Friday, July 27, 2012

The Well Digger's Daughter (Thursday, July 12, 2012) (63)

Perhaps best known for Claude Berri's two 1986 adaptations of his novels, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, Marcel Pagnol remains one of the most important romantic writers and filmmakers of the pre-War era in France. Described by Jean Renoir as "an author of genius," Pagnol mostly wrote about early-mid-twentieth century rural France and all the colorful, modest and immodest people who live there.

Daniel Auteuil, who played Ugolin, the stubborn farmer in Jean de Florette, makes his writing and directoral debut with an adaptation of Pagnol's The Well Digger's Daughter, a light story that seems to fall in perfect like with the films of Berri, not to mention the lighter fare of Renoir or Pagnol himself.

Pascal Amoretti (Auteuil) is a very proud well digger in southern France. His devoted daughter, Patricia (the absolutely gorgeous Astrid Berges-Frisbey), takes care of him and his passel of young kids now that the mother is dead. Due to some quick economic figuring, Patricia had been partly raised in Paris by a rich lady and only came back south recently. Because of her brief flirtation with bourgeoisdom, she tilts her head a bit too far up and has a slightly fancy air about her.

She meets Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), the son of the local grocery store owner and a dandy and a total snob. He woos her and she gives in quickly -- and they have a quick fling in the hay loft. He is then sent off to War (WWI) suddenly and is unable to tell her he loves her, etc. She becomes doubly sad, not just losing her boyfriend, but also because she gets pregnant from their tumble.

Pascal and her go to the Mazel house to ask for help, but they turn them away, seeing them as gold diggers. When news arrives that Jacques has died in battle, Pascal sets himself to raising his grandson with pride in his family and a bitterness for others.

There is a lot of discussion here about classism, sinful pride and snobbery and how it comes in all shapes and sizes from all directions. At first the Amorettis are treated badly by the Mazel's for being poor, but then Pascal responds by treating them with contempt for being out of touch. Jacques and Patricia's relationship, though brief, is filled with each one trying to gain upper-hand through money, body or psychology.

This film plays mostly as a charming chamber piece, light and funny at times and melodramatic at others. It is a very good movie with a seemingly timeless story, although it is not really brilliant and feels ultimately small and sometimes too shallow. Still, it's enjoyable and done in a very clean, naturalistic way.

Stars: 3 of 4

Magic Mike (Sunday, July 1, 2012) (62)

Film directors these days seem to trip into genre holes, where they make one kind of movie, either action movies, comedies, dramas, trashy popcorn fare, etc. Steven Soderburgh, on the other, hand makes all sorts of different kinds of movies, and seems to approach the movies he makes these days as experiments in genre analysis, more than just story-telling itself.

Last year he made Contagion, which, although being disappointing, was a contemporary effort at a disaster flick. Earlier this year was Haywire, a very small and totally solid bite-sized action movie. Now he comes out with Magic Mike, a movie that is more about an examination of trashy exploitation fare (something out of the late-'70s and early-'80s) than it is about male strippers. To look only at the beefcake on stage is to miss the point of the movie. This is a send-up of that moment when B-movies went mainstream, the kind of thing you would have seen playing on a loop on some Turner network in the late-'80s and groaned but continued to watch (and now quote to your friends nonstop).

The eponymous Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) is a scrappy young man in Tampa who works as a roofer and handyman during the day and a stripper at night. His boss, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the entertainment boss of the review show is a bit older and has bigger dreams than just taking over the Gulf coast. Mike seems to have no problems with the women, sleeping with whomever he wants. One day he takes under his wing a younger guy at the construction site, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), who is a bit of a lost soul and lives on the couch of his (super hot) older sister, Brooke (Cody Horn).

Mike gets Adam to strip one night and Dallas believes he has the goods to do the work and become part of the troupe. Mike and Adam become best friends, of course, until Adam gets naively involved in side projects like drug deals. Mike has to figure out what his figure is (if it's with Brooke or not) and how he can work with Dallas and Adam going forward.

On its surface, this is a ridiculously stupid movie. There is nothing complicated about the plot and the elements of the narrative (from the guys being construction workers to Brooke being silly hot but unable to connect to guys) seem banal or even forced. Yet Soderbergh is too smart a guy to not know what he's doing. He includes all of these details because this is what the genre dictates. (This reminds me a bit of Verhoeven's Showgirls, a superficially ridiculous movie that recasts All About Eve as a story of strippers in Las Vegas. But there too, a surface look misses the point of what the director is doing. He's mocking the genre and mocking the ridiculous consumerist culture of entertainment and movie-going.) 

Soderbergh is also, of course, very interested in an examination of the genre and how more broadly it can be a Nicholas-Ray-like critique of masculinity in our culture. These men are all perfect physical specimens, of course, but they generally function only a half-level above drooling dogs. The lifestyle that Dallas represents and advocates is empty and impotent in the long run, and Mike has to go through the journey to discover this. Throughout all of this there's the paradox that these super-men are doing a job that's incredibly homoerotic, but makes women get horny. 

For me, this is a really fun and interesting film, partly because it's just silly and sexually interesting and partly because, on a meta level, it's a very harsh criticism of our culture. I love that for most it comes off as not being political in the slightest, just being an easy-to-swallow pill. Soderbergh shows (again) that he's a great actors' director and gets a hell of a performance out of Tatum, that's both multi-faceted and profound. Listing the actors the director has worked with over the years shows that he knows what he's doing on set; watching this movie shows that he's really thinking about a lot of interesting stuff behind the camera as well.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Take this Waltz (Saturday, June 30, 2012) (61)

Canadian dynamo actress/writer/director Sarah Polley's first feature film Away from Her is a very interesting, personal look at love and devotion during Alzheimer's. The film has the decency and carefulness of Atom Egyoan, a director Polley worked with in the past as an actress, and shows a tremendous amount of restraint and talent. In her second film, Take this Waltz, Polley looks again at love and devotion, although this time from a younger point of view. One could see this film as a "prequel" to Away from Her, as an examination of a couple struggling to stay together. 

Margot (Michelle Williams) is a woman in her late-20s/early-30s who lives with her loving husband Lou (Seth Rogan). They lead a rather typical young urban life (in Toronto, natch), where she writes travel guide books and he is a cookbook author. On a visit to a tourist destination she meets a guy to whom she's immediately attracted. Lo and behold, it seems he's her next-door neighbor, Daniel (Luke Kirby). The two flirt for awhile and end up beginning an affair together. 

Margot, who never expected to fall out of love with Lou, is suddenly faced with an existential dilemma about the future of her marriage. We see how happy she is with Daniel and how hum-drum her married life is. 

Polley has a really nice style and a very careful and visually connected presentation. She tells much of the emotional story through simple camera angles and compositional elements. At one point while Margot is struggling with her feelings for the two men, we see a straightforward shot of the married couple on two sides of the kitchen window. She's inside with (diegetic) music playing, while he sits outside on the porch, cut off from her literally and emotionally. 

Later, we see Margot and Daniel on a date in a carnival tilt-a-whirl. Polley shoots the pair from inside the car, so they stay in the shot, while the rest of the world literally spins around them. Both of these shots are very clever and translate volumes of emotional material efficiently. This is the touch of a great director who is able to convey deep feelings in a naturalistic context without the audience noticing. 

A strange recent trend in (Canadian) cinema is not knowing when to end a film -- or ending it a whole scene or section too late (see Heartbeats and Incendies). Polley suffers a similar fate as she adds on an unnecessary coda that shows Margot in the months that follow her decision about the two men. This does serve to tie up the story in a very neat and tidy way, and makes her personal journey a slight bit more complete, but it really just gives more information that doesn't help us understand her psychology more. (There's also a totally silly over-the-top sex montage that is more laughable than powerful.) The film would have been much cleaner and tighter without this postscript. 

Still, this element is mainly a writing issue (the script is also by Polley) and doesn't really take anything away from the very good picture that precedes it. Polley is clearly a very talented director and seems to have an independent vision for filmmaking and story telling. I very much look forward to her next film  -- and hope she knows when to stop it at the right time.

Stars: 3 of 4

Beast of the Southern Wild (June 26, 2012) (60)

Beasts of the Southern Wild, by first-time feature co-writer and director Behn Zeitlin, is much more of a portrait of an emotional moment and feeling than it is a narrative story that follows a character from one point in her life to another. It has the eerie lyricism of a Terrence Malick film (particularly Days of Heaven) as it examines the relationship between neorealism and magical realism that can coexist in a child's psyche.

Loosely described, the film tells the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), an 8-year-old girl being raised by her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in a (fictional) area called the Bathtub in southern Louisiana, in the wilderness south of New Orleans. It seems in this near-post-apocalyptic time, the polar ice caps have melted and have flooded the low bayou. Residents of the Bathtub live a semi-amphibious lives jumping between boats, house trailers perched in high trees and houseboats. There are several dozen residents in this community, where they seem to live life in a non-linear, joyful way. There is a sense that somewhere north of them is civilization, continuing mostly as it seems for us today, while they down below try to avoid that world.

Hushpuppy and the other kids her age go to a makeshift school where their teacher Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana) teaches them they they "are all just meat". She tells them that they have to watch out for themselves because if they don't some other animal will come to eat them.

Hushpuppy's mother, it seems, has left in the years before, although it's never totally clear whether she actually walked away from the Bathtub or if she died and Wink just told the girl that her mother had "left". This concept is one of the first times we are faced with an oblique concept due to a mix of fantasy and reality in Hushpuppy's perception of the world. She is haunted by visions of massive beasts running roughshod over the land toward the Bathtub to eat them.

Throughout the film, Zeitlin interjects moments and scenes that don't totally follow in a narrative path, but add to the general feeling of happiness and innocence of the location. The film opens with a magnificent party, shot hand-held, that easily conveys the joy of the village and the community feeling of all the people. Later, there is a craw fish boil with singing and a wonderful feeling of warmth and support as Hushpuppy is taught how to open crabs by "beasting" them (ripping them) apart.

Zeitlin cleverly plays with New Orleans culture and recent history as he alludes to typical tropes from the area. One moment, above all others, is particularly powerful, as the Bathtub is flooded by a storm and the residents blow up the levee that separates the Bathtub from the mainland. When they do this, the water drains, like out of a tub, into the land above. This is a very deep and significant allusion to the common conspiracy theory that the US government blew the hold in the levees that flooded the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina. Here it's the poor people (mostly black) who are flooding the richer, nicer areas north of them.

Stylistically, Zeitlin weaves a very interesting tale, where dream-like sequences of the wild beasts, in Hushpuppy's imagination, are cut in with more hard-nosed, brutal images of the living conditions of the people and their struggle to survive. Added to this are segments that seem to exist neither in a totally naturalistic place nor a totally fantastical place, as when Hushpuppy and some of her friends go out looking for her mother and end up in a floating brothel in the bayou where the girls dance with the prostitutes (whores in New Orleans, an allusion to several New Orleans movies and stories over the years). The story becomes a spectrum of reality and surreality, ranging in degree from one shot to the next. At one point the Bathtubbers are discovered by what seems to be FEMA workers and taken to a hospital. Suddenly everything is clean and made of plastic in right angles. It's both super-real (from our point of view) and incredibly uncanny (from Hushpuppy's point of view).

The cinematography by Ben Richardson is beautiful and dreamy. It seems to be shot mostly digitally, though that adds a quickness and naturalness to settings and situations. We see lens flares and sun spots as the hand-held camera pans around a dark room, lit only by the sunlight peeking through the cracks in the wooden shack wall. The music, by Dan Romer (the brother of a close friend of mine, full disclosure) and Zeitlin is ethereal and classical in a sense not normally seen in a small film like this. It is very evocative of Morricone's score for Days of Heaven, as well as the Saint-Saens "Carnival of the Animals"excerpt from the same movie.

This is an excellent first film that shows a true directoral voice and point of view. I appreciate that Zeitlin doesn't answer too many questions, but leaves us open to figure out the puzzle ourselves. As a snap-shot story, there is no tidy ending, only a slow fade out of the characters and action. This is a movie about dreams, and as such, is hard to nail down as meaning one thing or another. Yes, some of the imagery is a bit heavy-handed, though that too is the nature of dreams. At time this film is frightening, exuberant, dark, funny, sad and hopeful. This is a roller coaster of emotion and tone, but feels warm and very well made.

Stars: 4 of 4

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed (Saturday, June 23, 2012) (59)

It would seem like Safety Not Guaranteed is a movie that was made in the 1990s and somehow got lots in the shuffle, only to be released now. It has the generally feeling of a generally safe and broad-enough-but-also-a-bit-weird '90s romcom (think So I Married an Axe Murderer) and seems weirdly to have no idea what's going on in the world today. Still, it's a generally enjoyable movie (with a very surprising ending).

At its core, this is a story about living in the past versus living in the present and future, or living in a fantasy world versus living in the real world. Jeff and Darius (Jake M. Johnson and Aubrey Plaza... yes, Darius is a girl... just go with it) work for a magazine in Seattle. They get tipped off to a story out in the middle of nowhere where there is a guy who claims to be building a time machine to go back and fix mistakes that were made in the past. Interested in the story, they go off to meet him and look into his life.

Darius meets the guy, Kenneth (Mark Duplass... yes, you basically need to be a Duplass or on a TV sitcom these days to be cast in any movie), who is at first weary of who she is and why she's coming to him. He seems paranoid and weird, but she falls for him right away. She never lets on that she's a journalist only interested in his time machine for the story, but they slowly fall in love. Of course the relationship is based on lies, so once the truth comes out, it will ruin their relationship.

Kenneth lives in the past and can only look back on mistakes he made (something about running his car  into the living room of a woman he was interested in... ooops!); Darius is also hurt from past history (something involving her dead mother), and is interested in the possibility of going back in time. She's not as stuck in the past as he is, but she's not a very optimistic person. Jeff, on the other hand, is a rather brainless frat boy who is looking to get drunk and laid as much as possible. He is a buffoon, but a generally happy one with few regrets.

At some point the movie turns from a rather typical romcom to a darker, more dramatic heisty scifi movie (the time machine might actually be a real thing and not just a paranoiac's pipe dream). I rather like this pivot and appreciate that it's a brave, atypical move to make with the story.

Mark Duplass is becoming a very good dramatic/comedic actor. He plays serious better than he does silly-- and this role is much darker than he normally does. This is probably his richest, best and fullest performance to date. He seems to act in weird, small movies to make money to finance his own directoral work, and I really appreciate it. Sorta a comedic Wally Shawn or Sam Shepard, I guess.

This is not really an important movie, but it's a good movie. I forgive it for being a bit dated (I don't know many magazines today that would send a team of writers to a far-off town to write an article about a crackpot) because it's sweet and has a clever idea about what it is. It's a very creative exploration of a legitimate human psychological dilemma presented here in a charming way.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (Saturday, June 23, 2012) (58)

What's not funny about a doomed romance as the world is about to end?! Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, the directoral debut and second screenplay for Lorene Scafaria (who previously wrote the oddly toned Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist), is an offbeat romcom, filled with lots of grossout jokes and a comforting level of sadness that's hard to find in most mainstream fare.

There is an asteroid falling to earth in the next few days and all hopes of human survival are lost. Dodge (Steve Carell) is an everyman with a wife and a comfortable life. As soon as it becomes clear that the end of the world is nigh, his wife bolts, leaving him alone to deal with his fate. He meets crazy English neighbor girl Penny (Keira Knightly) who is looking for companionship as she's stuck in the U.S., while her family is in Britain. The two begin a weird, funny friendship as he promises her that he knows a guy with a plane who could take her home. They go on a road trip, visiting some of the weirds throwing caution to the win in their last days as they drive to this alleged plane.

The whole film feels like it really shouldn't work; it would seem like it has too broad an appeal to really be funny and puts two actors with no particular sexual chemistry together to fall in love. Yet it does work -- in a very uncomfortable uncanny way (not unlike Carell's previous work in "The Office"). Knightly and Carell seem to be in two separate movies, he in a morose man-looking-back-at-the-end-of-his-life-with-regret movie and she in a zaney comedy about a magical girl who doesn't see the world as seriously as everyone else. But Scafaria makes these two styles work together by showing that they each like in the other person what they themselves lack. He's serious and she's silly. 

I'm a little upset that the film goes from something a bit bizarre and unconventional to something more sentimental and conventional in the final minutes, but that doesn't take away from the generally good story and the very funny acting. I really like moves that take big risks, and this is not at all a safe, straightforward story. I appreciate that Scafaria presents a world with very few moments of redemption, where people pay for bad decisions and are mostly unable to change their ways (which is even more of a reason the last two scenes are bad for the overall film). I like the way she mixes happy and sad to make a richer comedy.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Lola Versus (Saturday, June 16, 2012) (57)

I am a big fan of the 2009 film Breaking Upwards, directed by Daryl Wein and co-written by Wein, Zoe Lister-Jones and Peter Duchan. It's a very mature story of the end of young love and the coming to terms with who we are as grown-ups. Now in their second movie, Wein and ZLJ, come back with Lola Versus, which feels at times like a pseudo-sequel to the first film and at other times like a fresher indie romcom.

Lola, played by the magnificent Greta Gerwig (again, Greta, I always say this, but you never do it: call me! I'll make you happy!), is a twenty-something New Yorker who lives with her boyfriend-cum-fiance, Luke (Joel Kannamen). Just before they're gonna get married, he dumps her unexpectedly. She runs to the the arms of her best friends Alice and Henry (ZLJ and Hamish Linklater) who support her through the initial shock of the event. (I say pseudo-sequel, because Upwards really is about the breakup and not so much about the afterwards.)

She starts sleeping with Henry and continues to get questionable advice from Alice. She goes on a few dates with creeps (one of whom is played by Wein in two hilarious sequences) and learns that being alone is not the worst thing in the world, despite her constant feeling that it is. Luke comes back a few times, but she feels betrayed by him and can't reconnect to his new life without her. 

This is a very sweet and funny movie, with clever writing and some good insight into singledom (in New York, at least). It does get a bit sappy and trite at times (particularly in the last scene), but generally is good and entertaining. All the young characters seem to be friendly and people we want to hang out with (that is, aside from deeply wanting to be naked with GG). 

There is really nothing totally magical about this movie, but it is a good romcom that doesn't slip too much in to banal stereotypes about manhattaniana. I like what Wein and ZLJ do - they make these nice, small movies that feel unpretentious, honest and sometimes very funny. This is not as serious and sad as the first film (which I do like a bit more than this one), but it is a good movie.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

You Sister's Sister (Friday, June 15, 2012) (56)

In her last feature, Humpday, Lynn Shelton examined male sexuality and friendship in a very mumblecore way (though it was much more polished that a true mumble). In this film, Your Sister's Sister, she comes back to look at relationships between brothers, sisters and friends and how sexuality might be a silly cultural construct that ignores an emotional human element. Both films suffer from sometimes silly writing decisions, but Shelton is clearly a great director of actors and creates interesting relationships and moments on screen.

At a memorial service for his dead brother, Jack (Mark Duplass), loses his temper at some of the mourners. His best friend and his brother's widow (or was she a girlfriend?), Iris (Emily Blunt), tells him to go to her father's vacation home in the wilderness to cool off for a few weeks. He rides his bike out the place (it's Seattle, so that's normal) and when he gets there he discovers Iris' half-sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), is already there, getting over the pain of her long-term lesbian relationship that she just ended. They're awkward at first, but settle in to drinking and talking about their respective issues.

At the end of that long night, they decide to fuck, even though Hannah is gay and Jack is really in love with Iris. The next morning, Iris comes to visit Jack (not knowing Hanna is there) and the three of them proceed to hang out there for a few days or relaxation. Issues of love and sexuality, betrayal and coming to peace with past mistakes all come up and are worked through.

This is a very nice independent movie filled with some really great acting and great interpersonal quiet moments. Shelton clearly knows how to get actors to do what she wants them to do, to act naturally in strange situations. She also has a very interesting, slow touch, letting shots last for a bit longer than you might normally see in other movies, letting moments sink in a bit deeper. Strangely she seems to either be bad at or unconcerned about framing and composition, as almost every shot is either trite or just weirdly random and neither balanced, nor interestingly asymmetric. (I think it's more that she's just bad at composition because there doesn't really seem to be a point to these clumsy shots.)

I'm always a bit weary of liking Emily Blunt too much, because she seems like too big an actor for me to be very interested in ... and yet, most of what she does is small stuff like this, so I'm really being unfair. Still, she wins me over every time and I fall a bit in love with her. She's got great comic timing and seems heartfelt in her more serious speeches. She's a great match for Duplass and DeWitt here, both of whom are natural and warm. This is a very good trio; a group we wish were our friends we could hang out with in an island cabin.

There is an annoying sentimental ending that really doesn't do much to add to the story, but, other than that, this is a very gown-up post-mumble movie that deals with growing up and putting away childish things. Shelton clearly has chops for some things, but she should work on small elements like her writing and composition. I hope she improves those things -- if she does she will make great movies!

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Prometheus (Sunday, June 10, 2012) (55)

So in 1979, Ridley Scott re-wrote the look, style and tone of scifi movies with his brilliant Alien -- the best movie he has ever made (or ever will). Of course, that film launched a multi-movie franchise, including James Cameron's 1986 sequel, Aliens -- which is arguable better than the first film. 

So now that everyone in Hollywood is totally out of ideas, Ridley is back with Prometheus, a prequel to the earlier franchise. This is a very big and thick scifi movie, filled with all the stuff that the original films didn't have: sex and love, god and existentialist quandaries, near-human robots and power-hungry billionaires. It's all so dumb, clumsy and boring, there's basically nothing good to say about it. 

The film begins with an alien dude standing on the edge of a waterfall. He takes a drink of a mysterious substance and jumps to his death in the falls. This is supposed to mean something or connect for us, but it just seems random and disconnected. We then see a team of scientists, lead by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discovering how cave paintings from around the world all have a similar constellation in them -- and that that set of stars is in some far-off part of the universe... so they get in a spaceship with a team of "scientists" (funded privately by billionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce)) and ride off into the cosmos deeply in love.

As the crew sleeps (because they're traveling at light speed, natch), a humanoid android named David (beautifully acted by Michael Fassbender) takes care of the ship. He styles himself after Peter O'Toole from Lawrence of Arabia and reads all the dreams and memories of the people (because that's deep, you see... an android who wants to be human). 

They land at some planet where they find a big pyramid and decide to go into it -- because as scientists they know that fucking with their study subject is the best way to do research. They realize there's living stuff there and they bring some of it back on to their ship (again - that's the scientific method). The leader of the mission on the ground is some skinny blond lady called Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) who is probably not a robot, though she seems to be one... and also seems to be the daughter of Weyland -- though that is presented in a way that could be sarcastic (and it doesn't really matter... like everything in the movie, it's more about loading the story with informational stuff than really exploring anything). 

Ultimately the aliens, who are probably our forebears, infect the ship and kill all sorts of people in boring ways. We ultimately see the famous phallic-vaginal alien guy from those earlier movies emerge from people's bellies -- three times like the great scenes in those early movies... because once you have a good trick you should do it over and over and over and over.

In most big, heady (or fake heady) movies today almost no clear information is presented, and instead, we are given with lots of texture and information, but no synthesis. I firmly reject the notion that a movie has to be oblique to be worthy of discussion or analysis. Great movies are frequently presented straightforwardly, but it seems that many directors can't just leave well enough alone and have to overly complicate stuff. 

The questions this movie presents about our origins are facile at best. Does god exist? Did he create us? What about aliens? Can a robot be a human? It's all so boring. 

On top of this, there's a really uncomfortable and bizarre element that Elizabeth wears a cross around her neck and several times makes it clear that despite finding out that human existence has more to do with aliens than with a creationist myth, she clutches her totem closer and reaffirms her faith. Why? I dunno. Some upside-down ef-you to athiests and scifi geeks who deny god's existence? It's hard enough to believe that an evolutionary scientist would trust so closely in a Judeo-Chrisitan god -- but then that she reaffirms her faith when shown that it's all bunk is just annoying and dead-ended. What am I supposed to do with that information? Does that make me think about my own faith more? No - it doesn't. 

Most of the problems with the film are in the script (by Jon Spaihts and Damon Linelof... of Lost), which is undercooked and banal. We don't need a love story to make us care about people and certainly don't need to see the same gags three times to appreciate them. There's nothing clever or interesting in the film and it all comes off as totally flat and dull. What a disappointment. 

Stars: 1 of 4

Paul Williams -- Still Alive (Sunday, June 10, 2012) (54)

Paul Williams was one of the most active singer-songwriter-actor-personalities of the 1970s. He wrote or co-wrote some of the most romantic and well-loved songs of that era, from "The Rainbow Connection" and "Rainy Days and Mondays" to "We've Only Just Begun" and "An Old Fashioned Love Song." His high camp and thick sugar style probably peaked with his collaboration 1974 with Brian De Palma in Phantom of the Paradise, a film for which he wrote the music and starred in as a slightly sexier, more powerful version of himself.

But since the mid-1980s, Williams has been somewhat invisible and largely forgotten by the younger generation. He fought addictions to drugs and alcohol (natch) and has been touring on a much smaller basis for the past twenty years or so.

Stephen Kessler's film, Paul Williams -- Still Alive is a love song to the man who wrote so many love songs. That is, Kessler confesses early in the documentary that he was a weird, fat kid growing up in the '60s and '70s and that Williams' music spoke to him in a deep way. Now in the present day, as a self-concerned documentarian, Kessler goes out to connect with his idol and make a movie about how far he's fallen -- at least that's exactly what he tells us.

When the two meet, Williams seems a bit nervous and unsure about Kessler's motives. He hopes to tell his life story, beginning with his troubled relationship with his father in Nebraska as a kid... but Kessler doesn't let him do this, saying it will be boring. Already the two seem to approach this film project differently. We see them interact over the course of several months, growing closer as time moves along, as the filmmaker follows the singer on a tour of various smallish shows around the country (and into the Philippines). They build a friendship as they learn to accept one another for who they are. To Williams, Kessler is a nice guy who has an unrealistic, nostalgic idea stuck in his head; to Kessler, Williams is a fallen idol, who is making it in the music biz his own way.

The biggest problem with this film is Kessler himself. I appreciate that this film functions as a form of psychotherapy for him, coming to terms with his own childhood and his own failure (Stephen Kessler is not really a household name, after all), but I don't really care to watch a movie all about him and his feelings and his view of Paul Williams. On the other hand, Williams is a super charming performer who shows a deep and interesting insight into his life and career. I could watch him on state and onscreen for hours. He's funny and self-effacing, self-aware and unapologetic.

So many times, just as Williams is about to say or do something interesting, Kessler inserts himself (or his directoral/editing touch) to change the course of events. This is one of the most unnatural fly-on-the-wall documentaries I've ever seen. Kessler has no qualms about pushing and prodding Williams to get him to do what he wants. Thank god Williams mostly pushes back. Kessler is desperate for Williams to be a broken man, suffering in his fading glow of decades ago, but Williams, thankfully, won't have that. He's aware he's fallen a bit, but not unset about it (this seems to have something to do with his involvement in AA, or the like, although that's never totally investigated).

Williams only looks forward, and doesn't live in the past, the way Kessler does. This is the most interesting element of the film, although I'm not sure this isn't an example of a broken clock being right twice a day. Kessler seems to be totally unaware of the film he's making and the subject he's looking at and seems to trip into this interesting duality of "forward and backward". That he does hit it means this movie is not really a failure, but the way he gets there is really messy.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (Sunday, June 3, 2012) (53)

Wes Anderson is basically the most accomplished director working today at making really symmetrical shots in movies. I can't think of another director who puts as much effort into creating each and every shot and filling the screen with "a look"that evokes some sort of phantom nostalgia -- that is, nostalgia for something that has never really existed and only comes through in a simulacral least common cultural denominator. He makes beautiful movies that are technically perfect. Seriously. The problem is that his movies are frequently so denatured, so dehumanized that it's hard to connect to tehm. All the doors seem to be sealed from the inside with a rich, battery goo that we'd like to lick, but can't break through.

Moonrise Kingdom is probably his most form-forward film to date. The story is particularly banal, but the art direction, colors, lighting and sounds are overwhelming. The film opens in 1965 with a gorgeous title sequence (Wes loves titles) that makes the Bishop family house (located on some New England island that doesn't really exist, but seems like it really could) seem like a doll's house. We casually meet Suzy (Kara Hayward), 12, the oldest child and the only daughter. She has a precocious mind and is always reading and doing non-kid things.

We then meet Sam (Jared Gilman), 12, a boy at the local boy scout-like camp across the island, who is an orphan being passed from one foster family to another when he's not alienating himself from his peers who see him as a nerd, and overachiever and a freak. Both Sam and Suzy are outsiders in any nuclear family and connect (during a community theater pageant) over their mutual weirdness. The agree to run away together and explore the island together. They claim to deeply be in love with one another and seem to see the world more clearly than the gray adults who surround and dominate them.

There is what seems to be a superficial examination of "authority" and "childlike wonder" and how the two ideals do not relate. Clearly the scout camp has some connections to the Vietnam war that is lurking over the shoulders of each boy (although the fact that they all seem to be white and upper-middle class could possibly suggest a bitter attack on the "rich man's war, poor man's fight" reality of the conflict), or even related to the present wars the US military is in. But then I have to ask, so what? How does this banal attack on war bare any relevance on the twee love story we see between Sam and Suzy?

Formally, Anderson is very interesting, though I'm not sure why he chooses to do what he does. Almost every set-up in the film is a short interior or an exterior with a short depth of focus. (The two long shots of the film seem to be accidents, or the exceptions that prove the rule.) These mostly normal to short-lens shots give us an uncanny feeling of unease, making this whole world a doll's house (like in the titles). This is an interesting effect, but I'm not sure what to do with the information.

Is Anderson making an anti-Jean Renoir film, where humans are stage-settings for some bigger kabuki story? (Are we merely playthings of the gods?) Why? This doesn't really seem like a political movie - and it seems to be politically moderate or middle, if anything - but this could be an interesting window to see the world (somewhat reminiscent of the implied Marxist polemic in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman). I love taking theory and critical thought (like that of French film thinker André Bazin) and turning it on its head, but I don't really understand why Anderson is doing that -- and I'm not sure if he knows either. At least there's not evidence in the text that these questions lead anywhere but into a deep chasm of uncertainty.

Is he intentionally trying to make it difficult for us to connect to the characters and the story or is he just looking to make a movie that alienates on a superficial level, not knowing it is incredibly hard for us to make any visceral connection? Are the impossibly symmetrical shots a critique of a world that is in fact incredibly lopsided? Is Anderson a formal polemicist who is sneakily assaulting our political traditions through overindulgent stylistics? I don't know if the answers to these questions are really present in the film. This isn't really ambiguity or obliqueness; it's just under-developed.

Taking away all the theory, this is a great looking and sweet, if unfulfilling love story between two presexual kids. That's nice. But so what? Why should I love this movie? What is its point? I really don't get it.

Stars: 2 of 4

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Saturday, June 2, 2012) (52)

Oy vey iz mir. The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel. Oy vey. I'm not sure who was asking for this movie, though it's not at all a surprise that it was made. In an era when we celebrate old people just simply for being old and celebrate brown people just simply for being poor, this movie was bound to come about at some point. John Madden, the sentimentalist who brought you Shakespeare in Love and Captain Corelli's Mandolin, directs what is sure to be his most beloved movie in the years to come. Because it's so nice. Pardon me while I wipe the vomit from my t-shirt.

This ensemble piece has every old actor in London (all of 'em) come together to show us how just because people live around the poverty line in a developing country doesn't mean that they don't have love in their heart (in case we were wondering about that). So a listing of the case would take up six pages here, so I'll just say you have a bunch of cranky or nice Englishfolk over the age of 70 who all decided to move to a hotel that's being advertised online. They all go for different reasons (some of which are totally unclear) and all end up living next to one another in what turns out to be a ramshackle lodging (what a surprise! and - that's so funny!). They slowly help to make their world more nice (because they're white and rich) just as the hotel owner and his mother fight about his future with his girlfriend (hmm - that seems random and disconnected...). Then all the old people find love and happiness or die in peace.

I'm really over this cultural fetishization from a very Western, white point of view. Isn't it nice that white people can visit these places and bring their money and help these people? Isn't it nice that a untouchable warms the cockles of the cold woman's heart? Isn't it wonderful that homosexuality is not a death sentence in a developing nation? The answer to all these questions is, of course "no" in the real world, but in the universe of this soft-focus kingdom, economics and social mores mean nothing. As long as we can pat ourselves on the back when driving out of the multiplex parking lot. We are modern and liberal and understanding and warm to all peoples. Yes we are.

There's no real substance to this film. It's mostly loathsome because of how reluctant it is to offend anyone and how rosy a picture it paints. Yes, India is a land of bright colors... and so what? Does the untouchable's life get better after her brief interaction with the mean white lady? Does the growing service-economy middle class in India really have much more room to grow and does it train its workers in skills that are at all transferable? What sort of security net do most entrepreneurs have in such a place? Clearly this isn't a political movie, but then what is it? A sweet romance? Eh - that's not really that interesting... and not really that romantic or heartfelt.

This is the most maximalist superficiality you might ever seen in a movie. It generally looks good (photography by Ben Davis), but that has more to do with the setting and the wide aperture than anything particularly interesting or more than one would expect. It's just that this movie really is just about the surface of things. Relationships are defined in metonymic terms where one untouchable symbolizes the suffering underclass of society, unable to ever reach the middle class and where one love affair between a black sheep son of rich people and a successful yuppie woman equals the difficult love the white people have for this non-white country. It's all deeply boring and trite and mildly offensive in it's tone-deafness.

Stars: 1 of 4

Bernie (Saturday, June 2, 2012) (51)

Bernie is a very clever and funny comedy by writer/director Richard Linklater (co-written by Skip Hollandsworth). In era when auteurist theory dominates film thinking in the critical and popular world, I really appreciate Linkater's oeuvre as it seems like he makes movies that he likes and always tries to tell good stories. This is not to say that I love everything he does. I don't. In fact, I probably don't really connect to most of what he's made, but I recognize that he's very technically daring and accomplished. I also like that fact that he seems to have a more "blue-collar" way of approaching his craft, rather than making movies that are necessarily going to be popular or art-house darlings. I think there is some line from Sam Fuller (or was it Billy Wilder?) who once said something about how directing is a job and you have to go and do it. Linklater does it well and doesn't get bogged down in his cult of personality or his auteurist canonizers.

Bernie is based on a true story about the eponymous guy (Jack Black) who moves to the small town of Carthage in East Texas in the early/mid-'90s to work in a funeral home. It seems he is a bit of an eccentric for this tiny place, but also a multi-talented ball of energy. He's basically the best undertaker anyone has ever seen, brilliant at up-selling people on bigger and better caskets and more elaborate ceremonies. He's a singer in the funeral services he oversees as well as in the church choir. He's also involved in the town's community musical theater. He's probably gay, though in in East Texas in the '90s that's something that's only whispered about.

One of his biggest impacts on the community is that along with his standard work-related duties, he takes it upon himself to continue to look after the widows of the town after he buries their husbands. All the old ladies love him, and, like a world-class walker, he loves them back. One widow, however, is a bit harder than the others. Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine) is a bitter old crow who hates everyone, including her own family. Her husband was the richest man in town (oil money) and she has a team of people looking after her at all times.

After awhile, she starts to spend more and more time with Bernie and he becomes her main caregiver and helper. Meanwhile, she's a mean woman and treats him terribly. He decides one day to kill her, not because he's a bad person (he's quite the opposite), but really out of self defense from the psychological trauma. He then has to face the D.A., Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) when he's tried for her murder.

The film is mostly told through interviews with the townsfolk of Carthage. Linklater scripts their dialogue, but they are by and large people from that town who truly knew Bernie. These are generally funny and silly interludes between stretches of narrative, but really do effectively and efficiently move the story along and set a bright and fun tone. All these people really loved Bernie when they knew him and really hated Marjorie, so it's interesting to see how what they say directs our view of the story.

Bernie is a totally lovable guy -- in large part because Jack Black is really great in the role. In most of his movies, I find Black to be a bit too big for life. His outsized temperament is generally too big for the films he's in and he falls back too frequently on cheap physical comedy. Here he's much more restrained and really gives us a lot of soul with the comedy.

Bernie is clearly a lonely and nice guy who sorta doesn't belong where he is (perhaps he would have done better in a bigger city or not in Texas). He's somewhat pitiful, which also adds to the humor of the story. When he gets dressed up to sing "76 Trombones" in a local production of The Music Man, it's silly because the costume doesn't fit well around his weird body, but there's also a sadness and desperation to his situation that's implied.

I also have to mention that Shirley MacLaine is really wonderful in this role. She's totally bitter, mean and unlovable... and yet we're weirdly attracted to her still... just like Bernie is. MacLaine's body of work is really amazing and over the years she's really mastered a keen ability to play straight characters in dark comedies. Yes, this role is not the same as her Fran in The Apartment or her Ginnie in Some Came Running, but we get a similar sense of a character at the end of her rope, and again, a deeply sad context.

This is a really good movie. It's funny and sad, it's efficient and original. I'm not sure how it will hold up over time, as it sorta feels small, even compared to other Linklater films, but it's really well made and well acted.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Friday, June 1, 2012

Polisse (Monday, May 28, 2012) (50)

Movies and TV shows about cops make it clear that police work is really hard. Totally unrelated to that is the fact that kids are really cute. If you could somehow combine these two elements (kids and cops) you'd have a movie about how hard it is for cops to help kids (particularly those who are being molested and raped). Well, there is such a movie and it's writer/director/actress Maiwenn's Polisse.

This cinema-verité-style look into the Parisian police's Child Protection Unit (that also deals with the white slavery part of Vice) feels very much like a number of cop shows we've seen for years on TV (Homocide, The Wire, the "law" part of Law & Order) and doesn't have any more through-line plot than six episodes of any of those shows strung together one after the other.

The structure of the film basically has a child or parent visit the police station to introduce a case and meet with some members of the CPU team (there are about eight officers in the unit, a very diverse group of men and women). We then see how the team takes down the perpetrator or organization that's doing whatever it's doing to the innocents. Each of these sequences ends with the group of cops going out to blow off steam as a group, in bars and clubs or at the homes of one another.

They each battle small demons of their own (one is anorexic, one is getting a divorce, one is already divorced, although she regrets it, two are interested in dating, despite the fact that one of them is pregnant with her husband's baby) and seem to take the interactions with the kids very personally and hard. Maiwenn herself plays a photojournalist who is documenting the team for an art project... and trying to stay objective as she falls in love with one of the cops.

There are some wonderful moments of comedy (dark comedy, but funny) and tragedy, supported by some really wonderful acting. Karin Viard plays Nadine, one of the senior members of the team, is particularly good, although she's helped by her character being the most deeply developed. Frederic Pierrot plays Baloo, the leader of the group, and does it beautifully. Still, the film feels much more like a list of situations than a single particular story. There no connection from one episode to the next and kids who we get to know briefly and seemingly deeply vanish once their situation is solved.

Clearly this is a commentary on cinematic plot structure and a way of getting the audience to identify more with the cops. Maiwenn is specifically putting us in the position of the cops who can't totally remain connected to any individual kid because they will be gone soon and a new case will come up. The main problem with this is the the cops do seem to connect deeply to the kids, forcing us to connect in a rather forced situational way. Kids being cute make us immediately love them -- they're total proxy emotion devices. That the cops in the film connect to them is not really the same thing as when we connect to them. In principle they're connecting to the human being, while we're connecting to the idea of a "kid in trouble". This dissimilarity in our relationships to the children only goes to shed light on a major flaw in the film.

I am predisposed to hate movies about "kids in trouble" because they're cheap and emotionally insincere. This, however, is a good movie with some great stuff in it. I wish it had more structure to help guide our connections and feelings in a more purposeful way. What we get is really just a substitute for deep relationships that makes everything annoyingly superficial.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Intouchables (Tuesday, May 15, 2012) (49)

Toward the end of last year, I kept hearing about a French movie called The Intouchables (which, as far as I understood means "The Untouchables"... I don't understand the weird semi-translation... because of the De Plama movie? What about the two Crash movies?) that was setting all sorts of box office records in Europe. Today it is the highest-grossing film not in English of all time. This has to be a brilliant and amazing film, right?! Well, no so much.

The Intouchables, directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano (from their script), is based on a true story (a concept that always makes me gag for its worthlessness) and is filled with all sorts of post-neoliberal racism and bizarrely blind classism. I would hope that white people who go to see this movie feel really proud of themselves for witnessing the assistance of a single African immigrant, who lives in the housing projects. Clearly such magnanimity is the key to moving our world forward in a peaceful and beautiful way where all children are loved regardless of their color... just like The Help.

Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is a billionaire living in an amazing house in Paris (it seems to be on Ile St. Louis... or maybe that's just where it should be). He is a quadriplegic and has a gigantic staff of helpers and attendants who look after him at all times. One morning, he and one of his assistants are interviewing new caretakers who will wash, dress and chauffeur him around all the time. In walks Driss (Omar Sy) a tall and dark black man who is clearly not taking the interview process seriously, but simply is looking for a signature on his unemployment form (in France you have to prove that you're applying for jobs and not getting them before you can get your unemployment benefit). 

He proceeds to give incredibly rude and unprofessional answers to basic questions, and hits on Philippe's hot assistant (Audrey Fleurot). This has the opposite result than he was hoping, of course, and Philippe hires him, seeing his unpolished and direct style as a welcome change from the sycophantic treatment he gets from most people in the world. Naturally, Philippe and Driss become best friends, each one helping the other see the world in a different light and each one showing the other that friendship can be filled with real emotions and real connections. 

Also, naturally, there's lots of stuff about Driss being a hoodrat who has never heard opera music, only listens to Earth, Wind & Fire (Really? A contemporary black dude who only listens to '70s funk/disco? Not Jay-Z?) and is the world's best dancer. We are aghast that Philippe's friends react to Driss in such a callous, superficial way ("because he's black," we whisper) -- even though his behavior really is mostly  unpredictable and sometimes offensive. 

But then there's a scene when, for Philippe's birthday, everyone gets dressed in black tie for a concert and Driss looks amazing (insert house-slave stereotype here) and that aforementioned hot assistant says that he looks "just like Obama". Let's be absolutely crystal clear: Omar Sy looks NOTHING like Barack Obama, aside from the fact that both of them have skin that's not lily white. This is not played as a comment designed to make us see Philippe's world as unchangeable and eternally racist; this is a scene to show us that a black man in a suit is an object of sexual desire (again, house-slave theme) and the assistant's comment is supposed to be what we are all thinking -- that is if we were all living in 1952 Mississippi. ("They all look alike to me."l

The third act is a total structural mess, with Driss being sent away to his aunt in the projects for some bizarre and unexplainable reason, and then being brought back for equally unclear motivations. We understand that Philippe and Driss are two halves of a pair and that they complete one another like a black and white cookie (look to the cookie!). And then we all sit back in our seats an groan because it's such a hackneyed idea (when it's not being totally offensive). Meanwhile, Philippe does nothing to help Driss' family or anyone not inside the walls of his urban chateau -- because Marxism is a terrible thing and that would be punishing Philippe for working hard... or something. 

This is such a silly trifle of a film, and so offensively post-racial it's shocking anyone has said anything mildly kind about it. It should be looked at with contempt. Sure, there are some brief, sweet moments between the two guys... and Sy is a really fantastic dancer, if you can put your "magical negro dance number" glasses on the top of your head... but it's overall message, that we should all get along better -- but only on the terms of the white guy and the billionaires -- is deeply disgusting. 

Stars: 1 of 4

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Dark Shadows (Saturday, May 12, 2012) (48)

I have absolutely no connection the the TV show "Dark Shadows" that ran in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I have no context for the tone of the show, the relative merits of the acting or writing of the show and no hangups about excavating some remote and sacred part of my past and my psyche. So I went into Tim Burton's new film Dark Shadows (based on the TV Show) as a totally blank slate... except for the fact that it's a Tim Burton movie and features Johnny Depp and Mrs. Burton, Helena Bonham-Carter, whom he works with always.

Regardless of what one might think of the television show, this is a generally enjoyable, pointless movie. There is really nothing terrible about it and it falls in line with much of the very average Burton has put out for much of the past 20 years. He has taken "weird" to such an extreme that the style and concept has folded back on itself, making the uncanny and strange become banal in his universe. What saves this film (if only slightly) is the very bright acting of Depp and the generally snappy writing of his character here.

Barnabas Collins (Depp) is a colonial-era rich man living in a town his family owns in Maine. One day, as he's chasing his girlfriend, the witch Angelique (Eva Green) turns him into a vampire, ultimately leading to his burial in the town graveyard for safekeeping. Flash forward 200 years to the 1970s and Barnabas' coffin is exhumed (by mistake) and he gets out. His family still owns his mansion, but has lost a lot of their status in town, particularly their cannery. His rival Angelique is now the king (er... queen) fisher in town.

He is introduced to his family members, including Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), the head of the household, Dr. Julia Hoffman (HBC), a live-in shrink and Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), the kids' tutor, who bears a striking resemblance to Barnabas' old girlfriend from way back when. It seems Angelique hopes to ruin the family (again) as long as Barnabas doesn't fall in love with her.

The story is a bit convoluted, and, frankly, unmemorable... though it is pretty fun as it rolls along. Depp has a great sense of comic timing (and a strange resistance to playing characters who don't have English accents) and the script (by Seth Graham-Smith) showers him with great moments and lines to ham up. That the the film is so forgettable is probably the main factor in saying it's not really all that great. It's not that it's really bad, the good stuff is pretty good, but the rest doesn't really any connections and slides away into the ether.

Stars: 2 of 4

Cabin in the Woods (Friday, May 11, 2012) (47)

We've reached a point where sarcastic horror movies (like the Scream franchise) are no longer interesting and gonzo sick ones (like the Saw movies) are no longer serious enough to gain much traction. Now we're into a world of post-modern horror movies -- thinking man's films that are deconstructionist (like Derrida with crayons) and meta and self-referential. The Cabin in the Woods is such a movie. It's fun and funny and silly, with as many jokes about the horror process and rules of the game as it is a spectacle. 

As the film opens we see two office everymen (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) at their job. They're talking with one another and with their colleagues about seemingly innocuous stuff, something about the failures of the Japanese office and something with needing to close their deals today. We then cut to the typical prologue to your average slasher flick: a bunch of college kids (a cute virgin girl, a beefy jock, another guy and girl couple and a weirdo) are going to the cabin in the woods owned by one of their cousins. 

On the way to the place, they stop to get directions and a creepy gas station where they're scared by the creepy old man who works there. As they leave (having not been killed) we cut back to the desk jockeys once again, this time upset that the group of kids got away. It seems these guys in the office have some control over the world of the kids. 

From here forward we see a clever interplay between the office guys laying traps for the kids and the kids falling into them (and dying in ever more exotic bloody ways, natch) or narrowly escaping through their wiles. The stakes seem to get higher and higher as the office clerks seem to have pressure from "their boss" to end the charade and kill all the kids with their available resources (zombies and madmen with cleavers and meat hooks). As we start to worry for the lives of the kids in the cabin, we also worry that the office dudes will get in trouble if they don't succeed in their task. This split interest is rather ingenious and fresh in this, or any other, genre. 

I like this movie, though after all the very elegant twisting and turning, the pay-off is a bit medium. I feel writers Joss Whedon (yes, that guy again) and Drew Goddard (who also directs here) get a bit lost in the weeds and don't deliver as strong a finale as the build-up requires. What we get at the end is a bit cheesy and random, rather than arch and self-aware like the tone in the rest of the film. Ultimately the film devolves into mediocre explosions and blood, a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise smart movie.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

First Position (Wednesday, May 9, 2012) (46)

Yet another documentary about amazing things cute kids do... Oy vey! Yes, First Position shows how teens (and pre-teens) from around the world compete in an annual New-York-based ballet competition to get scholarships to some of the premiere ballet theaters of the world. 

You have your high-strung girl from California who is pushed harder and further by her Japanese mother, your young American boy, the son of an American Naval officer based in Italy, who now trains in Milan, your affable teen adopted by Philadelphians from her home in war-torn West Africa who is fighting to disprove the industry concept that black women don't have the body shape to be ballerinas. It's all very sweet with tons of built-in drama based on the inevitable falls, injuries and egos. 

Most annoying about the film is that what director Bess Kargman shows us is mostly what she has access to. The fact that she focuses on these kids is because they are the best in their relative age groups and divisions, so their success is relatively guaranteed. That we only see one competition is simply a matter of it being the one that she was allowed to shoot. That the competition we see seems to jump around through the various rounds in an inconsistent and sometimes confusing way, is only a matter of the end (their ultimate success) being more important than their stories.

It's all a bit too banal for my taste. This really isn't an examination of kids who do ballet or the weird world of junior ballet (the crazy schedule, the weird diets, the psychological trips the kids must go through), but rather an small glimpse of these few, hand-selected dancers for this short period of time. 

This is a nice movie, but nothing really special. It's probably more worth it for dancers to watch and reminisce about their youth than it is for dancing novices like me.

Stars: 2 of 4

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Avengers (3D) (Sunday, May 6, 2012) (45)

The most important component in the dumb Summer blockbuster movie is escape. That is to say, I don't expect much intelligence -- and quite the opposite -- I'm looking for dumb visceral fun. Loud explosions, big settings, maybe some good ol' T&A. They are more spectacles than pure cinema, having more in common with a circus, a freak show, a sight seeing trip to an unknown land where I can turn my brain off and enjoy the experience washing over me. The Avengers is nothing like that. It is a slow, dull, dialogue-heavy Russian novel of a film that is so complicated in its detail that I was unable to just "sit back and enjoy" because I was trying to figure out and interpret what was going on -- mostly because it was so goddamn stupid!

It seems Disney and Marvel have been anticipating this film for a few years now, releasing individual monograph films relating to many of the prominent characters. Last year there was Thor, Captain American and Iron Man 2. There was also a re-boot of the Hulk story (though that featured a different guy playing him). I thought that Thor movie was a horrible abortion of storytelling and excitement and only saw the first Iron Man (which was pretty fun). So at the beginning of The Avengers the idea is that we understand who all the characters are and what they are doing in the world.

It seems Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) little brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), is upset that his big bro is all godlike and living in America, so he steals some blue rock that has magic powers (though I didn't catch what kind... something about connecting beings from his world to our world... or something). A guy named Nick Fury (Sam Jackson), who has an eye patch and who I only sorta remember from the first Iron Man movie, rounds up all the super heroes, Thor, Cap America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (RDJ), Hulk (Ruffalo), some lady who's good at kickboxing (ScarJo) and a dude who's a really good archer (that dude from that Iraq movie that lady won the Oscar for), and makes them work on an invisible flying aircraft carrier. Seriously, I'm all about fiscal responsibility and I think that's the first thing the Republicans should cut from the Pentagon budget next year. It seems... too much.

They are all individuals and firmly believe in doing things on their own. Cap likes working with others, but he's from the 1940s and is prolly a Red. Bruce Banner doesn't like being the Hulk because it fucks up his clothes, but is generally an amiable guy. Tony Stark is too rich to give a shit about working with others... so he should prolly just become mayor of New York and break FAA helicopter laws on the weekend. So all these people proceed to sit around tables talking about the rules their drawers have given to them about what they can and can't do (Hulk can't be controlled; Thor has issues with his magic and sometimes can't lift his awesome hammer). Oh - and these two norms, ScarJo and HurtLocker, waste time and screen space trying to be interesting, but failing badly.

Let me say this again: in a world where you have a Norse god (even if he's from another planet), a billionaire who builds unbreakable rocket suits, a green super beast and a dude who represents all that is great with America (that's a lot to represent!), why do you need a lady who's a super spy who doesn't dress in revealing clothes and a dude who's really good at archery? (Also - as this is the second movie with archery prominently in it in recent months, what does that say for America's chances at the Olympics later this year? Why can't Gina Davis get work, people?!) Hawkeye and Black Widow (oooh - such scary names!) are as lame on screen as their names suggest. Neither actor is very talented, they're given terrible, boring lines to read (by director/writer Joss Whedon) and they have no powers or traits that the remaining team couldn't live without. If you're going to give me a useless woman, at least make her show me some skin and sex.

Aside from all this on-screen dramaturgy, there are basically two big action sequences, one at the beginning as all the heroes are fighting not together and one at the end, when they realize that they should work together (again, they're all fucking commies... Stark is clearly a Randian fundamentalist and should be ashamed of himself for working with less-than-capable teammates). This movie basically has two enormous acts and crumbles under the weight of this structure. This is not a fun movie to watch because you're mostly waiting for the next thing to happen... but it never really seems to come. And, no, I don't think this is some Marxist film theory that Whedon is getting into. I think this is just a misfire of a script and film.

This movie is not particularly loud or big. The second battle sequence destroys most of midtown Manhattan (thank god!) but isn't really memorable and just feels like the similar sequence in the third Transformers movie (I think that was Chicago they were blowing up there). The 3D I saw the film in added nothing to the experience for me.

Mostly this feels like a story forced together by its constituent parts. There had to be an Avengers movie because there was a Hulk movie and a Cap America movie, etc. This is clearly setting up a franchise now, but I have no interest in it. What is coming next? Loki is going to come back with a bigger bluer rock? Whedon will cast Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory to discuss the relative merits of gamma ray poisoning around an Upper West Side dinner table? Actually, that sounds a lot more appealing!

Stars: .5 of 4

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Elena (Thursday, May 3, 2012) (44)

Andrei Zvyagintsev's Elena is a quiet psycho-sexual drama reminiscent of films by Hitchcock, Hawks and Wilder. That's a hell of a group to compare any contemporary work to, but this is no ordinary film. The story revolves around the title character Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a woman in her late-60s who works as the caretaker/housekeeper for Sergei (Aleksei Rozin) a millionaire in Moscow and is also married to him. She lives in separate, modest quarters from him in his modernist condo flat, wakes him in the morning, makes him food and sleeps with him when the mood is right (in the middle of the day).

She's from a poor suburb where her grown son and his family still live in a housing project. They are struggling to get by and rely on money she brings them when she visits them by train several times a month. Her son is unemployed and claims he can't get a job, but she believes he's not trying hard enough. She asks Sergei for help in getting a letter of reference for her grandson to go to university, thus avoiding military service, but the old man is not interested in helping her.

He doesn't see why he should help her family. She feels like he's being too rigid and points out that Sergei takes wonderful financial care of his own daughter, a twenty-something clubgirl who has never worked a day in her life. When Sergei says that he's going to change his will to leave her and her family out in the cold, Elena realizes she's running out of time and running out of options, and that she might have to murder him before he gets to talk to his lawyer.

The film is very serene and deliberate. Elena and Sergei, both older and in no particular rush in general speak to one another respectfully and carefully. The beautiful cinematography, by Mikhail Krichman, washes the interiors in a cool blue-gray that makes everything seem peaceful (if a bit morose). This is a psycho-drama in the grand tradition of the genre, with the action taking place much more in Elena's head than on screen in physical action.

On top of this, for the score, Zvyagintsev uses a Philip Glass's 1995 Symphony No. 3, a very typical minimalist work that is slow and easy. It's an interesting choice not only for tone, but because it, like most of Glass' music, is as much about the space between notes as it is about the sounds themselves. This creates a lovely parallel between Elena's anguish and the score.

The curious relationship between Elena and Sergei is unsettling and interesting. It is clear that they are married, however they share almost no bright, outward love together. They clearly care for one another, but she really does feel more like his nurse and housekeeper than his wife or lover. It seems in this new Russia -- where a man can be a millionaire and lives in a beautifully appointed building, whose wealth comes from some unknown, possibly unethical business -- people are separated from their natural state of family and love. Both characters seem to be stretching traditional family life to its extreme in this inhuman world. As much as this post-Communist world has freed people to do and think as they wish, something has been lost as people become isolated and relationships are formal and unfeeling.

There are not a lot of moving parts to this film. It is very efficient, though never seems rushed. It is sympathetic to both Elena and Sergei, even considering their opposite goals. Near the end of the film, we see Elena's newborn grandchild laying on its back in the middle of a bed. It looks helpless and isolated in a sea of bedspread. This baby is who everyone in this film is: somewhat immobile, unable to help himself, in a desperate struggle to make the next move.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sound of My Voice (Saturday, April 28, 2012) (43)

Oh, shit. Here we go with what is sure to be a rash of hipster, post-mumblecore indie sci-fi flicks that are totally under-cooked and rely more on young people's love for small and niche things than for anything about good filmmaking and effective storytelling. Following on the heels of Brit Marling's film Another Earth last year, which she co-wrote and starred in, comes Sound of My Voice (there really should be an article there, guys), another movie she co-wrote and stars in (is it just a co-incidence that she co-writes movies and her partners direct them? Seems sorta fishy to me...).

This one tells the story of Peter (Christopher Denham) an intrepid journalist in LA (those exist?) who takes his girlfriend Lorna (Nicole Vicius... who got a vicious nose job as a teen, apparently) to a strange cult where they listen to a young woman named Maggie (Marling) who claims to be from the future. It's not clear what exactly Maggie wants them to do or why. She seems more like Jack Lalanne telling them to eat healthy food than Jim Jones or Charlie Manson. Apparently she will ask them to do something soon.

As the film opens Peter is sure that Maggie is a fraud (duh!) but is interested in the scope of her plan. As they spend more and more time with her, and go through more and more unusual tests (there's a handshake they have to do that's an elaborate paddy-cake hand game; at some point Maggie makes all the followers puke on a tarp), Peter and Lorna begin to fall apart as he becomes obsessed with Maggie and Lorna sees her for what she is.

Director Zal Batmanglij does a very nice job with the process part of the story, showing us how the followers have to bathe, get blindfolded and taken to a mysterious spot in the Valley to meet Maggie. There is a lovely dynamism to these sequences. He also does a nice job showing the intimate spaces of the basement and the very quiet, calm moments when the followers meet Maggie.

In the end, this is a decent concept that really doesn't have enough going for it to be a feature (a short about Maggie would probably have been very interesting). By the end of the film (not really giving anything away) it's clear that she is probably a fraud, with only a slim chance that she might be legitimately from the future (again, it's never clear what she's doing now that she's back in our time), but this really isn't all that interesting or important to us. I never felt at all invested in any of the characters, Lorna is rather sympathetic but underdeveloped, Peter seems like an idiot, Maggie is more phantom than person, and the scrappy simplicity of the story belies the fact that it's just not that interesting.

I don't totally get what Brit Marling is doing in this world of ours. She's pretty gorgeous, seems to be a better-than-average actor and a decent co-writer (Another Earth was much, much better than this, though it had issues too with sentimentality). Will she continue to work on the edges of the industry in indie sci-fi or will she be used, for her looks, in more big-budget and studio stuff? I guess I shouldn't blame her for keeping it small for now, but what she's doing is so unusual that it totally makes no sense to me.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Goodbye First Love (Sunday, April 22, 2012) (42)

There's something about Mia Hansen-Love's films that just don't work and don't connect for me. Her last film, The Father of My Children, never really came together and seemed like a good movie with a bad script and an unpolished concept. It's clear that Hansen-Love is a talented director (although I can't say yet that she's more than just merely "talented"), but I would say that she's a mediocre screenwriter and that her films suffer from garbagey melodrama that connects more to banal ideas of "romance" than to any real-world in which her stories take place.

Such is the problem with her new film, Goodbye First Love. It's the story of a high school girl, Camille (played by the fetching Lola Créton), who has a deep love for her teen boyfriend, Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). He's a few years older than she is and when he forgoes college for a shapeless trip to South America (the French love Ché!), the two lose touch. She takes this very hard and tries to kill herself (natch) and then comes out of the hospital without the lust for life she previously had.

She then goes to architecture school and begins to work for her professor, Lorenz (Magne-Havard Brekke), who she also starts to sleep with, date and move in with. He's an older Norwegian man with an ex-wife and kid in Berlin who loves Camille's sensibility and reserve. Meanwhile, she struggles with her never-ending love for Sullivan and the constant wanting what she can't have.

I guess this isn't really the kind of movie I would ever relate to. I don't go in for sentimentality much and never really understand stories like this. For me, the concept of "first loves" is trite in the deepest possible way, and something that is more forced on us by gossip magazines and "girl culture" than by anything particularly psychological or human. What the hell is so special about Sullivan for Camille? He seems like a typically nice, distant and youthful boyfriend and their connection is much more suggested (by the fact that she can't ever get over him) than shown to us. When she ends up with Lorenz (as gross and cliche as it is to fuck your professor... seriously), it's maddening that she can't just be happy with him, but longs for Sullivan.

Herein lies an interesting dilemma for me. If film viewing is really an experience of identification and alignment with certain characters, it's impossible for me to connect to this film because I'm supposed to identify with Camille, but I can't because I think she's a fastidious moron. Meanwhile, I understand that many people (most people) would totally align with her because of how they're wired emotionally.

This leads to a bigger problem about the film, buried in the script, which is that Hansen-Love really doesn't do much to link us to Camille other than giving the briefest of outlines of her character. We only see the biggest moving parts of her persona, namely that she's 17 at some point and madly in love with a boy. This shorthand functions as the only information we get about her. For many this is enough to totally understand everything she feels at all moments. For others, like me, this seems under-written and under-developed.

Hansen-Love is truly a good director and is able to show a pretty movie with a nice use of technical factors. She is, however tripped up by her reliance on middlebrow scripts that don't show her skills as well as possible. I hope she continues to grow and make better films in the future.

Stars: 2 of 4

The Day He Arrives (Saturday, April 21, 2012) (41)

Hong Sang-Soo's film The Day He Arrives fits squarely in a category of "oblique movies," films that function as much as a pure art film as it does as storytelling. There is basically a beginning and end, but the middle gets rather murky -- on purpose -- and it is in this fog, and because of this fog, that the tale comes alive and turns something banal into something wonderful.

Concentrating again on the reflexive world of "film culture," as he did with his last film Woman on the Beach, the movie focuses on the day film professor and director Sangjoon arrives in Seoul to meets up with his friend Youngho. Sangjoon first visits an ex-girlfriend, and walks down the street meeting and talking to several strangers. He meets a trio of film students who recognize him and invite him to eat a meal with them. He later meets up with Youngho and a woman who works with him. The waitress at this restaurant is flirty and they all four begin to talk. At the end of the night they leave as normal.

The next thing we see, without any explanation is the same story beginning again (or, at least beginning after Sangjoon leaves the ex's apartment). Most of the specifics about the thread are different, conversations has some similarities although people meet in different places and go in different directions, but the important structural elements (such as Sangjoon eating at a restaurant and leaving with a woman) remain intact and recognizable. We see three full cycles of the same story, each a bit different.

Of course, the first thought in any film-goer's mind is that this seems like a twist on Rashomon-type story, where the reason for the variations is because different people remember the situation differently. However it doesn't seem to be that straightforward. This isn't so much about different points of view of the same story, but different possibilities of the same very small events. It also doesn't involve multiple narrators, but just a single third-person omniscient one.

It's never clear, nor does it matter, whether each of these scenarios actually plays out in Sangjoon's life, if he imagines the same situations happening differently (maybe he ends up with the waitress at the end of the night, maybe with Yongho's colleague), or if it's just Hong riffing on a small idea -- possibly a meta work on the nature of the medium with screenwriter/filmmaker playing god at the human chessboard. There is a sense that Hong is improvising on a theme the way a Jazz saxophonist might twist and expand a standard, so you know what you're hearing, though you never heard it this way before.

Hong really gives us no clear answers about what he's looking to achieve here (unlike with the Kurosawa, where it's pretty clear he's exploring the nature of subjectivity) and this is what makes the film interesting and fun. It has a playfulness and an alacrity that raises this essay from purely theoretical and alienating to familiar and warm. We get into the game of the film, waiting for the next story rhyme, enjoying how variations from past events will come back. At one point a highway sign flashed for less than a second in the first shot of the film comes back near the end -- not creating any great meaning, but highlighting that the act of film viewing is deep and should be engaging.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Monday, May 7, 2012

Post Mortem (Friday, April 13, 2012) (38)

The final sequence in Pablo Larrain's Post Mortem is one of the most interesting, evocative and incisive images I can remember in any film in a long time. After watching the main character Mario (Alfredo Castro) deal with his uneventful and lonely life for 90 minutes, he finally cracks and starts acting out the psychological difficulty that's inside him. Out of emotional desperation he has become friends with his neighbor, a stripper and cabaret star, Nancy (Antonia Zegers). Theirs is really not an emotional friendship, nor really much of a friendship at all. They both function as some external power forcing the other to connect with something else in the world.

They both are struggling to deal with the events of the moment, namely the Pinochet coup d'etat over Allende in 1973 Chile. Mario works in the morgue and is involved in the autopsy of Allende himself, after his assassination. This act, and the coldness and passivity of his job shakes him to his core. He is rather incapable of connecting to people on an emotional level and his very gray life seems to be filled with nothing but difficulty. In one magnificent scene, Mario and Nancy sit at opposite ends of his small kitchen table and quietly begin to weep, for no particular reason, though we know it has to do with the overwhelming pain and struggle of their respective lives.

Back to the last scene of the film, through a series of events, Mario gets involved in helping Nancy's family who are leftist radicals. He hides her brother in the shed in his back yard and after finally cracking, starts to pile stuff and junk in front of the door. Tables, chairs, coffee tables, small things, big things. He's literally trying to keep his feelings inside, lest they get out and overwhelm his life.

This might seem like a bit obvious (the tightly wound man breaks down and seems to go crazy with a physical action that represents his internal turmoil), but it's performed and produced beautifully and deeply emotionally. What's more is that it's not a simple act, but a long and drawn-out one that seems to go on past the point of normal limits, past the point of our comprehension. It moves from a simple, superficial psych tick to an important symbolic action, to an extreme cry for help, unlike what you find in typical storytelling.

Meanwhile, as is typical of the New Chilean Cinema style, this scene, and the whole film, has a rigorous naturalistic, neorealist tone. Everything is washed-out gray-brown-yellow, shabby and bleak. People are more interested in simply fucking their co-worker (not Mario, but people he works with) than making any real connections. The inner turmoil every character suffers is internal and poorly expressed because they're all broken people.

Larrain does a wonderful job with this very small story and makes it much more powerful than it might seem on the page. The film runs on an internal inertia that seems contained mostly in the gaps between actions. It's not the Allende autopsy that throws Mario, per se, but the constant pushing of his workaday life and the difficulty he has making connections. There is a lot of silence in the film and that becomes very powerful. Castro's performance, in particular, really leads this film and moves it along. He always seems on the edge of a cliff, about to jump off, but terrified of making any action. Larrain uses this dual tension brilliantly to create an eerie but relateable tone.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Monsieur Lazhar (Friday, April 13, 2012) (37)

French-Canadian Philippe Falardeau's film Monsieur Lazhar was one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Oscars. It is a celebration of everything that is wonderful about modern multiculturalism and how people are good inside if you give them the chance to show you what's in their heart. This sentiment makes me a bit sick as it's so sunny and saccharine it's almost impossible to be interesting. Even with a story that has some rather dark and challenging moments, the film really only falls into the predictable category of "movies about teachers and students who seem different but connect with love." 

Bachir Lazhar is an Algerian immigrant to Montreal who turns up at an elementary school the day after a popular teacher has hanged herself in her classroom on a school morning. As the administrators and kids come to grips with the loss of their friend and guide, he explains that he was a teacher in a similar school in his homeland and is the process of getting his asylum status in Canada. At first he's an odd fit for the school, which has a rather liberal view of educational (teachers are called by their first names, students are encouraged to sit in a circle rather than rows). He has a more traditional process, including an autocratic style and dictation from old texts involving complex, arcane language. 

As he comes to learn about the pain the students are feeling (one boy and one girl who witnessed their teacher killing herself moments before class began), Monsier Lazhar begins to relax and thrive in this environment. At the same time, it seems he wasn't entirely forthcoming about his background and his status in the country and in the school could be in doubt. 

This is a nice film, but nothing very interesting. The real tension rests on whether the kids accept him as positive force, but we've seen this movie dozens of times before and know they always do. Then there's a bit of tension based on the silly and incidental fact that the school doesn't do a thorough check of his life before hiring him... but that's not really interesting and has nothing to do with the emotional development of the story. 

This feels much more like a prescribed series of events than any story I can become particularly invested in. We know there will be tension with the students and other teachers, we know he'll come to be loved, we know there will be ongoing cultural disconnections, we know it probably can't last. At no point do we really care what happens to the moving parts, because they really only function as parts in the greater banal story. 

It's very nice that this was nominated for the Oscar, but it's clearly not as good as other foreign language films that were also (it's not even the best French-Canadian film from 2011). It has all the hallmarks of sweet movie (and I generally like any movie that begins with a grizzly hanging), but none of the oomph of something I really care about. 

Stars: 2 of 4 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Deep Blue Sea (Tuesday, April 10, 2012) (36)

Filmmaker Terence Davies makes really beautiful, interesting and eerily personal melodramas and psycho-sexual dramas. He's clearly inspired by masters of the genre, like Douglas Sirk, but also imbues his films with an organic normalcy that you don't find in some of the great 1950s melodramas, which highlighted physical beauty and colorful technical details, functioning almost like fairy tales. Davies' pictures are gritty and bleak, mostly set in post-war England (Davies grew up in 1950s Liverpool, one of the bleakest places ever imagined by industrial-era people), and mostly dealing with impossible love, the burden of memory, and the general sense of dissolution entropy.

The Deep Blue Sea, adapted by Davies from a play by Terrence Rattigan, opens with a few big crane shots of post-war London, its gray rubble and sad honor made lush by such a classic technique. Yes, these grand shots foreshadow the pain and destruction that is to come, but they also invoke some of the more memorable shots of classic high melodramas (think of the romance of The Wind Will Carry Us).

This is the story of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), a woman who marries an older, more-well established man, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale). She has a young lover on the side, Freddie Page (Rom Hiddleston) whom her husband knows about. Sir Williams lets his wife cheat, because he knows their marriage is already a bit non-traditional (due to their ages), and because he's madly in love with her beauty and mind.

Hester, on the other hand, is uncomfortable with the situation and decides to leave her husband, throwing away his money and status, for the upstart Freddie. The only problem is that, for Freddie, the relationship was perfect when she was a married woman and he was merely her lover; he doesn't really want to be with her all the time, as he deals with his post-war troubles (PTSD, bleak job prospects, poverty). After she throws herself into her lovers arms, she finds that she might have ruined the thing she had going before as well as that which she was trying to create.

The story is mostly told in flashback, after Hester has seemingly ruined her life, and Davies explores the concept and weight of memory in a beautiful formalist fashion. Most of the film is shot, by Florian Hoffmeister, with very low lighting, making most scenes somewhat obscured and muted. This not only translates a sort of warmth and nostalgia, but also suggests that Hester's memories of the events are less than totally clear. Living in each moment, she might not have seen everything clearly at the time, and might have a somewhat overly emotional feeling about them now. There is also an interesting break between moving cameras in the present and static cameras in the past, a suggestion, perhaps, that our memories are very specifically fixed and difficult for us to understand completely.

In the past, with films like The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives, Davies used juxtaposition and montage beautifully to tell a story from disparate elements and strong contrasts. The cutting style here is much more naturalistic and human (less artistic), but still beautifully helps to tell the story in a particular way. Davies, more than most other directors working today, uses editing and shot sequence in an efficient and haunting way to tell a story from a narrative point of view, but also from a psychological one. We see jumps from one moment to another, sometimes creating surprisingly strange connections between two elements, only explainable through the character's innermost feelings.

As much as it is a riff on the melodramatic form, the film feels much more set in our world than some of the great works by Sirk and Delmer Daves. It seems to be less dreamy and more tied to our human experience. Those classic films seem to function on pure emotion, even if they have cynical social commentary in them, whereas this one seems connected to our world as a gritty drama. This is really a romantic short story, told in a melodramatic style.

The most evocative question this film leaves me with is whether Hester is a response to the stereotypical trope of women who turn their good lives into bad ones through their sexuality (like Jezebel) or if she is merely a pawn in the bigger societal problem of women necessarily depending on men. Is she pushing back against a system in which she has no rights, or is she a victim of that system? Is it her fault that she got into her complicated relationships or is she just a symbol for the post-war degradation of English (or world) culture.

Stars: 3.5 of 4