Saturday, February 26, 2011

Two in the Wave (2010) (Saturday, February 26, 2011) (186)

Two in the Wave is a very interesting and efficient documentary about the relationship between Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. They were both cinefiles who met at movie theaters of Paris in the late 1940s. They then went on to collaborate and edit Cahiers du Cinema, the supremely important French film magazine. By the end of the 1950s, they both began writing and directing movies, Truffaut first with The 400 Blows in 1959 and Godard a year later with Breathless.

Here director Emmanuel Laurent shows us how they both came from very different backgrounds (Truffaut from a working-class Parisian family and Godard from an upper-middle class Swiss family), how they had different philosophies of work. We then see how they ultimately split after the student protests and strikes of May 1968, when Godard became radicalized and Truffaut, who totally sided with the students and strikers, was more moderate.

Laurent effectively shows how for both of them, their major works were greatly influenced by other directors they had seen before them and by one another. There's a very effective analysis of how both of them loved how Ingmar Bergman shot women and they both used this sympathetic view in later films (and particularly as the final shots in each of their debut works).

There is also a wonderful chapter about how even after their friendship completely dissolved (after Godard sent Truffaut a horrible and insulting letter and Truffaut responded to him) the two both used Jean-Pierre Leaud, the boy star of The 400 Blows, as their go-to star in some of their major works. Leaud was rather torn between the two men who had at one point been father-figures and mentors to him (he was only 14 when he made The 400 Blows). Interestingly, through both of their work, we see Leaud grow from a boy to a man - in Truffaut's work he came back to play Antoine Doinel again as a grown up.

One thing rather weird that Laurent does in the presentation is that he has almost all of the story read in voice over by a narrator with clips of interviews of the men cut in. Meanwhile he also uses a very Godard/Truffaut-type woman (very sexy with very full lips) in transitional moments and has her reading their clippings from the '50s and '60s. She serves no real purpose but turns the film into a very Godard-esque half-fictional, half-non-fictional piece. She seems to come right out of Two or Three Things I Know About Her or something later and even more opaque by Godard. It's a bit of a risk, but I like that it makes the whole exercise a bit more funny and lighter.

I like that this doc is as tight as it is. It's a very clear telling of an important story - possibly the most important creative cinematic relationships of the era.

Stars: 3 of 4

Waiting for "Superman" (2010) (Saturday, February 26, 2011) (185)

The first act of Davis Guggenheim's documentary/polemic Waiting for "Superman" is a confusing mess. In voice-over he tells us about how he always supported public schools, but when it came time to put his own kids in school he chose to put them into a private school. Now he feels guilty about it and is making a documentary about how bad public schools are and what he thinks should be done to fix them. He introduces us to five kids, mostly in elementary school and one kid in 8th grade. One is in DC, one is in LA, one in Silicon Valley and two in New York City. All of these kids are at risk of falling through the cracks of the system and not getting good educations (except for the rich white girl in Atherton who is just dumb despite her parents being rich and white).

Guggenheim shows how over time public education has been a big policy point for presidents, governors and mayors and how over the past 40 years we have fallen behind other countries. He talks to dozens of education people, mostly heads of school districts and leaders of charter schools. He then starts assigning blame and comes to the simple conclusion that teachers unions are the real reason the whole system is broken.

When he's not directly assigning blame to unions (mentioning the New York City 'rubber rooms,' where bad teachers go to get paid and not teach... a classic and boring refrain from the anti-union side) he and his talking heads speak against them in code, mentioning the "establishment" or the "system" as being the problem. He then goes into a long and elaborate celebration of charter schools - places where teachers' unions are not in control and where administrators can rule absolutely (only very briefly mentioning that test results for charter schools on the whole are frequently as inconsistent as those from public schools).

True to his polemical style, Guggenheim never looks into the efficacy of charter schools and never compares their results across school systems. He never gets into things like teacher retention rates at non-union schools or funding issues. He certainly never examines how teachers are trained and mentored as they go along, how the families of the kids who struggle the most are frequently the most broken or how hard it is for kids to find their ways to the charter school lotteries he fetishizes. For him teachers are complete units out of a box that either work or don't work regardless of the environments in which they teach and socioeconomics of their students' families.

There is no noticeable flow or structure to the film, so as you jump around from one kid to another and from one troubled school district to another (he also talks a good deal about Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Houston) it's just rapid-fire bitching more than any effective dissection of the problem. There are no chapters or themes that help to lead and no direction from one moment to another. The last 15 minutes are spent watching the five kids in lotteries in their towns trying to win a spot in the better charter schools. This is incredibly boring and totally shallow. We either feel happy or sad for the kids either getting in or not getting in to their schools - but what does that have to do with anything? That's not going to fix the system and is not really what this movie is about.

The movie is really about how unions are the problem and should be done away with (I guess). He celebrates Michelle Rhee of the D.C. school system who came into her job like a tornado and began firing people preaching testing and a more corporate results-based system for elementary schools (she lost her job when mayor Adrian Fenty lost his last November). He celebrates Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone, a successful socio-educational area in Harlem (Canada seems like a good guy working outside the public school system... but is the best example of a good charter school - they're not all like his). He condemns Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the two major teachers' unions.

He played so fast and loose with information and facts that I felt like I was watching a piece made for Fox News. The attacks on unions seemed even more awful considering the current standoff in Wisconsin between Republican governor Scott Walker and the unions and the democrats in the legislature (and those teachers have even agreed to change their contract). He never talks about how the Finnish teachers who have the best schools in the world are totally unionized and have many of the benefits (like tenure) that their American peers have. It's all very sickening.

If teachers and teachers unions are so bad, how on earth do we have any kids who succeed? (There's one expert quoted talking about how it's about 7% of teachers who are bad... so are those the only ones causing the problems?) Doesn't the federal government - or even state governments - have something they can do to help - like with give more money to the schools? Clearly the high school in Silicon Valley is nicer than the one in East LA, isn't that something worth examining? But Guggenheim doesn't examine anything.

There are clearly a lot of problems with education and there are hundreds of things that should be done to fix them (sure - get rid of the rubber rooms. Those are disgusting). Guggenheim suggests that without merit pay for teachers, there will be no change and growth. This is dumb.

I'm particularly upset that Guggenheim, now one of the best-known documentarians working today, would make such a sloppy movie. Aside from the unfair attacks on the unions, this film is impossible to follow and the cinematic equivalent of throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. It's a total mess.

Stars; .5 of 4

Friday, February 25, 2011

We Are What We Are (Friday, February 25, 2011) (9)

A few years ago I was really impressed by the Swedish film Let the Right One In, a vampire movie like I had never seen before then. The melancholy of modernity and the sadness and isolation of a vampire girl's life, come together for a sympathetic and interesting tale that would be considered a horror movie in most situations. But it is not really horror, it's the shell of the genre with the guts of an interesting think piece about being a kid, having hopes and desires and being in (puppy) love.

We Are What We Are is very similar to Let the Right One In both in style and look as well as what it is trying to convey emotionally. This is not a horror movie, really, but an interesting look at Mexican culture and the craziness of the urban setting (in one of the biggest cities in the world). Writer-director Jorge Michel Grau does a good job showing us an interesting view of modern life, but his script is too crowded with unnecessary junk to be as good as it could have been.

The film opens with an old man walking through a shopping mall and falling over dead. When the police do an autopsy on him they find inside his stomach a human finger (with painted finger nail). Back at his house his family is wondering where he is. They are cannibals and he has been out looking for food - that is, another person they can cut up to eat. Once they find out he is dead his teenage kids (two sons and a daughter) and his wife must go out to hunt for their next human meal. They have to figure out if they will continue to live the way they do or if they want to give it up and become 'normal' people.

They try to get prostitutes back to their place (which had always been a go-to method the father used), one son goes to a gay bar to pick up a kid to bring back to the house. At some point the police catch on to what's going on and try to stop it.

There is a lot of interesting information here about the roles of fathers and mothers in Mexican families and how the father never showed his kids how he did what he did with luring the people back their house to be killed. Once he's gone, the mother gains power and standing in the household and has to fight against her sons to keep that status. The cops move slowly but effectively through the investigation, ultimately finding out what is going on.

The overly complicated script is the worst part of this film. At some point there were about three possible victims in the house, the cops were on their way and there were a few prostitutes angry with what had happened to one of their prozzie friends earlier. Considering the basic story is simply that four people go out to find a person to kill, then kill that person and then the cops come, there are too many other layers that complicated the impact of the story. I appreciate the subtext of the son's homosexuality (is he really gay or does he just use it as a way to get young men to follow him home?), but as a plot tangent it is a bit unneeded. The story is paced so slowly, also, that it's hard to pay attention to what is going on, because it's rather dull through the first act and a half.

The look of the film is very nice and rather reminiscent of Let the Right One In. Every interior shot is filled with stuff and there's constant noise and commotion from the outside world. There are few pretty and easy shots in the film - almost everything is difficult and dirty. Just as George Romero used zombies to criticize our culture in his Living Dead movies, cannibals seem to have a symbolic meaning here. I'm interested in how they can represent the roles of consumerism, manufacturing and big business.

I particularly like that this movie uses the "cannibals-live-next-door-to-us" story as an entrance into an examination of modern culture. There is blood and violence here, but it's not really about this gore. It's about fairness and decency in society.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Monday, February 21, 2011

Barney's Version (2010) (Monday, February 21, 2011) (184)

In a thousand years when future people look back at the first century or so of feature films, they will undoubtedly notice a group of movies that start out bad and add to them some of the worst bad hair imaginable. On top of Jesse Eisenberg's unforgivable plastic payas in Holy Rollers and John Travolta's dirty sausage dreadlocks in Battlefield Earth, Paul Giamatti's shower-drain cake hair in Barney's Version will rank as the worst bad hair in film history. More than an animal, this piece looks like roadkill that's been festering and bleeding for a week on the pavement. It's so silly it becomes distracting - but that's probably a good thing because while it's onscreen it's far and away the most likable thing about the movie. This film is worst than the terrible rubber wig its star wears through the first half.

This movie, based on a book by Modechai Richler (which I've never read), is about Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti), a piece of shit of a man who lives his whole life as a child. Well, that's being a bit too mean, probably. As the film opens, Barney is a sad divorced man living in Montreal in fabulous wealth. He's the producer of a hit soap opera, has two college-age kids and an ex-wife living in New York. A police officer tracks him down at his local pub and shows him the book he's written, a tell-all about how Barney killed his best friend 30 years earlier. We then see a flashback to when Barney and his friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman), were living in Rome in the 1970s.

Basically they were drunk and avoiding growing up. Boogie was a novelist and Barney was futzing around drinking and waiting to begin his life back in Canada. When he does move back, he continues to be drunk all the time, marries a rich Jewish woman (Minnie Driver, who apparently is incapable of playing an English woman), loves his drunk father (Dustin Hoffman), and hates his life. At his wedding, however, he meets another woman, Miriam (Rosamund Pike) and falls madly in love with her. He then needs to get out of his horrible marriage and convince Miriam to marry him. He does this and then lives happily ever after... except that he still behaves eternally like a putz.

There's a thing with Boogie going missing (this is, anticlimactically, what the police officer was referring to in the first scene), a thing with him being a constant disappointment to Miriam and his kids, a thing with Miriam falling for their good looking neighbor Blair (Bruce Greenwood) and then a thing about Barney getting early-onset Alzheimer's.

I guess Alzheimer's is some sacred cow these days and it totally untouchable as a topic to discuss, but I have to say that I didn't give a crap about this part of the story. It just felt like a hat on the top of a story with already too many hats. The story moves along at such a glacial pace, the two hours of the run feel like 12. By the time we get to Barney forgetting stuff, I already thoroughly hate him to his core. He's a total asshole and undeveloped child of a man who can't put his toys away and is always crying about not getting a second helping of cake.

The script, adapted by Michael Konyves (a veteran of made-for-TV sci-fi junk, it seems), is so terrible you never really identify with anyone. Well, that's not totally true: you identify with anyone who is not Barney - or anyone onscreen fighting against Barney, which happens in every scene. I think this is not supposed to be what we are supposed to feel, though. I think we are supposed to feel like Barney is an anti-hero, a rebel hero, and we're supposed to feel some sort of tremendous pathos when he fall victim to old age and dementia. But it doesn't work that way. His situation becomes pitiful, clearly, but he's such a jerk, it's hard to feel bad for him.

Director Richard J. Lewis (a veteran of made-for-TV junk) gets so lost in the structure of the story that we forget what the hell the movie is about. The format begins with flashbacks to Barney's earlier days living hard as a younger man intercut with moments from the present where he feels bad for himself. It seems that this is done so we can explore the suggestion (from the cop) that he killed Boogie. But halfway through the film we discover that he didn't kill Boogie and that the film really isn't about a murder mystery (as we had thought), but just a story of this badly behaving man. We continue to get flashbacks, though, which seems rather silly and unnecessary by this point. A more chronological timeline would have worked much better for the film - and the thing with the cop, which feels like it was once a bigger element that was mostly cut out in editing, should have been lost altogether.

Paul Giamatti's performance is sleek and showy and he's gotten attention for it form several places (including a Golden Globe nomination). I guess it's the best thing in the movie, but that's not saying much. There was a chair in one shot that just sat there and didn't do anything and that was probably the second best thing in the film. Oh - and of course there was the amazingly terrible hair, which was probably better than the chair and Giamatti's performance. What a mess of a movie!

Stars: .5 of 4

How to Train Your Dragon (2010) (Monday, February 21, 2011) (183)

It's a sad thing for How to Train Your Dragon that no matter how good a movie it is (it's a good movie) it will never be as beloved as Toy Story 3. I guess that's the luck of the draw for any animated film these days - that the year you are released there's always a chance there's a bigger and glitzier Pixar movie that takes all the attention. Still, Dragon does a wonderful job and is still a very fun and delightful film and deserving of lots of praise and attention.

In the film Hiccup is a weak, dorky boy living in a small island town of vikings (who speak with Scottish accents). His father is the chief of the town and because he's not very strong, Hiccup works as an assistant for the town blacksmith making weapons and swords that the warriors use to fight the dragons that pester the village. He seems totally inept at doing anything physical aside from grinding blades and is a shame to his loving father.

One day, after designing a catapult that shoots dragon traps (he's very clever and is good at engineering), Hiccup catches what turns out to be the notorious Night Fury dragon, the most dangerous beast in the world. When he goes to find the thing, he realizes that it's a very loving creature. He works with it, calling him Toothless, and learns all about dragon ways, figuring out the dragons are not nasty beings but just unhappy with their horrible reptile master and very misunderstood. He then has to prove to his village what he knows - and prove to his father that he is a strong man worthy of respect.

I watched this film on DVD and not in the theater in 3D format. I'm sure this affected my overall experience, but I still think it was a visual masterpiece. One scene in particular, where Hiccup finally has a breakthrough in training with Toothless and they go for an elaborate flight, is absolutely magnificent even in standard 2D - and I imagine it would be even more spectacular in 3D! This is one of the first times I've found animators use the 3D format to truly bring you inside the picture rather than just showing off with elaborate gimmicks.

The story is nice for kids and for adults and very funny and well written. I like that the vikings are all Scots and that details like the score are done with rather celtic-inspired themes. There's a rather poignant bit at the end of the film where Hiccup is injured in the ultimate battle and comes away missing a foot, as if he was an injured war veteran. This is done very well, not fetishized and could easily be understood by kids that war has real consequences, even for the victors. At the same time we are not beaten over the head with the emotional ramifications of this (Hiccup gets back on his dragon and flies away).

This might not be as fancy and elite a film as Toy Story 3, but it is a very good film and well worth watching - even in 2D!

Stars: 3 of 4

Friday, February 18, 2011

Lemmy (Friday, February 18, 2011) (8)

Lemmy Kilmister is just like you and me. When he goes to the record store to buy the Beatles box-set in mono (a band he claims is his all-time favorite) he's politely told by the clerk that they're sold out of that. He laughs and says he's not surprised. Oh - but then the store manager comes out with a set that she had put aside for herself. You see, Lemmy is not at all like you or me. He's a heavy metal god, or more appropriately THE heavy metal god.

For the past 36 years Lemmy has been the leader and bassist for Motorhead, one of the first heavy metal bands and one of the creators of the musical form. He basically single-handedly invented the genre and has never stopped recording, touring and drinking for the past 45-or-so years. Now at 66 he lives much like he did when he was 36 (possibly taking less speed than he did then). He's a friend to all in the music world in LA, he's never met a fan he wouldn't take a picture with or give an autograph to and he is always happy to share a story about being a roadie for Hendrix or trading girlfriends with John Lennon (or his son!).

Lemmy, the documentary by Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski, is a biodoc in the vein of Metallica: Some Kind of Monster or Anvil! The Story of Anvil. We get to know Lemmy as a guy now, living in a rather humble rent-stabilized apartment packed with shit in West Hollywood, touring with several bands and looking back on his life and his music; we see just about every major heavy metal musician alive today talk about him and how much of an influence he was to them (and how much he likes to drink Jack and Cokes); we learn about where he came from and how he came to the genre that has become heavy metal.

Nothing is incredibly deep here (unlike, say, Some Kind of Monster, which was pretty deep), there are no major life events that happen to him or any of his bands and, all in all, Lemmy seems like a pretty nice, genuine guy. He records some songs with Dave Grohl (from Nirvana and The Foo Fighters), plays onstage with Metallica and, or course, with Motorhead.

The film is very rationally organized, but runs very long. There is a section about Lemmy's obsession with World War II stuff, including a fascination with Nazi weapons and uniforms (he says he's purely into them for their sartorial beauty, and I totally believe him... but then he never explains the swastika flags in his apartment.. but, to be clear, there is never a suggestion that he's any sort of Nazi- lover... just a lover of Nazi things... weird), a section on his love of Jack and Cokes (in spite of his Type 2 diabetes), a section on his son and his view of parents, a section on his own upbringing being raised by his mom and grandmother, a section on his love of gambling. These things are all very interesting, but each runs a bit too long and might be a bit too segregated into it's own area. I think it all could have been written and edited better and should have been cut by 30 minutes.

This movie is a ton of fun. Lemmy is a wonderful guy and a great interview subject. He's totally likable and a guy you really want to hang out with. If it had been a bit tighter it would have been much better, I think.

Stars: 3 of 4

Poetry (Friday, February 18, 2011) (7)

I have seen a bunch of Korean films in the last few years and most of them have been wonderful. There is a simplicity about them that is very interesting. Generally focusing on normal domestic situations (even when they're monster movies or documentaries), they tell straightforward, sometimes sad and frequently powerful stories. Perhaps it's unfair to lump them all together as a monolithic singular thing (just as with American cinema, there's no reason why there can't be a wide variety of genres and aesthetic styles), but the ones that I have seen have shared an interesting melancholia and directness reminiscent of the best of Ozu or the Dardenne brothers.

Lee Chang-dong's Poetry falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum in terms of new Korean films. It is not as sad and desperate as Kim So Yong's Treeless Mountain or In Between Days, not as flashy as Bong Joon-ho's The Host or Mother and not as bizarre as Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid. It is somewhat of a 'Goldilocks' film, falling just in the middle of all of these other directors and films. For me, I would have preferred it be more of one of those things than just middle, but what we get is still very nice.

At times the story and the way it unravels is reminiscent of Lee's last film, Secret Sunshine (just released in New York a few months ago). Mija is a woman in her 60s who lives in a small country town. She is very poor, making just a bit of money as a housekeeper for an old man. She raises her impudent teenage grandson (her daughter, the boy's mother is out of the picture) and is fighting depression and dementia. She joins a poetry class where the instructor teaches her how to look at the world in a different, more artistic way and she sets to work crafting her own poem. As she does this, her life gets more complicated as her grandson gets into trouble that she does not expect or know how to deal with.

There is a lovely dialectic in the film between the lyrical way Mija looks at the world as a poet (or poet-in-training), and how the reality for her on the ground is much less fluid and beautiful. She has to live in a world of pain and filth but rise above that to experience the world as an artist. She struggles with knowing how to behave and react in the two worlds: the day-to-day world with an unexpected challenge from her grandson, and the more comfortable, emotional world of poetry that is still new to her. Neither place is totally easy for her to be in and neither world allows her to live in it without difficulty.

Yun Jeong-hie is absolutely fabulous as Mija. She moves from what seems to be aloofness at the beginning, to what we are told is early-onset Alzheimer's beautifully. Her inability to communicate with her grandson, or really anyone for that matter, is visible not just in her difficulty in speaking, but also in the pain we see on her face. She knows what's wrong and what's right in most situations but has a hard time expressing these feelings.

The narrative structure is very similar to that of Secret Sunshine (to the point that I felt the story could be written by Lee before I knew it was), but I think the script is better in that than in this one. There is a gentleness that pervades the film that is interrupted several times by bigger 'bangs' of plot direction change. This trick feels a bit more blunt here than in Sunshine and a bit forced. (Time will tell if this is just a result of Lee being a mediocre writer or if this is just a stylistic flourish that will change over the years). Both films are just a bit too long, as well, and could benefit from tightening the story by about 15 minutes.

This film is certainly good enough to fit in well with the top tier of new Korean films (like Treeless Mountain, In Between Days, The Host and Secret Sunshine), but falls slightly below those in terms of overall beauty and virtuosity. I think there are moments here that feel a bit empty to me, that I recognize are important to the film, but I don't relate to. Much of the film is fabulous, but some of it is merely average.

Stars: 3 of 4

Monday, February 14, 2011

Cold Weather (Monday, February 14, 2011) (6)

More than being a genre, mumblecore is an aesthetic, a way a movie is made and designed. There is no reason why there can't be genre movies underneath the mumblecore umbrella (the Duplass brothers' Baghead was basically a mumble-thriller). Aaron Katz's Cold Weather is the first mumble-mystery movie, although it gets there is a really dull, sloppy way.

Doug is a loser living in Portland, Oregon where he shares an apartment with his sister and works at an ice factory while he figures out if he's going back to finish college. One day his ex-girlfriend comes to town on business. When she doesn't show up for a date (with a friend of his) he and his sister start looking for her. It seems she's involved in some mysterious but illegal dealings and her life might be at risk. So this everyman has to track down the bad guys who are threatening his ex and do something about them.

The biggest problem with this is that it starts out like a normal mumble movie with long, uncomfortable domestic scenes, quiet conversations about nothing (Man: "Doug, what did you study in college before you dropped out?" Doug: "Forensic science" Man: "Oh - like CSI:?" Doug: "Yeah.") and no particular plot. It's only in the second act that the film turns into a mystery and strangely sheds this "conceit of nothingness".

Unexpectedly, Doug becomes a driven man who seems to be more than totally helpless (which he is at the beginning). This transition happens for no particular reason and never really looks back at the past. Doug is suddenly and ridiculously not a loser, but a cunning private eye. We are abruptly in a different movie, different in tone, speed and narrative from the first. To say that solving the mystery gives Doug purpose and direction is just facile and silly. He begins merely as a type and then becomes a different type, but with no motivation or struggle.

Based on Katz's past works, like Quiet City and Dance Party, USA (both of which are good, but not great), we expect this to be a story of relationships, love and sadness. He pulls a rather unfair trick by showing Doug in what seem to be romantic situations with the woman he lives with (like taking a trip to a beautiful waterfall) but not telling us until later that he's doing these things with his sister - we have thought to this point that she's his girlfriend. This is a bit of an eff-you from Katz to us, I think, and serves no real purpose.

Despite the mystery plot giving some structure to the film, it is not a really good puzzle and doesn't really keep us guessing, or even giving a shit. Ultimately, Cold Weather is neither fish nor fowl. It's not a mumblecore movie about nothing and it's equally not a good brain-twister. I appreciate that Katz is pushing the boundaries of the DIY genre, but in the end, the story is really, really dull and there's very little good about the film.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Roommate (Sunday, February 13, 2011) (5)

I was desperately hoping that The Roommate would be an amazingly trashy and hilarious psycho-sexual thriller weighted heavily to the shity and teen-set. It has all the makings of an amazing movie: two stars of teeny soaps (albeit pure pulp and the other an elevated drama dealing with teens), Leighton Meester (from Gossip Girl) and Minka Kelly (from Friday Night Lights and Derek Jeter's arm... which is not a TV show); a plot that sorta resembles Barbet Shroeder's Single White Female; and the fact that they two stars look almost identical. (OK - I should say that these two look so much alike that it was sometimes hard to remember which one was which. I think this is amazing and hilarious. They might be the same person with slightly different makeup.)

I was hoping for some bad, melodramatic dialogue, some hot lesbian sex (for no reason other than that such a dumb movie with identical-looking actresses is screaming for them to make out, like in Wild Things with Neve Campbell and Denise Richards), and some bad ketchupy bloody violence. Alas, I got none of that. This movie is a total dud and when I was hoping for some sort of dumb fun, I just got a really, really bad movie with nothing going for it.

As the film opens, we see Sara (Kelly) checking into her dorm at her LA university. A bit later she meets her new roommate, Rebbecca (Meester). They become best friends, but some of the other girls in the dorm don't like Rebbecca because she's a bitch to them. Sara meets some douchebag at a frat party, Stephen, and they start to date. Rebbecca keeps to her bed in the room.

She becomes more and more possessive of Sara, ultimately telling one of the other girls on the hall that she will kill her if she doesn't stop being Sara's friend (that happens all the time in the shower in dorms). Then they go to Beverly Hills (as if girls going to school in Westwood, say, wouldn't have found their way to Beverly Hills before November). When they go to Rebecca's house, Sara realizes that she has a weird relationship with her folks (how strange!) and her mother says something about how she suffers from bi-polar disorder and is on meds.

Apparently this is fucking scary as hell to Sara, who comes from somewhere in the middle of the country. A roommate on meds?! Holy fucking fuck! She has to move out right away. Once she tries to push Rebbecca away, hell breaks lose and Rebbecca kills some people in a very boring way. Oh - and Billy Zane is in this as some letchy art prof... I'm glad the brother is acting again! (He's the fucking worst!)

There is so much wrong with this movie it's hard to pinpoint what is the most upsetting thing. I know I hated the fact that Sara is so dumb and doesn't think Rebbecca is fucking nuts until she finds out she's bi-polar - and then shit suddenly gets bad. Like, there are tons and tons of people in the world who are bi-polar... I think it's just lazy. (And not so say the Shroeder piece was a brilliant picture, but at least the suggestion of borderline personality disorder is more interesting than violent bi-polarity. And if we really want to get into it, we don't really see anything bi-polar as much as we see psychopathology and some possible schitzophrenia. Again, I'm being paid more here than the psych advisers for the film.)

Considering both actresses look basically like the same person, I was surprised that Meester did such a better job than Kelly. Kelly's voice really annoys me. She speaks mostly in a baby-talky light and airyness and never enunciates or finishes words (which I thought was lesson one in acting... at least it was when I was in 5th grade). She's mostly overdone and telegraphs her emotions too far (I'm going to do a sad face, because my character is sad in this scene). Meester is actually pretty good here (in a terrible role). I'm impressed by her so far (she was also pretty good in Country Strong).

This is a movie to avoid at all cost. There is nothing in it at all. It's ridiculous and boring, not really funny (to laugh at, I mean) and much more work than it should be.

Stars: 0 of 4

Friday, February 11, 2011

Waste Land (2010) (Friday, February 11, 2011) (182)

Waste Land is a documentary that kills two birds with one stone when it comes to making white people feel good about themselves. It's about art and social justice! Yay! It follows Brazilian star artist (startist?) Vic Muniz as he goes to Jardim Gramacho (literally meaning Gramacho Garden... no so much...), the landfill outside of Rio de Janeiro and one of the world's biggest landfills, makes art with the poor pickers who sort through the mounds of junk looking for recyclables.

Muniz, who was born in Brazil, talks about how he sorted through garbage himself after he arrived in the United States 20-some years ago. The work was humbling, to be sure, but also get him inspiration to make the interesting art he makes. He normally takes found objects, sometimes garbage, sometimes sugar, sometimes toys, sometimes chocolate sauce and makes representational images with them before shooting photographs of these arrangements. He is best known for taking well known paintings and pictures by other artists and re-making them out of these found objects. It's a very interesting process and one that I like a lot aesthetically. I think it's fascinating how he removes the viewer from the subject of the work by at least one degree. This is a very clever post-modern process and it does it beautifully.

So back on the ground in Gramacho, Muniz spends a few days walking around the heaps of trash interviewing the pickers there and figuring out who runs what. He meets a few of the labor leaders who are organizing the pickers into an ad hoc union, he meets a man who has such a positive outlook on life you wouldn't know he worked in smelly junk for a living, he meets a woman who has three kids and works as a picker because she can't find any other work.

He takes some portraits of these people, and then sets to working with them to gather certain kinds of garbage that they will use to make the works. I like how in the process of making the art, Muniz (and the directors) shows us how these people do what they do so effectively. He shows us how when they need plastic water bottles the people can find them and when they need rubber tires they can get those too.

Ultimately he has the group of subjects lay the garbage down on the floor of a big warehouse where the image of their portraits is shown on the ground. They place the items, with his helpful instruction, so they end up with large-scare pictures of themselves. Through the process, the pickers learn a new respect for one another and for the beauty in the world.

This is a nice story, but is a bit annoying, to be honest. I like what Muniz does, and I think he does it with an extreme humility and honor throughout. I think the filmmakrs Lucy Walker, Karen Harley and Joao Jardim (Jesus! They needed three directors!) think that what is being done here is really important, when really it's just an art project. Sadly most of these people will ultimately have to go back to the landfill at some point in the future and most of them suffer from all sorts of diseases they get from working in such filth (from metal poisoning to lung disease, not to mention the terrible education and social services they don't receive). It's a bit annoying that this shows us a window into a really terrible thing and we see a non-solution to dealing with it. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think a more polemical view of the situation would have been good. Why not pressure the Brazilian government (which is experiencing unparalleled growth currently) to help these people better?

This film is very reminiscent of another trash documentary from 2010, Garbage Dreams. That was more interesting because it approached the issue from a more sociopolitical point of view. I thought it showed more about Egyptian society than this film showed about Brazilian society. Neither one is wonderful, but aside from Muniz, whose art and personality are fantastic, there is not much here that's very good.

Stars: 2 of 4

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Harry Brown (2010) (Thursday, February 3, 2011) (181)

Harry Brown is a great example of a good film going bad due to a lousy scrip, or at least a script that takes a bad turn. It begins as a moody and quiet story of an old pensioner, Harry (Michael Caine) living in a public housing project in England. Every day he visits his sick wife in the hospital and goes to the pub to see his best friend Leonard (David Bradley, who was also wonderful in Another Year). The two commiserate about how the kids who live in the estate are terrible and make them feel unsafe. It seems there are a few gangs and a few drug dealers who operate out of the complex and the teens who hang around them harass and threaten the older folks on their way to and from their errands.

Leonard is sick of these kids and talks back to them and they in turn set his flat on fire. He then confronts them and is killed in the fight that follows. This makes Harry furious, of course, and when the cops come to interview him (the lead detective is played by Emily Mortimer), he lets them know he's lost faith in their ability to protect and defend him. The cops have left this project for dead and aren't doing much of anything to control the kids in this area. Seeing no other option, Harry goes wild and starts killing the gang members and drug dealers himself.

What starts as in interesting and small atmospheric piece turns into a silly and bloody vengeance story that leaps off a cliff. The cops are totally useless and uncaring, which might be a convenient plot device, but nothing that I connect to reality. When the teens start a riot in the streets (which basically comes out of nowhere with no motivation) the cops do almost nothing to stop them and are beaten because they only send four officers to control the mob.

Add to this the very binary characters who are either good or bad and sometimes switch states. Harry and Leonard are clearly good, the kids drug dealers are clearly bad, the pub owner is good, but then turns bad, Mortimer is good, but the other cops are bad. It's all rather dull and overdone.

Caine gives good performance here, but it feels like roles he's played before (nice lower-middle class guy who has a rough life and goes violent). I like the blue-green palette of the film and how it informs our idea of this world we're in, but it's a bit banal, isn't it? I mean blue-green stuff looks sad. That's boring. This film would have been much better if it had a different second half. It all comes about too suddenly and melodramatically. I wish it had been more melancholy and thinky and less actively violent.

Stars: 2 of 4