Bright Star •
The Informant! •
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs •
The September Issue • 9 • Whiteout • Extract • Motherland • All About Steve
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The new remake of the 1980 hit Fame is not going to live forever and has clearly not learned how to fly. Returning to the New York Academy of the Performing Arts (or PA) where the original was set, the new film covers much of the same ground as its predecessor.
While there are still talented youngsters out there trying to make grades, money and art, the new film gives viewers the same feeling one gets after a large tour group has just been through the buffet line. There are some decent morsels left, but all of the good stuff is gone.
Because three decades have passed since the first film was made, it would be nice to judge the new film on its own terms. But it’s impossible to do so because the new Fame begs comparison at every turn.
While none of the major characters are the same, the new movie follows the template that director Sir Alan Parker and screenwriter Christopher Gore established for the first one: track the students through their auditions and through each year of high school.
Novice feature director Kevin Tancharoen even follows Parker’s editing strategy, where the students’ performances overlap each other. Screenwriter Allison Burnett borrows some of Gore’s plot twists, and Naturi Naughton has the thankless and ultimately futile task of repeating the success that Irene Cara had with singing the movie’s title song and “Out Here on My Own.” The former actually sounds limp with a hip-hop beat, and the latter suffers from Tancharoen’s tired imitation of Parker’s original staging.
Having original film and TV series alumna Debbie Allen playing the principal doesn’t help because she only serves to remind viewers with good memories that there used to be more to Fame.
At least the setting for both films offers loads of possibilities. Teenagers already have to juggle a lot of painful emotions. But imagine going through those trials as well as the pressure to master a demanding and uncertain career in the arts.
The characters and situations Gore devised could be considered clichés (of course, there was an audition that wasn’t an audition), but the first film created them so vividly that it was easy to forgive the lapses in imagination. The new cast includes the actress Jenny (Kay Panabaker), the pianist Victor (Walter Perez), a dancer named Alice (Kherington Payne) and Malik (Collins Pennie), a rapper with theatrical ambitions.
A scorecard is necessary for these folks because once they stop performing they fade into the background. Two of them even have a relationship, but viewers don’t even learn about it until it ends. The original movie was almost half an hour longer, but the new one feels slower because we barely get to know the characters and get bored between the musical and dancing sequences.
Whereas the first movie featured unknowns as the instructors, the new faculty at PA is loaded with familiar faces. This is a mistake because casting Cheers veterans Kelsey Grammer and Bebe Neuwirth only reminds viewers of their previous roles. I halfway expected Ted Dansen to walk in during classes.
The new film’s PG rating is also a liability. The R-rated original was able to deal with adolescent life in a more candid and compelling way. More people can attend the new film, but it feels like an After School Special instead of a real drama.
To his credit, Tancharoen can shoot dance sequences properly. When the characters stop talking and start hitting the floor, the results are impressive.
In reading some of the promotional material for Fame, I was bothered because all of it referred to the upcoming film as a franchise instead of a movie. There’s nothing wrong with making a film for profit. The first Fame was made with that intent. But in order to make money, it helps to provide consumers with something more than what can be gotten on a DVD. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 09/25/09)
Nineteenth century British poet John Keats wrote all of his beautifully crafted poems by the time he’d reached the age of 25. Tuberculosis prevented him from producing more, which makes his legacy more astonishing and even intimidating.
His short and tragic life hardly seems cinematic, but New Zealand’s Jane Campion (The Piano) has managed to write and direct an engrossing film about a man whose achievements can only be found on the page and in the heart.
Campion creates a vivid portrait of Keats himself, but part of the reason that Bright Star works so well is that she focuses the story primarily on Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Brawne was the young woman who inspired many of Keats’ poems including “Bright Star,” the one that gives the film its title.
As the film opens, Brawne makes a living as a seamstress. Because she’s as creative as she is skilled, Brawne can help support her family. This is a more lucrative profession than that of two other residents of her Hampsted home.
The flamboyant Charles Brown (American actor Paul Schneider) and the much shier Keats (Ben Whishaw, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) spend every waking moment working on their poetry even though it has gained them little. The boorishly arrogant Brown is more gifted at self-promotion than crafting rhymes. Keats, on the other hand, toils at promising work that is almost ignored and occasionally reviled. The ease with which Brawne can obtain a printed copy of Keats’ poorly selling verse is quite disheartening.
While Brawne is critical of Keats’ writing, she can’t get enough of it, or him. Spotting the artistry in her stitches, he can tell that she has a sharp mind and is a kindred spirit. He becomes as obsessed with her as he is with literature, and the happy results show up in his copy. Because of his uncertain to nonexistent income, Brawne’s mother (Kerry Fox, the star of Campion’s Angel at My Table) considers Keats an inadequate potential husband. That only makes each of the lovers want the other more.
Campion is responsible for the tedious Meg Ryan flop In the Cut, where the star and the director unintentionally proved how un-sexy nudity between attractive stars can be. Her new movie features characters that are stuck in a period when men and women were rarely alone together except in marital situations, and almost always fully clothed.
That’s not a problem for Cornish and Whishaw. Cornish not only carries the film but demonstrates a jaw-dropping range, effortlessly switching for euphoria to despair in few seconds. Whishaw is her equal and does more than look appropriately pale and thin. He projects the subtle wit that made Keats’ verse possible.
The two have a formidable chemistry. Their sidelong glances project a desire so powerful that viewers can sense the longing even when Keats and Brawne are apart. One of the most haunting scenes in the film features Brawn running her hand against a wall because she’s eager to be with the sickly Keats on the other side, even though contact could hurt them both.
In addition to pulling viewers into the protagonists’ intoxicating yearning, Campion consistently finds ingenious ways of making Keats’ world visually intriguing. Focusing on Brawne and her embroidery instead of Keats’ scribbling keeps the film from becoming a stale Masterpiece Theater knockoff. Greig Fraser’s dazzling cinematography makes rural England look like the imaginary worlds in Keats’ poems.
That’s not to say that Campion brushes Keats’ poetry aside. It’s a treat to hear Cornish and Whishaw recite it to each other, and one hopes they’ll record an album of the poems soon. While Mark Bradshaw’s score is terrific, Campion wisely has Whishaw recite some of Keats’ words as the final credits roll. She’s made a terrific movie, but she has just enough humility to acknowledge that it’s just about impossible to match the mastery of Keats’ original text. (PG) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 09/25/09)
In his 1939 song “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd,” Woody Guthrie lamented, “Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.” As demonstrated in Steven Soderbergh’s new film The Informant!, the latter is a more potent weapon.
The movie documents an early 1990s case when Archer Daniels Midland led a price fixing scheme for a chemical called lysine, which is used to make chickens grow more quickly and produce more meat. Because lysine is used so frequently, just about every person in America wound up paying higher prices for food.
The scheme was revealed by ADM’s Corporate Vice President Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon). Whitacre spent years working with FBI and had an unusual knack for getting white-collar criminals to admit their crimes. Without knowing they were talking to hidden microphones, key ADM officials described their transgressions in alarming details that were like manna to the prosecutors.
But as his FBI handlers Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and agent Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) gradually discovered, Whitacre was the investigation’s most important asset, and its most potentially damning liability.
Damon’s performance might seem broad and eccentric. The actor put on 30 pounds, an unflattering moustache and a misshapen hairpiece. But having read Kurt Eichenwald’s book of the same name, it’s obvious that the real Whitacre was a quirky guy, especially during the period of The Informant!
Whitacre had undiagnosed bipolar disorder, which made his behavior toward the end of the investigation erratic. He took advice from no one, including his supportive wife (Melanie Lynskey), and falsely assumed that ADM’s board would welcome him as a reformer.
Damon and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) cue viewers in on Whitacre’s eccentricities almost from the beginning. Damon delivers a long series of intentionally mundane voiceover monologues that relate only tangentially to the footage on the screen. As Damon drones on about neckties and sweaters, it’s obvious Whitacre has issues.
Because we already know that Whitacre is as unreliable as he is freakishly intelligent (He’s got multiple degrees.), the first half of The Informant! feels strangely dry. The film might have packed more tension if Soderbergh and Burns had presented the price fixing case from Shepard’s point of view. This would have enabled viewers to discover Whitacre’s problems the same way the FBI did.
If Soderbergh’s offbeat approach seems alienating at first, the film’s second half is loaded with hilariously bizarre revelations, which are actually true to the case. Soderbergh, who works as his own cinematographer under the pseudonym “Peter Andrews,” shoots the movie with a flat color palate and fills the soundtrack with a jaunty soundtrack by Marvin Hamlisch, who sounds like he’s parodying James Bond scores. This fits because Whitacre boasts that he’s “Agent 0014” and that he’s twice as good as 007.
The long exposition may have been necessary because the real price-fixing investigation took years and was maddeningly complicated. Perhaps the rich payoff might not have been possible without some preparation.
Damon’s performance is both amusingly and appropriately broad, but the rest of the cast approach their roles more subtly. Even though comics like Patton Oswalt and the Smothers Brothers appear in The Informant!, everyone but Damon plays it straight. As a result, it’s easier to identify with Shepard and Hearndon (who lives in Kansas City) as they try to corral their essential but unruly witness.
The movie begins with a title card that jokingly admits that liberties have been taken with the facts. Nonetheless, it’s impossible to make up a hero as contradictory or as morbidly fascinating as the real Mark Whitacre, so Soderbergh and company were wise not to tamper with him.
For all his transgressions, the millions of people who’ve been swindled by ADM owe Whitacre their thanks. Perhaps only a thief, even if he used a pen, could have captured a few of his own. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 09/18/09)
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs begins with a modestly amusing title card that reads, “A Film by a Lot of People.” There’s something weirdly refreshing about admitting that a labor-intensive undertaking like a 3D computer-animated movie isn’t the work of a single person or ego.
This unassuming charm is evident throughout the rest of the film as well. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs isn’t as ambitious as Pixar or Robert Zemeckis’ (Beowulf) recent animated films. The human characters have rubbery, doll-like skin instead of the nearly photo-realistic look in Zemeckis’ movies.
Fortunately, writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (How I Met Your Mother) have set out to deliver a simple tale, adapted from the book by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett, and do so with a minimum of distractions.
While Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs would probably still be entertaining in a conventional 2D format, the story is a natural for 3D. A frustrated wannabe scientist named Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader) has spent most of his young life creating inventions. His imagination is formidable, but his luck is pathetic. To deal with the problem of untied shoes, Flint creates and demonstrates spray on footwear that never needs to be tied.
His new concept might have been a hit if these aerosol shoes were, oh, removable.
Unable to create a product that works, Flint is forced to help at the bait shop run by his caring but inpatient father Tim (an unrecognizable but remarkably effective James Caan). The shop and the rest of their island town of Swallow Falls have fallen on hard times. When the market for sardines, the islands only export, crashes, the town’s economy goes with it. After a while the only thing to eat in the community are leftover sardine tins that can’t be sold.
Flint and his monkey Steve (Neil Patrick Harris) may have a solution. His new machine can convert water into any type of food that Flint programs. With a few keystrokes, Flint can turn a cup of water in a steak, vegetables or even a multi-ingredient dish like a cheeseburger. Imagine being about to enjoy a meat dish without having to worry about killing the animal whose flesh you’d otherwise be dining on.
When an accident causes the device to shoot into the sky, the city’s rain turns into tasty meals, three times a day. Thanks to a perky weather reporter named Sam Sparks (Anna Faris) who’s smarter than she appears, Flint becomes a hero to his hungry town and the world. Having been dismissed as a jerk all his life, he basks in his newfound adulation. But the corrupt local mayor (a delightful Bruce Campbell) has designs for Flint and his machine that could lead to more catastrophic results than un-removable shoes.
Though the character designs are cute but simple, there are still lots of tasty eye candy to behold in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. With the glasses on, the culinary precipitation looks wonderfully trippy. Later in the film, the machine produces nightmarish apparitions like human-sized chicken fryers that attack their would be predators.
The film also features likable characters that give the voice actors a chance to stretch their ranges. It’s refreshing to hear Faris playing a character that isn’t an airhead, and Andy Samberg is entertainingly obnoxious as the former mascot for the sardine company who’s no longer a cute baby. Even Mr. T shines as the voice of the town’s paranoid cop. Alert viewers will notice that his animated likeness features a hairline that’s a reverse of his own.
It’s tempting to fault Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs for setting its bar too low, but the “lot of people” who’ve made the film have succeeded with their modest goals the way some filmmaker fail with more lofty ones (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted 09/18/09)
The recipe for great romantic drama is as follows: Start with two very flawed, odd or quirky people who probably don’t know each other, put them together, mix until they begin to blend; then stir until the problems and secrets of one or both rise to the surface.
That’s exactly what the writers of this film did, and as Bravo TV’s Tim Gunn would say they “make it work,” at least most of the time. Writers Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson also co-created the 2002 sci-fi television series John Doe together.
This time around Camp directs the collaborative story about a self-help author/grief expert who meets a slightly quirky florist. The florist (Jennifer Aniston as Eloise) just happens to be delivering to and caring for flowers at a hotel. Burke (Aaron Eckhart) is at the hotel conducting a seminar for people who want to move beyond their grief.
She intrigues him at the first encounter. But there’s so much more going on. We see Burke at work with the conference attendees. He has quite an intuition about people, but something’s off about him.
He’s too polished, too controlled on the outside. As for Burke’s internal landscape, Camp and Thompson give great clues about it.
At the start of the movie we see Burke slicing lots of lemons as his voiceover explains one of his self-help philosophies. “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” Then he reveals the final lemonade ingredient: Grey Goose® vodka.
Whenever he’s alone he seems to be drinking Grey Goose®, but in public he doesn’t usually touch alcohol.
However, we mostly see Burke at his job, with the conference attendees. The interactions between the attendees and Burke come across as real. They are somber, touching encounters that elevate this movie above the normal trivialities associated with romance.
Eloise’s world seems light and airy by contrast. She has her flower shop and one quirky employee (Judy Greer as Marty), but we know little else about her. She seems to exist in this venue only to become a potential love interest for Burke.
That’s all right, because Love Happens is mostly about Burke. It’s also about love and grief and about how grief can ferment the remains of love into fear and apathy.
There are a couple moments when the movie sinks into Hollywood cliché holes, but for most of its 109 minutes, Love Happens captures the landscape of human grief and caring with warmth and insight. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 9/18/09)
Thanks to the novel and the film The Devil Wears Prada, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour will probably always be remembered as a petty tyrant who berates her subordinates for what appear to be arbitrary reasons. In the fashion industry she’s been dubbed “Nuclear” Wintour because of her icy attitude and withering judgments that scare employees and fashion designers alike.
From watching R.J. Cutler’s (The War Room) new documentary The September Issue, it’s hard to tell if novelist and former Wintour assistant Lauren Weisberger was unfair to the editor when she created the relentlessly cruel Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep in the film). It’s almost disappointing that Wintour doesn’t toss her coat on an assistant’s desk or belittle her underlings the way Streep did in the movie.
The most damning thing she does in the film is inform subordinates of her decisions to cut articles through an obsequious middleman instead of face-to-face. It’s not as entertaining, but it does make it difficult to like Wintour or to care if she and her staff can complete the biggest issue of Vogue in the magazine’s over 100 years of existence.
Unlike her fictional counterpart, the real Wintour maintains an astonishing composure. Whether she’s being interviewed or carefully observing a fashion show, Wintour always comes off as focused and distant. She’ll answer questions politely and fully, but what she’s actually thinking behind her oddly colored shades remains anyone’s guess.
Her aloofness probably comes with a job that allows her to live in an enormously palatial home. She probably knows that a simple shrug or scowl could make or break a company’s entire output. If you’re as much of an outsider to the fashion world as I am (I showed up at the screening wearing a black T-shirt and worn khaki shorts), these stakes might seem petty.
But the fashion industry is worth about $300 billion a year. Furthermore, the September issue of any fashion magazine is as crucial to the clothing industry as the Christmas season is for retailers.
The film reveals a fascinating trait about Wintour that puts her ahead of her fictional counterpart. During The September Issue, her college-age daughter makes a couple of memorable appearances. Despite Wintour’s demanding job, the young woman she raised comes off as pleasant and accomplished adult. She’s obviously proud of her mother’s accomplishments but curiously has no desire to follow in her footsteps.
From Wintour’s daughter’s remarks and watching the documentary, which was shot in 2007, you get a sense that we are looking into a vanishing world. The magazine industry has been struggling in the last couple of years, and even an established title like Vogue has been affected.
One thing that may be lost as the industry changes is that Vogue’s opulent photo shoots may not look the same. Wintour leaves the supervision of these to her creative editor Grace Coddington, a fellow British expatriate. Coddington seems less interested in selling clothing than in creating lush fantasy environments occupied by people who just happen to be wearing expensive threads.
While Coddington is initially leery of the camera crew, she winds up being the most engaging person in the film. For one thing, she’s the one person at the magazine that’s willing to confront Wintour. Having been a former model and having survived a car accident that sounds traumatic, she’s far more empathetic than her boss.
She also radiates an enthusiasm about her work that’s downright contagious. After seeing the creative energy she devotes to organizing a fashion shoot, one wonders if Cutler had focused The September Issue on the wrong woman.
The September Issue does have some fascinating nuances that outsiders to the fashion world can appreciate. Nonetheless, it’s still not as captivating as watching Meryl Streep throwing a temper tantrum. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 09/12/09)
Itís refreshing to see an animated movie thatís free from cute anthropomorphic animals and aimed squarely at adult audiences. When 9 unspools, you can watch it without imagining what the Happy Meal tie-in might be like.
While this new movie is free from the vices of Pixar or DreamWorks cartoons, it also lacks their virtues. 9 is based on Shane Ackerís Oscar-nominated short. Acker is in charge of this expanded version of the tale as well, but the new film demonstrates his inexperience with feature storytelling.
Because 9 runs only 79 minutes, Acker almost gets by on the intricate and distinctive visuals. When human hands appear on the screen, they are astonishingly lifelike. Unlike the rubbery-looking skin that people usually have in computer-animated films, the few human characters in 9 look as if they have pores, wrinkles, moles and pulses.
There are not many people in the movie because by the time 9 has started, the last remaining human has died. A war between people and machines has been so catastrophic that creations of either flesh or metal are almost gone. About all thatís left are spider-like robots that tear up everything in their path and sentient droids called ďstitchpunksĒ that look like rag dolls.
Each of the stitchpunks sports a number on its back that indicates the order of its creation. But the stitchpunks arenít much of a team. The final creation, 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) comes to life only after his creator has suddenly died and has no idea what kind of world he occupies.
9 quickly learns that he and his cloth-skinned peers are all thatís left of what was once humanity. Despite the declarations of 1 (Christopher), who claims to be their leader and that he has kept the group safe, they are in constant danger from the less benign cyborgs.
Each of the stitchpunks has a specialty, but thatís about it for characterization. Martin Landau and Jennifer Connelly are both Oscar-winners and are overqualified to portray the tinker named 2 and the warrior named 7. Neither gets a chance to show of the range theyíve demonstrated in their live action roles. John C. Reilly has some moments as 2ís assistant 5, but none of the characters are vivid enough to hold an audienceís attention for a feature-length movie.
Acker and screenwriter Pamela Pettler (Corpse Bride) reveal how their world has reached its dismal state gradually. This approach builds audience expectations, but when the origins are revealed, the mythology and storyline are too derivative and underdeveloped to hold up to all but the shallowest scrutiny.
I wish more filmmakers would consider making cartoons about mature subjects and less than cuddly characters, like Hayao Miyazakiís Princess Mononoke. But just because a story is dark doesnít mean itís grown up (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 09/11/09)
While most movies depend on a balance of a good plot, acting skills and clever pacing, Whiteout depends on one thing: The entire movie (minus some completely pointless flashbacks) takes place in Antarctica. An Antarctica thatís mostly dark, and usually having a blizzard with people walking around in big parkas so you canít tell whoís who or even what their doing.
The plot, if you can call it that, starts with a Russian plane back in the Ď50s flying over the worldís coldest continent with some mysterious box as itís lone cargo. Then, for some reason, the crew shoots each other and the plane crashes.
Flash forward to present day where U. S. Marshal Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) is on duty guarding an American base. The strange discovery of a corpse found in the middle of nowhere suddenly leads to Ö Stetko traveling around a lot.
Even though this film is only 96 minutes long, the sheer number of scenes of the characters driving, flying or walking through the snow is mind-boggling. They travel from the American base to a smaller American base, then to a Russian base and back to the big American base Ö well, letís just say that there are apparently a whole lot Ďo bases in Antarctica. I guess thatís what you get from a film based on a graphic novel that has four screenwriters.
This movie at times tries to be a slasher-flick, with characters getting an ice ax in the chest right before they can be questioned. But itís hard to really care because most of them die right after they are introduced. Plus, there are so many plot-holes here and fight scenes so garbled in the editing room that is almost impossible to follow this movie. Why were the Russians flying in Antarctica? How do a bunch of scientists and researchers act so stupid? Who thought it would be a good idea to have chase scenes in the middle of a snowstorm so nobody can tell whatís going on?
All that being said, the problem with Whiteout is simple: itís just boring. No suspense and a wimpy plot about flat characters. Iíd rather watch snow fall. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 9/11/09)
Since Mike Judge, the writer/director of the new work-place comedy Extract also happens to have made Office Space, one of the best work-place comedies ever, there’s good reason to expect a pretty funny movie. In fact, that very expectation may taint many a moviegoer’s experience with this film, because a new Office Space this most defiantly is not.
Joel (Jason Bateman) is a man who would seem to have it all: He owns his own successful flavor-extract business, lives in a mansion with his beautiful wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig of Saturday Night Live), and may soon make a bundle selling his company for a big pile of cash. Unfortunately, a bizarre industrial accident — that looks like it was taken out of a Final Destination movie — violently removes the testacies of “Step” (Clifton Collins Jr.), a sort-of white trash laborer who works the floor of Joel’s factory. Sounds funny, right?
Enter Cindy (Mila Kunis from That 70’s Show), a grifter and con-artist who hears about the accident and makes a move on Step in order to push him to sue Joel for all he’s worth. Joel, however, wants to make some “moves” with Cindy himself after she pretends to be a temp at his factory, so he hires a male prostitute to sleep with his wife so he won’t feel guilty about his own infidelity — all with the help of Ben Affleck in a really bad wig.
Okay, if you couldn’t guess by now, this movie is just a big mess. It’s almost as if Judge had a half-finished script, figured, “Well, I guess I can just rest on my Office Space laurels,” and just ran with what he had. Bateman, as always, gives it his best try, but who can like a character that tries to trick his wife into cheating on him so he can cheat on her?
As for Wiig’s character Suzie, I have no clue what’s going on with her. She is portrayed at first as somewhat frigid, yet later jumps on Brad, the prostitute/moron, without a second thought, which makes absolutely no sense at all, not to mention wasting a great comedic talent of Wiig’s caliber.
Even the concept of a flavor-extract business is wasted. You would think that somehow such a unique business would pay off in some kind of humorous event or metaphor, but unfortunately it doesn’t happen.
However, even those complaints don’t cover the gigantic, glaring pile of crap in this movie that is Ben Affleck. I’m sure his character had a name, but all I ever got out of his “performance” was: “Hi, I’m Ben Affleck in a really bad mullet-wig.” He’s supposedly Joel’s best friend, but they have no chemistry whatsoever, in fact in some scenes Bateman, who may have thought he was off-camera, actually seems to be exasperated with Affleck, whose presence in several scenes of drug abuse are pointless and moronic.
While I’m willing to forgive Judge since he created both Beavis and Butt-head and Office Space, I think that Extract will most likely be “extracted” from most theaters in short order. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 9/4/2009)
As the name implies, Motherland visits the continent of Africa. It also journeys into the emotional landscape of motherhood.
Filmmaker Jennifer Steinman documents five mothers still grieving the tragic loss of their children (and one young woman whose brother recently died) as they embark upon a 17-day volunteer mission in South Africa. The six U. S. citizens’ mission is to work with under-privileged South African children who have also suffered loss as a result of the AIDS epidemic.
There’s no technical sparkle here, just a documentary in which people tell their stories to a camera and let the camera’s watchful eye capture some of their daily activities. The wizardry is in what Steinman chooses to let us see and hear.
We first meet the women and find out about the loved ones that they lost. The tragedies that claimed their loved ones range from car accident to shooting to suicide. All of the women now feel isolated from the rest of the world as they continue to crawl through a maze of grief.
Some of them look forward to the trip because it will unite them with others who have suffered a similar tragedy. They anticipate the relief of living among peers who understand grief’s dry, lonely terrain.
Ironically, even in this supportive group, one of the women continues to isolate herself. While the other women talk and play with the children and converse with each other she sits alone (at one point she sits in a grassy field a distance from her peers).
Motherland offers no easy solutions or platitudes. It reminds viewers of Africa’s communal suffering and grief. Then it juxtaposes the grief of a continent with the very personal grief of individual women. Finally, it simply acknowledges that we all have grief.
In 80 minutes this quiet, little film introduces us to everyday folks who could be any of us and probably will be most of us in some way and at some point in our lives. (no MPAA rating) Rating: 4 (Posted 9/04/09)
The film is available for online viewing through www.giganticdigital.com
On the way out of the theater after the critic’s screening of the romantic comedy All About Steve, I turned to a fellow reviewer and asked him if Sandra Bullock, the star and producer, had ever won an Oscar. His reply beat mine to the punch: “I don’t think so, but if she did she’d have to give it back now.” Indeed.
Sandra Bullock plays the lead character, Mary Horowitz, a nerdy fact-spouting crossword puzzle designer who lives with her parents. After a blind date with Steve (Bradley Cooper), a “CCN” news cameraman, Mary becomes certain that the two are soul-mates because …well, because Steve is really good looking, I guess.
Soon, Mary is off chasing Steve as he travels from media event to media event with Hartman (Thomas Haden Church), an obnoxious reporter that makes Geraldo look competent. As each unexpected meeting with Mary slowly drives Steve crazy, Hartman eggs Mary on, telling her that Steve is “afraid of commitment,” which she buys for no reason whatsoever. Finally, Mary gains some quirky friends, realizes the importance of being who she is, and saves the day when a deaf kid falls down a mineshaft.
If that plot sounds a little like a made-for-television movie, you would be giving it even more credit than it deserves. This is just a dumb movie. If Mary’s supposed to be so smart, why does she keep doing stupid things? Where’s the romance here? Where’s the comedy? Church’s Hartman, who gets the rare laugh here, just seems to be bored with his role. The media events, like a three-legged baby and a hostage situation at an Old West theme park, which are supposed to be ironic, just seem dated and trite. Even the “big” story, deaf kids falling down a mineshaft, seems ridiculous: All the suspense in the rescue could have been solved if somebody would have just used a rope.
The major fault of this movie falls squarely on one person: Sandra Bullock. This is obviously a vehicle solely designed to showcase her talent, and she simply fails to pull it off, big-time. She makes Mary seem both sad and stupid, which is hardly attractive traits in any character, let alone the lead. This movie should be dropped down a mineshaft and left there. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted 9/4/2009)
|Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.
Deborah Young can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at email@example.com.
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