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.