Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Cedar Rapids (2011) (Wednesday, February 29, 2012) (156)

I had missed Cedar Rapids when it came out in theaters, but then it showed up on a handful of best of the year lists by several critics, so I decided to give it a chance. It is a funny gross-out comedy, but less than overwhelming.

You say that insurance sales is a prime subject for juvenile comedy? Well, you're in luck!

Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is an insurance salesman at a small company in rural Wisconsin. After the death of his colleague (by auto-erotic asphyxiation, of course) he's sent to a regional insurance conference in Cedar Rapids, an annual event of drunken debauchery. Tim is a grown nerd and a manchild who is having a relationship with his former junior high teacher (Sigourney Weaver). He has never done anything substantial in his life and the puddle-jumper flight to Cedar Rapids is his first time on an airplane.

When he gets to the conference he finds he'll be sharing a room with Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) a wild man who loves to drink and party more than he loves selling insurance policies. Tim has to concentrate on the task of getting a top rating from this regional group while Ziegler pushes him in all the wrong directions, including into bed with Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), a married red-head from Omaha.

There is a lot of funny and silly stuff here, and a lot of surprises including one of the strangest and most straightforward crack-pipe-smoking sequences I've ever seen (because that's funny!). There's also a lot of rather dumb, preachy sentimentality that really has no place in the story.

The third act is typically dull here -- I say typically because it's rare for a comedy like this to be solid for three-straight acts. I don't really care that Tim is a moralist or that he loves being a goody-two-shoes. This movie is not about good people - it's about bad and dirty people. Stop trying to force me to feel something deep for these cartoonish characters.

This is an OK movie. It's not brilliant, but much better than a lot of stuff out there (30 Minutes or Less, Bridesmaids). I don't know why people would say it's one of the best of 2011... but some people thought that about The Help, which is much more offensive.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Forgiveness of Blood (Saturday, February 25, 2012) (19)

American filmmaker Joshua Marston really likes making movies not set in America. His last and most major film to this point was Maria Full of Grace from 2004, about a girl who becomes a drug mule to get cocaine from Columbia into the U.S. In his new film, The Forgiveness of Blood, Marston looks East at Albania and the curious tradition of family blood feuds there.

Nik and Rudina are two teenagers living in a rural part of Albania. When their father and uncle get in a fight with a neighbor and accidentally kill him, their lives change dramatically. In Albania, there are hard and fast rules concerning blood feuds. All men of age (or near it) are legitimate targets for retribution attacks, which means they must not leave their houses in order to stay safe. The problem is that the family who is feuding with them bends the rules of the tradition, so they intimidate and threaten Rudina, who should be off-limits as a girl, and Nik's younger brother, who should be too young to be involved.

With their father goes into hiding in the countryside to avoid getting hurt or put in jail, Rudina has to pick up the slack he leaves, stepping away from school to run his daily bread cart route. Nik, also not able to be in school, is a typical 17-year-old, interested in video games, his friends and girls, although those things become less interesting when he's trapped in his house for weeks on end.

This is a very interesting film about a subject that I didn't know much about going in. I particularly like the frankness of the situations and how the tradition of the feud is not judged, despite our Western ideas of it's madness. There is something particularly compelling and upsetting about the film being set in such a remote and seemingly poor location, where the family has a horse and cart as their main transportation, but where the kids play video games, record videos on their phones and post stuff on Facebook. It's an unexpected and beautiful clash of cultures that is happening in Albania, where shedding "less civilized" traditions of blood feuds is necessary and difficult as the digital world races in the door.

As with Maria Full of Grace, Marston has an elegant, straightforward style, very sympathetic to the young people who are caught in situations outside of their control. There is an unsentimental view of the impossible dilemma that Nik and Rudina find themselves in, a mere microcosm of the greater problem such blood feuds could cause the country going forward.

I should note also that despite the fact that Marston has no particular connection to Albania, he spent time there before co-writing the script and shooting the film. The Albanian Academy of Film actually submitted this film to the Oscars for consideration for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination, but there were some political objections raised about Marston's Americanness and it was rejected. This is still a very good film and it's a shame the Oscars couldn't have kept it in the running.

Stars: 3 of 4

Friday, February 24, 2012

Attenberg (Friday, February 24, 2012) (18)

When watching Athina Rachel Tsangari's film Attenberg, it is important to keep in mind that the writer-director got a masters in Performance Studies. Her film is as much a study of motion, dance and performance as it is a narrative. Considering this fact is also central in understanding that this is not a typical film with a standard "A to B" structure, nor is it an "easy" movie where you walk out feeling happy that you just saw some nice storytelling.

It is a challenging and a strangely cold film, though a totally beautiful one. It is one of the most interesting movies I've seen in a long time. It feels very much like Giorgos Lanthimos' brilliant 2010 film Dogtooth (for which Tsangari was an Associate Producer), though much more human and relatable.

The film centers on Marina (Ariane Labed), a 23-year-old woman who takes care of her father Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis) in the last stages of cancer treatment. They live in a small mining town on the water that Spyros designed at some point in the past 30 years, now seeming to have nearly no inhabitants in it. It's a typical Modernist village, with rectilinear streets and buildings, awkward public spaces and difficult, cold interiors.

When she's not taking her father to the hospital for his tests, Marina spends much of her time driving visiting scientists around for the local mining firm. As the story goes on, her main rider is an engineer (Lanthimos... yes, the same guy who directed Dogtooth) who she finds theoretically attractive, despite the fact that she's generally not interested in sex and has no experience with it.

One of her main interests is hanging out with her best friend Bella (Evangelia Randou). The two almost exclusively talk about sex; Bella is a normal 23-year-old who likes sex, has a boyfriend and likes talking about it and she's rather obsessed with teaching Marina all she knows. Marina, meanwhile, seems reticent about her sexuality or any erotic emotions.

All of this is rather simple and straightforward and makes up most of the plot ... which is to say very little happens in this story. What keeps it interesting the whole time, though, is that Tsangari formally tells a separate story, different from the general narrative. The film is a master class in the differences and effects of static and moving camera work. Almost all of the standard narrative elements are shot with static shots. Tsangari has a keen eye for composition and these shots are almost all interesting, contrasting deep shots with shallow ones and characters at different points in space .

In the middle of all these static story-telling scenes, Tsangari intercuts sequences of uncanny dance and movement performed by Marina and Bella. At first glance these seem a bit out of place and disconnected, and they all use moving cameras. Why this stark change in style all of a sudden? Well, these near-nondiegetic moments seem to function as some sort of dream-space, or at least non-chronological pieces of the story. Both characters intently look at the camera as they do these actions, reminding us that we are watching two performers, who might be the characters we know them as, but might just be two random people dancing. Certainly these dynamic shots are more liberating than the rest of the static ones.

There's a wonderful long dolly shot following Marina pushing Spyros down a long hall in the hospital. Here is where the dream world crosses over for a moment with the earthly, Modernist world. In fact, the whole film functions as a long and effective criticism of Modernist ideals. For one thing, Spyros himself criticizes his own design, saying he built this unnatural space on the top of sheep meadows. He gets into the concept that there was not a natural evolution in this town (or perhaps in Greece in general) from one era to another (from agriculture to industry), but that the Modernist era came along and sat on history, forcing its emotionless will on everything. He's ashamed of his greatest accomplishment as he gets ready to face the unknown. (There's an interesting analysis of the current Greek debt crisis here, more incisive than many news reports.)

This leads Marina's other main hobby, which is watching the nature films of Sir David Attenborough. Both Spyros and Marina (when he's at home and not in the hospital) love to watch the scientist talk about monkeys and other jungle creatures and sometimes re-enact their strange movements and screams. She seems to have a connection with natural, evolutionary things more than she does with other people. She is the product of Modernism, devoid of deep sentiment and disconnected from other things. The title of the film, at this point, becomes a Modernist respelling of Attenborough's name.

Tsangari has all the actors speaking their lines in particularly monotone, dispassionate style, possibly inspired by Richard Maxwell or other Post-Modern theater or performance creators. Again, this underlines the strangeness and non-humanness of the setting and the people in the film. All of the actors are wonderful, but particularly Labed and Mourikis, who seem to have a fun time as they do mundane things (and also seem to interact in a wonderful and intimate way that fathers and daughters who love one another really do).

This is a deeply interesting and thematically difficult film. Whereas Lanthimos' Dogtooth was a bit of joke, playing mostly with semiotics in a bizarro non-place, Attenberg seems to take the argument one step farther. Tsangari shows how the Modernist legacy in every-day life has magnified certain behaviors and alienated us from our natural states of being. She raises simple bathos to near holy, fetishistic levels, mixing weirdness and beauty in connected (and disconnected) moments. This is what modernity is. She does this all in a gorgeous and elegant way with techniques far beyond her years.

Stars: 4 of 4

Miss Bala (Friday, February 24, 2012) (17)

The title to the Mexican drug gangster film Miss Bala is rather clever. "Bala," of course, means "bullet," and, furthermore, the main character in the film is a contestant in the Miss Baja beauty pageant. This near-homonym is the core of the story, although it might also be as interesting as the film itself.

Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) and her best friend enter themselves in the Miss Baja California competition, rather on a lark. The night before the event, the friend, who is dating a drug dealer, takes her to a nightclub just as the Federales get there to arrest everyone. Laura gets away, but her friend does not. As a witness to the events, and knowing what she knows about the identities of the leaders of the gang, she becomes an important witness in an elaborate game of back-and-forth between the police and the cartel. The drug lord insists that she remain in the pageant as a way of keeping an eye on her and not drawing too much attention to them, but it also puts her in a gray position of appearing to work with them... which is the wrong place to be when the cops are rounding up all the associates of the gang.

This is a fun movie, but not really particularly emotional or gripping. As much as Sigman is gorgeous, I never really found it easy to connect to her, either because of her acting or the script. She's mostly a weak pawn through the film, which is particularly frustrating because she seems to be a smart cookie. She's so unaware of her situation in the greater game that the only makes one bold move through the whole event.

Still, it's an entertaining story and has a nice gritty look. It was only a matter of time before the ever-increasing Mexican drug war would hit the big screen, and I'm happy enough with this. Still, I hope that the next effort would look more at the corruption on both sides of the battlefield and how the cops and the system are dirty as the cartels (in fairness, we get a certain amount of that here, but it's a bit secondary to the action and the gunfights).

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Grey (Thursday, February 23, 2012) (16)

A movie about the survivors of a plane crash in the remote icy wilderness with bleak hopes for rescue sounds like something you've seen before? Well, yes and no. The Grey gets its name from a pack of wolves (I guess they're grey wolves... I'll have to check with Sarah Palin to know exactly) who live in the middle of nowhere in Alaska. So aside from all the other stuff about starvation, frigid temperatures and random cuts and bruises, the lucky men who don't die on impact have to figure out how to get rescued without being eaten by an angry bunch of wolves. Sounds tough.

Liam Neeson plays Ottway, an Irish gun-for-hire who is employed by an oil company to shoot the wolves that live near the oil drilling operation in northern Alaska. He's upset that he's lost his wife months before and is about to shoot himself in the face (happy story!), when he decides not to, but rather to to fly home instead. That ill-fated flight then crashes leaving only seven men alive (including Dermot Mulroney and Dallas Roberts). They soon realize that a pack of wolves is hunting them so they have to move from the wreckage to have a chance at not being eaten. As the trek along the Alaskan backwoods their odds get slimmer as they realize they are very well outnumbered by the animals.

This is a fun movie, though not a particularly brilliant one. It certainly plays some of the Val Lewton games where you hear noises but don't know if they're wind or wolf howls. It's all very unsettling and a bit eerie, even though there's nothing really magical about the wolves... they're just hungry.

I always appreciate a movie with a good elliptical ending, and this has one. It's a bleak story that is told efficiently, if sentimentally (I really don't care about Ottway's back-story; when we find out what it is, it doesn't change anything because he's still being hunted by wild animals), and has a cool look to it with lots of sequences set at night and in blizzard conditions. Writer/director Joe Carnahan has done better work in the past (like Narc, which is great), but this is still solid and fun.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

The Woman with the Five Elephants (2011) (Thursday, February 23, 2012) (155)

The so-called "five elephants" in the title of the German documentary The Woman with the Five Elephants are the five major novels by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the eponymous woman is Svetlana Geier, one of the most important translators of Russian literature into German who has spent the past 25 years working on those paper pachyderms.

This documentary starts out as a profile of Geier showing her method for translation, involving two rounds, one where she dictates to a lady who types (on a typewriter) what she says, and a second where she rereads what she put down with another linguistic and literary scholar. We see that she is a grandmother in Freiburg with a big family, she works for several hours a day and also takes care of cooking family meals for celebrations.

At some point one of her sons gets injured in an accident and she stops her translation work to take care of him, cooking for him and visiting him in the hospital. In this period she is asked by her alma mater in Kiev, Ukraine to visit and speak to students about her methods and her work. She sets off on a train trip, with one of her granddaughters, back to her hometown that she left during the war.

We then see her back story. In the Ukraine, she was a star German student and when the Nazis took control of Kiev, she got a few lucky breaks thanks to some of the officers who lived with her mother and her. At some point she was offered a scholarship to study at the University of Freiburg, where she moved with her mother before the end of the war.

There is an interesting passage where Geier reflects on her own luck and on "freedom" as described and written about by Dostoyevsky. Although she doesn't say it, it is clear she is thinking about how her own personal success and life was a result of Nazis, the archetypal group who would deny other such freedom, being kind to her.

This is a nice movie, although I feel like it's various threads don't totally connect (outside of this one sequence). I feel like there are really two stories here, one about the world's greatest Russian-to-German translator and another one about a young Ukrainian woman who got lucky early in life thanks to the Nazis. Perhaps this is very contemporary and young of me to feel, but it all doesn't really matter that much to me.

She's a wonderful woman, a loving grandmother, and has an intricate past but not all that interesting as a human. This is another case where I feel a 40-minute short would have been more compelling, showing one part of her story or another.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

The Fairy (Thursday, February 23, 2012) (15)

In their last film, L'Iceberg, Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy created a wonderful film based on dance, movement and physical comedy. It is a film reminiscent of the best of Jacques Tati, but a bit more gonzo, a bit off. In their newest film, The Fairy, they bring the same brightness and exuberance back for another tale of love and janky magic.

Dom (Abel) is a night clerk in a hotel in Le Havre, France. One night, as he's working, a woman shows up (Gordon) saying her name is Fiona and that she is a fairy who can give him three wishes. A bit surprised, Dom asks for a motor scooter as his first wish and unlimited gas as his second wish. Before he can come up with his third wish, the two begin making out and have sex.

It seems Fiona is the worst fairy ever, as her idea for unlimited gas for the scooter is to buy an oil container at the port that Dom can re-fill his small tank out of. She doesn't seem to have any really strong magic skills (though she does make one man fly) and her powers are mostly based on misdirection and cunning (like when she steals an outfit and shoes to wear on a date with Dom). As frequently happens, she gets pregnant and gives birth in a few minutes, and Dom and her have to care for their baby and avoid the people who get more and more frustrated with their clumsy, goofy behavior around the port city.

For me physical comedy is a really difficult thing. When done well (by masters like Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd or Tati) it is some of the most wonderful stuff on film; when done badly it's painful and forgettable. Gordon and Abel are new masters of physical comedy and add their own hilarious and off-beat twist to the gags. Certainly part of what makes them so appealing is that they're both individually rather strange looking (she's a bit like a more voluptuous Tilda Swinton, he looks like a drag queen out of makeup) and they play a lot with this.

They also run around Le Havre, which is a bit like a movie being set in Jersey City or downtown Miami (not the beachy part), it's ugly and is a failed Modernist concrete hellscape. They're laughing at the averageness of this world, and the idea that such a simpleton as Dom would want a scooter as one of his three wishes (when another man asks to be able to fly).

This is one of the most fun films I've seen in a long time. It's weird and hilarious, silly and wonderful.

Starts: 3.5 of 4

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Michael (Saturday, February 18, 2012) (14)

Michael is a very uncomfortable and unsettling film that is mystifying in it's minimalism as it is disturbing in its subject matter. The title character is a very stereotypical Austrian businessman working at an insurance company. When he gets home from work with bags of groceries, he walks through his kitchen to the door to his cellar. As he opens the door we notice right away that there is soundproofing foam on the inside of it. Weird.

At the bottom of the stairs there is a metal door with a cross-brace lock on it. He opens it and flips a switch in the circuit breaker next to the door. Inside is a young boy, Wolfgang, about 10-years-old. He has a nice-looking kids room, a bed and toys, a sink and a toilet. It seems Michael keeps him down here as his personal and secret rape slave.

The film moves along very slowly with not much ever happening. At one point Michael, who is as geeky and affected as you can imagine an insurance man might be, goes on a weekend ski trip with friends from work. At another time Wolfgang suggests that he's lonely, so Michael goes out to a go-kart track to find another boy to steal and lock up with him. The man's motives are never totally clear, aside from bizarre control and, of course, sex.

Writer-director Markus Schleinzer, who has mostly worked as a casting director for Michael Haneke to this point (we see where he got his bizarre and frank story or sexuality from!) paints a very interesting, emotionless picture here, using minimal color (mostly Michael's house and existence is white and beige) and no score. We never really understand what he's thinking and can only assume certain things. Does he represent all of Austrian business culture or all Austrian men? Is this just one man's story of dangerous obsession? It's never clear - and that's part of what's so great about this film.

There is no judgement, putting us in the remorseless emotional space of a co-conspirator to this heinous act. Furthermore, the few times that Michael's strictly controlled world seems like it might collapse, we worry that he will be caught - a classic Hitchcockian trick of alignment and post-modern sympathy.

Schleinzer surprises us several times with unexpected events or outcomes of certain actions. We are never comfortable and always expecting the unknown. This is a great trick and makes watching the film more engaging that it might be otherwise (say, in a more mainstream story about pedophilia, slavery and abuse). I'm not totally sure there's a lot in this film, however, and think that the meta-emotional reactions we might have to watching the film is more important than the story itself. I really like those aspects, as a film-goer who likes to be put in an uncomfortable space, but I wish it could have been a great plot and a great meta-story.

Stars: 3 of 4

Bullhead (Saturday, February 18, 2012) (13)

I'm not really convinced that the story told in Michael Roskam's film Bullhead is at all scientifically possible, but it's a pretty enjoyable one, if a bit silly. The film opens with Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts), an absolute hulk of a Belgian man, posing naked in the mirror after a shower. He has muscles everywhere. He then goes to a mini-fridge and gets vials of some drug and takes out a syringe. We then jump to an exchange between a group of Flemish cattlemen talking about how the cops are arresting some of their brethren who use hormones to increase the size of their cows.

We then see a flashback to how when Jacky was a kid his father bought growth hormone for his cattle. One day, the daughter of the hormone dealer caught Jacky's eye and before he could make a move on her, her brother, chased Jacky away and ended up effectively castrating him with rocks (ouch!). It seems that from that point on, Jacky was injected with growth hormone (human, we have to assume, rather than bovine) until he got to be the enormous size he is in the present.

Now, years later, the girl who once interested Jacky as a kid is his main fascination. He begins to stalk her (somehow she doesn't know who he is) and as the cops begin to figure out that he's involved in a massive cow doping cartel, the woman finds out who he is as well.

One interesting aspect to the story is that the setting is some place right on the Flemish and Wallonian border and we see clearly that the two peoples hate each other. Only a few of the Flemish speak French and only a few of the Walloons speak Flemish (Jacky is Flemish and his lady obsession is Walloon). I feel like we don't see this schism in film very frequently and it's interesting. Both parts make the whole, but they don't trust and resent each other. This brings up a clever link between the split duality of Belgium and, of course, the duality of testicles (ooof - that's a bit silly, isn't it?).

There is a great Belgian look to the film that I love. It has the stark reality of blues, grays and browns that have become synonymous with other Belgian filmmakers, like the Dardenne brothers, or the blessed Chantal Akerman. I guess it's this natural quality that is most compelling about the film, but also it's biggest problem.

In the end, the film is a rather over-the-top light action flick, certainly with more ennui and more pathos. Many details of the story fall apart because they seem like deus-ex-machina devices rather than plausible elements (such as how Jacky's childhood bully is now in a hospital mostly paralyzed and unable to speak due to an accident or how the grown woman doesn't know who Jacky is). The story begins to fray at the edges with all these silly parts.

I like this film, but I admit it has some problems. It's a pretty good story and the idea of a man-giant being ball-less and miserable because he's less of a man is interesting. Perhaps the bovine and human hormone link is too neat and tidy for me. Still, it's well made and has some compelling moments.

Stars: 3 of 4

Friday, February 17, 2012

Undefeated (Friday, February 17, 2012) (12)

Ever since Hoop Dreams, documentarians have been obsessed with movies about sports teams, particularly ones in inner cities. In the past few years there has been a rash of mediocre ones that have minor interest and bad scripts. Considering this background, Undefeated, directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, is a real triumph as it tells a very compelling story of a football team, focuses on a few interesting and exciting kids and uses some wonderful moments to tell a heart-warming tale of success despite poor odds.

This is not a film about a high school team going undefeated over the course of a season, after all, they lose their first game only a few minutes into the film. The title refers more to the concept of not being beaten down and not giving up. It's the philosophy of the team's hero coach, Bill Courtney.

Courtney is a slightly out of shape middle aged white guy who owns a lumber supply company in Memphis. Following his life-long dream of coaching a football team, five years ago he became the volunteer head coach of the Manassas Tigers in North Memphis. Manassas High School was recently rebuilt, so their physical facilities look nice, but the student body comes from very poor families with very little support. The school has a history of being one of the worst football teams in Tennessee for most of the last 40 years, but through hard work and discipline, Courtney has turned them back into a contender.

We follow star linemen O.C. Brown and Montrail "Money" Brown (not related), who are two of the senior leaders of the team, either physically or in effort and drive. O.C. is a typical giant of a lineman who struggles with his grades as he gets interest from many division 1A college football programs. Meanwhile, Money is a great student, but is a bit undersized to play on the line, so he makes up for his physical deficiencies by working twice as hard on the field.

At some point another kid, Chavis Daniels, gets out of juvee, where he spent about two years for assault, and continues to have issues with controlling his anger and his mouth. He gets in fights with coaches and other players and Courtney has to figure out how to use him on the field and how to not give up on him, as that would be a veritable death sentence for the young man.

Formally documentaries are difficult to inject too much style into, as their primary purpose is to explain something. Non-fiction is simply not as expressive and malleable a medium to easily make beauty. There is one moment in this film, however, that is one of the loveliest moments from a documentary I can think of in a long time. It's subtle and was probably the result of a lucky camera man shooting the right thing at the right moment, rather than being scripted by a director, but it's powerful and perfect for a moment. A tip of my cap to the directors for connecting two disparate elements from two parts of a film into one lovely shot.

This film is one of the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature and it would be very deserving of the prize were it to win. It's a very good film, unsentimental, efficient and well made. Considering it probably could have done well just being OK (like so many other recent sports team docs), I consider that a great achievement.

Stars: 3 of 4

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Hipsters (Thursday, February 16, 2012) (11)

Do you sometimes feel like there are too few musical-comedies in theaters? Do you wish they were more political and historical in content... but not about the French Revolution? Did the death of Josef Stalin make you want to get up and sing and dance? Well, if you answered yes to any of those then Valery Todorovsky's film Hipsters is the movie for you!

A brief note for the youngs: There was a time about 60 years ago when the term "hipsters" was used to describe people who saw themselves as separate from the rest of society, who looked down their noses at "normal" people (sometimes called "norms"), who distinguished themselves by listening to music you never heard of and had a sartorial style and hairstyles that norms might think of as embarrassing. No, they didn't live in Northern Brooklyn, but in Moscow in 1955.

Such is the setting for this story of rebellion and youth. As the film opens in Thaw-era Russia, there is a dance party where hipsters are listening to American rock, jazz and R&B music and another group of square kids, party members, comes in to break up the fete. The deputy of that group is Mels (Anton Shagin), who is a future leader, but also really interested in the style of the hipsters he's harassing. By chance he meets hot blond Polly (Oksana Akinshina) and falls in love with her. He then decides he will let his hair down (that is, put it up into a pompadour) and become a hipster to try to have a chance with Polly.

This is a very Jacques Demy-style musical, with big choreographed numbers that grow out of every-day life. We see factory workers dancing as they do their work and just about all the songs are about sex and kids being in love or being told to straighten up by their narrow-minded folks. Todorovsky does a wonderful job of using color (and hair) to highlight characters and actions so we can easily tell which side people are on and who is a friend (a bit like Quadrophenia as well, with the two waring sides of hipsters and norms rather than mods and rockers).

At times the subtext is a bit overdone, as we are beaten over the head with the concept that this American music is particularly black and that it is tantamount to sex (yeah - no, I get it - be-bop is like sex - the montage of dancing to the music and screwing is unnecessary). Still, this is a nice and fun film, generally well put together and rather clever about the intersection of these historical moments (the rise of rock music and the Thaw). The last number is a bit too much (a bit reminiscent of the "What the World Needs Now is Love" song at the end of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) with all the youth from all times singing together about peace and love, but it's musical-comedy, so it does tend toward overstatement.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Interruptors (2011) (Tuesday, February 14, 2012) (154)

On paper, The Interrupters, a film by Steve James (co-director of Hoop Dreams), about a group of volunteers who go into urban communities to help people alleviate violence and revenge attacks, seems like a can't-fail film. A brilliant filmmaker and a wonderful subject! But, as they say in sports, that's why they make the movies. The Interrupters is one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of the year for me, as it's way too long, has no real story structure and generally bores rather than inspires.

The film follows a year with the CeaseFire Violence Interrupters, a Chicago-based non-profit group who work with former gang members to mentor young people, many of whom are current gang members, and try to get them to cease the ever-spiraling cycle of violence and retribution. We meet three mentors, Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra as they each work with a handful of individual kids to turn their lives around. Aside from their work with individuals, they each attend local community meetings and bigger CeaseFire panels where strategies are discussed. We see Matthews several times on the street literally getting in the face of young men as they are about to get into fights yelling them down to stop the violence.

Starting with the summer, we see four seasons of their work, and follow a few individual kids they struggle to keep in line. Matthews works with a girl who is prone to violence, has been arrested for something drug-related, and has difficulty turning the other cheek (and not getting high) when the heat turns up. Williams works with a young man in a similar situation, desperately trying to show him that a violent reaction would not make life better for anyone.

The biggest problem with the film is that there is simply too much information and too many people shown on screen. It is clear that what the Violence Interrupters are doing is fabulous and difficult work, but this is a case where showing less would be more effective. If we could concentrate only on three stories (one for each mentor), the message would be clearer. As it is, we see three stories and then about a dozen smaller stories in the middle. Yes, this clearly shows that they have very hard jobs to do and a lot of way to go before their work is finished, but part of the point of the documentary format is to not show everything, but to curate the best parts. For much of the length of the film, it seems the only reason we are still watching anything is because it's winter, say, and we need to get back to the end of spring. That's silly.

I can't really say there are many moments that are very memorable from the film, as there is just too much information presented. There are some happy endings and some sad ones and some unclear ones. It's easy to see that the work of the Violence Interrupters is amazing, but it's a shame it is presented in such a way (and that so many other critics are so thrilled with the results). This really could be a good 40-minute short about the work just of Matthews with the one young woman.

Otherwise, it should have been expanded to a miniseries, along the lines of the TV miniseries Brick City, about politics and people in Newark, NJ (that's a great series that everyone should see). As far as I understand it, there were longer cuts of The Interrupters in earlier versions, so I imagine there is adequate footage. Such a set-up wold allow stories to be expanded and clarified.

Stars: 2 of 4

Patriocracy (Tuesday, February 14, 2012) (10)

Following in the wake of polemicist documentarian Robert Greenwald, Brian Malone's Patriocracy is a nice and safe story about how bad American government is in 2012 and what we have to do to get it back to normal. Malone suggests that the reason everything on Capital Hill stinks so much is because of the deep partisan rift that has opened up in recent years and how no business gets done anymore because both sides are just bickering back and forth.

Malone's biggest example of nothing getting done is the Simpson-Bowles fiscal readjustment committee (he spends a lot of time interviewing Sen. Alan Simpson, who likes to say words like "bullshit" a lot). Apparently because there were members of both political parties and that both parties are monolithic, the findings of that group had to be perfect, or something. That they didn't get passed in Congress and that the White House basically ignored them is a terrible thing.

This is where the film loses me. I agree that things don't get done enough in Washington and that the bickering is sickening, but I don't think both sides are equally to blame for the problem. I would say things got terrible when the GOP controlled congress in the mid-aughts and then got worse when the so-called Tea Party Republicans gave the GOP a majority in the House in 2010. That nothing gets done in the Senate has more to do with Republicans there not wanting to bend at all than with any sort of greater issue with partisan bickering or filibuster issues. (Yes, I realize I'm asking the GOP to bend more, but that's because the Senate Dems. already bend a ton for their centrist members.)

There are a bunch of smart suggestions made in the film, like having primary elections not be divided by party, but all-in-one affairs where many parties could run against one another, and taking money out of elections, but all of these things seem like long-shots that will never come together.

I mind that centrism is seen as some sort of perfect state of being, because centrism now is really center-rightism. The American political system is gerrymandered so much to the right that even "compromise" is just a way of giving Republicans almost everything they want. This feels like how people feel both sides of an issue should be explored to make something fair, but really, there's right and wrong and showing both sides gives "wrong" too much credit.

Stars: 2 of 4

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Rampart (2011) (Sunday, February 12, 2012) (153)

Rampart is Oren Moverman's sophomore film, and as with many second efforts, it's a bit of a mess. Well, really, it's a lot of a mess. It takes place in 1999 in Los Angeles where a super cop, David Brown (Woody Harrelson), has made a bad name for himself in his precinct, the Rampart Division near Downtown. He has a reputation as a badass for allegedly killing a man who was a serial date rapist ten years earlier. He lives in the garage behind the house of his ex-wives who are sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) and has a hard time connecting to his two daughters (one by each wife). He seems to be a sex addict and a drunk incapable of getting his life together and walking a straight line.

At some point he is videotaped beating a man after a short chase and his career is threatened. He then gets into more shit when he gets into another altercation. Just when it seems his situation can't get worse, as he's being investigated by internal affairs agent Ice Cube, he begins an affair with the ex-lawyer of the man he is accused of killing years ago.

The script, co-written by Moverman and James Ellroy (he knows LA cop stuff, right?!), is a total mess. I can't easily summarize what happens in the film because its direction changes three times in the second act. At some point it seems like a Bad Lieutenant-type melodrama, at others it seems like a ripped-from-the-headlines Rodney King-style story, at other times like a Leaving Las Vegas-style tale of entropy. There are about a dozen characters with a decent amount of screen time who are ultimately totally unnecessary to the film (including former Harrelson's co-star from Moverman's last film Ben Foster, playing a homeless veteran who has something to do with giving info as a narc).

I feel like there are enough good things in this film that if it had been rewritten and recut it could be a good film (take out 30 minutes and it would be an interesting and small piece). In its current form, however, it is a messy and overflowing heap of stories that don't really connect or lead anywhere interesting.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Turin Horse (Saturday, February 11, 2012) (9)

Oy vey. Bella Tarr tackles the end of the world -- but for real this time, not just in you brain when you're watching his movies and you wish time and everything would just end to make everything OK again. The Turin Horse opens with a narrator telling a story about how Nietzsche was in Turin at some point and saw a cab driver beating his horse and how this drove the philosopher crazy. We then see a really amazing shot of a horse (possibly the same one, it's never clear) who is pulling a cart in a crazy end-of-days wind storm, being guided by an old man.

We then follow six days in the life of this man, as the world is apparently ending. He lives with a girl (possibly his daughter, it's never clear) in a humble shack in the middle of nowhere (reminiscent of the Dolle family house in René Clément's Forbidden Games). She mostly takes care of him and his things, helping him dress (he has a gimpy arm), fetching water from the well, cooking potatoes and keeping the fire in the hearth burning. Each day the man gets up and goes to take his horse out, though the animal doesn't want to move -- clearly it senses the end times, even if the man does not.

At some point a neighbor comes over bringing news of the destruction of the village and the coming apocalypse, followed by a band of Roma who come to steal some water (and maybe curse the well so it dries up, again, never clear). (Oh man, the Roma have it rough when even in the end of times they're still hated by everyone.)

This is a really beautiful looking movie, with gorgeous black and white photography by Fred Kelemen, and the starkness of everything is incredibly powerful. Still, it's really a long slog and doesn't really do all that much. So it's the end of the world, so what? Why should I care about this particular man and his small existence? Is there any meaning to anything shown on screen? It all comes up a bit empty for me.

I love stories about repetition and cycles. There's a lovely Jeanne Dielman element to the film about how the actions of the days (six here, instead of three there) repeat and you come to expect certain things at certain times, so when there's a slight change in the routine, it brings an overwhelming sense of unease. But I feel like there was a lot more meaning in Jeanne Dielman and that the structure of her day was as significant a part of what we see as any dialogue we might hear. Here, the repetition and structure of the day of the man and girl seem like window dressing over a bleak tale of death and woefulness.

I know this is red meat for fans of weird foreign art-house fare, but I just can't get behind it much. It's really nice to look at, but I don't think it engages the viewers in any meaningful experience or story.

Stars: 2 of 4

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (Saturday, February 11, 2012) (8)

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth deals with the rise and fall (literally) of the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects in St. Louis in the late 1950s through the early 1970s. The film serves as a response to those who believe in the mythology that grew up around the development at the time of its failure, some of which still lasts today.

The Pruitt-Igoe development was designed and built in the mid-1950s to replace the dilapidated tenement houses of poor inner-city St. Louis. A modernist dreamscape, the concept was that the poor families who lived in the slums could all move to a bright and new housing project, pay modest rents and grow economically. The problem was that at the time the project was built, there were few jobs available to the working poor black community in St. Louis and with a baroque web of Welfare laws, families were torn apart just to stay above water.

Almost immediately the apartment blocks began to show signs of wear and tear. Security and maintenance teams had their budgets cut and within a few years, the Pruitt-Igoe buildings were in terrible shape. Of course this had everything to do with the situation of the tenants rather than their character or qualities. This specification was lost, however, by the time the buildings were condemned and raised in the early 1970s (the footage of that demolition was used prominently in Godfrey Reggio's brilliant Koyaanisqatsi). At that point, public housing, poor inner-city blacks and urban areas were seen as the problem, for which the might not be a solution.

The film is told very well and mostly chronologically and thematically, interviewing historians and former residents of the buildings. We see how the buildings represented the modernist ideal of a new city built out of whole cloth and populated instantly. We see how it was a wonderful and frightening place to live at different times and how tearing it down was probably the only possible thing to do.

This is a very effective movie about a very important topic. It's efficient, compelling and far-reaching. It's easy to see how some of the conclusions made by some of the interviewees are reflected in our world today. This is a nice small film that has a big impact.

Stars: 3 of 4

Friday, February 10, 2012

In Darkness (2011) (Friday, February 10, 2012) (152)

Agnieszka Holland's film In Darkness is not a typical Holocuast film, although it certainly has many similar threads and themes that are familiar to the genre. This is the more unseen view of things -- literally unseen. The film tells the story of a group of Jews in the Lvov Ghetto in Poland who snuck into the sewer in an effort to escape their dire situation. When they got down there, they ran into Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a non-partisan Catholic sewer inspector who figured he could make a bit of money from them by showing them a good hiding place and keeping them stocked with food and other goods they would need for survival.

Once he put them in a relatively secret spot in an off-tunnel, insisting that only a dozen of them could live down there, he found that such a pure business relationship was not totally morally fulfilling. He and his corpulent wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) found themselves caring for the Jews more and more, ultimately risking their own lives for these people. Once the Ghetto was liquidated in 1943 their challenge increased as Nazi and Polish police inspections sped up and intensified.

There is something particularly interesting about a film that is mostly shot in darkness (as the title would suggest). There is a strange power to the mixture of grays and blacks, shadows and peeks of light that is rather mystifying. Of course, there is something particularly unsettling about no knowing what is coming in the distance or from around the corner. Probably most powerful about this film, and the cinematography by Jolanta Dylewska, is that we are put in the exact psychological space of the hiding Jews. As they hear distant noises in the far-off tunnels, which might be humans and might just be water, steam or gas, they are afraid... but so are we.

This is also a film about living in shit - literally. For years and years these people live in and next to a lagoon of human waste that seems to be everywhere in their space. They must eat and clean themselves, take care of mundane life things and then get into more specialized ones all within the nose of such a place. That some of the people try to have sex in it (totally ignoring for a moment that they're doing it next to their colleagues) is both disgusting and compellingly human. Add to this the greasy, dirty shots of tunnels (one of which looks particularly vulvic) and there's an interesting interplay between the disgusting and the erotic.

What is done technically with this film is really beautiful and the story Holland tells is as amazing and heroic as any from the Holocaust. Still, I feel there is a slight lack of thematic interest for me in what is shown. Yes, this is a great film, but something about it feels a bit like just another harrowing story of survival. Like a beautiful impressionist painting, there is not much to dislike about this film, but it still leaves me wanting a bit more to chew on. Perhaps this is unfair and I should merely appreciate a good story told well, but I still feel a bit less than totally thrilled.

Stars: 3 of 4

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Arbor (2011) (Thursday, February 8, 2012) (151)

I am always interested in films that make leaps in formal conventions and are daring about how they present their information. Such is the case with Clio Bernard's film The Arbor, a pseudo-documentary about English playwright Andrea Dunbar. Bernard presents Dunbar's story as a series of actual audio interviews of Dunbar and her family recorded in the 1980s that are dubbed over actors playing the parts of these people. Most of the time the syncing is so close that we lost track of the formal process, as if the actors were simply speaking the lines of these sad, poor Yorkshire characters.

Dunbar came to some prominence and notoriety in the late 1970s with a short play called "The Arbor", which autobiographically told of her life and background. At the time she was a poor girl living in counsel estates in West Yorkshire. She wrote the play for a school project at age 15, but it was entered into a national competition, which it won. It was produced by the Royal Court Theater, with whom she would develop a brief relationship with.

From there she wrote a screenplay for the Alan Clarke film Rita, Sue and Bob Too, which was also autobiographical and dealt with many of the same characters and situations. All this time, she was generally on drugs and drunk and had three babies out of wedlock (the first was to a Pakistani man, which became the subject of her first play). She would go on to write a third play along similar lines before dying of a brain hemorrhage in 1990.

We then see how Dunbar's drug and alcohol abuse and the grinding poverty they lived in changed the lives of her kids. Her eldest daughter got hooked on drugs as well, worked as a prostitute and was convicted of killing her own baby with Methadone.

This is a very interesting, bleak look at the modern world, and one that we don't see all that often. It has the feeling of something that Andrea Arnold might have made (or Alan Clarke), and certainly feels as desperate and depressing as the story is. There is a helplessness to the whole thing that I find appealing and yet alienating. It's hard to identify with any characters because they're all so broken... and because the formalism of the piece gets in the way.

I'm not totally sure what I'm supposed to make of the this process and how I'm supposed to feel about the separation between the characters and myself that I feel. Is the point that I am as separated from them because of the dubbing as they are from one another? This is an interesting concept, an interesting Marxist technique in the midst of this anti-neo-liberal tale. I appreciate what Bernard is trying to do here more than I like the final product. I feel like it's a bit underdeveloped. Still, it's a very interesting and good film.

Stars: 3 of 4

Friday, February 3, 2012

W.E. (Friday, February 3, 2012) (7)

I worked in international auction houses for 12 years of my life, including at Sotheby's, where in 1998 they held the sale of the property from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Though I was not there at that exact time, I worked with dozens of people who spoke about how amazing the lines were to get into the exhibition and how ridiculous the crowds were to see all their tchockes. I also saw other big and silly exhibitions of crap from famous people and how people went nuts for them. I can promise you that Madonna has no such insight into such things and thinks such auction are romantic and wonderful. They're not. They're sad and boring.

But the framing device for her film W.E. is the 1998 auction, where Mohamed Al-Fayed sold all sorts of stuff owned by Edward and Wallis, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Into this auction exhibition dives Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a bored Upper East Side housewife who was named after the Duchess and now lives with her ex-pat English shrink husband on Park Avenue. She feels some connection to her namesake, although we don't totally know what it is, aside from "something womanly" and ersatz feminist.

We are thrown back and forth between Wally's World and the lives and romance between Wallis (Andrea Riseborough) and Edward (James D'Arcy... that's Mr. D'Arcy to you, ladies). We see how she had a rough first marriage to an American soldier who beat her, how she was married to another American businessman who moved them to London and how they met as she was climbing up the social ladder of London (and being a rather loose woman along the way). Madonna presents Wallis as a self-confident and smart woman, but also strangely as a foxy one totally aware of what she was doing the whole time.

The royal story is a bit dull, if fairy-tale-romantic, so we spend lots of time in the '90s with Wally, whose husband is a dick and who can't figure out how to pass her time. She ends up going to the Windsor auction exhibition a few dozen times and spending hours there. I can speak from personal experience that this is all but impossible as auction exhibitions are some of the most boring places on Earth.

While spending her time there, she meets Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), a security guard who is also supposedly a Russian immigrant, though he looks more like Guatemalan... because the actor is... Guatemalan (and because Madonna has a thing for Latin dudes). Somehow the Upper East Side princess falls for this blue-collar dude from Bushwick... because that could happen (that has never happened in the quarter-millennium of auction house history, despite years of security-guard efforts).

This all sounds like a terrible narrative with two unconnected stories? Well, that's about right. This is a totally stupid plot with two ridiculously unrelated threads that shouldn't and don't really meet at any point. I guess there's an idea that Wally is sad that her marriage is not all she hoped it would be and she takes solace in the idea that her namesake was also in such a marriage until she got a divorce and married up... but that's such a banal and superficial link.

Madonna's directing style is so turgid and blunt it ceases to be art and moves into baseball-bat-over-the-head-territory. Do I care that Wally had some sort of fake career at Sotheby's before she got married to her foreign beau? Does that make her more likable? No. It makes her exactly the kind of woman who would get herself into the dumb marriage that she's in and exactly the remote personality that makes for great and terrible melodrama, but totally urelateable.

This could have been a nice historical romance, but the contemporary story feels more like a gilded lily than any sort of necessary frame. I think Madonna has it in her to be a good filmmaker, but she needs to learn when enough is enough and not the entire history of everything in the world (including a bunch of lame excuses for why Wallis and Edward weren't really Nazi lovers). I think a good editor would have done this script and this film a good service. But I guess that would have been less romantic, or something.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Declaration of War (Friday, February 3, 2012) (6)

It's long been an easy thing for people to say that some new young film talent in France is "the next Godard" or "has the feeling of early Truffaut," so when hearing such a thing about Valérie Donzelli and her film Declaration of War, I basically ignored it. And yet, the film really does have the feeling of the first generation of New Wave fare in the first part of the 1960s.

There's something about the brightness and joy of the experience of watching the film, the post-modern taking of film conventions and magnifying them, that's totally reminiscent of such films. Just like how Godard and Truffaut were cinephiles who enjoyed the game of making movies and inserting hundreds of allusions and jokes in them, it's clear that Donzelli is a very keen movie watcher and a talented artist.

Billed as being "based on a true story," the film was co-written by Donzelli and her frequent collaborator Jérémie Elkaim (who also co-starred in her last film, Queen of Hearts - available on DVD and worth watching) and would seem to be their own story of love and pain. The film opens with Juliette (Donzelli) taking her young son to the hospital where he gets an MRI. We then see a flashback to her in a club several years earlier where she met Romeo (Elkaim) (silly or not, the name joke is straight out of Godard). The two have a passionate affair that ends in her getting pregnant and them getting married.

All of a sudden, these two thirty-somethings have to be grownups and take care of serious stuff, whether they like it or not. At some point their young baby starts behaving strangely, and after a series of frantic doctor visits, it seems he has a brain tumor. They must grow up even more in a short amount of time and see what all this stress does for their relationship.

Donzelli has an interesting on-screen persona (I say this based only on the two films of hers that I've seen). She's basically a French Zooey Deschanel, light and bubbly, not against singing or crying for no particular reason; a cool chick you feel like you might know or might want to know. (Granted, many people hate Deschanel, and they might hate Donzelli as well... all I can say to these people is that you're jealous and clearly hate joy.)

Perhaps a more apt comparison, however, in the world of independent film is Miranda July, at least from the point of view of being cute and relatable and technically interesting. In many ways, this film feels like a "what if" sequel to July's The Future (what if Sophie and Jason had stayed together in that film?). This is a story about young people enjoying freedom until it gets serious and then not totally having the tools to deal with reality.

There is a risky and interesting musical number in the film, that really shouldn't work but does. Unlike Queen of Hearts, which is a Jacques Demy-esque musical comedy, this is really a light drama with a single song in it.

Throughout the film, Donzelli punctuates moments with rather daring and interesting filmic devices, such as iris-ins and third-person off-screen narration (again, another ode to Godard, who might have been paying homage to a Dassin or someone like that). It's all very fun and quirky. In one sequence, as the young family is rushing to the train station to catch a train for Marseilles to see a doctor down there, Donzelli and editor Pauline Gaillard give one of the most amazing left-to-right hurry-up sequences I can remember in a long time. It's really beautiful. I really appreciate such bold efforts, if for no other reason than so many movies are so goddamn boring, at least this is an effort at something clever and new.

This is a much more serious, real-world-based story than Donzelli's previous film and I think her style works wonderfully here. I look forward to seeing what she will do next, perhaps a return to sentimental musical fare or maybe a deeper journey into this more serious world of formalist drama.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Better Life (2011) (Wednesday, February 1, 2012) (150)

A Better Life is a precious film about how hard life is for Mexican immigrants in East L.A. It's not at all a bad film, just one that wears its sentiments on its sleeve and makes sure that you know how important a story it is.

Carlos (Demian Bichir, who was nominated for an Oscar for this role) is a Mexican immigrant working as a day laborer landscaper in fancy parts of Los Angeles. His son, Luis (Jose Julian), is a Chicano kid, born and raised in East L.A. who is struggling in high school and considering joining a gang rather than continuing his studies.

The father and son don't really connect well, which is sad for Carlos as he's doing all this hard and illegal work for his son who seems oblivious to his father's work and efforts. When Carlos gets into financial and work trouble and might be sent back to Mexico, both he and Luis have to face the fact that the world is a tough place and there might not be a happy ending for them.

There is nothing in this movie I haven't seen before and I worry that the filmmakers, director Paul Weitz and screenwriter Eric Eason, are a bit proud of themselves for making such an important film. It feels in every scene like they're patting themselves on the back - or at least that's how I feel as an ultra-liberal viewer who is very glad I'm watching such a film.

Bichir is actually very good in his role and I can't really say he doesn't deserve a Best Actor nomination (though it does feel a bit random that he has such an honor). I guess I feel like the film is such a narrative and emotional paint-by-numbers that it's hard to give him all that much credit. Still, it's a good job. The film is good - it's not bad at all - I just wish it was a bit more inventive than it is. This is a hard criticism as I'm mostly annoyed that my experience watching the film was different, which isn't really the worry of the director or writer. Still I felt like it wasn't as emotionally complex as it could have been.

Stars: 2.5 of 4