Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks

This entry into ESPN's 30 For 30 series chronicles the rivalry between the New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers. Specifically, it focuses on the Pacers star player and top trash talker Reggie Miller and the showdowns the two teams had in two separate Eastern Conference Finals-Finals that led to losses by both teams in the Finals on separate occasions. Nice doc displays many interesting aspects involved in this colorful rivalry.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Box

In the beginning, The Box plays like an episode of The Twilight Zone and effectively engages the viewer. Then it becomes completely preposterous and goes on way longer than in should. The film is about a married couple with a son living in late 70s Richmond, Virginia. Norma (the horrible Cameron Diaz, this time with an atrocious southern accent) is a teacher at her sons school and is informed that discounted tuition will no longer be given. Her husband Arthur (James Marsden) is a NASA employee who finds out he failed the astronaut psych test. These instances of bad news coincide with the visit of a disfigured visitor (the wonderful Frank Langella) with a strange gift and an even stranger proposition: If the couple presses the red button on the box he has given them, they will receive one million dollars, while someone they don't know will be killed. It is up to this point that the film is engaging. After this, as it gets into conspiracies and the ridiculousness of the story keeps getting worse, all is lost and by the ending.

Monday, March 29, 2010


For a short while, you think Noah Baumbach has recreated the human and humorous elements that made The Squid And The Whale great, but this notion soon fades and by the end you are left with a portrait of a despicable man and some on-goings that just come off as phony. The story focuses on Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller, a beyond neurotic man who writes the airline after his New York to L.A. flight about how their seats don't recline far enough. He is fresh off a nervous breakdown and a stint in a mental home, and is staying in his brother's house while he's on vacation with his family. While in California he meets up with some ex-band members and starts a relationship with his brother's assistant (Greta Gerwig) who he treats more like a concubine. It is despicable how he uses her and how she allows herself to be used, but when we are introduced to his ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) we realized Greenberg has done this before, and left her heartbroken nonetheless. The film does have nice reflective moments in it like that and is well filmed. It's just that Stiller and Gerwig don't have the acting chops to pull this off, the main character is utterly despisable, and the way his character is brought around and his relationship is portrayed is just plain false.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

2010 CIFF: Final Thoughts

So the 34th annual Cleveland International Film Festival is over, and as I finish my first year volunteering I must say that it was a truly wonderful experience. It was a great interacting with staff, patrons, and other volunteers while working and seeing films. In total I saw 10 feature films and 26 shorts, some good some bad. I also fell asleep during 2, which is an example of how tiring a festival can be. I made new friends and would encourage all to volunteer or just attend next year's festival.

2010 CIFF Closing Night: Looking For Eric

May 2010 Lamplighter Review In a time when American comedies rely on gross-out gags and then expect us to care for infantile grown men, a humanistic British comedy like Looking for Eric is like a breath of fresh air. It is directed by Ken Loach and tells the story of a named Eric, wonderfully portrayed by Steve Evets. He is undergoing a mid-life crisis. His kids don't respect him, his ex-wife won't talk to him, and he has just been in a car crash. He eventually admits that he can’t remember the last time he was happy.
After some meditation exercises with friends, Eric is visited by an imaginary friend in the form of Eric Cantona (played by himself) the star player of the soccer powerhouse Manchester United in the 1990s and Eric's favorite player. As he begins to heed the advice from his make-believe hero, Eric begins to pick up the pieces of his life. From this description, you may think this is the usual tale of self-redemption, but if you think you know where this is going and how he gets there, you are sadly mistaken. We are lead down roads we cannot anticipate into an ending that is inspired and uproarious.
While engaging the viewer with its comedic elements, Looking for Eric also succeeds by drawing us in with its human elements, making us care about its characters. Though some of the characters are rough around the edges, the filmmakers have nothing but love for them and what results is a kind, observant, and profound film experience while managing to be utterly hysterical at the same time.

Original Review Well the time has come and closing night, the last film is upon us in my first volunteer year for the Cleveland International Film Festival. This year the film selected to close this years fest is Ken Loach's Looking For Eric and it was a truly wonderful selection. Looking for Eric stars a postman named Eric (a wonderful Steve Evets) who is undergoing a mid-life crisis. His kids don't respect him, his ex-wife won't talk to him, and he has just been in a car crash. He can't remember the last time he was happy. After some meditation exercises, Eric begins to see an imaginary friend in the form of Eric Cantona (played by himself) the star player of Manchester United in the 90s and Eric's favorite player. With advice from his hero, Eric begins to pick up the pieces of his life. But if you think you know where this is going and how he gets there you are sadly mistaken. This is the kind of British comedy that Americans just aren't capable of. It is kind, observant, and profoundly human while being utterly hysterical at the same time. What a great film to end a great film festival with.

2010 CIFF: The Last Truck

The Last Truck: Closing Of A GM Plant is the wonderful and heart-wrenching documentary short that was nominated for an Academy Award. I reviewed it further down the blog or you can view it here. It was preceded by a short. Here's that review:
The Palace Of Light
Hilarious short shows Post's Shredded Wheats CEO trying to hold back his company from progress. There are many sharp points and funny moments in this 13 minute film. ***1/2 

2010 CIFF: Independent Short Jury Awards

The Jury Awards worked the same way, except that they awarded more films. We were again shown seven shorts, and I was a little disappointed with some of the selections, though there were some good ones. These films are eligible for Oscar contention and I placed an asterix after ones not screened. Here are the reviews:
Lost and Found*
Home is a surprisingly bland and empty short made with home photographs and having to do with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. **
The Devil's Wedding
Devil's Wedding is a darkly comic, well-written, and disturbing short about Satan getting hitched. ***
Get Happy*
Claiming The Title: Gay Olympics On Trial*
Ana's Playground
Well-made short about a girl risking her life to regain her lost soccer ball in a war zone neighborhood. ***1/2
We Were Twenty*
Cigarette Candy
Well made and well acted short about a Marine's homecoming just rings false. **1/2
After Tomorrow*
Again well-made but extremely convoluted Danish short about domestic abuse. **1/2
Wonderfully conceived and executed short about the dangers of drinking expired milk ****
The Best Part Of My Day
Cute but long and obvious short. **1/2
reviewed here **1/2
The Beauty Of Damage*
Winter Fugue*
reviewed here ***1/2

2010 CIFF: Independent Short Audience Awards

This program was determined by audience vote and before the program, we were told what the top ten shorts were, informed that we would only view seven, and that the winner of the audience awards was not available because its print had already been shipped to its next destination. bummer! Still the shorts shown were of decent quality. I will try to view the three that didn't play. Here are the top ten with an asterix next to the ones that didn't screen:
12 Stones*
Lost and Found*
Heal tells the story of a Middle Eastern boy who finds he has a special power in the time when his village needs him. I didn't think this was a top-notch short though it was kind of powerful at the end. **1/2
Nico's Challenge
Wonderful documentary detailing a one-legged boys attempt to scale Mt. Kilimanjaro for charity. ***1/2
The Action Hero's Guide To Saving Lives
Amusing short in which a Bruce Willis like cop is called in to handle a hostage situation.
Pigeon: Impossible
Ok short detailing an FBI agent dealing with a bothersome pigeon. **1/2
Big Guy
Disturbing short in which the fake-Superbad dude starts a relationship with a bulimic brothel worker. **
Banana Bread
Saw this earlier in the week, reviewed here ***
Table 7
My favorite short of the program shows what happens behind the scenes at a Chinese restaurant. ***1/2 

Saturday, March 27, 2010

2010 CIFF: A Town Called Panic

The festival's late night showing tonight was a delgihtful, funny comedy from France, filmed with little figurines done entirely in stop-motion animation. The ludicrous story revolves around two friends, Cowboy and Indian, trying to plan the best birthday for the other friend horse. Their plans of course go horribly wrong and the trio find themselves in situation I can't even begin to explain. Though maybe in the same league as other stop-motion classics such as Wallace and Gromit, ATCP is filmed in the same vein with the same warm and charming sense of humor.


After a week of viewing haughty foreign festival films, I decided to take a break by settling with a big budget disaster picture, no matter how mind numbingly awful it may be. And mind numbingly awful it is, made like every movie of its kind made recently with the special effects which are no longer impressive and the stupid cutesy jokes. This one is directed by Roland Emmerich, the prince of big dumb action flicks (Michael Bay is the king). It starts off with a White House official discovering in 2010 that the world will end two years later. He begins to inform high-ranking members of the country. The credits roll and we jump to 2012 when the rapture begins to take place. We follow a failed author (the eminently terrible John Cusack) and his two kids as they meet a hippie kook (a surprisingly irritating Woody Harrelson) who informs them of what looms ahead. The author meets up with his ex-wife and her boyfriend and all attempt to evade the imploding world. I take back what I said before. The effects are semi-impressive and this kind of film is fun up to a point, but the film is still loud and dumb and goes on way, way, way too long.

Friday, March 26, 2010

2010 CIFF: The Last Campaign

Well, today was the day it hit me. After watching hours of film and volunteering all week I was utterly exhausted. I had tickets to see a double feature before my shift today started. The first film was called the Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner. Since it was nominated for an Academy Award Best Documentary Short, I reviewed it here or you can scroll down the blog to view it. The director introduced the film which was pretty neat. After nodding off a little towards the beginning the film, I decided to skip the second feature which was called Convention and was supposed to detail the Democratic Convention in August 2008. I figured I didn't need to see two liberal documentaries in one day. I was so tired that I decided not to volunteer today and skip the midnight screening I had tickets for called Storage. I didn't realize how exhausting a film festival can get!

2010 CIFF: A Call Girl

Today the late show I caught after volunteering was a Slovenian film called A Call Girl. The film's editor who introduced the film said it was originally called Slovenian Girl but the American distributor's thought it would fair better under A Call Girl, so there you have it. Anyways, the film is about a young college student who sells herself to pay for rent and school. It opens with her visiting an obese client who has a heart attack and dies. It turns out he is some government bigwig and the police begin looking for the girl to question her. This was basically the description I read in the CIFF film brochure and I decided to see it because it sounded to be like a capable thriller, and for a while it is. However the film shifts tones to much from thriller to comedy to drama and doesn't really know what it wants to be. Also many interesting storylines do not payoff and the film feels incomplete. I did like the performance of her father as a suicidal musician who cares about his daughter, but even his scenes felt out of place. A Call Girl is a movie that sets things up very well but never follows through.


Millions is a film of wild imagination, directed with fervor and energy. It is not constructed or told in a traditional fashion. It tells the story of two young British brothers who have just recently lost their mothers and relocated with the father, two of the hardest situations for children to cope with. One day while playing near the train tracks a bag of money seemingly falls from the sky near Damian, the younger brother. Since he is a kind, God fearing boy, Damian with the help of the saints whom he has visions of decides to give the money to the poor. However, his older, wiser, and greedier brother Anthony will have no part of this when he finds out about the loot and decides to spend and surprisingly invest the money. However, it is seven days until Britain switches over to the Euro upon whence the boy's money will be worthless. From this point Millions goes off in several directions, many of them spectacular and some not. Still, Academy Award winning director Danny Boyle's talent is clear here in a children's film, the likes of which rarely receive this kind of treatment.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

2010 CIFF: Garbo-The Spy

Garbo: The Spy is a unique historical documentary in that it has a sense of humor, and in that instead of listening to old British historian bores drone on, we are shown clips from classic WWII and spy films on top of the expected stock footage for which the old British historian bores to drone on over. The documentary tells the story of a Spaniard acted as a spy for the British while pretending to be a spy for the Germans. He is depicted as enigmatic and intelligent, contriving the most grandiose of schemes and also saving himself from the most dangerous of situations. The most pertinent part of his story is the role he played in D-Day, and how he helped the Allies win the war. I really liked the structure of this documentary in how it tells an interesting story that unfolds like a good film.

2010 CIFF: Independent Shorts Program 8

When I was volunteering, I was told that the shorts programs were the most popular screenings at the festival. So, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the 8th set of the Independent Shorts Program today. It was a nice mix of different kinds of shorts, including live-action, documentary, and animated, and also ranging among different types of tones. Here are brief individual reviews of each short in this program:
Down In Number 5
The first short of the program is also probably the best. It tells the story of a dying man's efforts to secure a future for his disabled son. It is exquisitely filmed and heart-wrenching. ***1/2 
Cricket is a mercifully brief Japanimated short. ** 
When I'm Not Alone
This is also a wonderful short, a documentary about a woman who was abused so bad and so long that she thinks she is a man. However, it is not a weepy film that makes you feel sorry for the person, but rather an uplifting story about succeeding despite obstacles. ***1/2 
Banana Bread
Short tells about an overprotective, hypochondriac mother who continually nags her grown son on the cell phone, though he has a secret she should be worried about. Funny short, though the joke begins to wear thin. *** 
Winter Fugue
This finely realized short tells the story of a young woman who's inventor father has recently died and left his New York apartment a mess for her to clean before selling it. However, her father may have one last surprise up his sleeve. ***1/2 
Helpless takes place in a police station and recalls an incident from several different point of views. Certain elements in this short irritated me but at the same time I enjoy these kind of exercises. ***
The Shopkeeper (Dukandar)
Indian film tells the story of a mischievous boy with a vivid imagination who is given the task of watching his father's shop during a crucial cricket game. This one didn't really work for me, but it had its moments. **1/2  
I Want To Spend The Rest Of My Life With You
Very short short is darkly humorous as a destined couple meet. ***

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Red Riding Trilogy

The Red Riding Trilogy is a series of films made for British television that deals with a serial killer in London. Each of the three films takes place in a different year with a different director and a different cast, but all have the same screenwriter. Because of the way the series is constructed it presents a difficulty in reviewing. First, there are different styles to review in each film yet they are all trying to tell the same story. So, each film does not stand on its own and the three films should probably be reviewed as one. Yet, because each director brings a different style, I will offer a rating to each individual film, and then an all-inclusive rating at the end. 
Red Riding: In The Year Of Our Lord 1974
A little girl disappears and young greenhorn reporter begins to investigate. The girl's body is found and the journalist ties it to past murders within the same area. As he begins to dig deeper, he finds himself uncovering things some powerful people (including the police) don't want uncovered and he eventually finds his life in jeopardy. This first entry is exquisitely shot and directed by Julian Jarrold, and it builds up intensity, especially in the end. But this is a hard movie to follow, especially with the cockney English accents. It is also frustrating how little we know at the end, and you can already tell that these films were meant to be viewed as a whole and cannot stand alone individually.
*** stars
Red Riding: In The Year Of Our Lord 1980
It is six years later and people are afraid to leave their homes. The Yorkshire Ripper has just claimed his 13th victim and the police department must act. They decide to form an investigative squad with Paul Hunter at the helm, a despised man due to his past work investigating cops. Paul and his crew uncover police corruption at the heart of the case, and the further he digs the more troubled his life becomes. Like RR 1974, 1980 is very well shot and directed, and Paddy Constantine is fine as Hunter. Still, the film is again hard to follow and many questions remain unanswered. Also, there is almost no tangible connection between this and the first film. Not that that is bad, it is just not what I expected out of these films.
*** stars
Red Riding: In The Year Of Our Lord 1983
 All comes together this brilliant final chapter which contains everything that was good about the first two films along with the clarity that was lacking in those films. As another young girl disappears, we are given two investigators who delve in the case. The first is a verteran cop who has been on the case since the beginning, who now begins to look at the case with new eyes as his conscience begins to bother him. The second protagonist is the unlikely, rotund attorney, son of a corrupt Yorkshire policeman, who takes the case of his neighbor who is imprisoned for the murders. As he reluctantly gets further and further into the case, he begins to sense something fishy going on, and begins to delve deeper. Wonderfully filmed and acted, providing the desired closure.
**** stars
This ends up being a great series but I would recommend watching them as a whole if you have 5 hours to spare. Also, watch it with the subtitles and with your undivided attention. In the end, I think you will find this to be a very deserving crime saga.
***1/2 stars

2010 CIFF: Quest For Honor

I concluded my day by seeing Quest For Honor, a sixty minute documentary which was preceded by the wonderful Academy-Award winning documentary short Music By Prudence (which I'll review further down the blog, or click here). Quest For Honor wasn't a bad documentary. It just wasn't an interesting one. Maybe I've gotten used to the in-your-face Michael Moore style of documentaries or maybe it was just too late, but this one didn't really peak my interest though it was about an important subject. It opens with CNN's Anderson Cooper reporting on an "honor killing" in Iraq where a woman has been brutally beaten to death for betraying her husband. The film then follows a group that tries to protect women from these killings. We also meet a victim of an attempted murder, a journalist who writes about these horrid happenings, and a policeman who is investigating one such murder. Though this is an important issue, I thought it could have been presented in a less tedious fashion.

2010 CIFF: Applause

After two days of volunteering and seeing films I took a day off and was back today for a movie before and after my shift. I started the afternoon out seeing a Danish film called Applause. This is the kind of film where the lead performance is the whole movie, and that should be no surprise since it is about an alcoholic stage actress trying to reform her life. Though her career is still strong and she is still a celebrity, Thea has lost her husband and relinquished her kids. Now she desperately wants her children back, if only she can stay off the bottle. We have seen this scenario many times before, but I think why filmmakers return to it again and again is for the performance and here Paprika Steen delivers a home run. She plays Thea as an angry woman, upset at her ex, furious with her visible aging, and ultimately furious with herself. She plays her with such ferocity, you aren't quite sure how a trip to the park with her children will turn out. Though we have seen this type of film before, Steen's performance is one to behold.

The Station Agent

The lawyer presiding over his best and only friend's will tells the dwarf about the land he has just inherited: "I gotta be honest with you. It's a beautiful piece of land, but there's nothin' there." But this suits the sad little man just fine and he goes to his newly inherited train station house in the middle of rural New Jersey to live in solitude. This is not to be however as the friendly and talkative Joe has a coffee truck stationed outside his new property (it is unclear why he has a stand in the middle of nowhere). Joe is the kind of Brooklynite who wears cutoff shirts and ends every sentence with the word bro. But he is kind and genuine enough, and along with a troubled older woman wants to help the new tenant come out of his shell. The Station Agent is a wonderful and observant film beautifully shot and on par with his subsequent release The Visitor. Like Richard Jenkin's beautifully nuanced performance, Peter Dinklage turns in an equally poignant one here. It must be hard for someone of his stature to choose roles, and I have always admired his choices. Equally fine are Bobby Cannavale bringing humor and warmth to his role, and Patricia Clarkson as the troubled friend. This movie was a slam-dunk until the near end when I feel it takes a few wrong turns. Still, it is fine film worth seeking out.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

From the novel by Betty Smith, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is seen through the eyes of a young girl who is part of the Nolan family living in the NYC burrough. Beset by the hardships of poverty, the family is kept together by their genteel yet protective mother. Along the way the family deals with the troubles of their father, the many trysts of their aunt, and the day-to-day travails associated with poverty. Throughout all of this, young Francie dreams of a better tomorrow which she hopes to achieve by way of her education. Peggy Ann Garner shines as the young girl in what could have been a disastrous role. Dorothy McGuire and Joan Blondell are solid as the protective mother and her floozy sister whose multiple marriages are neighborhood gossip. James Dunn won an Oscar for his work as the father, unemployed and alcholic, yet still beloved by his family. This was legendary and controversial director Elia Kazan's first film and his prowess was already eminent as he gracefully films this tale of one family's hardships. Though the film tends to sink into that type of melodrama that was prevalent in many of the films from this time, it is a pleasure to watch such fine acting and the work of a young director at the outset of a brilliant career.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

In The Heat Of The Night

The key moment of the film comes in the very beginning and is the same line everyone remembers. It is the moment when Virgil Tibbs asserts himself when the Sparta, Mississippi Police Chief belligerently asks what he's referred to as in his hometown of Philadelphia. Virgil replies, "THEY CALL ME MR. TIBBS!" and the audience cheers while some think, this movie was made in 1967-sentiments they will ask again during the infamous slap scene. Indeed, In The Heat Of The Night challenged racial stereotypes and caused a stir when it was released, but at its heart it is an old fashioned murder mystery/detective story (at a time when these stories were still fun and not set in CSI labs). The plot revolves around the murder of a rich industrialist. A well-groomed black man is arrested for the crime, shown to be innocent, and then heads the case as he is a top homicide detective from up north. He is given aid from the reluctant new Chief of Police Gillespie, and of course the two men form a bond as the movie progresses. The movie oozes southern atmosphere, though I learn it was filmed in Illinois. Though Sidney Poitier turns in a wonderful performance, the movie is stolen by Rod Steiger in his academy award winning role as the beer-bellied, gum chewing, southern speaking police chief. I would have liked a neater wrap-up to the film's mystery, but this is a wonderful film on so many different levels, and one that inspired a revolution.

The Graduate

The Graduate represents a triumph of film directing, a generation defining revolutionary film, and what many won't recognize as a misinformed or convoluted story. We all laugh as the naive recent college grad Benjamin Braddock fumbles his way through an affair with the manipulative, controlling, and sexy Mrs. Robinson, and then cheer for him as he tries to woo her daughter Elaine. Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft are superb in their roles throughout and Mike Nichols commands his camera like no other person ever has (I'm serious, this is one of the most sure-handedly directed films ever). The dialogue is spot on and the comedy still works, not too mention the great Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. It's just a matter of story when it comes to Katharine Ross's Elaine. What does Benjamin see in her? Is it the fact that Mrs. Robinson forbids them seeing each other? Well it can't just be just that thrill that gets him entirely out of his aimless funk. I mean, they go on one date, she doesn't say a word and begins to cry because he acted like a jerk. Then she runs away, and he follows her in what can only be described in today's terms as stalking. Then you know the rest, but by the end this is a couple who don't know each other from anything and may or may not be right for each other. Look at the picture above and wonder if they aren't thinking the same thing. Or maybe that's the point.

2010 CIFF: Retrospective Screenings

Since festival films are usually hit-or-miss, I thought why not taken in a couple of proven films that are shown as part of a retrospective series, and since this year's films were 1967's The Graduate and In The Heat Of The Night, where could I go wrong? The actual name that is given to the retrospective screenings is called From The Page To The Projector and is actually an award given to those who have made contributions to literature and film. This year they decided to award Mark Harris, whose book PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION details the five Oscar nominated Best Picture nominees from 1967 (the other three are Guess Whose Coming To Dinner, Bonnie and Clyde, and Doctor Dolittle[he explained this nomination]) and how they changed Hollywood and America. He spoke before both screenings, after the second screening, and in between when he received his award. He seemed very genial and well versed in film. Before reviewing these two classics, I just wanted to state how great it was to witness them on the big screen and to see how they helped to usher in the revolution.

2010 CIFF: Van Diemen's Land

So the Cleveland International Film Festival has kicked off again and for the first time I have decided to volunteer, rather than just patronizing a few of the films. After 6 hours of collecting ballots, tallying patrons, and ushering I was ready to enjoy a film. And although it was a stinker, I really enjoyed the film festival atmosphere (as I sensed the many who came out for it today did) and I would encourage you to come out and support it. Here is my review of the midnight movie I just got out of called Van Diemen's Land, which contains minor spoilers:
     As the film begins, it offers us the prisoner's two choices: enslavement with brutal work and cruel punishment or escape through the harsh and unforgiving wilderness. The men choose the latter and are off on a grueling battle with Mother Nature, but of course they will find that the real enemy is themselves (it doesn't help that the seven men are from opposing British and Irish backgrounds). This film had potential, but soon it becomes a nasty, nihilistic, and gruesome tale that plays out like an And Then There Were None version of Saw. There is no point to all the mayhem and carnage accept for the fact that it was supposedly based on a true story of an 1822 escape by prisoners on the penal colony of Van Diemen's Land in Tasmania. What makes everything worse is the extreme self-seriousness of the story, especially in the narration. A good survival in the wilderness story can be the most fun of films, but not the way this one was handled. It does score points for its wilderness shots, but even the cuts are sloppy and the film shows the sign of its low budget.

Friday, March 19, 2010


It opens with two sight gags so obvious that it may have come from a Three Stooges short. It ends with the story's hero Hank Chanaski getting fired. Then, as the opening credits begin to run the films title is shown with a definition that states that factotum means a man who goes from job to job. That is exactly the trajectory the film takes as we watch Chanaski go from job to job, as well as bar to bar and woman to woman all the time whilst he pursues his real profession which is writing. The film is based on the novel by the late Charles Bukowski, who was supposed to be a mirror of Chanaski, and by the way he is played here by Matt Dillon he must of been a gruff son-of-a-bitch. Though Chanaski is an utterly unlikable individual, there are certain aspects of him that are completely identifiable. I liked the way this film played out during stretches of it, where it plays like a quiet, well-observed indie. Yet, there are other sections that just don't work or seem strange. There is also another film based on a Bukowski novel, this time starring Mickey Rourke as Chanaski called Barfly, and I'd be interested how that film handles the character. Here Dillon does his best playing a difficult role, but I'd say the results are mixed.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Ladykillers

A proper British professor approaches an old lady's front door and rings the doorbell so insidiously that the pet cockatoo inside begins to shudder. The professor is inquiring for a room to rent for his friends to practice their classical music, but it turns out that the professor and his boys are up to a far more devious plan. Classic black comedy from 1955 is filmed with such grace and precision in a manner that is seldom seen today in comedies. It was filmed by Alexander Mackendrick who was known for British comedies, but would go on to direct the classic and searing American film noir "The Sweet Smell of Success". This film is also populated with great character actors including Herbert Lom and a young Peter Sellers as members of the gang, and leading the group as the professor is the wonderful Sir Alec Guinness. With his goofy overbite, Guinness gets every mannerism right of the slimy, devious, yet prim and proper English gentlemen. This was remade by the Coen brothers in 2004 with Tom Hanks in the lead in what many consider to be a flop and the Coen's worst outing, but I found it to be entertaining though still flawed. And, after watching this, I did notice the touch that this original has that the remake was missing. This is an example of comedy done right, a lesson many modern comedic filmmakers could learn from.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Everybody's Fine

A recently widowed and retired man decides to travel around the country visiting his four children who stood him up for a recently planned reunion. This is the kind of of so sappy and manipulative that even the background music makes you want to gag. The screenplay is sloppy, obvious, and predictable. Yet there is still something worthwhile and entertaining about this film. It doesn't meet the high standards set for films but can still be enjoyed on a basic level. There is nice supporting work from Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, and the usually horrendous Drew Barrymore. Standing above everyone else is Robert DeNiro at the center in a very fine performance; better than most of his recent work yet not reaching the level he set for himself in the first half of his career. Still, here he is a natural playing a man entering the golden years of his life with regrets. Throughout the movie and especially the end, there are some nice offbeat moments that may qualify for sappy but worked for me. Though this movie is far from perfect, at least there is still the performances left to admire.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Bright Star

In early 19th century England, a young woman is at a social gathering and chances to meet a indebted and struggling young poet by the name of John Keats. Together they form a relationship in which she becomes his muse, and he becomes one of the last great romantic poets before his untimely death at the age of 25. But their romance is not one entirely of wine and roses, and is often marked by argument and time apart. Still it proved to be one of the great love stories of its time as some of Keats' greatest work was reflected in his poetry during the time of their courtship and in the letters he sent his dear Fanny Brawne in the time they were apart . Young actors Ben Whishaw and especially Abbie Cornish shine in the leads and the film is wonderfully drawn together by director Jane Campion who uses color and camera technique to make a beautiful film out of what could have been (and for a short while in the beginning seems like its going to be) a bland period piece.

The Minus Man

The Minus Man is a serial killer movie that does an interesting thing by making the killer a likable guy who moves into a quiet town out west, choses his victims at random, and uses nonviolent methods to kill them. And who better to cast in the lead than the baby faced, likable Owen Wilson, who does a very fine job in the lead. For awhile I thought this film would work. For about 2/3rds of its running length, it was the type of film I like to see: under the radar, leisurely paced, and nicely acted. But it decides to divert off this path and make statements about violence in America, which just doesn't work the way the story is told. There are also annoying scenarios that develop as well as the unnecessary introduction of two "ghost cops" who act as Wilson's conscience, though I'm not quite sure. I couldn't really figure out their point, as was the case with the entire film. Despite some nice performances from Owen Wilson and Brian Cox as the unhappily married man who rents a room to Wilson, this is a film that had potential but gets steered in the wrong direction.
**1/2 stars

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Ali: Fear Eats The Soul

An elderly woman walks into a bar to escape the raging storm outside. While she sits at a table, people at the bar dare an Arab man to dance with her. To their surprise, a relationship develops and the two marry, despite their age difference. From the moment the two are seen together, they must endure the racism that is so ever present, still in 1974 Germany. The film then charts how they both are affected by these racist sentiments. This filmed was directed by the controversial and central figure of the German New Wave movement Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He based his story on his idol Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (which was subsequently remade in 2002 by Todd Haynes as Far From Heaven) and all these films act as indictments of their societies through their response to a May-December romance (interracial romances in two of the films). This is the first Fassbinder film I've watched and like the only Sirk film I've viewed (Written On The Wind), there is a stark use of color used for certain emphases. This film must have been bold for its time, and I look forward to viewing Fassbinder's other assuredly controversial work.

Friday, March 12, 2010

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

 Werner Herzog has always loved peculiar images in his movies, and considering the images in his latest film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done that sentiment hasn't changed. It opens with an upshot of a train in motion with Spanish music playing in the background, and then cuts to two San Diego detectives, a verteran (William Dafoe) and a rookie (Michael Pena) being called to a homicide. There they find a woman who has been brutally slain with a sword, and her son (Michael Shannon), the suspect, has taken hostages in his house across the street. While the detectives try to talk him out of the house, they interview friends, witnesses, and his fiancee (Chloe Sevigny) and we begin to get a picture of this mentally deranged man. Michael Shannon has that look and that natural ability to play loonies and here is no exception as he delivers a hilarious and disturbing performance. Back to the imagery Herzog so cherishes. Here he shows us a man hand feeding two flamingos outside a pink house with palm trees in front, as well as a man in a hotel lowering a light bulb into a circle of prescription glasses. Granted Herzog's films are not for everyone, those looking for something different at the cinema will admire this as well as some of Werner's other works.

Green Zone

 The Iraq Wars have not been a popular topic for movie goers, and films with this as their subject have typically failed, but I think I have figured out what it takes to make a good film about these conflicts: the stronger and more obvious the message, the worst it will do. The more obscure or messageless the movie is, the more succesful it will be. Note how obvious message movies failed such as Stop-Loss and In The Valley Of Elah did poorly and how movies like The Hurt Locker, Three Kings, and Jar Head did better. The new Iraq film falls along the the lines of the former. The film opens up in March 2003 on the first night of the Iraq war with Iraqis trying to flee their Baghdad houses amidst the bombings. We jump forward to three weeks later where we begin to follow a warrant officer (Matt Damon, turning up the intensity) who begins to search for WMDs, follow leads from an Iraqi citizen, and pursue a top military target. Along the way he deals with a sketchy Washington pentagon official(Greg Kinnear) and a journalist (Amy Ryan). The film deals with subjects that couldn't be more obvious and plays like they are the film's central conceit: Our government lied to us, leaked faulty information, and there were no WMDs in Iraq! Also the film is helmed by frequent Damon collaborator Paul Greengrass and although his United 93 is a masterpiece and extremely jarring motion picture, I have often been critical of his use of queasy-cam in the last two Bourne movies, and he employs it again here to the same effect. The film is hard to watch and the action is indecipherable. I feel there is a good film in here, but not the way they chose to film or tell it.
**1/2 stars

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Big Fan

George Carlin had a bit that said something about sports fans being the lowest of the low, and in Robert Siegel's (writer of The Wrestler) Big Fan we get a picture of a fan so dedicated to the New York Giants we sometimes forget that he isn't a twelve year old. Paul, nicely played by the unexpected Patton Oswalt, is the 30-something super-fan who lives at home, works in a tollbooth, and spends his remaining time calling New York local sports talk shows and rooting for the Giants. The rest of his family is successful. His sister is happily married and his brother is a hotshot personal injury attorney with a Jersey Queen, double D wife (I like how Siegel gets the Jersey details right again-notice the 50 Cent icing on the birthday cake). Still, Paul is comfortable with a lifestyle. That is until he chances to meet his favorite player, and unexpected consequences pursue. This is a nice little Indie movie, released direct to On Demand I believe, and never seeing the light of day in a theatrical release (at least in Cleveland). The film never really reaches for greatness, but it is nice for what it is: a character study of a man who may resemble more men they would care to admit.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Serious Man

Before the actual film starts, we are shown a short story that takes place back to the old country as an old Jew walks home with his horse. He informs his wife that he has been helped alongside the road by one of the neighbors and she in turn informs him that the neighbor is a dybbuk, a ghost of sorts having recently died. The dybbuk shows up at the house and when it leaves they are afraid that it has cursed them forever. As Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" plays during the opening credits and we are then taken to the main story set in 1967, we begin to wonder what the prologue has to with the film and most would assume nothing. But as the story of Larry Gopnik, a Minnesota college professor whose life begins to unravel in a fashion similar to Job, maybe the opening short is a key to understanding the film. Gopnik is the kind of man who wants to live a serious life, the kind of man who solves never ending physics' problems on a chalk board, but has no answers when everything in his life goes wrong. He is played to a point by newcomer to film Michael Stuhlbarg. Though their imprint is definitely on this film and that it is said to be their most personal film to date, this is not the Coen brothers' greatest work. It is a challenging, intellectual and artful film, nominated for Best Picture this year in an expanded category. With their ending, the Coens seem to be channeling the ending of their No Country For Old Men, but I'm not sure it works as well as it did in this one. Though some elements are off and that certain demographics may enjoy this film more than others, this is a film to seek out, especially if you like to think and not to be spoon-fed at the movies.

New York, I Love You

OK so maybe I got carried away in my last blog when I professed my love for NYC based movies. I rented New York, I Love You mainly because I found its predecessor so charming, that being Paris je t'aime. That film collected well known actors and filmmakers from around the world and made 10 short films about romance in the city of lights. That film was charming, simple, and contained the work of stellar directors such as Alexander Payne and the Coens. This time around the setting is the city that never sleeps and we get 12 shorts with even more famous actors but less-than-stellar directors. Also, unlike the first film, characters appear in other sketches outside of their own shorts. The results are not charming, and are often pretentious and off-putting. Following is a brief description and rating of each of the shorts:
  1. Directed by Jiang Wen and starring Hayden Christensen, Rachel Bilson, and Andy Garcia. The opening short follows a pickpocket attempting to woo a girl only to be outsmarted by an older con-man. Uninspired and Christensen is the worst. ** stars
  2. Directed by Mira Nair and starring Natalie Portman. A Jewish diamond saleswoman and an Indian haggle over the price of a piece of jewelry as the Indian begins to fantasize about the soon to be wed woman. Nice little short is the kind of work that is missing overall in this film. *** stars
  3. Directed by Shunji Iwai and starring Orlando Bloom and Christina Ricci. A musician expresses his discontent about a record producer on the phone to a woman he's never seen. This was one of the few I liked as well. *** stars
  4. Directed by Yvan Attal and starring Ethan Hawke and Maggie O. A brazen writer tries to pick up an attractive woman on the streets. This one was pretty pretentious. **1/2 stars
  5. Directed by Brett Ratner and starring Anton Yelchin, James Caan, Olivia Thirlby, and Blake Lively. A pharmacist asks a recently dumped young man to take his attractive daughter to prom, with more than just a few surprises in store. This was probably my favorite short though it was kind of disturbing at one point. ***1/2 stars
  6. Directed by Allen Hughes and starring Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo. Two people contemplate their first encounter on the way to their second date. This is probably the most stylishly filmed of the shorts, but pretty empty other than that. Ethan Hawke reappears at the end during a nice bit. **1/2 stars
  7. Directed by Shekhar Kapur and starring Julie Christie, John Hurt, and Shia LaBeouf. A singer visits her favorite hotel and is waited on by 2 kindly butlers. Ludicrous short makes no sense and is laughable as LaBeouf sports an accent and a hunchback while playing one of the butlers. ** stars
  8. Directed by Natalie Portman. A man and his daughter take a walk in Central Park. That's about it. I don't even think this one had a script. *1/2 stars
  9. Directed by Faith Akin. A Chinese woman considers an artist's offer to paint her. Nice little short hits the mark. *** stars
  10. Directed by Yvan Attal and starring Chris Cooper and Robin Wright Penn. While enjoying a cigarette outside a restaurant, a woman teases a man while her husband waits inside. Irritating and more pretentious dialogue though Cooper does his best with it. ** stars
  11. Directed by Joshua Marston and starring Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman. A Jewish couple bicker as they take a walk in Coney Island on their 63rd wedding anniversary. Somewhat heartfelt but pointless. ** stars
  12. Directed by Randy Balsmeyer. Two of our stars meet up, form a bond, and a hand-held film of all our stars is shown before the credits. No dialogue and more pointlessness. *1/2 stars
The average of these twelve shorts comes out to 2.375 and I am definitely rounding down. This was a major disappointment

Brooklyn's Finest

Before we get down to it, let me say I love New York movies. Whether its Scorsese, Lumet, Woody Allen, or Spike Lee I love the movies that capture the essence of the city. And that is what Antoine Fuqua does with Brooklyn's Finest is captures the essence of the city. Through slow tracking thoughts and ominous music, Fuqua takes us on an operatic, tragic, and overly melodramatic look at three New York City cops from the same department. The fact that they are walking cliches is beside the point. The point is that we care about the characters and for the most part we do. Richard Gere plays a burnt out veteran with a less than stellar record with a week left until retirement when he draws a new assignment to train rookie cops. Gere plays him as almost a despicable coward, not willing to risk his neck or do what seems to be his job so he can make his pension. There is a telling scene seemingly inspired by the HBO series Deadwood in which Gere explains his motives during an intimate moment with a hooker (with a heart of gold, which just adds to the cliches this movies awash in). Ethan Hawke, who was so good as the naive cop in Fuqua's Training Day, steps into the Denzel role here as a cop who can rationalize his way out of any crime, as long as it benefits his family. Don Cheadle plays the undercover cop, so deep undercover that he doesn't know whether he should stay loyal to his department, or the drug dealer who saved his life (Wesley Snipes in a surprisingly effective performance). The fact that the movie opens with a shot of a cemetery doesn't bode well for our boys in blue and all leads to a violent ending in another one of those contrived coincidental endings that only happen in the movies. Yet, despite the cliches, everything leading up to this works and holds your attention.
**1/2 stars

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Wallace & Gromit In The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit

I first saw Wallace and Gromit a few weeks ago during a screening of their Oscar nominated short A Matter of Loaf and Death and I now realized what most of American animation needed. It is not just enough to be superbly animated, but these films must also contain plot, wit, humor, and drama, elements of which are far too often lacking in this genre. Wallace and Gromit represent animation at its best. In this installment, the first feature film, the British chap and his loyal dog are running a humane anti-pest business to keep the local neighborhood gardens safe from rabbits. Along the way they encounter a lovely dame intending to put on a vegetable fair on her estate (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) and her devious suitor, a cruel dolt who holds contempt for rabbits (Ralph Fiennes). At the same time an experiment involving Gromit and a rabbit goes awry and a mysterious were-rabbit begins to terrorize the community. All of this is meshed together and wonderfully handled through slapstick and animation that defys explanation. My only quandry was that this did work better as a short rather than a full-length feature, but I still contend that Wallace and Gromit represent if not the best, then the most overlooked entry in the animation genre.
***1/2 stars 

Monday, March 8, 2010

2010 Oscar Results, Afterthoughts, and Contest Results

So by the end of the night, there were no major surprise, David had slew Goliath, and history was made as a woman finally (and deservedly) walked off with a Best Director trophy. It was a great night for the Hurt Locker, walking away with 6 Oscars including Picture, Director, and Screenplay. It also became the lowest grossing movie of all time to win the Award (or even be nominated) as it knocked off Avatar, the highest grossing movie ever made. It was definitely the moment of the evening when Kathryn Bigelow bested her ex-husband James Cameron to claim her Best Director award. Ben Stiller was a close second for moment of the night when he appeared to present dressed as an Avatar and briefly speaking the Na'vi language. Overall, I thought it was a great show. Here are some random thoughts I had during the show:
  • Why open the show with all 10 lead acting nominees on stage. Thought that was unnecessary.
  • I hate Neil Patrick Harris and his stupid song-and-dance introduction
  • Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin were hit-and-miss during their opening monologue. I was cracking up at the "Jew Hunter" joke though.
  • Christoph Waltz gave a good speech and I really liked listening to the way he talks as I did watching him in Inglourious Basterds. Performance of the year, glad he won and kept the villains in the supporting actor category streak going.
  • I liked the characters from the animated films bit before the best animated film was announced. It was a good year for that category. I had mixed feelings about nominating Up in that category and in Best Picture though.
  • I liked limiting the nominated songs to a brief clip instead of 5 full performances. Those songs usually make the show drag. Nice to see the expected Crazy Heart song win.
  • The John Hughes tribute was lame and even lamer were the has-been stars from his movies paying tribute to him. Why should he be the only person who died last year to get their own personal tribute.
  • The Hurt Locker was not the best original screenplay, but it won anyway
  • I liked how they made the shorts awards interesting by showing past winners and what wins did for their careers. I saw some of the shorts and thought the wrong ones won though, esp. Logorama
  • Ben Stiller was hilarious as usual, one of the highlights of the night
  • The Governor's Ball clip should not replace the Lifetime Acheivement Award
  • Precious was not the best original screenplay (This should have been Up in the Air's category) but the winner, Geoffrey Fletcher seemed utterly surprised and it was a nice moment when he went blank during the thank-yous
  • Why did Robin Williams present the Supporting Actress Award. I thought someone connected to Heath Ledger would present as he would have presented the award.
  • I was pleased with Mo'Nique's tasteful acceptance speech and her thanking Hattie McDaniel, the first black person to win an Oscar. I'm not sure I agree with her that her win was "based on the performance, not politics" though.
  • I liked the presentations of clips from the 10 Best Picture nominees throughout the show.
  • Baldwin and Martin's Paranormal Activity spoof skit was hilarious
  • I couldn't figure out why they had the horror tribute, but I liked it anyway
  • I liked Morgan Freeman explaining the sound effects and mixing. I really thought they did the lesser categories justice this year.
  • Loved seeing James Taylor play The Beatles "In My Life" during the In Memory segment
  • They brought back the street dancers to do their silly interpretive dancing to the Original Score nominees. It was nice hearing what the scores sound like. During this segment, I thought, man the Ennio Morricone score from Inglourious Basterds wasn't even nominated and was way better than the 5 nominated.
  • Why is there always a surprise in the Foreign Language category. For example, in the past The Lives of Others beat Pan's Labyrinth and last year Departures beat the class and this year El Secreto de Sus Ojos beat the favored The White Ribbon. Maybe this is one of the few categories based on merit and not buzz or politics.
  • I liked the clips for Best Actor/Actress followed by the nominees introduction by past collaborators.
  • Loved seeing Jeff Bridges win, man, and give that totally great speech, dude, paying tribute to his mom and dad and stuff, man. Great moment and speech.
  • Sandra shouldn't have won, but did and gave a very nice speech. I think I like her as a person, but not an actress. 
  • Barbara Streisand, WTF. In addition to not being able to stand her, it took away all the suspense from Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first woman to win the Best Director. Still, after the award was handed over, and Streisand went out of view, Bigelow had the night's best moment as she graciously accepted and gave a humble speech.
  • Tom Hanks awarded the Hurt Locker, which was nice to see the little film that could win, even though it probably didn't deserve it.
  • Final thoughts: The Hurt Locker triumphed, while Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, and especially Up in the Air really got the shaft. No major surprises. The front runners all won in the major categories. I liked the hosts. I would have liked to do better in my polls as I don't think I won any of the contests I entered, but I still thought the Academy put on a great show this year.
Here is a complete list of nominees with the winners highlighted: 
Picture: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air
Director: James Cameron, Avatar; Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker; Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds; Lee Daniels, Precious; Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Lead Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart; George Clooney, "Up in the Air"; Colin Firth, "A Single Man"; Morgan Freeman, Invictus; Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
Lead Actress: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side; Helen Mirren, The Last Station; Carey Mulligan, An Education; Gabourey Sidibe, Precious; Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Supporting Actor: Matt Damon, Invictus; Woody Harrelson, The Messenger; Christopher Plummer, The Last Station; Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones; Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Nine; Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air; Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart; Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air; Mo'Nique, Precious
Animated Feature: Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, The Secret of Kells, Up
Art Direction: Avatar, The Imaginarius of Dr. Parnassus, Nine, Sherlock Holmes, The Young Victoria
Cinematography: Avatar, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, The White Ribbon 
Costume Design: Bright Star, Coco Before Chanel, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Nine, The Young Victoria
Documentary: Burma VJ, The Cove, Food Inc., The Most Dangerous Man in America, Which Way Home
Documentary Short: China's Unnatural Disaster, The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner, The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, Music by Prudence, Rabbit a la Berlin
Editing: Avatar, District 9, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious
Foreign Language Film: Ajami, The Milk of Sorrow, A Prophet, A Secret in their Eyes, The White Ribbon
Makeup: Il Divo, Star Trek, The Young Victoria
Musical Score: Avatar, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Hurt Locker, Sherlock Holmes, Up
Music (Song)
: "Almost There," The Princess and the Frog; "Down in New Orleans," The Princess and the Frog; "Loin de Paname," Paris 36,; "Take it All," Nine; "The Weary Kind," Crazy Heart
Short (Animated): French Roast, Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty. The Lady and The Reaper, Logorama, A Matter of Loaf and Death
Short (Live Action): The Door, Instead of Abracadabra, Kavi, Miracle Fish, The New Tenants
Sound Editing: Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Star Trek, Up
Sound Mixing: Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Star Trek, Transformers 2
Visual Effects: Avatar, District 9, Star Trek
Writing (Adapted): District 9, An Education, In the Loop, Precious, Up in the Air
Writing (Original): The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Up
Oscar Tally: The Hurt Locker-6, Avatar-3, Crazy Heart-2, Precious-2, Up-2

Thanks to all who entered my poll for being good sports. No one beat me, two tied. I had 14/24 (58%) correct. Here are the poll results:
1. Tommy Sakenes 14/24 (58%) (won tie breaker)
2. Billy Kaiser 14/24 (58%)
3. Mo Kaiser 12/24 (50%) (won tie breaker)
4. Tommy Kaiser 12/24 (50%)
5. Chris Kaiser 10/24 (42%)
6. Andrea Altman 9/24 (38%) (same tie breaker)
6. Robin Altman 9/24 (38%) (same tie breaker)
8. Fe MacKinnon 8/24 (33%)
9. Brian Mahoney 7/24 (29%)
10. Jon Altman 6/24 (25%)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Cove

 The title refers to a hidden area in a small Japanese town where the dolphins who are unable to be sold are led to be slaughtered for their meat. This Oscar nominated documentary focuses on this town's cruel practices, but introduces to other ways in which dolphins are mistreated around the globe. We learn about how dolphins suffer in captivity and how the largest whale protecting group in the world does not include porpoises or dolphins due to Japanese interests in their hunting and killing. We are also given beautiful footage of dolphins in the wild as well as in captivity. One of the people who guides us through this well-made doc is Ric O'Barry, a former dolphin trainer who helped train Flipper for the popular TV series.After realizing the dangers of captivity, he has spent the last thirty years fighting back against an industry he worked for. You can actually sense the remorse and see the sadness in his eyes as he reflects on his days as a trainer. Yes, there are also interviews of eco-nuts who think dolphins are smarter and more important than humans, but overall this is a harrowing film, especially in the last ten minutes when the filmmakers find their way to the deadly cove and expose the world to the blood red waters where dolphins are being slayed.
***1/2 stars

Alice in Wonderland

Oh and he gets everything so right in the beginning. Young Alice is grown up yet still a dreamer, engaged to be married to a boring stiff and hoping to escape her stultifying Victorian upbringing. The English countryside and houses are wonderfully filmed and you wonder if Tim Burton will not let his weird sensibilities take over this reimagining of the Lewis Carroll classic. Yet, the rabbitt appears, Alice gives pursuit and falls into the hole and is swept away to Wonderland again or rather to a set out of Burton's imagination that we've seen in plenty of his movies. There are scenes of beauty, but most of its uninspired. We meet the same characters as before, some I wasn't familiar with. Johnny Depp appears as the Mad Hatter in a fleshed out role, where he gives another off-the-wall performance which seems similar to his other "unique, off-the-wall" performances. The 3D is unnecessary and actually becomes headache inducing after a certain point. Helena Bonham Carter aka Mrs. Burton  is atrocious as always as the red queen. The real talent comes in the form of the voicework of the animated characters such as Alan Rickman as the caterpillar and Michael Sheen as the rabbit. Actually, newcomer Mia Wasikowska makes a very suitable Alice. This may sound like an incendiary review, but I must admit I did enjoy this movie for most of the film until at some point towards the end, it turns into some kind of a Lord of the Rings mashup with with the good side of hodge podge characters engaged in battle against the evil clones, with a dragon and 4 false endings thrown in for good measure. This material is out there enough as it is that letting it be helmed by an terminally strange director will not do it justice.
**1/2 stars

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

When I heard that Tim Burton's version of Alice and Wonderland would be a rethinking of the classic tale with Alice revisiting Wonderland as a young woman, I decided to check out the Disney version of the story which I had not seen since I was a child. This was not one of the Disney films I remember fondly from my youth and after watching it again I can see why. Disney's animated film of the Lewis Carroll classic (which I have not read) is a trippy and psychedelic film. It begins with the young Alice daydreaming during an outdoors tutoring session and following a white rabbit into a tree and down a ditch into a world of imagination where things aren't as they are supposed to be. While in Wonderland, she meets a series of nasty characters and these meetings play out as a series of vignette. It is also a letdown that the music is forgettable. What does stand out about this picture is the animation, which must have been cutting edge in 1951. It also seemed that it stayed true to the story (from what I could tell) and I liked how the characters were British to a T. Although it is not an entirely  pleasant trip, Disney's Alice in Wonderland is a journey worth taking.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer represents the second early year release from a legendary director that again exemplifies why he has achieved this status. With this film, Roman Polanski has made a thriller comparable to his own classics. The Ghost Writer more than succeeds in the genre of political thriller, a tough genre to master. It tells the story of a man hired to replace a Prime Minister's deceased ghost writer. Ewan McGregor aptly plays the unnamed writer as a man who seems to be on top of his game while never really seeming to know what is going on around him. Pierce Brosnan fits the mold as the slimy politician.  Polanski keeps tension built with music, eerie landscapes, and ominous weather as McGregor begins to uncover both twists and political misdeeds. The pace can be slow at points, but the patient viewer is always rewarded with questions being answered as the story progresses. Yet in the end, we are not quite sure of everything, and the questions continue after the credits have rolled. Again, it is nice to see a great filmmaker on the top of his game.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I went into this film knowing a little about Hunter S. Thompson, not liking what I did know, and not wanting to know much more after the film has ended. This is Terry Gilliam directing his most drugged out and nastiest film on record, a film that I could only see as enjoyable by junkies. The plot (if you can call it that) consists of journalist Raoul Duke (played by Johnny Depp, Duke being a pseudonym for Thompson) covering a drag race in Nevada with his "lawyer" Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) and then going on a three day bender in Vegas, emphasis on bender. This is clearly a Gilliam film from the first frame, but it is also extremely unpleasant from the same starting point. Also, the film is meandering and incomprehensible and in the end this is one bad trip I wish I wouldn't have taken.