Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Blind Side

I like a good sports movie. The Blind Side tells the story of Michael Oher and his rise from homeless Memphis teen to left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. Actually, it is primarily the story of his high school life, where he is taken in by a rich family and he has to adapt to being a loved human. For some reason, for me the most moving part of the film is when Sandra Bullock stands in front of Michael and says "Don't you dare lie to me". How is it that something so simple can evoke such strong emotion. Otherwise, the film tugs on your heart and skates over a lot of reality in order to do so. But this is fair since we don't go see sports movies for reality... we see them to to be inspired. If you want to feel good about people, this is worth your 90 minutes.
3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Being There

Hal Ashby (of Harold and Maude fame) gives us another quirky comedy/commentary on social dynamics. Peter Sellers plays Chance the Gardener. Chance is an uneducated man who has spent his entire life as a gardener behind the walls of the estate of a wealthy Washington D.C. man. When the man dies, Chance is thrust into the modern world of 1979 to fend for himself. And in order to be prepared for this big change, he takes with him his most valuable coping tool, the TV remote control. Chance ultimately connects with wealthy socialite Eve (Shirley MacLaine) where he can again be safe behind the walls of an estate. I am not sure if the intent was pure comedy or political satire, but Sellers Forrest Gump-like move into politics may be a more realistic picture of decision-making than we like to admit. Not hilarious, but clever and cute.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

I've loved you so long

This 2008 French film has won lots of awards (often for Kristin Scott Thomas as Juliette) and they are well deserved. We meander the paths of grief, relationship and reconciliation with family and with self as Juliette guides us back into life after an unmentionable past. Characters and viewers alike are walking on eggshells to begin the journey toward transformation as Juliette reunites with her sister. In the end, the story wraps up very nicely. Perhaps even too nicely which makes the subsequent reconciliation a bit too palatable and too easy. But the internal struggle that Juliette engages is very real, difficult and worthwhile.
4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Single Man

You have heard me rave about the love story portrayed in Chris and Don (here and here) and now we have another Isherwood inspired story that left me surprised at the depth of emotion shown on screen. Based on a novel by Isherwood, here we have Colin Firth playing George, a university professor in the 60's who is grieving his partner. The entire film is from George's point of view with only an occasional flashback to remember Jim. George is not "allowed" to grieve the loss of his love since homosexuality is still a closeted. Firth gives a master performance, with every expression, action and word mourning the vacancy in his life. Director Tom Ford does an excellent job as well in varying the color, focus and tone of each image to complement and accentuate emotion, without feeling like we are just being manipulated with cinematic effects. This is a rich and textured love story well worth seeing.
5 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Up in the Air

Ryan Bingham (i.e. George Clooney) is a traveling firer. That is, when companies want to fire employees, but don't want to face the music, they hire Bingham.. He flies in, fires the employee, and then flies out. It is a very personal and emotional job that Bingham is good at. A balance of detached professionalism and deeply personal life counselor. This connection with people he fires is about as close to a relationship that he has, as Bingham is traveling the motivational talk circuit on the side. His schtick? You are on your own and any personal belongings and or personal relationships can only weigh you down and hinder you from being who you truly want to be. Of course, the film has to develop into a story that challenges the core of Bingham's beliefs, professionally and personally. After watching this, the guy in the row behind be leans over to his companion and states "That has got to be the most depressing movie I have ever seen". I have to disagree. Bingham is truly struggling with what many people struggle: Who can I count on ... where is the meaning in my life. While he may or may not end up in the same place that you do, you have to admire that he is developing a personal philosophy, testing it out and modifying it as he gets new data. Clooney does an excellent job of displaying the juxtaposition of cynicism and care in Bingham.
4-stars (out of 5)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Laughing Gor (Turning Point)

This Hong Kong crime drama reminds me a lot of The Departed. Here a crime boss recruits a kid "Brother Laughing" to be part of his gang and instructs him to be a police officer as an undercover agent for the gang. Laughing is then assigned by his police captain to infiltrate the gang as an undercover officer. Rather formulaic, but fun none-the-less.
3 stars (out of 5)

(500) days of Summer

A love story - told out of time. Summer is that magical girl that everyone falls in love with, but who does not believe in love. Tom is the wanna-be who does believe in love, but can't find it. This film is the story of the 500 days of their relationship. Maybe because the story doesn't have enough interest on its own, the writer tells it out of sequence, jumping forward and backward in time to provide foreshadowing and back story. Unfortunately, this doesn't help. The characters just aren't that interesting.
2-stars (out of 5)

Battle for Terra

I am not usually one to seek out animation, but this film got on my list somehow. And not just my Netflix list of 200 films that might be worth seeing someday, but my short list. This means that somewhere I read something, or someone recommended it as worthwhile. Battle for Terra is a story of the planet Terra and the events that unfold as the "Earth Force" spaceship approaches to take over the planet to replace the now destroyed Earth. Two things were worth noting. I immediately noticed the physics of Terra. Apparently a small planet (i.e. low gravity) with a dense atmosphere, Terrans can swim through the atmosphere, their homes are mushroom like trees that grow very high with thin stalks. Somehow the humans seem to experience this planet as having earth-like gravity. Noticing this made be watch carefully for when the attention to scientific accuracy was paid and when it was ignored. Secondly, this is apparently supposed to be a story that offers an alternative to violence. However, I found it largely unsatisfying on this front. It was mostly a classic war movie with a sacrificial move at the end. I would have liked to see (and am still looking in the world of film for) the characters to make a commitment to peace from the beginning. How would the story work out in that case? Or is there simply no story? Or is the story too long? But because it made me think of both my theology and of science, it was worth the viewing.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Smart People

The 2008 version of The Squid and the Whale, only not as good. Smart People includes a bunch of people who think they are smart, but really aren't. And there isn't really enough tension in the script to allow the characters to battle. Ellen Page does a nice turn as a young member of the entitled generation who simply can't believe that what she wants is not what everyone in the world wants. She doesn't overplay this role (which is nice) and in a subtle way really captures the confusion of people who can't understand why others don't just give them what she wants. It truly is a genuine confusion. Thomas Hayden Church does very well at playing the irresponsible, yet somehow wise and stabilizing, uncle. But the bottom line is still the bottom line...the film was not engaging. I was bored instead of entertained and none of the characters made me care. So while it could be considered a diversion on a friday night, I can think of a few other diversions that would better fill your time.
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Brothers Bloom

I am not sure why this is titled The Brothers Bloom plural. Only one brother is named Bloom. Otherwise, I have only good things to say about this film. A good con film is one where even the viewer is not sure about the con. When does it start, and when does it end. Here Mark Ruffalo and Adrian Brody play brothers who have developed their skills over the course of a lifetime. They are careful, yet daring. They always plan out the con and it is generally complex and multi-staged. This theme holds the film together as we are taken through each stage. However, as a viewer, we have not seen the whole map. We don't know when the con is finished. As a result, I was enjoying the introduction of new elements along the entire way. Some of them were an obvious part of the plan, and others kept me wondering. Rachel Weisz does an excellent job as the eccentric mark/co-conspiritor and the chemistry is good between her and Brody. An added benefit was the visual style presented. The coloring and clarity of the filming made it enjoyable to watch regardless of the story. Overall, a fine Halloween offering.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

An Education

A simple story, really. Set in England in the early 60's, Carey Mulligan plays Jenny, a young student who meets an older man and becomes enamored. We are able to follow her in her new found adventure as she learns about life, activity, human shortcomings and perhaps even love. Throughout, Jenny also struggles to find her own values as a distinct identity from that of her family (her father actually, who is played magnificently by Alfred Molina) and from that of her school instructors. Throughout, Mulligan really excels at showing her enthusiasm and pure pleasure at being an adult in an adult world. Her smile is brilliant, making you want to smile along with her, and this alone is enough to make the film enjoyable. In the end, when talking with her English teacher, Jenny confesses "I feel old, but not wise." An appropriate reflection after an adventure.
4 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thick as Thieves (aka The Code)

I like a good heist movie and this one wasn't half bad. I wonder why I hadn't heard of it before. Released early this year, Morgan Freeman and Antonio Banderas play a couple of jewel thieves who team up to pull off the job of a lifetime. Of course, there is duress, there is a love interest, there are hidden motives, there are twists and there are cool gadgets. It wouldn't be a heist movie without all of this. A competent, yet not entirely imaginative, entry in the genre. As an aside, after the movie, I began to think about how similar Morgan Freeman's roles all seem to be. The three films I immediately thought of were this one, Wanted, and 10 Items or Less. In each of these at least, Freeman has a father figure role, and plays the role with an unveiled arrogance. He, of course, is the center of the universe and controls the plot. I wonder if these are just three roles, or is Freeman showing through. I guess I will watch his films a bit different in the future to see how it turns out.
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Bicycle Thief

A 1949 Italian film depicting life in the economically depressed, post-war suburbs of Rome. Antonio Ricci finally gets a call for a job from the government employment agency and a spark of hope enters his life. The only requirement is that he have a bicycle for transportation. I suppose the only thing worse than a hopeless situation is one in which hope peeks its face in, and then runs away. We are taken through a series of encounters with Ricci and his son as they pursue the man who has stolen his bicycle, with the bike eventually becoming an emblem for a chance at a "normal" life. As the two take the day to journey throughout the city, we get an excellent look at a man and his family in desperate times, and a definite commentary on what is actually important in life.
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Top 5 Films All-Time

This is a dangerous list to make because it is too easy to leave something off and then one is embarrassed to have left such a great movie off his list. And one usually has to define a category: best acting, best classic, best story, best characters, most engaging, most memorable, etc. But setting all of that aside, right now, today I would choose (in no particular order):
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Roman Holiday
Twelve Monkeys
Sliding Doors

There you have it. Maybe next year (or next month) the list will change. What are your Top-5?

Coco Before Chanel

Apparently it is fashion week in the Buxman household. This time we look back at one of the icons of fashion, Coco Chanel. French star Audrey Tautou portrays Coco in the early 1900's as she transitions from a young girl abandoned by her father to an orphanage into the namesake of a fashion empire. Set in France, primarily in the suburbs of Paris and in the social circles of the extremely wealthy, we watch Coco navigate a world she has always dreamed about and yet never quite fits into. Her rogue personality is what gives her fashion a modern, edgy feel as well as making her the favorite mistress of her "baron". It is fascinating to see the world of the wealthy from the perspective of the wealthy. We see lots of mistresses and debauchery. We see not a single wife, family, kid, or pregnant woman. The values of the wealthy, and the tolerance of society for the desires of men are portrayed without apology and Coco is continually conflicted about pushing against those values/desires and embracing them entirely. Even so, it is easy to forget the misery of relationship that is likely behind the emerald curtain of this upper crust society. Instead, we follow Coco as she seeks to be happy and in the end we see that she is. But I am not sure that I really believe the assertion.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The September Issue

The actual story on which The Devil Wears Prada is based. In documentary form, we follow Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine (along with her team of editors) as they develop the September 2007 issue. As stated in the film, "September is the January of fashion". So this is THE issue of the year... big, glamorous, new. While Wintour is the final word on everything and the owner of the creative vision, the supporting cast provides the personality. We see artists in the never ending struggle to be creative and find a way to express what needs to be expressed in a particular section. And while the film does not dwell, we at least see hints of the "dark cave" part of the creative process. Regardless of what you think about fashion, this is an interesting look into artistry, relationship, salesmanship, and power.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Twelve Monkeys

Let me just start by saying that this has long been one of my favorite movies of all time. I realized when a friend mentioned they had it at home to watch that I needed to see it again. Occasionally this leads to the "What did I ever see in that?" syndrome. Not so here. Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt work together within the script by David Peoples (of Blade Runner and Unforgiven fame) to provide a truly fascinating time travel film. Some time in the future, nearly 5 billion people on earth have been killed by some mysterious virus, with the survivors relegated to living underground. The future scientists are sending volunteers back in time to gather information about the source of that virus. The goal is not necessarily to prevent the release, avoiding all kinds of time travel problems with changing the future so that those who catalyze the change would not exist in the changed future. Instead, they just want to get information about the virus so that they can create a vaccine for their time. Willis is a volunteer, Stowe his present day psychiatrist (because clearly anyone thinking they are from the future needs one) and Pitt the present day leader of The Army of the Twelve Monkeys. Enough to pique your interest? I hope so because this one holds up well, has lots of great time travel nuances, and resolves without requiring the viewer to roll their eyes in pain.
5 stars (out of 5)

Broken English

A Parker Posey vehicle from 2007 explores relationships from the point of view of a thirty-something single woman. Posey plays Nora Wilder, a successful young manager working at an upscale hotel in New York who can't seem to settle into a lasting relationship. A series of one night stands, mother initiated blind dates and evenings home alone put her into a funk she is slowly beginning to accept as her reality. Until she meets Julien. The two hit it off and seem to finally have some chemistry, when Julien returns to France leaving Nora unable to drop her increasingly pathetic life to follow him. While this is a bit old school in the expectation that Nora will drop everything for love (clearly Julien can't change his plans to stay in New York), Posey does an excellent job of navigating the post-perfect-man waters, including both the crisis-of-confidence and change-your-life-priorities decisions that follow. A sweet movie that takes the viewer along on a well trodden journey that, while not exactly feeling like a new approach, never actually feels well trodden.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Right Stuff

This is the story of the Mercury 7, the first seven astronauts in this country. The story centers on the development of the space program and the inside, behind-the-scenes story of the test pilots and aviation hot shots who gave life to the endeavor. It is a very insular view, ignoring most of what was happening in the world at the time, focusing only on the occasional Soviet success in space as a motivational factor. Weather it was true or not is unknown, but Chuck Yeager comes off as the hero for pilots, a combination of humility and massive ego that hold together in one person remarkably well. Overall, interesting, but not outstanding.
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Top 5 Summer Films

Labor Day has arrived and the summer is officially gone. Someone asked me the other day what the best films of the summer were and I realized that a running "Top 5" category would be fun. So here they are, with out any genre restrictions. Memorial Day to Labor Day 2009 (in no particular order):
Lorna's Silence
Hurt Locker
District 9
I Love You, Man
Also good films, but not able to break into the Top 5
Julie & Julia
My Son the Fanatic
Rudo y Cursi
Run Lola Run
And I just have to highlight a couple of smaller films that I saw before Memorial Day
Irina Palm

So I guess this is really a Summer Top 10 list. Enjoy.


Did I ever mention that I like Daniel Craig? While he is good as James Bond, this role fits his rugged persona better. No need to be dashing here. Craig plays Tuvia Bielski, one of four brothers leading a collection of Jewish survivors on a 4 year hide and seek game with the Nazi's. While surviving in the forests of Belarus, they fight the weather, the Nazi's, Russian resistance fighters and each other. The disagreements between Craig and his brother Zus (played by Liev Schreiber) add an internal tension to match all the external tension that plagues the group. This is not a nice movie (it is WWII after all) and the bloody and personal killing is pretty graphic (more emotionally graphic than visually). While the brothers and the story do an adequate job of showing the effects of killing and hardship on the psyche, the most telling moment came during a prayer. As the hiding community was gathered and listening to the prayer of a Rabbi, the petition to God was effectively "God, we wish you had not chosen us Jews to be your people. Please go choose someone else now. We are done being Chosen". Even though this is a bold demand of God, every member of the group nodded in agreement. It was not a shocking request for this group. At that point, the burden of being Jewish was so great that they were willing (demanding) that their entire identity be shed. Perhaps this is a traditional Jewish prayer of lament, but it points to the depth of suffering experienced and pulled me out of my desensitized, war movie viewing state to recognize something new about identity, community and despair.
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Run Lola Run

It is interesting how a film can remind you of parts of other films, and yet be totally unique. In this instance, Run Lola Run can be described as a cross between Sliding Doors and Crank. But its presentation is remarkably unique (and since it is contemporary with Sliding Doors and 5 years before Crank we can only speculate about influences). We open with Lola receiving a call from her boyfriend that he is in a big pinch, having lost 100,000 marks of his gangster boss's money. He has 20 minutes until the meet and no options. Lola jumps into action. As the story progressed, I realized that it was moving altogether too fast toward resolution to sustain an 80 minute run time. In a mediocre movie, this is where a plot device is introduced and causes the viewer to roll their eyes and start thinking about dinner. Here, we get a plot device that works and is engaging. Part of the success comes from the glimpses of story that we see of minor characters that Lola interacts with. She bumps into a woman pushing a stroller and we see a 10 second series of still photos showing the woman's life over the next 6 months. Not really essential for the story arc, but interesting and well placed none-the-less. And in the end, we are satisfied with both timing and resolution, as is expected in a quality film.
4 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

It Might Get Loud

The Edge, Jimmy Page and Jack White get together for a little jam session. At least, that is what was advertised. Instead, we primarily follow each individual into their past to see how they became the guitar player they are. Interspersed is the jam session, the conversation and interaction of the three in a room together. Throughout the film, anytime we cut to an individual profile, my first thought is "Wait, go back, I want more of them together".

What makes this a strong film is that the individual personalities of each player is evident. The Edge is clearly a technophile, embracing any tool he can find to help the sound coming out of the speaker match the sound in his head. He doesn't really care what he plays. He only cares about what he hears. Jack White, on the other hand, is a bit more of a purist. His roots are blues. I think if he could make money singing/playing old style blues, he would. But putting the blues into his rock/punk style is way of elevating the musicality of thrash (whether the listener can hear it or knows it is irrelevant). He always wants to be a musician and never just a show. There must have been tension between these two, each thinking the other a bit pretentious with their musical decisions. And while it was not a featured part of the film (it really couldn't be, could it?), I could feel the necessity of it based on each individual. Then there is Jimmy Page... just a guy who likes to play guitar. He is the "elder statesman" of the group and seems to truly enjoy watching and listening to the others play. He is genuinely happy when White plays a 45 with a particular sound, appreciating the music and the fact that he can share enjoyment with a colleague. He is genuinely interested in the choice of chords that The Edge chooses on one particular riff, suggesting he would never have played that progression. And in the end, when music trumps personality, these three go unplugged and send us off with a little more music than when we came.
4-stars (out of 5)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Melinda & Melinda

Two playwrights disagree on the point of view with which to view life. Is it comedy or tragedy? The film unfolds as they each tell the same story from their point of view. Unfortunately, this idea of telling two stories simultaneously has been done (see Sliding Doors) and has been done well. In this case, the concept is old and the implementation is bad. Each story plays like actors reading their lines, not acting. Can you imagine a bad soap opera? Full Disclosure: This review only refers to the first hour of the film, since I could not bear to finish it.
1 star (out of 5)

Gran Torino

Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) can string together a racist, invective-laced tirade like no other. Actually, tirade is not really correct since there is rarely anger involved, but instead is his "manly banter" with friends. It is just his way of life, and we all accept that a 70-something Korean War vet is not going to change. Eastwood pulls it off. I think I liked this better the second time around, but you can see my original thoughts here.
4-stars (out of 5)

Mostly Martha

Some films need to be watched, and watched again. This 2001 German film (which was later the basis for the U.S. No Reservations) is one of the best food movies around. See the original, not the re-make. We have Martha (a chef) who inherits her niece Lina after a tragic accident. Lina gets integrated into the life of the kitchen catalyzes a relationship between said Martha and her temporary assistant chef Mario. While the development of the relationships between Martha/Lina, Martha/Mario and Mario/Lina is the primary driving story, the film is written so that this primacy is somehow subtley secondary to the kitchen and the food. This is perhaps best observed in the opening scene with Martha on the couch talking to her psychologist. And the talk is a deeply intimate description of the preparation of a particular meal. An excellent film - go see it.
5-stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

My Son the Fanatic

A Pakistani man and his family (wife and son) are immigrants in England, where the man drives a taxi. Through his work, he encounters many from the "seedy" neighborhoods and befriends on young woman in particular. He works hard to support his family, send his son to school and money back to his wife's family in Pakistan. Money is what he seeks and how he identifies value, but personal honor and respectability are important to him. When he finds out his son is entering the world of religious fundamentalism, he discovers for himself how incomprehensible this is. He is able to explore his own values against those being displayed by the other characters in his life: his son, his wife, his prostitute friend and a German businessman who has become a regular customer. It is an interesting look at what happens when children become more conservative than their parents. It is an interesting morality tale, yet I am sure that a variety of viewers will each see a different moral truth. It is this last piece that makes for a complex and interesting world.
4 stars (out of 5)

Seven Pounds

The problem with writing about movies like Seven Pounds is that the movie does not really lend itself to being written about. The story unfolds through a series of interactions and flashbacks that is a bit confusing at first, but then develops into an interesting whole. So giving a summary of the "interesting whole" ruins a lot of the viewing pleasure of the unfolding. So without telling much about the story, we can say that Will Smith is struggling with his current life situation, and is finding a unique way of making his life seem meaningful. The way his story plays out could be interpreted as somewhat Messianic in nature, and if one puts this with his other recent films like I Am Legend and The Pursuit of Happyness, then one wonders if Smith is moving into a life stage where he wants to be bigger than life. We will probably have to wait a few years for hindsight to answer that for us. As to Seven Pounds, Smith shows his ability to be quirky, charming and full of angst. It is this last emotion that brings him to an acting level that necessarily different than the Fresh Prince. Overall, I liked this film. I liked Smith's sincerity, and I liked how full the story felt while being told in small (seemingly) discrete segments. And yet, by the end I can only say it was "all-right".
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Duck Season

I am not sure why this came onto my netflix queue. Reading the dust cover makes it sound like... well, judge for yourself.
What begins as another ordinary, quiet Sunday spirals into a chaotic adventure for two teens left home alone. Equipped with their usual video games, best friends Flama and Moko settle in for a pleasant, if predictable, afternoon. But an unexpected encounter with an alluring adolescent neighbor and the intrusion of an idiosyncratic pizza deliveryman conspire to make the day a memorable occasion.

Ok, so does that just scream PORN? But of course since it was in my queue, and therefore my home, I had no choice but to watch it. And was pleasantly surprised. This 2004 Mexican film spends a Sunday with a couple of 14 year old boys living in the projects. In the 9 hours of the afternoon, we get a remarkably deep look at adolescence, the struggles of fitting in, sexuality, finding meaning in life, the importance of history, the pain of family and comfort of friends. One of the impressive pieces here is the use of silence and boredom (part of any adolescent life) and filming it in a way that captures the interest of the viewer. This is a solid movie and whoever put it in my queue should be commended.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Paper Heart

Charlyne Yi sets out to make a documentary about love. She does not love and does not think she will ever love. She wonders if it is even possible for her to love. Enter Michael Cera as the love interest. The doc cameras follow everyone around and we see a budding romance unfold, interspersed with Yi's interviews of all kinds of experts on love. I found myself laughing at some of the bits, the puppetry is a lot of fun and Cera is right on target with his bumbling persona. But this is clearly a mix of documentary and scripted drama, and I was left wondering at the end how much was scripted. Were the interviews real, or part of the drama? Somehow, this affects my appreciation of the film. Somehow, while I enjoyed watching, I didn't come out saying "Great Film".
3 stars (out of 5)

The Straight Story

This may give you a sense of my humor, but what follows is one of the great sequences in film.
Alvin: Are you hungry?
Hitchhiker girl: Whaddya got?
Alvin: Wieners.
Alvin Straight is an old geezer with bad hips and bad eyes who has decided he needs to go see his brother who has just had a stroke. Since he can't drive, and hates to let others drive for him, he decides to cruise over on his riding lawnmower. What's 400 miles to a John Deere after all? Along the way, we get a sense for life on the plains, through the alone time we have with Alvin, through the people we meet and the sweeping views as we drive by at 4 mph. Director David Lynch lets us enjoy the simple things by letting us watch a lightning storm and draws us into the snails pace of the adventure as a group of bicyclists race past Alvin, both surprising and entertaining him. Follow all of this up with a quality, yet simple, ending and we've got a movie worth seeing.
4 stars (out of 5)

District 9

Fabulous. I have been waiting to see this film since I first saw the preview about 6 months ago. Usually that is an indication of over-hype and ends up with a disappointing viewing. Not in this case. The premise goes something like this: An alien space ship came to earth sometime in the 80's and stopped over Johannesburg, the aliens came to settle (be settled) in a slum directly below their ship, humans are trying to relocate the aliens (now over a million of them) to the outskirts of the city, the director of relocation has an accident and we begin to see a different side of the aliens. The filming is a mixture of flashback documentary and live action which helps us piece together what is going on and it is done well. Perhaps one thing that is exciting about this film is the fact that it is original science fiction. Not based on a prior story, cartoon, film, etc. Some of the brilliance is in how it deals matter of factly with the alien presence. There are no universal translators. Instead, since the aliens have been on earth for 20 years, some humans can understand the language, albeit in bits and pieces. The nods to current events (Nigerians are running a scam in the camp) and the irony (comparisons to apartheid are subtle but real) make this fun to watch. Granted, it is not for everybody since there is lots of blood and killing. On the other hand, most of the killing involves instantaneous explosion of entire bodies, so you do not have detailed visuals. Even so, I will take a stand and say that the 4 month old that was sitting with her mother next to me, and the 5 year old a few rows behind were not necessarily the right audience. But I was the right audience and I may even need to see this again to catch the fun pieces I am sure I missed.
4 stars (out of 5)

Monday, August 10, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

I don't think film critics should be allowed to watch these kinds of movies. Or at least, they should not be allowed to comment on them. This is a classic summer action film with a plot that goes something like this: Evil bad guys develop plan to take over the world, Good guys discover the plan and work to defeat it, Evil bad guys lose this round but the door is left open for round two. Actually, the plot goes exactly like that. Throw in the cool toys, the horribly inaccurate science (more on this in a second) and personal connections/grudges between bad/good guys and good fun is surely on its way. Every critique of this film I have heard/read says this is a poorly acted film, the costumes are too confusing, the script doesn't allow the full range of the ability of actors to show through, the script has lots of holes in it that "just don't make sense", the flashbacks as a storytelling mechanism is a sure sign of lazy writing, etc. Well, yes. And who cares. For a summer action film, I expect to see a holey script. I do not expect any Academy Award nominations for acting. I expect that CGI will be a major component. And I expect bad science. Of the bad science, there is so much. And not just the "Oh, a real sonic force gun could never produce that much damage from a small pistol sized hand held unit" variety. It is the non-science-fiction bad science that makes these movies. Perhaps my favorite (and I had many to choose from) was the ultimate fate of the undersea headquarters located under the polar ice cap. This ice cap (which is FLOATING above it) gets blown up, and the now smaller chunks of ice CAN NO LONGER FLOAT. Every margarita drinking movie fan knows that it doesn't matter if you order rocks or blended, the ice still floats. So if you are a summer action junkie, this film will do exactly what it was made for. If you are already looking for films to fill out the extra five Academy slots for Best Picture, try one of these instead.
3-stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Saints and Soldiers

Four US soldiers survive a massacre in France in WWII and find themselves trapped on the German side of the front. When they come across a British pilot who just bailed from his plane, and find out that he has important information about a German offensive, they began to make their way through the countryside to find a friendly unit and relay the info to the allies. The film is shot in the winter in France and the imagery is stark and beautiful, the silence of a snow covered forest rudely interrupted by rifles that insist on their own primacy. We also see the landscape of the soldiers psyche from five distinct perspectives as each of them deals with the ridiculous nature of war and what they learn about themselves, each other and the enemy.
4-stars (out of 5)

Cold Souls

Paul Giamatti playing Paul Giamatti. Or at least a caricature of Paul Giamatti. I think actors have fun when they get a chance to play themselves and it generally shows on screen. Giamatti gets to be the struggling, mid-level actor working off-Broadway as a means of showing he is serious. But when he has trouble getting into the part (Chekhov's Uncle Vanya), he takes advantage of a soul extraction and storage service. The thought is that without his soul, he will be free of the weight of being only a mid-level star and be able to fully embrace the role. Unfortunately, he is completely unable to tap into any sort of emotion or gravitas needed to play Vanya. And unfortunately, this is where the film falls short. Instead of capitalizing on an opportunity to really show what it means to be soul-less (and later to have another soul within him) through acting, we are forced to get the point through dialogue. Giamatti basically has to tell us what he is experiencing because we can't see any difference otherwise. But maybe that is a bit too much seriousness to ask for such a light hearted stab at one of the deepest questions that exists. In fact, the soul extraction salesman even states explicitly that they don't know how anything works, they just know how to extract and reinsert. Overall, we get fun little tidbits about the soul, hints at how it might work, and a little bit of metaphysical keystone cops to make this enjoyable. And Giamatti does a pretty good job with himself...
3-stars (out of 5)

Julie & Julia

This film is based on the story of Julie Powell, a 30 yr old woman working in New York for a 9/11 survivor help desk organization. Julie is not happy with her life or status, and is challenged by her husband to cook through Julia Childs cookbook in a year, and to blog about it. This is half of the movie, with the other half telling the story of Julia Childs developing her cookbook. With Amy Adams as Julie and Meryl Streep as Julia, we jump back an forth between the two stories, each woman struggling with her life but never failing to love food. While the Julia story is the much more engaging of the two, the Julie story holds its own and I found myself enjoying the back and forth that is offered. I laughed and enjoyed. What more can you ask for?
4-stars (out of 5)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Contract Killers

I guess after three good movies, I was destined for a bad one. All I can say about Contract Killers is that in following the action/spy thriller formula, it fails to bring anything new or interesting to the table. In fact, the formula it follows must be a special condition where the boundary conditions are limited in range, so as not to surprise the viewer. The story goes like this: Jane is a CIA contract assassin. She discovers that her handler is involved in some illegal scheme and tries to have her killed. She escapes, discovers the plot, holds the essential piece of the puzzle that blocks the nefarious scheme, and uses that as a bargaining chip to go her own way. Perhaps the only novelty is in casting a woman in this role, but Jane (Frida Farrell) is not very convincing. So...
2-stars (out of 5)

Postscript: In the guilty pleasure category (and coincidentally with the name of Jane), I discovered Painkiller Jane, a 2007 TV series that lasted only one season. It is a cross between Dark Angel and Heroes. Not award winning by any means, but a fun diversion.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Funny People

Is it an unwritten movie-goer assumption that a movie titled Funny People should be laugh-out-loud funny? Fortunately I had seen a couple of reviews before going and knew that this was not intended to be a comedy, but a movie about comedy... sort of. Adam Sandler plays George, a comic diagnosed with a rare form of Leukemia. Seth Rogan is Ira, his newly acquired assistant/joke writer/punching bag. The nearly two and a half hours we spend with these two comics reveals the price of fame for George (loneliness) and its recognition by aspiring famous person Ira. Ira is a true bumbler, fully described by his first joke ("I'm not good looking, and I'm not ugly. If had a personality, I might be able to get girls... but I don't"). Ira is the hero/friend, and writer/director Apatow never resorts to a taking off the glasses, letting the hair down transformation into hero. We just have to (and Ira must as well) accept that he can only be who he is. So we see him trying to be friend, balancing work, not showing quite the compassion in sickness that we might like to see, and being awkward with the girls. My only complaint with the film is the length. In a film where the main character endures a long struggle, I am never sure if it is good film making or lazy film making if I also feel like I in in a long struggle. Sure, I identify with the character, etc. But wouldn't truly genius film making allow me to enter that empathetic state without pushing me toward an apathetic one?
3 stars (out of 5)

Lorna's Silence

A well crafted Belgian film. Albanian immigrants to Belgium, Lorna and her boyfriend Sokol are interested in setting up a little cafe, but need money and citizenship to make it happen. Sokol becomes and industrial migrant worker across Europe to earn his share while Lorna earns her cash through a "marriage for paperwork" scheme. The details of the story are revealed slowly throughout the film as the business arrangement between Lorna and her husband Claudy becomes an actual relationship. What I like about this film is how the initial goals (pursuit of success and happiness) are derailed because the goal becomes so important that it supersedes any other morality. The tension is built when Lorna realizes that her morals have been reordered by her own action and inaction, and we see one possible future result.
While this is not an explicit attack on capitalism or the west, it is definitely a cautionary tale about pursuit of a single goal at all cost, no matter how right or good that goal may be. And while we have recently seen in this country that such pursuit can have professional ramifications for those business-persons involved, Lorna's Silence is a vivid reminder of the deeply personal and emotional impact of "business" decisions we make.
5-stars (out of 5)

In the Mood for Love

I don't know why I watch movies late on a Friday. This is summer, and Friday shouldn't be any different than any other day. But I still find myself tired on Friday, and last night was no different. So I saw about two-thirds of this film, and Annika told me about the rest of it. With that note, I must say that this is a fascinating film. Primarily for the filming. Set in Hong Kong, two separate couples (the Chan's and the Chow's) sublet rooms in adjacent apartments. They both happen to move in the same day and we get an immediate sense of the density of life in Hong Kong. The genius of this film is that the population density is very clear, even though there are never more than 3 or 4 people on camera at any time. Every shot is filmed around a corner, through a doorway, through a window, or over the shoulder of someone. You feel close. And since the film is set in the 60's, the decor is quintessential east. For the story, the two protagonists (Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow) find their spouses are having an affair with each other. They become good friends and explore the friendship/tension that develops based on their spouses "secret" liaison. In the end (and I rely on Annika for this assessment), the film is a Chinese version of The Bridges of Madison County, both in story line and in its ability to highlight the character of the locale. This is not a great movie, but it is beautiful.
4-stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Iron Jawed Angels

History through Hollywood. Here we get the story of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns around the time of WWI. Never heard of them? Me neither. I always associated womens suffrage with Susan B. Anthony and Cady Stanton. But these two famous suffragists worked 50 years earlier during the civil war time, and were also heavily involved in the anti-slavery movement. The 19th Amendment didn't get ratified until 1920, and this film gives the story of the fight. Alice Paul is the charismatic leader and eventually turns the tide by picketing the White House (i.e. Woodrow Wilson) during the war, getting sent to prison (along with a hundred other women) and enacting a hunger strike. All this prompts Wilson to introduce the amendment as a war measure. Rather informative and well produced. My only complaint with the film is the soundtrack. Placing modern, pop music in a soundtrack for a film set in the second decade of the 1900's is a juxtaposition I couldn't quite get comfortable with.
3-stars (out of 5)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Public Enemies

I like Johnny Depp and I like Christian Bale and I like movies where color is important. Depp and Bale perform adequately, each putting forth the requisite amount of arrogance required for their role, and each demonstrating the requisite amount "doesn't quite see the big picture". Depp as a gangster seems to actually believe that the public is on his side, perhaps viewing himself as a modern day Robin Hood who isn't really bothered with giving money back to the poor. Bale reprises Kevin Costner's role from The Untouchables and seems to have difficulty drawing lines of ethics in Hoovers budding FBI, all the while not realizing that breaches of ethics will always come back to haunt you. But the filming of this 30's drama is beautiful. Emphasized by the [overly?] dramatic scenes at night when light is needed for the press cameras, police lite flares and hold them in the air. The sepia coloring here is amazing and seems to slow down the action. I don't know if the scenes are actually slowed down, but they felt that way. And the metal spoon on a metal trash can pop of the Gatling guns was more ear damaging that most shoot-em-up films, giving a sense of the closeness and danger of the gun battles that is often lost. So while we lose the fact that Depp is really a pretty bad guy posing as hero, I enjoyed this summer diversion a bit more than I expected.
3-stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Full Disclosure: I am not a HUGE Harry Potter fan. Yes, I read every book and have seen every movie. I even went to see this iteration at midnight (comments about whether I am too old for this should be withheld). All this to say, I don't really care if the movie doesn't follow the book exactly or what gets left out or added in. In fact, I haven't read these books in the 4 years since their release, so it was new to me. The film? It was good. But to be honest, it felt like the film was a set of talking points, which would be filled in by the book. Every once in awhile, a line would pop out that was just connected enough to make sense, but was clearly a sound bite intended to cause the viewer to say "Oh, and that is where .... happened which lead to the next step". The story arc was flat (no big battles, no on screen tension that was not hormonally originated) and for the first time felt like the set up for the finale that it was. At this point, the enjoyment of the films for me will happen in July 2011 when the full series is complete and I can dedicate a day to watching the thing in its entirety. Then I won't care who is setting up whom.
3-stars (out of 5)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Hurt Locker

War Sucks! This is not an easy movie to see, but it is worth while. It follows a "bomb tech" and his three-man squad in Iraq for a few weeks. We see the absolutely brutal side of war. We see the irreparable psychological strain and damage on soldiers (and a bit on civilians). We see how deep the human psyche is affected by the actions the soldiers are taking. It is not a good thing to put humans in the position of needing to see and interact and make decisions of such consequence. While the soldiers involved are brave/courageous, even the most existential among them feels deeply. Even while engaging in a firefight from 850 meters out, when the enemy is only a wavy blur through the heat of the desert, the acts of war strike deep. This film captures all of this. One of the better depictions of actual combat that I have seen.
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Quantum Hoops

Here we have a documentary about the Caltech basketball team, which is currently in the throes of an 0-two hundred something losing streak. The film follows the team for a season and adds in lots of history about past teams. The "novelty" is that Caltech, the premier intellectual center of our time, has a sports program. This is only a 90 minute film, but I got kind of tired of the "novelty". It plays as if the school and the players are just a bit proud of their superior sportsmanship and commitment, that they can continue to play hard in spite of the hopelessness of the situation. It comes across a bit arrogant. I don't think that the individual players feel this, but the program (and the film) seem to portray it. I might be wrong. Even so, the last part of the film gives us 10 minutes chronicling the last game of the season. In spite of everything, this ten minutes is a great sports story that pulled me in.
3-stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Rudo y Cursi

A tale of two brothers in Mexico who have an ongoing rivalry in nearly everything they do. The older (Rudo) has a family, a job, a temper and a gambling problem. The younger (Cursi) has a dream to become a famous singer. Neither is the responsible one and both are just a bit dim. This film tells the story of their ongoing relationship as they get discovered and play in the Mexican 1st division soccer leagues (Rudo a keeper and Cursi a striker). They manage to portray quite well the ongoing issues of being ultimate competitors and brothers simultaneously, and are able to show a bit how these relationship foibles are actually common in some form to all siblings. While it never reaches the "heartfelt" level, it is a nice little sibling movie with enough humor and reality to recommend.
4 - stars (out of 5)

Kicking & Screaming

Kicking & Screaming is exactly what I will be if someone tries to make me watch this entire movie. I watched about 3 hours worth (it seemed) only to look at the clock and realize it had been only about 35 minutes. A 1995 "comedy" about some recent college graduates who don't have any ambition and continue to hang out. Perhaps a take off on Reality Bites? Except not funny, or entertaining. Just dull and lifeless. Why did I even start to watch this, you ask? It was in my Netflix queue, although I don't recall putting it there. It was way down around 173 in the list and once in awhile I watch one of those distant-future movies just to mix it up. I wonder if I had intended to put the Will Ferrell - 2005 version of Kicking & Screaming in my queue and chose this one accidentally. Perhaps, but this was such a waste of time, I will have to actually hear a good recommendation for the Ferrell version before adding that back in to slot 173.
1-star (out of 5)

Saturday, July 4, 2009


SciFi cinema like this is rarely seen these days. Moon is not an action space movie, but an exploration of reality in a future that is distant, but not so distant that it is impossible to imagine. In fact, the flavor of this film reminded me of reading a classic SciFi short story. [aside] go read Flatland by Edwin Abbott right now! [end aside] The closest comparison in (my) recent memory is Solaris and even that got kind of creepy in the end. Here we have a vision of the future where people have made different ethical choices than we might make, along with a treatment of how these choices affect both society and the individual. For plot, Sam Bell is a lunar miner whose outpost is on the far side of the moon. He is finishing a 3-year contract to maintain and monitor the machinery which extracts Helium-3 from the lunar soil and ships it back to earth for its fusion reactors. Having lost "live-feed" contact with the earth, his entire communication is via delayed messages and his entire life is spent interacting with himself and his HAL-like buddy Gerty. If it sounds average and a bit slow, all I can say is that the beauty of the film is that with this simple plot, it isn't.

I love you, man

This made me laugh. In the vein of 40 year old Virgin and Knocked Up, Paul Rudd plays Peter Klaven, dealing with a real life problem that is common, but not talked about. Klaven has no male friends. When he gets engaged and can't identify a best man, be starts setting up man-dates and looking for a best friend. Jason Segal happens along and we watch the ebb and flow of the Rudd/Segal friendship and how that interacts with the newly engaged couples relationship. Rudd is so good as the completely awkward in any social situation guy, but he recognizes it and becomes endearing. Lots of great small touches added in make this movie fun to watch.

Away We Go

Can something be subtle and over the top simultaneously? This film seems to do that. Outrageously quirky characters made me laugh out loud. And afterwards I thought "Hmmm, interesting. How real of a portrayal was that?". A couple who is about to have their first kid, and have just been abandoned by his parents realize that they can choose anywhere to live. Where should they choose? The film tracks their journey to visit their friends and relatives in an effort to decide where they should move. We get to Phoenix, Tuscon, Madison, Montreal and Miami, discovering more about their relationship and what is important in life each step of the way. The friends and relatives are obvious caricatures that are fun to watch and let us poke fun at ourselves along the way. I was not provided the gut-wrenching hilarity that I was hoping for, but very enjoyable.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

What doesn't kill you

I am not philosophically opposed to movies without a story arc. I have been known to actually like and recommend them. For example, Kitchen Stories or The Grocer's Son. These films don't have a climax and resolution. Instead, they meander along, asking you to share a moment with them. And after the fact, you might realize that at some point a decision was made about your life. What Doesn't Kill You is another entry in this category. Ethan Hawke and Mark Ruffalo are South Boston buddies. They grew up in the neighborhood working for the local gangster and never quite figured out how to make an honest living. There is no earth shaking event or epiphany of life here. Instead, we see a series of minor decisions and struggles. We see desire for change, frustration, love and self hate, aquiesence and just plain settling. In the end, this is an average presentation of these struggles which doesn't really inspire or illuminate in a new way.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123

Denzel Washington v John Travolta. Seems like a good idea. But these two actors are getting too big. They both only seem to make movies in which they are the hero. Denzel is playing the same basic role as he did in Inside Man and Travolta plays his role as the hero, even though he is a train hijacking, hostage killing domestic terrorist. So the film was a little bit too smooth and too cookie cutter to be really interesting. On the other hand, I always like movies in which the location is essential to the plot and becomes a character. Here New York and its subway system is a minor character that probably performed as well as any of the others. Unfortunately, an inanimate minor character does not a great movie make.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Splendor in the Grass

Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood star in this 1961 coming of age story. Set in the late 1920's, the protagonists are high school sweet hearts struggling with "how far to go" and how physicality affects relationship. The social norms include two sets of rules: one for men and another for women, both contradictory. Probably the strangest part of watching this was how a gang rape scene was essentially condoned. At least in modern film making, the rapists would be seen as morally deficient. We also get to see some stereotypical parent-child relationships, where parents are completely out of touch or are completely controlling, or both. Funny how some stereotypes never change. I wonder what a modern telling of this story would look like, with hooking up and friends with benefits more the norm among teens? I wonder if current social norms now have one set of rules for both men and women?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


A docudrama tracing the story of the Chilean rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes in 1972. Their story of survival and escape is amazing. Who knows what a person will do in a particular situation, and these characters filled the range. From just giving up, to developing an indomitable spirit, each character had to develop their own coping mechanism for this crazy situation. The fact that a couple of them decided to walk out (yes, that is right, they decided to walk out of the Andes) is ridiculous. But they did it. The film did a great job of capturing the emotion of climbing over a peak, hoping beyond all hope that they would see the end, only to see three more massive ranges before them. It also did a pretty good job of making the cannibalism decision a necessary evil, without dwelling on or sensationalizing it. And perhaps the best part for me was the humor. Mostly because that would probably have been my role, every so often someone would through out a one-liner that was completely inappropriate for the context that just broke the tension for a few seconds. I love that.

Friday, May 29, 2009


Having gotten good reviews by nearly every critic for telling a good story and "not over anthropomorphizing the dogs", we decided to see this. Besides, it is opening weekend and seeing a cartoon with a theater full of kids is much more fun that watching it at home on DVD. Pixar doesn't disappoint. They pull out all the stereotypes (old guy, dogs, city kid as boy scout) and use them to maximum advantage. The message is a not-so-subtle prodding that perhaps we all drag around too much crap (didn't we see this in Wall-E?), should let go of most of our "treasures" and look for what is really important in life. But while this message is not subtle, it is also not heavy handed. If you go to this film, you will enjoy it. And if you are anything like the kid behind us, you will laugh uncontrollably at the pooping-in-the-wilderness bit.

Chris and Don: A Love Story

First saw this movie last year and loved it. Now we own the DVD and ... still love it. The end of life ritual and care that took place between these two men is rich. You will probably see this film on my watch list at least once a year.

Terminator Salvation

The other day I was thinking about who I would name as my top 5 action star actors. Christian Bale is definitely on that list. As John Connor, he is rugged and fearless, doing what needs to be done to save the earth. What more could you ask for. McG takes the reins of the Terminator franchise and steers well. The film is high on action, just enough story line and connection to the rest of the episodes for continuity, and throw in a bit (but not too much, in fact barely any) sentimentality. The filming does not rely on up-close, ridiculously fast chase and crash scenes that are so close and so fast that the viewer does not really even know what happened. Can you tell what one of my action movie pet-peeves is? I have a feeling that the upcoming Transformers movie will fall into this category. Overall, high quality summer fare.

And the other 4 on my top 5 list? Daniel Craig, Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, and Jet Li

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mondays in the Sun

When the shipyard in a small Spanish town is closed down, the layed off workers have different ways of coping. This tale of a few friends slowly unfolds, revealing the variety of ways that each has developed. And each reveals a different take on what it means to be employed; to be a man, a father, a husband; to be a career worker; to be a productive member of society. While not an extremely engaging film, it does reveal some neurosis that are probably worth thinking about these days. What exactly are we entitled to? What are the "sins" of capitalism? How would I manage in a position of being powerless?

Star Trek

The re-launching of a franchise. The plot is a straight forward telling of how the crew of the Enterprise is put together. There is even an appearance by Leonard Nimoy as "old Spock", which of course means that some time travel is involved. There are few surprises here although I am sure that the Trekkies will parse each plot element for consistency with the original series. Perhaps the most interesting effect of the history provided in this installment is how that history will play out in future installments. All of the main players relationships are a new interpretation and will result in an alternate universe that is very different than the one we know. So a good mix of story telling, action, and some metaphysical thoughts about time travel. Can't really ask for more can you?

The Grocer's Son

When Antoine's father has a heart attack and is restricted to the hospital and rest, Antoine is convinced to help out with the family market. His job is to take over the traveling grocery van that travels into the country side of France to provide goods to the sparse population. Antoine is not happy to be stuck in this "country bumpkin" job and his customers can tell. The entire scenario is complicated by the fact that Antoine borrows money from his mom (which he is paying off by driving the van) to help support a girlfriends dream. The setup screams family feud, learn something about yourself and your roots and make peace with your past. And all of this happens in due course. The French country scenery and chemistry between the players makes this fun to watch.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Chop Shop

Every so often I like to watch a film that I have never heard of and know nothing about. Chop Shop is a story of a N.Y. kid Alejandro who is living on his own, hustling and working any way he can to earn money. He lives upstairs in an auto repair shop on junkyard row, earning his place by working for the owner. He sells DVD's, candy, steals hub caps and anything else he can do to earn money. But he is more than just a survivor. Alejandro has big plans for himself and his sister and has no intention of working for others for his entire life. As we watch the story unfold, I realized that this is a classic slow movie, while still being completely engaging throughout. The daily life of Alejandro and the people who surround him is a fascinating mixture of desperate survival and enjoying life among friends. These "regular life" scenes are not flashy or overly dramatic. Instead, I feel like I have a better understanding of the trials of Alejandro and how he views his life, both the good and the bad.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Garden

This documentary follows the story of 400+ individuals and families that referred to themselves as the South Central Farmers. In the early 90's, the city of Los Angeles allowed them to divide 14 acres of land that had been acquired by eminent domain into small plots for a community garden. In 2003, the city sold the land back to the original owner, who started an eviction process to get the community garden closed down. The film is a well told story of the struggle between the powerless and the powerful, showing the problems that are faced by each. While I recognize that politicians are working on a quid quo pro basis every day of their lives, it makes me bristle when they just accept that compromise is always natural and unavoidable, that there is no such thing as win-win. The arrogance of individuals and the sense of entitlement of the collective left me with a bad taste, but I suppose that is the point. I can't imagine living in a place where politics and corruption is the norm and relevant on a daily basis. Or perhaps I do live in that place, but my ostrich head doesn't notice.


I like a good corporate espionage thriller. Unlike Michael Clayton, where lives were at stake and people were harmed, here we are trying to steal the next great personal hygiene product, which just makes for good, clean fun (pun intended). The stage is set with the opening scenes which introduce the players (spies Julia Roberts and Clive Owen) and the stakes (a no holds barred fist-fight on the tarmac between rival CEO's Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson). This is a personal vendetta and big money all wrapped together. The fun thing is, we never quite know who is playing whom. The story does an excellent job of cutting back to the past to fill in some missing piece, without introducing timeline confusion. And in the end, we have completely bought into the characters mindset as we sit and review what just happened, trying to piece together cause and effect, player and played.

Friday, May 1, 2009

X Men Origins: Wolverine

I learned two things today. The first day of summer is now May 1st, according to Hollywood anyway. With the release of Wolverine, to be followed shortly by three other big summer blockbusters (Star Trek, Terminator Salvation, and Angels & Demons) all before Memorial Day (the previous start of summer), movie season is falling prey to the same forces that have stretched Christmas towards Halloween. Not that I am complaining, just observing. Second, I am not really a movie critic. I just happened to listen to some real critics discussing Wolverine about an hour before I saw it. In hind sight, everything they said was true. It's just that while watching the movie, I didn't really notice any of them.
Hugh Jackman plays an excellent Wolverine. In this installment of the X-Men stories, we get a lot of back story on the mutants in general, and Wolverine and Sabertooth specifically. While this may not have the best dialogue (it is a summer blockbuster, what do you expect), and it may not have the best special effects (I actually didn't notice what others are complaining about), it entertains throughout and never left me wondering what I was going to do later in the afternoon. My simpleminded enjoyment of a comic book tale, without all the baggage of knowing the actual comic book storyline made this a great opening for the summer. By the end of the month, I may have to see some independent films just to balance out my movie karma.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


NPR's Filmweek said Sugar was the best baseball film ever. I am not sure I can agree with that since I haven't seen too many baseball films. But I do agree that this is a great film. This is the story of Miguel "Sugar" Santos being invited to the spring training of a major league team from his baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. Raised nearly from birth to play baseball, by the end of the film, Sugar has developed his own mind on who he is. And along the way, we see the difficulty and reality of the minor league baseball system and the lonliness of immigration. We see Sugar realize that the dreams he holds as his own are really the dreams of every kid in the D.R. and maybe weren't his own dreams after all. And the struggle to mesh all of these thoughts together makes Sugar real.

A great bonus here is that since Sugar spends a significant amount of time at a single-A team in Iowa, we also get to see life in the middle states. The filmmakers did a good job of presenting this life in a value-neutral way. Good ol' middle America, with its meatloaf, baseball, corn fields and church youth groups. Lots of stereotypes presented, but not presented as positive or negative, just "this is life in the middle", and this is how strange it all seems from an outside perspective.

Irina Palm

Maggie is an stereotypical English mother, grandmother, and widow. She lives by herself, dotes on her son and sick grandson, doesn't get along with the daughter-in-law, plays bridge with the other single women her age and generally lives a dull life. The fact that this becomes a "coming of age" film is a bit surprising in that it is Maggie who realizes how to live life, how to love, and what is important. And it is surprising in that she must enter the sex trade to find this all out. As Maggie leads a double life, hiding her new job from her friends and family, she is nothing but nerves. And when they find out, she finally is confident and sure of who she is, perhaps for the first time in her life. This is an unconventional little drama and I really enjoyed it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Dans Paris

It seems like the last few international films I've seen have all been French. Dans Paris is another in the line of fine French films with a distinct French feel. In this case, we get the story of two brothers and their father who live in Paris. Older brother has returned home from "the provinces" as a recently dumped depressed guy and younger brother is probably a stereotypical millennial (no ambition, serious entitlement, a bit of an ass). Father is just not sure how to deal with Mr. Depressed and the Ass. We get plenty of vistas of the Eiffel Tower and Paris the city. And we get plenty of efforts to get Mr. Depressed to "just snap out of it". While the fact that none of the characters quite know how to interact with him is more realisitic that we like to admit, in the end "just snap out of it" is offered as a realistic cure, and it just doesn't ring true. I understand the need to wrap things up nicely in 90 minutes, but in this case, it was a bit too easy. But this doesn't ruin the film. The brothers have some chemistry on screen and I found myself laughing on several occassions. No awards here, but pleasant enough.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning

When I first saw this preview (last year), I was looking forward to one of the most hilarious movies of the year. "Very similar to Little Miss Sunshine" was all anyone could say. Well, it took me this long to actually see it because some of the glimmer wore off that preview. And I think that in the end, the film hit the (newly lowered) expectations directly. It wasn't really meant to be the most hilarious movie of the year. Instead, it is a drama that explores family relationships. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt play sisters, each struggling with life in their own way. They fall into a business together (crime scene cleanup) and each begins to learn a bit about themselves and about each other. They also begin to explore their family history (although this piece is more inferred than explicit), resulting in a better understanding of why they have become who they are. Throw Alan Arkin into the mix as wacky dad, add in mal-adjusted boy and one-armed love interest, bake for 91 minutes and quirky relationship comedy is ready to serve. Overall, this gives a pretty entertaining look at the difficulties of family systems, and if one wanted to discuss the methodologies that families use to relate, I am sure that this film would provide a great jumping off point for that discussion. But as pure entertainment, it was good, not great.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Fast and Furious

I guess I am the target audience. NPR film reviewers panned this movie, with the final caveat [read with snobbish voice] "If you liked the other The Fast and the Furious movies, you will probably like this one". I did.

First of all, the opening scene is everything you would want from a summer action movie. Hijacking a 5-trailer (yes, five) semi, one trailer at a time, while at speed on a long straightaway. Improbable technique, fancy driving, requisite bad physics (no, a 10 second shot of cold air does not make hardened steel shatter when hit with a hammer), near death experience and crazy/gutsy aggressive escape. And for those who are looking for the tone of the film in the first few minutes, you get it with Vin Diesel seeing the need to talk into a walkie-talkie as an opportunity to show off his guns. Brilliant. Now don't get me wrong, this is no The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which is still one of the best displays of car choreography ever. But a simple plot, clearly defined bad guys, good guys who have a bad element to them, fast cars, steady cam filming and avoiding the excessive sex and violence that often finds its way into these films makes this a good afternoon. It's not going on my "Best films of the year" list, but still worthwhile.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Tell No One

This is a great thriller/suspense film. Sort of like a French version of The Fugitive but actually much better. Less chase, more sorting out the details. Alexandre and Margot are the happiest couple in the world. One evening, after a romantic lakeside experience, Margot is accosted and "killed". Flash forward to 8 years later. Alexandre is still trying to get over her death and move on when he begins to get messages from Margot, or someone impersonating her. At the same time, new details about her death begin to emerge which point to Alexandre as the killer. The remainder of the film is the unwinding of the details, searching for truth, learning who to trust, and holding on to that sick knot in your gut that says there-may-be-hope-but-I-better-not-be-living-this-all-over-again-for-nothing. Well acted and well directed. I have heard that there is interest in an American remake of this film, and I see the appeal. Unfortunately, I don't think an American take would work out so well as it would require more chase, and not have the patience to let things unfold. See this version instead.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Bart Got a Room

I am always nervous when the previews for a film are seemingly aimed at a target audience that is not me. Generally, my broad tolerance for cinema shows at least one film I am interested in. Not so here. But fortunately, Bart Got a Room far exceeded the billing. Another in a line of recent awkward adolescent drama/romantic comedy offerings, this film builds on the likes of Napolean Dynamite and Superbad. In Bart, the awkward high school boy needs to "keep up with the Joneses" and in that effort enlists the separated parents as he (and they) proceed to focus on all the wrong things. While the story is cute, it is unremarkable. Two things make this film worth seeing: First, William H. Macy as the helpful, clueless, ever supportive dad is excellent. Second, the imagery of south Florida sets a great stage. The colors, the backgrounds, the extras, the settings all make this a fun (if quirky) little comedy to see.


I wasn't sure I wanted to see Gandhi as a dirty old man, but it turned out to be alright. Ben Kingsley is quite good in this coming of age drama disguised as a "melancholy poem". He successfully transitions from a creeper to a sympathetic old guy, realizing at the age of sixty something what it means to finally be a twenty something, and to grow into the maturity that is required for real emotion, relationship and responsibility. As Kingsley's character David becomes involved with the young Penelope Cruz, he recognizes for perhaps the first time in his life that there are emotions bigger than he can control and that they may actually mean something (and be worth something). Cruz is old beyond her years and is able to bring Kingsley along eventually into a new appreciation for life. This is a better version of the 2007 Starting Out in the Evening with Frank Langella and Lauren Ambrose.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Broadcast News

It must be old movie week. After the classic Magnificent Seven from the 60's last weekend, it is the 1987's Broadcast News this week. Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter and William Hurt all dance though the network newsroom (figuratively, of course) of Washington DC, each with their own soapbox, idiosyncrasies and neuroses. The film probes the viewing needs of the public, asking whether we want drama and story or news, and asking whether the public should even have a say in what it gets. The 80's storytelling style is evident as the film feels more "play-like" than modern film, setting up scenes, lengthy dialogue, and the requisite dramatic angst of friendship. In the end, there are not clearly identified protagonist and antagonist roles, with each character revealing the struggle of decisions in their own life.

The Magnificent Seven

There is something relaxing about a classic western. Released in 1960, we find Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen gathering a group of gunslingers to take on pro bono work protecting a village in Mexico from the local bandit. All very stereotypical, all very fun. Perhaps the one thing that I like about the old school westerns (and was reminded about again here) is that they don't glamorize the life. Almost always, at least one cowboy/gunslinger is having self doubt or expressing the loss of a "normal" life. Maybe the difference for the Magnificent Seven is that in a variety of ways, they were all lamenting that loss.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

F/X 2

I liked the original F/X oh so many years ago and when this popped up on my netflix watch instantly, I couldn't think of a better way to spend a lazy sunday afternoon. With retired special effects expert Rollie Tyler getting into trouble again by helping out a cop friend, Brian Dennehy is back in the picture as the retired cop (now PI) to work out a rescue plan. Nothing fancy, nothing dramatic. Just good, clean B-movie fun with special effects hi-jinks that don't really surprise or wow, but are cheesily (is that a word) effective. And don't miss the clue that this is a 1991 movie by the size of the car phone Tyler uses. Am I easily entertained? Perhaps. But I'm not really embarrassed about it either.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Henry Poole Is Here

Nothing new here, unfortunately. Have you seen this movie before? A troubled, morose single man moves into a new neighborhood. Extraordinary events introduce him to the nosy neighbor who won't leave him alone. The cute single mom next door is brought into the scene by following her even cuter (but traumatized) kid into the yard of the morose single man. Single man and single mom hit it off, single man becomes father figure to kid, secret is revealed that nearly ruins everything, nosy neighbor rallies the new couple around the previously mentioned extraordinary event so that everyone can end up happy. While Luke Wilson is well suited for the depressed but sexy Henry Poole role, I can't recommend this.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


I knew this was going to be a long movie when I went in, but sometimes long movies don't feel long. This felt long. In order to appeal to a mass audience, most of whom have no idea who the watchmen are (me included), the first hour was necessary to set the stage for an actual superhero movie. If we had just been instructed to do our homework first, we could have entered with this background already covered and had a normal length movie. As for the superhero part of the movie, there is really only one superhero, Dr. Manhattan. He is not that unique in that he reminded me of a cross between the Silver Surfer and Galactus. It is probably part of the point of the film, that superheros are just regular people with regular problems and we can all identify with them. A couple of things that I do like in films did occur here. First, an alternate reality was created. Just the fact that Richard Nixon was holding his 5th term of office as President opened all kinds of interesting avenues (none of which were explored). Any time a movie can channel Sliders, I am at least marginally happy. Second, the film clearly presents a Just War theology. I like when films put ideas forward that need to be addressed. My disappointment is that the theology presented is just that... presented. If we are really watching a superhero movie that isn't about superheros, but is about relationships and humanity instead, then why can we not also present a Just War theology that explores the extremes of pacifism or brutal aggression as alternatives. By placing the superhero and the human on the same screen, we are able to better understand the difficulties of each. Placing our theologies on the screen side by side would similarly illuminate our understanding and biases, and hopefully lead to dialogue on a subject that is too often left untouched.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

I'm Not There

Here is true art film. And by art film, I mean a film that I am pretty sure I didn't get the point that the writer/director was trying to produce. A multiple story-line picture based on the music and personality of Bob Dylan was, I suppose, illuminating the man in a way that couldn't be done with a straight biopic. Instead, I felt lost throughout. I kept looking for connections between the story-lines (none) and a coherent theme (none). So while overall this was disappointing, there was one scene that made me laugh. Bob Dylan and Alan Ginsberg standing at the foot of a giant crucifix, looking up and yelling... "Hey you, get down from there, you might get hurt" and "Why don't you do some of your early stuff".

Full disclosure: Watching a late night friday film when I have not had my mid-day friday nap results in me dozing in and out throughout, which could be the cause of my lack of ability to follow story-line and theme. But I am sticking with disappointing and crediting Annika with helping me to remember the crucifix scene.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Class

An autobiographical portrayal of french teacher (i.e. a French person who teaches French in France) Francois whose job in a Paris high school is trying at best. Most of the teachers at the school are new and most of the students don't care one bit about their education. Francois himself is not the seasoned teacher he thinks as he struggles with how to control his classroom, how to engage his students, and how to relate to his colleagues. As a teacher, I am obviously the target audience for this film. Unfortunately, and I am surprised I say this, there is not enough message or hope here. While hopelessness may be the theme that the writer is going for, this could have been a very strong movie had Francois been a bit more thoughtful about how to engage his students. There was no development of the characters maturity (either the students or the teachers) and when the film ended, everything was exactly how it started. Francois did not challenge his students to use the hardships (albeit created hardships) of class and life to learn to write or think. There were several obvious "teaching moments" that were overlooked because of the despair. So while I enjoyed the film, and laughed at the student-teacher interactions throughout, I really did expect more. I wanted this to be a 4 or 5 star movie, but alas...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Frost Nixon: Watergate Interviews

Still concerned that most of my historical knowledge comes from historical fiction films, I got the original Frost/Nixon interview. I suppose the Watergate session was the only one interesting of the six hours of broadcast interview since that is the only one available on Netflix. I really enjoyed seeing this interview, although again it betrayed my ignorance of recent history. Both Frost and Nixon batted around names and dates as they worked to get the facts of the Watergate events straight, and I had a hard time keeping everything straight. Is it the case that the entire nation was so involved with the scandal that when these interviews aired 3 years after the resignation, people still had enough memory of the sequence of events to keep the "date-jousting" straight? An amazing commentary on our society and the immensity of this event. If you are only going to watch one Frost/Nixon film, I would recommend the original. While it doesn't contain a lot of the background and personality development that the newer version adds in, I think it is a good view of a conflicted Nixon and the complexities he experienced as President (and likely the complexities that any president faces).

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The International

An international bank gets into the weapons trade business as a means to destabilize countries as a means of drumming up new lending business. Everyone is involved (U.S., Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, Drug Cartel's, China, Russia, etc.) so all efforts to investigate and bring to justice this corporate behemoth are thwarted. Enter Clive Owen, Interpol agent and Naomi Watts, Manhattan assistant D.A. There are inherent justice issues, an implicit rage against capitalistic excess and an over the top gun battle at the Guggenheim in New York. In the end, we just end the movie. No satisfaction is given. Perhaps this is intentional as the emotion most often associated with revenge achieved, or with the capitalist machine that is bigger than any justice issue. If the feeling I had walking out was intentional, it was a bold move by the filmmaker and will likely result in a poor showing at the box office. There will be no great word-of-mouth on this. I can't really stoop to 2-stars on this one because I was engaged the whole time, but "flat" is a pretty good descriptor and I'll give it a "just all-right"

Saturday, February 14, 2009

How to Rob a Bank

A little bit eccentric. Nick Stahl plays Jinx, a disenchanted consumer fed up with "the surcharge" hitting him from all sides. Down on his luck, frustrated with the system and tired of taking it from The Man, he walks into a bank robbery and finds himself in a position of power. The story is really an unconventional coming of age story where Jinx learns to take charge, demand what needs to be demanded and to be creative in finding solutions instead of just taking what is handed to him. Not entirely novel or groundbreaking, no great acting and over-the-top performances by the supporting case, but a pleasant enough heist film none-the-less.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


Entertaining, witty, and illuminating. British talk show host David Frost arranges a series of televised interviews with President Nixon in the months following his resignation from office. Since the actual events described in this movie are prior to my first political awareness (which came with the yellow ribbons of the Iran hostage crisis), I don't have any ability to judge the veracity of the story line. But it does paint a decent picture of the emotion involved with both Nixon supporters and detractors during that time. Overall, just an average film and not "best picture" caliber as the academy seems to think. But it did lead me to push the original Frost/Nixon interviews to the top of my Netflix list.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


A conventional tale of kidnapping and taking the law into your own hands to exact return of your loved one with a bit of revenge thrown in. Liam Neeson, former "government worker" who describes his former job title as "Preventer" finds that his daughter has been kidnapped in Paris by an organization specializing in human trafficking. He immediately takes control of the situation, flies to Paris, meets up with old acquaintances (who may or may not have been friendly in the past) and generally kicks ass. This is clearly a summer action film, so I don't know why it is released in February.

The one thing (or one of the things) that I noticed is a change in tone by writer Luc Besson. In his previous offerings (The Transporter series and District B-13), he offers high action with at least a modicum of a morality to provide motivation for the characters. Here the motivation is revenge, and that completely changes the character of the film. Suddenly killing becomes personal, brutal, cold. Besson puts this new tone front and center, forcing to viewer to see the brutality that revenge requires. I am curious to see how this tone carries on into the summer. Does Besson lead the way, providing a preview of a new willingness for filmmakers to make violence (more) personal and brutal in the mainstream? Or will viewers notice the subtle shift to a revenge morality, and reject the imagery that goes with it?