Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Damned United

Brian Clough takes over as manager of the highly successful Leeds United soccer club in 1974, following in footsteps of a much loved predecessor. Clough gets the job because he had taken his previous club from the bottom of the 2nd division to the 1st division rather quickly. Now he just needed to maintain excellence. Unfortunately, things do not always work out so well. By trying to change the style and culture of his new club, Clough becomes a pariah among his own players and loses the job almost as quickly as he got it in the first place. This is a fascinating look at the relationship between coaches and players, especially when both are professional. I often wonder why it is necessary for coaches to motivate players. Is there a parallel in "regular life"? In the course of my job as a teacher of physics, is it up to my boss to motivate me to be a good teacher, to practice my craft and work toward excelling? Or is it up to me as a professional to do what it takes to be always improving? Perhaps my personality leads me to the later, but it does seem strange that bosses must continually push employees to do what they have already agreed to do by accepting a job. This film just exposes how prevalent it is in sports and how much of an accepted part of life it is.
4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The second installment of the Millennium Trilogy is as good as the first (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Here we get another collaboration between Lisbeth Salander (the girl) and investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist of Millennium magazine. The two work together (actually, more accurately they work in parallel) to identify who has violently murdered two freelance journalists who where working on a sex-trade expose for Millennium. Salander is accused of being the murderer based on a left-behind gun with her prints on it and Blomqvist is the only person who believes in her innocence. As the story unfolds, we get a better picture of Salander's background, which plays an important role in the plot. Again, we can't push every detail from the book into the film, but the texture, suspense and intensity all come through. There are no plot holes that require having read the book for understanding. Overall, Salander's dark, gritty personality drive this film and make it one of the better mystery adventures I have seen. And having just finished reading the final book in the trilogy, I am looking forward to the final installment on film. As individual films, these are good. As a set, they are great.
4 stars (out of 5)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Drunken Master

Here we have a classic English-dubbed, Kung Fu film with Jackie Chan (billed as Jacky Chan in the titles) playing a lead role. Perhaps it is not fair to compare a 1978 Kung Fu film with a 2008 Muay Thai (Chocolate) film, but that is what I watched today. Chan plays Freddy, a mischievous young man learning Kung Fu in his fathers school. His skills are adequate, but his ego and entitlement are gigantic. Eventually, he gets into enough trouble to get sent by his father to be trained by Su Hua, a crazy old man who is skilled in the methods of the 8 drunken Kung Fu gods. More trouble is required before Freddy buys into learning the methods, which come just in time for him to use them to protect family honor. As to the fighting/acting style, it comes across as more slapstick than battle. Chan's goofy on screen personality fits well with the style and makes for a good show. At the same time, the fighting is primarily direct (punch and block, kick and block) with out the frequent feigned first kick followed by actual second that seem prevalent in Muay Thai. I know, this is supposed to be a film review, not a martial arts review, and I am sure my ignorance will show. I am just trying to vocalize what I see. Overall, this is a fun, goofy film that introduces Chan in a form that will serve him well for many years.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, July 11, 2010


It is martial arts fest today, comparing recently discovered (by me at least) Muay Thai and Kung Fu. Chocolate is another entry in the Muay Thai martial arts offerings (see the Kung Fu review of Drunken Master). I really like watching this form as it is much more dynamic than traditional Kung Fu. Unfortunately, good martial arts does not always make a good film. In this story, we are introduced to Zin, who is an enforcer for a local mafia boss. She falls in love with a rival Japanese man, is thrown out of the business and has a baby (Zen). The story focuses on this child who has a developmental problem and requires lots of care, but also has the unique ability to learn martial arts from watching TV and video games. After watching lots of Ong Bak, Zen re-enters the world of her mother in an effort to raise some much needed cash, clashing with her old nemesis along the way. The Zen character is sympathetic in many ways, but mechanical in others. She comes across as a machine that is being used by the people and circumstances around her. She does not really understand or make decisions in the world which she lives. I know that this "child martial arts" critique was leveled by many against the recent Kick Ass as well, claiming the images of child manipulation were abusive and inappropriate, but it didn't bother me there. Here, the tone is different, resulting in the entire movie being a bit uncomfortable.
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, July 10, 2010


The filmmakers who bring us this documentary spent a year with a platoon in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan in 2007. This valley was considered of utmost strategic importance and a rugged and deadly place. Early in the deployment, the platoon pushes from the main outpost in the valley (The KOP or Korengal Outpost) up to the top of a nearby hill to set up another outpost. This new post, Outpost Restrepo, in named in memory of Doc Restrepo, a platoon member who was killed in battle during the first month of deployment. The film is the story of the creation and defense of O.P. Restrepo, using footage from the year deployment intermixed with interviews with the soldiers after they have left Afghanistan. This is a powerful film in that it gives a first hand look at what is involved in war. It attempts to be neutral in presentation, and I am sure that viewers from all perspectives will see examples of actions that support their particular point of view. Here is what I saw...

War is about power, even on an individual level. The platoon captain held weekly meetings with local elders to improve community relations. The plan for the valley was to provide jobs to locals by building and improving a road through the valley. The army persistently talked about this road, but it never got traction with the residents. In spite of all the community meetings and discussions about working together, when push came to shove, the soldiers had the power. When the elders came to ask for reparations for a killed cow or to inquire about a missing community member, the captain pulled out his "you're not going to get what you want-next question" card. In war, when an impasse occurs, the powerful win and the less powerful lose. There is really no ability to think about a win-win scenario.

War changes the powerful. Watching this platoon over the course of the year in an extremely hostile environment, we could see the change. Increasingly, anger led to desire for retribution, which never resulted in abatement of the anger. What I wonder now, is how does this war fought far away by people I don't know affect our culture as a nation. Are we also changed, finding a new relationship with anger and retribution, failing to believe that win-win is possible? Am I personally changed by knowing that I am part of the war?

See this film. What do you see?
5 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Burn After Reading

Brad Pitt makes this movie. As an espionage/thriller/farce with massive amounts of talent attached (Pitt, Clooney, Swinton, Malkovich, McDormand, Jenkins...) it only really works because Pitt is a goofy, 30-something, going nowhere, idiot. Pitt and Frances McDormand are trainers working at the local fitness center. They come across some seemingly top-secret information in the locker room and try to parlay it into some cash. The information is associated with Malkovich's character, a recently fired low-level analyst for the CIA. McDormand is the brains and Pitt is ... well a goofy, 30-something, going nowhere, idiot. As they try to turn their find into cash, they encounter all kinds of wacky responses (remember this is a farce first) from the CIA, divorce lawyers, bosses, and even the Russians. In the end, things wrap up like you would expect them to, if you think the CIA is a bumbling organization that has no idea what is going on anywhere and simply tries to keep any "higher up" from knowing about anything strange. And the beauty is that this part of the film is played straight (enough) to give it just a smidgen of authenticity, leaving any skeptic viewer (knowing it is comedy) wondering how much based in truth it is.
3 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

King Corn

It seems that when someone graduates from college, has no job and no prospects, the thing to do is make a film. In King Corn, freshman filmmakers Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis move to a small town in Iowa to rent a single acre of farmland and grow corn. Their intent is to follow the path of that corn from cradle to grave. In reality, since the corn goes into a storage/distribution silo, it is impossible to trace "their corn" after harvest. So they go with the percentages and look at where most corn in general will end up. Surprisingly, I enjoyed this in spite of its many flaws. It is a soft critique of the farming and food production system in this country. Interviews with farmers suggest that none of the farmers like the system and most are frustrated with the quality of product they produce, and yet must produce to survive. In addition, they look at the history of the Farm Bill and the changes in the 70's that brought us to the status quo. These interviews along with the farming process are fascinating. However, I say it is a soft critique because the filmmakers don't really investigate the effects of the pesticide resistant "Liberty Linked" corn, don't follow the environmental effects of the beef trail (where 50% of corn is consumed), and don't follow through to the effects using high fructose corn syrup everywhere. Instead, they make suggestions and start the discussion, I suppose leaving the thinking to the viewer. Unfortunately, unless you already have done some looking into these issues (or are spurred to by the film), it ends up being a critique of the system followed by a "throwing up of the hands" and a "what can we do?". I wish they would have suggested some action further research a viewer could do. Oh well, what can you do?
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, July 5, 2010


I am a huge David Mamet fan. I guess the reason I missed this when it was in theaters is that I didn't know I was a fan in 2004. But like The Spanish Prisoner and Heist (which is one of the all-time great caper films with Gene Hackman) Spartan provides an intriguing storyline that keeps you engaged by changing directions every so often, without giving you cinematic whiplash. Val Kilmer plays a ranger who is part of the task force assigned to recover the missing first daughter. Her abduction from school is on the start of a weekend, so the team has 48 hours before the news outlets find out that she is missing class on monday. Kilmer follows the trail, noticing the small things that lead him to each next step. I can see how this would be the beginning of a series (a la Bourne) and am surprised that we have not seen any sequels. I guess box office has something to do with that. Perhaps one of the things I like about Kilmer's character (vs. Bourne) is that he is not a superstar. There are no action sequences where he jumps across buildings or falls out of two story windows onto a scooter and drives away. Instead, he is pretty human, just doing his job and trying to interpret his life rules to make sense. I like when people have a very distinct set of life rules that occasionally come into conflict with jobs or events and ethical decisions must be made. The military is an easy target for this since the job rules are so explicit and this is a part of the conclusion that both wraps things up and leaves the watcher thinking.
4 stars (out of 5)

It's Complicated

Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin are divorced for 10 years when they meet up again for their son's college graduation. Baldwin is since remarried to a pretty young thing, but all is not well in paradise. By chance, both are staying in the same hotel for the graduation ceremony and both end up alone for dinner the night before. A few drinks later and they find themselves rekindling old passions in the bedroom. What follows is a series of decisions and awkward encounters as the two (primarily Streep actually) try to figure out if the new romance is crazy. Baldwin just enjoys sex and food, clearly reverting back to patterns that a viewer could see doomed the marriage in the first place. Add to the mix new beau Steve Martin (who plays an excellent distinguished gentlemen by the way), and the new son-in-law getting a sneak peek at the ex's shenanigans and we get plenty of opportunity for keystone cop-like routines. This is all rather routine, with Martin being the strongest part of the film. What breaks the story for me is the sheer inability of Streep to resist her ex-husbands advances. One little look, or touch of the shoulder and ... cut to bedroom scene. She seems to have no ability to see her own way forward and has no self confidence, coming across as a whiny, woe-is-me personality. It made me cringe.
2 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Van Helsing

Since a certain vampire film is all the rage right now and I am not participating in the frenzy, I thought I would pull out a creature film that I missed in the theaters from a few years ago. Hugh Jackman plays Van Helsing, a mercenary for hire that works for Rome in the 1400's. His specialty is hunting down creatures that are dangerous to the church, starting with Dr. Jekyll in the opening sequence. With Jekyll dispatched successfully, Helsing is charged with traveling to Transylvania to help an old friend of the church in destroying Count Dracula. As it turns out, Helsing has a pre-existing relationship with Dracula. He then must battle werewolves, Dracula's brides and children and even encounters Dr. Frankenstein's monster along the way. This is a fun little horror/action/drama but I couldn't help thinking throughout that the film didn't quite know what its genre was. It wasn't scary enough to be horror, and there wasn't enough real plot tension or acting to be dramatic. There was a bit of action, but not enough to carry the film. What there was a lot of was primal screaming [camera zoom to full face close up of {insert creature here} with hands to face and mouth open wide for maximum effect]. Most of the time, all I could think of was Craig Ferguson's immitation of John McCain during these screams, so you can see why they were not effective as drama, horror or action. Even so, this was a fun little romp through creature world without excessive blood and gore that is so common in creature films today. So if you like non-horrific creature films with a bit of action, this is the perfect film for you.
3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Grown Ups

I don't think most critics get this movie. Or else I don't get the movie and liked it because of my cinematic ignorance. Granted, this is not a smart movie, or anywhere close to looking for awards from any film group. Instead, it is a fun, family comedy, of which there have been very few lately. The story is set by five buddies who all played on the same basketball team (probably in junior high) for Coach Buzzer. When coach dies, they all get together for the funeral and then spend a weekend back a the old lakehouse with all their families. Here the five guys revert back to their high school mentalities in many ways (much like when adult children return home to visit the parents, the also unwittingly revive old family roles). They also are sorting out what it means to be the parents and spouses, and are learning about themselves along the way. None of this is groundbreaking or unique. However, I liked that the tone of the film was nice. Many critics called this out as a bunch of comics just tossing off mean spirited jabs without much creativity or energy. What I saw was exactly what a bunch of high school friends are like when they get together 20 years later. These five guys all have high school reputations and high school personalities and the guys drop immediately back into this familiar form of relating. They throw around insults and jokes, constantly jabbing at each other, fully expecting a verbal jab back. They know they are not original but laugh together just because it is comfortable being together again. There is no ill will or mean spirited tone, and the comedy is not biting or edgy. I think the critics missed the point that this is probably more realisitic than not, and realism isn't something that Hollywood is comfortable with. I laughed throughout and felt good at the end. What more could you ask?
4 stars (out of 5)