Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

Tonight I saw Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.

Guy Ritchie's dumbed-down version of Holmes is not without appeal, it's just not what I've pictured of the character all my life.

The dapper Sherlock (Downey Jr.) is in between cases after solving a big one and has turned into somewhat of a hermit. His faithful Watson (Law) encourages him to get back to work, and additional motivation is found by Irene (Rachel McAdams). I don't think I'd be out of line here mentioning that the chemistry between Downey Jr. and Law is far more electric than that of Downey Jr. and McAdams.

Anyway, soon the three are on the chase with Holmes predictably outwitting everyone in his path (and stopping to explain himself after each feat). The fight scenes are predictably exciting (since that's Ritchie's "thing"), but at times it's almost expected that a "BOOM" or "POW" will emerge from a puffy cloud above their heads. It's that comic book-ish.

Nevertheless, I'd say the greatest elements of the film are the cinematography and the art direction. London looks so gray and spooky, I remembered how I felt years ago when visiting the city, I took a Jack the Ripper murder mystery tour that led me well into the night. It creeped me out; not only because the stories I was hearing were true, but because the mood was "just right."

And while I don't believe the character portrayals (though undeniably entertaining) are faithful enough to their literary counterparts, I do appreciate how cool it all was to watch.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Single Man

This afternoon I saw A Single Man, starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore.

George (Firth) is a British gay English professor teaching at California's Stanford University. It's the early 60s and he's arrived at a time in his life where he no longer finds it worth living. For eight years he's mourned the loss of his lover Jim (Matthew Goode) whom we meet in flashbacks.

It seems the only people who care for George are his friend Charley (Moore), who has spent their friendship wishing he was straight; and Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), a nosy student who seems genuinely concerned about him. And attracted to him.

We follow George through memories of happier times and through the rituals that one endures when they're preparing to end their life: getting the affairs in order, writing goodbye letters, saying nice things to those around them perhaps to show the compassion they felt they were never given.

He spends one last night with Charley, and then sparked by a warm memory, decides to have a drink at the local bar where he met Jim. Following close behind him is Kenny, who he decides to spend the evening with.

Before I go any further, I have to state that all of these scenes play out in quiet, muted tones until something in the character ignites and the color on the screen pops to illustrate it. This could be annoying if not done well, but Director Tom Ford, fashion phenom, happens to know color. It's a technique that not all could use, but he uses it well.

Also to note is the absolute perfect casting Ford found in Colin Firth. Just as convincingly as he usually plays a handsome heterosexual suitor, here he is most certainly a gay college professor with an appetite for only men. It may just be the role of his career.

Not to be understated is the pitch-perfect performance by Julianne Moore and the mature turn of roles for About a Boy's Nicholas Hoult. He's still a fantastic actor, but now instead of being awkward and pudgy, he's handsome, chiseled and...nude. After getting past the same mannerisms he had as a child, it's not hard to see him as a completely grown-up (hot) young man.

This field trip of pain isn't exactly the most pleasant thing to watch, but it's also not as dark as it could have been. Sometimes it's a comfort to see a film where humans just simply act human.

Friday, December 25, 2009


Today I saw Nine, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and a slew of women.

Director Guido Contini (Day-Lewis) has the weight of the world on his shoulders. He believes this is because he is about to make another film, but really it's because he can't successfully manage his addiction to women.

We meet each of the ladies in his life through a series of musical numbers and brief encounters with him. His mistress (Penelope Cruz) gets the most screen time.

Really, there's not much of a story here and therein lies the problem. A famous, handsome director is approaching a state of nervous breakdown because he has it all and "all" turns out to be too much.

His wife Louisa (Marion Cotillard), aside from being beautiful, does nothing to convince us that he wouldn't get bored being married to her. She's alternately obedient and disobedient, then finally unwilling to look the other way at her husband's transgressions. He probably truly loves her, but then again, he probably truly loves all of them.

A consistent ear for him comes in the form of Lilli (Dame Judi Dench), a wise costume designer that sees not only his aesthetic vision, but also his wandering eye. She provides a motherly like counsel for him while his real mother (Sophia Loren) appears to be paraded out into numbers just so we can marvel at how beautiful she still is.

In the not-sure-why-they're-even-there department we find a Vogue writer named Stephanie (Kate Hudson) who offers possibly the best dance sequence, though shows no evidence beyond physical attraction that she has a connection with Guido. There's also a very random number with the voluptuous Saraghina (Fergie), an apparent beach recluse who enabled the younger Guido to learn about women. She's easily the best singer of the bunch (no surprise there), but her performance feels underutilized because she barely moves from her dancing chair.

Also on screen is the director's muse, Claudia (Nicole Kidman) who serves as nothing more than a reminder that Guido likes beautiful women. Hey, guess what? We already knew that.

His most believable and developed relationship is with his mistress Carla, who truly loves him despite her own marriage. He treats her as men typically treat their mistresses: hiding her away and orchestrating her every move, then forgetting about her once he's had his fill of the sex and adoration only a good mistress can provide. And yes, there are always consequences for all involved.

The shame about this movie is the amount of Oscar® caliber talent that shares the screen, but with the exception of Day-Lewis, doesn't get to prove it. He is amazing in whatever he does and this role is no different—in fact, the most delightful thing about Nine is finally seeing him act as a somewhat traditional leading man. He's sexy, he's well-dressed, he hasn't killed anyone (that we know of) and good God, he even sings!

But it's not enough to make up for this pieced-together series of vignettes that are too weak to amount to a quality musical.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Princess and the Frog

Tonight I saw The Princess and the Frog, featuring the voices of Anika Noni Rose and Bruno Campos.

Tiana (Rose) is a working girl. She was raised by a seamstress and a military man, and has grown into a popular New Orleans waitress who is saving up to open her own restaurant. One night when she's working at a party hosted by her friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), she stumbles upon a frog who promises her the money to open her restaurant if she grants him a kiss. She complies, but instead of him turning into a prince to produce the money, she turns into a frog as well. Turns out he mistook her for a princess so the kiss didn't work.

After many adventures in the bayou in an effort to return themselves to their normal state, the two fall genuinely in love and seek the help of a voodoo priestess. Before we find out if her solution will work, they make friends with creatures from the swamp—Ray, the lightning bug who is more appealing in spirit than in appearance; and Marlon, an alligator who likes to play horns. There are a several cute musical numbers (nothing makes a more adorable accordion than a caterpillar) in the classic Disney tradition, where the leads are surrounded by dancing animals. There are also scary moments where the Shadow Man (who looks like a cross between John Waters and Prince) attempts to ruin all of the good people with his evil spells.

The film is getting much attention for the detail that is most insignificant in the story: Tiana is black. Thankfully, Disney doesn't make race an "issue" here and simply tells a sweet love story.

But after that, there isn't much to it. It is a beautiful film by way of old-fashioned hand-drawings, which burst with color, and that's infinitely pleasant to watch. But the characters aren't very deeply recognized and the ending (as with most Disney flicks) is painfully easy to predict.

Monday, December 21, 2009

It's Complicated

Tonight I screened It's Complicated, starring Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin.

Divorce is never easy, especially when your husband leaves you for a woman half your age. That's what Jane (Streep) has had to deal with for the past ten years. But she's moved on gracefully, creating a beautiful home of her own and a successful business.

Jake (Baldwin), her ex, is not as happy—helping his young wife raise her 5-year-old and being pressured into producing a child with her via fertility treatments. He has "no quiet" in his life when he needs it most.

When the former mates reunite at the same hotel for their son's graduation, the wine flows and the sparks fly. They end up in bed and are so euphoric after their one night together, they decide to do it again...and again.

All of this is kept from their three grown kids, though their charming soon-to-be son-in-law Harley (John Krasinski) accidentally sees them together at a local hotel. Lucky for them, he keeps his mouth shut.

Meanwhile, Jane's architect Adam (Steve Martin), damaged by his own divorce, is falling for her and hoping that she's available.

After discussing her indiscretions with her girlfriends and her shrink, though she likes Adam, Jane decides to give the affair with Jake a shot. Of course, trouble follows.

The movie is shamefully predictable and aimed at the 50-something female demographic (though Jane's girlfriends sure do disappear early in the film). That said, I will never complain about spending two hours with these two leads. Their performances are spirited and Steve Martin is simply delicious icing on the middle-aged cake.

There is nothing new to be learned from this film. Sex with an ex can be great. People do have affairs. People do fall out of love with their spouses. People do always wonder "what if?"

At least this one lets you laugh along the way.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Up in the Air

This morning I saw Up in the Air, starring George Clooney and Vera Farmiga.

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) is slimy. Not in the way a car salesman is slimy (though he does a little motivational speaking on the side), but in a way that only those prone to habitual selfishness can be. His family barely knows him. He is wifeless. He is childless.

So, he has the perfect job. He's a professional "terminator" who flies all over the country to fire the employees of downsizing companies. He takes pride in his resolution techniques and has an obsession with accumulating frequent flier miles.

When new recruit Natalie (Anna Kendrick) comes on the scene with a technological idea that will ground Bingham and his colleagues from in-person firings, he doesn't take the news lightly and complains to the boss. As a result, he's assigned to show Natalie the ropes by taking her on a series of trips and training her how to do his in-person job.

These scenes—and the relationship that develops—could have been painfully predictable were it not for the smart writing that instead made it believable. The two don't become best friends and they're not interested in being lovers, but they do stand to learn a lot from one another.

Also on the journey is Alex (Farmiga), a spunky businesswoman who seems to be the male version of Ryan and has no reservations about starting a sexual relationship with him the first night they meet. Alex and Ryan would be vastly unappealing alone, but together seem better.

What transpires will please some and disappoint others, but few can dispute this film is engaging, smart and entertaining. Farmiga should be a bigger star by now and Kendrick is a new, nice surprise. Clooney is at his charming best when he's playing himself, and I would bargain this role comes pretty close.

If I had to find something wrong with the film it would be seeing Jason Bateman for the upteenth time as the stuffy, corporate guy who talks down to people. As the boss, he reverts back to every other asshole he's played and almost seems tired doing it. Guess what: we're tired of seeing him do it. He's a good actor—let's utilize him in some better way.

There's also a hefty amount of product placement from American Airlines and Hilton hotels, but for a film based on travel, you almost need some real names thrown in for authenticity.

At the end of the day, the story examines a question many struggle with: is it worth it to go through life with a partner, surrounded by meaningful connections to family and friends, or would we all be better off flying solo?

The answer is different for each of us.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


This morning I saw Avatar, starring Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #84, which is available here.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Tonight I saw Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

At the start of the film, Nelson Mandela (Freeman) is just being released from prison and assuming his role as the South African President.

He knows that as he forgives a nation that imprisoned him, he also needs to earn the respect and support of the very people he's forgiving and unify South Africa. Instead of going the traditional route of politics (or not even trying at all), he cleverly goes about it through sport: the traditionally white sport of rugby.

Enter Francois Pienaar (Damon), the Afrikaner rugby captain of the not-so-successful Sprinbok team. He seems like a nice enough guy, but obviously comes from privilege and perhaps is not yet enlightened to Mandela's ability to lead.

Mandela invites him for tea and an instant mutual respect is born—with desirable results for both parties.

The President infuses the captain with the will and inspiration to create a winning team; in doing so the captain begins to build something that all South Africans can agree on. And the rest is somewhat predictable (especially if you know your South African history).

So is the movie good? Sure. Morgan Freeman (who truly resembles Mandela) is always a pleasure to watch and Matt Damon impresses me more and more with every role. In this one, he seems comfortable in the pretty-boy skin, yet still stretches with an African accent.

There are moments of pause that probably wouldn't be there if Clint Eastwood hadn't directed it, but there are also sentimental seconds that last just long enough to bring a tear. Really, a fine balance.

I wish I understood rugby more because the game scenes are aplenty, but I still enjoyed the story nonetheless.

It's just one tiny piece of Mandela's incredible rise to power, and it made me want to see more.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

(Disney's) A Christmas Carol

Last night I saw A Christmas Carol, directed by Robert Zemeckis.

To adapt one of the most well-known stories in literature can't be an easy task, but I admire anyone who strives for it, including Zemeckis.

His animated approach (using technology similar to his previous hit The Polar Express) is ambitious and intricate. When you're taken into Scrooge's neighborhood in the first few frames of the film, you're undoubtedly stepping into Dickens' England. Not only do the buildings and streets appear real, the faces of the characters are much closer to actual human likenesses than any other animated film to date. Even the cleavage on the dancing women is convincing. Yes, I said cleavage.

And that brings me to my next point: this is not a movie for young children. Because the dialog stays very faithful to the original text (and that's a good thing), many of the scenes are dark and frightening. The spirits (except for maybe the Ghost of Christmas Present, who is somewhat goofy) will seem creepy even to adults. The Grim Reaper-like essence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come elevates the evil to a definite PG level.

The voices are also startling--though Jim Carrey provides the pipes for Scrooge AND all three spirits. The action scenes (mostly Scrooge being transported from place to place) are also extremely loud, and if you see it in IMAX as I did, you may want to pack some earplugs.

So how does this version measure up to previous versions? Well, nothing can beat the classic live action version in 1951 starring Alastair Sim or the more popular George C. Scott interpretation from 1984. But as far as making the original images from the book illustrations and the story come to life, this is as good as it gets.

The timeless lesson is as relevant today as when Dickens' wrote it in 1843. At the core of the film is a delightful old story about a man who has to battle his inner-demons to realize what life should be all about. One can only contemplate what our world would be like if everyone were held to such an extreme manner of self-evaluation.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Maid

Tonight I screened The Maid, starring Catalina Saavedra and Mariana Loyola.

Raquel (Saavedra) is not someone you'd want to be friends with. As the maid for the Pilar family, she throws away gifts they purchase for her, eats alone (though she's apparently welcome to join them), hides snacks from the children, and accidentally-on-purpose forgets simple instructions when she gets angry with the teenagers.

But this isn't a Cinderella situation. Although the kids can be a little demanding, they're really not so bad and their parents (her bosses) treat her exceptionally well. It seems Raquel is just burnt out—she's been working in the same home all of her adult life and never learned how to have fun. Her cooking and cleaning routine is so robotic, just watching her execute it makes you tired.

When she starts having headaches and exhibits signs of dizziness, the Pilars think it's time to bring in some additional staff. Raquel mistakes these extra ladies as a threat and does everything in her power to drive them away.

These scenes are at once sad and comical because she really is awful to everyone, but you can't help but empathize with her. Raquel's life—by her own design—is confined to one room of a house, which contains a twin bed, a small nightstand and one tiny photo album of snapshots. All of the pictures we see in the album are of Raquel and the Pilar family. Aside from a phone call from her mother on her birthday, we see no evidence that Raquel has a family of her own.

But even in the photographs, we're witnessing the past. It seems that over time Raquel's connections to other human beings got lost in the shuffle and she has no idea how to regain them.

Enter Lucy (Loyola)—a sprite of a woman who moves in when Raquel is deemed too ill to continue her duties. Lucy is loud, frank, honest and most importantly: she's not afraid of Raquel. It seems The Maid has met her match.

What transpires is both shocking and delightful in equal measure, and nearly every character in the film (except for Dad, whose only purpose seems to be building model ships) is made to be more endearing as a result. The performances of the leading ladies especially, should be commended.

The film will keep you entertained and interested throughout no matter how well you do or don't relate to its characters. And for those who have ever had times of isolation or loneliness, you may just find yourself choking back tears.


Monday, November 30, 2009


Tonight I screened Brothers, starring Natalie Portman and Tobey Maguire.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #83, which is available here.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Today I saw Wes Anderson's first animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Based Roald Dahl's classic book, this film centers around the Fox family—Mom, Dad, their son Asher, and a visiting cousin named Kristofferson. Mr. Fox has given up a life of crime stealing birds for a more respectable job as a newspaper columnist. He's moved the family from a modest hole to the inside of an above-ground tree. His son Ash competes with his seemingly perfect cousin for his parents' attention because he feels he can do no right.

Mr. Fox doesn't like the new farmers in town, so he decides to go behind his wife's back and perform one last "job" of stealing with the help of a friend.

The first part of the theft goes well, though his wife is suspicious. She finds a tag with the farmer's name on it still attached to the chicken Mr. Fox claimed to get at the supermarket, but he talks his way out of it.

The next attempt at stealing is not as successful and results in the farmers waging an all-out war against the fox family, endangering all of the animals that live beneath the surface. In the chaos of the fight, the farmers also capture Kristofferson and hold him hostage above ground, mistaking him for Ash.

This all happens in a very fast-paced, visually appealing way. The landscapes are beautiful and the animals are life-like, especially in the way the foxes move. The dialog is clever but not too cute and the delivery (by George Clooney, Meryl Streep and other well-known actors) is right on. It's refreshingly not exaggerated like many other kids' film characters.

Is it the best animated film of the decade? Well, no—but it's certainly a satisfying, entertaining, family friendly option amidst many lesser alternatives.

Wes Anderson deserves kudos for switching genres so seamlessly and his style translates well to animation. Perhaps he'd consider doing another?


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Blind Side

This morning I saw The Blind Side, starring Sandra Bullock and Quinton Aaron.

The story is filled with all sorts of characters that would seem unappealing: society wives, stereotypical African Americans, likable republicans, annoying children, etc. But the remarkable thing is that it works.

Big Mike (Aaron) is a from-the-streets neglected teenager who is granted a private school education due to the persuasion of a football coach. His grades are awful, his social skills are non-existent and no one, save for one obligatory teacher, seems to be on his side.

Enter Leanne Tuohy (Bullock), the mother of two students at Big Mike's school and a respected member of Memphis high society. As her family is driving home from a school play one chilly night, she sees Big Mike walking down the street in shorts and a T-shirt. She forces her husband to stop the car (sidenote: whatever she wants, her husband apparently delivers) and offers the young man their couch for a night. He reluctantly accepts and ends up spending the Thanksgiving holiday with the family.

When they realize he has no where else to go, they invite him to live in their guest room, where he is presented with the first bed he's ever owned. Yes, it's a tear jerker.

Basically, the entire movie centers around Leanne's (uncharacteristically) selfless actions and Michael's secretive, troubled past. Both parties are understandably slow to trust one another, but somehow the love that surfaces takes care of that.

Because this is based on a true story, I cut it some slack for being unapologetic in its sappiness. I found myself tearing up about every 15 or 20 minutes, but that was okay because I knew what I was in for when I bought the ticket. Boy needs home, boy gets home, boy plays football.

The film is very predictable (because the audience will wonder why the movie was made if things didn't turn out well), but when the acting is as good as it is here, it's not hard to stay with the scenes and enjoy the way they unfold.

Sophisticated drama this is not, but if you need a dose of your faith in humanity renewed, you could do worse than this film.

I'm glad there are real people out there like Leanne Tuohy, and I didn't mind spending a few hours with her character.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Couples Retreat

Tonight I saw Couples Retreat, starring (and written by) Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau.

The film begins by introducing us to four couples: one that appears very average, another that seems detached, one that's clearly just about the sex, and the last who are very obviously having problems.

The couple who are struggling to reproduce (played by Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell) are in the process of deciding whether or not their marriage is worth saving when they find a special resort called "Eden," which claims to help folks find their way back to one another. The trouble is, the place is very expensive, and to be able to afford the visit, they need to talk three other couples into going with them. This happens, almost too easily, and before we know it we're transported to a Bora Bora-like paradise.

Of course, the other three couples feel as if they don't need to follow the "program" of therapy and want to spend the time there as if on vacation—but that wasn't the deal. To enjoy the benefits of "Eden" they must complete the planned activities. So, they do. Sort of.

And here's where the movie turns from borderline charming to undeniably predictable: the couple who thought they were happy turns out to have problems that surface during therapy; the couple who are sincerely trying to work out their issues are so focused on the plan, they've forgotten how to communicate with one another. And so forth.

The somewhat believable premise is then compromised by a series of ridiculous situations (a husband who requests a female massage therapist and then gets aroused when she touches him; a sexually suggestive yoga instructor). These scenes feel like they would be more at home on a network sitcom than in a feature film, and the laughs are few and far between.

It's almost as if Vaughn and Favreau wanted to take a snapshot of their lives at this age (as they successfully did years ago with Swingers) and found that reality as a 30 or 40-something isn't as fun as reality as a 20-something.

Perhaps the film would've been better if they'd just captured the heart they were going for and channeled it into a drama instead. Or even a dramedy.

This film felt like the writers were trying too hard to make light of poor choices that many real people make in life. And it just wasn't that funny.


Pirate Radio

On November 12, I saw Pirate Radio, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Bill Nighy.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #82, so tune in November 30th for our review.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Tonight I saw 2012, starring John Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Let me first state: it's completely ridiculous.

John Cusack plays author Jackson Curtis who seems to be late for everything in life: work, picking his kids up for a camping trip, saving his family from apocalyptic catastrophe, etc. When we meet him, he has overslept and is rushing to his ex-wife's house to collect the children for a Yellowstone expedition.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a geologist who we first meet in India, where he's visiting his friend, an astrophysicist, and working on a serious government assignment.

Uh-oh. The earth isn't behaving like it's supposed to. The "earth crust displacement" (a real-life theory by a 1950s American scientist) isn't supposed to go down for at least a few more years, but temperatures are heating up so it's time to crash a party in Washington, D.C. and let the head honchos know.

As you can imagine, this doesn't go down well across the globe. And it all falls on the U.S. (though it was the Indian astrophysicist who really cracked the case) to organize the evacuations and sell tickets aboard monster ships built to withstand the disastrous impact.

Luckily for audience members, 2012 looks a whole lot like 2009, so it's relatable. The Terminator is still the Governor of California, the President is still black and grocery stores are even stocking the same issues of Rolling Stone (I noticed one on the shelf that featured U2 promoting their album No Line on the Horizon, which came out earlier this year).

It's not hard to imagine how greatly we'd all freak out if confronted with such havoc because like the citizens in the movie, they gave us no time to prepare.

But that's when it gets fun.

After a cameo from Woody Harrelson (as a crazy hippie with all the answers) and a few establishing scenes to let us know Cusack isn't winning any Father of the Year awards, we have liftoff as California falls off into the ocean (literally).

Luckily, Jackson is able to get his family (and his ex's boyfriend) into a rented airplane in the nick of time to escape the destruction. These scenes aren't as suspenseful as they should be (how could they not make it out when the movie's barely begun), but I'll be happy to admit I enjoyed the effects immensely.

After California is gone, we see Vegas go and then other handpicked cities/monuments that are cool to watch explode. I must emphasize: if you like explosions, this is the film for you!

In between massive explosions you'll find cheesy one-liners, awkward 'almost' romances, brave kids, regretful parents, asshole government reps, righteous scientists and repeated product placement (Bentley™ and Pull-Ups® must've spent a fortune).

I spent more time laughing than I did recoiling in horror or gasping in surprise. But that's okay—I still had a good time at the end of the world.


Saturday, November 07, 2009

An Education

Today I saw An Education, starring Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #81, so tune in November 16 for our review.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

This Is It

Tonight I saw the documentary This is It, directed by Kenny Ortega.

When I was about seven years old, MTV began playing three videos in heavy rotation that would re-define pop music: "Billie Jean", "Beat It" and "Thriller". They were all superb songs and they were all by Michael Jackson.

When I brought home my fold-out vinyl of the Thriller album, I momentarily put away my beloved U2 and Pat Benatar to absorb its greatness. I bought a sticker from a grocery store vending machine and used a straight pin to attach it to my jacket (which resembled one of Michael's). I also, as an aspiring young writer, carried with me a tiny notepad bearing his likeness on the cover (I still remember the yellow sweater he was wearing). He was the moonwalker—he was magic.

Then things took a turn for the worse and fame seemed to eat my prized star alive. His skin changed color, his face changed shape and horrible allegations surfaced in the coming years that he conducted inappropriate relationships with young boys. After his follow up album Bad, which really was quite Good, his music faltered as well.

He was always fascinating to watch whether he was showing up for court appearances "looking like Captain Crunch" (as Chris Rock so humorously pointed out), or dancing his way across a stage. But I really thought he lost his mind when I watched the Martin Bashir documentary Living With Michael Jackson a few years back. He'd named his youngest son Blanket, admitted to having children sleep in his bed with him and blatantly lied about how many times he'd had plastic surgery. There wasn't much left of the sweet kid from the Jackson 5.

After dismissing him, like many, I forgot about him. I went on about my life.

And then in June word came that Michael had gone into cardiac arrest and fallen into some sort of coma. I learned of this at work and found it difficult to turn CNN off as I finished my days' duties. I turned the audio live feed on as I filed papers and wrote Web pages. I heard of his death announcement live. I got goosebumps; I felt sick. Why? Because at the end of the day, looking past all of the questions of his character, the world lost an immense talent.

Now, we're left with this documentary that could easily have been released even if he had lived. It's that good.

We see director/choreographer Kenny Ortega and Michael himself leading a group of hundreds through the taxing rehearsals for what would've been his "final curtain call." From choosing the finest dancers to forming a family within the performance circle, the team functions as a productive, joyous machine. It's an incredible amount of hard work, but the mood is remarkably calm and positive—mostly a testament to Michael's lack of ego.

I'm not saying he didn't have one. Of course he had several people on hand to attend to him (which the audience doesn't see much of), but with his singers and dancers and crew, the man is nothing short of a team player. He works just as hard (or harder) than they do and takes obvious pleasure when they all perform well. After watching him in action, you want to jump on stage and join him.

It does help that the songs hold up, too. The elaborate appearing-within-a-classic-film production that surrounds "Smooth Criminal" would've made a wonderful video (if a wonderful video for the same song didn't already exist) and seeing Michael sing and do the "Thriller" dance front and center over 20 years later nearly made me giddy.

This wasn't a man who looked strung out on anything but a natural high. In fact, when he launched into some old Jackson 5 tunes, I wondered if the mood would turn melancholy, but it didn't. Then I realized, in all of his miserable childhood, the one place he was probably genuinely happy was on stage, singing those songs. No one could touch him there—everyone was proud of his talent.

And he was brimming with talent. Right up until the end (some of the footage in the film was taken less than two days prior to his death) his voice was strong, his dance was graceful and his spirits were soaring.

Had he lived, he appears to have been up for the challenge of 50 consecutive concerts, perhaps more so than any other performer.

Kudos to Kenny Ortega for giving us all a peek at what might have been.


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Act of God

Tonight I saw the documentary Act of God, directed by Jennifer Baichwal.

The film centers around folks who have been struck by lightning or have lost someone close to them because of a lightning strike.

If only the narrative had some coherence.

The first story told is compelling: a man and presumably his mother sit inside a cabin-like house in the woods and recall stories of happier times. Parties were held, drinks were enjoyed and both agreed at one time this was a great place to be. But years ago that all changed when "the boys" were out camping in those woods and got struck by lightning. The survivor who is telling the story recounts ambulances arriving, watching others go unconscious, watching a dying friend vomit up his blackened insides, etc. It was a horrible tale, but I wanted to hear more.

Unfortunately, that was the most interesting story in the bunch.

Another man found "God" or purpose, or whatever it shall be labeled and began working with dying veterans; a religious Mexican woman lost her children and accepted it as God's will to make them young angels. Yet another man read poems about camp as a youth in NY (where lightning claimed his buddy) set to overly dramatic guitar music.

About a quarter of the way through, I'd had enough.

The trailer leads one to believe the story is about how folks are changed after surviving a lightning strike; the film instead emphasizes how evil/dangerous concentrated electricity really is, and tries to package that information in an artistic, creative format that just doesn't work.

The result is a pretentious mish-mash of shots that are way too long of stories that aren't all that interesting.

The concept should never be the strongest part of a film.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story

Tonight I saw the latest Michael Moore documentary Capitalism: A Love Story.

The man is nothing if not entertaining.

True to form, the film is laced with "stunts" that are almost funnier in the trailer (trying to make a citizen's arrest on the execs on Wall Street; arriving in an armored truck at banks to take America's money back). What's better are his sincere interviews with experts in the economic field and stories of individuals who were affected by the collapse.

One family had their farm house mortgage go from a manageable $1700 to an impossible $2700 per month, and surrendered the home to foreclosure. Aside from losing their physical living space, they were sacrificing some of their history, said the wife, who had the farm in her family for decades. She is seen fiercely chopping flowers from a bush in her yard to perhaps preserve something of the original land as the eviction staff simultaneously collects house keys from her husband. They were paid a whopping $1000 to prepare the property for the next owners.

Another family, with a Mom and Dad who worked for Wal-Mart, were shocked to find that Wal-Mart collected the life insurance money when Mom passed away suddenly from a severe asthma problem. Though Dad had over $100,000 in medical bills to pay after her death, and a $6,000 funeral, Wal-Mart offered nothing to help with the expenses. And he'd been a loyal employee of theirs most of his adult life who still had three kids to support.

Perhaps the most unsettling stories were those of our commercial airline pilots—some who are forced to collect food stamps because their pay is so low ($17,000 was one quoted salary). Others take on second jobs, which obviously could exhaust them physically and hinder their ability to do their day job, which is keeping us flying customers in the air. How can we pay fast food managers more than we pay our skilled pilots?

Moore blames capitalism for all of these woes, but I have to disagree and blame it on corporate greed (and yes, there is a difference).

He shows an example of a completely productive co-op bread-making company in California, where the assembly line workers make the same salaries (an impressive $65,000) as the CEO. Granted, the model is very socialist in its principles, but at the end of the day, they are functioning as tax-paying capitalists. The more bread they sell, the higher their paychecks.

I see nothing wrong with that. In fact, if there was a branch of the bread-baking company in Seattle, I'd probably apply to be a baker. Or a packager. Or any other job where I could punch in, do my thing in a pleasant environment and go home without worry of being laid off or the need to take on freelance writing gigs to fund my rare vacations. The argument is in a backward way in favor of capitalism: make a good product, create demand for it and reap the benefits.

At the heart of the economic collapse in our country was greed. Greed mixed with big government mixed with deregulation.

I wanted to stand up and cheer when I learned our President recently supported a group of workers in Chicago that refused to leave the plant they were fired from without sufficient severance packages. They went about their protest in a peaceful way and got exactly what they demanded from the notorious Bank of America. Kudos to them, and kudos to President Obama for sticking to his principles despite election contributions he received from the bankers in question. I'm happy his values can't be bought, and I'm happy I voted for him.

America is finally moving in the right direction by putting votes toward those who inspire real change (kudos to the female rep. from Ohio who is featured fighting for what's right), and for that I can say Moore's unpopular film tactics still serve a purpose.

Though I don't agree that capitalism is inherently evil, or that it can't work, I do support his motivation to bring power to the people.

If we don't act on these human injustices, who will?


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

This morning I saw Where the Wild Things Are, starring Max Records and the voice of James Gandolfini.

Based on the classic children's book of the same name, I was apprehensive when I heard it was going to be turned into a live-action film—the movie is never as good as the book, and how dare Director Spike Jonze risk tarnishing one of my beloved childhood reads?

I went back and forth with those thoughts after I saw the nearly universal praise showered upon the film by many notable critics who I faithfully trust. There must be something magical about it, I assumed. They must see the spirit of the text come to life in a way they never imagined.

So I decided to give it a go and spent the majority of the film feeling guilty for getting bored and looking at my watch.

But first, the positive stuff: Max Records, a first-time actor who plays Max, absolutely embodies the essence of the child in the book. He's smart, vulnerable, sweet and angry, just as he should be. The beginning of the film is also strong—Catherine Keener as Max's mom is convincing as a haggard single parent trying to navigate a difficult job and balance raising two children on her own. We see no evidence of Dad, but realize how uncomfortable Max is when Mom has a date over for dinner. So far, so good.

The transition from Max's bedroom (where he's sent without dinner, just like the book) to the place Where the Wild Things Are is more elaborate than it needs to be and will probably scare the bejesus out of children under the age of 10 or so, but he gets there. At night. Via some terrifying (yet beautiful in the daytime) beach on the Australian coast.

Instead of "staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once" to become the Wild Things' king, he simply tells them he's their king, and they curiously accept that.

"They" are a dysfunctional family of beings that look identical to the drawings in Sendak's book, but sound like a collection of dumbed-down Hollywood that's where their voices come from.

And therein lies the largest problem I had with the movie: the all-too-recognizable voices.

I'm sorry, but James Gandolfini will always be Tony Soprano. And Lauren Ambrose will always be Claire from Six Feet Under. Those two especially, have such distinct speaking patterns it's hard not to picture the physical human while you're watching the mechanical animal. It's the first thing that removes you from your childhood impressions of the story.

The second is the assignment of personalities to each "thing." There's the Big Mean Man (Carol) who's driven away the Strong Independent Woman (KW), the Fighting Couple (Ira and Judith), the Outcasts (Terry and Bob), and so forth. By personifying them with stereotypical human behaviors, the splendor of the unknown is removed, leaving little hope for magic to appear.

Legend has it Maurice Sendak fashioned the "Things" after his extended family. If that's true, he was smart not to name them specifically or box them into any traits. Ambiguity is a good thing.

Another annoyance is the blatant way in which allegory is presented again and again. When Max arrives, the Things want him to "take away the sadness." A few days later, they want to build a utopia (but not allow everyone to sleep in the pile).

Such obvious lessons are fine for a children's film, but the way it's shot and shown makes it feel like it's for us adults. And if that's the case, the result is somewhat melancholy, as we know the idealism most of us have in youth fades considerably the older we get.

Jonze should be commended for the visual beauty of this film, and for discovering a great young actor who undoubtedly has a fine career ahead of him.

But the story for me shall remain where it belongs—in the pages of my well-worn copy of the book.


Friday, October 16, 2009

The Invention of Lying

Tonight I saw The Invention of Lying, starring Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner.

The alternate reality in which Mark (Gervais) and Anna (Garner) live in doesn't allow for lying. Actually, the citizens don't always just tell the truth—they say everything that comes to mind, even if it may be hurtful to the other person. It is a filter-free society, which makes folks like Mark miserable.

In the span of a few days, Mark loses his job, gets evicted from his apartment and has a disappointing date with Anna, whom he adores. As he goes to the bank to withdraw his last $300, the bank's computer system crashes and they can't check his balance. He knows he only has $300, but it's $800 he needs to pay his rent, so he says $800. And because everyone tells the truth, the teller has no reason to disbelieve him. She hands over his $800 and he's on his way.

He's invented lying.

He doesn't quite understand this gift, but when he tries it out on a few of his buddies (telling them he's a black Eskimo named Doug) and it works, he decides to use it to improve his life.

Soon he has enough money to stay in his apartment and take Anna on a second date, to a nicer restaurant. Things go well on that second date until Anna again confesses she can't be romantically involved with him because he's not a desirable genetic match for her (though he makes her laugh and makes her happy). During the date, his mother falls ill and the couple rush to her side in the hospital. On her deathbed, Mark realizes she's terrified of dying so he invents a story about a paradise afterlife to comfort her. Hospital officials overhear the fib and take it for gospel, alerting the news media to his wisdom, which prompts a mob of sorts to camp outside his residence.

He's not only invented lying, he's invented religion. And this is where the movie becomes preachy in the opposite way that films typically do.

Soon he's proclaiming edicts that sound dangerously like commandments (yes, there's ten) from a Pizza Hut box where he's scribbled them under the pressure of the crowd. Did I mention he's a screenwriter too?

The impromptu way Mark creates the rules of society is meant to highlight the absurdity of Biblical texts, which of course were recorded by men. God becomes "Man in the Sky" and houses resembling churches emerge to give folks a "quiet place to think about the Man in the Sky."

It all amounts to a great big wink in the direction of atheists who may be cheering, and an unflattering mirror to those devout.

I appreciated the clever dialog, the many cameos (Rob Lowe, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tina Fey), the performances by the two leads and the sweetness of their courting, but it all could have moved a bit faster.

At the heart of the story is heart—the message being that we should not live our lives simply to please our families or friends, or conform to society's expectations, even if our brains tell us that is right.

We should follow the instinct that lies deep within us to be good people and seek out someone who fulfills our every dream no matter what sort of package they arrive in.

I wish the film had focused more on that.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

The September Issue

Tonight I saw The September Issue, a documentary that follows famed Vogue editor Anna Wintour in the months leading up to—well—a September issue.

The year is 2007. The financial bubble has yet to burst and excess is exactly what the magazine is going for as they try to break their record for the most pages (they did, with over 800).

Designers, stylists, photographers, models, a celebrity (Sienna Miller, the cover subject) and even the poor documentarian making this film are scrutinized, degraded and scoffed at throughout by the Queen Bee of Fashion. For such a petite lady, she does pack quite a punch.

As the most prominent designers from the biggest fashion houses in the world show their newest lines to her, she looks bored. She tells one he doesn't have enough color and another that there isn't any "evening" in his set.

Little do they know, right?

Having worked in the fashion industry for eight years, none of what happened on screen was the least bit shocking to me, but it did serve as a reminder of what a negative business 'pretty clothing' really is.

What's most interesting in the film is the dynamic between Wintour and legendary stylist Grace Coddington (who has been at the magazine just as long, and began her career as a model). They snip and snark at each other both privately and publicly, then reluctantly administer mutual praise as if they know they should. Both ladies are forces to be reckoned with, and one gets the sense that the combination of their personalities and tastes may be what makes the end product work.

As far as documentaries go, I would register it on the weak side. The director didn't ever bring Anna out of her comfort zone, so we don't see anything that we don't expect to see. Really, the most revealing thing we learn is that Anna has an incredibly pleasant daughter who seems to want nothing to do with the fashion industry.

The conversation about Anna's siblings thinking her profession was trite could've made for wonderful cinema. But all we got was a soundbite.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Tonight I screened Precious, starring Gabourey Sidibe and Mo' Nique.

Clareece (Sidibe) is a 16-year-old student living in Harlem who is known as "Precious" to her family and teachers.

She does well in school though she can't read or write, and comes home every night to cook and take care of her physically and verbally abusive mother Mary (Mo'Nique), who is a welfare recipient that likes to watch game shows.

Clareece's principal expels her when she learns she is pregnant with her second child and arranges for her to enroll at a nearby alternative school. What the school administration doesn't realize is that the child, like Clareece's toddler-age daughter, is the product of rape. By her father.

Precious is overweight, illiterate, poor and ridiculed, but something about her spirit enables her to seek a better future for herself. Despite the protest of her mother (who feels she should also go on welfare), she applies herself at the alternative school, learning to read and write. Her teacher takes a special interest in her and builds the first healthy relationship she's probably ever had.

A counselor (played by a surprisingly good Mariah Carey) is also assigned to her, and the truth about her family life begins to unfold, which serves as a healing force in the progress of Precious.

Soon she's made friends at school, given birth to a baby in a hospital and vows to make a better life for herself and her son.

Then life interferes and throws another enormous trauma her way.

At this point in the film, after watching a slew of amazing performances, I wondered how much more the writer could put on the actors. If Precious were a real human being, there is very little chance she could've survived everything she was forced to endure without losing her mind.

But the sad thing is, there are a lot of Precious teens out there. Probably many who have suffered similar grievances and come out of it bearing only hidden scars.

The film does a good job of getting to the core of each of our main characters and also making them real enough to worry about. Truly, it felt more like a call to action than a means of entertainment.

But sometimes, that's okay.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Paranormal Activity

Today I saw Paranormal Activity, starring Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat.

It is not often that a film with long periods of nothing can keep me gripping my theater seat, shifting and fidgeting with anxiousness throughout, but this one did.

Katie and Micah are a twentysomething couple who live together in a house that appears too fancy to belong to a graduate student and a day trader, but horror films demand a greater suspension of disbelief, so I'll see past that detail.

They seem like a happy enough couple—she comfortably roams the house in skimpy tank tops and unflattering boxer shorts; he's on the obnoxious side, but clearly in love with her.

When we join their life in progress, Micah is trying out his new video camera by filming Katie in everyday situations (studying, pouring wine, etc.) and attempting to catch 'evidence' of whatever paranormal force seems to be disturbing her at night.

The shaky camera work isn't as nauseating as that of The Blair Witch Project, but it does serve as a constant reminder that the production quality isn't going to get any better.

Said camera is soon anchored on a tripod facing their bed each night to be left on as they sleep, and us audience members are granted the privilege of seeing things happen as the footage is captured.

First, the only indication of unrest is the quiet, kooky music. Whenever the time on the video clock advances to the place where we're supposed to pay attention, the score creeps into the background. It's an obvious technique, but in a charmingly low-budget way, it works.

Next are the slamming doors, Katie's mysterious sleepwalking, hints about her imperfect childhood, and the frustration that builds from Micah's resistance to call the demonologist (recommended by a ghostbuster) for help. We want him to quit being such a dork and we want her to do what she needs to do on her own if he's not on board.

Instead, he plays with a Ouija board and makes things worse.

Without giving anything away, that's the beginning of the end, which is unfortunately much weaker than the story's build-up.

That said, for only four people appearing on-screen and only one set utilized in the entire film, the writer did mount a healthy dose of suspense and old-fashioned jumpy payoffs. It's just a shame the big finale didn't deliver.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Bright Star

Yesterday I saw Bright Star, starring Abbey Cornish and Ben Whishaw.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #80, so tune in October 12 for our review.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Informant!

On Monday I saw The Informant!, starring Matt Damon and Scott Bakula.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #78, which is available here.

Friday, September 25, 2009


On Sunday I saw Extract, starring Jason Bateman and Ben Affleck.

Writer/director Mike Judge has made me laugh in the past with the cult classic Office Space, and the doomsday comedy Idiocracy. As a fan of his, and just about everyone in the cast, I was greatly anticipating this new flick. Unfortunately, there wasn't much to anticipate.

Bateman plays Joel, a self-made business owner who runs an extract (as in "vanilla") factory. He's in a marriage that no longer sexually satisfies him, and desires an affair with a new temporary employee Cindy (Mila Kunis). However, he loves his wife, so he doesn't want to cheat without having leverage.

In a drunken, horse-tranquilized conversation with his friend/bartender Dean (Affleck), he decides it would be a good idea to hire a jigolo to seduce her so he wouldn't feel guilty consummating with Cindy. She takes the bait and immediately embarks on a passionate affair that lingers long past the "one time" that Joel hired him.

And to make matters worse, there's been an accident at the extract factory that causes their financial future to come into question. There is a con artist in the midst and a snake of a lawyer (played almost too well by Gene Simmons) to take advantage of the situation.

Add to that an annoying neighbor and you have pieces of about ten different movies; some of which are funny, some of which are not.

The standout performance here is undoubtedly Ben Affleck who comfortably resumes his Dazed and Confused stoner-stupor and delivers laughs each time he opens his mouth.

But sadly, despite the other star power, the story falls flat and feels false in too many ways (con artist unbelievable, Joel's marriage not authentic, etc.)

In an effort to prove how rare we intelligent entities are in suburban America, Judge forgot to make the story smart enough.


Monday, September 21, 2009


On Saturday night, I saw Séraphine, starring Yolande Moreau and Ulrich Tukur.

Séraphine de Senlis was a famous French painter who died in a mental institution in 1942. This film gives us a glimpse into her life from the time of her discovery until the time of her death, which proves to be a detriment because the subject is so fascinating.

Séraphine (played by the magnificent Yolande Moreau) when we meet her is a poverty-stricken housekeeper who bows her head in compliance with every order that is barked in her direction. She worked in a convent before serving private families, so she maintains a strong religious faith and ethic. She also hears from angels.

After her grueling hours of scrubbing and cleaning each day, she retreats to her small quarters to paint as the angels instruct her to. She creates lush portraits of scenery—flowers and fruits in vibrant hues that rival those of any fine artist.

A guest who comes to stay in the home where she works, Wilhelm Uhde (Tukur), stumbles upon a piece of her artwork and begins questioning its origins. The affluent homeowner tells the truth: her housekeeper painted it and she can't wait to get rid of it. Uhde is an art dealer who has made many notable discoveries in the art world and believes her work could sell.

He encourages Séraphine to keep developing her gift, then must flee the area because of the looming war. She does continue painting—using ingredients of her own creation mixed in with traditional paints—and hones her craft to impressive new levels.

How did she learn to do this? What was her childhood like? Did anyone else in her family have the gift? All of these questions go unanswered in the film, but crave to be asked.

By the time Uhde returns in the late 1920s, Séraphine has an arsenal of works available for his purchase and promotion. He gladly obliges and sends the always-poor artist into financial freedom.

Unfortunately, the story does not have a happy ending. Séraphine spends her riches very rapidly despite the approaching Depression and continues to hear the angels sending her messages. Her behavior grows more erratic until finally the townspeople have her committed.

Moreau's interpretation of this possibly schizophrenic artist was stunning, even if the film's pace was almost painfully slow. Because you can't help but care for this fragile soul, you stick with the story and continue to hope she will be rescued.

Of course, once Séraphine entered the hospital, she was never again aware that her talent was celebrated. She lived out her years in a lonely, confused state of medicated isolation.

Her work survived her and continues to thrive today in museums around France and exhibitions around the world. Also, one of the ingredients in her paintings has apparently served as an incredible preservative so the colors continue to appear as they were when she mixed them.

If only the angels she heard could show her how much joy her work brought to the world.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Big Fan

Last night I screened Big Fan, starring Patton Oswalt and Kevin Corrigan.

Paul Aufiero (Oswalt) is a sad soul. He works a dead-end job as a parking booth attendant, lives with his mother and has no relationships to speak of except with that of his best friend Sal (Corrigan). Did I mention, he's in his mid 30s?

Everyone around Paul pities him, but Paul himself. Despite all of the obvious negatives in his life, he has one thing that keeps him going: his love for the New York Giants. He attends home games, calls in regularly to a sports radio show with scripted rants for their opponents and meticulously keeps track of scores and players.

But when one of his obsessive actions takes fandom too far, he single-handedly jeopardizes the future of the team. To prevent giving it all away, I won't say what that action was, but it was completely believable. And the way folks around him react to it is also authentic.

How he handles it will have you cringing, and the surprise twist ending will shock you almost as much as the ghost in The Sixth Sense did. I have to admit, I didn't see it coming.

So is the film worth watching? Sure. It's well-written and its characters are realistic (if not a bit exaggerated in a few cases). It has some laughs along the way and has a quiet pace, but that's okay—it just gives viewers a sense of what it must be like to live a lonely existence.

Anyone who has ever had an obsession will see parts of themselves in Paul, whether they want to or not. And how far they've taken their obsession will most likely determine the intensity of their reaction.

It also reminds us not to judge too harshly—sometimes lives aren't depressing until their critics make them so.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

It Might Get Loud

Tonight I saw the documentary It Might Get Loud.

What an incredible rush of music storytelling.

Three guitar Gods from three different generations (and really, three different genres of music), come together to talk about their favorite topic: guitar playing.

The elder statesman of the bunch is a white-haired Jimmy Page of the legendary Led Zeppelin; the in-the-middle genius is U2's The Edge; the new kid on the block is Jack White of The White Stripes. All complement one another in style and technique like time-traveling puzzle pieces that happen to have landed in the same era.

I thought it would be incredibly difficult for me not to favor The Edge, as I'm an unapologetic U2 fanatic, but really the movie is so painstakingly equal, it would be hard call anyone the star.

White is easily the most nervous, looking anxiously out the car window as he arrives for the summit. In footage with his own band or alone he is confident—even cocky; with the two other subjects he is humble and respectful. If only his styling wasn't so distracting (he looks like Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka), I may even declare him physically attractive.

The Edge, who I've watched on a regular basis since I was six, seemed like...well...The Edge. In other words, maybe the only rock star on the planet to appear more interested in the musical method than all of the fame/women/money that come with it.

Jimmy Page was almost unbearably sweet. The man who developed Stairway to Heaven now seems like a classy Grandpa who could tell you stories that would spin your head.

Thankfully, the stories all three musicians share in this film are sincere, honest and loaded with details that will send geeks salivating for their Gibsons. They give enough background about their entries into the music world without telling their life stories in the process. Why? Because this is a film about guitar playing.

The moments of spontaneity are the most delightful to watch—Page playing air guitar to one of the songs that inspired him; Edge realizing he was playing the wrong chord during a jam; White grinning as the older two enlighten him.

Director Davis Guggenheim achieves a brilliant balance between the summit and archival footage of each guest. The men seem at ease telling their stories to the camera and to each other, and take us on informal modern day tours of their past (a special treat for me was seeing the school where U2 met).

Perhaps the chemistry and the kindness of the subjects is why the outcome is so satisfying or maybe the director just had ways of getting them relaxed before filming so it appeared very natural. Whatever the reason, it was a genius idea that worked.

Now if only Guggenheim would make a series out of it and focus on drummers next. I'd like to place my order for Ringo Starr, Stuart Copeland and Dave Grohl.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Tonight I saw Inglourious Basterds, starring Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz.

I was the perfect age to fall for Quentin Tarantino's magic when his first films hit the big screen. Reservoir Dogs happened in high school and Pulp Fiction defined college. I distinctly remember all of the "men" in my circle going to see Pulp Fiction opening night; then my polite boyfriend at the time taking me alone the following night, worried for my reaction. I apparently laughed harder than any of them had.

We could quote the 'Madonna' scene from Dogs in our sleep and the soundtracks of both films played constantly for the next four years throughout our apartments in Columbia, Missouri.

Now the most famous Missourian—Brad Pitt—is the star of QT's new flick about a Jewish-American group of soldiers (nicknamed the 'basterds') who, of course fictionally, terrorize Nazis who are occupying France (did I mention it's 1941?), scalping and killing them as savagely as they did their victims.

Pitt is intentionally funny as southern Lieutenant Aldo Raine. With a mustache like Hitler's and an accent that sounds as if Sling Blade and Dolly Parton had a child, he mugs throughout the movie pausing for laughs as often as we'll offer them (which I'll admit, is sort of frequently). Christoph Waltz who plays the Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, however, steals the show. His balance of slime, refined politeness and revolting evil comes out in a charming way that's somewhat difficult to explain, so I'll just say this: when the camera is near him, your focus is nowhere else. Not even on the former Sexiest Man Alive.

And of course, there is a damsel in distress by way of Shoshana (Melanie Laurent), the young Jewish girl who escaped the Colonel's wrath only to encounter him years later at her cinema in Paris. Her expressions and mannerisms play the role perfectly with minimal words and maximum intention. An especially great scene takes place over dessert with the Colonel.

Truthfully, there is a lot to like about this movie. With Ennio Morricone and David Bowie both appearing on the soundtrack, there is a distinctive flavor that accompanies each scene and beat almost perfectly, and the bold reds and blacks that paint the canvas of most Tarantino films are also present and effective.

But while his earlier hits and even the more recent Death Proof had a palpable pace, Basterds drags in many places that are intended to infuse tension.

There are also many 'shocking' violent scenes, but once you've gasped through the first bloody few, the remaining 15 or 20 seem glib. I dare say...they're gratuitous.

All in all, it's not really a war film or a crime caper or a black comedy. True to Tarantino's style, it's a wondersalad of all of the above without the major elements that make any of the genres work.

Clever dialog, superb actors and bad guys everyone wants to see 'get theirs' will go a long way, but unfortunately don't add up to a victorious directorial return to form.

Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9

Today I saw District 9 starring Sharlto Copley.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #77, which you can download here.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Perfect Getaway

Tonight I saw A Perfect Getaway, starring Steve Zahn and Timothy Olyphant.

A sickening sweet, somewhat nerdy couple, Cliff (Zahn) and Sydney (Milla Jovovich) set out on their Hawaiian honeymoon armed with camping equipment, hiking permits and a video camera.

When we're first alone with them, they're arguing over picking up hitchhikers. Cliff stops the car and the eager couple on the side of the road climb in. The newlyweds get a funny feeling about them and backpeddle their offer, which greatly angers the man. They continue on the road alone, only to encounter the odd couple later in their journey.

Soon they find out that there are killers on the loose and the murderers may be on their island.

Somewhat inexperienced at hiking the complicated cliffs of Hawaii, they join up with Nick (Olyphant) and his girlfriend Gina (Kiele Sanchez) who seem to know how to navigate the area. They display unique behavior (killing animals, revealing weaponry, etc.), which unnerves Cliff and Sydney. Both couples joke about suspecting the other as the killers, but see the hitchhikers arrested for the crimes in a dramatic police helicopter search.

All's well that ends well? Not so much. But unfortunately, this spoiler-free review can't say anything more.

Is there blood? Yes. Will the killers be revealed? Yes. Is the way the film reveals the murderers clever? Somewhat (but a key sequence almost goes too fast to be effective).

The screenplay-come-to-life storytelling device that they use in the last third of the movie is a nice touch, and the performances keep you entertained throughout.

It was just a little too easy to solve the mystery.


Monday, August 10, 2009


Tonight I saw Cheri, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend.

Prostitution never looked so good.

Lea (Pfeiffer) is an escort-to-the-stars in turn-of-the-century France. Her friend Charlotte (Kathy Bates) is past her prime and concerned more with the upbringing of her teenage son Chéri (Friend) than with establishing more clients. The only women they mingle with are those in their shared profession and competition seems absent from their tangles, as there are plenty of men to go around.

But Lea only wants one man—or boy, really. She wants Chéri, who has seduced her into letting him stay at her Normandy estate for a greedy length of time. She shows him the proper way around a bedroom, buys him lavish gifts, feeds him, clothes him, and probably bathes him. She is his lover, but she is also his surrogate mother.

When his real mother returns to collect him and marry him off to another teenager, Lea is devastated but retains her dignity. As the new young couple heads to Italy for a honeymoon, Lea escapes to a new home and leaves no forwarding address.

Both parties are miserable apart—Chéri's marriage, though faithful, is completely loveless, and Lea seems to take on another lover only to pass the time.

When they finally realize they can't happily live apart, it may be too late to do anything about it. Oh, the perils of true love.

As a fan of the book, I knew what the outcome would be and I dare say the film is much lighter and funnier than the original text. The lead couple is convincing and well-matched with Pfeiffer's sharp, mature features directly contrasting the feminine curves of Friend's. But the real scene-stealer is the always-phenomenal Kathy Bates, who lights up the screen for better or for worse with her spunky energy.

To break this film down to one word, I'd call it a "romp."

And a pleasurable one, for what it's worth.


Sunday, August 09, 2009

Betty Blue: The Director's Cut

Today I saw Betty Blue: The Director's Cut, starring Béatrice Dalle and Jean-Hugues Anglade. [note: this film has one more hour of footage than its original theatrical release contained in 1986.]

185 minutes is a long time to spend with anyone—especially fictional characters who are as unlikeable as they are abundant. Unfortunately, that was the case today when I sat through this soft-core porn, which masquerades as pretentious art.

Zorg (Anglade) is a novelist who is making a living as a caretaker at a desolate beach resort. We assume his life is relatively peaceful before he meets Betty (but since the first scene is him making love to her, I suppose we'll never know), a passionate, sexy woman who doesn't have much of a purpose except "loving" him.

In bed, their relationship is as strong as can be. They are inhibition-free during their sexual escapades and seem to be genuinely fond of each other's bodies. So fond that for over half the movie one or both of them are naked.

Anyway, Zorg is mezmerized by Betty's vibrant (though imperfect) smile and her undying attention to him, so he risks his caretaking job by allowing her to live with him against the owner's wishes. In return, she helps him paint bungalows and all seems to work out well until...said boss shows up and she gets so angry she throws all of Zorg's belongings out the window. Literally.

Normal men would take pause at this development and expel the crazy bitch from their life, but not Zorg. He passively accepts her rage and even allows her to begin typing up a novel he's scripted by hand in several volumes of journals. Then they set the place on fire.

Next up is a new life in a (presumably) new town, where they become great friends with their landlady and her eventual partner. They trade work for rent, have amazing sex, and all is well until... Betty is working as a server at their restaurant and stabs a lippy patron with a fork.

Think the red flags are waving high enough for Zorg to notice? Not so much. He must really like having sex. With her. Because not only does he keep her around (staying faithful to her as well), but he starts over with her again in a new locale managing a piano store. They sell a piano on their first day, have amazing sex, and well, you get the idea.

With each progressive act of crazy that Betty commits, you wonder more what the hell is wrong with this man. Everyone knows someone who is in or has been in an abusive relationship, but this is ridiculous. The woman is beyond disturbed ("I hear voices") and her antics repeatedly threaten both of their lives.

By the time the final act played out (in which Betty does something so horrific the audience I was sitting with audibly gasped), I was planning my dinner menu, thinking about the music I'd program for my evening workout and wondering why I shelled out money for the ticket to see this in the first place.

Sure, there are some cool sex scenes, but without characters that one can truly invest in or care about, the 'love story' progression only feels predictable and weak.


Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Hangover

Tonight I saw The Hangover, starring Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis.

I never expected to laugh this hard at a guy buddy movie.

You see, a couple days before Doug (Justin Bartha) is scheduled to get married, his buddies Phil (Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and future brother-in-law Alan (Galifianakis) take him to Las Vegas for a bachelor party. Pretty normal scenario, yes? Sure, it is. Until everything goes horribly wrong.

First, Phil decides that the double rooms they've booked won't be good enough for their one-night party, so he talks the group into reserving the $4000+ suite, which the desk clerk refers to as "pretty awesome."

Then Alan, the obligatory "overweight guy" who desperately wants to fit in, pours everyone a shot of Jagermeister on the rooftop of Caesar's Palace and toasts the occasion. After that, no one remembers a thing until the men (minus Doug) wake up in their completely trashed environment amongst food, vomit, broken glass, live chickens, a baby and Mike Tyson's tiger. Yes, Mike Tyson's tiger.

In an attempt to find the missing groom, the men re-trace their forgotten steps using credit card receipts, eyewitness accounts—even a hospital wristband—only to encounter surly doctors, giddy wedding chapel owners, Chinese mobsters and (thankfully) the baby's mother.

To give away even one of the hilarious scenarios or jokes would screw up the fast-paced rhythm of this comedy, so I'll refrain. But I will say, with very little bathroom humor, screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore manage to make scene after scene laugh-out-loud funny.

While most of the dialog is surely geared toward men, the majority of what happens to them is universally funny. Old-fashioned slapstick in some ways; cleverly sarcastic in others.

Overall, a very satisfying, silly romp leading up to perhaps the best end credits since Ferris Bueller's Day Off.


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Magic of Netflix

I have to admit, as far as efficiency and great customer service go, Netflix puts most of the working world to shame.

Since a friend first gave me a subscription as a gift a few years back, I've been positively addicted to this most-pleasant constant in my life. With a queue that gets arranged and rearranged at my every whim, all I have to do to satisfy my cinematic craving at any given moment is click a button on my computer. A day or two later, as if my magic, that very disc appears in my mailbox. Or, for more immediate gratification, I can choose something from my list that has a "play" button next to it and watch it on my Mac.

The selection can't be beat, the titles are endless, and the recommendations are usually very accurate (if you're a freak like me and you rate nearly everything you watch). Furthermore, there are seldom issues with delivery speed or the quality of the DVD. And if there are, the call center has the most friendly voices in business that are all too happy to help.

Really, the should call it "NetFIX."

A writer for the Chicago Tribune recently marveled like the rest of us at their well-oiled machine, then went behind the scenes to see their secrets of success. His article about it is here.

From the sound of it, they have an organized factory that's not prone to outside distractions, allow their employees regular breaks for exercise and rest, and mix sophisticated technology with human hard work to achieve fast, accurate results.

What a curious recipe in this day and age.


Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Girl From Monaco

Today I saw The Girl From Monaco, starring Fabrice Luchini and Louise Bourgoin.

Bertrand (Luchini) is a fiftysomething high-powered defense attorney that comes to Monaco to represent a wealthy old woman accused of murder. Within days of his arrival, that woman's son has insisted upon and provided him with Zem (Christophe Abadi), a bodyguard who slightly resembles President Obama.

Zem's presence is professional if not intrusive, as Bertrand is powerful in the courtroom but never in the hands of a beautiful woman.

Enter Audrey the Weather Girl (Louise Bourgoin). A classic blond gold digger in her 20s with her sights set on Bertrand and his paycheck. She rapidly seduces him, though Zem warns his boss that she's trouble, and Audrey soon has her lover believing they are in love.

We see the murder case progress intermittently, but that's not the exciting part of the film. The thrill is watching the sexual exploits (only a few of which actually take place on screen) of Audrey and Bertrand, and the implied exploits of Audrey and whomever else in Monaco that's interested.

The unspoken friendship between Zem and Bertrand is also significant and plays out surprisingly in the last act, which takes the film from comedy to drama.

Aside from the mysterious nature of Zem and the motivation behind his actions, the film doesn't really leave you guessing much or even wanting more—but that's okay.

A little entertainment for the sake of entertainment is not always a bad thing in cinema.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

500 Days of Summer

This morning I saw 500 Days of Summer, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #76, so tune in August 10 for our review.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Tonight I saw Orphan, starring Vera Farmiga and Isabelle Fuhrman.

There is nothing spookier than a creepy kid.

When we meet this film's creepy kid, Esther (Fuhurman), she is calmly painting in her Catholic orphanage as the other kids attend a "party" where adoptive parents come to choose a child. One of the dads is John Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard) and he stumbles upon her, immediately drawn to her polite manners and impressive art. His wife Kate (Farmiga) soon joins them and also develops a fondness for the Russian Esther, agreeing she should become their new daughter.

But the Colemans aren't childless—they have a biological son and daughter at home. They are simply trying to overcome their grief of losing a stillborn daughter in recent years. Soon Daniel (JImmy Bennett) and deaf Max (Aryana Engineer) have to welcome Esther as their sister.

All goes well for a day or two until Esther retaliates against the school bully (who, let's face it, deserves it) and pushes her off a high slide on the playground. She survives the fall with some broken bones, but since her little sister covered for her, no one is even sure Esther did anything wrong.

Esther grows closer to dad, acting nothing but angelic in his presence, but appears often in places she shouldn't, like in the parents' bedroom when they're having sex; in the kitchen when they're having sex, etc., and drops an F-bomb on mom when she tries to discuss it with the child. Kate is very uncomfortable with her behavior.

When something awful happens to the nun that came to warn the couple that something may be mentally wrong with Esther, Kate suspects the worst, but John doesn't want to jump to conclusions.

Soon everyone remotely associated with little Esther is in danger of her wrath (did I mention she's fond of guns, hammers, bricks, etc.?) and John and Kate are having marital troubles (which seems to be fashionable these days, if your names are John and Kate, but I digress).

All of the conventional horror tricks are there (calm house, sweeping score, snowfall, shattering glass) and they even bring an old Bible into the mix for no apparent reason. The family is believable, the kids are brilliant actors, and though the story is formulaic, the pace moves so fast the audience doesn't have chance to get bored.

I was slightly annoyed by the supposed accent of the main character, but the ending (which is mighty twisty) may actually justify it.

For an entertaining, action-packed horrific romp with a demon-seed starlet in control, don't shy away from this one. You'll stay on the edge of your seat until the very end.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Prom Night in Mississippi

Tonight I saw the documentary Prom Night in Mississippi.

In this day and age, it's hard to believe there are still places in America that segregate blacks and whites. For God's sake we have a black president (or at least, a 1/2 black one). But unfortunately, those places do exist.

The place in this case is Charleston, Mississippi—hometown of Morgan Freeman—and the annual prom at Charleston High School. Since the beginning of days, there have always been two proms. One for blacks; one for whites, though all of the kids go to classes together. Morgan Freeman had offered in years past to pay for the prom if it were to be integrated, but the town (read: the parents) wasn't interested.

Enter Director Paul Saltzman and a camera crew, and the school finally agrees to do it in the ripe old year of 2008.

But not everyone is on board. In fact, some of the parents are so put off by the concept, they arrange a white prom anyway. And they follow through with hosting it days before the integrated prom (the schadenfreude for those of us who live and breathe in modern times was that there was violence at THAT prom). But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The first 1/3 of the movie is talking head interviews and frustrating school meetings that only show how ignorant this poor town is (and I do mean poor—most kids live in trailers). The majority of the families (including the students) are obese, their language is simple and their minds are unfortunately small (one parent speaks of God making us into separate races to represent different classes and I almost threw my laptop at the television).

But it's not all bad.

There is a rebellious girl who digs her black boyfriend and won't give him up though her father is furious; another white girl considers her black friends more loyal than her parents, who are mortified that she would even mingle with such folks. And of course, many of the kids could care less what color their classmates are—they just want to party!

So we see kids of both races going to the beauty parlor, washing their cars, choosing their dresses and posing on the lawn for awkward photos as they all pile into a white limo (you get the sense there may not have been any black limos available in that town). The ride to the prom with both blacks and whites in the same vehicle seems peaceful.

The school has amped up security for the festivities (and we are told his by a clearly concerned black cop), but there is no need for it. The kids get to the dance and They laugh, they eat, they choose a king and queen. Blacks dance with whites and blacks dance with blacks and whites dance with whites. Everyone has a great time and from the post-prom interviews it sounds as if some new friendships were born.

Lesson learned? I don't know.

Until they can have an integrated prom without an all-white prom in the same week, they're still unacceptable in my book.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Tonight I saw Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Michael Gambon.

I re-read the book this last week to refresh my memory and prepare for the film, but part of me wishes I hadn't, for the film leaves out so much of the text it's somewhat maddening. But it's still an incredibly enjoyable ride.

In this installment, Harry (Radcliffe) is taken under Professor Dumbledore's wing like never before to solve the mysteries behind the Dark Lord. The relationship between them is tender and convincing, but I can't help but miss the actor who originated the Professor's role, Richard Harris, who died a few years back. He was more like a Grandfather than a Merlin, which the current actor (Gambon) evokes.

Anyway, to dig deeper into Lord Voldemort's past, they must solicit the help of retired Professor Slughorn (played delightfully by Jim Broadbent) and coax some buried memories of Tom Riddle's time at Hogwarts out of him. For those playing catch up: Tom Riddle was Voldemort's childhood name. Riddle is coincidentally played by Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, who is the real-life nephew of Ralph Fiennes, who plays Lord Voldemort. The resemblance is both helpful and staggering (and hey, the kid can act too).

So, to get access to these memories, Harry has to manipulate Slughorn by becoming a star student in his Potions class, which he achieves by using the old textbook that once belonged to the Half-Blood Prince. Though no one knows the identity of the Half-Blood Prince, his potions seem to work wonderfully, which angers Harry's close friend Hermoine, because she sees using the book as cheating.

Aside from that, Hermoine's fallen in love with their mutual friend Ron, who has a new girlfriend he keeps snogging in front of her. And Harry's fallen for Ginny, Ron's sister, but doesn't know how to confront those feelings.

Combine this with some extremely scary Death Eaters (yes, it should be PG-13, but it's not) and you have a jam-packed film of teenage lust, good vs. evil, historical continuity and supernatural tricks.

Alan Rickman again stands out as Severus Snape, while all of the children have not only matured with their roles, but become better actors in the process. The final scenes are among the saddest and heaviest of the series.

When it's over, you'll be wishing it had a few more hours to go, even as you blink back tears.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Summer Hours

Last night I saw Summer Hours, starring Juliette Binoche and Charles Berling.

The audience is brought into the film as if they are meeting the friends of the person they're dating for the first time. Immediately there is conversation, food and laughter in a setting that holds sentimental value for the attendees, but none of the witnesses.

Helene (Edith Scob), the family matriarch, is hosting a reunion of sorts for her three adult children: Frederic (Berling), Adrienne (Binoche) and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) at their beautiful summer house. There is an elaborate garden where they cut fresh flowers for the tables, an elegant patio for entertaining, and an interior that features pricey works of art that Helene has collected throughout the years. The house is the main character in this film--and rightfully so.

In one of the earliest scenes, Helene takes Frederic on a 'tour' of the inside, pointing out items he'll want to sell when she expires. This rattles him, but she's intent on preparing him for life as the family's default leader (and let's face it, when elderly parents pass on, there's always one sibling that does all of the work).

When the children and grandchildren depart, we're only shown a brief hint of Helene's lasting depression, which confines her to a chair by the window. A few scenes later, she's gone.

When the children reconvene to make decisions about her estate, their needs and opinions differ. The artsy daughter is content leaving her childhood in the past and making a new life for herself in America; the enterprising younger son is happy to move his family to Asia to make more money; the eldest wants to keep the house and its contents to maintain a sense of continuity, which is already rapidly deteriorating. They all go about these negotiations peacefully.

The refreshing part of this story is that none of the children need the money from the sale of the house to live a good life. With this group, it's not about the money, or even about the material possessions. It's about doing right by their mother, who was a bit like a museum piece herself--visited infrequently, more valuable the older she got and desperately lonely, save for her caretaker.

The pace is slow, but the organic feel of the life lived by the film's characters keeps the audience wanting to know how it will all turn out.

It's a slice of life with a dash of depth.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Tonight I saw Moon, starring Sam Rockwell.

Films about loneliness will always keep our attention because no matter what our background, finances, marital status or age, we can all at times be vulnerable to it.

In Moon Sam (Rockwell) has reached the end of his lonely rope. He is in the final days of his three-year corporate mission to the moon (yes, THE moon) to help mine clean energy, and is desperate to return to his wife and daughter on earth.

We witness him going about his daily tasks—eating, working out, tending to 'house' plants, etc. We even see him watching the obligatory obviously-not-live television as he barely pays attention to a classic episode of Bewitched. If the TV technique weren't so over-used (i.e. Wall-E and I Am Legend), it would help reinforce the isolation, but it doesn't need to in this film. The cold white of the walls and surroundings mixed with the industrial nature of just about everything (right down to Sam's helpful robot Gerty, voiced by Kevin Spacey) tell us we're in a place devoid of love and warmth.

As Sam gets closer to his return date, his health begins to deteriorate and hallucinations materialize (or at least they appear to). One of these sightings causes him to wreck the vehicle he's using to complete his work "outside" on the surface of said moon. Next thing he knows, he's awake in the moon station infirmary seeing himself outside of his body. But he's not dead—and for me to say anymore would be to spoil, so I'll have to stop there.

What I can say is that Director Duncan Jones (coincidentally also David Bowie's son) creates a very realistic exterior for what the moon must somewhat be like. The quiet darkness he invokes results in a strange feelings of peace contrasted by hollowness. When the tires of the work vehicles scrape across the dirt, you can almost feel grains of dust in your mouth.

Also, the performance by Sam Rockwell, who plays against no one else, is all of the things it should be: funny, confusing, heartbreaking, life-affirming and frustrating. He's well cast and well-played. Of course, something should also be said about Kevin Spacey's voicing of Gerty. It sounds like an easy task, but to evoke emotion from a screen that registers different emoticons based on what it's saying can't have been that simple. His intonation and soothing tones make the ideal "humanized" machine.

All in all it's a very classic science fiction journey wrapped up in a modern-day pod. What makes it good is its exploration of people needing people, no matter where or when they are.