deep. Something about movies with dead kids really annoys me. Like holocaust narratives or movies about September 11, they rely so much on pure emotion (OMG - it's SO SAD!) that other smaller things fall by the wayside. That is exactly what happens here. I don't know why I'm supposed to like Kidman, I don't know much about their kid, I don't see anything here that I can give a shit about.

Stars: 2 of 4

Friday, December 24, 2010

True Grit (Friday, December 24, 2010) (162)

The Coen Brother's True Grit is a new reinterpretation of the Charles Portis novel (which had been previously done, of course, in a 1969 film starring John Wayne). In this version, Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn, a hard-drinking, go-it-alone U.S. Marshall who is hired by 14-year-old girl Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) to hunt down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) who shot her father in cold blood.

As she working out the details of the arrangement with Rooster, Mattie is approached by LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who has been hunting Chaney through several states for killing a senator in Texas. He tells her that he would find Cheney for her, but he would have to take the outlaw to Texas to be hanged. For reasons that are not totally clear, Mattie refuses and says that he would have to be hanged in Arkansas where her father was gunned down.

Neither Rooster nor LeBoeuf want Mattie tagging along with them (because she's a girl and they'd be going into dangerous Indian territory) so they agree to work together without her. She catches on to this and forces herself into their posse. The three don't work together well and LeBoeuf splits away from them ultimately, but his goal remains the same as theirs.

This is a very good western, but it's not much more than that. Just about every part of it feels like a rather timeless classic that could have been made now or 50 years ago. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is fabulous, balancing lens flares in the burnt-out desert shots and icy, snowy land shots to give an interesting harsh tone to the whole piece.

The Coens also employ a wonderful score by Carter Burwell, based on the American spiritual Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. That the score uses so much of the spiritual reminds me a lot of some of the classic scores by Dimitri Tiomkin to some of the best of the Howard Hawks or John Ford westerns. The musical highlight is a rendition of the spiritual by Iris DeMent (from her 2004 album Lifeline) over the closing credits. (And, of course, after O Brother, Where Art Thou, nobody would ever think the Coens didn't know how to find the most perfect country/bluegrass/Americana music and performers on the planet.)

The acting is good all around, but not totally amazing. I felt like Bridges was redoing his drunk cowboy role from Crazy Heart more than anything original... but that was a good impersonation of a drunkard, so it worked here too, to a degree. Damon plays LeBoeuf more like Tommy Lee Jones' Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove (or maybe all Texas Rangers talk exactly the same way) than anything particularly original, but he's good. I particularly liked Brolin and Barry Pepper (who plays another outlaw in the finale) who both feel fresh and original and like they're having lots of fun.

I guess I was rather hoping this film would do more than it did. It doesn't really open up more doors than the John Wayne movie and Mattie is just as annoying here as she was in that one. I was hoping for some more frank sexuality (maybe Mattie is threatened with rape out in Injun territory) or some sort of harder, tougher living perhaps. What the Coens give us is basically flawless, but not really interesting. There's nothing here to bite into and, in fact, the finale plays just as overdone as it did the first time around (I've never read the book, to be honest). This is a good film for their oeuvre, but not one I would come back to again and again in the future.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Somewhere (Friday, December 24, 2010) (161)

Somewhere is Sofia Coppola's latest film... though to call it a real movie with a legitimate plot would be stretching a lot. It's almost an existentialist art piece, like a work by Camus or Beckett... but of course not nearly as good as those (OK - and it's sorta insulting to those masters to compare this turd to them).

Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is a Hollywood superstar who is taking some time off between gigs at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. He doesn't seem to have a home - this seems to be it for him. He has a few friends who stop by, including a guy played by Chris Pontius of Jackass.

Sometimes he and his friends throw big parties, most of the time he stays to himself in what appears to be a light depressive state. His publicist calls him a few times when he has to go do some photo shoots or whatnot for his last projects. Two times he calls up twin blond strippers who do a show for him in his room (and we watch their entire shows both times)

One day his daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning) is dropped off in his room by his ex wife. He seems to be a good dad, but somewhat limited in his connections to her. They play Rock Band or he goes to watch her figure skate. One day they go to Italy where he has some press stuff to do for his latest movie. Cleo has to watch as his dad tries to fuck as many women as he can, while still being a good dad (he's actually pretty good at doing both, and she's pretty good at letting him lie to her).

That's basically the whole movie. Throw in a terrible moment when Johnny calls a woman on the phone an whines, "I am nobody..." (Ugh, really? I mean that's a terrible, terrible line.)

The whole film has an interesting feeling, like it's just about to get revved up and will start being interesting at any moment, but it never really does. Parts of it feel like Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny, where nothing happens and you're waiting the whole time for a plot to emerge... but there's not even any gross oral sex here (although there are a lot of naked tits... which I guess goes with the movie star world Johnny lives in, "though I think Sofia could have done without them, honestly" - Eve Ensler).

The film has a nice look and the acting by Dorff is very nice. Elle Fanning is probably the best part of the film. She shows she has some real chops here and I look forward to seeing her in another serious role. But there's nothing really here and at times it really does sound and feel totally pretentious. I guess the point is that Johnny has surrounded himself with stuff (he drives a Porsche, he lives in a fancy hotel, he fucks all the hotties he wants, he takes his daughter to camp in a helicopter), but he's empty on the inside. That's the worst kind of banality that would make even Ivan Ilyich weep.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss (Thursday, December 23, 2010) (160)

This is an interesting documentary about Veit Harlan, a German director who was commissioned by Joseph Goebbels to direct several anti-Semitic, nationalistic films for the Nazis in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The most well known and powerful of these films was a melodrama called The Jew Suss, which advocated Nazi party tropes of Jews being untrustworthy, filthy criminals who killed, raped and stole.

With strong Nazi backing, the film was released throughout Nazi-occupied Europe in 1940 and further inflamed the already scorching anti-Semitic sentiment of the people. After the war, Harlan continued to make films, but was always haunted by his decision to work with the Nazis. He was twice brought up on charges of collaborating with them as a propagandist but maintained his defense that Goebbels threatened his and his wife's lives so he had no choice.

In this documentary, we see how not only did the shadow of that film haunt Harlan himself, but also his kids, grand kids, nieces and nephews. Director Felix Moeller tells most of the story by having Harlan's living children, grandchildren talk about him. We get a very interesting, sometimes contradictory take on his life.

One of Harlan's sons, Thomas Harlan (an accomplished filmmaker and writer himself), explains how much he's struggled with his father's sin and how he is now convinced that because Harlan had his wife act in The Jew Suss, he could not have been coerced into making it. Another son, Kristian Harlan, takes a more tender view saying that it might not have been as black and white as his father said it was, that he thinks his father could have fought back a bit, but probably had no choice but to make the film.

Most interestingly are the views of the grandchildren who are all very separated from the passion of the story. They never met their grandfather, but have had to live with his name and the shame that comes with it (in Germany, at least). To them, this is a very distant mistake that they have to deal with on a more basic day-to-day level. They generally have a more nuanced view of the story. (Also interesting is that Stanley Kubrick's widow, Christiane, and her brother and long-time collaborator Jan Harlan are Veit Harlan's niece and nephew. They speak here too.)

This is a very interesting story about sin and who pays for it in the next generation. Some of the children have gone on to defend their father, some have turned their back on him as much as possible and blame him for doing something unspeakable. The documentary runs a bit long, perhaps, and might have been more powerful if it was trimmed by about 15 minutes. Still, it is a fascinating story and a very interesting, effective treatment of the material.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Tuesday, December 21, 2010) (159)

So this is the third of the Swedish movie adaptations of the Stieg Larsson Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books. Unlike the other two movies, this one really doesn't stand at all on its own.

It opens minutes after the second film closes (well, really the whole film is a 150-minute epilogue to the second film) with Lisbeth being medivac'd to a hospital where she has to recover from injuries sustained after trying to kill her father and half-brother (who she hates). She goes to the hospital and then is arrested for attempting to murder her father. She then contacts Mikael Blomkvist (of course) and give him her whole life story (which I feel like we've heard a few times before).

Blomkvist gets his sister, a public defender of some sort, to defend Lisbeth. The main witness for the prosecution is Dr. Teleborian, the psychiatrist who ran the orphanage she was sent to at age 12, and also the man who raped her and organized mental evaluations saying she was unfit to live without monitoring. Then there's some very boring stuff about him saying she's still schizophrenic and making up all this rape stuff and her maintaining her innocence.

Basically this is a very, very long and boring courtroom drama - but where the evidence is so strongly based on one side and the other side is clearly held together with spit and duct tape. There is no conceivable way that Lisbeth could be found guilty (even considering how much she's suffered at the hands of the 'system'). We know well that what she's saying is true and that the prosecution has no evidence aside from Teleborian's dodgy testimony.

There is a ridiculous segment for about 15 minutes where the doctor is saying that her assertions that she was raped by her guardian (which we saw in the first film and saw at least one other time in the second film on video) are entirely made up and not true. All her lawyer needs to do is show the video of her being raped and then the whole case for the prosecution would fall apart. Somehow the Swedish trial system is different from most western courts and there is no discovery or anything, so when the lawyer finally plays the video, everyone is totally shocked by its contents and realizes she's telling the truth. It's really not very good drama.

On top of this, there is almost no action to speak of in this film. What was fun in the first movie, and sorta fun in the second movie, were the chase scenes (hey - it's an action movie, right?). Here there are basically no chase scenes and they're replaced by very dialogue-heavy scenes of people talking about stuff we already know well.

It is clear, after seeing the trilogy, that the first movie stands on its own and is a fun action movie. The second and third movies are really two parts of what is effectively a secondary story (well, they also deal with Lisbeth, but they're mostly unrelated). In the end, the first one is the only film really worth seeing; the second and third films are not really worth seeing. If anything, see the second and not the third. She goes free at then end. Boring.

Stars: 1 of 4

Monday, December 20, 2010

Secret Sunshine (Monday, December 20, 2010) (158)

Secret Sunshine is a beautiful (long) movie by Korean director Lee Chang-dong. It follows Shin-ae, a thirty-something woman who is moving from Seoul to the small town of Miryang after her husband's tragic death in a car accident. She's with her young son who is nervous about going, but follows her dutifully. She sets up a piano school in the town and looking for meaning in her new life, begins investigating purchasing some land on which to build a house.

As this is going on, she is being doted on by the local car mechanic who met her when she first got to town. He begins following her everywhere and joining all the clubs she joins. One day her son is tragically kidnapped and killed sending her on a turbulent ride through the worlds of Evangelical religion and depression.

This is a very interesting film that begins very calmly and naturalisticaly and builds into a fascinating piece about the extremes of humanity. Shin-ae is looking for meaning in life, so she asks everyone if they know that the name of their town, Miryang, means "secret sunshine" in Chinese. One man answers that they don't think about the name - they just live there. For her, she's constantly thinking about everything and looking for purpose in all that she does. She can't just sit back and "live there", she has to know what she's living and why.

The very realistic calmness and normalcy of this film is reminiscent of fellow Korean Kim So Yong's Treeless Mountain and In Between Days. There is a brutal frankness to everything, and unvarnished immediacy that is refreshing and elegant. At the end of the first act, however, the film turns a bit and becomes a bit more like a Dardenne Brothers film (like The Promise or The Son, in particular). It's about normal places and times, but the ugly underbelly of those places. Things seem nice on the surface (nice people, nice places), but there is lots of rot and bitterness beneath.

There is also a beautiful ontological examination of faith and fundamental truth here. We are forced to deal with issues of forgiveness and how religion gets in the way of our human emotions for betrayal, mercy, love and hate. There is one scene where actress Jeon Do-Yeon goes from pure exaltation to desperation in a split second due to a religious revelation. She gives one of the best performances of the year here, showing a tremendous range of emotion.

This is a long movie, but it is worth watching. It is subtle and beautiful and deeply interesting. I am so happy there are such wonderful films coming from Korea these days. It really is one country that has produced some of the most amazing films in recent years.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Mumblecore: A Definition

OK - it has come up a few times that I like to throw around the term 'mumblecore', but it's a bit of an unknown thing. So I'll take a moment for an brief definition before proceeding with more reviews:

The so-called mumblecore movement (I guess it's a movement, but it really has no manifesto or rules or strict adherents, like, say Dogme 95) is a small, independent American film aesthetic begun in the middle of the aughts that is created by moneyless post-college kids who generally only have a passing connection to the film production world. It is generally about directionless twenty-somethings and focuses on their relationships with a very frank treatment of nudity and sex. The scripts are mostly dialogue-based and are much more form-less than anything you'd ever see coming out of Hollywood. Most of the time, there is no three-act structure and stories move along like real life moves along: one thing happens, then another thing happens, then another thing happens and then the film ends.

These films are made on shoe-string budgets (like tens of thousands, rather than hundreds of thousands or millions), which leads them to have very low-budget looks employing hand-held, (generally) digital cameras, no fancy editing or technical details. There are generally no "costume" departments and the actors wear their own clothes. In some cases there are only crews of six people total (the writer/director/producer will generally edit them and maybe have a fried do the music... if there's any music at all). Sometimes the film is shot in the director's apartment. It is sometimes known as "D.I.Y. cinema" and that is exactly what it is and what if feels like.

There is a brutal (sometimes dull) reality to these films. At a recent talk I went to, filmmaker Joe Swanberg said something to the effect of how if he wrote or made movies that were "less real" he would have a much more active, lucrative career. There is something about the name that is very much on target. Most of the time when people talk to one another they do mumble. It is only in Hollywood movies that people speak in perfectly formed, clever banter. Most of the time, there are lots of silences and 'uh's and 'um's.

A typical dialogue in a typical mumble movie would go something like, "What you up to today?" "Nothing." "You wanna hang out tonight?" "Uh, maybe... I dunno." "OK - call me later." This isn't really interesting, but it's how people talk. This frankness and unpolished quality is part of what really appeals to me.

Due to the teeny tiny budgets, directors are frequently forced to make due with what they can and come up with clever solutions to production problems that they might not have if they were bigger. In Joe Swanberg's LOL, the film opens with a guy watching a girl do a strip tease online. This was basically done by them getting the permission from this woman (who strips online) to put her in the movie. She's not an actress, she's just doing what she would normally be doing. In may ways this shows exactly how direct the movement is. There is less mediation between the viewer and the content.

The genre has been dramatically helped by the South-by-Southwest film festival and its biggest players are generally based in Williamsburg, Chicago and Austin, with other satellite films produced and set in Boston, Seattle and San Francisco. The best mumblecore writer/director/producers are Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers. Actress/writer/director Greta Gerwig has participated in lots of them as an actress, but has also written and directed wonderful stuff in conjunction with Swanberg. (I would consider her more of an actress than a writer/dierector at this point, though her writing and directing is really wonderful and better than Buj and the Duplasses). Most of the time the directors act in their own films; they frequently act in one another films too.

Some of the best works in the genre are Funny Ha Ha (Bujalski), LOL (Swanberg), Greta Takes the Stairs (Swanberg, written by Gerwig), Nights and Weekends (Gerwig, co-written with Swanberg), The Puffy Chair (The Duplasses), Mutual Appreciation (Buj), Baghead (Duplasses)and Kissing on the Mouth (Swanberg)(in no particular order). I would also mention and put an asterisk on Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins), which is mumble-like, but sorta outside the movement per se. There are also Humpday (Lynn Shelton) and Momma's Man (Azazel Jacobs), both of which I think are lousy. Filmmaker Alex Karpovsky acts in a bunch of the films (and is clearly friends with these guys), but his own movies are not really mumble.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Fighter (Saturday, December 18, 2010) (157)

It seems like these days every year has to have a boxing movie - or at least a movie about poor white people in Massachusetts. This year that film is The Fighter. It is basically just a boxing movie with almost nothing more interesting about it than that.

The story is about Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a white boxer in Lowell, Massachusetts, who has had a good, but less than totally impressive career. He's training for an upcoming fight that his mother Alice (Melissa Leo), who is also his manager, has set up for him. He has two trainers, a local cop and his brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a former boxer who is a local hero because he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard once in a great fight. Now Dicky is a crack addict who never shows up on time to train his brother because he's either smoking crack or stoned from smoking recently.

At the opening of the film there is a crew from HBO Sports shooting a documentary on Dicky, about how he went from such a promising boxer to a crackhead wasteoid in just a few years. Dicky thinks the whole time that they are doing a profile piece on him as a champion, but they are really just focusing on his addiction.

Micky meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a bartender at the local watering hole, and they fall in love. She's very concerned that he's flushing his talent away working with the losers in his family. One night, Dicky gets in a fight and a chase with the cops and Micky comes out to help him. He gets his hand broken and has to rebuild his career, including taking better control of his training and management. This upsets the balance of his family, who all defend or ignore Dicky's addiction and puts Charlene at odds with his mother and sisters (he has, like, eight sisters... which is actually sorta funny... in a good way).

More than anything else, this film has gotten a tremendous amount of press for the acting - mostly the performances by Christian Bale and Melissa Leo. I was honestly not totally impressed with either of them. They're both very showy roles that allow the actors to dive into a big pool and get wet. I think the best performance in the film is Amy Adams as Charlene. She's a very smart woman who knows what she wants and can generally get it. She has an wonderfulness about her (Adams is cute, after all), but a very endearing frankness as well (she has a tramp stamp tattoo, which suggests a less-than-angelic side). She's a sweetheart who will tell you to go fuck yourself is she needs to. She totally lights up the screen whenever she's on. It's a much more subtle performance than the others, and I think much better.

(I should say here that Bale's performance is very good, but it feels more like a very good impersonation of a guy who is rolling on crack. I never saw the depth in his characters as I did in Adams'. In the opening moment of the film, however, when he's being interviewed by HBO, he is really amazingly believable as a guy on drugs.)

The biggest problem with the film is the script, which is really badly organized, relies mostly on terrible boxing movie cliches (He's a boxer and he gets his hand broken! Oh no!), has lots of terrible dialogue (there's a scene with Dicky telling Micky, "I coulda been a contender!") and is mostly really boring sequences much too heavy on dialogue that doesn't move the story along. There is not that much boxing in this film (basically three bouts).

Director David O. Russell actually does a beautiful job technically with the boxing scenes (and with lots of the technical things here). Most of the boxing matches are seen through a TV signal - as if we were watching the fights on our couch in our living rooms. This is a very clever, original twist to the boxing movie. There is a lot that is made about Micky getting a fight on HBO (especially after the doc on Dicky hurts him so badly), that when we see him in his big match, we watch it as if it was on TV. Very clever.

One other really nice moment by Russell is in the bar when Micky first meets Charlene. There is a wonderful amount of background noise that surrounds them (it's almost reminiscent of Altman's sound use in McCabe and Mrs. Miller), and as they begin talking and she warms up to him (because he's goddamn charming), the noise recedes and you just hear the two of them talking. It's an elegant and nice effect.

As nice a job as Russell does with most of the film, this never really feels like a David O. Russell movie. I think of him as a master of black comedies. Even his most serious stuff (Spanking the Monkey and Three Kings) are very, very funny and are told with a wink throughout. This is much too serious and feels sorta like a director-for-hire piece rather than a Russell piece. He doesn't really do historical stories (Three Kings is a fictional fantasy piece set in a historical time and place).

Mostly this is just a particularly uninspired piece. It's not bad at all, it's just not much of anything. I feel here like I feel with a lot of movies, that I would rather just watch a documentary on Micky Ward rather than have to watch this. The film is as much about his brother (it is really about Dicky totally) and his crazy mother and family as it is about him. It doesn't really know what it wants to be, a boxing drama, a tale of drug use, a story of an effed up family. It's sorta none of those in the end.

Stars: 2 of 4

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Night Catches Us (Saturday, December 11, 2010) (156)

Night Catches Us is a movie about a guy named Marcus (Anthony Mackie) who returns to his old neighborhood in Philadelphia in the late 1970s after he was forced out years earlier for working with the cops against a fellow Black Panther. When he gets back, he immediately begins flirting with his old flame Patricia (Kerry Washington) who is a lawyer still working in the community, helping former Panthers and other guys on the edge of society.

She has moved up in the world and now has a daugher, Iris, but she's still a radical. He's less of a political zealot and trying to get his act in gear and restart his life. As he's trying to do this, he is caught up in old power games with the new community boss, Do-Right (Jamie Hector, Marlo Stansfield from The Wire) as well as a new generation of kids who want to stand up to the Man like their parents did.

This has all the makings of a great movie: a great cast, an compelling story, a score by Philly natives The Roots, but it just never totally comes together very well. I think the main problem is the script and direction by newcomer Tanya Hamilton. The story moves along at a very slow pace with each scene like an interesting one-act play (it's very stagy), but the totality is so episodic that it's hard to follow the narrative. Each scene never totally connects to the one before it or the one after it very well. You get a general feeling for what is happening, but it never really gels very well. One of the main relationships, that of Marcus with Iris, sorta sits there looking at us, but not really moving much at all. All in all, the story is more complicated than is necessary, but then the mysteries are revealed in a very clumsy way.

There is a lovely 1970s look to the whole thing, with great costumes, production design, and cinematography - and if there's one thing that Questlove and the Roots crew do well its make a functional representation of a bygone sound. But aesthetics is basically all that this film has going for it. Hamilton uses very nice musical interludes with still photographs throughout as well, including one really wonderful montage set to Syl Johnson's Is it Because I'm Black... but sadly it doesn't really fit in with the flow of the film. (Also a shame is the Roots' song over the end credits, which is much too modern and references Rwanda in one verse.)

I guess this shows that Hamilton has an interesting voice, but one that still needs a good deal of work to polish. Perhaps she would do better with a script by another person.
Stars: 2 of 4

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

White Material (Wednesday, December 8, 2010) (155)

White Material is a very interesting, very difficult film by the great French filmmaker Claire Denis. In it, she examines white people in Africa, an idea she looked at once before in her first film, Chocolat, but this treatment is different from that one. In that film, we saw how cruel and arbitrary whites were to blacks in colonial Africa, particularly considering they were the outsiders. We saw how capricious and temporary their experience on the continent was. I

n this film, however, we see the opposite: We see how there is a small minority of whites who now consider themselves Africans, who have lived on and worked the land for generations and care for the well being of all the people who live there.

Set in a West African country in the present day, the film shows the experiences of Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), the oldest daughter of a family on a coffee plantation. There is a civil war burning its way through the jungle of the land and gangs of child soldiers are forcing the village people out. They are most interested in the Vial farm, because they see it as their land, the land of the natives, not the white post-colonialists. Maria resolves to not leave her land, which she sees as part of her blood, more than just an accident of birth and has to fend off the onslaught by the bloody soldiers.

This film is a beautiful Judith story, where Maria has to cut off the advancing army by decapitating the head. Denis brings this idea up early by closely associating Maria with the color red and showing decapitated livestock throughout her travels. This is an elegant and subtle touch and really a wonderful thing.

Sewn through the whole film is a wonderful tapestry of gorgeous shots of the countryside and land of Africa. These transitional shots help to convey emotion and lead us to better understand Maria's love and defense of her land. Sure it would be easier for her to leave, but she loves this place, the way she would love her mother, the way biblical people loved their tribes and their land, so she has to stay. (Credit should go to Yves Cape for the wonderful cinematography and brilliant use of color.)

This film is something that could easily be watched and enjoyed on a very basic visceral level, but could also then be dissected and enjoyed for all the meaning and symbolism inside it. I am fascinated at the idea that white people (who are actually represented as red here - with blood and Huppert's red hair) are more closely tied to the land than some of the black children. This could be a response to Chocolat, which always felt to me to be very much an ashamed portrait of French colonialism, saying that not all whites are the same in Africa.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

The King's Speech (Tuesday, December 7, 2010) (154)

The King's Speech is a movie about King George VI (Colin Firth) of England and how just before he became king and in the first years of his reign, after his brother Edward abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, he had a terrible stammer that made it basically impossible to speak to anyone, and particularly in front of large crowds.

He and his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) tried all sorts of speech therapists throughout England and have always struck out. It seems that there were a lot of quacks out there who had no problems with trying and failing to help a royal with ridiculous therapy techniques.

One day Elizabeth finds Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) an Aussie who has a very interesting psychoteraputic process to speech therapy (I think a lot of speech therapy these days is closer to this than it is to putting marbles in your mouth an enunciating or whatever). He begins treating the soon-to-be king with very unorthodox methods, like calling him his family name Bertie and asking him about his feelings of losing his father. All of their work leads up to a big speech he gives on the radio to all of his subjects around the world at the outbreak of World War II in 1939.

This is not a bad movie, but it's not much of an interesting movie at all - basically nothing happens in it. It's about a guy with a stammer who goes from a communication level of about four out of ten to a level of about seven-ish out of ten. Big fucking deal! We never really get any insight into the King, either because the writer (David Seidler) and director (Tom Hooper) didn't think it was polite to investigate a royal in such a way or maybe because not much is known of his private life (for the same reason). I guess this is a buddy movie... but it's a really top-heavy one that much more about style than substance.

Hooper uses some nice super wide angle shots to convey a level of uncomfortable intimacy, putting us in the visceral position that George is in during his therapy. This is very clever, but is basically just a gimmick. It doesn't really connect to any particular psychological drama we're seeing (unlike, say Polanski's use of wide angle shots in Repulsion, which show Catherine Deneuve going mad). There is no psycho-drama here, which is really frustrating because we are teased with it for a moment and then it's taken away.

The script is pretty terrible here and might be the worst part of the film. Most of the dialogue is ridiculous. There's a scene that's in the trailer where Logue is sitting in some special coronation chair in Westminster Abbey and George starts yelling at him to move. Logue ask him why he should and he responds, "because I have a VOICE." Ugh. What a terrible line. And it's not really like that leads to any breakthrough, as we were already told than when he yells, he doesn't stammer. On top of this, there is a collapse of the time structure where we see in one scene George's coronation and in the next his big '39 speech. Those two events were about two years apart and there was a lot of travel and speech giving in the middle - what about those years? (Also, what about Goerge's phonemic 'r' sound that he can't say? Is that just OK for English people to not be able to say hard Rs? I was confused that that was never brought up.)

The acting is getting a lot of hype here, but I thought it was just very OK. Firth does a very good impression of a man with a stammer and Rush is not as big and over-the-top as he has been in some past roles. The acting is good, but it didn't move me very much.

This whole movie didn't move me. I don't know why exactly it was made. It's not all that special a story. We don't really see what happens that leads to his breakthrough (aside from the simple practice of saying specific words and sounds). It just sits there and doesn't move much. Big deal!

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (a.k.a. HP7P1) (Sunday, December 5, 2010) (153)

So this is the continuation of the Harry Potter tale. It's the first part of a two-part final book... and it's very, very long. This is the seventh year of school for Harry and his friends - but the whole book takes place with the kids not in class. I guess when you're fighting the Most Powerful Wizard in History and trying to stop him from destroying the world, you get a hall pass or a doctor's note and are excused from school. Whatever.

Harry, Ron and Hermione are on the hunt for the remaining three (or four) horcruxes - objects in which Voldemort put part of his soul so he be sure to not die easily. They basically move around, mostly in the wilderness, though sometimes in weird small towns, trying to avoid Death Eaters (bad guys) and solve a few riddles (like the mysterious gifts left for each of them by Dumbledore in his will and what the next horcruxes are).

As with some of the previous films - but probably more so here- this doesn't totally work as a movie without a book and wiki easily at hand to explain some of the more obscure details or general sweeps of the story. This film mostly moves along on the steam of the books, rather than it's own internal engine. It's a bit difficult to follow at times and some things happen in rather magical ways, leaving us scratching our heads in bewilderment.

This movie has some very dull moments and overall plays much longer than its 150minute run-time. I think the idea here is to have the entire seventh book, so it was divided up into two gigantic halves. I think it would have been better to cut some of the less critical material and make the film more 120-minutes or so. It would have been better for figuring out the overall feel and keeping a nice, efficient story moving along. There is a lot of stuff here with kids sitting in the woods thinking about stuff and reading.

The overall look of the film is dark, gray and foggy. This is very nice and gives a great feeling to the tale. Just like the book was, this is not really a movie for little kids. It's a movie for teenagers and older people... it's spooky and rather frank about sex/love and death.

This is a good movie, though not a great one. The script should have been cut a bit, sacrificing perfect re-creation of the book for a more enjoyable, easier film viewing experience.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Black Swan (Saturday, December 4, 2010) (152)

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is not at all the film that I expected it to be (I guess that's why you go to the movies...). I was thinking it was a rivalry story of two young women, one on top and one as up-and-comer who are fighting for dominance. This is not really that at all.

The story revolves around Nina (Natalie Portman), a humorless young dancer in a New York City ballet company. She has been stuck in the middle or high middle of the troupe for a few years and is trying to catch her big break. She lives with her very over-protective mother... oh, and she's fucking nuts. She has hallucinations from very early on in the film, some are bloody, most are shocking. She ignores these visions and tries to continue on with her life.

As the new season is about to open the director of the company Thomas (pronounced "Tow-maaahhh", of course) (Vincent Cassel) announces that the show they will be doing is Swan Lake... but that he has some new ideas for it (or something). Nina main rival in the auditions is Lily (Mila Kunis) a hot new dancer who came to New York from San Francisco (how mysterious!).

Nina gets the role, but struggles with the emotions and sexuality that Thomas wants her to put into the role, because she is such an uptight drone. He shows her Lily dancing and says she should be more sexual like she is. Mostly from this point, we see Nina struggling with her slow decent into deep schizophrenia. She sees scary things jump out at her and speak to her, she sees herself growing wings or something, she sees herself having a lesbian tryst. She struggles sorta with a rivalry with Lily, but this is never really fully fleshed-out.

The film is basically about a girl going from pretty crazy and very tightly wound to more crazy and more tightly wound. There isn't a lot of development. She's never really warm or very interesting and never totally sane. This isn't really an interesting character development or plot. The dancing stuff is just the frame around the psycho-drama - it's not really about dancing at all. She could be a college student or a girl with a job on Wall Street. Mostly the dancing is just showy and an excuse to see Natalie in tight clothes (which is kinda gross when she so super skinny).

But this isn't really a psycho-drama in the sense of Bergman's Personal or Hour of the Wolf. This isn't about how she's going from sane to insane or how she's insane and doesn't know it, but we know it. This is about a girl who knows well that she's crazy and denies it. The only sorta inverse dramatic irony that Aronofsky gives us is that she knows she's crazy and we don't know until the third scene of the first act (and, by the way, that reveal is way too early). That's not interesting.

Why couldn't Nina have been a girl in the job of her dreams struggling physically with the work, but fighting to make it right who slowly goes crazy? I guess that would be more banal, but it would have worked better as an interesting narrative.

Aronofsky's aesthetic is totally lazy here. Everything is cold and dark (get it?!) and moving between lots of white and lots of black (get it?!). He also uses a shit-ton of mirrors to remind us of the duality of life and the split in Nina's psychology. It's so fucking heavy handed it's hard to watch. I would like this if it was a bit more Brechtian - and he was commenting on the dullness and heavy-handedness of the style. Instead we get nothing but earnest triteness. (N.B. This is not an arch attempt at farce or sarcasm, the way Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls or Starship Troopers were. There is no evidence to suggest Aronofsky is anything but totally serious about what he's presenting to us. If there's a wink in there, it's invisible. If this is a joke, it failed miserably.)

There is also a lot of waste, excess and fat in the script and some really horrible dialogue. One of the sub-stories here is that there is an older dancer, Beth (Winona Ryder), who is near the end of her career and struggling with addiction, depression and the loss of her physical talents. She tries to commit suicide (off-screen, so we don't really give a shit) and ends up in the hospital. There's a thing where Nina is so in love with her dancing, that she steals small things from her (a lipstick, a pack of cigarettes). I think this is supposed to mean something deep, but it just comes off as silly waste. This thread is never developed much and doesn't really connect to Nina's own psychology (she might be schizto, but she's also a lover of art! Who cares?!).

Considering the film is from Nina's point of view, and it is well established that her view is sick and not true, most of what we see onscreen is questionable and hard -to-believe. We cannot say that anything really happens or anyone really exists. I have strong feelings that the whole Lily character is just a figment of Nina's psychosis and doesn't exist. We only see her when Lily sees her and she seems to be a total psycho foil for her. She also, curiously, doesn't have a last name, when all other characters do. This is sorta interesting, but not really. It doesn't add anything to the story, but is just a flashy tidbit.

What Aronofsky lacks in intrigue, he makes up for in cheap surprises and gags. If a character turns around, odds are there's someone spooky lurking behind her. BOO! This is not filmmaking. This is simple and works the same when your 6-years old as when your and adult. This doesn't make me feel any different about Nina or her situation.

I should say that the Black Swan dance sequence at the end of the film is actually remarkably well done, very cinematic and beautiful. Well done on that part, Darren.

I think this story was simply badly conceived. I think it is a piece that could conceivably look nice (although I wasn't moved by the look), but the story and script were messy and it never was able to get over that. The acting is very OK (Cassel is terrible, Kunis is forgettable for the 20 minutes she's onscreen, Portman didn't have much to work with). This is a bad movie.

Stars: .5 of 4

Friday, December 3, 2010

Fair Game (Friday, December 3, 2010) (151)

Imagine, if you will, that you were raped in the most brutal and violent way possible. Now imagine you were forced to watch a feature film of your own rape. Finally imagine that as a cherry on top of this horrible sundae, you were forced to watch another person being horribly raped, although you really didn't totally care about them. This whole viewing experience might be rather nauseating and terrible for you. This is the best analogy of my experience watching Doug Liman's Fair Game.

OK, I know the rape metaphor sounds extreme, but what else would you call Bush's horrible, horrible war in Iraq based on political motive and not any sort of military goal. Fair Game is essentially as much a film about how the Bush administration moved to a war footing from their first day in office and then sold the war with bullshit as it is about a career-C.I.A. operative being exposed by a Bob Novak column (leading to the deaths of several people at a minimum) for political retribution. This film was downright hard to sit through for me, partly because it's just not very interesting or gripping and partly because the story underlying the narrative is so incredibly foul (and, of course, true).

Based on the books by Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson, the film tells the story of what happened to lead to their entire lives being turned upside down as political pawns. We see Valerie organizing what seem to be high-level research and negotiations on counter-proliferation matters in the late 1990s, going undercover with assumed identities, all while working for the C.I.A. We see Joe, a former diplomat in the State Department, being sent to Niger to investigate the claims of a deal with Iraq for yellow cake uranium. We see how the war begins in Iraq, and that Joe decides to write an op-ed in the New York Times about how the claim of the uranium deal was based on bad intel. Then we see how the Bush White House leaks Valerie's name as pay-back.

There's something about films dealing with recent, painful events (mostly told from a liberal or ultra-liberal points of view) that I think are inherently frustrating and uninspired. Like a work about September 11, 2001, a film about the trail of lies that led to our involvement in the Iraq War stands as a rather hollow monolith devoid of much interest or emotional hooks. Clearly I have very strong emotions about what happened. (I fucking hate Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rice, Wolfowitz and all those motherfuckers with every bone in my body. I knew they were lying the whole time they were talking and I find their lack of concern for what they've fucked up beyond infuriating.)

How is Doug Liman (who really is a very mediocre filmmaker) going to tell me a story that adds something new to my experience? My emotions on the subject are so powerful that the film simply becomes a catalyst for my own rage; Liman can get away with emotional shorthand to trigger me having an extreme emotional reaction. This is very different, of course, from a filmmaker who has to tell an entire story from scratch and make me feel emotions simply from what he puts onscreen. Once he sets off my emotions, based on nothing he is doing cinematically, they cloud my ability to watch the story with any sort of unbiased view. The experience for me becomes about my rage and not about what I'm seeing, which really becomes secondary.

But there are a lot of other problems with the film. For one, the style is totally banal and so recycled it's just plain boring. Liman uses lots of hand-held cameras to make it seem like a documentary, make it seem intimate. But then nearly every transition occurs with the most hackneyed helicopter shots over D.C., showing monuments and the Capitol Building then such shots are totally unnecessary. (He also bizarrely suggests the Wilsons take cabs all the time - including Valerie taking a cab when she finally goes to talk to Congress. This makes no sense. Why would people who are somewhat afraid for their safety take cabs. Nobody in D.C. takes cabs.)

Beyond these issues, however, there is a lot of problems with the characters that are presented. Joe Wilson, who gives his resume to us at least twice, is a life-long diplomat and foreign service worker, yet somehow he's totally unaware of how the C.I.A. gathers intel and how governmental bureaucracy is sometimes frustrating. (Are you telling me, a former deputy to several embassies in West Africa and the former ambassador to Gabon never worked with the C.I.A? Hard to believe.) We only ever get the most superficial portrait of Joe and Valerie and never really connect to them at all. Mostly we see that they are both heroically fighting to knock down lies that they are asked to support. This isn't a connection to then, however, this is an observation.

I'm not sure if it's intentional or not, but Joe Wilson comes off here as a reckless narcissist. We constantly see Valerie telling him to shut up and not stir the pot about what he knows about Saddam (having met him over the years) and yellow cake, but he constantly doesn't listen to her. I feel like Liman is showing this almost as a joke (she tells him to not go on television the next day and then there's a cut to him doing exactly that), but it's not really funny. In the strangest turn of events, we see that a group of Iraqi nuclear scientists, who Valerie had worked with in the lead-up to the invasion and who she was trying to get out of the country, are murdered as a result of the whole Bob Novak column. Novak is absolutely not in this film to such a great degree that it's really presented that the blood of the scientists falls on Joe's hands. Is that what Liman meant to do?

Also strangely absent from this whole story are George W. Bush and Dick Cheney; all we see are Scooter Libby and Karl Rove discussing what to do about the Wilsons. Is Liman suggesting that somehow this was organized by Bush's and Cheney's head men, but not by them specifically? Is he absolving the two of them of responsibility? It's very hard to tell.
I should mention something about the acting, which is getting lots of attention, but which I found totally unimpressive. Penn is unemotional, mechanical and rather overdone; Naomi Watts (as Valerie) is fine, but she's so monotone and her style is so vanilla it's hard for me ever to like her very much. The best acting job is Sam Shepard (playing Valerie's dad... he always plays dads these days), who gives a beautiful one-scene performance.
The most exciting moment for me in this film was when I realized a scene where Joe and Valerie are talking in a park was actually shot in my neighborhood park a block from my home in Brooklyn. The rest was either incredibly dull and badly formed or so dramatically uncomfortable as it showed infuriating material that I already know well. This is not much of a movie, it's just a regurgitation of a somewhat interesting, somewhat uninteresting story.
Stars: 1 of 4