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.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Today I saw The Hurt Locker, starring Jeremy Renner.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #75, so stay tuned for our review.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Julie & Julia

Tonight I screened Julie & Julia, starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep.

Don't go see this film on an empty stomach. The amount of food on display throughout is enough to feed a small country and because most of what the characters talk about is food, you won't be able to put it out of your mind.

This true story begins with New Yorker Julie Powell (Adams) approaching her 30th birthday. She's married to a wonderful man (Chris Messina), but dislikes their new apartment in Queens and her dead-end job. She finds solace in cooking because there is a certainty in what will result from the mixing of the ingredients.

When one of her self-absorbed friends begins a blog, her husband encourages her to start her own—about cooking—and she decides to make a go of it. But to force herself to follow through with it (something she has trouble with), she creates her own plan to cook all of the recipes in Julia Child's famous French cookbook in one year's time.

In addition to showing us Julie's journey, the film also revisits Julia Child's path to glory with an expectedly transforming Meryl Streep. The acting phenom not only nails Child's famous accent, she captures the unique spunky spirit that make the world fall in love with her. If only Director Nora Ephron had shown us more of exterior France, perhaps it would have been perfect.

And Adams as the amateur cook, hungry for fame and validation, comes across as genuinely ordinary, which can't have been easy for the Enchanted beauty. Here, she's barely a housewife, and she plays it so convincingly, you almost don't see the sparkle of her eyes behind the dishes.

All in all, the movie will make you hungry, and make you smile, but at the end of the day—it was just a blog.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Food, Inc.

Today I saw the Robert Kenner documentary Food, Inc.

You may want to put down that bucket of fast food chicken before you head out to the theater to see this film. I'm not saying it won't still taste good, but you'll probably regret it after the fact.

This documentary tells us all what we would already know if folks toured chicken farms as often as they do chocolate factories: some of the stuff in our food supply is bad. Real bad.

None of this came as a shock to me. As huge fan of Bill Maher, I hear him bark about high fructose corn syrup and the dangers of over-processed food on an almost weekly basis. For the past 10 years I've either driven to Canada to purchase my Coca-Cola, or picked up the Mexican version at my local Costco (our non-American friends use sugar instead of corn syrup to make their Coke, so it tastes like the good old stuff we used to get as kids). I also seldom eat trans fats, buy organic, and have greatly reduced (but I'll confess, not eliminated) my trips to fast food restaurants. I do it more for my own health than any political reason.

But is it enough?

I'm not sure. What I am sure of is that I don't agree with the way animals are being treated before they're taken to slaughter. This film shows us evidence that chickens are usually kept out of daylight for the duration of their very short lives (just over a month in most cases) and cows are fed corn when they really should subside on grass. In the early days of farming and meatpacking, when the business was smaller, the practices were actually quite decent. But when the processing plants grew larger to accommodate the rapidly successful fast food enterprises, all of the standards went out the door.

That's not to say there aren't still ethical farmers using humane methods of farming and processing, but I'm afraid they all may be in this movie. All three of them.

Really, corn is taking over the world (seriously—it's in everything from diapers to batteries) and really should just be enjoyed in its original form: on the cob.

The other big problem is the lawmakers who make special exceptions for the food industry (did you know it's a felony to trash beef in Colorado?) by neglecting to establish stricter food safety practices and not adequately labeling genetically altered food.

What can we do to turn this all around? The filmmaker says: Buy local. Buy organic. Vote with your wallet.

I think I will.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Away We Go

Tonight I saw Away We Go, starring Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski.

Burt (Krasinski) and Verona (Rudolph) are a couple in love who have just made a baby and don't want to go it alone. When they learn Burt's parents are moving to a foreign country before their baby's arrival, they set out on a cross-country journey to find a desirable place to live, near people they love.

Who knew such a task would be so grueling?

And I don't necessarily mean for the couple—I mean for the audience.

From the moment they couple decides to 'go exploring,' everything around them turns from reality to caricature and each stereotypical human annoyance is met along the way. First it's an obnoxious former co-worker, then it's an uber hippie who you can't imagine they'd want to be friends with in the first place. Even the folks at the airport accuse Verona of being further along in her pregnancy than she is and deny her flying rights. Travesty!

Amidst all of the blatantly flashing signs that Life Isn't Easy: Especially With Kids—there is a somewhat tender, genuine relationship between the couple. It's a shame even that is overshadowed by Krasinski's distracting beard and unwashed hair.

Am I being picky? I don't think so. I'm just highly disappointed that two very gifted actors and a director I'd previously loved would make such a mess of what could have been a fresh concept.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Public Enemies

Tonight I saw Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #74, which is available here.

To learn more about John Dillinger, click on the sidebar link that will take you to the National Crime Museum, where they are hosting a special exhibit about him.