Sunday, January 29, 2012

Haywire (Sunday, January 29, 2012) (5)

Steven Soderbergh is a good and talented filmmaker. Above everything else, he's a great watcher of other, older movies. Maybe that's why I generally like his movies, or, at a minimum, find his work interesting, because I feel like he's a movie watcher just like I am.

His newest film, Haywire, is a really fun, small action film that plays very much like one of those sleek post-Bond action flicks, like John Boorman's Point Blank (with Lee Marvin). The story here is not too complicated (well, there are lots of moving parts to it, but it's not too hard to follow), the action scenes, fights and chases, look great, it does not spending too much time dwelling on character development and pathos (it's an action film, after all) and it all ties up well in the end.

Mallory (MMA star Gina Carano) is a super spy who works for some private firm that consults with the CIA. When a job goes pear-shaped she finds that people on her own team might be out to get her and she looks to find them before they can find her. She seems always a half-step ahead of them and is not afraid to put on heels and a black dress and kill people (like a girl James Bond). It's a very sleek movie, though nothing too deep or psychologically rigorous.

It's always a big risk to cast a non-actor in a major role, especially one like this which is not really autobiographical. I think Soderbergh rather enjoys making the audience feel uncomfortable with non-actors in major roles, a bit of a thumbing his nose at Hollywood tradition.

Carano does a very good job here, actually (much better than the last non-actor SS had in one of his movies, when anal porno superstar Sasha Grey was in The Girlfriend Experience in 2009), and comes off as an aw-shucks girl next door... but a badass one. She's totally sexy - and thick, which is doubly sexy - and plays well opposite the various males who want to lay her (Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Ewan McGregor). I'm not sure she has a lot of other acting roles left in her career, but this is a great effort here.

I also appreciate that this is a pocket-sized action flick. It's a lot of fun and doesn't have the bombasity of a bigger-budget action movie, like a Mission: Impossible or a late-model Bond. It's got a great look, a great soundtrack (by David Holmes), and is a lot of fun.

Stars: 3 of 4

Roadie (Sunday, January, 29, 2012) (4)

Michael Cuesta's last major film, L.I.E. is a very interesting look at suburbia and teen sexuality. His newest film, Roadie, has almost none of the same subtlety and interest. This is a bit unfair, though, as this film also has almost none of the same expectations going in (like I'm kicking a handicapped kid when he's down). It's not a bad movie, but it just doesn't live up to the filmmaker's previous work.

Jimmy (Ron Eldard) is a 40-something guy who has worked for 20-some years as a roadie for the Blue Oyster Cult on their various international tours. He returns to his mother's house in Queens one day after getting fired (finally) and has to face the reality of the total end of his musical dream. He will not become a rock star and will never be discovered. This is the end of the road for him. When he goes into the local bar, he meets Randy (Bobby Cannavale), a bully from his high school days, who is now married to Nikki (Jill Hennessey), his former flame. Life has come to a similar halt for these two, but they seem happy in their mediocrity. Jimmy begins to lie about the direction of his life and reconnect to Nikki, though his true life might come back to bite him.

The tone map for this film would go something like, "sad, pitiful, very sad, sad." I actually like that this never gets very happy and that everything is generally beige and ugly (it's Queens, after all). This is a pretty true picture of life, really, and I like that it's not made prettier than it should be. But still, it's a bit strange to see a movie that really doesn't show much development of the characters nor change in emotions. This is a very thematic and psychologically monotone story and never really develops well. Not that it's bad, but that it's frustrating to experience. I like its realism, but it's not a world I want to spend much time in (real life is hard enough, amaright?!).

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Friday, January 27, 2012

Albert Nobbs (2011) (Friday, January 27, 2012) (149)

There is one interesting scene in Rodrigo Garcia's film Albert Nobbs. At one moment, Albert (Glenn Close) and his friend Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), both of whom are living as men, though they are biologically woman, go for a walk on the beach dressed in women's clothes. This has a certain strange quality to it, as we know well that both of these characters are women and that dressing as such should not be a problem, but as we've spent 80 minutes watching them as men, it still feels like they're just two guys cross dressing.

This is not very dissimilar from a moment in Celine Sciamma's recent film Tomboy, where young Laure's mother makes her wear a dress, even though we've only seen her in boys' clothes. I would say, though that that scene was much more interesting as it was not simply a superficial statement, but much more of a psychological one. Garcia might have been attempting to make a psychological statement, though it just falls flat. It's a strange feeling to see a character we think of as a man dressed as a woman, though I'm not really sure what to make of it. I'm not sure Garcia explains his intentions well enough here.

Nobbs is a butler in a Victorian-era Dublin hotel, where he has worked for years. It seems at some point it became easier for her to get a job as a butler than as a woman servant, so she decided to cross dress and identify as a man. There's certainly a suggestion that he identifies as a gay woman, though the psychology gets very uncertain. One night Nobbs has to share his bedroom with Page, who is in the hotel repainting the walls, and they each find out the other's secret (by opening their shirts and showing their breasts. Subtle.). It seems Page made a decision to live as a man to protect herself from an abusive husband a long time ago. Now he lives as a transsexual in a relationship with a woman. When Nobbs decides to get out of the hotel game (why now?!), he decides he should marry young Helen (Mia Wasikowska) a girl who seems more interested in the hunky handyman than Nobbs.

Aside from the frustration of not really understanding the psychological point of view of Nobbs, this story is extra annoying as it shows Nobbs making only bad decisions. Why in the world would he want to marry Helen? She seems totally average and not unlike hundreds of other chambermaids he might have met over the years. Why would he decided to get out of hotel butlering now when it seems like a very safe place for him? Why not open a tobacconist shop alone without a wife?

I don't think Garcia explains enough here about the motivation of Nobbs or what goes into his decisions. It seems like he's leaving most of that interpretation work up to the audience to figure out, but I don't think that's very fair in the context of this film. I have no good idea about Victorian mores regarding cross-dressing and transsexuals and I don't think we know enough about what Nobbs' deep feelings are regarding Helen or any other woman. Does he really love her? Is she just the means to a "normal" end? Does he have similar feelings toward Page? It's all very muddy and difficult to understand.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Warrior (2011) (Thursday, January 26, 2012) (148)

I had no interest in seeing Warrior when it came out. It looked like any average boxing movie that have been made over the years (there have been a lot of them recently). But then it got an Oscar nomination for supporting actor for Nick Nolte, so I decided I'd give it a change. Well, it's really nothing more than your average boxing movie - though this time it's not boxing, per se, but mixed marshal arts (MMA).

The film follows two brothers, Brendan Conlon (Joe Edgerton) and Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy), who live in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh respectively. They were both raised partly by their drunk dad, Paddy (Nolte), who was an ex-Marine and a high school wrestling coach. It seems at some point their mother took them to the West Coast, from where they split up. Later, Brendan became an amateur MMA fighter and Tommy went to the Marines and served in Iraq.

Back to the present day, they are both having a hard time in life, both underemployed and looking for a shot of cash to make everything better. They both begin training for some big super MMA tournament that apparently people care a lot about (because that's just like it would be if this happened outside of a movie!). Against big odds they both make their way to the final match where they have to face one another. Oh - and there's something about both of them dealing with their drunk dad, who is soberish but still a jerk.

There's really nothing special about this movie, aside from the fact that it runs about 130 minutes, which is way too long. All the traditional tropes of fight movies are present here, the pretty but powerless wife/girlfriend, the underdog gaining respect by brawling, the fighter who is also a physics teacher (no, he doesn't also play the violin).

Nolte is fine here, though there's really no reason for him to have gotten the Oscar nom. He's basically playing himself again, drunk who can sober up here and there, but is generally a psychologically underdeveloped man. He's not a leader and hero the way Mickey from Rocky is, nor is he an outright scoundrel. This is much more of a boxing movie for kids who prefer MMA to boxing than any sort of interesting or compelling narrative.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune (2011) (Thursday, January 26, 2012) (147)

There But for Fortune is a very good biodoc about the life and career of the great folk singer and Lefty activist Phil Ochs. It shows how he came up in the late-'50s Greenwich Village folk scene, how he was friendly and competitive with Dylan and how he got involved in the various civil rights and anti-war movements of the Left. The third act, about his fall into manic-depression and his ultimate suicide is a bit rocky as it features less music and, as a result of his doing fewer interviews, more speculation by his friends.

Still, the music throughout the film is, of course, fantastic, and this really shows Ochs as the musical and cultural genius and firebrand that he was. It's sad that he's not thought of by most in the same way Seeger, Dylan and Baez are, but his work clearly stands shoulder-to-shoulder with any of theirs.

Stars: 3 of 4

HappyThankYouMorePlease (2011) (Thursday, January 26, 2012) (146)

It's an old story. A guy on a subway train, who is late for a meeting, finds a lost little boy and takes him in, learning more about himself as he teaches the boy things about life and the city. No, this isn't Chaplin's The Kid, nor is it Adam Sandler in Big Daddy. It's HappyThankYouMorePlease, Josh Radnor's pet project that he wrote, directed and stars in.

This is a nice little ensemble comedy about Sam (Radnor), a New York writer who is rather stuck in his life. He meets Rasheen (Michael Algieri) on the subway and all of his friends think he's nuts for not going to the cops to find his family. It seems that Rasheen is a foster kid and is just as happy with Sam as with his foster people. Sam's cousin, Mary Catherine (Zoe Kazan), is an artist and in a rather rocky relationship with her boyfriend and his best friend, Annie (Malin Akerman), has alopecia and works in a law firm where she's hit on by all the nerdy lawyers, despite not having any hair on her head. With Rasheen as the catalyst everyone finds their own happy way.

There's nothing particularly wonderful about this film, but nothing really terrible about it either. It's a movie I've seen a few times already and nothing really fresh at all. The best thing in the film is the discovery of young Algieri, who seems to really have something... but he's a kid and those things are designed to be cute.

I give Radnor credit for writing a movie and casting the beautiful Kate Mara as the romantic love interest. That's a great idea, bro. I'd have done the same, I'm sure!

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sleeping Beauty (2011) (Wednesday, January 25, 2012) (145)

Julia Leigh's sex rompy Sleeping Beauty should not be confused with Catherine Breillat's politico-Freudian film The Sleeping Beauty (the definite article is very important). The two films have very little to do with one another, aside from both having female protagonists. In the Leigh, Lucy (the super fetching Emily Browning) is a college student who works several odd jobs to make her way. She does medical experiments, works as a copy girl in an office, waits tables and turns tricks in nightclubs and for private clients.

One day she is hired by a fancy lady for a strange and secretive group of rich men in some elite and sex-focussed supper club. She's told to strip down to her underwear and pour wine in the fancy dining room, for which she's paid very well. The next day she is served a sedative and asked to lay down naked in bed while one of those old men uses her (with no penetration, leaving no scars, of course) until she wakes up. It's not clear what this sexual servitude means or what exactly happens, but, again, she's well paid for her work.

This film is what happens when someone only looks at Pasolini's Salo from a superficial perspective. In fact several of the set-ups seem to be taken directly from that film (particularly the post-dinner brandy session where two women curl up on the floor showing their anuses). I have to admit, I don't really get this film or what it's trying to say. Unlike with the Pasolini, there doesn't seem to be a strong political underpinning to the narrative, although the supper club members are clearly super rich and powerful. It seems that Leigh blushes a bit too much and doesn't go as far or as strong as PPP went in his film, as she shows only fleeting nudity and tries to remain decent as much as possible (though I'm sure Browning's contract also had something to do with that).

This is a lightly erotic film, but really only inasmuch as it shows a young woman with a tiny body in little or no clothes doing some near-sexual things (there's really no fucking, per se). This is yet another example of how filmmakers trade ellipsis for meaning, hoping you'll do most of the heavy lifting on your own. The problem here is that the story is so incomplete there is no way to fully understand it.

We can guess that the men in the supper club are rich masters of the universe and they have these strange interactions with young girls as a way of disproving their mortality, but we really have nothing to base this idea on aside from circumstance. Furthermore, as much as these men seem to be bourgeois and monied, Lucy and her peers are economically unknown, so there's not really a full Marxist argument being made.

Technically this is a totally gorgeous film (aside from Browning's own technical gorgeousness). The cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson is crisp yet dreamy. The costumes and production design (by Shareen Beringer and Annie Beauchamp, respectively) are perfect for the content (or suggested content) of the film and create lush and glamorous interiors.

I feel like Leigh is on the edge of having a very good movie here, but there is just too much left untold.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bonsai People: The Vision of Muhammad Yunus (Tuesday, January 24, 2012) (3)

The title of this film, Bonsai People, comes from one of Muhammad Yunus' millions of aphorisms about how people are like bonsai trees and that they can grow but they need care and love and the right soil. Yunus is a really great guy. He saw a need for micro-lending in his native Bangladesh and began the Grameen Bank, a nimble bank that broke with international tradition by lending small amounts of money to the poorest people they could find. Grameen's clients are almost all women who are looking for small loans under $100 to buy a cow or a few small trees or some seeds to start a small business. This documentary looks at all that Grameen and Yunus do.

After Yunus got tons of attention in 2006 when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, international companies fell all over themselves to work with him in one of the zillions of Grameen off-shoots, in health, housing, farming, livestock, childhood and women's education, disaster relief, food and on and on. The film is punctuated with some of Yunus' more wholesome and banal chestnuts ("Credit is a human right;" "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime;" "Making an impact in people's lives is as important as making money.") and we see how his policies and ideas are helping to life poor women out of poverty throughout Bangladesh.

Strangely criticisms of Grameen's lending practices are mentioned and quickly dismissed. We never really see what happens to women who can't pay back their debts and why (there's a suggestion that health care emergencies sometimes get in the way of paying back the loans... but that seems like a much too specific reason). There's also a strange sense, in discussion with some of Grameen' more long-term borrowers, that the bank acts as a bit of a pusher forcing women to take loans they might not need or want. One women proudly shows off her beautiful house and farm paid for by work and Grameen loans. Wonderful - but it does feel a bit like she's a junkie showing all the wonderful different drugs her dealer has given to her. A bit strange. I wish there had been a bit more balance to this portrait and that it came off as less of a propaganda tool than it does.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Monday, January 23, 2012

Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011) (Monday, January 23, 2012) (144)

Page One: Inside the New York Times is a documentary that follows the Media desk of the New York Times during the end of 2009 and early 2010. One of the main characters of the film is Media columnist and reporter David Carr, and with his rough Upper Midwest voice, he takes on all attackers who claim that the paper is going under and that the days of broadsheet print are over.

Throughout the film stories pop up, get discussed, are printed and then forgotten. We see the first WikiLeaks video dump showing US armed forces killing Reuters journalists, we see the late-2009 withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, we see the Tribune Company fall apart. With each story it is clear that the editors and writers of the Times are serious thinking people who try to look at more than one side of the issue.

Meanwhile, from every angle, they are under attack from other journalists and news media players such as blogs and news aggregators who claim that the world wouldn't be so bad if there were no more Times. Each time this comes up, director Andrew Rossi shows that the claim is worthless without a full consideration of the ramifications of such a situation. The New York Times is the originator of many stories each day and a world without it might very well be a worse place.

This is clearly a glamor project that shows how wonderful and smart everything surrounding the New York Times is. There are brief mentions of the Carlos Slim loan to the Times, the new building and it's sale-leaseback deal, the new pay-wall on the website and the buyouts of old staffers. Mostly we see how a bunch of young (mostly) good looking (mostly) men make tough decisions all the time.

I generally don't like films like this that come off as much as an advertisement for the subject as a document about it, but this is generally not too offensive. It is interesting and clever how stories come and go through the film just as they do on the front page of the paper. Still, it sometimes seems like a movie with no plot and no beginning or end.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Saturday, January 21, 2012

My Piece of the Pie (2011) (Saturday, January 21, 2012) (143)

My Piece of the Pie is Cédric Klapisch's latest film about class and power in France. Middle-class mother of three, France (Karin Viard), lives in Dunkirk when her factory is shut down and she loses her job. Depressed that her life is not what she had hoped it would be, she goes to Paris to get trained to be a maid. She is sent to work for Steve (Gilles Lellouche), a French stock broker who has been working in London for a decade. Now back in Paris, he hopes to settle down and get married.

The problem is that he's a pig with women and doesn't understand that money can't buy happiness or love. He treats all women badly in general, be they girlfriends, Russian prostitutes or fashion models who he whisks off for a weekend in Venice. When his young son is dropped off at his apartment by his ex, he finds himself in desperate need of France's child rearing expertise. The two grow closer as they spend more and more time together, as she looks after his son and mothers him as well.

As with other Klapisch films, this has a generally light and happy tone, even silly at times (and yes, as with all of his films, there are two fun dance sequences in it). Viard and Lellouche are both great and totally relate well as maid-boss, mother-son and maybe more. Unlike a film such as Laurent Cantet's beautiful Time Out, another French film dealing with lay-offs and also featuring Viard, the economic criticism and despair over losing a job is not as seamless. Here, the near-romcom of France and Steve seems rather separate from the bitterness France feels toward Steve's work and money spending. The last 20 minutes turn the story dramatically into what I feel is more of a silly melodrama than it needs to be. Still, this is generally good and well made.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Coriolanus (2011) (Saturday, January 21, 2012) (142)

Coriolanus is Ralph Fiennes' modern interpretation of the Shakespeare Roman play. Adapted by playwright-cum-screenwriter John Logan, the film is set in our contemporary world, where "Rome" is a contemporary country at war with an invading force from Volsci. On its surface, Roman looks much like any Western superpower of today: they drive Mercedes-Benzes, they watch 24-hour news channels, they get into bitter political and diplomatic debates. The Roman general, Caius Martius (Fiennes) fights a protracted battle against the Volscian leader, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), and when he comes back after the victory he becomes a national superstar.

Renamed Coliolanus, after the town of Corioles where the battle took place, he quickly becomes a bright political star. The problem is that he's very conservative and doesn't believe people who don't serve in the military should be entitled to food and power. Rome is in the midst of major protests from the poor (very similar to what one might see on the television today with any Occupy rally in the world) and Coriolanus takes a rigid and extreme position.

Just as he is about to win more political power, he is ousted from the Senate and banished from Rome. With nowhere else to go, and with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and wife (Jessica Chastain - her 6th supporting role of 2011) working to restore his power behind the scenes, he joins his once-enemy Aufidius to try and retake control of Rome.

This is Fiennes' directorial debut and he does a really good job with it. The leap of a Roman play taking place in our contemporary world totally works and looks great. Cleverly Fiennes sets up transitions as small news segments on cable news, so the story flows easily without confusion and naturally inside the world we see. Rome is filled with a diverse group of people from around the world, with John Kani, a South African actor, playing Cominus, the head of the Senate. All of this gives the sense that Rome is a powerful and far-flung empire filled with people from all around the world who speak in many different accents (much as it must have been, of course).

I am particularly interested in how straightforward the story is (with not many story elements cut from the play) compared with other tragedies and Roman works. The characters' motivations are all very clear and interesting, and Coriolanus' own vengeance, even in the face of his mother, wife and son, is fascinating. This is very good movie and one that works very well as an adaptation. Clearly Fiennes knows what he's doing behind a camera and I look forward to seeing more from him.

Stars: 3 of 4

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Best Films of 2011

I saw fewer movies in the calendar year 2011 (141) than any year since I have been keeping count, yet I really don't feel like I missed much good stuff (I've subsequently watched more films and have now seen 154 films total). I am shocked by how many movies are merely average (2 or 2.5 stars). I will say that when it came to making this Top Ten list, I struggled a bit to get it down to only ten titles... so I cheated....

I have a tie in 10th place, not only because I felt bad about cutting the list down further, but also because a set of film seemed to deal with material a similar way, Breillat's The Sleeping Beauty and Sciamma's Tomboy. Both of these deal with either child sexuality or pre-sexuality, that translates as sexuality, in an interesting way. I think both of these women directors imbue their works with film theory in a Freudian context and neither one is as easy as it might seem on the surface.

Some interesting statistics: There are two Iranian films on the list (even though Certified Copy was made in Europe and is mostly in English), there are two Romanian films (and a third on the honorable mentions list), there are two French films and a Portuguese film. There are two documentaries and three American movies (plus a Germanish movie... where Werner speaks English and riffs on Hollywood 3D movies of old). There are two films that clock in at three hours each and one that clocks in at four-and-a-half hours.

I think The Tree of Life is one of the best films ever made. I recently had to make up a list of the greatest 100 films of all time and I strongly considered putting this on that list (I only didn't because such an inclusion requires a bit more time to marinate, digest and live with). I can't think of another film that is so beautiful thematically and technically and moves the audience along in a similar way. This movie is really in a category entirely by itself and to compare it to anything else would be silly.

I also know it's a bit silly to have so many films in the "honorable mention" category, but I didn't want them to go unmentioned. Amid all the terrible movies, there were lots of good movies in 2011 and they should all be seen and enjoyed.

1) The Tree of Life
2) The Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D
3) Aurora
4) Meeks Cutoff
5) The Future
6) Mysteries of Lisbon
7) The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu
8) A Separation
9) Certified Copy
10) The Sleeping Beauty and Tomboy

Honorable Mentions:

* Beginners
* Drive
* Hesher
* The Kid with a Bike
* The Muppets
* Over Your Cities Grass Will Go
* Le Quattro Volte
Nostalgia for the Light
* Pina 3D
* A Screaming Man
* The Skin I Live In
* Super
* Take Shelter
* Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
* Tuesday, After Christmas
* Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
* Weekend

The Worst Films of 2011

So 2011 had lots of mediocre movies and lots of really awful ones. Here is my "bottom 10". They range from the facile and deeply offensive (both historically and intellectually) to the ridiculous and the stupid. I hope all of these films are burned and are never shown again. They're terrible.

The Help
2) Sarah’s Key
3) Rise of the Planet of the Apes
4) Transformers: Dark of the Moon 3D
5) Miral
6) Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1
7) Super 8
8) The Roommate
9) Margaret
10) Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Honorable Mentions:

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

X-Men: First Class (2011) (Wednesday, January 18, 2012) (141)

X-Men: First Class is the origin story for this comic-book series. After a CIA agent sees a group of people behaving with super-human powers, she enlists the help of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) who is a researcher in human mutations. Xavier himself has powerful telepathy abilities and his best friend is a girl named Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) who can transform herself (clothes and all) to look like anyone she sees.

Meanwhile, a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor, Eric Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), who has the magnetic power to move and control metal, is out trying to avenge the death of his mother at the hands of the Nazis as well as years of experiments performed on him for the Nazis by Dr. Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Shaw, the consummate eugenicist, believes normal humans are terrible and they should be wiped out and replaced with mutants.

At some point Xavier (with Raven) and the CIA meet up with Lensherr and they all join forces. It seems the CIA is trying to collect all the teens in America who have these mutant powers. With the help of a massive computer helmet, Xavier is able to find all these kids and bring them in. Shaw uses the Cuban Missile Crisis as the stating ground for his massive overthrow of humanity and Xavier, Raven, Lensherr and their teens have to stop him.

This is a fun movie and I generally like "origin" stories. It's neat to see where characters I know come from and what they looked like younger (hotter, yes). There are lots of fun set-ups with the teens training their powers and learning how to use their skills for good rather than evil.

Still, the dialogue throughout the film is ridiculous and much of the acting is too. Jennifer Lawrence (who I really liked in Winter's Bone) is particularly bad here (and is certainly not helped by the silly lines she has to speak). Fassbender, who is a great actor, again struggles with his accent here. It's all a bit of a mess, as it was with him in the film Shame, where there was a ridiculous line about how he was born in Dublin and moved to New York, as a way to get around his terrible Americun accent.

This doesn't really take away from the fact that this is generally a fun action super-hero movie set in the 1960s that generally looks great and tells a good story of choosing to be good or evil.

Stars: 2 of 4

Arthur (2011) (Tuesday, January 18, 2012) (140)

This new Arthur movie, with Russell Brand, Hellen Mirren and Greta Gerwig, is a remake of the 1981 comedy of the same name with Dudley Moore, John Gielgud and Liza Minnelli. Today we find ourselves in another economic pit and what will make us happier than watching a drunk asshole win by being sober and less of an asshole.

There are a handful of updates or tweaks, but most of the story is the same. Arthur (Brand) is an out-of-control billionaire who does anything and everything he wants to do in New York City. His best friend is his butler Hobson (Mirren), who constantly insults him with a sharp tongue and generally looks after him. He is told he'll lose his money unless he marries Susan (Jennifer Garner), the heiress of another gigantic fortune, partly because she is a proper fit socially and partly because it would be a good business move for his family company.

Just as he's about to settle down against his well, he meets Naomi (Gerwig) who is a middle-class girl from Queens who runs illegal tours of New York (which is almost the same as stealing from Bergdorf Goodman, of course!). He falls head over heels for Naomi because she's honest and smart and has to figure out how to keep his money and win her over.

I like the original film, but I don't love it, yet it's much, much better than this heap. Brand is a total asshole and not appealing at all. Part of the reason the first film works at all is that Moore is charming and generally likable, even in his drunkest. Brand is a lot more juvenile than Moore was, more like a kid with a lot of money than a man who behaves badly.

Mirren is great in this role, though I think it's the ultimate straight-man and it's written well (Gielgud was also great in this role as well). Gerwig is always fabulous, though it's still weird for me to see her all clean and with makeup on as I always think she does better when she's more natural and awkward, less scripted. Her character is less loud and crazy -- because she's not Liza, with all that she brings -- and I think the connection here between Arthur and Naomi is more suggested by the context of the story than shown clearly.

This is a totally recycled film that really has no business being remade. I don't think this adds anything to the original film (which is still pretty funny) and I can't figure out why anyone would want to watch Brand, who is a total hack.

Stars: 1 of 4

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tomboy (2011) (January 16, 2012) (139)

Writer-director Céline Sciamma's previous film, Water Lilies, was a great, simple and beautiful film about teen sexuality and power. In Tomboy, she makes another film that rests on the edge of Western cultural mores about children and sex, this time with younger, pre-sexual kids.

The film opens with a prepubescent child with short hair riding in the car with his/her father. It is not clear if this is a girl or a boy, but he/she looks about 10-years old. The family has just moved to a new apartment in the Paris banlieue. Right after moving in, the child goes outside to walk around and meets a young girl, Lisa. The child says his/her name is Mikael and is then introduced to the other kids as the new boy in the building. Later, in a bath with his younger sister, it becomes clear that Mikael is not who he says he is, but rather is a girl named Laure. Now Laure/Mikael has to pass as a boy, despite her sister finding out about the situation.

This is a very simple film in narrative. There is one falsehood presented early on and it leads to a few situations that are totally uncomfortable for the audience and difficult for Laure. Much of the tension in the film relates to Laure's "secret" coming out and how the viewers generally root for her to pass as a boy. Sciamma beautifully plays with this idea, however, as she puts Laure in positions that bend gender, and make the audience squirm. At one point, Lisa puts makeup on Mikael the way two 10-year-olds might play. For us, this is a very disconcerting moment as it feels like a boy is being forced to look like a girl... though, of course, it's really just a girl getting makeup on her face. At another moment, Laure's mother insists she put on a dress, which feels very much like she's a boy wearing a dress.

This brings up all sorts of interesting stuff about how society prejudges kids with regard to gender and who once we think a kid is a boy or a girl, they are put into categories in our minds. Girls wear pink and play with makeup; boys wear blue and wrestle. (Laure's mother mentions offhandedly that her bedroom was painted blue.) Even when we know Laure is a girl, her wearing a dress still feels uncomfortable. This also leads to questions about our feelings of childhood sexuality and presexuality. It's very easy to just to the conclusion that Laure is a pre-lesbian, but she's really pre-sexual and this experiment has much more to do with being a new kid in the building, wanting to fit in and her feelings about her parents and sister.

There's something about French directors that they direct kids in amazingly and naturally, unlike most English-speaking directors. Sciamma is working mostly with non-actor kids or kids with very little experience and most of the scenes in the film involve kids running around and playing or talking and arguing as kids. Throughout the film, everything feels totally natural and honest. Some scenes could pass as unscripted documentary footage (much of it is probably unscripted). Zoé Héran, who plays Laure/Mikael, is particularly great in this role, though with kids it's always hard to compliment acting because it's not clear how much of a stretch they're making or how aware they are of what they're doing.

This is easily one of the best films of 2011. Much like Lucia Puenzo's fabulous film XXY from a few years back, it examines childhood gender roles in an elegant, non-exploitative fashion. It is straightforward with an uncomplicated plot, it has a beautiful realistic quality and interacts with the audience in very interesting ways that force reflexive analysis and more consideration.

Stars: 4 of 4

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011) (Monday, January 16, 2012) (138)

Somehow I missed Mission: Impossible 3, directed by J.J. Abrams. I can't say I really regret missing it, but it is a fact I had to deal with as I watched Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. It seems that all that's really important about the third film is that hero Ethan Hunt (wow - that name totally screams "straight American man"!) (Tom Cruise) got married to a lady and killed some dudes on a train and went to jail in Russia. That's basically where this fourth movie begins.

Ethan is broken out of jail and his team is all there and they're working on getting back some Russian nuclear submarine launch codes from some French people who stole them. Because 2011 is actually 1979. It seems the Frenchies want to sell the codes to a Swedish journalist, Mikael Blomkvist... er... rather a Swedish arms dealer (there are lots of them. Really. The unfinished Bergman film was a sequel to Lord of War. Really.) who wants to create a nuclear war to kill weak humans. Eugenics is fun! Oh - and the French lady super thief loves diamonds... and is willing to sell the codes for something like $300,000 in loose stones. Because that's the cost of nuclear war.

So this deal is going to take place in Dubai, because Dubai is very friendly to film crews who don't care about slavery, inside the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. It will also require Ethan to scale the outside of the building with special suction gloves... which don't work, of course. Ooops. It seems the deal goes wrong and there's more chasing and explosions.

Aside from the totally dated, recycled and ridiculous plot, this is actually a lot of fun. Lots of the story elements were big and blew up well. The final battle inside an automated garage tower was clever, though silly. I was a bit upset that the scaling-the-outside-of-the-tallest-building-in-the-world scene was so quick (like about three minutes). Director Brad Bird made it look great, but it was over before I got a good sense of it.

There was also a ton of homoeroticism between Ethan and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), a new team member. They're both really skinny and good at "hand-to-hand combat". They both run really fast and their verbal jousting was only lightly veiled. ("I'll tell you my secret if you tell me yours.") This was mostly fun and didn't get in the way of the stupid story otherwise... though I would have loved if they had just decided to screw... which would have been the biggest bang of all. Alas.

Stars: 2 of 4

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Norwegian Wood (Saturday, January 14, 2012) (2)

Haruki Murakami has an interesting style that is very specific and could be difficult to translate to film. Several years ago Japanese filmmaker Jun Ichikawa adapted a short story Tony Takitani to the screen in a beautiful film. Now Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran has adapted Murakami's Norwegian Wood, one of the most straightforward and least magical of his novels.

The film (and the book) deal with Watanabe, a man looking back at his days in college in the late 1960s. Back then he was best friends with classmates and couple Naoko and Kizuki. After Kizuki's suicide, Naoko and Watanabe become close and ultimately fall in love as well. Right after the first time they have sex, she leaves and checks into a mental hospital in the mountains. This leaves Watanabe loving her, or the idea of her and the magical aura she represents in his mind, though far away from her. He meets another student, Midori, and the two fall in love, though his thoughts frequently wander to Naoko and the past. In his effort to juggle his love for the two women, he risks losing both of them.

An interesting twist to the adaptation of the script (by Tran) and production of the film is that what was a more down-to-earth romantic drama becomes onscreen a pure melodrama, one that Douglas Sirk himself would appreciate. The feelings and actions of Watanabe become bigger-than-life plot points rather than intimate moments. The different women are somewhat faceless, as their emotional and narrative significance to Watanabe becomes more significant. For me, as a viewer who has never totally connected to melodrama, this is a bit difficult, though I really appreciate what Tran has done. I do feel, however, that the Midori character, in particular, becomes a bit slight and the concept of Watanabe being "torn" between two women, one of whom he 'has' one he does not, is more told to us than really shown (he's not really torn at all).

The technical aspects of the film are absolutely stunning. Ping Bin Lee, who also was the cinematographer on several beautiful films by Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Wong Kar-Wai's masterpiece In the Mood for Love, again shoots one of the most gorgeous and crystal-clear films I've seen in awhile. Almost ever shot is filled with bright, saturated colors, even the grimy interiors. There is a lot of play with near-burning and over-exposure, so sunny days become almost blinding in their clarity and whiteness (particularly effective in a film about nostalgia). Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood gives a beautiful, nostalgic and romantic score that fits into the sociopolitical and musical era of the film. He has developed into a very interesting score composer in recent years.

This film is rather different from the book, but it does follow a similar narrative journey. Much of the political tension that's in the book is eliminated here and forced into the background. Still, there is no mistake that this is a film based on a Murakami novel. It retains his pop culture connections, his cerebral/psychological interest and tone and his appreciation for the beauty not only in nature but also in banal and dirty things.

Stars: 3 of 4

Friday, January 13, 2012

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011) (Friday, January 13, 2012) (139)

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is the third part of the documentary series about the so-called West Memphis 3, three teenagers who were convicted of murdering three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. From the outside, the prosecution relied heavily on the boys appearance and fascination with the occult and heavy metal (which, of course, is not totally unusual for teenage boys). There was never any strong physical evidence, no motive and the convictions were largely based on the confession of Jessie Miskelly, the most damaged of the three, whose testimony was forced and hard to believe when heard. Of course, the convictions were really based on the fact that the community needed scapegoats and these kids were weird, had long hair, wore heavy metal t-shirts and didn't have lots of friends. Guilty.

The second film, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (from 2000), dealt mostly with the appeals process, where the three men brought new evidence and testimony to the court. Unfortunately for them, the judge hearing their appeal was the same one who presided over their original trials and his most important goal was to save face for himself and the police department, who had screwed up a handful of time.

Now, 11 years later the story goes on. The first 20 minutes of the film serve as catch-up to some of the more unusual details of the murders and the original trial. The body of one of the murdered boys had strange scratch marks on it and had its testicles and penis removed. Prosecutors used these facts to suggest it was a Satanic ritualistic murder, though an expert brought in by the appeal team says now that it's consistent with an animal clawing and eating parts of the body.

The step-father of one of the boys famously was accused by Damien Echols, the suggested leader of the killers and the only one on death row, to be the murderer and he, in turn, had acted out a manic ritual himself of burning and burying the "bodies" of the three murderers. That man is now on the side of the guilty men, saying he's been swayed by the lack of physical and DNA evidence in the States' case. The good news for the convicts is that the original judge was elected to the state supreme court (fail upwards!), so they would get a new judge who would hear their new evidence.

The second film dealt a lot with the cause celebre that the case had become and how celebrities like Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp had taken the story and raised money for the appeal process. There was also a lot in the appeal case seen in that film about how the cameras of directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky that were in the court room in the original trial might have affected the outcome one way or another. In this third film there is a lot more of this reflexive analysis about how much of a thing this story of three teens became due to the popularity of the films. In the end, there would not have been a strong appeal possible without the financial and emotional support of the public for the three convicts. The documentary itself changes its own outcome (very un-Frederick Wiseman).

One very interesting element about this third film (and really the second one to a degree) is how this series emerges in a very similar if unintended way to the Up Series, the group of documentary films by Michael Apted that follows a group of 7-year-olds every seven years as they grow up. In those, as in this, you see how the characters grow and change and meet different experiences depending on how the deal with the reality they are each given. Similar to those films, Purgatory also shows how the experience of being in the films changes the men's lives. Damien Echols himself got married to a woman who watch the original documentary on TV in 1996, began a letter relationship with him and ultimately moved to Little Rock to marry him. Similar to the Up films, this is not an experiment sealed in a vacuum, rather they each have different opportunities because they are known from the film.

It says a lot that when I read in August that the West Memphis 3 were getting out of jail I knew exactly what the story was about and let a few friends know about it. It has become a cultural touchstone for this era that people around the world know about. Few documentaries have this reach and few can help to free wrongly convicted men the way this series has.

Stars: 3 of 4

Thursday, January 12, 2012

I'm Glad My Mother is Alive (2011) (Thursday, January 12, 2012) (137)

I'm Glad My Mother is Alive is the story of Thomas (Vincent Rottiers), a French boy who was put up for adoption when he was five because his young mother wasn't able to deal with him and his half-brother. The story begins when he's a teenager and having difficulty relating to his adoptive parents (who seem like wonderful people). In a fit of rage he goes to find his birth mother and reconnect with her.

We see him again, when he's 20, struggling to keep his life together. He's an auto mechanic and seems to have come to some sort of understanding with his adoptive parents. He goes out looking for his birth mother again, this time as a grown up. When he finds her, he feels some sort of connection to her (and her young son, his half-brother). They become friends, though he never tells his adoptive family about her.

This is generally a good film with an interesting story. There is a constant tension with Thomas as we see him lashing out at people for almost no reason and being on the verge of violence several times. When he meets his birth mother there is an almost immediate sexual tension between them (he's 20, she's in her late 30s), reminiscent of the views we see of her from when he was a child (sensually looking at her breasts and her legs). We don't really know what he's going to do to her or around her. He's a very guarded person, probably due to his need for self-preservation, and it's hard to totally guess what is next from him.

Vincent Rottiers is really great in this role and plays Thomas as a likable, normal-seeming guy with a darkness below the surface. He loves his birth mother, but doesn't know how to interact with her (particularly considering his feelings for her) and is easily wounded. This is a small film, but is generally interesting and well done.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Lebanon, Pa. (2011) (Wednesday, January 11, 2012) (136)

Lebanon, Pa. is about Will (Josh Hopkins), a guy in his mid-30s who lives in Philadelphia who has to go to Lebanon, PA to deal with his estranged father's estate once after his death. Once he gets there he becomes friendly with his dad's neighbors, a guy about his age who is raising two teenage kids. The daughter, CJ (Rachel Kitson), is in a Juno-like dilemma about whether or not to keep an unplanned baby and the son is just discovering sex with girls. Will also falls in love with Vicki (Samantha Mathis), a teacher at the high school (yes, of course she is one of CJ's teachers. Of course.) who is married buy upset with her average life.

Easily the best thing about the film is Rachel Kitson who doesn't appear to have ever acted on screen before, but is totally wonderful as a precocious, self-determined teen. She's particularly great because she looks like a teen, a girl who a geeky guy could fall in love with, who would want to go to college rather than becoming a housewife at age 18. She's totally genuine and wonderful. I hope she acts in other stuff again.

This has an overall light tone and is a bit of a real-feeling twist on the "going back home" genre with the abortion talk and all. It's a very small movie and nothing more than one would expect from such a movie... though it does have some good pro-choice, anti-counseling center stuff in it and that's wonderful.

Stars: 2 of 4

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Buck (2011) (Tuesday, January 10, 2012) (135)

Buck is a biodoc of Buck Brennaman, a famous horse trainer, whose kind approach to the animals has led him to become a minor celebrity in the horse world. Buck was raised by a physically abusive father and put onstage at an early age performing rope tricks. When his mother died and his father began beating him and his brother more, they were moved to a foster home. There he learned about love of people and of animals.

Nowadays Buck tours the country presenting horse clinics, teaching people with young horses how to interact with them better and safer. He doesn't believe in roughness at all with the animals and tries to explain "feel", the idea that one can lead a horse with one's mind better than with one's body and actions. He also manages to be on the road for nine months a year and stay married with a teenage daughter who loves him.

This is a nice little movie that has a very good message about love for people and for horses. It's not particularly intellectually stimulating and probably would have been stronger as a short rather than a feature, but it's a nice story about a very good man.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Monday, January 9, 2012

3 Backyards (2011) (Monday, January 9, 2012) (134)

Sometimes indie movies are interesting and do things that mainstream and Hollywood films couldn't do... and sometimes indie movies are just small and weird. The latter is the case with 3 Backyards, the small film by writer-director Eric Mendelsohn. The film deals with a day in the life of a handful of people, people from three homes, in a suburban Long Island town.

One story is about Peggy (Edie Falco) who is asked by an actress and minor celebrity (Embeth Davidtz) to drive her to a ferry (I think it's a ferry they're driving to... that's not totally clear to me). Clearly Embeth Davidtz is the first person anyone thinks about to play any skinny, cold, English-speaking foreigner -- and she does a great job here with that material. Falco is great too.

Then there's the story of John (Elias Koteas), a married man who gets in a fight with his wife as he's about to leave on a business trip. When flight changes interrupt his plans, he has a free day to figure out what he's doing in his marriage. Finally there's Christina (Rachel Resheff) a pre-teen girl who is dealing with boredom at school and normal kids stuff.

There is nothing really bad about this film, but it never totally amounts to much of anything. The three stories are only slightly connected, aside from the fact that the people involved in them live on the same block. Each one is basically a nice short that is intercut with two other nice shorts. I'm not totally sure I get what this is getting at totally... but overall it's good and not brilliant.

Stars: 2 of 4

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2011) (Saturday, January 7, 2012) (133)

Cameraman is a biodoc about Jack Cardiff, the great early Technicolor cinematographer. The film shows how he moved up in the ranks of English cinema and, due to his years of experience as a camera operator, was selected to learn the complicated process of color photography from the Technicolor labs. He worked on several productions with The Archers, that is the great British filmmaking collaboration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger. He was a camera operator for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, partly because he was one of the only people on the continent who knew how to use the gigantic camera, and later went on to be the director of photography for the great A Matter of Life and Death.

Once Powell and Pressberger split up, Cardiff worked as cinematographer on such films as John Huston's The African Queen and Lawrence Olivier's The Prince and the Showgirl (the subject of the new movie, My Week with Marilyn).

This is a very nice tribute piece filled with wonderful clips from some of the greatest British color films ever made. It makes very clear how talented Cardiff was and how important he was to the development of color filming. There are lots of talking-head interviews, including Martin Scorsese, for whom The Red Shoes (another film that Cardiff worked on) was an important work.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Friday, January 6, 2012

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Friday, January 6, 2012) (1)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time In Anatolia has almost no action in it, and yet is is one of the best policiers I've seen in a long time. The film opens in a small police car as five men drive around the Turkish countryside looking for a particular, but hard-to-find location. It seems the man in the middle of the back seat has admitted to murdering a man and dumping his body. The cops in this car, and two other cars in a caravan, are out looking for that location, along with the prosecutor and a doctor who is there to give medical evidence at the scene of the crime. Because the murder occurred at night, the man has difficulty knowing exactly where the body is now.

Considering they are driving around at night in the first half of the film, it is shot mostly in extreme chiaroscuro, with the dark black outside interrupted only by the moonlight reflected on the men's faces and the occasional headlights in wide landscape shots. The roads they drive weave around the rolling hills of Anatolia, generally directionless, and the murderer tries to recall where the act was committed, possibly near a natural spring, possibly near a tree, maybe with a bridge nearby and a wide farmer's field.

This is wonderful and pure Becketian existentialism as the film moves along slowly and carefully. The men have several seemingly insignificant conversations that all seem to reveal nothing. It's an immersive experience to be with them, bewildering in it's solemn pace and tone. One scene drips slowly into another. First they go to one possible location, then they go to another, then the murderer thinks he finally remember something and they go to another location, but that's not it either. We keep getting stuck in mundane and ridiculous arguments about exactly what town a certain field is in, and whether that town's line is on one side of a tree or another. It's all beautiful and rather absurdist (as we're supposed to be investigating a murder).

This film is probably the most Romanian New Wave film I've ever seen that is not a Romanian film. The long, long scenes with nothing happening are very reminiscent of Corneliu Porumboiu's brilliant Police, Adjective. Certainly the mix of existentialist non-action combined with arch bureaucratic formalism is something both these films share. Like the Porumboiu, the second half of this film brings out the absurdity of paperwork, situational malaise and the sadness connected to the browns and beiges of officialdom.

The acting throughout the film is amazing, particularly the three leads, Muhammet Uzuner (who plays the doctor), Yilmaz Erdogan (who plays the police commissioner) and Taner Birsel (who plays the prosecutor). They are totally natural and honest, a bit arch and silly at the proper moment, though straight in a way that helps to underline their winking.

The whole experience of watching this film is very interesting on a meta level, I think. It's 150 minutes long and almost nothing happens, yet it's almost always totally gripping. It's the lack of action, the attention you feel you must pay at every moment that keeps you glued to the screen (not unlike Chantal Akerman's masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the formal antecedent to the Romanian New Wave).

There are small beautiful things dotted throughout the film that show that Ceylan is a brilliant director. At one moment when the caravan is driving along the country, we see the lighted windows of a train passing in the distance. Immediately we consider that for people on that train, this caravan of several cars probably looks much the same to them. There is an elegance and a minimalism to the concept that the first half of the film is shot in near darkness, while the second half takes place the following morning, in bright light. There are several more of these dualities: rural and city, nature and buildings, rich and poor (between the doctor and the functionaries), Turkish and ethnic (it seems the murderer is an ethnic minority, possibly Kurdish).

This is a long movie, but a gorgeous one. At this point in the year it is silly to suggest it's going to be my favorite film of 2012, but I can't imagine there will be many other films that I like this much. It has a beautiful script, fantastic acting and looks amazing.

Stars: 4 of 4

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Nostalgia for the Light (2011) (Thursday, January 5, 2012) (132)

I feel like watching Werner Herzog's The Cave of Forgotten Dreams should be a requirement for anyone watching Patricio Guzman's Nostalgia for the Light. Part of this is due to the fact that this film is one of the most Herzogian films not made by Herzog that I've ever seen. Furthermore, both films deal with the concept of researching and discovering the unknown past in similar ways. Both director's films look at physical and celestial things, but investigates the metaphysical along the way. They both look at the very small in a greater search for answers to the very big.

Guzman's documentary looks at the Atacama desert, a high desert in northern Chile, where, due to an unusual lack of any humidity, astronomers have found it to be an ideal place for observing the night sky and extraterrestrial bodies. In addition to this, it is also a bleak landscape where, due to it's salty soil, pre-Columbian human history for tens of thousands of years is evident. But this is not the only history that lies inches beneath the surface. During the 19th century, this area was the home of a massive mining industry that relied heavily on slave or indentured-servant labor. Most importantly it was also the home of several concentration camps for political rivals during the Pinochet regime. Thousands of people were "disappeared" to the desert, many of them were buried there for a time, until, it is suggested, their bodies were exummed and subsequently dumped in the ocean to cover the state murderer's tracks.

This film is a look at people who study several things and several points in history from the same place on earth. There are scientists who look up at the heavens through their telescopes and search for evidence of the beginning of the universe. There are archeologists who look at the pre-Columbian, prehistoric human record. There are political historians who look at the Pinochet era. Finally there is a group of women who visit the desert looking for human evidence of their lost or missing loved ones who might have been buried in the desert, even for only a short time.

The connections that Guzman makes from one person's testimony to another's is wonderful. He asks the astronomers about their thoughts on the desert itself, as a harsh, almost-extraterrestrial landscape and beautifully connects what they say to shots of women digging in the dirt for signs of human bone fragments. At one point he takes two of those women and sets them up inside one of the oldest telescopes in the area, brought there by German scientists in the late-19th century. The connection between old and new, celestial and terrestrial, known and unknown is powerful and elegant.

The film is shot on DV camera and looks more like a home movie, than a internationally funded documentary. Still, there is a homemade intimacy here that is very powerful. I appreciate that this is a very personal, human story of trying to wrap one's head around difficult matters. Of course, this is a movie that is trying to gather material about people who are trying to gather material, and I think Guzman is aware of the cheekiness of such a proposition.

The title, Nostalgia for the Light, suggests that we are all searching for some sort of light, either literal (as in the astronomers) or metaphysical (as in the women who look for their loved ones). There is also the suggestion by Guzman that seeing some of the old telescopes in this high desert is a return to the Chile of his youth, a nostalgia for the pre-Pinochet eden of his childhood. This is a totally wonderful and brilliant film that should be seen by anyone interested in great documentaries about ontological dilemmas and the human condition. This is easily one of the best films of the year, of any genre or format.

Stars: 4 of 4

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Hanna (2011) (Wednesday, January 4, 2012) (131)

Hanna is the story of the eponymous girl (Saoirse Ronan), raised by her father in the wilds of northern Finland to be a super spy and super killer. It seems her dad (Eric Bana) used to work for the CIA and left around the time she was born. When they decide her training is complete (she's about 16 or so), she is "released" into the world and recaptured by the CIA. She escapes and kills a bunch of people and then goes on a killing spree throughout Europe to Germany, where she discovers things about her conception and life that she was not expecting (though none of it is much of a surprise to us).

Hanna is a totally great looking movie. At times it looks polished like a big Hollywood sci-fi movie (actually McG's Charlie's Angels comes to mind... though that has a lot to do with the stylized camerawork and fight scenes) and at other times it feels like an indie Euro movie, like Tykwer's Run Lola Run or Assayas' Carlos (yes, I know they're different, but they both have that sorta crummy late-20th-century Euro look to them). Everything is art directed to within an inch of its life - and then some. It's right on the edge of being a bit too much, but it's a lot of fun. The final chase sequence takes places in an old amusement park under overcast skies and looks particularly great. On top of all of this is a very tone-appropriate score by the Chemical Brothers (no surprise, this film feels like what a Chemical Brothers song would look like). More great look and feel...

Sadly the content of the narrative is hackneyed and not thrilling. It's basically The Bourne Identity with a girl instead of a grown man. I guess geeks like stories about girls (because they can't have sex with them in life...?). To add to the silliness, there CIA back story, involving a Cate Blanchette with a painful Americun southern accent, is more over-the-top than the rest of the film, which is rather moody and dirty. The two styles create an interesting juxtaposition, but I don't think it totally helps for telling the story. Rather, it feels too obvious an intersection, clean and polished versus dirty and rough. I'm gonna fall asleep...

The whole film feels a bit too facile and ultimately less-than-gripping. It really does look great, but that's about all that's worth much in it. The rest you've seen a million times before.

Stars: 2.5 of 4