Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Conviction has some important edges over those other movies that deal with people who’ve been wrongly convicted. For one thing, the true story that inspired it is actually interesting.
Most of us would probably make great sacrifices for a brother or sister. Betty Anne Waters (two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank) went even farther. As depicted in the film, when her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is charged with the grizzly murder of an elderly woman, Betty Anne knows intuitively that he is innocent.
At first, her attempts to get her brother out of jail seem misguided and foolish. His guilt initially seems painfully obvious. In court, he’s up against two incriminating eyewitnesses and a hard-nosed, respected local cop (Melissa Leo, Frozen River). Kenny also has a reputation for volatile, unpredictable behavior. In his version of anger management, fists are an acceptable way to settle disputes.
Betty Anne, however, has too much loyalty to her brother to let the guilty verdict stand. The two practically raised each other because of their absentee parents. Finding an attorney who can take their case is nearly impossible. Kenny’s record and Betty Anne’s meager bank account stand in the way of anyone who might be able to assist them.
Because of these limitations, she literally decides to take the law into her own hands. She decides to study for the Massachusetts Bar Exam. She knows it will take time, especially because she’s a high school dropout.
Thanks to the support of another older student named Abra (Minnie Driver), Betty Anne slowly gets through her demanding classes, but her attempts to juggle law school and raising her sons often come for naught. The fact that she’s divorced doesn’t make it her situation any smoother.
Fortunately, she attracts the attention of Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) of the Innocence Project in New York and discovers more and more evidence that her belief in Kenny’s innocence wasn’t blind faith.
Pamela Gray’s script makes Betty Anne’s decades long, uphill battle credible. Getting through the rigors of college is difficult for full-time students, much less single moms with jobs. In addition, Swank and Rockwell are believable as close relatives.
While Swank is solid as Betty Anne, the film belongs to Rockwell. Without overdoing it, he effortlessly captures Kenny’s mercurial demeanor, but he also projects enough charm to make his release seem like a good idea.
This is especially important because Kenny’s bad traits become worse in prison. Frequently, resigned to dying in the big house for a crime he didn’t commit. He becomes more violent and angry because he believes he has nothing to lose. Rockwell consistently makes his pain seem real. The actor may not appear that physically intimidating at first, but neither does a live grenade.
For a film that takes place over dozens of years, there are few concessions made for either period detail or even the age of the performers. Swank looks the same throughout the film regardless of whether she’s raising toddlers or teenagers. Occasionally, Rockwell gets a few patches of gray in his hair, but that’s about it. A little more detail in this direction might have made the film more involving because the passage of time would have seemed more evident.
While the film doesn’t mention it, Kenny sadly died a few months after he was exonerated and freed. His survivors can take small comfort in the fact that he went to his grave without the taint of the murder hanging over his head and that the movie based on his case did him justice. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 10/29/10)
The Tillman Story
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
In his latest documentary, director Amir Bar-Lev carves out a careful indictment of a wartime cover up by unraveling of the myth of an American hero. Through a combination of archive footage, personal interviews, and a complicated paper trail, The Tillman Story offers a comprehensive and believable re-creation of the events leading up to and following the untimely death of former professional football player Pat Tillman.
For reasons undisclosed, in 2002 California golden boy Pat Tillman walked away from a lucrative professional football contract to join the Army alongside his younger brother Kevin. After he completed a tour of duty in Iraq, he again turned down a football contract and was sent to Afghanistan to finish his three-year commitment to the Army. In April 2004, Tillman, 27, was killed by friendly fire, or fratricide. However, his death was initially reported as related to combat with insurgents, and Tillman was lauded by the George W. Bush administration as a true American hero.
Unnerved by the propaganda surrounding her son, Pat's tenacious mother, Dannie Tillman, set out to investigate the circumstances related to his death. Her investigation eventually led to the discovery of the fratricide and a leaked document, known as a P4 memo, sent from Gen. Stanly McChrystal to White House officials regarding the cover up story and the disregard toward the plans Tillman, a professed atheist, had requested for his burial services. A subsequent Congressional probe into the matter results in a stalemate, and the truth behind Tillman's death and the aftermath remains in doubt.
The success of the documentary hangs on Bar-Levs' tender but honest treatment of the Tillman family and their memories of a beloved son, brother, and husband. In return, the family has given the director an all-access pass to footage, documents, and even, at times, their continuing frustration and grief. In particular, Dannie Tillman's interviews are candid and engaging and reveal the source of the family's complex personalities: both freely playful and deeply considerate. Bar-Lev manages to capture the pride and joy, as well the sadness and anger, that comes from her reminiscing about her oldest son's life and death without the scenes feeling forced or exploitive.
As a whole, the interviews, especially those of Tillman's comrades present at the scene of his death, build to a revealing crescendo and provide the main tension of the film. They're cleverly ordered to offer a criticism of the military mindset that provided the means for the cover up as they finally reveal all that can possibly be known about Tillman's death. Bar-Lev allows the evidence to suggest the motives behind the lies, but also successfully implies the unconventional beliefs and idiosyncratic ways that led Tillman to question the validity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have led to his demise, or at least to the myth of him the government created to hide the mistake of his death. Kevin Tillman's outburst at his brother's funeral is finally given its proper context, and we all should feel as outraged. R Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 10/29/10)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
In the five decades that have passed since Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl led to a ludicrous obscenity trial, it’s easy to take for granted how powerful and shocking the poem seemed during the late ‘50s.
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the team behind the terrific documentaries The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet, try to do a lot in a mere 90 minutes with the film version of Howl. If the film falls short on some of its goals, it’s easy to believe that Ginsberg would have approved Epstein and Friedman’s ambition.
In addition to featuring a stirring reading of the poem by James Franco, the film version of Howl also explores the forces in Ginsberg’s life that led him to write his best-known work and re-creation of a trial that might have wiped it from memory. Having literary aspirations of his own, Franco clearly enjoys playing the embattled poet, and it’s easy to share his enthusiasm.
As portrayed in the film, Ginsberg feels out of place in the conformist environment of post-World War II America. As a gay man afraid to tell other men about his longings, it’s easy to see why he’d check himself into mental institutions or why he’s find writing advertising copy for a living unfulfilling. Apparently, it gets old trying to sell dreams he’s never had.
Ginsberg and most of his friends and acquaintances are long gone, so they’re obviously not available to appear in any documentary that could be made by Epstein and Friedman. Instead, Franco’s Ginsberg narrates his life as if he’s being interviewed, while documentary-like flashbacks illustrate his recollections.
The film then periodically cuts to passages from Howl accompanied by bleak animated sequences that look like a combination of Blade Runner, Mad Men and 1984. Because Howl was written in the shadow of the Red Scare, this approach works. Seeing the Cold War imagery puts Ginsberg’s words back in the context of when they were written. You can feel the atmosphere he did as he was sitting at the typewriter.
The most satisfying moments of the film come during the trial. Attorney Jake Erlich (Jon Hamm) had what now seems like a needless duty to defend the First Amendment from spectacularly misguided cultural guardians (played by the likes of Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels).
Hearing what were at the time respected literary figures attempting to evaluate Ginsberg’s verse as if it were a term paper is hysterically funny. Lines that are self-explanatory are examined as if they were ancient Sumerian script. Watching Erlich systematically demolish these bogus literary theories is more amusing than what often passes for late night comedy these days.
Hamm looks and sounds nothing like the real Erlich, but his stentorian delivery keep viewers from forgetting the stakes of the trial. Think of the other literary treasures that might have been lost if a judge other than the conservative, but open-minded Clayton Horn (Bob Balaban) had been presiding over the case.
If Howl had been a documentary, it’s tempting to think that some essential questions might have been answered that ignored here. For example, it would be worth knowing why Ginsberg himself was not that active in the defense of his own writing during the court proceedings.
During the interview segments, Ginsberg merely says that he hopes publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers) comes out of the trial all right. Ferlinghetti, not Ginsberg, was the defendant, but everybody in the courtroom argues over what the absent Ginsberg meant by passages from his work.
Nonetheless by juggling multiple narratives and twisting chronology, Epstein and Friedman have taken some of the same risks that Ginsberg did when he wrote Howl. They may not always pay off, but the film would be far poorer if they didn’t try. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 10/22/10)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Clint Eastwood has made no secret of his libertarian political views. Thankfully, the 80-year-old director applies that philosophy to his audiences as well. Eastwood figures that viewers don’t need to be told when a scene is supposed to be tragic or comic. Whereas some filmmakers practically deafen viewers with the soundtrack music during a film’s most emotional moments, Eastwood, who composes his own scores, figures an actor’s facial expressions are the only tools he needs.
While Eastwood is working the accomplished British screenwriter Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen), he’s probably about the only director who could prevent Hereafter from becoming oppressively maudlin. Because the film concentrates so heavily on the afterlife (hence, the title) and loss, Eastwood’s cool, distant approach is just about right.
That’s not to say the director has any aversion to spectacle. Hereafter begins with a horrifying tsunami that devastates a tropical island. It almost kills a French journalist named Marie LeLay (Belgian actress Cécile De France). During a period when she’s clinically dead, she enters a world she can’t comprehend and finds returning to her work as a glamorous but muckraking TV anchor almost impossible. She’s even abandoned a comprehensive biography of the late French President François Mitterrand because she’d rather find out what she saw during her time in the void.
A San Francisco dockworker named George Lonegan (Matt Damon) might be able to help her. That doesn’t mean he wants to. If George touches someone’s hands, he can relay messages from the dead to that person he comes into contact with. Once upon a time, he made a good living helping people contact their deceased relatives.
It sounds like a nice ability to have. Unfortunately, the dead don’t always have pleasant revelations for the living, and George doesn’t like learning uncomfortable secrets about the people he encounters. As a result, it’s easy to see why he lives a hermitic existence. Getting close to people only seems to hurt others. Even when a classmate (Bryce Dallas Howard) in his Italian cooking course starts taking an interest in him, George knows isolation is his only hope.
While George is brooding over his psychic affliction, a ten-year-old Londoner named Marcus has just lost his older twin Jason (real-life twins Frankie and George McLaren take turns playing both roles). The bright lad is understandably having a tough time, and his misfortunes have been compounded by the fact that his mother is unable to console him because she’s in rehab. Marcus consults with some psychics to find what Jason would have wanted him to do.
Morgan has obviously devoted some thought to his three-pronged scenarios. As Marcus wanders through London, he discovers how fraudulent many people who claim to be psychics are. Morgan and Eastwood present examples of cold readings (“I’m sensing someone whose name begins with ‘J.’”) and other techniques these charlatans use to dupe and exploit the bereaved.
While Marcus is grieving, he’s not stupid. It’s refreshing to see a movie about the afterlife that admits that much of the discourse we’ve had on the subject has been useless and even potentially toxic bunk. If someone could indeed see into the spirit world, such an individual might be a brooding recluse like George. Thanks to Damon’s suitably morose performance, the portions of the film involving George tend to be the film’s strongest.
Hereafter gets a little frustrating during Marie’s portions because her quest for the afterlife seems underdeveloped. For someone who’s such a thorough investigator in confronted crooked CEOs, she seems a little too quick to reach her conclusions about the afterlife. Morgan’s previous dramas have often been intimate to the point of claustrophobic, so seemingly dull subjects like Tony Blair’s ascendancy to Prime Minister through a backroom arrangement (The Deal) become engrossing and tense.
With a more complicated storyline and a broader canvas, Morgan leaves some points underdeveloped. Hereafter runs two hours and nine minutes, but allowing more of storylines to flesh out might have resulted in a more satisfying film. If we could follow Marie on some dead ends, it might make her final discovery seem more, well, revelatory. If Morgan had settled for a single narrative strand, Hereafter might not have seemed occasionally distracted.
Nonetheless, it’s easier to believe that there is a heaven because Eastwood and Morgan have decided to let viewers ultimately make sense of our protagonists’ discoveries. If Hereafter isn’t as prophetic as it tries to be, at least its makers have a healthy respect for the unknown. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 10/22/10)
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead
Gerald "Stone" Creeson (Edward Norton) has a little problem: After nine years in prison his only chance at parole lies with Jack Mabry (Robert De
Niro), a hard-nosed prison official assigned with recommending a prisoner's freedom or more hard time. Stone hatches a plot with his sexually amoral wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich, minus the zombies) to seduce Jack, which soon results in a spiral that could destroy them all.
Which it does ... sort of.
Director John Curran and writer Angus MacLachlan have created a gritty, dark and ugly movie in which no one is particularly likable. Norton's Stone, sitting in the first scene with Mabry, is instantly identifiable as pure white trash, from his cornrows down to his inability to go three words without uttering a profanity. De Niro's Jack is at first almost like a friendly therapist, constantly pushing Stone to take responsibility for the crime that landed him in the slammer (his crime, revealed later, isn't so much horrific as it is pathetically stupid).
Later, after knocking boots with Lucetta, we start to see Mabry's church-loving veneer begin to peel off, and expose the real and extremely troubled man underneath (a short scene at the very beginning, easily forgotten only moments later, begins to explain far more about Jack as the film progresses). Stone, despite his limited intellect, is beginning to lose his mind in the endless deafening noise of prison, and later seems to find a type of religion even as Jack casts his aside in a classic De Niro rant.
Truly, it is the scenes between Norton and De Niro, in Jack's office, that are as brutal and intelligent as a David Mamet play (you could almost call this "Glengarry Glen Ross in prison"). Their dialog twists and turns as each talk: Stone just wants to find the right thing to say, even though he fully admits he feels little remorse for his actions, while Jack becomes ever more frustrated with Stone's inability to just say the right things and get out of his way. Not to discredit Jovovich: she proves without a doubt that she can play with the big boys here. There's also an interesting metaphysical quest running though this film: Stone's need for quiet is book-ended by the buzzing of a fly, something that sounds absurd but is as engrossing as anything I've seen. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/22/10)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Mademoiselle Cambon might have been a quiet but powerful look at unattainable love if French director Stéphane Brizé hadn’t stepped into well-worn territory. Even if you haven’t seen the actors or any of Brizé’s previous films, it’s easy to get ahead of the characters as they find themselves trapped in a doomed infatuation.
Based on a novel by Eric Holder (not the current Attorney General), Mademoiselle Cambon concerns a construction worker named Jean (Vincent Lindon) who may be wearier of his routine than he realizes. When he’s not sweating on a building site, he’s taking care of his aging father (Jean-Marc Thibault), attempting to help his son Jérémy (Arthur Le Houérou) with homework he himself finds challenging or having mundane conversations with his wife Anne-Marie (Aure Atika).
When Anne-Marie gets injured at the factory where she works, Jean has to pick up Jérémy at school and discovers the lad’s teacher, Véronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain). Despite being a capable teacher, Véronique has bounced from school to school, so finding a lasting emotional connection with an adult has been difficult. She also used to play violin but is now too rusty and too shy to pick it up again.
Jean may work with power tools, but he feels downright sentimental about building people’s houses, so Véronique is able to tap into a side that even his closest relatives cannot.
Watching Jean and Véronique gradually swoon over each other might have been more involving if the former were more sympathetic. He continues his flirtations with Véronique even after Anne-Marie becomes pregnant with their second child. Furthermore, he starts parking his car outside her house like a stalker. There’s a thin line between being a wounded lover and being a potential predator.
As a fan of movies like Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud and Cairo Time, where consummation takes a back seat to flirtation, I found it hard to share Jean’s longing. He and Véronique would certainly make an awkward match in a long-term relationship. He winds up looking more like a fool than collateral damage from cupid.
To their credit, Brizé and his co-screenwriter Florence Vignon, who won a César or French Oscar for this film, come up with some simple but haunting sequences that almost make viewers forget what a twit Jean is becoming. The violin music, which features selections from Elgar and others, sets the mood nicely and pulls viewers into the would-be lovers’ desire in a way that the action does not. Brizé also has a wonderful eye for composition that casual viewers might miss. Nothing much may be happening on screen, but Brizé tells viewers quite a bit about the characters simply by how he places them in the frame.
Because of his potentially intriguing approach to storytelling, it’s reasonable to expect something special from Brizé’s next movie, especially if he finds characters that are easier to identify with. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 10/22/10)
Waiting for “Superman”
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Davis Guggenheim’s last documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, won an Oscar in part for its dire warning of climate change and for his ability to make the normally tedious droning of Al Gore sound engrossing.
This time around Guggenheim speaks for himself about a crisis that has been festering for decades in front of our eyes, while little has been done to address it. Over the past half-century or so, America’s public schools have been failing our youngsters, and, despite some ambitious programs, a long string of “education presidents” have been little more than bystanders to the decline.
According to Guggenheim, who currently sends his offspring to private institutions, many of the traditional scapegoats have little to do with the fact that a good number of European students are far more proficient in math and science. For example, Guggenheim points out that failing schools aren’t necessarily the fault of run down neighborhoods. Geoffrey Canada, the educator who’s the primary focus of the film, has run a school in one of the worst neighborhoods in Harlem, but 90 percent or more of the students in the school he runs graduate and go on to college.
Instead, Guggenheim targets teachers unions. Although he points out that teachers once had to unionize to combat unfair working conditions, he and co-writer Billy Kimball go into great detail to demonstrate how the National Education Association and the American Federation of teachers spend more of their efforts preserving teaching jobs, all teaching jobs, instead of advancing the profession.
As the son of two dedicated but now retired teachers, I have to admit the assertion riled me. Nonetheless, Guggenheim’s case is persuasive. Regardless of their capabilities, teachers can be difficult to fire. Waiting for “Superman” features graphic footage of teachers who spend taxpayer-funded time reading newspapers and doing anything but teaching. One frustrated principal remembers having to hire back the teachers he fired for these offenses because their contracts were ironclad.
Guggenheim illustrates the phenomenon with an animated sequence called the “lemon dance” where the bumbling educators who’ve disgraced their peers are shuffled from school to school in the hopes that one day they’ll cease to be a problem. Because folks like these keep their jobs, students lose enthusiasm for school and simply attend until they’re released without having learned the skills to get through college.
To be fair to teachers, even the terrific ones aren’t paid nearly what they’re worth. Comic Daymon Wayans once lamented that we as a society pay more for a plumber to help us dispose of bodily waste than we do the people who work with our children. Michelle Rhee, the soon-to-be former chancellor of the Washington D.C. schools, offered qualified teachers substantial raises, which might have come close to half of what educators are really worth, if the union would stop protecting the “lemons.”
Sadly, the “lemons” won.
While Guggenheim has a case, it’s hard not to wonder if unfairly subjective material could be applied to a teacher. After all, even the most effective teachers could be “lemons” or “turkeys” for students who can’t relate to them.
Guggenheim thankfully has more on his mind than union bashing. For one thing, he points out that the model that most schools have been following is based on an antiquated economic model. Once upon a time, it made sense to sub-categorize or “track” students because only a few would go on to college, and most would go on to work in manufacturing or agriculture. Those days are long gone, and the jobs that are available in this stunted economy are in the high-tech field where workers with the math and science skills needed to fill it have to be imported from abroad.
Throughout the film, Guggenheim illustrates his points with entertaining but scary bits of animation that make the crisis hit home. He also follows families from different parts of the country who have to sign up for lotteries so that their children can attend schools like Canada’s. The waiting lists to get into them are so long that only a few out of hundreds or thousands can get it. Some parents might have better chances with Powerball.
The title comes from Canada remembering how he felt devastated as a child when he discovered that the Man of Steel not only wasn’t going to solve problems in his inner city neighborhood but also didn’t even exist. Guggenheim and Canada would agree that our children are too precious to leave in the hands of a system that certainly needs a few superheroes to correct it. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted on 10/15/10)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Good casting can occasionally make up for underdeveloped material. This is true even if the performers aren’t known for action or are too long in tooth to be recognized by the teen fans that frequent popcorn movies.
In the case of RED, the 55-year-old Bruce Willis heads a cast of thespians who are either past or nearing retirement age. And yet, it’s a treat to see him and his cohorts dodge explosions and destroy acres of property.
Willis plays Frank Moses, a bored retiree whose only contact with the world is a Kansas City bureaucrat named Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) who makes sure he gets his retirement checks. The two have a surprisingly easy rapport. Talking with Sarah on the phone sure beats staring at the Spartan walls of Frank’s home, and he’s the only man she’s dealt with who doesn’t seem like a loser.
When a gang of well-armed thugs break into Frank’s house to kill him, they quickly discover how he’s managed to live so long despite having once been the CIA’s most feared black ops agent. In a matter of minutes, he skillfully neutralizes their threat and rushes to keep the startled Sarah from falling into their clutches.
Because the firepower that was unleashed on him couldn’t come from anywhere else but his own government, Frank recruits his fellow retirees to find out why he’s been marked for death. His old pals include a paranoid fellow named Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), whose worldview was shaped by being the test subject of agency experiments in LSD.
There’s also the suave Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), who’d rather go back into action than wait for liver cancer to kill him. Even an elegant former MI6 agent (Helen Mirren) and a crafty Russian (Brian Cox) are eager to stop CIA rogues before they get out of control.
Despite having a promising FBI agent named Cooper (Karl Urban) on their trail, the entire U.S. government would be wise to leave this quintet alone. German director Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveler’s Wife) makes few, if any, concessions to the real world. So it’s easy to believe these folks could take out legions of hired guns. All the action is handled with the subtlety of a volcanic eruption. With Willis’ wisecracks, it’s not dissimilar to watching what Bugs Bunny used to do to Yosemite Sam.
These unlikely action heroes also have a surprisingly effective chemistry. Malkovich’s vein-popping hysteria is nicely complimented by Willis’ more laconic turn.
Curiously, for a movie that’s so dependent on its stars’ personas, there’s a shortage of genuine bon mots. Mirren and Cox have two magnificent voices, so it’s shame the words out of their mouths, written by Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber from Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner’s graphic novel, don’t match the actors’ gold standard. When Malkovich bellows “Old, my ass!” it’s funny not because of the wit in the material but from the actor’s manic delivery.
On second though, these folks seem to be elated as they make chumps out of their younger costars. Maybe “Old, my ass!” goes a long way in explaining the appeal of RED, which stands for “Retired, and Extremely Dangerous.” (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 10/15/10)
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead
The tagline for the new documentary Freakonomics is "Some of the world's most innovative documentary filmmakers will explore the hidden side of everything,” which sounds fine, as long as everything is actually just five things, each directed by five different (but talented) filmmakers.
Using the idea that you can take economic data, crunch it down and come up with startling results on complex social issues is pretty cool: the main problem here is that the results aren't very startling and the social issues aren't very complex.
It's not that this is a bad film ╤ it is quite watchable, whimsical at times and quite clever in others. It just doesn't have quite the impact that I think the filmmakers thought it would.
Take Morgan Spurlock's segment on names: "A Roshanda by Any Other Name.╙ Is it really that startling to discover that the name Tyrone tends to be identified with African Americans, which might make it harder to get a job? It does have a telling section that starts to say that, in fact, it's how and where you are raised that either propels you to succeed or condemns you to fail, but that's dropped in favor of chasing around racism, not economics, as the counting factor.
Probably the most interesting and controversial segment is Eugene Jarecki's "It's Not Always a Wonderful Life,” which argues that much of the drop in crime in the ╘90s was a result of the legalization of abortion. His argument is beautifully bereft of emotional appeals or indignant outrage: Its "here's the facts, like 'em or not," and because of that simple honesty many people will quickly condemn this film without ever seeing a single second of it.
The weakest segment would seem to be "Pure Corruption" by Peter Bull and Alex Gibney, which delves into the corruption of Japan's Sumo wrestlers. Sure, it's a little bit interesting to see how Japan's culture, so proper and respectful on the surface, has a dark and dirty side, but that's hardly an amazing discovery, and I could do with a lot less slow-motion shots of gigantic sweaty man-butts in huge thongs slamming together. A whole lots less, thank you very much.
Since this is based on a popular series of books, it's not surprising that they presented it in a kind of "chapter" form. Too bad they couldn't find some bigger surprise for some of those chapters. (PG 1) Rating: 3 (Posted 10/11/10)
Kings of Pastry
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
If Chicago-based pastry chef Jacquy Pfeiffer ever prepares your wedding cake, it’s a safe bet that you and your spouse will never get divorced. That’s not quite true. One bite of his craftsmanship might make you never want to leave the reception room.
While running a successful French pastry school in the Windy City might seem a wonderful career, he still won’t feel satisfied until he earns a red, white and blue collar that only the best confectioners in France can wear. The competition for that collar, known as Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (or Best Craftsmen in France), happens every four years and is so demanding but prestigious that French President Nicolas Sarkozy personally shows up to congratulate the winners.
Veteran documentarians Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker prove there is as much drama in this bake-off as there is any sporting competition. As they did with Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in their Oscar-nominated The War Room, Hegedus and Pennebaker demonstrate that the most compelling moments in the competition happen when the public isn’t around.
Unlike a typical offering on the Food Network, the two look at Pfeiffer, their main subject, affectionately and never shirk from presenting how hard he works for the honor. Even though the MOF is so grueling, there’s no money to go with the honor, and the chefs themselves have to spend money that could pay for a house simply for the honor of being in the game. His long suffering girlfriend reveals that preparing for the MOF is so grueling that he is plagued by nightmares. The only way she can get him to return to sleep is by lying to him by saying that the competition has been cancelled. It’s too bad that they don’t make those collars for the spouses as well as the chefs.
Much of the mental strain is due to the fact that MOF bakers don’t merely stir up a mix and call it a cake. Many of their offerings are actually delicate sculptures that are as visually stunning as they are tasty. One of Pfeiffer’s cakes, for example, has individual layers of flavor that can taste radically different depending on how they are arranged. His competitor Philippe Rigollot’s chocolate lollipops are so beautifully sculpted that it seems cruel to eat them.
While all 16 of the chefs can do amazing work, their raw materials are anything but stable. Depending on humidity levels, a food sculpture that stood strong one day can collapse during the actual bake off. If it weren’t for the cameras, some of the chefs’ most astonishing creations would be lost forever because they are either eaten or abandoned.
Unlike marble, food doesn’t last for centuries.
Because Hegedus and Pennebaker get so close to these people, it’s heartbreaking when one of their dishes emerges from the oven in tatters or cracks up on its way to the display room. Hegedus and Pennebaker, who both edited, also have a terrific eye for pacing and suspense. Even if you already know who the MOFs are, it’s nail biting to watch them get to the winner’s circle.
With all that is wrong in the world, it’s great to know there are some people who treat their craft with enough care to make it the best. It’s true of the MOFs, and it’s certainly true for Hegedus and Pennebaker. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 10/09/10)
Jack Goes Boating
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
In his directorial debut, Philip Seymour Hoffman celebrates authentic eccentricity and a heartfelt willingness to overcome loneliness. Jack Goes Boating — at once both dark and playful — subverts the traditional romantic comedy to strike a remarkable balance between affecting and hopeful.
Despite serious misgivings, depressed Rasta wannabe Jack (Philip Seymour Hoffman) agrees to a blind date set up by outgoing married couple Clyde (John Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega). Although incredibly awkward at times, the date with wallflower Connie (Amy Ryan), Lucy's protégé in sales at a funeral home, goes reasonably well, and the two make plans to go boating in the summer. For this, Jack decides to take up best and only friend Clyde's offer of swim lessons at a local YMCA pool.
Assaulted by a subway pervert, Connie lands in the hospital. When Jack visits her, their clumsy flirtation leads to another odd request: for Jack to cook her dinner. Lessons from a professional chef, Lucy's former lover, lead to a second double date with irreversible consequences for the extroverts, while the shy couple endearingly blunders its way to a closer bond.
Based on the play by Bob Glaudini, the film's most notable feature is its ensemble cast (Hoffman, Ortiz, and Rubin-Vega reprise their roles). Unlike a Hollywood romantic comedy, in which the best friends are given small parts, mostly as comedic relief, the second couple in Jack Goes Boating provides a pivotal counterpoint. Fashionable and popular, Clyde and Lucy offer unsolicited advice and unfair judgment, when in fact they are purposely blind to their own situation, making excuses for themselves, which neither sad sack would ever believe.
Notwithstanding a pervasive sense of gracelessness, outsider Connie proves to be stronger and more forthright than her counterpart Lucy. Her nervous rambling only masks hidden desires. She's a woman who knows what she wants; she just doesn't know how to ask for it or feels bad for doing so. As a result, her strange requests and quirky delivery are refreshing and always unexpected. She provides a much-needed nervous tension to the mix that is resolved in uplifting ways.
Jack's transformation from anxious loner to likable beau is a testament to Hoffman's famous chameleon-like acting capabilities. As the director, he pans in on himself, showcasing a red, splotchy complexion and doughy body. His fingernails are dirty and the unformed dreadlocks in his greasy, stringy hair are singularly unattractive. But over the span of the courtship, Jack slowly and subtly becomes luminescent. The scenes depicting his building physical memory for swimming and cooking are lyrical and powerful. And much like the theme of the movie as a whole, the one sex scene between Connie and Jack begins as embarrassing and quirky but quickly turns toward tenderness. R Rating: 4.5 (Posted 10/08/10)
Never Let Me Go
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Never Let Me Go is a thoroughly unsettling movie, not because of anything that appears on screen. Instead, it’s mesmerizingly eerie because of what’s absent. Despite featuring an ethical quandary that should have people up in arms, the latest film from Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) is appropriately aggravating because no one onscreen feels the anger or the sorrow the audience eventually develops for the characters.
Working from British author Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later) deliver a science fiction story that doesn’t play like a typical offering for the genre. Ishiguro and Garland indicate that in the film’s version of reality, a dramatic medical breakthrough was made during the 1950s, enabling people to live 100 years or more. Five decades later, the world enjoys the benefits of the technology so much that almost no one seems to care about how it works or even what sacrifices were made so that it could happen.
Going back to the 1970s, the film follows a trio of children who attend a strange school named Hailsham House. The building looks like any British boarding school from the era, and the other technologies presented in the film don’t look out of place for the period. But from almost the first moment, it becomes obvious that these youngsters are experiencing something nightmarish.
Except for their classmates, they have no friends, and none of the students have any pictures of relatives anywhere near their sleeping quarters. They’re not allowed to leave the grounds for fear that someone or something might kidnap or kill them. And their most rigorous academic pursuit consists of making drawings. When they earn money, the students celebrate by splurging on the most tawdry trinkets imaginable, thinking them to be rare treasures.
Other than that, Kathy (played by Izzy Meikle-Small as a child and Carey Mulligan as an adult) appears to be experiencing a normal upbringing. She and her pal Ruth (Ella Purnell/Keira Knightley) both have crushes on their classmate Tommy (Charlie Rowe/Andrew Garfield), even though the lad seems to be a hopeless misfit.
Their rivalry comes to a temporary halt when their new teacher Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins, in a role that’s a 180 from Happy Go Lucky) tells Tommy that his malformed drawings are really unimportant. She’s gone the next day, while the school’s headmaster (Charlotte Rampling) barely acknowledges her absence.
Perhaps the most eerie aspect of Never Let Me Go is that the characters never understand their fate until the story is over. Despite being fed a cornucopia of lies, they seem resigned to their predicament and even, well, a little bit happy. The fact that their lives will be unduly short only barely affects them.
Thanks to thoroughly sympathetic performances from Mulligan and Garfield, it’s easy to care about Kathy and Tommy’s outcome, even if the setup initially seems outlandish. Romanek’s matter-of-fact direction never pulls on viewers’ heartstrings because his performers do just fine on their own. While there is a creepy, dull look to Never Let Me Go, the film’s startling revelations are delivered with a chilling whisper instead of scream. Seeing the Kathy, Ruth and Tommy denied their basic humanity is pretty sobering on its own.
Ishiguro also wrote The Remains of the Day, and his stories often feature characters who passively accept the most appalling situations. Just as the characters in the previous book and film quietly acquiesced to the Nazis, the offenses here go by with barely a comment.
Romanek expects a lot from his viewers in order to get pulled into his film. Its dire secret sneaks up on audience members who are patient enough to pay close attention. Perhaps his consideration for audience intelligence is why he bailed on the abysmal remake The Wolfman before the cameras started rolling. I, for one, am grateful for his decision-making. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 10/08/10)
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
The story of one of the all-time greatest racehorses languishes under director Randall Wallace's uneven attention to detail and lack of a central narrative. Cursed with the maddening tendency to cut away at pivotal moments, Secretariat vacillates between speechifying and wisecracking while completely missing the point.
After her mother's funeral, Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane) stays on at her father's horse farm to care for her senile father (Scott Glenn) and ready the farm for sale. Intrigued with the lineage of a foal soon to be born, she extends her stay to include participating in a coin toss ritual started by her father and another horse breeder (James Cromwell). To the dismay of her family, particularly her husband, Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh), Penny loses the toss, and in doing so wins the foal.
Against the wishes of her husband and brother (Dylan Baker), Penny hires the trainer Lucien Lauren (John Malkovich) and with the assistance of her father's secretary, Miss Ham (Margo Martindale), and loyal groom, Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), continues to run her father's farm with particular attention to the foal, Big Red, with occasional visits back to her home and busy family in Denver. Upon the death of her father, Penny concocts a scheme involving Big Red, now officially named Secretariat, to pay the inheritance taxes and save the farm, but it hinges on the untested horse winning races.
As Penny, Diane Lane gets more screen time than the five horses enlisted to resemble Secretariat combined. The actress adeptly alternates between determined and vulnerable, but Mike Rich's script dumbs down the storyline, putting the burden of exposition on the dialogue. Granted, both the coin toss arrangement and the breeder shares scheme are complicated to explain, but he gives the same treatment to Penny's home life, which comes off as obvious and preachy. Fortunately, as the voluble French-Canadian trainer, John Malkovich wasn't constrained by the script. His enjoyable diatribes sound as if he made them up himself.
The relationship among Penny, Lucien, Miss Ham, Eddie and Ronnie Turcotte (real-life jockey Otto Thorwarth) starts well. In fact, it's close to the original Bad News Bears — aragtag team of underdogs bucking convention and using their unusual talents to overcome adversity and win. The moment in which Secretariat’s first race ends is the most successful scene of the film. But just as the audience is beginning to feel something for the characters, the focus switches back to Penny's less interesting family. The story never gains focus, so all the storylines suffer.
Whether for the purpose of emotional manipulation or sheer perversion, the makers of Secretariat have twisted the legend into an underdog story. Instead of assuming a knowledgeable audience, they've created a formulaic feel-good movie that lacks the esoteric detail that would bring real interest and genuine heart to the film. Instead of a film that illuminates a special moment in history, this one merely attempts to re-enact it, filling the screen with reaction shots to races already run. The celebrated four-legged athlete is conspicuously absent from his own movie. PG Rating: 2.5 (Posted 10/8/10)
Life As We Know It
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Even in 1939, the year Hollywood turned out its finest crop of films it was a factory town. From watching Life as We Know It, it seems the plant has devolved into a sweatshop populated by indifferent but indentured workers who cover their shoddy products with a fresh coat of lead-based paint.
Life as We Know It is a romantic comedy that has too many poop jokes to be funny and characters that are too obnoxious for audiences to love. It’s tempting to blame star Kathering Heigl for how stale and lifeless the film is because her big screen output since Knocked Up has consisted solely of weak “rom-coms,” and she’s demonstrated no desire to appear in any other sort of movie.
Actually, the blame should probably be shared by producers Paul Brooks and Barry Josephson for supporting such an unimaginative and uninvolving sort of flick. Oh, wait a second. Heigl is credited as an executive producer, so she can take a greater portion of the blame.
Heigl plays Holly Berenson, a baker who hopes to expand her business (there seems to be a big market for specialty pastries in the movies these days i.e. Kings of Pastry). Of course, her love life is as drab as her dishes are delightful. When her friends Peter and Alison (Hayes MacArthur and Christina Hendricks) try to set her up on a date with a mutual friend named Eric Messer (Josh Duhamel), for example, the results are catastrophic. The two don’t even make it to the restaurant.
Much of this is due to the fact that Messer is a boor. He pinches women’s posteriors and has a foul, sexist mouth. To her credit, Holly isn’t masochistic enough to hang around with him outside of social events that Peter and Alison host. Only lazy Hollywood screenwriters (in this case, Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson), or Peter and Alison would ever put these two together.
Before you can pick out a bridal registry, Peter and Alison die in a car accident and leave their baby daughter Sophie (adorably played by sisters Alexis Clagett, Brynn Clagett and Brooke Clagett) to Holly and Messer. Just as sure as you can expect jokes involving soiled diapers, you can also expect some wisecracks that never rise above the fecal level. About the wittiest, line in the film features a neighbor informing the overworked Holly, “Sweetie, you’ve got shit on your face.”
No, the humor doesn’t get as crude as Knocked Up, but Life As We Know It never matches the vulgar wit or heart of the previous film, even though the plotlines are similar. While Seth Rogen’s character always cussed a blue streak throughout the previous movie, it was a pleasure seeing him learn to look beyond the haze of his bong and become a mensch. Messer, however, starts out as a creep and stays one. Anyone who’d leave their offspring in his hands should be reported to SRS immediately.
As tempting as it is to trash Heigl, she does have a knack for physical comedy. She could probably use her skills more effectively if she worked with a director with a better sense of tone than Greg Berlanti. Life as We Know It goes from glum to silly to sappy and practically bludgeons the audience with its intentions. Oddly, because everything is telegraphed minutes ahead of time, none of the emotions these filmmakers aim for ever arises. It’s like waiting for Steven Seagal to show a facial expression other than a scowl.
Something tells me home movies of Clagett sisters being themselves would be more edifying than Life as We Know It. It’s easy to get the feeling that their parents would probably devote more love to their activities than any of the folks involved in this allegedly professional feature film have. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted on 10/08/10)
It's Kind of a Funny Story
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
Writer/director team Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson, Sugar) make a half-hearted visit to the cuckoo's nest for this chintzy teen movie. Unlike their previous endeavor, Half Nelson, which handled both its larger issues and personal character arcs sensitively and realistically, It's Kind of a Funny Story — stunted by perfunctory machinations of the narrative compounded by an abbreviated timeline ― wins the underachiever of the year award.
Despite an emergency room doctor's hesitation, suicidal 16-year-old Craig Gilner (Keir Gilchrist of The United States of Tara) checks himself into the psychiatric ward of the hospital. Unfortunately, as the flimsy premise would have it, the youth wing is temporarily closed for renovation and Craig is thrown in with the general adult population, including his depressively comatose Egyptian roommate and Bobby (Zach Galifianakis of The Hangover, Dinner for Schmucks), a bipolar cretin who somehow, over the course of a mere five days, becomes Craig's charity case as well as mentor.
Given the tour of the psychiatric ward, Craig balks (and really, rightly so), only to learn his confession of suicidal thoughts has gotten him committed for the full week. His parents (a woefully underused Lauren Graham of Gilmore Girls and Parenthood, and Jim Gaffigan) bring him clothes and offer many falsely cheerful half-smiles. He exchanges coy looks with another teen inmate, Noelle (Emma Roberts) and begins a tentative courtship (in the same five days in which he wins over the entire ward). He tries to keep his friends from school from knowing where he is, until it becomes a matter of earning a reputation and the affection of Nia (Zoë Kravitz), his best friend's girlfriend for whom Craig carries a tortured longing, and worlds collide in the ward's hallway. Ultimately, Craig realizes he's not the failure he always believed he was; he's just a normal kid. And this gives him hope.
Of grave concern, the film minimizes mental illness by showcasing quirky characteristics of the patients instead of attributing any real or serious diseases or disorders to them. However, if these traits were anything but the most exhausted and well-worn clichés, this could be forgiven. In fact, there's very little original content in the movie, and what is there is far from sparkling. The gags, on which some of the film's scenes hang, can be traced to other better vehicles or, at the least, just seem extremely familiar (impersonating a doctor, naming famous suicides, for instance).
To top things off, the film is dominated by Craig's nasally narration of his Gen Y entitlement. In previous generations, kids would become suicidal over being different. Here, it's his very mediocrity that troubles the character's sense of well being (and induces the audiences boredom). Craig's voiceovers, coupled with his constant presence in every scene, lead to extreme irritation. This guy never shuts up. PG-13 Rating: 1 (Posted 10/08/10)
The Social Network
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
While The Social Network is ostensibly based around the meteoric rise of Facebook and its billionaire CEO Mark Zuckerberg (eerily embodied by Zombieland’s Jesse Eisenberg), the film at times seems to owe more to Shakespeare than to Ben Mezrich’s history of the company, The Accidental Billionaires. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay unfolds as if Richard of Gloucester continued to succeed in his treachery after becoming King Richard III and manages to obtain his much-needed horse with a few pennies instead of the kingdom.
Sorkin and Eisenberg, like Shakespeare, paint a villainous portrait of their protagonist. Some historians have accused the Bard of slander for the way he portrayed King Richard because his hideous appearance and ruthless fratricide may have had no basis in reality. Nonetheless, both Shakespeare and Sorkin have created a character that is as captivating as he is repulsive or treacherous. It’s strangely fun to watch Zuckerberg betray everyone around him, because his motives, like Richard’s, are universal.
Eisenberg doesn’t play Zuckerberg as a hunchback or a murderer, but in the film the future tycoon has the social graces of a pig. The film begins with Zuckerberg telling the woman he’s been dating (Rooney Mara) how much he wants to get accepted by one of the elite Harvard fraternities and what it could mean for his career. Somehow he can’t get through his high-speed rant without insulting her for her inability to keep up with his name-dropping and jargon. Naturally, she dumps him, but it’s a miracle the relationship has lasted as long as it did.
Zuckerberg takes this and other rejections deeply personally. He trashes her in his blog and proceeds to launch an astonishingly popular site called Facemash.com where bitter guys like him compare the “hotness” of the coeds who dump them. In a few hours, he and his pals crash the venerated university’s servers. Who knew that contemptible misogyny was so popular?
Despite the trouble he’s in, some blue-blooded snobs named Cameron Winklevoss (Armie Hammer), Tyler Winklevoss (Josh Pence) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) recruit him to code a website for Harvard students and alumni to promote themselves to potential mates. Zuckerberg agrees, but decides that their venture is too modest for his vision.
He takes the exclusivity they propose but matches it with the idea of making people’s social status readily available so that users can readily know how each other’s lives are going. Zuckerberg convinces his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) to put up a few thousand dollars for 30 percent of the company, and the site we now know as Facebook is born within days.
Naturally, his previous employers are furious, but they realize far too late that they’ve brought knives to a bazooka fight. Only after the site becomes a worldwide sensation do they even think of suing the rude upstart. Meanwhile, Saverin discovers that his investment has been spent by Zuckerberg without consideration for the company’s profitability and that he may suffer the same fate as Zuckerberg’s previous associates. Zuckerberg falls under the spell of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), a character based on Napster founder Shawn Fanning. Parker may be a hero to hackers because his .mp3 sharing site infuriated music industry executives, but his suave demeanor contributes little to actually running a company.
Despite facing a flood of lawsuits and his own demons, Zuckerberg and Facebook become household names.
Sorkin and director David Fincher (Zodiac) do a terrific job of dealing with the cyberspace lingo and explaining why Facebook ended up reducing MySpace and Friendster to mere runner-ups. More importantly, though, they make Zuckerberg’s betrayals understandable even as they condemn them.
Throughout the film, swells belittle Zuckerberg to his face. His first employers won’t even let him enter the inner-sanctum of their frat house even though they can’t launch their venture without his skills. There’s something undeniably satisfying about watching Zuckerberg humbling them with his vengeful attitude and lightning fast keystrokes.
Eisenberg imbues Zuckerberg with just enough vulnerability to make the vindictive character intriguing without making him likable. He also gets a marvelous assist from Garfield. His Saverin manages to pull on viewers’ heartstrings because Zuckerberg mistakes his good fortune with unearned privilege. He also nets remarkably paltry returns for a guy who initially put up all the money for the site. Garfield plays him smart enough so that Saverin seems more like a victim than a gullible schmuck.
While he has relative little screen time, Timberlake manages to dominate every scene he’s in. His Sean is as unstable as he is charismatic, so it becomes engrossing to find out what unpredictable move he’ll make. It may seem odd to cast the “sexy-back” singer as a computer nerd, but his swagger is ideal for the role.
At times it seems unlikely that someone so inept at socializing would create the world’s dominant social networking site. Nonetheless, having made the occupants of the White House seem believably human in The American President and in The West Wing, Sorkin knows it’s better to focus on his characters’ hearts, no matter how black, than their coding fingers (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 10/01/1)
Let Me In
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead
First of all, let me make this clear: The American remake of the Swedish horror film Let The Right One In is as good as the original, (in fact they are almost identical), and the remake clearly honors the intent and style of the original.
So they real question here is not "is this a good remake?" but rather "why don't they just show the original?" One reason, and one reason only: Americans will not watch movies with subtitles.
When I mentioned this after the screening, other critics argued that I was wrong. But frankly I'm right, and the box-office statistics support me, thank you.
Now that we've gotten past that bitter little pill, we can actually talk about director Matt Reeve's darkly beautiful little film.
At the age of 12, Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee, last scene in The Road) is already a troubled loner, caught between his parent's ugly divorce and some really nasty schoolyard bullies. But he soon finds a type of friend in Abby (Chloe Moretz from Kickass), a "girl" who moves in with her "father" in the apartment next door. They are, of course, neither a girl nor her father, but rather a vampire and her human familiar. Later, after an accident takes the father out of the picture, Abby and Owen begin to form their own friendship of sorts, he accepting her despite what she is while she gives him the strength to stand up for himself (if in a slightly homicidal way).
Visually this film is gorgeous, lingering often on the snow-covered apartment playground at night where Owen first meets a bare-foot Abby. Both McPhee and Moretz prove that children can act, and act well, and Richard Jenkins as the father steals even the few scenes he's in, particularly during the event that leads to his demise. Even the simple idea of mixing a horror film with a coming-of-age story is as fascinating as it is creepy.
All such praise being much deserved, I do have a few problems with this film. First, the CGI effects here are simply awful. Abby often looks like a badly done rip-off of some Resident Evil zombie. It simply ruins an otherwise gorgeous film.
Then there are the adults: While it is a pretty standard horror movie trope that any plot that centers on children will inevitably have morons for the adults, it's just not necessary for this film, but still, there it is! The school apparently has all of one employee, who also happens to be the world's stupidest gym teacher, and even the cop (a wasted Elias Koteas) who starts to put it all together.is even dumber than the gym dude.
All in all, Let Me In is worthy of letting in, and since it's in English it must be better than the original, right? Hmmmm. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 10/01/10)