Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Iron Lady (Saturday, December 31, 2011) (130)

The first thing I noticed about Phyllidia Lloyd's The Iron Lady was that the makeup in it is amazing. The film opens roughly in the present day as Margaret Thatcher (Dame Meryl Hepburn Dench Streep), now in her late 80s, is walking around her London flat talking to her dead husband who seems to stick around in her mind as if he was really there. At first glance it really doesn't look like Meryl at all. As much as you look for a terrible wig seam on her forehead or terrible plastic droopy jowl, you can't find any evidence that it's makeup. It's really remarkable (particularly in light of the makeup debacle that just occurred onscreen with J. Edgar).

I was totally expecting that I would hate this movie before I went in to see it. I expected that it was going to show Thatcher as a heroic feminist who fought men and did what was right for her country, while underplaying her major and lasting sins. I have to admit, it was not that bad... though it was really not that brilliant either. Much of the praise of the film will go to Meryl, of course, and more than anything, this feels like a movie created for her, while trying to not offend anyone one any political side (it's really not offensive... which is a bit offensive in its own right).

The film has a typical biopic structure, told mostly through flashbacks. We see present-day Maggie looking back at her life: the daughter of a middle-class grocer with conservative political leanings himself, she went to Oxford and then became a young star in the Tory party. We see her quick rise through the party until she became P.M. in 1990. From there the three major events of her tenure are mentioned and shown, but not dwelled upon. We see the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, though we never really get much info on that story; we see the Falklands War for awhile, but never really see how she used it to wag the dog and get out of the heat she was taking for the terrible economy (that third thing)... which we don't really see or hear any mention of. Ultimately we see how either because she was losing some level of mental clarity or because she was losing track of sound economic principles, she was shown the door by her party and resigned.

Meryl is much better as the doddering old Maggie than the middle-aged spitfire (young Maggie is played well enough by Alexandra Roach). I think a lot of that comes the fact that the old Maggie is a bit of a subtler performance with small reactions and lots of associations by the audience, while the younger Maggie is filled with all sorts of speechifying and grandstanding, which I've always found to be Meryl's weakness (though I know most people love that stuff from her). I guess I also have to admit that I'm so repulsed by the positions the middle-aged Maggie took that my reaction to that segment of the film was probably not unclouded.

There's a good deal of really cliched and lazy filmmaking here as well. At one moment when we see Maggie walking into Parliament for the first time, we look down a long hallway with windows at the end. Through a lighting trick, the windows are all white and the foreground is dark. As she steps into the frame she's out of focus and is merely a dark spot in a white background. Then the focus racks and she comes into focus as she approaches. This terrible shot is used in terrible TV shows nightly, to say nothing of silly movies. I hate this shot. Later, we see old Maggie in her flat watching the TV as a commentator explains that "she's a polarizing figure because..." and goes on to list her basic resume of achievements and perceived failures. Show, don't tell, Phyllidia. Show, don't tell.

I'm not really sure what Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan (who also co-wrote Steve McQueen's disappointing Shame) are trying to do here. There is no particular emotion that comes out of the film. It's not an intricate take-down of a villain, like Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall and it's not a heroic social-political piece like Ford's The Young Mister Lincoln or Eastwood's Invictus. At times the tone felt rather over-the-top and goofy like a film by Bunuel or John Waters (I'm sure John Waters would giggle throughout this film if he were to see it... it's pure camp), though I can't be sure that that was intentional or if the tone was just too earnest at those moments. At one point we hear the song "I'm in Love with Margaret Thatcher" by the Brighton punk band The Notsensibles... but out of context there's an idea that it's actually a pro-Maggie song... which it's not... it's a joke... at least I've always thought it was...

I guess I really should hate this movie because it doesn't tear down someone I hate (I would be throwing this computer across the room if such a polite film about Reagan was released... and I'm sure it's coming). I guess I just was expecting so much more of a story of sacrifice and achievement than this, that what we get was really only lightly painful. She really comes of as a typical silly old lady more than any sort of political hero, and although I wish she had been decimated by this film, I guess that's better than being lionized.

Stars: 2 of 4

Friday, December 30, 2011

A Separation (Friday, December 30, 2011) (129)

Asghar Farhadi's A Separation begins with Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) in a courtroom speaking to a judge about getting a divorce. Simin wants her her husband Nader and daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, Asghar's own daughter) to go with her but he refuses, claiming he has to take care of his elderly father in Tehran. As a result they get a separation and she stays in Tehran just the same, with the Termeh living mostly with Nader.

He is a good father, very understanding and honest and she's a very good mother. They are an upper-middle class family with a nice apartment in a nice building. To help him take care of Termeh and his father, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) a woman who can help him keep the house and manage things. One day, when he gets very frustrated, Nader after she leaves his father in the middle of the day, he fires her and shoves her out the door rather violently.

This brings about a lawsuit about how much she was really hurt and if Nader caused her to lose the baby she was pregnant with, or if she was hurt by other means. It seems Razieh is working with a handful of lies that might protect her from her husband. Nader is a bit of a scapegoat here for other things that are happening.

The story deals a lot with issues of class and money, reminiscent of themes in films by fellow Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. It is clear that Nader and Simin are rich and more European in their tastes. Simin wears a colorful chador (either burgundy, green, lavender or blue), that seems much more liberal and design-forward than the more conservative and traditional one worn by Razieh. Simin also looks a lot more European (and gorgeous) with red hair and less Persian (I am not aware of Iranian minority groups enough to know if Razieh and her husband are from a minority group, such as the Kurds, but the possibility is certainly there). There is also the idea that the rich can do what they want to the poor, even though Nader is being accused of harm that we're almost certain he didn't cause.

Putting this all in context, it is important to be aware of the extreme attention and deference that is paid to the Iranian jurisprudential system, not only in the case of the separation proceedings at the beginning (and end), but later during the trial, when Razieh and her husband sue Nader. The judges seem to be reasonable non-idealists who are looking to do right regardless of politics. There is no criticism of the post-Revolutionary government or the rights of women or poor people. This is presented as a sober tale of lies and hidden facts. Albeit one that involves a good amount of interaction with the courts.

The writing in Farhadi's script is wonderful and all the acting is tremendous, particularly Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatami and Sarina Farhadi. They all deal with their various legal troubles differently, but totally naturally. It is wonderful to see such interesting and powerful acting, when it's not overdone or forced.

At one point near the end of the film, as Termeh talks to Nader about the legal issues they're involved in, she says, "I thought you said this wouldn't be serious," to which he snaps, "Well, it got serious." This is a beautiful and uncomfortable commentary on life and an efficient explanation of a neorealist view of this world. This is a beautiful, dispassionate film and one that explains things simply and effectively.

This is really a film about a man who is a wimp and almost totally emasculated -- not by his wife, but by his own doing. As a quick-fix for his inability to deal with issues, he is constantly scrappily doing small things to changes situations -- mostly for the worse. His wife, on the other hand is clinical and calm and efficient. This is about the choice of who we wish to believe and "life with" -- much like how Termeh has to make a similar decision. Nader is kind and loving, but makes small issues more problematic due to his tinkering; Simin is a bit cold, but calculated and correct. Both approaches can deal with and fix problems in different ways. In the end there is some truth that we're trying to excavate, and each side hopes to be seen as correct.

Stars: 4 of 4

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Sunday, December 25, 2011) (128)

So this is this movie based on Jon Foer's much-heralded book. It takes place in the days after September 11, 2001, when young boy Oskar Schell (Oskar with a K because his parents both read Gunter Grass in college) (Thomas Horn) is having difficulty dealing with the fact that his dad, Thomas (Thomas Hanks), was caught on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center and died a lot. Oskar has Aspbergers and is a fucking annoying and weird kid. For some weird reason he seems to be in no sort of therapy, either for his disorder or for the fact that he's a kid whose dad just died in a horrible tragedy. But that's cool... and totally the way Upper West Side Jews relate to the world. Totally.

So he starts snooping through his dad stuff and finds a key in an envelope that has the word "Black" written on it. He decides that this is some sort of posthumous game his dad has arranged for him, so he goes off on a long journey to find this Black person and figure out what the key means by visiting all the people with the name "Black" in New York City. Along the way he meets his long-lost grandfather who no longer speaks ... but we don't know why and never find out... and he meets a black couple in Fort Greene who are getting a divorce, but give a shit about Oskar for no particular reason.

There are so many layers of shit to dig through in this story, let alone the presentation on screen, that it's hard to know where to begin. Why does Oskar have to be on the Asperberger's spectrum? Why does Tom Hanks have a terrible New Yawk accent in some scenes and not in others? (Answer: looping.) Why does the grandfather not speak and why should I care about that? Why would a mother let her sorta special-needsy son walk around without her (even if she scouts the locations first)? (And how on earth does she have time to scout the locations for him?)

To say that Thomas Horn is annoying is like saying that Hitler wasn't fond of Jews. There really aren't words for whatever Horn is in this film. "Repulsive" comes to mind. It's impossible to align with the kid because his way of talking and looking at the world is so precious and otherhumanly that I could only be totally turned off by him. He's a totally concocted persona whose artifice is on display to all. And he carries around a fucking tambourine that somehow soothes his soul (like how watching Judge Wapner soothed Raymond Babbitt) so every time we see him walking around New York (which is about 80% of the film) he's ringing a goddamn tambo. Ugh!

I've said here before that movies about September, 11 are cheap because it's just simply too soon to have any perspective on. I had my own experience that day and I don't care about a fucking annoying kid's experience. What's more insipid here is that the fact that Thomas Schell died that day has nothing to do with the story. It's sentimental shorthand of the most vile variety. All that matters is that he dies - he could have simply chocked on a bagel and lox any other day in history. That would have been random and unfair. This is just manipulative garbage that tries to help understand what Oskar is feeling, but really just sets us spinning in a cycle of "I remember where I was on that day when..." - which really isn't story telling at all.

This is a movie about fathers and sons. Big fucking deal. Yet somehow it became a story about pain in the wake of September 11. It's all nonsense.

Stars: 1 of 4

Saturday, December 24, 2011

In the Land of Blood and Honey (Saturday, December 24, 2011) (127)

In the Land of Blood and Honey is allegedly the directorial and writing debut of Angelina Jolie. I shouldn't really say allegedly, because there's no evidence that she didn't totally write this on her own and direct it on her own... but it is curious that someone who has only ever acted (and maybe "produced" movies) and has never really been on the creative side of movies has single-handedly written and directed a film about a historical event (in a rather obscure foreign language) that has nothing to do with her own experience. I'm just sayin'...

Anyhow, the film takes place during the Bosnian war in Sarajevo where a Muslim woman, Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), and a Bosnian man, Danijel (Goran Kostic), fall in love. He's the son of one of the Bosnian senior generals and is a big military person himself. As Muslims are rounded up in the city, Danijel is able to save Ajla and keep her in a room in his command station. This causes trouble for both of them as different military people, some of whom resent his nepotistic status, find out about their relationship arrangement.

This is a good movie; there is nothing particularly brilliant about it and nothing really bad about it. In terms of romantic war movies, I'd say this is is above average -- it's not too sentimental or fantastical. Meanwhile, it has basically no style to speak of, but it's effective in telling a story and getting certain emotions across when Jolie wants them. Before I praise her for this work I'd like to see more of what she can do to make sure it's not just an aberration.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (Saturday, December 24, 2011) (126)

This documentary looks at the life and work of Roger Corman, sometimes referred to as the "King of the Bs" (as in "B movies,"or some such variation) and how he has managed to produced and direct about 400 movies over a 50-year career. He's always been on the outside of Hollywood, working on incredibly small budgets, raising the exploitation genre to new heights.

There are wonderful clips from some of his best-loved films (The Little Shop of Horrors, and The House of Usher), some of his worst films (The Terror, The Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women) and some of his most odd-ball stuff (Teenage Cave Man), as well as tons of interviews with directors, actors, writers and producers who came out of the "Corman Film School," such as Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, William Shatner, David Caradine, Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern, to name a few. They all have great stories to share about making terrible movies on low budgets.

There are some wonderful historical details shared, such as when Corman was distributing foreign films by Bergman, Kurasawa, Antonioni and Fellini for a period in the '70s, and how he managed to get Bergman's Cries and Whispers shown (for a short period) at a drive-in who was used to showing his movies. Producer Gale Anne Hurd has probably the most interesting line of the film when she says that with the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster and the marginalization of Corman, you look at some of the big-budget action/sci-fi/horror flicks in theaters today and you realize that they're basically Corman-style exploitation and that he could have done any of them better and much, much cheaper. It's probably totally true.

Stars: 3 of 4

Friday, December 23, 2011

Pina 3D (Friday, December 23, 2011) (125)

Pina is a wonderful dance documentary by Wim Wenders about the work of the modern dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch. But it's much more of a documentary in the document element of the term - it's really a dance recital, or the presentation of several of Bausch's best-known and loved works, as there's not much biography in the picture. Wenders weaves these performances, presented by Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal and the dancers who knew and loved her (she died in 2009, just as filming was commencing), with brief testimonies by these dancers about their art and their love for Pina.

I had the opportunity to see this film in 3D and I have to say it was totally a wonderful experience. I normally find the 3D process to be disorienting and irrelevant to the movie watching process. Most films shown in 3D aren't really enhanced by the perspective. Some of the best 3D films play with a meta-concept of the format, so it's enjoyable to watch it in a "third dimension," partly because the director is making a point about the experience of watching or a joke about 3D films of yore (House of Wax, Dial M For Murder, etc.). Here, however, Wenders uses the 3D to really put you inside the dance performance. I know that sounds really annoying and cliché, but it's totally true. The way it's shot, with cameras onstage between the dancers, you lose track of the end of the stage, the proscenium and where/who is the audience.

To further enhance this submersive experience, Wenders shoots a good amount of the dance pieces on the Wupperthal Schwebebahn, a hanging tram line that runs through Wupperthal (OK - how did I never know this existed? It's amazing!). What results is the most visceral flying experience I've had since I saw To Fly! in IMAX at the Air and Space Museum in the early '80s. You're actually hanging over a city, over a river, and the sensation is breathtaking (regardless of the dancing).

I also happen to love the concept that the Schwebebahn was built in the early 20th century, as a crowning achievement of the Industrial Age, and that we're now experiencing it a century later, in 3D, an achievement of the digital age. I expect that's part of modern dance and performance, bridging generations and centuries. How lovely.

Stars: 3 of 4

Margaret (Friday, December 23, 2011) (124)

I first heard of Margaret when it was playing in a theater in New York in September, I read a scathing review of it and spoke to a friend who told me it was terrible, so I avoided it. Then it appeared on a handful of Best of 2011 lists, so I felt like maybe it was the sort of unusual or difficult movie that I frequently like and that it was only rejected because it didn't fit some prescribed genre specifications. When it was briefly re-released in New York I jumped at the chance to see it. Sadly, it is unusual and doesn't fit any genre specifications... and is pretty terrible.

Some quick back story: Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote and directed You Can Count on Me, which I think is great, wrote this film in 2003 and shot it in 2005 (so says Karina Longworth in her rave review of it from the Village Voice). He then took 6 years to cut the film down to under 150 minutes (it's now 149!!). Apparently he just couldn't do it for a long time. Then there were a few law suits about it (he broke a contract, I imagine the producers wanted out or their money back...). Now it's released. And it's really long.

The idea of the film is that it's about a girl, Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), who lives on the Upper West Side with her actress mother. Her father lives in LA with his new, younger wife, and she is a bit of a typical, smart, Jewish teenager. She's glib and talks back to adults, she's interested in sex, though generally apprehensive about it, she's precocious because she lives in New York City. At some point she flirts with a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) who then gets distracted and his and kills a pedestrian.

Feeling guilty about the death, she sets her mind to sue the bus company for the driver's negligence and get money for the pedestrian's family. In the meantime, she flirts constantly with her youngish high school teacher (Matt Damon), has sex with some kid (Kieran Culkin) (I hope they can date sometime so they can be called "Culquin" by the paparazzi!) and becomes friends with a fucking annoying Upper West Side woman who is the friend of the dead lady. There's also a story about her mother who starts dating Jean Reno (who is Colombian in this... whatever) until he dies unexpectedly. The movie is about the lies that surround us on a daily basis and how we have to create stories to manage our lives.

The problem is that there's really no structure to the narrative, it's just a lot of Lisa going around talking to people and making bad decisions. There's no reason huge chunks of this film couldn't have been cut to make it closer to 100 minutes. It's like an abstract painting - sure, sometimes the size and scale of the work is what it's about, but generally a corner of the canvas covered in an abstract design means as much as any other corner, doesn't it? If this film is unbalanced and long and is about how life has no internal logic, then why not make it a shorter version of that? Isn't that what watching movies is about - a director telling you a very specific story?

I found Paquin to be annoying and overdone, mostly struggling through her Paquinese that sounds more southern than New Yawk (and this was made before True Blood was a faint speckle in her Triple-D brassiere). The supporting cast is so chopped up into random half-fragments of scenes that nobody really gets much time to develop or expand on screen. Ruffalo and Damon are pretty good - though they're generally good actors, so that's no surprise.

Mostly this feels like a project that Lonergan started honestly and got too tied up in details, forgetting the basic story he was trying to tell (I'm not sure what that seed was, really). He really just needs a good story/script editor to begin to make it a watchable film. It feels like if he had been asked to start from scratch and rewrite the whole thing, some things would have stayed and some things would have fallen away and we would have been left with a better final film. Instead we have all sorts of random secondary and tertiary stories that really don't mean much, are redundant or confusing.

Stars: 1 of 4

Urbanized (Friday, December 23, 2011) (123)

Urbanized is the third part of director Gary Hustwit's design series (is it a proper series? I'm going to call it a series.). Helvetica was his brilliant examination of the modernist typeset, Objectified was a less wonderful survey of contemporary design of things we use on a daily basis and now this film is a look at the design of cities. He explores how towns end up looking like they do and how municipalities have tried innovations to make things more useful or more beautiful and how sometimes people respond negatively to these changes.

Hustwit makes beautiful looking films filled with wonderful photography, this time by Luke Geissbuhler, and interesting shots of things that we might take for granted (like the sun setting over a highway). There are some absolutely wonderful transitions from one chapter to another here, one element that is rarely used but really helps in documentaries.

There are a bunch of talking-head interviews with international "starchitects," including Rem Koolhaus, Norman Foster, Oscar Niemeyer and designer/critic Michael Sorkin. Overall this is a pretty, fun and interesting film. It's much better than Objectified, but not nearly as good as Helvetica.

Stars: 3 of 4

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Thursday, December 22, 2011) (122)

I recently re-read my review of the Swedish adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo from last year in advance of seeing this newer update from David Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (it's fine, you can tell me my methods are unfair). After seeing this new version, I can tell you it's almost exactly the same movie and the things I said about that version I would say again here.

This film has a nice fast pace, the acting is solid throughout -- even considering the corny Swedish accents all the actors have to use (including the honest-to-goodness Swedes in the cast who almost sound more American than anything else) -- there is nothing particularly Swedish or Scandanavian in feeling in the style here (sorry, Ingmar and Carl Theodor), and overall it's a fun, pulpy movie that leads you down six different roads and pulls them all back together nicely at the end.

The story has not changed much from the book (which I've never read) or that other movie. Mikael Bloomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a journalist who starts to research a murder on a remote island for a billionaire industrialist. At some point he hires a research assistant, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who has a checkered life, an awesome libido and an inky back. The deeper they dig into this family history, the more they find Nazism, sexual abuse and weird culty murders. Add on top of this a sprinkling of leather camp and sexual torture and you got yourself a blockbuster!

It's hard to say if this is a particularly Fincher-ific movie. Much of the story happens to take place at night (when Fincher really comes alive, like the cyber-noir director he's meant to be), the heroine is written as a Goth who rides a motorcycle and there's already some delicious torture porn elements to the story. Having never read the book and only knowing the story from the Swedish film, I can't say much about any details that were in the book that Fincher extracted or what he might have injected himself, but I will say that this seems like a generally light amount of Fincherese (mostly seen in the sex torture parts). Mostly this feels like a very well made, polished Hollywood movie -- a bit of a director-for-hire piece than any standout in his oeuvre (like Se7en, Fight Club or Zodiac are).

There's really nothing negative to say about this film. It's very long (as was the Swedish version... I guess that's the result of a long and intricate book... and I'd much rather a 160-minute movie to a two-part piece, like they did with the last books of the Harry Potter or Twilight series), very detailed and somewhat complex in terms of familial relationships and who did what to whom and when. I guess I would say that all of that is a bit of complexity for complexity's sake; I'm not sure it's a particularly richer movie because of the baroque plot. It's a bit of bread and circus, but it's pretty tasty.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Thursday, December 22, 2011)(121)

Much like its steam-punk aesthetic, Sherlock Holmes 2 spends a lot of time spinning its wheels making a simple story really, really complicated, in the end being effective, but much more complicated than is necessary. This is an action movie, not a mystery. It has much more in common with Batman or James Bond (in Victorian machines) than it does with Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett.

The story here is much too multi-layered and unnecessarily veiled to get into in detail here, but generally is seems that Holmes and boyfriend Watson are chasing Moriarty around Europe for no reason, until it becomes clear that Moriarty wants to start World War I 25 years early. There are lots of fun set-ups with classic film chestnuts (formal-dress balls, trains, ships in shipyards, waterfalls, chases through forests) that all lead to an elaborate, clever finale involving a literal and meta chess game.

It's filled with typical Guy Ritchie jump cuts and crash zooms, this time spiced up with lots of fun slow-mo affectations. There's also lots of fun homoeroticism and opium jokes, played for laughs rather than sadness or love (which is rather disappointing... though I totally understand that gayness isn't half as entertaining as fake gayness).

This is a big movie with a lot of big action scenes. It's very light on the brain and heavy on special effects. All in all a fun ride, but rather shallow ... exactly as a holiday blockbuster should be!

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Khodorkovsky (Wednesday, December 21, 2011) (120)

Khodorkovsky is a documentary about the Russian oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly the richest man in Russia and one of the richest people on the planet. This shows his rise to billions, his run as an influential man in Russian and World politics and philanthropy and his ultimate fall, after crossing president/emperor Putin.

As with all oligarchs, he gained his wealth quickly as the former communist state sold off it's industries to a handful of individuals for little or no money. Khodorkovsky, a chemist working in oil extraction, got lucky and was given (well, basically given) the oil fields in Siberia. But things got tricky as he started to diverge from Putin and move to the left (or is it the right...? Russian politics baffle me). He was more interested in more government transparency and the progressive opposition. In 2003 his company, a main rival of the national gas service, was taken over by the government and he was jailed for tax evasion (probably a trumped-up charge). He's been in jail ever since.

The story is told mostly through television footage, interviews with Khodorkovsky's former colleagues and a series of stylized black-and-white animated segments (for the parts where there is no archival footage). I happen to dislike the look of the animation, it's all a bit too modern and stylistic for no reason. The third act of the film, where Khodorkovsky is in jail and interviewees are discussing his reason for not fleeing the country before he was arrested (which he could have done very easily), is a bit long and dull. I think at 111 minutes, the film is about 20 minutes too long and would have held together better if more was taken out.

There is a wonderful metaphor at the tail of the film of the suburban subdivision for billionaires outside of Moscow, where all of these heads of companies lived next to one another with gates around them and watch towers above safeguarding them - or imprisoning them. Nowadays many of the residents have been arrested for various political reasons, and the houses are largely vacant, aside from the servants who still live in them, keeping food in the fridges is if their bosses could return at any moment. There's a wonderful and evocative existentialist notion... I just think it takes too long to get there.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Eames: The Architect & The Painter (Tuesday, December 20, 2011) (119)

This is a nice little documentary about the lives and work of Charles and Ray Eames, the husband and wife team who captured the spirit of the post-war boom years with their elegant, efficient, modern and futuristic designs. (In case you didn't know, Ray was a lady.) It's an interesting story about how they fell in love due to their mutual respect for one another and their ability to work beautifully together. It shows their work not only designing the chairs and tables, but also their houses, paintings, films and other artistic projects. They had a studio where they worked with dozens of young designers over the years in a free-for-all of creative exploration.

The film also examines how Charles, the face of the company (because he was a man, of course), frequently took full credit for the work of his underlings and Ray. He comes off as a bit of a creative egomaniac who gave little explanation about his ultimate choices. Ray shrinks a bit into a corner of the screen here, partly because she was simply not in as many films of the time (because Charles was in all of them, by choice), but also because she gave into the dynamics of their relationship. This is a bit frustrating as it's really mostly a movie about Charles with a chapter on Ray, but told with a post-Second-Wave tone that suggests the couple were co-equal partners... which they might have been, but is hard to see with the materials presented on screen.

This is a fun movie and very informative. There are a handful of creative flourishes that directors Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey insert at times to tell the story in an Eamesian way, though nothing too revolutionary.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

A Brighter Summer Day (Saturday, November 26, 2011) (118)

Note: The great Taiwanese director Edward Yang made A Brighter Summer Day in 1991 and released it on the festival circuit then. Due to a few complicating factors, such as its unwieldy 4-hour length, it was never released theatrically at that time. It did however gain a tremendous status in the cinema world for being an unknown gem, a magnum opus that was all but unavailable.

This year, just over five years after Yang's death, it was finally released theatrically. Although I could consider the film for my year-end "Best Films of 2011" list, I will not, because I don't feel like that's very fair to the films of 2011. I am thrilled to have been able to watch it (it's a magnificent film), but I do not really consider it a 2011 release.

The title of A Brighter Summer Day comes from a scene when a few of the main kids in the film are sitting around a record player trying to transcribe the lyrics to Elvis Presley's "Are you Lonesome To-Night,"released a few months before the story takes place. The kids are obsessed with rock music and have a not-terrible band that plays in the local diner. The band members are all from the same street gang and they hope their shows won't get broken up by the rival gang.

They are all the children of mainland Chinese people who fled the Communist revolution in the late 1940s. Now, in the early 1960s, they are teenagers, mostly 12 to 15-years-old, trying to make their way in the world and find some grounding. Their parents are all modest people, generally working for the government, and they live in massive public housing compounds that contain apartments, several cafés and their school.

The gangs they create are more like the gangs of West Side Story than of Boyz n the Hood, they get in fist fights and political battles over turf, but generally are not too dangerous. They're much more likely to use a bat than anything more, even a knife.

As we follow the main character, Xiao Si'r, we see him trying to survive the street, needing to show his toughness to his fellow gang members, hoping for a better life than what his parents have given to him, trying to remain a good student and trying to negotiate the trickiness of developing a crush on a girl from the rival gang.

The story is simple, actually, but because it is 4-hours long, it has a lot of detailed information in it. It's a wonderful narrative filled with small ups and downs as the Xiao Si'r and his friends work to survive. There are hundreds are kids in this film, though it's never really hard to figure out who is doing what. Yang is very clear about everyone's intentions and motives as the story moves along.

This is what neorealist cinema is and should always be compared to. This has more of a logical connection to films by de Sica and Rossellini than anything in Hollywood or Asia. I keep thinking about Ozu's Tokyo Story, because it's equally domestic and neorealist, but it's much bigger than that and much less sentimental. The colors of the film are largely gray and green due to the concrete structures the kids exist in and the public street lighting of nighttime Taipei. The interiors are modest, but rich in detail. Xiao Si'r and his brother sleep in two levels of a closet in order to fit all their sisters into the bed rooms.

Yang had an amazing ability to work with kid actors (or non-actors) and get them to come off more naturally than just about any other director I can think of (possibly similar to the boy in Rossellini's Germany Year Zero). In his masterpiece Yi Yi the son takes pictures of the backs of people's heads, saying that that is the most honest way to shoot someone because they don't know they're being shot. It's such a simple and basic idea, a childish idea even, but a true concept.

Here too, Yang works with a passel of kids, most of whom are non-actors, and gets them to be as natural as if they were not acting at all. Their troubles and fights are real and don't feel forced or faked at all. What they do and say comes off as totally honest and significant. This is a great achievement because it's a very fine line between manipulation and profundity. Yang always stays on the good and smart side of that edge.

Stars: 4 of 4

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Carnage (Saturday, December 17, 2011) (117)

I didn't see the Yasmina Reza play "God of Carnage" when it played in New York a few years ago. Something about the celebrity cast and the concept of the story turned me off. Now Roman Polanski and Reza have adapted the play for the screen and I see why I avoided it to this point.

Carnage is a movie about American liberalism run amok. Two couples, the Cowans (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) and the Longstreets (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), meet in a North Heights/DUMBO apartment to discuss a violent fight their sons had. Nobody wants to really say what is on their mind (that they are incredibly embarrassed and that they are somewhat ashamed of their sons' bad behavior) but nobody really wants to let the situation pass without getting in the last word. Their discussion begins with an agreement of guilt and then devolves into a shitshow of accusations and torturous interactions where each of the four people show themselves to be disgusting for what they say and do.

I read the tone as particularly anti-Liberal and specifically anti-American (though I guess that has a lot to do with me). The idea that these people are obsessed with this event and can't see how unimportant it is, shows how shallow they all are. When Foster's character talks about a book she is writing, about Darfur, our eyes all roll as we realize she's that fucking person... obsessed with saving the world as she lives in a gorgeous apartment with the view of bridges.

Polanski and Reza seem obsessed with showing that this is reality - that these people are you and me - but it all comes off just a bit off-key. It's 98% real, but that missing 2% is rather painful. To be picky: At one point, Waltz looks out the window and comments at a passing train, "Look, you can see the El." Sorry, buddy, but the El is a thing in Chicago -- in New York and Brooklyn it's called a "subway" or a "train"; there is a lot of discussion of the "flower shop up by Henry," but Henry Street is a North-South street and if you're talking about it, you say "over by Henry" or "up on Henry". (Prepositional shibboleth... like how you live in Manhattan but on Miami Beach.) I know these are really small and insignificant things, but they point to the "fun-house mirror" quality to the film and its conclusions, rather than it being a real reflection of anything in our world. I can imagine a guy getting a phone call while at a friend's house, but I can't imagine a guy taking a call every three minutes and not excusing himself. (This is something I blame on the transition from play to movie, where a small thing we must suspend disbelief for onstage doesn't work onscreen.)

This is all further magnified as the actors all speak in a very deliberate, enunciated style, highlighting the written-quality of their language. Sadly Waltz's American is rough and has rounded consonants... and Reilly is not really that kind of actor, so we end up with the two women speaking in this style and the two men struggling to catch up. It seems very unintentionally Brechtian and uncomfortable (to say nothing of the Brechtian idea that this is was not shot on location in Brooklyn and is a reconstituted apartment, shot somewhere in Europe).

I can't totally understand what Polanski is trying to achieve with such an expressionistic film. Is he criticizing American liberalism because it has directly affected his life? Am I reading too much into that? Is that the very point? It all seems interesting as a curiosity, but a bit shallow. As much as I love Brooklyn apartment porn, this all feels more like snuff than anything particularly erotic.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Young Adult (Thursday, December 15, 2011) (116)

Young Adult is the second movie by the writer-director duo of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman. Their first effort, Juno, was peppered with the cool lingo of the youngs and seemed to convince people for a minute that it was an accurate depiction of what young culture was like - honest to blog! And yet, Juno was one of the most shrill and frustrating films I've seen in a long time. It was totally cutesy and overdone, to say nothing of the ridiculous decision to keep the baby - which relegates the precocious high school girl to a life of subservience and mediocrity.

Young Adult is a similar window into a world that we all feel familiar with, but wish we could forget or ignore. It's as much an attack on Middle America, its values, aesthetic and gestalt, as it is an exploration of a reckless misanthrope. What comes off, though is much more cruel and mean-spirited than anything I would have expected from this tandem.

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a young-adult fiction writer in her mid-30s whose life in Minneapolis seems to have hit the rocks in recent years. She's divorced and lives alone in a nice-looking condo with her purse dog. She drinks a lot and falls down drunk in bed alone most nights. One morning, when struggling with a writing assignment, she gets an e-mail from the wife of her high school boyfriend that they had a baby.

This sends her into some bizarre manic episode where she drives to her small hometown, ostensibly far away and in the middle of nowhere (though it looks like it's in the Minneapolis suburbs), so she can reconnect with the ex, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), and woo him back to her. While there she meets up with the nerd from her high school, Matt (Patton Oswalt), who has grown up to be a nerd, but nice a nice one, and runs into her parents a few times. She finds that life is not as wonderful in a small town and that she's much more messed up than she wanted to admit... and that she really doesn't want to go back to her glory days of high school.

My biggest problem with the film is that it's never clear to me what the hell Mavis is looking to find. We understand her life is a mess, but she seems to deny it to herself (or if she is aware of her issues, she doesn't want to face them and keeps doing the stuff that's bad for her) (a comedy about an alcoholic is pretty thin, no?). It seems she wants to regain the stature she had in high school, when she was "cool" and hot and had lots of sex behind the football field (even though she was dating Buddy...?), but it's never clear what her ultimate goal is. Does she want to ruin Buddy's happy life for the schadenfreude? Does she really give a shit about what happened to her 20 years ago? This feels like an atmosphere piece and really under-developed, more concerned with cutesy jokes and "remember-whens" more than a Sweet Home Alabama return-to-glory piece.

The troubling part throughout this film is that it has a very mean undertone to it. Mavis looks down on the losers of her hometown because she lives in the big city... of Minneapolis (which I'm not judging). The weird thing is that the film's basic premise of city vs. small town doesn't work because the small town looks really sweet and rich. Despite the abundance of fast food (which Mavis seems to relish), there's nothing really wrong with the place. The finale has a bitter tone to it, when Mavis and Matt's sister (of all tertiary characters!) have a discussion at cross-purposes about what they want and hope for. That no characters' stories really ever end (Matt is asleep and unresolved; Buddy will probably hate her, but we don't know) is particularly frustrating.

I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to feel and think about Mavis by the end of the film. She seems mostly aloof, self-centered and mean and doesn't seem grow at all from the first scene (OK - she says she'll clean up... which you can totally believe from an addict). I don't know why I have to sit through this whole film if Mavis neither learns a lesson to be better or pays for her shitiness. I'm not sure Cody and Reitman know the answer to this. Basically she goes from shity, to lady who wants to regain her lost youth, to shity. That's pretty silly, I think.

Stars: 2 of 4

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

War Horse (Tuesday, December 13, 2011) (115)

I should say right up front that War Horse is probably not a movie for me. I really hate animal movies because I think they're generally overly sentimental and rather thin when it comes to content ("Look - you can see the horsey is scared. I'm scared for him.!"). I also find episodic stories like this one frustrating because the moment you get to know any characters, the story switches to a new set of characters and a new situation. War Horse is a terrible, dumb, empty movie that has a greater level of Spielbergian emotional manipulation that I have seen in a long time, possibly ever. If at any moment you are emotionally ambivalent or unsure of what is going on, the director will come down on you with a sledgehammer to make sure you understand exactly what he's trying to do.

Based on a book by Michael Morpurgo, the story is about a thoroughbred horse named Joey (oh, how sweet - his name is Joey!) who is raised by a young man in England before World War I. There's a whole lot of stuff that happens with nobody believing the horse is worth anything and him almost getting shot. Actually, every person who "owns" him at any point almost gets him shot. This is the horsey torture porn thread of the story. The horse is sold to an officer in the British military who takes him to the Front at the beginning of the Great War, at a time when the Brits thought the war was going to be old-fashionedy with horses and swords and all. Of course the war was not like that, and horses were only used up and then discarded as the war went along. Joey is first stolen by some German deserter boys, then taken to a small strawberry farm and looked after by a French girl, then is stolen back by the German army to pull stuff with. At some point there's "miraculous stuff" that happens.

As much as the film is called "War Horse," there are really only three sequences directly involving the war and fighting, and one of those is very brief. It's more "Around a War Horse." This is basically Forrest Gump with a horse. The moment you get to know and like any particular character or story, it switches to be about something else, with new characters and a new set of rules. Every character falls deeply in love with Joey, though I don't know why. I guess I'm a heartless person, but just showing me a horse with big eyes doesn't make me fall in love with him. I guess I need more content or reasons to fall for him. Well, really, I don't fall in love with movie animals, because I can't interact with them and make any sort of personal connection. I don't go in for anthropomorphizing of animals, and I think that's my problem here. There is no reason why Joey doesn't get killed several times - which I guess is not totally true... the reason he doesn't get killed is because he's the star of the movie and is written that way. He doesn't seem to have any particular traits that help him. Sure he's a fast runner, but so are so many other horses.

This is a very cruel and violent movie, which on its surface would seem like a "family film." Putting aside all the guns that are aimed at Joey for non battle-related reasons, Spielberg has a fascination with disgusting, uncomfortable situations, like the penultimate sequence when Joey runs into no-man's-land and gets rolled up in barbed wire. All I could think about was the endless and cruel beatings in Gibson's loathsome The Passion of the Christ. Is Steven suggesting Joey is Christlike? ("Take these oats, brothers. They are my body.") I don't really see the point in all this. Yes - it's war and war is hell, but it seems like most of the war stuff is much more bland than Spielberg has shown in past films (Saving Private Ryan, Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List), except when it deals directly with Joey, when he gets particularly frank and mean. This is not a movie for kids. (I'd like to thank my mother, here, for showing us The Great Santini when I was about 5. Because it's a movie about dogs. Right - a dog who is shot. Thanks, Mom!)

Spielberg is anything other than subtle in this film. There are loud bangs, open wounds, cuts to what look like tears in the horse's eyes (they're not tears, by the way. I'm not sure horses can cry), and lots of sentimental garbage with drawings and journals of Joey. We are reminded over and over again that the war changed from being about "gentlemen with horses" to being a technological nightmare with trenches, tanks and machine guns (I wish we could come up with a phrase for this war about how it was so big and how it might be the last war because it was so violent and terrible). The final sequence is so over-the-top with digitally enhanced "magic hour" lighting that it's almost painful to watch both from a technical point of view (magic hour is already gorgeous, Steve, you actually don't need to touch it with a computer) and a thematic view (OK, we get it. It's a happy, beautiful, wonderful, sentimental ending).

There is a single wonderful shot in the film, as the British soldiers mount their horses before the first battle of the war. It is reminiscent of Sam Fuller's The Big Red One (a film I love) and Malick's The Thin Red Line. I wish that one shot could be excised from the final film here and put on display on a 5-second loop. This would leave War Horse with nothing but garbage... all the easier to send to the soap factory.

Stars: 1 of 4

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Saturday, December 10, 2011) (114)

I was totally expecting Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to be a very typical mystery/spy movie with twists and double twists and lots of Cold War stuff with secret tapes and the Berlin Wall and all, but it's actually a whole lot more than that. Director Tomas Alfredson (who previously made the Swedish Let the Right One In) does a lot with a very well-written script (by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, adapted from a book by John le Carré) and probably brings more to the story from a directing point of view that most movies I've seen in a long time.

The story is about a double-agent in the MI6 agency who is working for the Russians spying on the British spies from within during the early 1970s. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is relieved of his duties largely due to a botched job and then becomes obsessed with finding the leak, which nobody else seems to notice or care about. The title comes from the code names for three top-level spies in the agency, Tinker, Tailor and Soldier. Smiley conducts interviews with agents who have recently been in the field, in Budapest and Istanbul, and gets a young agent to help him get documents out of MI6 to examine so he can find the rat within. We see flashbacks to earlier days in the intelligence service, where Smiley is trying to put small details in order to try to solve the case.

Alfredson creates a world with a wonderful motif of frames and windows. Almost every shot has some sort of frame or window in it, or is in a room with no frames and no windows. The concept of deeper and deeper levels of security is constantly present, interestingly undermined because, of course, we know there's there's a double-agent in the midst. There is one amazing shot of a British spy watching a Russian agent in his hotel room through the window from across the street. This Rear Window homage is not only gorgeous, but also underlines how important the concept of perceiving oneself to be safe and the freedom to move within such a space really are in the spy game. Even the wonderfully stuffy wool suits the characters wear highlight these themes, as they all have waistcoats, adding yet another layer of material to their bodies and helping to frame each of their faces.

The film is a collection of old and young British actors from John Hurt, Colin Firth and Oldman, to younger up-and-comers like Tom Hardy, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch. All of them are really fantastic, though Oldman and Hardy stood out to me the most.

This is one of the best spy movies I can remember seeing in a long time and a really excellently made film. It's sometimes a bit confusing with the time lines and knowing if we're in the past or the present, but it does all turn out to make sense by the end. There are wonderful small details throughout that would make it a joy to see a second time, I'm sure.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Sitter (Friday, December 9, 2011) (113)

There are two tracks to director David Gordon Green's career in film: a gritty, dirty, independent, Southern American Gothic dramatic line featuring films like George Washington, Undertow and his best film, All the Real Girls; and a totally different, goofy, gross-out, pot-hazed comedy thread featuring Pineapple Express, the brilliant Eastbound and Down TV show and his latest film, The Sitter. It would be easy to dismiss this latter category as "director-for-hire movies," though I think that would miss the point. I see these two streaks as closer to a director more like Howard Hawks, who made brilliant westerns (Rio Bravo), brilliant film noirs (or is it films noir?) (The Big Sleep) and hilarious screwball comedies (His Girl Friday). I'm not saying DGG is as good as Hawks (that would be silly), but he's just about the only active director now who has that same flexibility with tone and genre. (For what it's worth, he only wrote the dramas he directed; the other films were written by other people.)

Sadly, the script for The Sitter is pretty typical, which results in a rather average movie, rather than a hilarious one. It's a pretty typical babysitter movie. The loser dumbass sitter, Noah (Jonah Hill), gets into all sorts of shenanigans when he's looking after three very self-determined kids (one of whom is played by the brilliantly named Max Records from Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are). They get wrapped up in a chase with drug dealers and cops and have to end up back home by 1am. It's very light, very dirty and has a very warm heart throughout.

Green does a great job with one of the funniest tongue-in-cheek gay camp sequences I've seen in a long time. He's clearly a talented guy. I just wish he would make a few more small dramas again, as his comedies are a bit too silly for his chops.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

London River (Tuesday, December 6, 2011) (112)

Rachid Bouchareb's London River is a very nice and very small movie about the loss of children in both a spiritual and physical sense. Elizabeth (Brenda Blethyn) is a humble and unworldly woman who lives on the island of Guernsey and Ousmane (Sotigui Koutaté) is an African man living in France working for the forestry department. After the bombings of July 7, 2005, they both get worried that their children (her daughter and his son) were killed in the attacks. They both go to see if they can find them.

In London they meet as they find that their children knew one another and were probably dating. This comes as a shock to both parents who realize they actually don't know much about their kids. He left Africa for France when his son was a child and she only had a telephone relationship with her daughter. Each one loses their kid twice, essentially.

There is a lovely parallel structure here as both parents have complimentary backgrounds, even though they're from very different places. As she lives on Guernsey, she's something between English and French. She raised her daughter mostly alone after her husband was killed in the Falklands. He is clearly African, but has lived in France for a few decades and is not totally either one. He didn't raise his son at all and has no idea what kind of man he became. There's also a lovely visual pairing of the two, where she is short and chubby and he's extremely tall, skinny and has fantastic dreadlocks. They couldn't be a more unusual pair.

Sadly, as nice and sweet as the film is, it's very simple and straightforward, with the only real excitement coming from a moment when they've lost all hope of finding their kids alive and then they regain hope suddenly. This is a very manipulative film that toys with emotions in a rather banal way. Blethyn is actually very good, but plays a pretty terrible woman who's shrill and annoying. The worst kind of loving mother possible. Koutaté is fantastic. Quite and contemplative, knowing full well the whole time that he's sorta out of place everywhere.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Friday, December 2, 2011

Hugo 3D (Friday, December 2, 2011) (111)

Martin Scorsese's Hugo is supposed to be a family movie, but I don't think it really is at all. In fact, I think it's pretty freaking boring for adults and kids alike. Based on the book by Brian Slznick, it tells the story of Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a preteen boy who lives in secret in a Paris train station in the 1930s. He's effectively an orphan and spends his days winding the dozens of clocks in the station. His main passion, though, is the nonfunctional automaton his father stole (!!) from a museum that he was trying to get running again before he was killed in a fire.

Between his winding duties in the station, he runs around the stores in the station, which seems a bit odd considering he's always being chased by the station master (Sacha Baron Cohen). One place he loves to go is the toy maker (Ben Kingsley), where he can steal mechanical parts and wheels that will help him rebuild the automaton. One day he meets the toy maker's young ward, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and the two find that she wears a heart-shaped key (oh - how magical!) that will turn on the automaton. When they get it working they find that it draws a picture of the Man in the Moon being hit in the eye by a rocket... a still from Georges Méliès' 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. They then spend days researching early movies - because kids love reading books and doing research in libraries, of course.

I think I like what the film is getting at in general - that a fascination with mechanical stuff in the hopes of connecting with dead daddy leads a boy to discover the wonder of cinema, but it feels cold and stale. The case isn't helped by the fact that the plot plods along with no particular direction for most of the way. At first it's a film about an orphan boy, then it's about a broken automaton, then it's about the life of an old man, then it's about the history of cinema. It's slow and boring, and, although I love movies about movies, I would rather just watch a documentary about Méliès rather than seeing this inelegant tribute to him.

The whole thing feels much more like the sort of history lesson you'd get from someone who reads a lot of books and has a lot of facts available to them, but presents it in a showy rather than a structured way. I get that Marty loves old movies (he talks about them all the time), but why waste time with the kid and his father, who is almost totally forgotten by the end of the film? (And this is to say nothing of the automaton, which is just a silly MacGuffin... but a fake-magical one. Pardon me while I throw up in my mouth.)

The connection between clocks and mechanical stuff (a toy mouse, the station master's mechanical leg) and early movies is thin at best. Yes, early cameras shared a lot of moving parts with clocks, but that's sorta missing the point. Why not connect internal combustion engines to early cameras and movies too? (OK, fine, Méliès was some sort of clockmaker... but still, the connection seems forced.)

I'm sure screenwriter John Logan and Marty wanted to stick close to the book, but I think cutting a lot of the boy's journey, as well as some totally flaccid romantic material involving secondary and tertiary characters, would have greatly improved the story. The only reason the station master is in the film is to create chase scenes - because kid audiences need chases. But these chases are not very exciting and ridiculous when Hugo keeps going back to the same station where he'll inevitably get chased out again.

I paid extra to see this in 3D and I will say that it's totally not worth it with this film. There's an elegant meta explanation for why this would be Marty's first foray into 3D - that the movie is about technology and mechanical stuff, so he's flexing his technological muscles here - but he didn't do enough with it to make it worthwhile. I don't know why he, a lover of cinema, wouldn't have done some grand allusions to de Toth's House of Wax or Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder. Instead we get a movie that would totally work in 2D, but just wants to fool people into paying more.

The film generally looks good (though very storybooky and a bit like the early Harry Potter movies) and the acting is good, but the story is dull and meandering. I think there's material here for a good movie written and cut differently, but the way it all rolls out is totally banal.

Stars: 2 of 4

One Lucky Elephant (Friday, December 2, 2011) (110)

One Lucky Elephant is a small documentary about David Balding, a circus owner in St Louis whose best friend and star is Flora the elephant. After working together for about 16 years, he decides he need to give her to an elephant sanctuary rather than keeping her working. This is apparently difficult, as she's an African elephant, a more violent species, and she has never really interacted with other elephants in her life, as she was taken for circus use as a baby (a very big baby).

David talks to a bunch of zoos before finding a sanctuary in Tennessee where Flora can live. There's lots of sadness as he give her up. Later he's told that he shouldn't visit her because that would hurt her transition to the new life (those elephants have long memories). This is particularly sad for him.

This film feels a lot like Project Nim, from earlier this year. There it's a chimp who is raised by humans and then has to be reintroduced to a chimp life. Both of these films rely a bit too much on the anthropomorphising of these animals and giving them deep human thoughts and feelings. I'm sure they do think things and feel things, but it's impossible to know what exactly. That we're sad when they are sent to a wild animal park, doesn't mean they are and always will be. They they get scared by new animals means more about their instinct to fear trouble than it does about their sadness of losing human contact. Besides, if we're so worried about how their lives end, why aren't we worried about how they begin - how they get to be in human culture and outside of their natural one?

The last third of the film is mostly about the obese Balding nearing the end of his life and feeling bad for his old, tusky friend. I think this is really boring and that this part should have been cut to make it a 45-minute short.

Stars: 2 of 4

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Muppets (Thursday, December 1, 2011) (109)

I was very worried that The Muppets would be just another Muppets movie with not much going for it (can you say Muppets from Space?). Happily I was totally wrong about it. It's fantastic. It's funny and fresh and has all the warmth a joy of the gold-age Muppets with a very clever contemporary flair. It feels much more geared toward Muppets fans who grew up with them in the '70s and '80s than for kids today. Happily that's not my problem.

In the world of the film, puppets of all shapes and colors live among people and that is totally normal for everyone. Walter, a boyish puppet, lives in the mid-American town of Smalltown and is the biggest fan of the Muppets, a group of puppet performers he knows from the Muppet Show and several movies from his childhood. His brother and best friend Gary (Jason Segal) and Gary's girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) want to go on a vacation to Hollywood and agree to bring Walter along so he can visit Muppet Theater, where the Muppet Show was produced a long time ago.

When they get there, they find that it is closed to the public and in terrible shape. Walter overhears oilman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) buying the theater and talking about how plans tear it down and drill for oil there. Walter, Gary and Mary have to find Kermit the Frog to get the Muppets back together to perform a telethon and raise the money to buy back the theater back from Richman. In grand Muppets style, they all go around the country picking up the old gang (Fozzie is working in Reno with his band, the Moopets; Gonzo is a plumbing and toilet bowl magnate; Animal is in anger management rehab; Piggy is in Paris working for a fashion magazine).

I love that the story is silly but generally simple enough to hold together. It's very, very funny and filled with some of the wonderful double jokes that work for kids and adults on different levels. There's lots of Muppet-centric humor and lots of very clever and timely jokes. There are great songs, including some of the old favs like The Rainbow Connection, Moving Right Along and the Muppet Show theme song. The tone is very fun and silly and it's constantly winking at us as ridiculous stuff happens. The film was co-written by Segal and Nicholas Stoller and the script is great.

There's really nothing to criticize about the story or the production. There are a few fantastic moments that I still laugh about now when I think about them. This is a warm, wonderful movie that I hope to watch again and again and fits in perfectly with early Muppet films like The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper and Muppets Take Manhattan. This is an instant classic in my book and totally wonderful.

Stars: 4 of 4