Friday, August 27, 2010

Dirty Pretty Things

Another example of an engaging portrayal of immigration, following (albeit from a different direction) in the line of Sugar and Children of Invention. Set in London, two immigrants (one on provisional documentation the other undocumented) are acquintances at work and develop a relationship. Their life situations place them positions to observe and participate in an underworld that has potential to destroy them or save them, or do both simultaneously. We see sweatshops, sexual abuse, prostitution, and organ smuggling as well as getting a glimpse of the amazing network of individuals that rally to provide a life of possibility for immigrants. I enjoyed seeing this seemingly continuous spectrum of use of power across a variety of individuals. Ranging from power abusers who know they are abusing, to manipulators who trade good for good but still hold on to power, to those who either don't know they have power or choose to see themselves as equals, to the abused and to the intentionally invisible. How and when different roles choose to assert their power, and the internal struggle that results is a good life story and here that story is well captured on film.
4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Body of Lies

Political intrigue in the middle east followed by the inevitable blowback. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a rising field agent/star in the CIA. He has a bit of a different approach than his superiors in that he believes those who live in the country he is stationed have some knowledge about that country. He is battling the arrogance of empire and is simultaneously sucked in to it. As with most of these political thrillers, there are operations within operations within operations. So it is true to form that you never really know who lies to whom. The one fallacy that continually popped up, and I am sure the average viewer just buys, is that "Nobody is innocent". This becomes the mantra for the powerful as a psychological self defense system when the actual innocent die. I think that this mantra also seeps surreptitiously into our American consciousness when we try to justify our global role. How does one expose the fallacy? How hard it is to change a culture, knowing how hard it is to change even my own individual reactionary thought patterns.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sherlock Holmes

I was sort of ambivalent about this going in (which is probably why I missed it in theaters) and maybe as a result, was entertained. Holmes (played by Robert Downey Jr.) is a detail savant and is able to play this to his advantage in solving mysteries. He also seems to take advantage of this in street fights and in playing mind games with his buddy Dr. Watson (Jude Law). But this is stereotypical Holmes and represents nothing new. The story here surrounds Holmes solving a paranormal mystery, when a bad guy comes back from the dead. We get to follow around trying to figure out who is really a bad guy and what is going on. Fun scenery of London and a nice quick pace (we don't get bored) without resorting to Crank methodology of just don't stop. I rather liked this film.
3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Interesting how a 1996 film just feels like a made for TV movie. I wonder if that is because it is 15 years old, or because it was just mediocre in the first place. In this case, probably a combo. Lawerence Fishburn and Stephen Baldwin star in this classic buddy scenario of two mismatched convicts escaping from the chain gang, chained together. They run, help each other out, secrets are revealed and they end up the good guys in the end. Sorry if that is a spoiler, but you probably would have guessed that after the first five minutes anyway. Do you think someone will watch Avatar on TV in 2025 and write a boring synopsis of it? Probably...
2 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Last Chance Harvey

Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman cross paths in London while Hoffman is traveling to his daughters wedding. Hoffman plays the role of Harvey, the absent father and bitter ex-husband who is envious of the new husband/dad who seems to fill the role so much better than he did. Thompson is the aging single woman who seems to have given up on love. Can we see where this is going? A by-the-book reconnection between father and daughter along with finding-love-where-you-least-expect-it tale. Both of these actors are fun to watch, but this is not a draw you in kind of engaging film.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Written and directed by Emilio Estevez in 2006, with appearances by everyone else in Hollywood, this is a story of the Ambassador Hotel in LA the day before Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. So while the entire film is about and surrounding the Kennedy campaign appearance that evening, Kennedy only ever appears in actual footage seen on TV screens in the background. In fact, the story is about all the characters that happen to be in the hotel on the day before and their lives before the assassination. It is a well done film, although the fact that it is actually entertaining probably shows that it is not really just a snapshot of everyday life. That is why they call it historical fiction, I guess. I like the characters, and the character actors here. Not an excellent film, but a worthy diversion when one is needed.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Children of Invention

This 2009 film is another great example of "under the radar" film. I missed it in release last year (as in - didn't even know of it) and was glad to see it now. It is a story of a family living in Boston struggling to survive. The mom immigrated from Hong Kong over a decade ago, but her work visa has expired. Both kids are U.S. citizens and dad is out of the picture. Mom goes from one sales scheme to another and finally gets enmeshed in a pyramid scheme. Having lost their house, they now live in the model home of a soon to be opened apartment complex and for at least part of the story, the kids survive on their own as mom is unavailable. The film is not speedy, but takes its time showing the intricacies of struggle. With the inability to get a "legal" job, what real options does the mom have? Watching mom believe in the next best sales job, the kids pick up on an independent entrepreneur attitude (hence the title) and become inventors themselves. Aside from the ethnic Chinese community, the family does not have any real connections, and therefore any real safety net. This is a hard life and the frustration and futility bubble clearly to the surface for both mom and kids. And yet, there is no depression or giving in. There is optimism and there is family. I liked how all the pieces fit together, giving a seemingly realistic view of life.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Into the Wild

A well done, personal journey film based on a true story. The protagonist played by Emile Hirsch leaves home after college on a journey of self discovery. Partially he is out to do exactly what his parents would despise, partly he is out to find out what it is he loves. His travels lead him to change his name to Alex Supertramp and take him across the US (mostly in the west since his "home" is in the east), with his ultimate goal being to reach Alaska. Along the way, he meets fellow travelers, sympathetic employers and the occasional friendly stranger. I enjoyed watching the chance encounters with people and seeing how friendly they could be. Of course, the cynic in me also thought about how the film is really only showing the best encounters. There were not any dark moments throughout. Instead, it is a consistent positive experience of travel and discovery. There were two scenes which resonated with me. First, as Alex is kayaking through Lake Havasu, I could imagine myself doing that portion of the trip. Several days (weeks?) of just paddling, covering lots of distance without working too hard and having the canyon walls to reflect all your thoughts. I may have just identified my next summer plan. Secondly, when he approaches the river in Alaska and finds it too swift to cross. My immediate thoughts were lining up methods for crossing this river. The challenge of crossing the impossible for this young man who had been for two years living the impossible seemed like a no-brainer. But he went back. Did not even try to cross. Partly this is a commentary on his state of mind, that he was not really interested in crossing this river. But for me, if I ever come across that river, I now have my list of strategies ready to go. I get across that river.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

The film was all right. As one of the most anticipated films of the summer (for me, anyway), I have do say it did not live up to the hype. Don't get me wrong, this is a good film and well worth seeing. But it wasn't astounding in the "memorable for years" type of way. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a lesbian couple with two teenage kids. They each carried a child, with the sperm coming from a donor. At the age of 18, the kids are allowed (and do) look up the identity of the donor and decide to meet him. Mark Ruffalo plays the donor and is quickly integrated into the kid's and mom's lives. This is a story about family and about marriage. Ruffalo does an excellent job of showing the struggle of instant fatherhood and questions about how to fit in. What is disappointing is that while the dramatic tension in both the family and the marriage is set up nicely in the mere presence of the donor dad, the writers resort to a fidelity storyline to drive the plot. Of course this fast forwards a crisis, but it seems like a cheap trick that was unnecessary given the characters and the abilities of the actors involved. Overall, a strong offering and still one of the best films I saw this summer.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saving Grace

Having just read the Craig Ferguson autobiography, I was reminded about this film that he wrote and starred in. Grace is a recently widowed woman who finds that the estate left to her by her husband is in reality a large pile of debts. Ferguson plays the gardener and has a plan to solve Grace's financial problems. It involves taking advantage of Grace's extraordinary gardening skills and Ferguson's desire to grow a bit of hemp. What follows is a quirky story of coming of age for a 30-something and 50-something in a quirky English town. It reminds me a bit of Irina Palm but in this case, everybody knows the plan, everybody helps out, and in the end financial problems are remedied. This is a good, small film that makes you feel good and is fun to watch but if you have to choose between the two, choose Irina Palm.
3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Angelina Jolie is an action star, no question. She is tough, quick, smart, sexy and ruthless. Or at least, she is able to play those characters believably. Here she plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who is experienced with undercover operations and is currently on the run having been accused of being a Russian spy. The film evolves predictably (and satisfyingly I will add) along traditional espionage thriller lines. A nice summer film, entertaining and fun. My biggest complaint is the fact that it ended as an introduction to the sequel. No matter the fact that I liked the film, I suppose I am put out that the filmmakers just assume that I am willing to wait around for a year or two (or forever if the sequel never gets made) for final resolution. This is also my complaint about reading series books before the series is completely written. Some part of my brain is still waiting for resolution on Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, even though I have not read any of those books for over 10 years. So if you are going to make a film, resolve it and let my brain rest. If you want to make a sequel, pick up the story later...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Maybe the best alternate reality film since The Matrix. Or was it better than The Matrix? Here is what I think, knowing that The Matrix is old and Inception is new certainly colors my opinion. The visual style and presentation in The Matrix wins hands down. This was novel and exciting and integral to the film. The visual presentation of Inception was good, but not dramatic or essential to the film (with the exception of the zero gravity fight in the hotel). Both films raise questions about reality and in the end, I think Inception causes us to question more. The Matrix was basically a one level story (this isn't reality, but that is). Inception says instead that this isn't reality, but that may not be either. So for now, I give the nod to Inception. Why the comparison instead of an actual review? Probably because I can't really tell you much about the film. The protagonists are dream travelers. They can share dreams and, being aware of the sharing, can use the subconscious projections found there reveal information about the dreamer. And since a 5 minute dream can cover several hours of dream time, a brief nap gives us time for corporate espionage. The rest you will have to see for yourself.

One thing to think about. Some people have opted to live for the dream. That is, they share dreams for long periods of time as recreation. Does in fact the dream life then become more real? How would you react if you dreamed a life, then woke up and had to live it all again? Would you go back to the dream life to live again (and again and again...), or would you eventually tire of the Groundhog Day nature of your existence? As my friend asked me tonight, "What is the purpose of life? Why are we here?" and I might add, Do those questions get easier if we are not sure what is real?
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Black Hawk Down

This story of a squadron of Delta Force and Rangers in Mogadishu, Sudan in the mid 90's is in a similar vein as Hurt Locker and Restrepo. Based on true events, the filmmakers aim to offer a look at the side of war that is not glamorous and heroic. However, they still seem to find the glamor and heroism to portray since that is what makes movies enjoyable. The story here follows soldiers who are tasked with extracting some important enemies from the center of enemy territory. During the raid, one of the helicopters is shot down and the rest of the film follows the chain of events to get all American soldiers back to base. This is worth seeing if only for the fact that it clearly demonstrates the grotesque nature of war. With over 1000 Sudanese killed in this event alone and the only resulting message that the place is so messed up that there is no way to help (as if the military solution was sure to help). Even so, the cowboy/soldier shows up and becomes the face that Americans will remember - the rugged individualist. I don't think this did well at the theaters when it was released a few years ago. I wonder if that is because people saw through?
2 stars (out of 5)