Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (Wednesday, October 26, 2011) (93)

I think the content of and idea behind this film is slightly better than the net result. This is a documentary about the Black Power movement told through footage shot at the time by Swedish television crews in America. I have no idea why, but apparently the Swedes were totally obsessed with the movement and several black leaders went to Sweden to speak and raise money for their cause at the time. Weird. This brings to mind all sorts of interesting ideas of how a domestic issue or art is best analyzed by foreigners who have more perspective on the issue. It's hard to imagine an American crew treating the players involved and the history herein similarly. Still, there are aspects to this film that don't totally make sense, like why the director, Goran Olsson, feels it's necessary to have contemporary black American musicians comment on their views of '60s-'70s black leaders or the very footage we see (a bit of a mise-en-abime nightmare, really). What do I care what Talib Kweli or Questlove think about Angela Davis or Stokely Carmichael? And why not, say, other civil rights leaders, still alive today? Why not get Jesse Jackson to talk about his views of the more militant faction of the civil rights movement? The film raises as many questions as it answers... though it's still well done and interesting.

Stars: 3 of 4

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Skin I Live In (Saturday, October 22, 2011) (92)

This is a very nice film, beautifully executed and directed by Almodóvar and a real pleasure to watch. I think it's about the creation and consumption of art as much as anything. It's a loose update of the Frankenstein story, but as a contemporary psychodrama. The narrative gets a bit lost in the middle act, but it all ties up nicely. I like how it functions as an exploitation film, a virtual ode to Val Lewton, and I don't really think it has much more depth than that. It's a bit of a trifle. I think it's Almodóvar's best work since some of his early films, possibly because it's so uncomplicated by other noise his recent works have been surrounded by. Overall a very good, but not perfect work.

Stars: 3 of 4

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Le Havre (Thursday, October 13, 2011) (91)

This is Aki Kaurismaki's interesting take on European immigration issues. It tells the story of an African boy who is being smuggled from his home country to London, but gets out in Le Havre, France, where he meets a nice, sad Frenchman (Andre Wilms) who takes him in and tries to help him get to London, his ultimate destination. It is a story about uncomfortable juxtapositions, black boy/white man, comedy/drama, old/young. At times is slips into a rather gonzo mannered, absurdist comedy, particularly around the domestic scenes, and at other times it's a send-up of classic French policiers. Overall it's a lovely film and beautifully executed. I'm a bit tired of this kind of story (it's very reminiscent of Philippe Lioret's film Welcome from last year, which dealt with a similar story a hundred miles up the coast in Calais), but this is at least a fresh look at it.

Stars: 3 of 4

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Wednesday, October 12, 2011) (90)

This is a pretty annoying story and a really bad script. Or, more than annoying, it's just a stupid, tired idea. Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, sister of the Olsen Twins) is a white girl who is escaping an upstate-New York cult when she's rescued by her tightly wound sister (played by Sarah Paulson). We see her life in the cult through her own flashbacks as she tries to re-integrate herself into normal non-cult society... albeit one that has country houses in Fairfield County, Connecticut. The cult leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), is a nice guy on the surface, but requires sexual submission by the women members of the group. He sings pretty too. Some nasty stuff happens, too, with murder and psycho-torture, but it's really never translated to us very clearly how disturbing it is or isn't. First-time director Sean Durkin would have done well to separate himself more from his script, which is clearly his passion piece. He's clearly a talented director and an average writer. Well, it's too soon to comment on his writing after on this work. There has been and will be lots of talk about Olsen's performance, but there is really not enough here for me to comment on. I think most people are taking the whole thing and the psychological effects of it and turning her into a superstar, but I need to see more. I feel most of what we see is the negative space of her acting - the spaces between spaces. There's lots of reaction here and I don't think her performance is really all that special. I'll hold judgement just for now.

Stars: 2 of 4

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Shame (Sunday, October 9, 2011) (89)

I think that Steve McQueen's fist feature, Hunger (2009), was one of the best films of that year and one of the best films of the past five or so years. It has a frankness and a narrative structure that is stunning and has as a subtle beauty that comes around only occasionally in movies. His follow-up film, Shame, sadly lacks all of those qualities. It is a stupid movie that trades in shock more than substance and doesn't amount to much of anything, borrowing frequently from the elegant style of the first film, but with totally banal results.

The film tells the story of a Wall Street banker-type guy (Michael Fassbender) who is a sex addict who fucks any woman he wants (he's incredibly hot, of course, so he can) and fucks a lot of them. He has relationships with prostitutes and online video-chat strippers, to say nothing of strangers he meets on the R train in the subway or at bars. He also has a sister (the tiresome and forgettable Carey Mulligan) who is a bit of a mess who ruins his mojo for unexplained reasons. Once he loses it, he can't get it back and his world crumbles.

There is a lot of nudity here (full frontal male!) and lots of frank sex. It all is just superficial, though, as it really doesn't mean anything. Who cares that his world is built on control and domination and when he loses control of everything, it tips over off it's precarious perch? One of the saddest moments of the film is when he goes on a date with a coworker and the dinner scene is a cheap rip-off of the magnificent long-take scene of Bobby Sands talking to the Priest in Hunger. Here it's just a cheap trick and packs no punch. Perhaps its that the brilliant Enda Walsh co-wrote the script for Hunger with McQueen, while he didn't work on this one... I don't know, but the end result is forgettable and dumb. What a shame. By far the biggest cinematic disappointment of recent years.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Saturday, October 8, 2011

50/50 (Saturday, October 8, 2011) (88)

A comedy about cancer?! They said it could never be done, but here it is! Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a twenty-something guy who is diagnosed with some bad kind of cancer (as opposed to the good kinds). His best friend, played by Seth Rogan, is a bit of a clown and doesn't deal with the news well. The only place he finds solace is with the hospital social worker, played by Anna Kendrick. This is a very OK movie, not really all that funny, but not really a downer either. I was impressed by Kendrick, who I normally find particularly forced and showy (as in her role in Up in the Air), but here is understated and vulnerable. I hope she can keep up this tone and not try to be the high-school-drama-queen she has been up to this point in her onscreen career. JGL is brilliant as always, though the role he's playing here is more limited and not really interesting. Rogan phones in his performance as only he can.

Stars: 2 of 4

Friday, October 7, 2011

Ides of March (October 7, 2011) (87)

God - I've almost totally forgotten this movie. It's based on an off-Broadway play and really feels like that. It's a very small political story about a guy running for President in the Ohio primary (George Clooney) who has a young political advisor (Ryan Gosling) who is sought after by his main rival. There's some messiness with a young intern (of course), and lots of banal liberal claptrap about energy policy and giving power to the people. It's all very stagey and very slight. Clooney, who also directed the picture, does an adequate job with the script, but can't overcome the mundaneness of the story. It all feels very on-the-nose about our political system, but doesn't really say anything significant. I love independent, non-profit theater, but this is a bad example of the worst part of it. This was clearly adapted because of the subject matter rather than the strength of the work. I'm totally uninterested in it.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Kid with a Bike (Thursday, October 6, 2011) (86)

Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne are together one of the most interesting writing/directing forces of recent years. Their neo-neorealist style is shown beautifully in this film, an examination of a fairy tale... but again from their neo-neorealist style. Cryil (Thomas Doret) is an abandoned kid who has one love in the world, the bike his father gave him before giving him to the orphanage in the small Belgian town where the story takes place. He is found by Samantha (Cecile de France) who takes him in on weekends as long as he behaves himself. She is his belle, and he is, effectively her knight in shining armor. Things go slightly pear-shaped when his is rejected once and for all by his father, Guy (Jeremie Renier). There is an inherent self-referential quality to the tale, of course, in that Renier is effectively rejecting the kid he was in the Dardenne's La Promesse (1996), Bruno, making this film as much an analysis of their oeuvre as it is a story in its own right. I love that the Dardennes dare to make a fairy tale in their realistic style and, of course, they succeed brilliantly. It's still a slightly small movie and doesn't pack the wallop of La Promesse or The Son (perhaps because it's ever so slightly more complicated than those masterpieces). Still, this is wonderful and and fun to be inside their world for 87 minutes.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Moneyball (Thursday, October 6, 2011) (85)

Ever since the Michael Lewis book The Blind Side became a box office behemoth, Hollywood has decided to moviefy each of his nonfiction books. This movie is the result of the second effort down this path, an adaptation of the book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. The film tells the story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) who was the Oakland A's general manager in the early aughts, where he built an LCS-competing team with a very small budget by using sabermeterics, a mathematical approach to statistics that puts value on non-traditional elements of the game. In other words, this is a move version of a boring baseball story that happened a few years ago. The film is almost totally without any characters of interest and gives us almost no view into who these people are. It's about as exciting and interesting as a history text book would be about this topic. To make matters even more strange, Beane doesn't really succeed in what he was trying to accomplish (his teams never got to a World Series), so his experiment never proves to be a winner. If you care about baseball you might care about this movie, but as a movie, there's really nothing very interesting in it. The story is boring, director Bennett Miller seems to not be interested in looking into the minds of his characters and the acting is generally pretty dull.

Stars: 1.5 of 4