movie reviews December 2010

Tiny Furniture  •  The King´s Speech  •  I Love You Phillip Morris  •  Gulliver’s Travels  •  True Grit  •  Little Fockers
The Fighter  •  Black Swan  •  How Do You Know  •  Tron: Legacy  •  Yogi Bear
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader  •  A Film Unfinished •  Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
The Tourist •  Budrus •  Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Tiny Furniture
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Tiny Furniture won Best Narrative Feature at the South by Southwest film and music festival. After seeing the film, it’s tempting to ask why.

Lena Dunhan wrote, directed and stars, but she hasn’t come up with anything that hasn’t been done before or better. Essentially, Tiny Furniture follows the well-worn path of The Graduate, only without Buck Henry’s wit or Mike Nichols’ style.

Aura (Dunham) has just completed her film studies degree and has moved in with her mother Siri (Laurie Simmons) and her sister Nadine (Grace Dunham) in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. Her degree in film theory is worth less than the paper it’s printed on, so finding a job so that she and a college friend can move in together is looking like a distant possibility. Although Aura needs maternal support, Siri is too busy making a comfortable living shooting photographs of miniature furniture or helping Nadine, whose future looks infinitely brighter than Aura’s, into a good college.

Aura falls in with a childhood pal named Charlotte (Jemima Kirke) and a YouTube sensation named Jed, (Alex Karpovsky) who claims to be making deals with HBO or Comedy Central but doesn’t have a dime. When her mom and her sister leave to look at schools, Aura lets Jed move in with her, and he proceeds to complain about the accommodations. We know he’s trouble because he’s reading a Woody Allen book.

Tiny Furniture ambles along and never picks up any momentum. If Dunham was attempting to parody the New York art world, she’s done a weak and obvious job of it. Aura and Jed’s YouTube creations look sloppy, smug and amateurish. It’s difficult to tell if they were intentionally bad or if Dunham lacked the filmmaking vocabulary to pull off satire. Either way, they’re sleep inducing and not terribly funny. We barely see anything Siri has done so most of the time all we hear about is her success. It would be more interesting to see some of her stuff and decide for ourselves if it’s worth the income she’s made.

None of the characters are likable or remotely involving. Aura is so self-absorbed and irresponsible that her company becomes deeply unpleasant after a few minutes. The same can be said for everyone else around her. Charlotte is supposed to be some type of free spirit, but she comes off like a spoiled trust fund kid who could use a dose of the real world instead of marijuana and Vicodin.

Like Aura, Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate made a long series of foolish and even contemptible decisions but still managed to hold an audience’s sympathy because the world of his parents was so petty and hypocritical. His one redeeming trait was that he was trying to live differently from his shallow, materialistic parents.

In The Graduate, we see few of Benjamin’s peers, but being surrounded by Aura’s in Tiny Furniture is a painful slog. All of them come off as narcissists and are indistinguishable form each other. In future efforts maybe Dunham will be able to create more than one type of obnoxious character.

Austin, the home of SXSW, also has the University of Texas, which has an excellent film school. I’ve seen some YouTube videos from some of their students and graduates, and most of them are infinitely more imaginative and clever than what I endured in Tiny Furniture. One wonders if the folks at the festival would have been better off watching some homegrown films instead of this reject from the Big Apple. (N/R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 12/31/10)

The King´s Speech

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Rarely has a film had “Oscar bait” written all over it the way The King’s Speech has. It’s a British period drama dealing with disabilities that features an A-list cast. It’s a solemn tone certainly doesn’t hurt its chances with Oscar voters who continually shun good comedies or genre pictures simply because they aren’t “serious” enough. Despite the hype, The King’s Speech actually emerges as a worthy film about a fascinating subject.

Today, 20th century English king George VI (Colin Firth) is revered for the way he rallied the United Kingdom against the rise of fascism. While he might have been imposing in his official pictures, it’s now hard to believe that he was never groomed for or even wanted the throne.

Known as “Bertie” until he had been through his coronation, George VI might have actually been happier as a divine right king instead of a symbolic monarch. He had a quick wit, a sense of responsibility for his office and served as a naval officer, but the speeches and ceremonies that are a normal part of a royal’s life didn’t appeal to him. He had a debilitating stammering problem that made orations as unpleasant for him as they were for his listeners. Because he didn’t actually rule, he couldn’t outsource his public talks.

The film begins in the wake of one disastrous speech and several dubious therapies; Bertie gives up on talking in public and seems content to live in the shadow of his brother David (Guy Pearce), the heir to the throne. His wife, Elizabeth (a terrific Helena Bonham Carter), has other ideas.

She secretly meets with an eccentric Australian speech pathologist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to treat her struggling husband. Logue has no formal training or certification nor does he pretend to have them. He readily admits that he’s the son of a brewer and a frustrated actor. His only qualification is the fact that he gets results.

While Bertie might not enjoy dealing with the oddball therapist, he has to continue with the program because the Crown is soon going to be his. His father George V (Michael Gambon) is ailing, and David’s indiscretions may force the older brother to abdicate.

The pairing of the reserved Bertie and the flamboyant Logue generates the expected dramatic fireworks. Firth is a virtuoso at playing reserve. In addition to nailing the mannerisms, Firth effortlessly captures the torrent of emotions hidden under the future king’s stiff upper lip. Firth keenly portrays what it’s like to have the world resting on your shoulders, and it doesn’t feel like a lot of fun. It’s easy to feel for Bertie for whom giving a speech is as terrifying as going into combat.

Firth’s performance is especially worth watching in the way that he delivers the title address. George VI’s broadcast that led the United Kingdom into World War II is readily available on YouTube, and yet he still manages to coax it as if it were being delivered for the first time.

Although Logue is such a showy role, Rush is able to keep from playing him too broadly. He also projects an affection that counterbalances Logue’s eccentricities and class resentments. The latter are justified. Logue has to undo the work of a series of inept physicians some of whom encourage Bertie to smoke and all of whom all have “Sir” attached to their names.

American screenwriter David Seidler (himself a stammerer) and British director Tom Hooper (John Adams, The Damned United) provide enough substance to make the film’s serious tone appropriate. They take World War II out of the history books and make it seem as if it were occurring at this moment. The defeat of the Nazi’s doesn’t look like a foregone conclusion and sitting on the throne seems as dangerous as walking a minefield.

Speaking of minefields, the Motion Picture Association of America has planted one with their ridiculous “R” rating for The King’s Speech. In two brief scenes, Bertie shouts some curse words as part of his therapy.

Because of their fleeting nature of the sequences and because these words can easily be heard in any junior high or shopping mall, the MPAA is doing nobody any favors with this rating. Youngsters will not be shielded from language they already know.

Worse, the rating prevents younger viewers from watching a quality, entertaining movie about important subject matter. The relentless (and un-amusing) vulgarity of Little Fockers allegedly merits a PG-13, but the classy The King’s Speech gets the more restrictive classification. The former should be rated NC-17 for stupidity and for failing where other movies have succeed in the art of making crude humor effective.

If The King’s Speech does receive any recognition in the coming months, I’m sure the Weinstein Company’s marketing department will deserve some credit. Fortunately, the film they are promoting is worth the pomp and ceremony. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 12/24/10)

I Love You Phillip Morris
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

I Love You Phillip Morris may be the most outrageous film that Jim Carrey has made yet. Considering he’s appeared in films where he talked through his rectum (I’ve lost count), starred in a primordial reality series (The Truman Show) or had his memory erased (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), that’s saying something. In fact, his latest movie is so out there it’s guaranteed to lose some of his regular fans.

That’s a shame because I Love You Phillip Morris is a wonderfully unpredictable ride even though it’s based on the life of a fascinating career criminal named Steven Russell. As played by Carrey, Russell is a former police officer, church organist and devoted family man whose life changes permanently when he admits to the world that he’s gay.

From the opening, writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the team behind the script for Bad Santa), lure us into thinking we’re going to be watching a typical Jim Carrey movie, where his hyperactive behavior and rubbery physique drive the humor. Even in the early moments, there’s an eerie undertone that implicates there might be something sinister about his usual goofball antics.

Steven quickly discovers that his new life is a good deal more expensive than his old one, especially since he frequently gives his partner pricey jewelry. Instead of being honest with his lover and leading a more modest life, he engages in a long crime spree where he audaciously embarrasses the justice system.

In prison, he meets a gentle fellow inmate named Phillip Morris (Ewen McGregor) who quickly infatuates him. Through hook and crook, he manages to get the authorities to put the two of them into the same cell. He also learns a variety of ways to escape from the slammer and reacquaint himself with the loving but naïve Phillip. Prison doesn’t reform Steven. Instead, it makes him better at swindling people. He poses as an attorney (and wins!) and lands a CFO job he’s not remotely qualified to hold.

For months, he shrewdly manages to save the firm a king’s ransom, and he uses the dividends to play for a mansion and sports cars. Most filmmakers would probably stop at this point but Ficarra and Requa still have surprises left up their sleeves. As the plotlines get more outlandish, it becomes easy to both admire and despise Steven. His ability to snooker the law is awe-inspiring, but his cons do hurt people.

Still, it’s engrossing to see how low he’ll sink or how spectacularly he’ll flout authority again. While watching Carrey play a gay role might be unsettling for some, the real jolt of the film comes from how effortlessly Steven bamboozles people around him who should know better. While Ficarra and Requa’s previous movies depended a little too much on shock value, the jolts here indicate they’ve matured in how they entertainingly demolish our expectations.

Carrey easily rises to the challenge and relishes that chance to change personas the same way he did back in In Living Color. These new identities that Steven assumes are thankfully more human, so it’s great to see that he can act as well as find ways to make bodily functions amusing.

McGregor is an ideal foil. He gives Phillip just enough earnestness to make viewers hope he can one day find a lover who won’t drag him into the Big House. Carrey is an old hand at over-the-top roles, so it’s astonishing that McGregor doesn’t get upstaged in their scenes together. Similarly, Leslie Mann manages to hold her own as Steven’s ex-wife who attempts to uphold her dignity despite the changes in Steven’s behavior.

Ficarra and Requa could develop their pacing, but sitting through I Love You Phillip Morris is like riding a particularly rough, wooden roller coaster. It’s pretty unnerving when it’s in motion, but getting through it is a rush. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/24/10).

Gulliver’s Travels
Reviewed (and endured) by Dan Lybarger

This Christmas Jack Black may be playing Lemuel Gulliver, but in dumping this fiasco on unsuspecting ticket buyers, he’s behaving more like the Grinch.

To be fair, this new adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels might actually be doing us a favor. Normally, consumers have to weigh whether it is worth shelling out the extra cash to see a movie in 3D. The new film eliminates this quandary by not being watchable in any format.

For those who still care, the only added perspective appears during the opening credits. With or without the glasses, the images are still flat and dull as a butter knife.

If you’ve never read Swift’s entire story, which I haven’t, you’ll know that it’s challenging but occasionally rewarding reading. The idea of an ordinary person being seen as a giant in a faraway land has captivated children for centuries.

Swift’s full content, however, is a good deal more complicated. He used the characters Gulliver encountered (the Lilliputians, the Brobdignagians and the Yahoos) to mercilessly criticize British political practices of his day. As I was going through the book, I had to consult several footnotes to understand whom Swift’s targets were.

The 1996 television miniseries starring Ted Danson cleverly updated Swift’s attitude and applied it toward contemporary targets. Because of its 186-minute length, it could cover much more of the original book’s material. With a terrific cast and script, there was plenty of heart and substance to go with the eye candy. Both children and their parents could get something out of the presentation, which is readily available on video.

With the exception of the multitude behind the technical end of this film, no one involved with this new adaptation seems to have taken that much time or care. Instead, all it provides are reasonably good effects and alleged wit based on excretions. Black’s slacker shtick served him far better in films like School of Rock and High Fidelity. As one of the film’s producers, it’s appalling that he’s settled on such abysmal material.

His Gulliver is a newspaper mailroom employee out to impress the comely travel editor (Amanda Peet). Having never left New York, he plagiarizes other writers’ thoughts on exotic locales and lands an assignment in the Bermuda Triangle.

The film lost me pretty quickly. What newspaper these days has the coin to send an untested scribe on a pricey assignment? Even the tots in the crowd might be suspicious.

Of course, the journey lands him in Lilliput, a kingdom where all the residents are the size of his thumbs. Gulliver slowly earns their respect when he helps them defeat their enemies and puts out a massive fire with his urine.

The plot isn’t worth describing after this point.

Some really wonderful performers like Emily Bunt, Billy Connolly and Jason Segel are reduced to part of the special effects. I once shoveled horse manure for a living, so I won’t fault them for taking work, but I will fault the producers who thought Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller’s script was worth filming.

The most offensive aspect of this new adaptation is that the filmmakers consistently treat their viewers, both young and old, as idiots. Swift may have been a bitter, acid-tongued misanthrope, but he at least assumed that his readers would catch up with him. These folks don’t even respect their viewers. Every gag in the film seems calculated for five year olds of all ages. No wait make that four year olds. The prerequisite crotch kick might not be that funny to sophisticated kindergartners.

If you really love Black’s comedy, simply surf the web for his recent talk show appearances. He’s obviously spent more time and effort selling this movie than making it. (PG) Rating: 1 (Posted on 12/24/10)

True Grit
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Stepping into John Wayne’s sizable boots could be seen as either an act of courage or folly, especially for an actor recreating one of his iconic roles. In the case of Jeff Bridges, there might be a bit of bravery involved in starring in this remake of True Grit. With the writing and directing team of Joel and Ethan Cohen (The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men) behind him, however, it may be Bridges who fits more easily into the Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn’s eye patch.

Still from True Grit

Both Bridges and the Coens treat the story as if the 1969 film, for which Wayne won his only Oscar, was never made. Instead, they reverently follow Charles Portis’ 1968 novel. Much of the dialogue in the film comes straight from Portis’ pen, and the dark tone and violence of the story is intact.

The Coens manage to keep their formidable bloodlust in check but create a sense of danger that’s often missing from more traditional westerns. They also focus the story less on Cogburn and more on the novel’s heroine Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld).

The film begins with the aftermath of her father’s murder. She may be only 14 and barely comes up to the chests of the other characters in the film, but Mattie’s quiet determination is as powerful as a Category Five hurricane. She never yells or pouts, but her steady gaze and refusal to give up in the quest to bring the killer Tom Chaney (a terrifically intimidating Josh Brolin) to justice.

She’s also smarter than most of the adults she encounters. She expertly handles her father’s estate, and even finds ways to cut corners on expenses in the process. Most of us wouldn’t sleep in a funeral parlor surrounded by the dearly departed. Mattie, however, sees this setback as a temporary obstacle.

Steinfeld’s performance is crucial to the film’s success because a lesser actress would not have been as convincingly precocious. She can spout out the 19th century dialogue with astonishing ease. Her steady, quiet gaze also makes the bluster of the adults around her look like empty bombast.

She recruits the one-eyed Marshall Rooster because he’s killed more men than some major diseases. His prolific drinking and his obstinate manner make him a difficult ally. Also along for the ride is a self-important Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Daman) who has been trying for years to capture Chaney. Damon’s appropriately sullen performance is nicely contrasted by his costume, which is just a little big for him. Rooster thinks little of LaBoeuf, and the latter’s outsized uniform speaks volumes about his actual capabilities.

The trio’s pursuit of Chaney from Fort Smith, Arkansas through Indian Territory is both terrifying and beautiful. The Coen’s regular cinematographer Roger Deakins captures the majesty of the landscape while establishing an unsettling mood. Bridges’ Cogburn is another major plus. He’s less a force of justice and more of a dangerous wildcard. Obtaining his cooperation is difficult, and his habit of not playing well with others can endanger her quest.

The Coens manage to get the most out of their relatively modest production of around $30 million. The film never looks compromised or cheap. Perhaps they were able to save some cash because they spent more time concentration on creating interesting characters to populate their scenic landscape. Tron: Legacy, which features a less well-utilized Bridges, and How Do You Know cost well over $100 million and aren’t nearly as entertaining or even as visually pleasing. Perhaps those films might have been improved by borrowing either John Wayne’s or Jeff Bridges’ eye patch. (PG-13) Rating 4.5 (Posted on 12/22/10)

Little Fockers
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The folks at Universal, DreamWorks and Paramount aren’t familiar with the Law of Diminishing Returns even if the principle is painfully evident on the screen. Apparently director Jay Roach had enough after making Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers. If only the studios and the cast had called it quits as well.

Still from Little Fockers

Little Fockers picks up where the previous movies left off but actually appears to be a step backward in both subject matter and entertainment value. Whereas the second installment avoided sequel-itis by introducing frustrated male nurse Greg Focker’s (Ben Stiller) flamboyant parents (Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman), the new film again features Greg trying in vain to avoid the ire of his paranoid, ex-CIA agent father-in-law Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro).

Jack’s suspiciousness is even more acute because his other son-in-law has been caught cheating on his daughter. Now that Greg is the only father of Jack’s grandchildren still in his circle of trust, which is a small, shifting location, the older man puts relentless pressure on Greg to provide for his descendants. On paper, Jack’s concerns are valid, but Greg’s new job pays less, and getting his children Henry (Colin Baiocchi) and Samantha (Daisy Tahan) into an elite school on a nurse’s salary is more than tricky.

There wouldn’t be much of a comedy if Greg didn’t crack under the pressure. Screenwriters John Hamburg (I Love You, Man) and Larry Stuckey come up with plenty of gags involving excretions and sex.

Most of them aren’t funny.

Apparently they and director Paul Weitz (the far superior American Pie and About a Boy), figured that by expanding the range of bodily functions on display, the humor quotient would increase. Bleeding and vomit aren’t the inherent rib ticklers the filmmakers imagine them to be. Nor are the relentless puns referring to Greg’s unfortunate surname. I know some rowdy teenagers who could coin better variations on the name than these allegedly professional screenwriters.

Little Fockers also boasts a PG-13 rating despite its abundant vulgarity. How fleeting profanity in The King’s Speech merits an R, while relentless innuendo and bodily functions merit a PG-13 is beyond any reason.

There are several prominent actors (and quite a few good ones) involved in this mess, but none have anything interesting to do. Even if Jessica Alba, who plays an overenthusiastic drug rep at Greg’s hospital, were a master thespian, her time in this venture would be wasted. Owen Wilson, Teri Polo, Blythe Danner, Harvey Keitel and Laura Dern all pick up paychecks for minimal reward. Streisand and Hoffman’s obligatory cameos aren’t any fun, either. It’s as if the filmmakers figured the audience would be happy merely if the stars showed up.

As an old hand with gross-out humor, Weitz manages a couple of inspired bits of goofiness but makes the mistake of forcing viewers to wait through all the nonsense to get to them. Thank goodness YouTube eliminates having to watch the rest of the film.

Just because the three studios involved in this debacle shelled out so much money for the talent doesn’t mean that we are obligated to reciprocate at the box office. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 12/22/10)

The Fighter
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If the template for The Fighter is familiar, director David O. Russell and a committed cast manage to take an oft-repeated tale and deliver it as if it were unfolding for the first time. Boxer “Irish” Micky Ward’s (nicely played by Mark Wahlberg) welterweight career has had some twists and turns reminiscent of Rocky, but there’s an important difference. Ward’s story is true, and Russell and screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson’s make the film work by presenting it in a matter of fact tone.

By shooting the boxing scenes to look as if they’ve been pulled off a cable broadcast during the 1990s, Russell manages to capture the grit and immediacy of the actual fights. Many of Ward’s actual victories were so dramatic that a slick Hollywood replication would have seemed phony even if they proceeded punch by punch. It also doesn’t hurt that Russell actually filmed the movie in Massachusetts, in the same gyms where Ward trained. He even gets Ward’s mentor Mickey O’Keefe to play himself and rather effectively.

For these scenes alone, The Fighter is worth catching. What actually drives the film, though, is the way the film depicts Ward’s large, dysfunctional but loving family. Ward’s older half brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) once had a promising career and teaches Micky everything he knows. Dicky once knocked down the formidable Sugar Ray Leonard, so he’s a hero in the brothers’ Lowell, Massachusetts.

Dicky is an effective trainer, if you can pull him away from his crack pipe. In addition to being a petty criminal, Dicky is becoming so delusional that he fails to notice that the documentary crew following him around is filming the alarming cost of his addiction and not his comeback. Apparently, Dicky doesn’t understand that 40-something boxers who aren’t George Foreman are an anomaly.

Dicky and his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) clearly love Mickey and want him to succeed, but neither has any business sense (Micky has to work on road crews to make ends meet). Further, the two set him up for matches that have rendered him a steppingstone for other boxers to climb to glory. Micky is also 31 and practically has an expiration date stamped on his forehead.

As Dicky spends more time on the wrong side of the law, Micky falls in love with a caring but smarter-than-average barmaid named Charlene (Amy Adams). She alienates Alice and his legion of sisters who think her too snobbish. Charlene and Micky’s dad George (Jack McGee) drop Dicky and squeeze Alice out of the management. While Micky feels the strain of hurting the people he loves, he begins to do one thing he hasn’t done in ages: win.

As anyone with access to Wikipedia knows, Ward managed to get a championship belt and to reconcile with his family. Russell manages to make this happy outcome credible. While the performances are broad, the cast goes to great lengths to make even the most flawed characters sympathetic and well rounded. Bale and Leo both have showy roles, but manage to keep their desire to emote under control. These folks yell, but you can still hear some love coming from their angry retorts to each other.

Bale’s scrawny frame and thinning hair make an alarming impression, as does Adams, who plays the most rare entity in the film, a normal person. She effortlessly abandons her perky persona and performs a nicely subtle counterpoint to the other performers in the film.

Perhaps the most astonishing achievement in The Fighter is that Russell can make the virtues of family and hard work believable even though other filmmakers have reduced these concepts to clichés. The film argues that we may get frustrated that we can’t choose our relatives, but that may thankfully be for the best. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 12/17/10)

Black Swan
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Despite thoughtful cinematography, a keen attention to esoteric detail that borders on fetishism, and more than a few thrilling scenes, director Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan fails to fulfill its promise of well-crafted intensity. This so-called psychological thriller surprisingly lacks a principal psyche and loses its way in clichéd horror movie tropes.

Although reputedly frigid, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a veteran member of the corps in a New York ballet company, is promoted to lead dancer for a new pared-down production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. The part requires Nina to dance both the innocent and vulnerable White Swan, as well as the seductive and passionate Black Swan. A technically perfect dancer, Nina is instructed to dance with sensuality and abandon in extensive and grueling practice sessions by the company's director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), looking to replace Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), who has failed recently to increase box office receipts.

Under pressure from Thomas and her overbearing mother, Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina who gave up dancing to raise her daughter, Nina begins to sense a growing rivalry from Lily (Mila Kunis), a tattooed dancer brought in from San Francisco. Lily naturally embodies the qualities Nina lacks, and as Nina struggles to perfect her performance as the Black Swan, her paranoia regarding Lily's antagonism grows. Most notably, Nina experiences strange symptoms that make her believe she is turning into the Swan.

The majority of the action in the film is subjective, based on Nina's neuroses, yet it remains oddly outside her. This could be a result of her frosty, highly disciplined exterior or because she's always merely reacting to others. The point Aronofsky is making about the interchangeability of the ballerinas, through Nina's doppelgangers in the form of her mother, Beth, Lily and her own dark self as well as the other corps performers in makeup and pulled-back dark hair is an interesting one, but does a great disservice to character development. As a result, the main players are painted in broad strokes, left to act out exaggerated extremes of prudishness and salaciousness, even when outside of Nina's imagined realm.

What little dancing there is in the movie, and the details surrounding it, are what work best in the film. Nina's grueling discipline, supposedly what's holding her back from true greatness, is a wonder to behold. In addition, the world in which she lives in her day-to-day travels, colored in only white, black, pink and red, is more infantilizing and more menacing than the supposedly scarier one she imagines. Unfortunately, her bulimia, beat-up toes, and one half of a pink grapefruit of her ordinary life are overshadowed by a production more conventional than radical, gorier horror than psychological study. R Rating: 3.5 (Posted 12/17/10)

How Do You Know
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Success may have been the worst thing that ever happened to writer-director James L. Brooks or at least for anyone who has had to sit through his movies. Having guided The Simpsons through more seasons than can be reasonably counted, it’s easy to see how he could let his big screen career slide. Brooks has directed only five films (including Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets) in 27 years; it’s understandable how he could get rusty between gigs. While Brooks’ pen is still sharp with How Do You Know, his sense of direction seems to have oxidized.

Having written for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi and The Simpsons, it’s a given that Brooks can still whip out several juicy zingers. What’s frustrating about How Do You Know is that Brooks, who developed a reputation for being a perfectionist in his earlier movies, seems to be taking a break here. All the effort he put into his wordplay should have gone into the plotting and characterizations. Brooks probably figured his A-list cast could cover up for any slack in the script. At times, he’s right.

Reese Witherspoon plays Lisa, an Olympic softball player whose career has come to an abrupt, involuntary end. Having made no plans for what to do when retirement comes, she starts taking up with a successful Washington Nationals pitcher named Matty (Owen Wilson). Because he makes an 8-digit annual salary, he’s seem like a catch, but Matty goes through women the way he goes through baseballs. Even though he seems seriously smitten with Lisa, it’s hard to believe he can stay committed.

While Lisa is wrestling with career changes and getting closer to Matty, a corporate drone named George (former Kansas Citian Paul Rudd) is thinking of getting to know Lisa because he has her number. He also has a crisis that could end his career and even send him to jail. The Justice Department thinks his company has cooked the books, and its founder, George’s father Charles (Jack Nicholson), is doing little to help him. The upright, if neurotic, George may even be taking the fall for another employee’s crimes.

Because of the parallel story structure, there isn’t much guesswork to figuring out whom Lisa will pair with. While there are several amusing moments, particularly George and Lisa’s disastrous first date and Matty’s repeated attempts to grasp the concept of monogamy, How Do You Know is the sort of film that would plays better as individual clips on YouTube instead of as a whole.

In its entirety, How Do You Know suffers from slack pacing. Timing is as crucial to comedy as peanut butter is to peanut butter cookies. Thanks to some slipshod editing, a movie that runs 113 minutes feels longer, and comic bits that could have been hysterical are curiously flat.

The measured delivery might have been more appropriate if the story had some complications or subtlety. It doesn’t. It’s as if the characters are trying to catch up to the audience, who already know how the story will unfold and might have to be coaxed to care. Brooks also holds back on explaining what sort of financial machinations have landed George in trouble. It’s hard to believe that an educated fellow like George could be such a dupe and still be considered the film’s hero.

Witherspoon’s sunny persona at least keeps Lisa from becoming a relentless whiner. Two hours of hearing her complain about going the way of all athletes might have been dull. Rudd is an admirable foil, but Wilson and Nicholson seem happy to coast on the sort of roles they’ve always played. The latter won two Oscars for the way Brooks helped him play against his “I don’t give a damn” type. It’s too bad that Brooks just let him coast this time.

Perhaps if Brooks had pushed Nicholson and himself a little harder, How Do You Know might have been worthy of his previous efforts. That bar is pretty high, so it’s forgivable if he can’t remember how he once reached it. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 12/17/10)

Tron: Legacy
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Back in 1982, Disney took a huge gamble and footed the bill for the production of a live action Sci-fi film called Tron. Cutting edge in technology for the time, the film starred a young Jeff Bridges as a wisecracking hacker who is physically transported inside the computer realm to battle the evil “Master Control Program.” While hampered by pacing problems and a somewhat wooden script, Tron nonetheless covered such concepts as virtual reality and the power of the Internet when both were still just a gleam in Bill Gates’ eyes. The film would live on as a staple of ‘80s geekdom (although it was a commercial flop), and the arcade game based on the film popped up in every mall across America.

After almost thirty years of D&D sessions being halted for heated debate when someone would start up about their version of a sequel, word finally began to emerge that, indeed, Disney was finally going to make one, and it would be called…TR2N. No, wait: then it was Tron 2.0. Then Tron Legacy: An IMAX 3D Experience…

Anyway, the final result is Tron: Legacy, which is as good as any, I suppose. But the real question is does it live up to the awesome reputation that the original represents, deserved or not?

Well, in a word, no.

Tron: Legacy starts off with Sam Flynn (Garret Hedlund), the son of the original film’s main character, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, reprising his role) getting information that his father’s old friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, also returning from the original) has been “paged” from the abandoned old arcade Kevin once owned.

In a flashback utilizing the filmmaker’s ability to digitally “youthen” Bridges, we see him talking to young Sam about building the perfect digital world, using his own doppelganger program CLU, as well as the original Tron program from the first film to help out, and then he promptly disappeared, never to be seen again.

Before you can say, “Well, that was an unlikely way to leave your son a message after twenty years,” Sam gets inside the abandoned arcade, finds a hidden computer, and gets … just sucked into it, I guess. What follows is a confrontation with the now-evil CLU and a masked warrior that may or may not be Tron (who fights a lot like Darth Maul, a l a twin disk-thingys), the discovery of Sam’s aged father Kevin living some kind of Zen/rebel lifestyle with Quorra (Oliva Wilde), another digital warrior from some kind of group called the “Isotopes” who were wiped out by CLU in his quest for a perfect society.

Got all that? Well, I did, and it still didn’t help this mess make much sense. As my companion for the evening said, this is a “plot salad” with elements of numerous films crammed in wherever they might fit. Fights are ripped off from the Matrix, chase scenes from the Fast and Furious, flying battles from Star Trek, gravity defying movement from Inception — take your pick.

If anything, the strangest thing here is that with all that content (the screenplay had something like FIVE writers), this is a painfully slow movie to watch. Once we finally get into the light-cycle battles and such, it does pick up a bit, but so much here just feels like filler, almost as if this was just a set-up for some kind of … sequel?

Oh yeah, that’s pretty clear here, big-time: The end clears up the future for Sam to battle the son of Dillinger, the evil guy from the first film, who shows up for all of ten seconds or so here, while leaving the mystery of what happens to Tron for TR3N: The 3.0 IMAX Legacy: The Next Experience or whatever they end up calling it.

Yeah, I admit, I am a bit bitter. It’s not that the original Tron was so perfect; it’s just that with all the new CGI effects, the 3D enhancement and mega-budget, this is just an inferior film. Where the first had heart and gumption, this is just a bunch of plot points strung together to get us from A to B, while hopefully selling as much tie-in merchandise as possible.

Visually, of course, it looks great, with awesome sets and magnificent costumes, but the original’s feel of actually being inside a computer has been replaced with that of a bunch of people wandering around the old Blade Runner set in glowie outfits. The 3D is 50% awesome and 50% “I’m having some kind of eye seizure” (whoever invents clip-on 3D lenses for people who already wear glasses may single-handedly save the 3D format — and one more note: The films says to wear your glasses the whole time but the 3D doesn’t kick in until Sam enters the computer world). While Bridges does attempt to bring the roguish Flynn back to life, it’s too little to late, and as for the ending … well, let’s just say it’s a pretty big “WTF?” moment.

While it was fun to see Bridges and Boxleitner back together reprising their roles that hardly makes up for waiting thirty years for this corrupted file of a movie. (PG) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 12-17-10)

Yogi Bear
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

“Hey there, Boo-Boo. I think there’s a big turd in this pic-a-nic basket.”

It’s hard to imagine the good natured but larcenous Yogi Bear tolerating this digital 3D desecration. In small doses, this enduring Hanna-Barbera cartoon character was a lot of fun. His ingenious, if frequently unsuccessful, attempts to separate unsuspecting campers from their provisions were good for a laugh because he went to extremes that other bears would avoid. Being “smarter than the average bear” only seemed to get him into trouble.

Yogi Bear, on the other hand, lacks its title character’s ambition and easy charm. Director Eric Brevig (Journey to the Center of the Earth) and three credited screenwriters aim low and still manage to fall below reasonable expectations. By figuring that viewers are only smarter than the below average bear, Yogi Bear manages to be both unamusing and insulting.

In this incarnation, Yogi’s home in Jellystone Park is endangered because the mayor (Andrew Daly) of the film’s unnamed city thinks that selling it to loggers would help make up for the way he has botched the city’s finances.

Ranger Smith (Tom Cavanaugh) has only a week to think of how to make the money losing but valuable park into a profitable concern. His deputy, Ranger Jones (T.J. Miller), is more enthusiastic than he is helpful, and Yogi’s thefts are a frequent source of complaints from the few campers who do show up.

Things start to look up when a pretty documentarian named Rachel (Anna Faris) thinks that Yogi (voiced by Dan Aykroyd) and Boo Boo (Justin Timberlake) would make entertaining subjects for her film. A nature lover herself, Rachel also tries to help Smith think of ways to save the park. From here, the plot goes into hibernation.

As a veteran special effects supervisor and an experienced hand with 3D, Brevig starts of the film with a few decent gags involving perspective, but as the film’s 80-minute running time proceeds it’s easy to take the visuals for granted because the story is so stale and unimaginative. There’s nothing wrong with an occasional gag involving feces or grubs, but it’s important to remember these things aren’t all that funny on their own. That is unless you are six years old or aren’t quite as sharp as Yogi.

There is an air of indifference that runs throughout Yogi Bear that easily rubs off on a viewer. Aykroyd and Timberlake do passable imitations of the voices that the late Daws Butler and Don Messick established for their roles but don’t really bring anything new to the characters. There are probably legions of lesser known and hungrier performers who might have at approached the roles with more eagerness. The same can be said for the live performers. Faris and Nathan Corddry (The Daily Show), who is stuck playing the mayor’s lackey, are terrific comic actors but you’d never know from enduring their work here. The script is egalitarian because both the cartoon characters and their human co-stars are stuck with the same material.

In the short TV segments where Yogi made his debut, the writers didn’t have to provide him or Boo Boo with motivation other than food intended for picnickers. For the most, part the screenwriters appear to have simply copied and pasted gags from the old shows and even devices from that amusingly irrational optimist Wile E. Coyote. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better in the old HB cartoons or even in the Warner Bros. catalog.

Apparently, the folks at the latter studio, which now owns all the HB characters, figured the new movie would be a way to fleece consumers who might think the 3D glasses would hide the laziness that’s consistently evident. Instead the polarized lenses only make it more visible. (PG) Rating: 1 (Posted 12/17/10)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

One of the challenges of making fantasy movies is coming up with human characters that are as interesting as their supernatural counterparts. The latest adaptation of a book from C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series features an overgrown mouse named Reepicheep, whose relentless jabbering is mollified by his courage and his compassion.

Still from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Zestfully voiced by Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead), Reepicheep can get on someone’s nerves with his ceaseless boasting of his past adventures, but his skill with a sword and his deep loyalty to his friends and to what is right make him an ideal comrade in arms and friend. In bringing him to life, the special effects crew has done so well that he does look as if he’s fighting or defending the people he encounters.

What human performer can compete with that?

Actually, many of the two-legged thespians in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are thoroughly accomplished, but the script gives them little room to develop their limited roles. In this installment, Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) and her brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes) are stuck in London as World War II looms over them. Their siblings Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) are away in the States, and their obnoxiously self-absorbed cousin Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter) is their only age-appropriate companion.

Apparently liking that Eustace as much the Pevensies do, director Michael Apted and three credited screenwriters quickly take the three of them and viewers out of London and to Narnia through a magical painting of King Caspain’s (Ben Barnes) ship The Dawn Treader. While Caspian is happy to be reunited with his earthly friends, he’s on a quest to find seven of his father’s lords who’ve been trying to stop a mysterious evil that has overtaken the uncharted areas of Narnia.

Caspian, Lucy, Edmund and Eustace (who might as well be nicknamed “Useless”) have to fight slave traders, an evil green mist and their own character weaknesses. Lewis’ books are Christian allegories, and the filmmakers have thankfully retained his intentions. It doesn’t take much mental effort to imagine whom Aslan the Lion (commandingly voiced by Liam Neeson) is representing. It’s often more compelling when our heroes’ own vices are more dangerous than any external enemy.

Unfortunately, this angle is about the only thing that gives the human characters anything distinctive. Caspian is such a one-note character that his weaknesses seem to be added as an afterthought. When Reepicheep leaves the screen, some of the energy to the story goes away.

What keeps The Voyage of the Dawn Treader from getting dull is a gorgeous production that’s sadly marred by some of the most needless 3D I’ve yet encountered. Whereas movies like Tangled and Megamind use 3D as an essential part of the storytelling process, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader forces viewers to wear 3D glasses simply to fatten Fox’s balance sheet. What would have been gorgeous images have been dimmed to dull grey. Viewers actually get less for their money by going to 3D auditoriums.

There’s still enough sincerity involved in this production to excuse the wasteful addition. It’s a shame that Reepicheep’s personality is the only thing in the film that’s really in 3D. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted on 12/10/10)

A Film Unfinished
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In A Film Unfinished, director Yael Hersonski expertly exposes Nazi propaganda film Das Ghetto through a newly discovered roll of behind-the-scenes footage and witness accounts. The documentary debunks even the most authentic-seeming scenes of the 62-minute, 35-millimeter rough cut that supposedly chronicles life in the Warsaw ghetto and discusses the probable sinister motivations behind its creation and the implications of believing what you see on screen.

Still from a Film Unfinished

Since its discovery by East German archivists after WWII, scholars and historians have adopted Das Ghetto as a record of life in the Polish ghetto. Filmed over 30 days in May 1942 — a mere two months before deportations to the Treblinka extermination camp would begin — the hour-long silent “documentary” shows scenes of wealthy, well-fed Jews enjoying various luxuries, such as dining at restaurants, drinking at parties, shopping at the market, and sunbathing while exhibiting complete indifference and even contempt to those suffering near them. Although many scenes have been excoriated as obviously manipulated either to highlight Jewish privilege or show off how well the Nazis allowed the Jews in the ghetto to live, street, home and crowd scenes were generally accepted as authentic.

However, in 1998 another reel containing 30 minutes of outtakes was discovered. The outtakes display the blatant staging of all scenes present in the rough-cut original, as well as additional staged scenes, such as an ostentatious funeral, guns being fired overhead to create a panicked crowd scene, and hours-long captive participation as the audience of a stage show. There were also forced rituals, such as a circumcision and bathing, which exploited the participants and attempted to vilify Judaism.

Hersonski has performed due diligence for her film. She has gathered all known footage and overlaid it with accounts from diaries written by ghetto inhabitants and officials, such as Adam Cherniakov, the head of the Jewish Council (whose apartment was used by the Nazis to stage several scenes); detailed reports by the ghetto commissioner Heinz Auerswald; and recordings of the testimony of one of the Nazi cameramen, Willy Wist, who buries his confessions in abdication of responsibility and concern about technical aspects, such as lighting. That all this information coincides with the images on screen to reveal the degree of crafted falsehood can be credited to the award-winning exact editing by Joëlle Alexis.

Yet, the documentary, full of horrifying images, remains rather emotionless except for the closeups of the ghetto survivors' reactions to the original film. Here, too, are some fascinating contradictions to the main thesis of A Film Unfinished. The survivors both disprove the propaganda ("Who ever saw a flower?" one woman scoffs. "We would have eaten a flower.") and, at times, affirms it (“My mother wore her beautiful coat, and sometimes a hat. So what?”). There's abundant pathos and ambivalence in listening to a woman who tripped over a starved corpse on the sidewalk on her way home, and how her mother comforted her with a slice of bread covered in jam.

The most haunting aspect of the film; however, are the portraits of the Jews in the ghetto. Between acts, A Film Unfinished lingers on some of the sunken faces and provides no narration, only a sad and beautiful soundtrack. R Rating: 3.5 (Posted 12/10/10)

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer doesn’t ask viewers to feel sorry for its subject. Nobody’s going to shed any tears for a fellow who has gone from being a New York governor to a well-paid host of a low-rated CNN show. After all, he lost the previous job due to his fondness for commercial sex.

Strill from Client 9

Instead, Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), who made the short list for this year’s Academy Awards with this entry, persuasively argues that the ultimate losers in Spitzer’s tale are the public at large. In a series of interviews with Spitzer himself as well as his supporters and his highly vocal detractors, Gibney does nothing to whitewash the politician’s misdeeds or how his abrasive, egotistical manner alienated his allies when he needed them most.

Client 9 devotes extensive time to Spitzer’s career as the state’s attorney general. He pursued white-collar crime with the same vigor that most prosecutors devote to violent felonies. Spitzer filled a void left by regulators who were either too under-resourced or simply unwilling to do their jobs. In particular, he went after insurance giant AIG for practices that eventually led to the massive taxpayer bailout that we’re still paying.

Because many titanic Wall Street players were multiplying their fortunes through crimes that Spitzer set out to punish, it was inevitable that he’d make powerful enemies. In Client 9, Home Depot tycoon Kenneth Langone lividly recalls Spitzer’s attacks on former New York Stock Exchange director Dick Grasso (whose mammoth pay package attracted the AG’s ire) and Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former CEO of insurance giant AIG. Langone is obviously happy Spitzer is no longer in power.

Had he remained AG instead of going after the Governor’s Mansion in Albany, there is a chance Spitzer might still have a political career, but he quickly made a foe of State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, who gleefully remembers clashing with Spitzer in the film. As his time in Albany passed, Spitzer’s efforts as a reformer were gradually undone by his pugnacious interactions with the legislature and by repeatedly committing a crime that he had occasionally prosecuted.

Some of the most engaging moments in Client 9 come from hearing the recollections of former sex workers and the people who arranged their services. Cecil Suwal, the young former CEO of the internet-based escort service The Emperor’s Club talks about her career matching johns and call girls as if it were a mom-and-pop store that had been forced out of business by Wal-Mart instead of the law. The sex worker who spent the most time with Spitzer even admits her professional meetings with men were better than any date she’s had. If there is any indication that men should change their behavior during courtship, this sadly is it.

As for entertainment value, it’s hard to beat Republican operative Roger Stone and his enthusiastic, if patently dishonest, discussion of his role in Spitzer’s downfall. This man cheerfully admits he got dropped from Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential bid because of an ad he and his wife placed to meet other swingers. I wouldn’t trust this guy with any secrets, but listening to him over cocktails is guaranteed to be a riot.

As for Spitzer himself, he’s understandably more open about his time as a prosecutor than as a john. When the latter subject comes up, the normally articulate politician clams up the same way Greenberg does when asked about his time at AIG. Spitzer’s friends describe how disillusioned they were to discover his double life because he was a square away from the courtroom. If you’re looking for a clear explanation for how Spitzer turned into a pompous hypocrite, you won’t find it here. While he seems contrite, he trips over his tongue trying to explain his fatal mistakes.

Gibney has no qualms about making Spitzer squirm, but he also points out that the former governor’s shaming is a disturbing anomaly. In most cases, the authorities tend to bust the “service providers” and not the johns. U.S. Senator David Vitter, who has run as a family values conservative, has committed similar crimes to Spitzer, but he’s still in the Senate, and voters have just returned him for another six years. Gibney ultimately says that Spitzer had undermined the credibility of his office and is responsible for his own fall, but he certainly received a lot of unwanted help.

The 2008 financial collapse happened within months of Spitzer’s resignation. It’s doubtful that he alone could have stopped the catastrophe that followed. The real shame is that more people, even if they were hypocritical and arrogant, didn’t take the initiative that he did. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 12/10/10)

The Tourist
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Johnny Depp has apparently never met a quirk he hasn’t liked. For the most part, his fondness for playing off-center characters has paid off handsomely. It’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off Captain Jack Sparrow or Edward Scissorhands. Because he’s willing to explore character traits other actors avoid, he was able to give 1930s bank robber John Dillinger a depth that might not have existed on the page while still retaining his suave daring.

Still from the Tourist

As Frank Tupelo in The Tourist, however, Depp is the one major thing that keeps the film from working. His Frank could be considered an Ugly American if he were capable of any harm. Instead, he bumbles around Europe with a death wish that Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s patients never had.

The Wisconsin-based math teacher arrives in Venice and annoys Italians by speaking fragments of Spanish. I must confess I’ve known someone who has done that, but Frank’s behavior is frequently more stupid than naïve. The latter can be excusable; the former is another matter, particularly in a film that’s allegedly catering to adults.

Frank becomes a pawn of a mysterious Englishwoman named Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie). Interpol agents and a frustrated British cop (Paul Bettany) are following her in the hopes she can lead them to a master thief named Alexander Pierce. The police and tax collectors want him for evading countless sums that are owed to the Crown. That said Pierce has more pressing dangers.

Also on his trail is an international gangster named Shaw (Steven Berkoff, Beverly Hills Cop). Shaw may be old, but he’s so ruthless that he’ll strangle henchmen to death in front of dozens of witnesses if they fail to meet his demands. Imagine what he’d do to Pierce, who has stolen $2.3 billion from him.

Pierce has told Elise to find someone who fits his own physical description and to use him as a decoy for the authorities. Because she and Pierce had been lovers gradually baiting Frank could, in theory, help her former paramour stay at large. But it’s hard to imagine a clever woman like her recruiting Frank because he’s so obviously a babe or even a boob in the woods.

While Depp has certainly contributed to how Frank comes off, he’s not the only person responsible for creating a character who by all rights should be dead before the film’s first half hour has passed. The Tourist is a remake of the French movie Anthony Zimmer, and three Oscar-winners (Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park, Christopher McQuarrie of The Usual Suspects and German writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) have produced a storyline that’s at war with itself. The Tourist tries ineptly to juggle broad comedy with elegant Hitcockian chills. The results are maddeningly uneven.

Thematically, The Tourist resembles Henkel von Donnersmarck’s German thriller The Lives of Others where the protagonists are under constant surveillance and are precariously close to either being arrested or murdered. Sadly, the English-language film has little of the Teutonic movie’s wit, finesse or emotional power. If the theater owners were to advertise The Tourist but played The Lives of Others by mistake, they’d be doing consumers an immeasurable favor.

At least Jolie is ideally cast as Elise. Her mischievous eyes practically dare pursuers to catch her. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s lovingly photographed by John Seale (Witness, The English Patient), who expertly captures the film’s Venetian locales. In fact, the city becomes the most interesting character in the whole film. It’s too bad the people in the foreground in this film aren’t as interesting as the ones who appear in the margins. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 12/10/10)

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If the film Client 9 dampens an audience’s hope because of all the hypocrisy and depravity it exposes, Budrus has nearly the opposite effect because it documents an event that seems as improbable as it is uplifting.

Still from Budrus

Budrus is a Palestinian village to the east of Jerusalem that came close to being crossed by the enormous fence the Israeli government has created to separate Israel from the West Bank. The location of the fence couldn’t be worse as far as the residents of Budrus are concerned. The proposed location would force the removal of countless olive trees that are essential to the town’s economy. When these folks hug their trees, it’s not simply for aesthetic purposes.

The villagers, led by their de facto mayor Ayed Morrar, show up each morning in the hundreds to stop the Israeli soldiers from tearing down their trees and ripping up their land. By refraining from violence and building unusual but powerful coalitions, Morrar continually thwarts armed Israeli soldiers from continuing their plans on the fence.

At first a large group of men stand in the way of the bulldozers, but when the soldiers start to get the upper hand, the women of Budrus join in the protest, and the movement gradually builds beyond the confines of the town. By defying the patriarchal stereotype of Palestinian culture, the people of Budrus gain international attention.

Soon representatives from the Hamas faction start taking part despite the fact that Morrar and his village are part of the rival group Fatah. Even Israelis who oppose the occupation of West Bank join them, and Europeans and Americans take part in the protests as well.

Budrus would probably get pretty dull if it were simply about saving some trees from the bulldozers. The protests end up uniting people who might normally be pointing guns or throwing rocks at each other. Part of the reason Morrar is so successful is that he’s capable of looking beyond his own situation. He even tells the filmmakers he understands why the Israelis have built the fence. He just wishes it wasn’t intended for his hometown. In turn, the villagers admit they’ve never had Jewish friends before the crisis and gradually start to look at their former enemies in a new light.

If this sounds like a Pollyannaish fantasy, director Julia Bacha, who wrote and edited the powerful 2004 documentary Control Room, includes plenty of moments where the Morrar’s efforts appear to be for naught. She also includes testimony from the Israeli squad leader Yasmine Levy whose seemingly routine task becomes more frustrating and bewildering as the protest grows. Bacha also includes a moment when some of the villagers start throwing rocks and almost derail the progress they’ve made. At that point, the protests had been going on for several months.

The situation at Budurs may be only a spec on the map in the Middle East, but that spec offers legitimate hope for the region and possibly for the rest of the planet. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/10/10)

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The late classical pianist Glenn Gould, who died shortly after turning 50 in 1982, was known as much for his eccentricities as he was for his creative and deftly soulful playing. The Canadian was famed as much for the performances he skipped as for the ones he actually played. On some recordings, you can hear him humming behind his playing, as if a madman had burst into the studio and was trying to sing along with someone else’s performance. It was easy to label him a gifted basket case because his star had burned out so quickly.

That’s the perception, but as Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould indicates, Gould’s reality was as richly fascinating as the myth. In fact, learning that Gould had the same sort of longings the rest of us have makes him a more approachable and even empathetic. Because Genius Within treats Gould’s life as more than brilliant freak show, it’s easy to see why it made the shortlist for next year’s Oscar feature documentary competition.

Gould still remains mysterious. Nonetheless, directors Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont have managed to interview dozens of people who knew Gould along with scholars who have something besides the legend to consult. There are also generous samples of his playing and from the unique radio documentaries he made for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. While carefully illuminating their subject, Hozer and Raymont retain enough of the enigma around Gould to keep us wanting more.

In many of the previous accounts that have been written about him, particularly in the fanciful and fascinating Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould (featuring Colm Feore as the pianist), Gould is often portrayed as a man who was so obsessed with music and recording that he may never have had a romantic relationship in his life, making him seem a pathetic, lonely figure.

Genius Within reveals that’s nonsense. In fact, Gould seems even sadder because he had actually had a five-year affair with Corneila Foss, the wife of Gould’s friend, composer Lukas Foss. In the film, Foss and her children describe the relationship in remarkable detail. Gould was actually a man of deep emotional attachments, so the end of their liaison, caused in part by his paranoid tendencies, was obviously devastating to him.

The Gould who emerges in the final film is still an odd fellow, but an overview of his output indicates he was never idle and was always creating fascinating work. His custom chair and his habit of wearing gloves even when it wasn’t cold left an odd impression. He stopped touring toward the end of his life and had switched to performing only in the studio. There, he developed some revolutionary techniques, like overdubbing on classical recordings that can now be taken for granted in the advent of the digital age. Had he lived to be old, it might have been fascinating to hear what he could have accomplished with a Mac and a good sound system.

Gould’s tragedy may have been that he didn’t have a clear sense of himself or what he had accomplished. Gould was afflicted with hypochondria and wouldn’t listen to doctors who told him he was healthy. If one rejected his claim of illness, Gould would seek out another. This caused many physicians to unknowingly prescribe him silos full of medicines that weren’t compatible and could have easily led to his premature death.

Hozer and Raymont don’t hold back on any of the bizarre anecdotes about Gould and his unique habits, but they also provide enough information about the breathtaking music and the soul who made it possible. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/03/10)

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