Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes
Grade: B
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams,
Director: Guy Ritchie
free admission granted

In its still short history as a sub-genre of film, the series reboot has traditionally been an origin story. In a word, it's been "elementary."

By that, we mean a back-to-the-basics sort of the story - a neo-traditional approach that takes and re-works the original elements of a character and points him in a new direction. It contains a sort of puritanical fundamentalism, even if it ultimately points this new fundamentalist character can taste somewhat different than its literary forbear.

Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes is something of an oddity in this context, because we have reached the point that the re-vitalized character isn't necessarily a fundamentalist. Playing up the action hero of the world's best known fiction detective, this is not your father's Sherlock Holmes. Or your grandfather's Sherlock Holmes. Or his father's. Or his father's.

In fact, it might not be Sherlock Holmes at all, but whatever it is, it is still quite fun. Traditionalists might shudder at the thought of Holmes doing action set pieces, but they're fairly enjoyable in a Hollywood sort of way. The sooty London streets are enough to make you sing, "A sweep is as lucky as lucky could be," even if the fog is lifted too often for presumably California sunshine.

The clues here are an eccentric detective (Robert Downey Jr.), an able doctor (Jude Law), some tremendously fun chemistry between the two leads, and a somewhat goofy supernatural criminal with aspirations of world conquest in Victorian England.

Downey is thoroughtly enjoyable as the half-cocked detective, strumming his violin as he silently contemplates clues, all with a method to his madness. It's a role built for Downey and around Downey, and he delivers with an enjoyably spacy twist. Law provides a sober and practical sparring partner.

One thing that I found interesting about Sherlock Holmes is how difficult it is for the modern audience to buy into a mystery. As a society, we're used to the instant payoff, and holding an audience's attention is considered a risk. Watching Avatar within a few days of watching Sherlock Holmes, you're struck by this difference in pace. It might be a shame that this is true, but it is rather bold to try a mystery these days. The audience might not accept the delayed gratification.

Much of your taste for Sherlock Holmes is a glass-half-empty-or-half-full sort of thing. If you see it as a Hollywood-ized action-hero corruption of Doyle's detective, then you are bound to hate it. However, you might see it as that rare thing - a thinking man's franchise movie, one that runs on brain rather than brawn. It would be nice to have one of those.


Grade: B
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi
Director: James Cameron
free admission granted

In the many early raves for James Cameron’s Avatar, one critic compared the film to the first major talkie, The Jazz Singer.

Not a bad comparison. The 1927 audience for that film was undoubtedly astounded by that first magic sprinkling of sound onto film. Yet 1927 happens to be the greatest year for silent filmmaking. Few would think of The Jazz Singer as being artistically in the same league as Metropolis, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Sunrise, The General, Eisenstein’s October, etc.

It is undeniable that Avatar is a stunning 3-dimensional showcase that may well be ahead of its time.Nor is it mind-numbed – it has something to say. Cameron’s Noble Savage fantasy is too deeply felt a mindset to deny it springs from a personal ideology. Yet Avatar is so miserably written and so far off on its own merry Marxist moonbeam that it becomes a challenge to entirely give your heart to. I left wishing that this staggering technological advance had accompanied a story that didn't need excuses made for it.

Avatar is a sort of Space Age Dances With Wolves, with one eye beautifully open to painterly excess and one ear closed to its atrocious third-grade dialogue. With its three-dimensional CG effects, every inch of the theater seems to be in play with something new and stunning to see. Unfortunately, though, we must hear, too. It’s not that the dialogue is badly written. It’s that it is calculatingly idiotic, betting on exactly how low the international lowest common denominator goes.

The plot can be (and is) diagrammed in the first ten minutes, which it then executes like a battle plan for the next two and a half hours. Wheelchair-bound Marine Jake Sully volunteers for a mission to a far away forest moon Pandora. A human military outpost has been scraped onto the surface. The planet’s natives are the 12-foot blue Na’vi, the sort of eco-friendly inhabitants that only exist in the minds of the Hollywood Hills.

The scientists on the planet want to make peace. Through technology, the humans transport into Na’vi bodies – called avatars – when they sleep. Jake’s avatar comes to be accepted among the Na’vi, learning their ways with horse-like creatures, flying on candy-colored pterodactyls, and falling in love. For a peace-loving society, all of their customs are curiously martial. Who exactly is at home cooking the roast?

Once taken in by the Na’vi, the military branch wants him to spy. Their mission is to clear the Na’vi village to make way or mission of peace is spat upon by the militarists on the moon, who want to drive away the Na’vi and clear the woods so that a corporation can mine a valuable ore.
Avatar’s anti-imperial enviro-friendly storyline, of a purely innocent living in harmony with nature Na’vi and the bulldozing American military, is heavy-handed, and presumably designed for distribution overseas. Really, it’s only missing Richard Gere asking us to send vibrations of good feeling to the Chinese leadership. However, what it reduces the Nav’i to plot points and constructed others without much personality, whose only duty is to create a fantasy opposite for thinly-drawn humans to mistreat.

The motion-capture animation is brilliantly life-like, and there isn’t a hint of feeling like you are in a movie. It is lovely, painterly, and from the minute you arrive on Cameron’s Fantasy Island. the concentration the way that every inch of it is loaded with a small, beautiful detail, is truly astonishing. But is it really worth $400 million dollars to produce a better flying dragon?

Avatar forces its viewers into a huge choice – should we forgive Avatar its trespasses in favor of its claim to film history? Or should we wait until someone uses the same technology to make an indisputably great and complete film. Is it a crime to hold out for a film with the same technology to a more satisfying artistic end? I think I’ll wait.
The Young Victoria
Grade: C
Cast: Emily Blunt Rupert Friend
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee

So we’ve started to reach that point with Emily Blunt.

Is the talented English actress going to become a true star in her own right, rather than supporting everyone else’s star? Or will she turn dull watching Rebecca Hall steal all her roles for the next decade?

The very talented English actress has been One to Watch since catching the critical eye, first in 2005’s My Summer of Love and as Meryl Streep’s other assistant in The Devil Wears Prada. Originally, it was assumed that The Young Victoria would be her potential star turn.

A year’s delay in release and a film suffering more knife wounds than Rasputin, it remains to be seen. Fluttering between youthful confidence and political naivete, Blunt is the best thing about this otherwise average costume drama. Beyond her performance, the slender story doesn’t have reason to exist on film besides the fact that every Oscar season needs a queen.

In fairness, The Young Victoria takes the mustached matron of later years and turns her on her head into a passionate youngster tormented by her power-mad mother and step-father and deeply confused by her marital prospects. Never mind that at a tender age 18, she is about to be thrust onto the throne of England during a turbulent age.

All this would make for an interesting story, if the queen herself had much to do with it. The impression left is of social upheaval happening outside the Palace walls. As a counterpoint, Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth felt like the lynchpin in her era. Blunt’s Victoria feels like she’s trying to keep the turmoil from compromising her social life.

Jean-Marc Vallee’s direction glows on the surface but doesn’t have much steel underneath. It’s pretty, but in that suspicious way. The final version takes an already thin story and chops it even thinner. The Young Victoria is a film that feels like it has been given the once-over twice.

What we’re mainly left with is a performance by Blunt that reminds us that she is still a comer. But she needs to find that role soon.

The Young Victoria

The Young Victoria
Grade: C
Cast: Emily Blunt Rupert Friend
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
free admission granted

So we’ve started to reach that point with Emily Blunt.

Is the talented English actress going to become a true star in her own right, rather than supporting everyone else’s star? Or will she turn dull watching Rebecca Hall steal all her roles for the next decade?

The very talented English actress has been One to Watch since catching the critical eye, first in 2005’s My Summer of Love and as Meryl Streep’s other assistant in The Devil Wears Prada. Originally, it was assumed that The Young Victoria would be her potential star turn.

A year’s delay in release and a film suffering more knife wounds than Rasputin, it remains to be seen. Fluttering between youthful confidence and political naivete, Blunt is the best thing about this otherwise average costume drama. Beyond her performance, the slender story doesn’t have reason to exist on film besides the fact that every Oscar season needs a queen.

In fairness, The Young Victoria takes the mustached matron of later years and turns her on her head into a passionate youngster tormented by her power-mad mother and step-father and deeply confused by her marital prospects. Never mind that at a tender age 18, she is about to be thrust onto the throne of England during a turbulent age.

All this would make for an interesting story, if the queen herself had much to do with it. The impression left is of social upheaval happening outside the Palace walls. As a counterpoint, Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth felt like the lynchpin in her era. Blunt’s Victoria feels like she’s trying to keep the turmoil from compromising her social life.

Jean-Marc Vallee’s direction glows on the surface but doesn’t have much steel underneath. It’s pretty, but in that suspicious way. The final version takes an already thin story and chops it even thinner. The Young Victoria is a film that feels like it has been given the once-over twice.

What we’re mainly left with is a performance by Blunt that reminds us that she is still a comer. But she needs to find that role soon.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Up in the Air

Up in the Air [R]
Grade: C
Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman
Director: Jason Reitman

The word on the street is that Up in the Air captures the way we live in a downsizing world.

The thing that you must realize is that the critics saying this mostly have worked for newspapers or print publications. They work in a notoriously fickle industry that currently going through financial and existential crises. So a movie about downsizing that follows a corporate downsizer is going to feel intensely real and relevant to those judging it.

Up in the Air creates a world of airports as palaces of disconnection. Ryan Bingham is the crown prince. He keeps a hotel room in Omaha to keep the IRS happy, but the terminal is the only homes that he really knows. It’s there that he meets and falls for the Gold Club version of the truck stop floozy (a splendid Vera Farmiga), who coordinate their stopovers to maximize sexual enjoyment. His way of life is threatened by the just-out-of-school whipper-snapper who thinks it would be more efficient to fire people over the Internet. She tags along with Bingham’s traveling show to learn the ropes.

Up in the Air is not a terrible film, but it is liquored up in seat 27D with smugness and self-congratulation. It also has tonal issues – flying and trying for dramedy, but its jocular script too often battles with its serious setting. So does Kendrick, whose chatty insecurity routine is about as one note in acting as it comes.

Clooney has several very good scenes, notably firing a man while encouraging him to follow his youthful dreams. Farmiga is the real highlight –you wonder if this will launch her more than The Departed. Jason Reitman’s hand is steady, his framing solid. He wants to be a classic studio director, using the model of Billy Wilder. That means the film has only so adventure or personal touch. Perhaps that’s fitting for a film about modern dislocation.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Grade: B
Cast: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Owen Wilson
Director: Wes Anderson

Smart. Witty. Cool. Hip. Imaginative. Different. And, like any good fox, sly.

Those are the words that apply to The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson’s impressively retro journey into stop-gap animation. The film is a breakthrough for those thirsting for something other than the present CG domination . It is also a breakthrough for Anderson, who has been looking for a second act.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox is first an exercise in style. The film is layered in fall colors –oranges and yellows and browns. More importantly, it is a piece of animation that is directed rather than produced.

Where Pixar’s animation bears the brand and the qualities of the studio that makes it, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is clearly the act of a single mind on a visual level. All the hallmarks of Anderson’s visual style are there – off-center compositions, extreme use of the screen’s width, and most impressively, a world that burrows beyond the edges of the screen. The camera goes up, down, all around. Has the visual style of an animated feature ever seemed so liberated?

Its story (Based on the Roald Dahl book) of a patriarch in midlife crisis is sufficiently foxy. Mr. Fox has traded stealing chickens for a day job as a columnist, a wife and a freaky outcast son. Yet something’s missing from his life, because a fox is made to steal a chicken. He resorts to thievery of a major corporation. That brings all sorts of hell when the owners decide to get bloody revenge.

Anderson has suffered the build him up tear-him-down mentality. Like what once happened one of his many heroes, Francois Truffaut, observers have unfairly thrown him into the category of early brilliance who has not been able to live up to it. Having re-watched The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou recently, I feel confident in saying that reputation won’t last, as it did not with Truffaut. However, it is nice to see Anderson laugh again and break out of his ultra-deadpan Hal Ashby phase.


Grade: B
Cast: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’ Nique, Mariah Carey
Director: Lee Daniels
Free Admission Granted

We could talk about Precious as a film, but it’s far more interesting to talk about the cultural impact of its partron, Oprah Winfrey.

Derived from an Oprah Book Club selection called Push, the arrival of Precious as a huge indie circuit hit and critical favorite is testament to her much-bowed –to influence.

When Winfrey started her book club a decade ago, cultural observers were skeptical. Would housewives really pick up the reading bug? Would she belittle literature? The verdict is in. You can’t go on a date without hearing about a woman’s book club, and all those arty coffee-shop skeptics should admit that she has been a one-woman last stand for American letters.

That said, there has been some truth to the criticism. It so happens that two Oprah Book Club favorites are out as films this year. The Road is a fantastic film version of a critically acclaimed novel, the sort that lit types sneered she would never champion.

Precious, on the other hand, is both the good and the bad of what one would expect Winfrey to bring to the table. It is powerful, but it is also exploitative. It is realistic but also melodramatic. It is a story of a young woman’s empowerment, but it is also a story deeply rooted in the Culture of Victimization spread by Winfrey America.

The good news is that it builds into a pretty watchable film that features a tremendous amount of dangerous spontanaiety. While the scenes of domestic violence in Precious might not hit that level of a John Cassavetes film in this regard, they occasionally achieve that “what the hell happens next?” momentum. Yet the film just as easily slips into comedy from out of nowhere(through the adolescent fantasies of its impoverished, overweight subject Clarice Precious Jones, an African-American teen-ager living a tough life in Harlen in the 1980s.).

This is a credit to first time director Lee Daniels, who obviously has a fantastic touch with actors (He may one day be known as the only person to get a good performance out of Mariah Carey.) It’s also a tribute to the comedian Mo’nique, who plays the most monstrous welfare queen you’ll ever see; and its young star Gabby Sidibe, who brings both bravery and humor to the role of a teenage mother who has seen far too much of the worst that life has to offer. There is an exaggerated quality to the characters and the actions, but you have to give the actresses credit for reining it in.

There has been a habit in our recent intellectual life to celebrate (perhaps over-celebrate) hidden voices and hidden perspectives. Following an illiterate heroine on the outskirts of society, Precious is undoubtedly that sort of film. It does a very respectable job of signaling the limits that we place on a person as a society based on appearance, and it breaks through those limits with a likable character with a smart inner monologue and a sweet disposition. It’s hard not to get involved in her struggle for dignity, even if it is difficult for her.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Twilight: New Moon

Twilight [PG-13]
Grade: B
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Ashley Greene, Billy Burke
Director: Chris Weitz
Free Admission Granted

How you feel about Twilight: New Moon seems to be dividing along the lines of how you feel about the first film, last year’s Twilight, and its director, Catherine Hardwicke.

In the first film of this female-oriented vampire franchise, Hardwicke evoked an impassioned teen-age swooniness among its damply metaphorical forest setting. The problem – that’s all Hardwicke brought to the severely budget-crunched debut. And even that was double-edged. Each viewer had a choice of heartily succumbing or rolling their eyes.

Directed by Chris Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy), Twilight: New Moon definitely cuts down the eye-rolling. But that also means that New Moon is shorter on the high-school Gothic romanticism that has sparked such devotion from the franchise fans. The word you keep hearing with New Moon is “polished.” That means the look, pace, effects, and all things technical are vastly improved. But even someone who liked the film – and ultimately I did – can see that it has lost a chunk of its heart.

New Moon revives the tale of Bella Swan (a moody Kristen Stewart), the girl with the fairy tale name and the most complicated love life ever to be persistently interrupted by an all-seeing telephone. She continues to date her way through the James Whale/Val Lewton MGM horror film catalog, circa 1940. New Moon finds her torn, (but not really torn) between a sweet werewolf trainee who looks like Fabio and a vampire who looks like James Dean and dresses like Leonard Cohen. This isn’t just a rivalry for affections, but one with blood, teeth, and ancient animosities.

Edward Cullen, the vampire who can definitely see himself in the mirror, quickly makes like a bat and flies off. That drives a wooden stake through parts of the film. Unfortunately it is star Robert Pattinson who provides the wood – the cool sense of removal that made him such an elusive attraction last time here makes him seem cold and distant.

Bella dries her tears on the newly buff shoulders of the affably irrelevant teen wolf Jacob. A romance that might have looked plausible when the ink was still drying on the paper is now clearly only a prelude to the next chapter. While Taylor Lautner is game in trying to keep up the ruse, we know where Bella’s heart really lies. Poor Jacob never really had a chance.

While Weitz is being criticized for various indecencies, the film looks and moves much better. There’s a few nifty visual sequences (an impressive vampire werewolf chase set to Radiohead; a circling time elapse shot revealing the passing of the seasons is damn near brilliant.) He also brings a touch of the Grimm. New Moon is less a romance and more a fairy tale. Included is a macabre sense of humor about how we are all ultimately a potential dinner.

For all its issues, I enjoyed New Moon, and thought it, on first blush, a far better film than the first. Yet like its central vampire, I know it is designed to appeal straight to me. Therefore, I’m naturally suspicious of my assessment. It doesn’t matter. You’re going, anyway. You can write and tell me.

An Education

An Education
Grade: C
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Dominic Cooper
Director: Lone Scherfig

[Note: I try to avoid spoilers at all costs, but there’s no way for me to discuss this film substantively without them. You are warned.]

I once wrote Steven Spielberg never creates an interesting moral dilemma that a boy in a helicopter can’t fly his way out of.

I feel the same way about Lone Scherfig’s An Education, a film that repeatedly Medivacs its teenage heroine out of real complication and back to the Army Field Hospital for Conventional Wisdom. The film is the American Beauty of 2009, teasing us with a little leg of originality before pandering to its audience’s most common beliefs.

Based on the Lynn Barber memoir with a script by the English novelist Nick Hornby, An Education has breakout girl Carey Mulligan playing Jenny, a straight-A 16-year old with a future at Oxford. It’s 1961 England. A suave but shady businessman (Peter Sarsgaard) in a sports car picks her up one day from orchestra practice. Soon they’re having an affair. He takes her on adventures away from her drab life in Twickenshire to the high life of London and Paris. She hangs out in fashionable circles with his fellow well-to-do bon vivants (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike). Soon, she wonders whether she should complete her education or join the high life.

The film cruises along as an amiable fantasy for about two-thirds of the way. Then it sets up its dilemma dealing with the nature of education. Is education worth it? What is the point of one generation reading The Iliad for a degree only to teach it to the next generation, if in the end it makes nobody happy? If you have the golden ticket to the high life, to an enjoyable life, why invest in the time and effort of study?

This is a worthy personal dilemma, although not a weighty issue compared to those in, say, A Serious Man. However by turning its suitor into a villain, the film stacks the deck. To put it bluntly, Scherfig might as well have outfitted Sarsgaard in fangs. But that would have risked making it more subtle.

By wiggling out of a real choice, the film devalues the education that Jenny eventually chooses. We know if she simply found a nice rich guy, she justifiably would make a different choice. And so she doesn’t choose an education based on its virtues. She does it because there’s nothing else to do. Rather than be a brave step into brainy exploration, an education becomes the choice of brainless conformity.

Harrison Ford tells a story of meeting a Hollywood executive who said he knew Tony Curtis would be a star when he first saw him as a bellhop. Ford’s tart response was that he thought he was supposed to be a bellhop. I somewhat feel that way about Mulligan. I understand the wild praise thrown at her for this performance. Yet I never really bought the 23-year-old as a teenager, not even a precocious one. And as far as the film’s other source of praise, Scherfig does a very solid job of evoking that pre-sixties James Bond high-life, but she’s not the first one to do so.

Indie film used to be about edginess and challenging established beliefs. That should be obvious to Scherfig in particular, as she has a history in Dogme films (Italian for Beginners). An Education might value its pedigree. But in the end its extremely conservative lessons (fear older men, don’t smoke, don’t get pregnant, stay in school) wouldn’t seem out of place in the Twilight series. It’s a lovely film that is deeply dishonest with its audience.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Road

The Road [R]
Grade: A
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce
Director: John Hillcoat
Free Admission Granted

The nature of the disaster that ends civilization in The Road is never explained. Not in the Cormac McCarthy novel. Not in the fantastic John Hillcoat screen version. Yet you would be kidding yourself to bet against a nuclear war.

It could be a comet strike, or an asteroid, or super-volcanic activity, as has been proposed. If it were any other author, those choices might make sense. But would a writer like McCarthy, who has so assiduously held forth on violence, leave the end of the world up to random astronomical chance? I’m deeply skeptical.

So it needs to be appreciated that the father and son of The Road are not only wandering across a slowly dying earth. They are wandering through the apocalyptic aftermath of the ultimate act of nihilism. And in this we connect The Road to the dream the Sheriff reveals at the end of No Country for Old Men, of his father leading him with a torch safely through an intimidating darkness. Here, the father and son speak of their mission of survival as “carrying a fire.”

The Road is already gaining a reputation for being “bleak” and “pessimistic.” Yet for all its cannibalism, dead forests and ashy winter sky, I think this is wrong – I find it enormously optimistic. Because what it says to us is that a world abandoned by hope does not need to be abandoned by our humanity. And what you find at the end of the road might not be sun, or shelter, or deep blue sea, but rather those Faulknerian virtues – love, and honor, and the willingness to endure.

Hillcoat earned this chance with his terrific Outback Western The Proposition, compared by Roger Ebert to McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian (The lead is one of Ebert’s all-time great lines, “The Proposition relocates the Western from Colorado to Hell.”).In The Road, he abandons that film’s violent, sun-drenched spectacle in favor of futuristic anti-spectacle – all ash, and gray, and grit. Every abandoned house echoes with the deadest of dreams.

The performances have the flavor of red meat, barely cooked, desperate. Both Viggo Mortensen and the remarkable Kodi Smit-McPhee give performances of scrawny vulnerability, with only love to shield them. As the resigned wife of memory, Charlize Theron gives us five minutes that deeply sting. Her mysterious walk into the dark forest will remind film lovers of the dame’s disappearance into the jungle in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

And what is Herzog’s dictum – that extreme conditions reveal the human essence? There is no better description of the events of The Road. Yet it remains a movie of fathers teaching sons and sons teaching fathers, as manfully tender as anything in Field of Dreams. This strange confluence of love and desperation will sear itself into your mind and stay there.

Bright Star

Bright Star
Grade: A
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox
Director: Jane Campion

In Bright Star, the poet John Keats explains poetry as going into a lake only with a mind to luxuriate there, not to think about how to swim to shore.

This could be known as the Jane Campion dilemma, after the film’s talented, maddening director, who always gets caught thinking about how to swim to shore. Sometimes she swims to shore even when she’s not in the lake. At her best she is the absolute master of ritual, passion and restraint. At her worst, she is an over- decorator of temporarily fashionable received wisdom that doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of the camera.

The referendum for this dilemma is the moment in The Piano when Holly Hunter takes the plunge overboard strapped to the sinking ivories. Even the film’s admirers must admit this is an overly poetic gesture that nearly takes the film down to Davy Jones’ Locker with it, redeemed only by the shockingly sudden revelation of her first words. And if you’ve seen the last half hour of Holy Smoke!, then you know … Holy Smoke!

With the immaculate Bright Star, Campion allows us for once to swim to the middle of the lake and not worry about the shore, to simply luxuriate in her story of passion and her quiet directorial ferocity. Bright Star finds her at her most relaxed, most charming, most intellectually subtle and most passionate.

The story of the three-year 19th Century love affair between Keats and his neighbor Fannie Brawne, Bright Star is foremost about wildly passionate love. But given Keats’ early death, it is not an easy story of love. If things don’t work, there’s no going back to the architect Mom likes. It’s love as mystical investment, as frightening as it can be joyous. It also relates what it is like to be loved so thoroughly as to inspire some of the English language’s greatest words.

But this is not Keats’ film but that of Brawne, and Bright Star is a tribute to seduction and the mystique of feminine beauty. I say tribute quite deliberately. While American films associate seduction with feminine threat, here it is viewed as the greatest inspiration. Keats’ obnoxious best friend Charles Brown might dismiss Fannie’s talent for lovely and colorful dressmaking as flirtation and frippery. But we are invited to see it as the maximization of feminine adornment and her natural power. She cannot match her lover’s words with a pen, so she does so with a needle. As she is the muse for Keats’ poetry, he becomes – first exuberantly and then poignantly – the muse for her own form of expression.

Ben Whishaw never once lets you doubt his Keats-ness, and when was the last time that Paul Schneider didn’t steal his scene? Fanny’s quest for substantive acceptance is particularly telling for Cornish, whose roles until this moment have consisted of lovely adornment. I’m still not sure this signals a great talent, as the necessary characterization is so restrained that it is hard to say. But she fits it like a long elegant violet glove.

The real stars are the astounding art direction, set design, and composition. It’s a melody of mise-en-scene, with all things in the picture working to one harmonious end, under the stunning control of Campion. What interests her most is the ritualization of passion, and the way that human beings tapdance about the edges of propriety to satisfy their desire. In this she shares concerns with Stanley Kubrick’s great Barry Lyndon (I’ve called The Piano “the female Barry Lyndon.”). But whereas Kubrick shapes his story in part into an anti-authoritarian polemic that reflects upon modernity, Campion invests deeply in the personal feeling, and simply makes you feel what it was like to be that person living in that place at that time.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Good Hair

Good Hair
Grade: B
Cast: Chris Rock
Director: Jeff Stilson
Free Admission Granted

What a pleasant surprise.

Chris Rock channels Michael Moore. Instead of the topic of corporate greed or government malfeasance, he does it on the topic of black women and their hair. The result is a refreshing look at the love and mania caused by our natural - and unnatural - tops.

We start the documentary at a yearly hair product extravaganza in Atlanta for hair products. There we learn that 80 percent of the market for these products comes from Black Americans. Hairstyles are that important. Then we meet the flamboyant contestant and get a feel for their flamboyant performances. We move from there to black men and women jawing for nearly two hours about all facets of hair, from self-esteem to sex.

While that might seem trivial, the thing is that the film isn’t without substance. Special attention is paid to how hair in India shorn at temples ends up in the United States as part of a weave, which is the biggest trend in black female hairstyles. Likewise , the film pays attention to the fact that black hair products are now rarely sold by black-owned companies, a fact that makes Al Sharpton talk about how this constitutes economic exploitation. The film is also very frank about the near torture that the women go through to get their hair the way they want it, often as sported by white models. The most eye-opening moment is when a scientist dips Coke cans into the ingredients of hair straightener and watches them dissolve.

In this it sort of mirrors The Cove, except with more purpose and less porpoise. It is alternately humorous and engaging, while also gaining real interest and credibility in detailing the business and sometimes disturbing dealings behind finding the perfect do. Rock does an excellent job of bridging both sides and making this documentary something worth seeing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are
Grade: F
Cast: Max Records, Catherine Keener
Director: Spike Jonze
Free Admission Granted

There is no way on earth that Where the Wild Things Are will get the terrible reviews that it fully deserves.

The Maurice Sendak children’s book on which it is based is too beloved. Director Spike Jonze has too much good will from his days with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Nobody is going to want to admit that this a Transformers 2-like disaster. But it nearly is.

The look of the film, lensed by the often terrific Lance Acord, is far too dark, shot at questionable angles. The pacing is nearly as muddy as the tone. Nor are we helped by Max Records, our child hero, who graces us an entire Saturday morning of cereal box emotions (Watching this performance and then young Cody Smit-McPhee in The Road two days later is jarring.). Kaufman has finally set Spike Jonze afloat and instead he gets set adrift.

For all the alleged creativity, the story is fairly conventional little boy rwonderland fantasy. Its big innovation is that its giant animals speak to each other in modern lingo that occasionally seems like self-satire. Of course, all we learn is that we love our family and it’s important to love our family. (Catherine Keener plays the slightly kooky ….. mother. At least I thought she was a little kooky.)

The big problem with Where the Wild Things Are is the most obvious. Even as critters of the imagination, the giant mascot-like animals – man-sized lions and goats and such – are not nearly as convincing as they probably seemed in Jonze’s head. I hate to say it, but you can always see them acting – a thing I find very hard to say about giant felt (?) creatures with a straight face. Nevertheless, they open and close their little mouths while the voiceover gives them something to say. You can see each part working in tandem. It just doesn’t work, and you sense that the weird middle ground shots are their way of covering up this fact.

Where the Wild Things Are tests the bounds of physics – can you make a movie with fewer minutes of film than are in the run time? Seriously, this thing feels like it was made in about 20 minutes. That’s the lasting impression of the film. And it just feels like a shame.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Serious Man

A Serious Man [R]
Grade: A
Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Free admission granted

The critical understanding of The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men often has divided, vaguely, between moralistic versus fatalistic interpretations. Is the killer Anton Chiguhr a human being, and therefore does the film ask us to take measure of his cock-eyed morality? Or is he a specter, a grim reaper for the modern age, a natural phenomenon that operates beyond moral application? How you answer this question creates powerfully different interpretations of the film.

In this debate I have been a fatalist and have always placed an enormous amount of weight on the conversation between the Sheriff and his aging uncle near the end. The Sheriff wishes to retire. He feels worn out by the rise of nihilistic violence. He doesn’t believe it existed in the good old days.

His relative says no, there has always been this sort of violence. The old man then tells the Sheriff that death will come for you when it come for you, and you will have no say in it. To think that you will have a say in the time or method of your own death, he says, is vanity. The Greeks would call this hubris. And hubris carries the implication of arrogance in the face of divine fate.

As a tornado bears down in the final scene of A Serious Man – a match and then some for No Country’s much debated ending – it puts this principle into spellbinding motion. Not only will death come when it comes without any knowledge or say, the film argues. The God of this film is completely unknowable, all his intentions beyond understanding, and man’s puny struggles to interpret his way are futile and – yes, that word – absurd. Somehow the Coens have simultaneously created their most Jewish film and most existential film in a single try.

A Serious Man is a story of stories built upon stories, or more accurately, fables upon fables. In an early scene our dweebish physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) introduces us to Schrodinger’s Cat, a logical paradox that is often illustrated by a dead cat in a box. It’s not enough to understand only the cat thing, he tells a failing student. That part is like a fable of physics. You have to understand the mathematics behind it, he says, because that is the truth.

In fact however, he’s wrong, too. Because mathematics is not the truth itself, but only another form of representation of the truth, another way of placing the vast mystery of the Cosmos into our little finite minds. In a dream sequence, we are introduced to a second mathematical proof, that of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which is a mathematical way to prove a philosopher’s point – that everything is uncertain. (Mark “mystery.” We’re comin’ back to it.)

The uncertainty of it all is the continuing theme in the film. Our professor wants to understand why God is allowing his life to fall apart all at once. He seeks answers to his Job-like sufferings (to which he has an anti-Job-like reaction). What does God want? Why is he testing me? What am I supposed to do? He and we are treated to several fables – such as the story of the Goy’s teeth – that let us know that, as the saying goes, the mind of God is unknowable and his plan ultimately a mystery.

The Coen Brothers have often been noted for being influenced by Stanley Kubrick, and my understanding of 2001: A Space Odyssey dovetails nicely with my understanding of A Serious Man. While many take interest in HAL’s human qualities, I am more interested in the supercomputer’s “god-like” qualities. But what I’m really interested is in the way that these qualities do not measure up to the actuality of divinity. Because the qualities in HAL that we think of as god-like are only our erroneous understandings and projections of godliness, swallowed and regurgitated into finite form.

It is important to remember the final word of 2001 is “mystery.” At the moment after HAL is shut down, the origin and the purpose of the godlike monolith is said to be “still a total mystery.” The double meaning is there – mystery t in the religious/metaphysical sense, something that is unable to be known by human means. Likewise, in this movie, our professor seeks a truth that is beyond his means to know. At some point he is told … and don’t quote me … I think I got this right …. If I’m wrong let me know, but don’t tell my friends … something to the effect of he is failing to see the mystery.

A Serious Man is a serious film, but not an entirely lovable one. It starts as interesting weirdness, begins to repeats its “no good deed goes unpunished” cycle until it reaches a point of oversaturation. On top of that, it relies twice on marijuana as an engine for comedy. That’s just a wee-bit overplayed. Nevertheless, it would be intellectually dishonest to give this film anything but the highest recommendation.

Coco Avant Chanel

Coco Avant Chanel
Grade: B
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Benoit Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola
Director: Anne Fontaine
Free admission granted

Because biopics must touch the bases of a human life, there is a certain formality to such films. The best you can hope for, sometimes, isn’t brilliance but to do the person justice.

Anne Fontaine’s Coco Avant Chanel is a lush French film that does justice to its subject – the legendary French designer and businesswoman Coco Chanel. It is a project seemingly willed to quality by the commitment of the performers, starting with the French star Audrey Tautou, who make us care as much as they.

The film centers on Chanel’s pre-fame love triangle with the Count Balsan (a fantastic Benoit Poelvoorde), whom she serves as both best friend and kept plaything, and his English financial planner Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola), who will liberate her by backing her business ventures. It’s a sophisticated relationship quandary that deserves a better class of obstacles than society marriages and bad driving. But biopics can only take what reality dishes out.

Coco Avant Chanel is so convinced of its premise of Chanel as a prototype modern businesswoman that you almost don’t notice that she’s partially slept her way to the top. This should pose a dilemma for feminist ideology – is it acceptable to sexually play upon the power of men to achieve your own power? Is that playing into the system, or is that subverting it? That is an interesting question. Yet the film accepts her path without much comment.

Instead we get a very satisfying love story and character study, and an interesting perspective on turn-of-the-century class – the poor girl becomes a leveler of style, slowly infecting the Old World frockery with the egalitarian beauty of orphanage simplicity. She’s drawn to that world, drawn in by it, and yet remains aloof as if in some test of personal purity. It’s the most mature role and performance we’ve seen from Audrey Tautou, who brings proud vulnerability with the same ease that she does Gallic froth.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Invention of Lying

The Invention of Lying [PG-13]
Grade: C
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, Louis CK, Martin Starr, cameos: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton,
Director: Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson

In one of the funnier scenes of The Invention of Lying, British comic Ricky Gervais – stuck in a world where he is the only person who knows how to lie – improvises a religion, the world’s first from what we can tell. The Man in the Sky, he tells a crowd, will give everyone a giant mansion after they die and an eternal afterlife of happiness. (Yes, he is writing his ticket to Hell here.)

What could The Man in the Sky give Gervais in the afterlife? Let’s take a look.

1) A higher Q rating – Last year, Gervais’ name was floated as a host for the Oscars. Those in the know said, “Great!” The majority said, “Who?” The star of the British version of The Office, like many British comics of late, has had a tough time breaking into the American mainstream. While I wouldn’t say his style is without precedent, his melancholy subtlety is a refresher in today’s comic atmosphere of gross-outs and affected weirdness. The man never hard sells a joke, or at least never gets caught doing so.
2) A better leading lady than Jennifer Garner – Garner is a comic over-emoter. She meets every inch of Gervais’ subtlety with miles of pushy expressions. Her face bends in such ways that you must wonder if her skull has secret elbows.
3) A riskier script – Well, it is a twist on Liar, Liar. Gervais appears to be following the path of the American star of The Office, Steve Carell, the Cap’n Crunch of the high-fructose mass comedy. I’d like to see him in a more daring role, even a supporting one. A natural sarcastic cutthroat doorman.
4) A street-front set that doesn’t look like a set, that doesn’t give you the feeling that a crew will clean it up and turn it around for a music video 13 hours later.
5) A story that doesn’t drop off. The Invention of Lying has some quite casually funny moments. A few of the hyper-honest advertisements have real bite as satire of famous products. Then it just …… disappears.
6) More Phillip Seymour Hoffman – Just a fun blip cameo as a salty barkeep.

Best wishes for a happy afterlife, Ricky. But keep plugging away at this one first.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Fame [PG]
Grade: D
Cast: Naturi Naughton, Kay Panabaker, Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, Kelsey Grammer, Megan Mulally, Bebe Neuwirth, Charles S. Dutton, Debbie Allen
Director: Kevin Tancharoen

Was one Fame not enough? Oh, sing the answer in one voice, please. I must admit to being derelict in my film reviewing duties by never having seen the 1980 original. It doesn’t really jump out on my must-see old movies list alongside Citizen Kane and Jules and Jim.

I’ll concede there might be films worth remaking. But most films worth re-introducing to a new generation would be unthinkable to remake. No one would touch Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven or Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. Even if you replicated the scenes impressively, there is little chance to recreate the artistic signature. And there lies the dilemma of the remake.

In practice, remakes need fungibility and forgettability. By the former, I mean they must have some form of cultural currency that is interchangeable across generations. By the latter, I mean the original must be successful enough to recognize but forgettable enough to blur inevitable comparisons, lest the new version be found wanting. However these qualities usually mean we’re not working with material touched by a specifying greatness. Even to think a film is fit to remake suggests it is either flexible or disposable or both, and it is a little insulting.

Fame’s reaching-for-the-stars storyline certainly has potential for cross-generational appeal. And the earlier film would not be deemed so sacred as to be untouchable or unapproachable. For that reason one might dream of a good ,daring remake to this material, but this isn’t it.

We all know the basic idea of Fame, a film about the New York School for Performing Arts. They want to live forever. They want to know how to fly (High!). They live. They love. They learn. They dance, and sing, and act, and, er, rap. Some win. Some fail.

Early in the film, a voice teacher criticizes a student for singing a song but not feeling it. Likewise, Fame lines up the notes but not the feeling. There’s the student with the demanding parents. And the one with fuddy-duddy parents. And the other one with demanding parents. And the working class one. And the kid with the rage. And the kid from Iowa. Because no one actually lives in Iowa. It’s only kept around as a constructed other for New York and LA so that bumpkin characters can have someplace to come from. We dip into a little of each, but Fame only generates poignancy by resorting to the most over-the-top things – a quick suicide attempt or a teacher’s crushing stories of showbiz failures past.

In a film throwing performances at you, there have to be a few that work. Most of them involve the silk-voiced Naturi Naughton and her singing. And there are bits and pieces of art direction, particularly a trippy Halloween ball thrown by creative students. That said, I wonder if directors have lost the ability or ambition to film sweeping musical numbers. If you watch old musicals, they mainly cut only when Cyd Charisse stumbled in her four-inch heels. These are chopped up and stitched together pretty heavily. We call that cheating.

The great leap for Fame is to find reason to take another bow in this age. In 1980, the sweat-behind the starshine idea might have seemed fresh. Since then, the concept has been adopted into numerous television shows. American Idol is in a sense a live version with real people and slicker packaging. Perhaps that’s why the filmmakers bet on it. But where this idea once might have been novel, these shows have made it old hat by now, and spoiled us on access to the real thing. The view backstage no longer lures only a movie camera.

The Informant!

The Informant[R]
Grade: C
Cast: Matt Damon, Melanie Lynskey, Scott Bakula
Director: Stephen Soderbergh

There are few actors who I consistently dislike, but Matt Damon is among them.

He has an unnatural and disruptive screen presence. He pings and pongs between awkward and inanimate. As a result, he struggles his way into characters with murky histories – in the case of Jason Bourne, no history whatsoever. He is everyone and no one – America’s Nowhere Man.

It is fortunate for The Informant! that it needs a Nowhere Man in its lead. Damon’s discomforting instinct fits a man who is never comfortable in his own skin. The motivations for his “heroic” actions – blowing the whistle on scandal-plagued agribusiness giant Archers Daniels Midland – start shady and become opaque and absurd. Like a good host chatting with everyone and revealing nothing, he treats us to a fascinatingly cornfed voiceover of his life, filled with comic observations on fishing and embezzlement. Soon we will see that these are filled with fictions. The Informant in this case is not a reliable informer.

In fact, The Informant is that rare thing – a film that might have a more entertaining voiceover than what’s actually on screen. Damon is a better reader than believable emoter, and its plot is a happy-go-lucky thriller on par with (sigh) watching corn grow. Admirably, it is a film with a mission. It takes the canonizing assumptions of a whistleblower movie – the unassailable virtue of the whistler – and stands them on their head. The Informant! suggests a sort of virtuous emptiness at the heart of the American character. A sophisticated take. So why did I leave the theater rubbing my forehead?

That’s sort of the rub. So far this year, Soderbergh has stylishly painted over a weak and pretentious script (The Girlfriend Experience) and underdirected an interesting one. This is Erin Brockovich style Soderbergh – laying back and letting the story do the talking. But Brokovich had an all-the-marbles do-gooder plot and star power at its heart. Not here. What directing ideas there are a little too cutesy--- the ancient computer fonts, the Marvin Hamlisch score. Soderbergh mistakes irony for style.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


9 [PG-13]
Grade: C
Cast: Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Jennifer Connelly
Director: Shane Acker

Why does every anime-inspired American sci-fi animation film feel like someone has watched too much Star Wars?

Am I wrong? The new film 9 shows repeated scenes of little cloth people escaping giant fireballs exploding through cylinders. It even has a rising spirits in the firelight ending pulled right from Return of the Jedi. The only thing missing is the Ewok song. I won’t pretend to say that it was missed.

The Battle of Terra was the first to go with the Star Wars thing, yanking its space battle plot quite clearly from the original Lucas favorite. With its stitched-up, fiber-suited mini robots, 9 is less The Battle of Terra than The Battle of Cloth World. That’s a reference lost on those that haven’t reached the age of 30.

9 is a superb looking anime. I mean superb. From the microscope eyes to the zippers on the robots’ stomachs, the detail is staggering. The setting is a near-perfectly clouded apocalyptic junkyard of a planet – like Wall-E without the cheer.

It’s as if creator Shane Acker has put too much thought into the image and not enough into the story. It overuses apocalyptic military-industrial complex clichés that barely stitch it together. A group of nefarious war-making machines have killed off mankind and are on the verge of finishing off our little cloth friends. Only nine or so of our robot Raggedy Anns and Andies are left to fight, led by a robot called 9.

The imagery of 9 will earn it fans. And it has some brilliant little action sequences. But as chase scene piles on chase scene, and tired plot points fail to develop, it becomes tougher and tougher to sit through. It’s a film to admire in ways, and a filmmaker to be excited about. But like it’s story, that remains for a future time.


Let’s all take a moment and appreciate Jason Bateman.

He’s one child star that didn’t go all Todd Bridges on us. Instead, he kept fighting, hooked onto a hugely influential sitcom (Arrested Development), and now has carved out a burgeoning movie career in Juno etc. as a dependable wisecracker.

For being in the spotlight so long, it’s strange that he would have such a gift for onscreen Everymanhood. But it’s hard to argue the evidence. His vulnerable sarcasm is the only thing that keeps afloat Mike Judge;s otherwise soggy Extract. It’s not quite enough to save the movie, it at least sticks the finger in the dyke.

Bateman’s priceless reactions are refreshment in a film that is otherwise draining.. Joel, the owner of an extract manufacturer ready to sell to Big Food, runs thorugh his share of professional and domestic mayhem. Whethergetting punched out by a social reprobate or going on tor hiring pool boys to seduce his distant wife, the film has plenty of mayhem.

Judge fills out the rest of the time with the “quirky” characters that come and go from the factory. Mainly they seem like the people whose auditions were rejected from other Mike Judge projects – some blue-hairs from King of the Hill, a stoned, not-too-smart rocker for Beavis and Butthead, etc. Say this for Judge, he can write a funny line for anybody. But he forgets to make us care a whit about them.

For a film with such a cynical view of its characters (not one ever makes the right choice.), it completely wimps out and goes sweet at the end. It looks like he might hit the road with Milan Kunis’ gravelly thief on a multi-state criminal spree. Nooooo. Instead he goes back to the factory, makes amends, and starts lining up the inexplicable and undeserved soft landing.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Thirst [R]
Grade: A
Cast: Kang Ho-Song, Ok-vin Kim
Director: Chan Wook Park

After Twilight you …. you parents …. you told your daughters it was fine to go around dating vampires. Don’t mind the teeth, hun. As long as he has you home by eleven.

Well, I have news for you– they still bite. And crave blood. All that no coffins and drinking cow’s blood propaganda? Lies. If you have any doubt, watch Thirst. It uncovers the truth behind the cape.

Oh yeah, Sang-hyeon (Kang Ho-Song) makes a big pretense of having a soul. He is a Korean Catholic priest who transforms into a vampire while serving as a guinea pig in a church medical experiment.(How does that happen? Ask a doctor.). For the first while, he makes a big show of his moral thinking. Continuing his work as a priest. Praying ostentatiously for the dying.

Avoiding killing at all costs, while sucking only the blood of the unconscious. How kind!
It takes only the forbidden love a family’s adopted daughter, kept in servitude by her wicked stepmother, to get him to sin. And then sin again. And the next think you know, he’s really sinking his teeth into her. And that’s when Hell on Earth really starts. And the man who enters vampirism aiming for sainthood has to accept that he has changed into a monster.

Oh, and I bet some idiot film reviewer will run off and tell you that “The latest flight into comic masochism by Oldboy director Chan-Wook Park” is “one of the best films of the year.” He’ll probably call it a “vampire morality tale” (as if) and describe it as “brilliantly dallying in blood and spirituality.” Or some crap like that.

Then after that, he might tell you that it “starts as a vampire film, slips into a film noir, and ends in mad, merry, morbid screwball.” Like that means anything comprehensible. Then he’ll go on about it being “a film noir that “reverses the sexual dynamics of the average vampire film” in which “a femme fatale’s bite is worse than that of the undead.” Like that clears things up.

And woah-ho-ho-ho, he probably won’t warn you about the vast acreage of blood and gore. He’ll just comment how “the silly incompatibility of humor and disgust“ makes all the gore ”capable of being swallowed with a laugh.”

Just keep your daughter safe.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock [R]
Grade: D
Cast: Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jonathan Groff, Eugene Levy, Liev Schreiber
Director: Ang Lee

The thing about doing a Woodstock movie is that you gotta go all the way.

It might be the wise choice not to try and re-create the spectacle – half a million hippie youths “mellowed out,” playing in the mud, and listening to three hazy days of music. But it’s also a bit of a cowardly choice. You’re there. You’re not going to be there again. You gotta go for it.

Like the million people who went to Woodstock but never quite made it, Ang Lee’s (disastrously titled) Taking Woodstock gets stuck in the million-man traffic jam. Instead of expanding to the size of the spectacle, the film curiously gets smaller. And smaller. Until it’s too small for the scale of the event.

James Schamus’ screenplay adapts the biography of Elliot Tiber, the shy son of Russian Jewish émigrés running a fleabag motel in the Catskills who accidentally becomes an organizer of the most famous concert of all time. In 1969 the neighboring community Walkill had run the hippie pageant out of town. Tiber and his neighbor Max Yasgur offered up Max’s farm as a replacement. The rest is history.

With some imagination, the buildup to an epic event can make fascinating storytelling in its own right. Certainly that was true with last year’s Man on Wire. Taking Woodstock seems to get this right at times, detailing how happy accidents led a colossal social happening to a fallow alfalfa field in rural New York. In its best moments, the film engages in the sort of strange cross-cultural currents between hippies and the squares that epitomized the sixties. Then the concert fades, the film shrinks. We watch Tiber coming to terms with his family and his homosexuality. It’s tenderly told, but ….. who cares? What’s going on over the hill?

Ultimately, this is the ballad of Ang Lee – a willingness to attack big subjects, a pitch-perfect eye and ear for the surfaces of an era, and yet an uncanny way of finding too conventional stories that don’t live up to the scope. His world is that of received literary wisdom rather than original thought. He’s a master at making films that impress and underwhelm simultaneously, and Taking Woodstock is a poster child.

Even the hardest Republican should be able to appreciate how a freewheeling. Free-love youth festival, the product of the excesses of a free society, stands as an antidote to Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies, 35 years apart and a world away. Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock documentary might be overlong, but in its split-screen perspectives, languid pace, and freedom-loving values, it’s also a screw-you reply to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.

Ultimately the sixties were a idealistic reaction to a world that had been tearing itself apart for half a century. The sixties would die at Altamont. They would be buried in Munich. Woodstock was always the honeymoon, but one that was not a beginning but an end.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

District 9

District 9 [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope Vanessa Haywood, Louis Minaar
Director: Neill Blomkamp

We move from the man’s face to a shot of the Johannesburg skyline at sunset. Panning left across the shadowy towers and an impossibly red sky, the sun seems to spin and waft gas. Then it suddenly dissolves into a pit of fire at night, with dark figures standing about it. Perfect.

The fluidity of this stunning transition, in a film that sneers at unimaginative transitions, is a sign of the skill and visual imagination involved in District 9. Although he overdoes it from time to time, director Neill Blomkamp rarely fails to find a way to make a shot interesting or explosive.

I’ll sum District 9 up quickly – this sci-fi story is very good filmmaking in service of a pretty good film. The thing that you must understand is the intensity of the action. The pacing is torrential. Sometimes it’s even too fast, cheating moments of their resonance. But for the most part, it successfully and consistently raises hairs.

The intensity of the action is matched by the realism that propels it. The shaky-cam documentary film works very well here, as the film comes across with the feel of an old war reel. The other big thing is the absolute tactile realness of the alien creatures, called prawns, with an insect-on-steroids appearance. A combination of digital and live acting, they don’t look merely real unto themselves, but realistically matched to their environment. Several viewers might be surprised to learn afterward that no such aliens live in South Africa. But don’t let Jessica Simpson in on the joke. It’s funnier that way.

Those poor prawns could have used a better map. They arrive on Earth in a damaged spaceship. Of all the places to park it, they found South Africa, hanging squarely above Johannesburg. Perhaps future aliens should strand their spaceship over somewhere with less of a history of racial division. After 20 years of violence and searching through rubbish for catfood, the million-plus aliens have been cordoned off into a shantytown called District 9.

In a sequence that targets both plot exposition and dark humor, the film opens as a pseudo-documentary, a tone that it will largely hold, with some annoying departures, for the next two hours. A television crew tags along as teams of a paid police militia enter District 9 to evict its alien occupants and relocate them to new homes in District 10, farther from the city.

Our point of entry into the movie is Wikus van der Merwe, a cowardly, not so bright administrator who has risen to his position by marrying the daughter of the corporate owner. The corporation is an arms manufacturer whose private army watches over the aliens. Following the eviction, Vikus finds himself turning into an alien, growing a prawn claw in place of his hand. This makes him capable of using their technology, which interests a bunch of malicious parties. Hunted by the corporation, he takes refuge among the prawns. Half man and half prawn, he soon finds himself engaged in a plan to help the aliens escape and to return to human form.

District 9’s biggest blemish is that its protagonist operates as if he is in another film. The serious pseudo-documentary façade is too often filled with a main character doing a Monty Python routine, like officiously asks fishy aliens to sign their eviction notices. Later, he conveniently shifts from weakling to action hero when the script needs it – in a snap he goes from John Cleese to John Wayne. I don’t think Sharlto Copley, with little acting experience, pulls it off. Unlike most of the cast, I always felt him acting.

The apartheid theme is fine, but like most apartheid films, it doesn’t allow for a lot maneuvering. Essentially, apartheid = bad, supporters = villains. It does deliver a feeling of importance. But a film criticizing apartheid should do better than reducing its black characters to criminal thugs with more machete than heart.

The more interesting and traditionally sci-fi themed line would be whether it should matter to Wikus if he becomes a prawn. It is still life and consciousness. What beyond familiarity of form is so distressing to him? Is there something about being human that we should miss? The film should end where Ray Bradbury might have ended it, with Wikus returned to human form, but kept as a last human in a Prawn zoo. But what do I know – that would make it hard to have a sequel.


Shorts [PG]
Grade: C
Cast: Jimmy Bennett, Jolie Vanier, Leslie Mann, Jon Cryer, James Spader, William H. Macy, Kat Dennings
Director: Robert Rodriguez

The two auteurs who paired last year for Grindhouse – Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino – each has a film coming out Friday.

Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is expected to be a strange trip through a fictional World War II. For sheer lunacy, Rodriguez’s kids film Shorts surprisingly might give it a run as the crazier of the two.

There’s no other way to say it. It’s a kids film on acid. I say this as one of the squarest guys you will ever meet. It was about the point in time when the children were attacked by the enormous mutant booger that I began to wonder exactly what this film would look like if the viewer were stoned. And like some late seventies excess piece, it keeps getting weirder. And weirder.

Shorts starts with a brother and sister who take that old vacation car-time game – the staring contest – and do it to marathon lengths over several days. That’s just before the credits. Once the film really gets rolling, it divides into several out-of-order shorts surrounding dorky ToeThompson (Jimmy Bennett), his elementary schoolmates, the neighborhood parents, and a little shadowy bully girl named Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier) who comes with her own cheesy theme song. All of these shorts revolve around a rainbow-color stone that grants wishes to the holder.

In the hands of the children, the neighborhood is suddenly crawling with booger monsters, bipedal crocodiles, an all-knowing baby girl, and parents literally attached at the hip. Of course, that’s barely out of the abnormal in this company town that produces the Black Box, a lego-like all-purpose device that can do roughly anything. It’s manufactured at Black Industries by its diabolical owner (James Spader), who would love to have the stone himself.

Rodriguez does something clever –he uses the allowable silliness of children’s movie as a liberating opportunity for exploration. It’s a little post-modern, particularly in its out-of-order storytelling. I wish it were a little more consistently successful. I admire the energy and daffiness, but ultimately it chases its own tail.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Time Travelers Wife

The Time Travelers Wife [PG-13]
Grade: B
Cast: Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams, Michelle Nolden, Alex Ferris, Arliss Howard
Director: Robert Schwentke

This is the first year in a while in which critics have settled on a consensus “best film so far” – The Hurt Locker. But that’s also an admission that there have been few films that have posed real competition.

Yet I’ve been treated to three films this year that are strictly genre pics that have fulfilled their relatively limited potential – Star Trek as a summer blockbuster, The Uninvited as cookie-cutter horror, and now The Time Travelers Wife. It’s a lovely big goopy, soapy, sappy, girly weepie, adapted from the passionately loved Audrey Neffinger novel .

Romances are stories of inevitability and destiny. Time travel stories are usually stories of altering fate. The film ably plays with the difference. Eric Bana plays Henry, a man who like Billy Pilgrim has become unhinged in time. Without warning, he disappears into naked travels from one point in time to another. This is alternately swoony and frustrating for his artist wife, Clare.
As befitting a time travel tale, they meet at different moments. She meets him as a six-year-old.

She’s playing in a meadow on her father’s estate. He’s naked and hiding in the bushes begging for clothes. He makes regular visits to her in the meadow as she grows up. Until one day in her twenties Clare finds the younger Henry in a library. Each time one knows more about the other.
The film’s romance is a slow, blue burn. Only for a short while does it have the vivacious ardor of first love. Much of the romance is the quiet currencies of care found in marriage. The film also uses its premise to create moments of real poignance, such as a really special one when Henry meets a certain woman on a train whose fate he knows.

Some writers have criticized the film for not making sense. Well, duh. Undying love doesn’t do logic. The story wouldn’t make sense if it made sense. These are the sorts of people who watch Field of Dreams and wonder where the baseball players go when it rains in the cornfield.
Instead, a film like this is supposed to run on an emotional reality, or an emotional surreality. with the force of love bending time to its will. The film shares a screenwriter with Ghost (Bruce Joel Rubin) and shares a sense of swoon and the supernatural. This sensation is ably delivered by Bana and McAdams, two stars whom the camera seems to especially adore. The actors so easily take such big emotions and make them simple and personal. It helps that their characters are written with intelligence, if not necessarily depth.

You have to give yourself to The Time Travelers Wife, and not everyone will. It’s not a film for cynics (which should disqualify me, but whatever). But it took me where it wanted me to go. And it made me feel like it wanted me to feel. For a film like this, that is all you can ask.


Bandslam [PG]
Grade: D
Cast: Aly Michalka, Vanessa Hudgens, Gaelan Connell Lisa Kudrow
Director: Todd Graff

This year 2009 offers us one riveting story of an awkward virgin struggling for social acceptance while dealing with his first taste of love as he chooses between two young ladies of opposite fortune. The name of that film is Adventureland. (Hat tip: A. O. Scott)

As for Bandslam, well, it’s not Fast Times at Ridgmont High or anything. Heck, it’s not Juno. It involves the effort of a dorky curly-haired newcomer to a New Jersey high school (Gaelan Connell) and his effort to “manage” a high school rock band. He befriends an ex-cheerleader(Alyson Michalka) who has exiled herself from the in-crowd to hang out with the music dorks, all the while fronting a band with her oh so sexy blond curls. He also befriends the dark, mysterious girl (eeeeww!)(High School Musical’s Vanessa Hudgens), whose name is Sa5m. The 5 is silent. No, I would never make such a stupid thing up.

These kids don’t really resemble any high schoolers I knew in high school. It’s more what we thought high schoolers would be like in sixth grade. Like when you figured that there had to be a schoolwide band competition with the winner getting a recording contract. That’s senior year, right?

So, how do you know you’re in a music crowd that’s lamer than it thinks? They do the overhead clap. That of course breaks out in the middle of Bandslam’s climax. And it’s emblematic of a film that doesn’t realize it needs to do more than drop band names to be cool. There’s a sense of calculation in this film that is crushing.

But it does get points for two things. It manages to slip Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman in there, and two character very momentarily break out into The Madison. And while I would never be a fan, Hudgens does seem to be a natural entertainer. So it’s not a complete disaster.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Cove

The Cove [PG-13]
Grade: C
Cast: Ric O’Barry
Director: Louis Psihoyos
I know. Everybody loves Flipper. And dolphins have a 7.4 trillion IQ. They split the atom 3,200 years before man walked the earth. Dolphin doctors are well known for selflessly treating earthquake victims in remote places. They’re uniformly sharp dressers. And they always remember their parents’ birthday on the birthday, not when they’re walking through the supermarket two days later.

In short, no species on the planet has gotten more PR mileage out of being really good at bouncing a beach ball on the nose. So you’re just waiting for that moment in The Cove when a dolphin expert says dolphins might be more intelligent than humans and that if we could only communicate, we might learn from them. Oh yeah. Like what? Better fishing techniques? Dolphin poetry? If dolphins are as smart as people say, then they’re the laziest little underachievers on the planet.

Among dolphinkind’s chief publicists is Ric O’Barry, whose fight for dolphin rights is the subject of The Cove. He says things like, “If there’s a dolphin in danger anywhere in the world, my phone will ring,” without a hint of humor. The goal of his team is to document a yearly killing of dolphins off the coast of Japan in an effort to expose it to the world.

The Cove asks us to sit in judgment of Japanese fishermen in the town of Taiji who each year capture and slaughter dolphins to eat and sell as food. Granted the pictures of locals wading around in a blood-thickened kill pool are rather unappetizing, and the fishermen’s methods aren’t very sporting. But a slaughterhouse for cows (sacred in some cultures), or chickens, or any animal wouldn’t make pretty pictures. We’re simply not accustomed to the notion of dolphins as food. Our culture has so thoroughly anthropomorphized dolphins that we can’t think of them this way.

The Cove makes a few points that are stronger. The first is suggesting that the Japanese are overhunting dolphins and failing to allow the stocks to replenish. The other is the presence of mercury poisoning in the food chain, a fact that makes some fish dangerous for humans to eat. Being high in the food chain, dolphin meat, the film says, is loaded with mercury (a fact we doltish wastes-of-space humans know while the super-geniuses of the sea cheerfully keep chomping contaminated fish). This is an issue that impacts many people, and the film’s discussion of it, as well as the politics of it, are well done.

As a film, The Cove has one card to play, and it doesn’t take long to know what to expect. It tries to fill time by depicting the rivalry between his team and the local police and fishermen. These tales are always less thrilling by the end than they appear at the beginning. The suspense seems more like exaggerated paranoia. It would help to have a little distance and perspective from the participants. The film is so supportive of its subject that It fails to make him a compelling character, something that most good documentaries can stand to have.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Funny People [R]
Grade: NR
Cast: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman
Director: Judd Apatow

Tonight, on a very special episode of Knocked Up …..

Ben ditches Alison, gets a job in a deli, and changes his name to Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), presumably to avoid child support payments. He and Jonah Hill (whose name is always Jonah Hill, no matter what character he plays) move in with Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) in Hollywood, where they quit the nudie website and all set out to be standup comedians. That’s where Ira meets world famous funny man George Simmons, a remorseful perpetual jerk dying of cancer outside the public eye. Ira befriends him, cares for him, writes his jokes as he suffers through the pain. Eventually, Simmons tries to reconcile with his old flame (Leslie Mann), who happens to be Alison’s sister. Strangely, Allison’s sister has ditched Paul Rudd and moved to Marin County with that guy from Munich (Eric Bana), who is no longer Israeli but Australian. Huh.

I suppose we’ve been asking for this. A film from Judd Apatow that is deeper than the laughs and the penis references, even though Funny People has more than its share. In fact, it’s been such a long time coming that Apatow seems to have given us two of them.

The first one — centering on Sandler’s illness, male friendship, and reminiscence – is smoother, better executed, and has the vulgar comedy that Apatow’s fans love. Its observations on life and death are heartfelt but not particularly original or profound. Yes, we should all value each day and each person in our lives. Yet that sort of sentiment doesn’t get us much past the last episode of Cheers. As a writer, Apatow really hits the funny bone at times, and there’s a tender little speech by Sandler over Thanksgiving dinner that has much appeal. Yet too often it is exactly what you would expect from ”funny man tries to be serious by writing about cancer.” And no one should try an emotive drama and cast Rogen in, well, any role (although Sandler is better than you would expect, and digs deeper into himself and his persona than you’ll ever see.).

The second film is unfocused, with sharp personality changes, and somehow feels too long and too short at the same time. Yet it has the braver and more original perspective, as Simmons visits his ex-girlfriend’s home for a tryst and ends up spending the weekend with her husband and family. In trying to rekindle the “love of his life” Simmons pursues a melodramatic personal transformation rather than appreciate the small and real one that has taken place through his friendship with Ira. Now that’s a smart thing to say. Actually it’s a little similar to Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, a film that Schwartzman happened (maybe more than happened) to star in and co-write. Too bad that everyone in the audience is going to hate this part and wonder where the penis jokes went.

Years ago, the Texas Rangers had a smooth swinging, hard charging leftfielder named Rusty Pierce. He was a fan favorite for running really hard after fly balls and making diving catches. But I once hear d it pointed out that, while his hustle and effort were admirable, he was diving after balls that more talented leftfielders would glide underneath for easy catches. And that’s what Funny People is.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker [R]
Grade: A
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce, Evangeline Lilly
Director: Kathryn Bigelow

There is a popular debate among James Bond fans – could a woman ever direct a James Bond film? Many fans fear a female director would de-ball the ultimate male fantasy rogue, force him to wear sweaters and go to baby showers and shit. I’ve always thought the opposite, that a Bond movie directed by a woman – especially the type of woman who would want to direct a Bond movie – would be the most violent and libidinal film in the series.

Being a female with a track record in action, these discussions always end up on the doorstep of Kathryn Bigelow, whose history consists of stories of men and their ritualism in extreme conditions. Certainly her first film in a while, the scintillating Iraq War thriller The Hurt Locker, following a bomb-disposal unit through the paranoid streets of Baghdad, vindicates that position. Can a woman direct a war film? By the end of The Hurt Locker, you’ll wonder if men can.

For a film so focused on manhood, I’ll start this review in an unusual place – the brief, brief, brief time in which we see the masterly bomb defuser Sgt. White at home grocery shopping, scraping out rain gutters, and looking like he’s in hell. In the kitchen, one day, he reminisces about the war and mentions the Army’s shortage of experienced bomb techs. And his wife (Lost’s Evangeline Lilly) knows where this conversation is going. This is the moment that panty-waist males would insert the big “You have a family” harangue. You brace for it but it never comes. Instead, we get the wry smile of the only person who truly understands her complicated husband. And if she wanted to marry boring, the world is full of bankers.

The names inevitably dropped around The Hurt Locker are Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, the hypnotically tense 1954 film about men delivering nitroglycerin along the rocky roads of the Andes, and the hypnotically tense The Battle of Algiers, a First World-Third World contest of wills during the Algerian Civil War. But I’m struck by a comparison to something I’ve read about a film I’ve never seen – Werner Herzog’s documentary Lessons of Darkness, about the men who put out the oil fires after the first Iraq War. One Herzog essay described the men as modern medievals, effectively knights dressed in modern armor in a chivalrous joust with monsters of fire.

In similar modern moonsuit armor, Sgt. White exudes what Tom Wolfe identified famously in astronauts as “The Right Stuff, “a supernatural calm in the face of ultimate danger. In centuries past this gift might have been seen as holy madness, his noble mission a matter of divine calling amid the unholy carnage. He shows old wounds on his stomach, and rather than discourage him, you suspect this only re-inforced the conviction of his own invulnerability. And the battles, from the daily defusings to the hide and seek war games with the hidden bombmakers to a superb sniper shootout in the desert, come across as modern jousts. The war he fights, while nasty and even diabolical, always keeps this mysterious edge of chivalry.

It’s no great cinematic observation to say the arc of war film history runs from celebratory heroism to dehumanization. A few years ago, Sam Mendes’ so-so Jarhead, a tale of obsolete snipers in the first Gulf War, went past dehumanization to emasculation. And while screenwriter Mark Boal cites Jarhead as an influence, I find The Hurt Locker to be more of an antidote, as if war’s technological boredom has shrunk to a distance and revealed once again the qualities of men. Because what The Hurt Locker finds in war the immense terror, but also masculinity reaching its widest expression. By filming beautiful men doing masculine things in fierce circumstances, Bigelow captures the male peacock in full plume.

And while war opponents will sift the blast site for support, they will sleep through one obvious conclusion – that Bigelow has made the sexiest war film since Top Gun. The Hurt Locker manages to re-individualize and re-masculinize and re-sexualize and re-heroicize war and the war film in a responsible way that does not ignore the horror of the phenomenon.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Orphan [R]
Grade: C
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman
Director Jaume Collet-Serra

I laughed all the way through the evil child thriller Orphan. Was that a good laugh? Was that a bad laugh? I don’t know. I never figured it out. All I can report is that I was laughing.

When the little dark haired homicidal maniac forces a nun’s car off the road and kills her with a hammer? That’s depraved! When she asks her curly-haired kid sister to help hide the body? Am I chuckling to myself? When she takes off her bloody baby blue mittens and places them in a little girl backpack to stash in a treehouse? Oh, try stopping me from cracking up.

That’s the natural cycle of Orphan, tilting between routine horror flick non-shocks and out-there family satire. It is like an inverted and warped version of the Disney movie where the orphan finds a place in a loving home, this time with an eerie little psychopathic girl showing off a murderous Elektra Complex. It depicts a hidden, violent childhood world taking place under the nose of parents comically wedded too deeply to their perfect family values kitsch. If Orphan were not so dependent on cheap scares and a chipping undercoat of character stupidity, it might achieve the status of a cunning clandestine family satire.

Orphan has the type of slightly clever but ultimately limited premise that attracts actors whose careers aren’t quite living up to their ability. Peter Sarsgaard once seemed on the brink of supporting role stardom. Heck he once hosted "Saturday Night Live." Nowadays, I’m just happy to see him. Then I cringe at what he’s in. When Vera Farmiga isn’t collecting critics group awards, she’s usually starring in something beneath her talent.

In previous movies, Farmiga has a history of problems with children, Russians and perverts. Here, she has all three rolled into one. After experiencing a stillbirth, she and her husband plan to adopt a child from an orphanage. There, in a little room they meet an artistic, over-articulate Russian girl dressed mainly in black (Isabelle Fuhrman). How do you know when not to adopt a mysterious Russian girl? Here’s a primer:

1) You meet a 9-year-old Russian girl who seems wise beyond her years.
2) You meet her sitting all alone in a room singing eerie Russian songs.
3) There’s a crucifix hanging in the background at a perfect camera angle.
4) When you ask where she learned all those songs, she answers, “My dog taught them to me.”

OK, OK, OK, that last line isn’t actually in there. But it might as well be. So when people start turning up maimed, why does it take so long for the parents to put two and two together? Perhaps they don’t watch enough horror movies.

There is no way for Orphan to end in accordance with its best features. You can’t finish this type of film off with comedy. So you have to finish it with cheap, dumb, lousy would-be terror. It’s an ending that betrays the best and darkest spirit of the film. Such a shame.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Slacker Cinema: Films I finally got around to

The Brothers Bloom

One of the best cons for The Brothers Bloom is the one they didn’t play in the credits. If they had just swept the name “Wes Anderson” into the director’s spot, it would take a panel of world experts to declare it a fake. As it is, that spot is filled with the name Rian Johnson (Brick), who has watched plenty of Rushmore and especially Royal Tenenbaums. I must say, Anderson as elder statesman and influence makes one critic feel a little old.

At his best, Anderson is a collector of other people’s stories that he then makes his quirky own. The criminal wannabes of Bottle Rocket resemble the rebels for an afternoon of Godard’s Bande a Part, refracted through a nineties indie sensibility. The Brothers Bloom is a similar operation. Many reviews have called it a con film like The Sting, which is obviously true. What’s being missed is that it is also an anachronistic tribute to the screwball romance. The premise is plucked and the genders reversed from The Lady Eve, the classic con-woman-in-love trope from Preston Sturges, that Anderson hero.

The Brothers Bloom are legendary con men nearing the end of their rope. Having served since childhood as the vulnerable hero of his brother’s con game stories, younger brother Bloom (Adrien Brody) longs for a real life. Brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) is the crafty creator of each sparkling illusion. He believes in two things. First, that in a good con, everybody gets what they want in the end. Second, the perfect con would be to tell a lie that’s so real it becomes the truth.

As a final target, Johnson yanks a zany heiress out of the thirties. Penelope Stamp leads an eccentric life in a New Jersey mansion of castle proportions, where she plays the harp on the front lawn and wrecks and replaces Italian sports cars. As a hobby, she collects other people’s hobbies, learning card tricks and chainsaw juggling and playing DJ to empty rooms in her home. If she were played by Katharine Hepburn, rather than the peerless Rachel Weisz, no one would blink.

As she joins the Blooms on a cruise ship and they take her deeper into a phony smuggling ring, she rises to it with guileless delight. Bloom may want out of the scripted life, but Penelope relishes the drama – leaving bored seclusion for an exuberant adventure. As she finishes one tricky mission, Penelope spazzes out with such girlish playground giddiness that it becomes one of the best film moments of this year. But the beauty of the film is how in a cynical tale of money and deception, the strongest force turns out to be Penelope’s innocence and decency.

And so the romance that develops between Penelope and Bloom is unusually touching. They are two emotionally stunted loners approaching middle age, whose lives have never allowed them to fulfill love. Hence they move childishly through the experiences like young teens wrapped in bodies beyond their years. It is not a love story that begs for true belief. It is happy to exist on its own affected terms, without feeling forced or hollow.

So far, this review doesn’t fully capture the loopiness of The Brothers Bloom. Oversized binoculars. Steamships to the Continent. Crazy classic fashions. A silent demolition expert who only speaks when singing karaoke. The wackiness is carried forward nicely by a gifted cast. Writing “Rachel Weisz is the best thing in the film” is a film critic’s habit that should never get old. The Brothers Bloom might not be a great film, but it is a deeply memorable good one.

Sunshine Cleaning

I’ve been an Amy Adams skeptic. I’ve felt she has been overpraised for playing the same virginal character in most of her outings. She’s always been fine, but more than any other actress I’ve needed to see a film in which fire shot out of her ass. Her trademark cheer doesn’t disappear in Sunshine Cleaning. But at least the film gives her room to introduce a dose of bitterness as well as her considerable sexuality. And perhaps we finally see a single puff of smoke rising out of her – mmmm, I’ll go with “admirable” – backside.

In Sunshine Cleaning, she plays an all-grown high school cheerleader stuck in the past. Working for a housecleaning company, raising a child alone and having an affair with her now-married high school boyfriend, she starts a crime-scene cleanup company with her screw-up sister, played by Emily Blunt. Unlike Adams, I have never had a doubt about Blunt as an actress. The only thing that she can’t do is convince me that she sprang from the same womb as Adams.

Writing newcomer Megan Holley’s script displays likable subtlety and exceptional character development. For two thirds, the film finds its niche between indie comedy and working-class drama. Unfortunately, Holley and director Christine Jeffs eventually lose faith in the things that have been working. A manageable couple of clichés grows to five or six as the film unnecessarily scrapes for third-act drama.

Jeffs film is a study of optimism enduring in the face of hardship. In that way, it bears resemblance to Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. Whereas Leigh’s film feels like a halting experiment in happiness by a committed miserablist, Jeffs film touches it with considerable sincerity, due in large part to the talent of its two leads. What Happy-Go-Lucky contemplates Sunshine Cleaning feels in its bones.

And in so doing, Jeffs discovers something about Adams that I fear we will never see again – that she has it in her to do what Monica Vitti has done forMichelangelo Antonioni, to be the humane redeemer of damaged worlds. Yet this film was conceived prior to Adams’ recent rise to mainstream stardom. Will Hollywood allow her to explore this angle, or will it stick her further and further in an emotional nunnery? I’m not optimistic.

Beyond noting that Alan Arkin apparently must star in all films set in Albuquerque that have the word Sunshine in the title, that’s all I have to say.

The Girlfriend Experience

Times are definitely getting harder. The second in producer Mark Cuban and director Stephen Soderbergh’s series of cheapies takes place among masters of the universe suddenly looking for bargains in everything but sex. Judging by this romp through the life of Sasha Gray’s high-end call girl, money doesn’t buy as much as it once did. Such as capable actors. Or tightly told stories. Or fantasy girls with womanly breasts.

The Girlfriend Experience is a luminously shot satire about how we commodify sexuality. A fine enough theme, but the film goes in circles. I wonder if “video star” Sasha Grey’s flat performance was an arty choice on Soderbergh’s part. Even if so, it doesn’t work. It simply makes a barely interesting story less watchable. While Soderbergh has told stories non-linearly before, even non-linear stories must have a linear concept organizing the story. This one does not. It’s a scrambled egg.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Grade: F
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Jim Broadbent, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter
Director: Peter Yates

I’ve always thought that if the evil sorcerers really wanted to finish off Harry Potter, they would just kill his friend Hermione.

It would be such a cakewalk. People are so obsessed with the myth of Harry that nobody pays much attention to the brains of the operation. She does all the work. He gets all the credit. In countries where the Harry Potter books are less famous, the movie series is called Hermione: Female Genius Sorcerer or Hermione: Harry Potter’s Brain.

Speaking of fake titles, I haven’t decided yet. Should I mock this film as Harry Potter and the Half-Dead Prince? Or should I forego clever wordplay altogether and go with Harry Potter and the Relentless Afternoon Nap? No matter. I’m sure the filmmakers have lost track, too. And the last few have slipped and slid along the same retrievable outline. The student wizards return to school. They have dinner in the grand hall. A new devious character is introduced. A sliver of Voldemort’s evil plot is afoot. We take two-plus hours to discover a clue that supposedly brings us closer to the secret but never really does. Harry gets in trouble and Hermione bails his ass out. We witness the death of someone we’re supposed to love but don’t. There’s a funeral that takes fourteen minutes longer than we care to watch. The End. Throw in a bleach-haired assassin who looks like Gary Numan in the Tubeway Army days and you have The Half-Dead Prince.

All of this, of course, takes place within the confines of Hogwarts Academy, where expert wizards tutor a gigantic flock of apparently useless junior wizards, better at gossip than sorcery. And appropriately as their hero they nominate the most useless of them all, Harry Potter, Old Ritalin Eyes himself. Heros are supposed to master their destinies. Harry Potter never does shit about shit. Hell, his girlfriend ties his shoes. This film confirms what you’ve long suspected, that if Harry ever got in a scrap with a real wizard, like Alan Rickman’s Severus, the supposed Chosen One would get his ass run over. During this film I laughed only once, at the end when Hermione tells him, “I’ve always admired your courage.”

At least Harry has dumped his old girlfriend, the one who made him look like Mr. Personality (Or did she die in the last one? You can tell she made quite an impression.). Now he has an eye on his friend Ron’s sister, a girl who at least seems like a trade up. For some blonde-moment reason, Hermione has an unrequited crush on Ron. In a movie about teenage wizards flying on broomsticks, this seems like the most unlikely thing around.

I mildly liked the last film, The Order of the Phoenix. Despite a bland story, it presented Harry Potter with his first taste of adult morality, with choices that have unpleasant consequences. For just one moment, he must realize that his heroic destiny might require more than playing quidditch, glowing in ridiculous overpraise, and being repeatedly rescued by a 94-pound girl. I’d hoped that maturity would continue in The Half-Dead Prince. Instead it’s right back to Hormoneville. They returned director Peter Yates perhaps in a bid for consistency. But the most noticeable consistency in Harry Potter films is how different directors manage to replicate the same stupid face when any girl proves desperate enough to kiss the guys.

Then again, maybe Harry Potter is the perfect hero for the Obama Age. Living in a bubble of magical reality, Harry has no accomplishments to his name, but all he hears is that he’s the Chosen One. He has no grand talent beyond the ability to absorb misplaced adulation. In a time when people have soured on bailouts, Americans will flock this weekend to cheer on the ultimate bailout expert, a boy who has mastered the art of waiting for authority figures to step in and save him. I weep for any generation that has this twerp forced upon them as a hero.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Bruno [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Sasha Baron Cohen

How will you know if Bruno is your type of film?

Answer this question. How do you feel about a running gag involving an exercise bike converted for use as a super-dildo? Funny? Or obnoxiously revolting?

Compared to Sasha Baron Cohen’s breakthrough in Borat three years ago, Bruno is more outlandish, more perverse, more obvious, more rambling, more gag-oriented, more unfocused, much more outrageous, about as hysterical, maybe even moreso, and missing a certain sweetness. It will be interesting to see how it plays to gay audiences – whether it is condemned or championed.

That’s because Bruno is a gay stereotype taken to extremes, like a comic version of Shaft for homosexuals. This comic creation is a truly flaming Austrian fashion show host who comes to Los Angeles with the sole goal of ascending to stardom. His European flamboyance confronts and exposes the real and semi-real Americans that he meets in his travels. In England they refer to this as the art of “taking the piss.”

That approach, of course, is a repeat of the tactics of Borat, a film that’s extreme humor outweighs its patronizing European confirmation bias about American life. While there is a certain sense of easy targeting that keeps both films from being decisive social commentary (homoerotic clenching at a ultimate fighting venue is pretty easy material), they make consistently amusing set pieces.

There’s a certain game you play while watching Cohen’s films. I call it “Actor, Non-actor, or Playing Along.” The idea is to guess the status of any single “regular” American appearing. Some are normal people unknowingly confronted with the outrageous. Others are normal people aware they are in a movie and playing to the camera. A number of the apparently “real people” are probably scripted actors, I would guess. Do you really truly think that even the worst showbiz mom would swallow hard and let her toddler play a Nazi stuffing another baby into an oven? The result is a three-headed film. Occasionally you have to guess which film you are in.

Yet in its send-up of fame and its callous lack of taste, Bruno is profanely hilarious. His simulated imaginary fellatio on the dead member of Milli Vanilli in front of a shocked showbiz psychic is an unforgettably perverse gem. And just as you think the humor is running low on its gaydom, Bruno decides to go straight, which opens a whole ‘nother can. It’s a second wind for a film that seems to have seven of them.