Wednesday, August 31, 2011

DVD Review: The Beaver

The Beaver **
Directed by: Jodie Foster.
Written by: Kyle Killen.
Starring: Mel Gibson (Walter Black), Jodie Foster (Meredith Black), Anton Yelchin (Porter Black), Jennifer Lawrence (Norah), Cherry Jones (Vice President), Riley Thomas Stewart (Henry Black).

The problem with Jodie Foster’s The Beaver is that it never fully embraces the insanity at its core. Here is a movie about a depressed, alcoholic nutcase who finds a beaver puppet in the trash and begins talking through it. Too depressed to do anything except sleep Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is about tries to kill himself when his wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster) throws him out of their house after finally becoming fed up with his depression. He fails to kill himself, finds a beaver puppet in the trash, and lets the beaver take over his life. He says everything through the Beaver, with a strange Aussie accent, that he couldn’t say before. He turns his failing company around, and may actually be on the verge on winning back Meredith, and his son Porter (Anton Yelchin), but the reality is that any man who talks through a beaver puppet is severely mentally disturbed – especially when he begins to believe the beaver is real, and really is taking over his life. But why does Foster, who was brave enough to make a movie about an insane man with a beaver puppet on his hand, and braver still to cast Mel Gibson in the lead role, seem to want to make this into some sort of feel good story? Why does she want to turn this dysfunctional family back into something normal by the end? And why does she spend so much time on Porter and his issues with the popular, pretty girl Norah (Jennifer Lawrence)? Didn’t she realize she had the stuff of great, black comedy in focusing on an insane Mel Gibson with a beaver puppet?

Make no mistake about it, no matter how insane Mel Gibson has become in recent years, the man still has acting talent. And here, once he gets that puppet on his hand, he comes to life and delivers one of his better performances. As the depressed Walter, Gibson is appropriately dull and lifeless, but when the beaver – which is a triumph of design, as his features somehow look both goofy and creepy – he is at the top of his game. With the beaver on his hand, Walter has clearly become insane, and yet everyone around him tries to pretend he hasn’t. He seems more engaged – both with his family, and running his toy company, even coming up with a best selling toy, and heading out on the interview tour with the beaver on his hand. Those who don’t know him, think it’s all merely an act, before it becomes painfully apparent to everyone that it isn’t – and Walter truly has gone off the deep end.

The problem with The Beaver is that it never takes its concept seriously enough. Walter is never quite insane enough with The Beaver on his hand, until he is completely gone. He seems to go from eccentric to insanity in the blink of an eye, missing some steps in between. Perhaps an even bigger issue though is how uninteresting everything around Walter is. Foster, who excels at playing strong, independent women, is here essentially playing a doormat – the kind of woman who sticks by her husband because she has no other choice open to her. While Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence are both very good in their supporting roles, finding their own way through their painful teenage years, it is a distraction from the main thrust of the plot. Whenever they are onscreen, I just wanted to get back to Gibson. Foster and screenwriter Kyle Killen want to make this into one of those dysfunctional family comedy-dramas that dominate the indie film scene in America, even trying to pull off a somewhat happy ending, where everyone reconnects with each other. But it feels fake and phony.

When I think of what The Beaver could have been if only Foster and Killen had followed the story to the much darker places it wanted to go (assuming Gibson would also want to be a part of the film at that point), it makes me sad. There is a classic movie somewhere in the premise of The Beaver that is never allowed to get out. Instead, they take an ingenious premise, and the perfect actor in Gibson who could have pulled it off, and done the most unimaginative thing with it that they could.

DVD Review: Essential Killing

Essential Killing ***
Directed by: Jerzy Skolimowski.
Written by: Jerzy Skolimowski and Ewa Piaskowska.
Starring: Vincent Gallo (Mohammed), Emmanuelle Seigner (Margaret).

Vincent Gallo is one of the great actors out there right now. That he rarely works – and always do so in strange, small movies, sometimes from the most unlikely sources, is our loss because in films like Buffalo 66 (which he also directed), Francis Ford Coppola’s strange Tetro, and yes even the infamously bad The Brown Bunny, Gallo as an actor makes choices that no other actor would make. The most daring choice he makes in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing was perhaps to even agree to do the film itself. He plays a Taliban fighter, identified on some sights as Mohammed, but if his name is mentioned in the movie, I didn’t hear it. During the course of this movie, Gallo will not utter a single line of dialogue – he grunts and cries out in pain and terror, but he doesn’t talk. Some of those he comes across do talk, but none of it is particularly meaningful – you don’t even need the subtitles for the dialogue not spoken in English, because it doesn’t matter. Essential Killing is an example of pure visual storytelling, and is a triumph for Skolimowski and Gallo.

The film opens with three American military men walking through the desert and caves of Afghanistan. We know before they do that there is a Taliban fighter (Gallo) hiding in one of those caves, with a rocket launcher waiting to strike. He does so, and takes off through the desert, but the area is covered by a helicopter, so he is quickly captured, and taken into custody. The American soldiers yell at him, although he cannot hear them because his ears are ringing from an explosion, and probably doesn’t understand English anyway. He just looks at them blankly. They take to a back room and water board him, but still, he doesn’t utter a word. He is put on a plane, and taken to Poland, presumably for more questioning, but the van he is in crashes, and he escapes. Thus begins the main thrust of the movie, which involves Gallo running through the frozen Polish landscape, pursued by his captors, and doing what he needs to do to survive.

Given that the movie is about a Taliban fighter being pursued by Americans in a foreign country, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a political film. It really isn’t. Gallo is no more or less demonized or lauded as the American army is. There are no speeches, no real talk about freedom or religion or belief or anything else for that matter. This is just a story of a man, on his own in the Polish wilderness trying to survive.

That Gallo is good enough in the film that he won the Best Actor prize at last year’s Berlin Film Festival is remarkable, considering he never utters a word, and of course, that he really isn’t Arab. But Gallo convinces you that he is a Taliban fighter, and further convinces you that the pain he is going through is real. His journey through Poland is one painful episode after another, as he first must get clothing to avoid freezing to death, than evade capture by men with much more technology and knowledge of the area than he does, and even has to deal with getting his foot caught in a bear trap with his pursuers following close behind. That he survives so long is perhaps a little unbelievable, and yet each of his escapes seem at least somewhat plausible in the time they are happening. Gallo carries the movie with his physicality, and of course, the most expressive eyes of any actor currently out there. It is a masterful performance.

And it is a triumph for Skolimowski as well, who manages to make a movie with no meaningful dialogue, that is still remarkably engaging. This is pure cinema, and Skolimowski pulls it off. I’m sure there will be some who criticize the film for being a sympathetic portrait of a Taliban fighter, or simply for its name, which implies that what he does is “essential”. But for Gallo’s character in this movie, all the killing he does – whether or Americans or animals – is essential to him. He views killing as essential to his survival. We may disagree with him, but he doesn’t.

DVD Review: Vanishing on 7th Street

Vanishing on 7th Street **Directed by: Brad Anderson.
Written by: Anthony Jaswinski.
Starring: Hayden Christensen (Luke), John Leguizamo (Paul), Thandie Newton (Rosemary), Jacob Latimore (James), Taylor Groothuis (Briana).

Pulling off good, low budget horror is a tricky proposition. You have to do what Hollywood filmmakers do with way less money, as you really cannot afford to make special effects laden movies, or have creatures with the same impact. Instead, you have to do everything with mood and atmosphere, and depend on your cast to generate that same level of terror. Brad Anderson proved he could that with his brilliant, underrated gem Session 9 a few years ago, and to a lesser extent with The Machinist (which wasn’t really horror, but had horror elements). But with Vanishing on 7th Street, I don’t think he succeeded the way he wanted to. To be sure, he tries really hard, and the mood is just about right, but there is an air of phoniness around the film. I could never quite buy into it, and so it left me cold.

The film is about a blackout that hits the city of Detroit (and it appears much more). Anyone caught in the blackout is immediately vaporized, leaving behind just their clothes. But a few survivors are lucky enough to be spared. These are those rare people who had some sort of light on them when the blackout began – flashlights, candles, cigarette lighter. The days since the blackout more and more people keep dying, because they need to stay in the light, as while there are days that interrupt the total blackness of night, they are getting shorter, and soon will be gone altogether. Car batteries seem to have been killed by whatever caused the blackout as well, so in essence, the few survivors are stuck in Detroit, afraid of the dying of the light.

The one location that still has power is a bar called Sonny’s. It is operating on a generator, although how much longer that will last is not known. While they have plenty of gas, the generator seems to be winding down anyway. The bar is manned by James (Jacob Latimore), a young boy who was there with his mother, who left to try and find help, and has not returned. Slowly other survivors come across Sonny’s – Luke (Hayden Christensen), a selfish news reporter, Rosemary (Thandie Newton) a recovering addict, convinced her infant son is still alive somewhere, and Paul (John Leguizamo), a shy film projectionist. They are drawn to Sonny’s, but Luke knows they have to leave while they still can. If they wait much longer, it won’t be an option anymore.

In theory, Vanishing on 7th Street has a perfect setup for a low budget horror film. Afterall, there is nothing scarier than what you can’t see – and the pervasive darkness of the film means you cannot see much. And also, darkness doesn’t cost anything to shoot, meaning you can (and they did) make the film for very little money.

And yet, the movie never really gave me goosebumps – never truly scared me. While Anderson gets the atmosphere right, he doesn’t really do anything with it once he has established it. There are moments that should generate almost unbearable tension that simply fall flat. It doesn’t help that it is impossible to care about any of the characters – Luke is a selfish prick, marred by the usual Christensen reluctance to express any emotion, Paul is so closed down it’s impossible to get a read on him, and this is further hampered by the fact he spends most of the movie lying on a pool table, and Rosemary is just over the top crazy at first, and then settles into a clichéd addict role that feels unnatural. True, you do feel for James, who has lost his mother, but he never really feels like a real character either.

In short, Vanishing on 7th Street is a movie with a promising premise that fails to live up to it. Anderson is a talented director, and I’m sure he’ll do better in the future, but this time he failed to scare me – and for a horror film, that’s deadly.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Movie Review: The Debt

The Debt ***
Directed by: John Madden.
Written By: Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan based on the film written by Assaf Bernstein & Ido Rosenblum.
Starring: Jessica Chastain (Young Rachel Singer), Sam Worthington (Young David), Marton Csokas (Young Stefan), Helen Mirren (Rachel Singer), Tom Wilkinson (Stefan), Ciarán Hinds (David), Jesper Christensen (Vogel), Romi Aboulafia (Sarah).

The Debt is a thriller, that is also a romantic triangle and a moral puzzle. That it attempts do all three of these things is admirable, and while it may have bitten off a little more than it can chew, the result is a fast paced, entertaining movie that I found snuck up on me as it progressed. Yes, the big secret the movie reveals about three quarters into its running time was obvious from the outset, but the moral implications that arise in the films last act elevate the film.

The film mostly takes place in Berlin in 1967. Three Mossad agents – Rachel (Jessica Chastain), David (Sam Worthington) and Stefan (Marton Csokas) are sent there because they think they have spotted an infamous Nazi doctor war criminal, Vogel (Jesper Christensen) – who performed experiments on Jews in the camps. Their mission is to first confirm his identity, then kidnap him and bring him back to Israel to stand trial in front of the whole world. They are able to identify and kidnap him, but then they screw up their exit strategy, and have to hold onto him for days on end waiting for another opportunity.

The film bookends the action from 1967 with scenes from the mid-1990s, where the daughter of Rachel (here played by Helen Mirren) and Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) has just written a book about her hero parents and their actions on that mission – where we learn that Vogel escapes, but as he was running away, Rachel shot and killed him. Rachel and Stefan have long since divorced, and although she has left the Mossad, he is now its Chief. David (Ciaran Hinds) left Israel shortly after the mission was over, and has just showed back up in their lives. But why is he so upset?

I’m sure you can piece together what actually happened on that mission, as well as the mechanics of the love triangle in the movie as well. Neither is really all that original. In terms of the mission, something went wrong, and the official story isn’t what really happened. In terms of the love triangle, Rachel is drawn to both men, but while David seems to genuinely love her, Stefan seems more interested in sex, and stupidly it is him that Rachel ends up in bed with.

That last paragraph probably seems like I am insulting the film, but I’m not really doing that. No, it’s not an original plot, but it is one that is handled with great skill by director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), who moves things along quickly. The performances by the three younger actors – particularly Chastin – are really quite good, and Jesper Christensen just drips evil as the Nazi criminal, who even when he is tied up in a corner waiting to die won’t admit he’s down anything wrong, and works at getting under their skin. The film kept my attention throughout this segment of the film.

It was the final act that I think really makes the film – and not just because it is exciting in the ways the best thrillers are (although it is that as well, I also had to put the timeline out of my mind, because the characters ages didn’t make much sense to me). But it is really in this section where the moral implications of the film come into play. Helen Mirren is certainly the MVP of this movie, even given her limited screen time, because not only does she nail the Israeli accent, you also feel the weight of her choices weighing her down in this final segment. Tom Wilkinson does a good job as her slimy, politically motivated ex, and Ciaran Hinds does a good job of looking morose (which really is the only thing they ask him to do), but it is Mirren who makes this final act – and in effect the whole movie – hit the hardest. The Debt is certainly a flawed film, but it is a fascinating one as well.

DVD Review: The Eagle

The Eagle ** ½
Directed by: Kevin Macdonald.
Written by: Jeremy Brock based on the novel by Rosemary Sutcliff.
Starring: Channing Tatum (Marcus Aquila), Jamie Bell (Esca), Donald Sutherland (Uncle Aquila), James Hayes (Stephanos), Mark Strong (Guern), Tahar Rahim (Seal Prince), Thomas Henry (Seal Boy), Ned Dennehy (Seal Chief / The Horned One).

The Eagle is a movie that should be much better than it actually is. Watching the film, I was never really bored by it, but it never truly involved me either. It’s like the filmmakers and the actors are simply going through the motions – trying to make a Roman epic like they’ve seen in the past, but never quite finding their way inside of the action. It certainly doesn’t help that the last act of the movie, especially the final scene, rings utterly false.

Years ago on a mission in North England, a Roman General and his army were completely lost. No trace has been found of them, or their prized silver eagle, since. This inspired the Emperor to set up a wall, forever shutting out Northern England. For all intents and purposes, the Roman world ends at that wall. Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is the son of that General, who wants nothing more than to redeem his family name. Upon achieving a high military rank, he is asked where he wants to be stationed, and immediately says Britain. No one else wants to go there, so his request is granted, and he is given the lead of a group of men at a remote outpost. He isn’t there long before he is attacked, and although his men doubt him, his brilliant stategy and fighting ability, saves all of their lives. Unfortunately, he is injured, and as such is given an honorable discharge and high praise. He could live out his life in luxary in England, alongside his uncle (Donald Sutherland), but then he will never achieve the redemption he wants.

At a gladiator battle, he witnesses a slave, Esca (Jamie Bell) battle against a “brave” gladiator with all his heart, despite the fact that he has no chance of winning. The gladiator eventually prevails, and when he asks the audience if he should kill Esca or not, everyone seems to want his blood. Except Marcus, who eventually turns the crowd to his favor, and Esca is spared. Marcus’ uncle buys Esca for him, and soon the two learn to respect each other. When Marcus decides the only way to win his family honor back is to go and find the prized eagle, he is told he is insane. But he eventually gets permission – thinking that with just himself and Esca, they can remain under cover. But can Esca, who hates the Roman, really be trusted when the two of them are alone?

The films opening scenes are a little perfunctory and predictable, and yet during those scenes, I did feel like the movie was building towards something. The film is directed by Kevin McDonald, who has made some very good films (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play), and here, the film is visually striking, and the opening scenes play out nicely. I certainly felt like this movie was leading somewhere good. But once Marcus and Esca get beyond the wall, the film becomes more confused. The problem, I think, is that Esca’s character never really comes into focus. The movie spends so much time going back and forth on a is he good or bad vein that Jamie Bell (a very talented actor) can never quite settle into the character, because he is mainly used as just a pawn for the plot. By the time we finally know the reality of his character, the movie is in a rush to end the movie quickly.

Still, it must be said that the film is never boring. McDonald knows how to stage action, and that works to great effect in this film. Channing Tatum has never been the best of actors, but here he does what is asked of him – to be the stoic and solid leading man. Jamie Bell tries his best, but is undone by his roll. And then there is the ending, which to me is far too simplistic to be effective. What is the real message of this movie exactly? Is it pro-Roman, or pro-Britain? Why does Esca do everything that he does, right up until that final frame? The movie isn’t interested in exploring some of the complexities that it should, and as a result, The Eagle never really fulfills its promise.

DVD Review: The Other Woman

The Other Woman ** ½
Directed by: Don Roos.
Written by: Don Roos based on the novel by Ayelet Waldman.
Starring: Natalie Portman (Emilia Greenleaf), Scott Cohen (Jack), Lisa Kudrow (Carolyn), Charlie Tahan (William), Lauren Ambrose (Mindy), Michael Cristofer (Sheldon), Debra Monk (Laura), Mona Lerche (Sonia), Anthony Rapp (Simon).

Natalie Portman is the only reason to see The Other Woman – an ultimately, even she is not quite reason enough. She gives a complex performance as a woman who you would think would immediately have our sympathy, but does not. She plays Emilia, who is trying to get over the death of her baby months before. Yet Portman, along with writer-director Don Roos (taking the lead from the Ayelet Waldman novel), do not make Emilia immediately likable or sympathetic. Quite the opposite really. She is brittle and cold, cynical and sarcastic, always outwardly putting the blame on everyone around her, while inwardly directing it all at itself as it slowly eats away at her. She is caught in a spiral from which she really cannot find a way out of. It truly is a wonderful performance. It’s just too bad that everyone around this character is so generic and uninteresting – one dimensional to say the least. Had Emilia inhabited a world that seemed real, The Other Woman could have been a great movie.

Emilia has more issues other than the death of her child. She is married to Jack (Scott Cohen), but started the affair with him when he was still married to Carolyn (Lisa Kudrow), a cold hearted bitch if ever there was one. He only left Carolyn upon discovering that Emilia was pregnant. Now, Emilia also has to deal with her 8 year old stepson William (Charlie Tahan), whose every word seems directed to hurt Emilia, even as he asks them innocently enough. Carolyn is still furious with Jack for leaving her, and even more furious with Emilia, and she does everything possible to make their life miserable. Emilia’s rather support system is pretty much just two distant friends (Lauren Ambrose and Anthony Rapp), and her mother (Debra Monk). Emilia is still furious with her father for cheating on her mother – repeatedly, and it irks her to now end that he is the only one in her family that William genuinely loves.

At the heart of every scene in the movie is Portman, who it should be said is terrific. She has the guts to make Emilia as cold and distant as she should be, almost daring us to hate her. And yet, it is still a very human performance. She is a woman under a tremendous load of grief, and pressure, almost all self inflicted, and she simply cannot function anymore. She punishes everyone around her, pushing them away, when she really wants them to come closer, but cannot seem to ask. Immediately sympathetic she isn’t, but real she is.

But everything else in the movie feels fake. Jack is an almost absence presence, even when he’s onscreen. Scott Cohen brings nothing to the roll whatsoever. Lisa Kudrow is stuck playing what is essentially a caraciture of the bitter, mean first wife. She’s so one dimensionally evil, she’s only a small step away from Cruella Deville. As for Charlie Tahan as William, the writers seem to have fallen into the trap of making him a little adult, rather than letting him be a kid. He does seem to be going for the jugular with his comments to Emilia – and it’s no wonder she hates him.

The movie starts off okay, but as the movie progresses, and revelations come out, and people turn out to be not quite as evil as we thought, the whole thing just felt staged and phony to me. All of a sudden, I am supposed to buy Emilia and William bonding? That Carolyn isn’t an evil demon from hell? It just doesn’t work. And that’s too bad, because Portman is great in the movie. Unfortunately, she’s the only thing in the movie worth watching.

Monday, August 29, 2011

DVD Review: Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen ***
Directed by: Andrew Lau.
Written by: Gordon Chan.
Starring: Donnie Yen (Chen Zhen), Qi Shu (Kiki), Anthony Wong Chau-Sang (Liu Yutian), Yasuaki
Ryu Kohata (Colonel Chikaraishi), Akira (Sasaki), Bo Huang (Huang), Jiajia Chen (Huang Lan),  Siyan Huo (Weiwei), Zhou Yang (Qi Zhishan), Karl Dominik (Vincent).

Legend of the Fist opens with the best martial arts setpiece in recent memory. Donnie Yen, playing WWI hero Chen Zhen, finds himself, along with his ill equipped countrymen, abandoned by their allies  French behind enemy lines with little hope of survival, but instead of giving into defeat, he takes matters into his own hands. What follows is cinematic martial arts at its finest. It seems like director Andrew Lau (who made the Infernal Affairs trilogy, that became The Departed in Martin Scorsese’s hands) wanted to establish this movie’s martial arts credentials right off the bat. After all, Chen Zhen has been played in the past by Bruce Lee (in Fists of Fury) and Jet Li (in Fist of Legend), so Donnie Yen has big shoes to fill. In that opening scene, where he moves with impossible speed and grace, Yen does just that.

But Legend of the Fist is not just another martial arts epic – and that’s both its strength and its weakness. Yen, like many cinema martial artists, isn’t normally hired for his acting abilities, but by what he can do physically. And once the movie shifts from the battlefields of WWI, to Shanghai in the 1920s, as the Japanese are ready to invade, there are still many martial arts setpieces, as Yen’s Chen Zhen dons a black mask to protect Chinese patriots from the invading Japanese out to kill them. But Lau, who navigated a tricky, intricate plot in the Infernal Affairs movies, tries to do the same thing here.

Here, he has made a movie about about shifting loyalities rooted in national politics. We know from the start that Chen Zhen is a good guy, and that Japanese Colonel Chikaraishi (Yasuaki Ryu Kohata) is a bad guy, but everyone else occupies shades of grey. You never quite get a handle on what night club owner Liu (Anthony Wong) for example is thinking, and Kiki (Qi Shu), who is Chen Zhen’s love interest is an even more complex character. No one it quite what they seem.

Lau is a talented filmmaker, and here, he indulges himself on his love of old movies. Much of the action happens in Liu’s nightclub, called Casablanca, where Chen Zhen has disguised himself as the piano player. The references to that most famous of classic movies are in practically every scene – a Japanese song that gets drowned out by the Chinese singing one of their patriotic tunes the most obvious of them. No matter what else is happening in the film, it is also interesting to look at.

And yet, I wonder if perhaps the story is too complex. Not being overly familiar with the Japanese occupation of China, I was lost at times in all the political speech that seems to pervade much of the film. At times, I simply had to drift along on the images, as I got lost in the plot. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly doesn’t make Legend of the Fist a simple, breezy martial arts movie. By marrying the two together, Lau has made a film that is much more complex than most martial arts movies. Perhaps too complex for its own good.

DVD Review: A Screaming Man

A Screaming Man ** ½
Directed by: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun.
Written by: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
Starring: Youssouf Djaoro (Adam Ousmane 'Champion'), Dioucounda Koma (Abdel Ousmane), Emile Abossolo M'bo (Le chef de quartile), Hadje Fatime N'Goua (Mariam), Marius Yelolo (David), Djénéba Koné (Djénéba Koné), Heling Li (Mme Wang), Rémadji Adèle Ngaradoumbaye (Souad), John Mbaiedoum (Etienne).

A Screaming Man has an interesting title, considering the main character, Adam (Youssoud Djaoro) never screams in the film. He is a character who keeps everything bottled up inside himself – never letting anyone really in to see who he really is. Perhaps he doesn’t even know who he really is. He so values his routine, that has become accustomed to for more than 30 years, that he essentially gives up everything important to him in an attempt to maintain it. His country, along with his family, is crashing down around him, but all he cares about is maintaining his job at the pool of a lush hotel.

Adam was once the North African swimming champ back in the 1960s – and he has coasted on that reputation ever since. At the upscale hotel in Chad where he works at the pool, everyone still calls him champ. He leads a comfortable life, and now that old age is approaching, his job at the pool is better than ever. It essentially lets him sit back and relax and watch the rich people play in the pool. He takes his job very seriously, is always prompt and courteous, and is well respected. He has gotten his 20 year old, Abdel (Dioucounda Koma) a job at the pool as well, and admonishes him if he does not behave in the way he expects him to.

But Chad is in the midst of a rebellion. A group of rebels is clashing with the military all over the country, and it’s just a matter of time before it hits the capital where Adam works. He is told that if he wants Abdel to get out of military service, he has to pay. Adam can pay, but he refuses to accept the reality of the situation. When the hotel tells him that they no longer need two people at the pool, and Abdel is going to be the one person remaining, meaning Adam is transferring to gatekeeper, Adam is crushed. Abdel tells Adam he feels bad, but he needs his job as well – he has obligations. When Adam refuses to pay to get Abdel out of military service, they come and take him away – meaning Adam gets his job at the pool back. But the hotel is changing, because the country is changing. And then Adam learns why Abdel really did need his job.

A Screaming Man is a slow burn of a movie – one that starts off at a snails pace, and never truly picks up. I know that writer-director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is making a character study here – one in which the main character’s inaction defines him, and a to a certain extent that works. The performance by Djaoro is excellent, despite the fact that he actually says very little in the film – all the acting is done in his face. It anchors the movie, and makes it as good as it is.

Yet, having said that, I found that ultimately A Screaming Man was not altogether satisfying. The film is well made, sure, but it is also extremely slow. When you add the fact that outside of Adam, none of the characters are at all developed over the course of the movie, you have a fairly one dimensional film. That level is good, but it needed more to make A Screaming Man a better film. As it stands, the film is fine, but the ingredients are here for a much better – stronger – film.

DVD Review: Cropsey

Cropsey ***
Directed by: Joshua Zeman & Barbara Brancaccio.

Every town has a bogeyman - a legend that makes the rounds through the kids and teenagers of a place generation after generation. Sometimes these legends have a basis in fact and have simply been exaggerated over the years, and sometimes they are completely made up. On Long Island, the name of the murderer that everyone knows is Cropsey. Where that name came from, no one seems exactly sure, and when filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio interview fellow residents of Long Island about Cropsey, they get any number of different stories about who Cropsey is and what he did. But the basis of that story may well by Andre Rand, who was linked to numerous missing children from the 1970s through the 1980s - eventually being convicted of one murder of a child found a few hundred yards from his campsite in the woods. When his parole approaches, Long Island is outraged, and the prosecutors go back and try to find evidence to convict Rand of another murder. In neither case do they have any physical or forensic evidence to link Rand to the dead child. But they have eye witness testimony - not of him killing the children, but just with them or near where they were when they were last seen. Rand has always maintained his innocence, but his case is complicated by several factors. For one thing, the whole town is convinced of his guilt. For another, Rand has obvious mental problems, and his paranoid ramblings stretch credibility. The filmmakers try repeatedly to get an interview with Rand, but have to settle for some of his journals - which are evidence of nothing except a mind riddled by mental disease.

What makes Cropsey so fascinating is the interviews Zeman and Brancaccio get with the residents of Long Island. It’s quite clear that there really isn’t any evidence against Rand, and what little there is cannot be trusted. When put on trial the second time, the prosecutors rely on evidence from former alcoholics and drug addicts whose minds have mysteriously cleared since they became clean. That doesn’t make much sense to me, but it’s good enough for the prosecutors.

And yet, everyone they talk to are convinced of Rand’s guilt, and their own testimony. From the cop who goes on about the Satanic rituals that Rand was involved in with his group of friends (none of whom can seemingly be found), to the girl who waited decades to reveal that she saw Rand kidnap one of the girls - even though she admits she could see his face because it was covered. The stories told about Rand rival Rand’s own paranoid ramblings.

There is no doubt that there were multiple missing children in Long Island during the time period. But with only one body, and no evidence, whether or not Rand was responsible cannot really be known. The area was full of strange people who flocked to the area where Rand was camping out, because there was once a mental hospital there (where Rand was once employed), and when it was closed, many of the patients were just put out on the street. Rand is certainly a suspicious guy, but you do get the feeling that perhaps he was railroaded.

What keeps Cropsey from being a better movie - a more complete movie - is that the facts of the case remain mysterious. The filmmakers do not seem to get interviews with the key players in the court cases - often they are seen only in TV interviews. A movie like Capturing the Friedmans was able to capture the paranoia of the town, the personal story of the accused, and the details of the case presented. Cropsey focuses on exclusively on the paranoia of the town. That still makes for a fascinating documentary, but also certainly a lesser one.

Friday, August 26, 2011

DVD Review: Stake Land

Stake Land ***
Directed by: Jim Mickle.
Written by: Nick Damici & Jim Mickle.
Starring: Nick Damici (Mister), Connor Paolo (Martin), Michael Cerveris (Jebedia Loven), Danielle Harris (Belle), Sean Nelson (Willie), Kelly McGillis (Sister), Bonnie Dennison (Peggy).

No recent trend has annoyed me more than the one that tries to make vampires sexy and sympathetic. They aren’t. They are undead killing machines who feat on human blood. Falling in love with a vampire is one step away from necrophilia. The only movies that accomplished this feat successfully were the Swedish film Let the Right One In, and it’s American remake Let Me In, which made its young girl vampire sympathetic, but still made her a blood thirsty monster. I simply cannot wait for the Twilight series to end.

All of this may help to explain why I enjoyed the low budget horror film Stake Land. It takes place in an America that has become overrun by a vampire epidemic, and the small band of survivors who are trying to make their way to Canada, where they hear it is safe. They all know that this may turn out to be mere fantasy - after all, why would vampires obey international borders? - but it gives them something to hold onto. Martin (Connor Paolo) is a young teenage boy who sees his family slaughtered in front of him, but is rescued by the mysterious Mister (Nick Damici, who also co-wrote the screenplay). They are in the South, and so the Canadian border is a long way off. To make matters worse, they don’t just need to dea with the vampires, but also a roving religious group known as the Brotherhood, who has mixed white supremacy with fundamentalist Christianity, into a perverted mix. Their leader is Jebedia (Michael Cerveris), and he doesn’t much like Mister (who looks like he maybe part Native American or Mexican or something else that certainly does not meet Jebedia’s view of the perfect white race). And it certainly does not help that along the way, the pair pick up a Catholic nun (Kelly McGillis), a pregnant teenager (Danielle Harris) and a black man (Sean Nelson).

Stake Land loosely resembles Zombieland from a few years ago, that also featured a young man who teams up with an older, violent man and makes their way through a post apocalyptic American ruled by horror movie creatures. But that film was more comedic in tone, whereas Stake Land takes it much more seriously. There seems to be a myth that when things go to hell, humans will band together for the common good and try to rebuild society. But I think that Stake Land is a little more realistic. It depicts a world that is ruled by fear, where humans band together out of fear. They fear anything that is different, and not exactly like them - whether that’s vampires or other people who don’t think just like they do,

Stake Land was made on a shoestring budget, but that really doesn’t show. This is not a movie based on special effects, but the low tech effects they do use, are creepy and effective. Mainly, this is a movie about this small group of people, trying to live in a brave new world. The performances aid a great deal, as the entire cast feels natural - no one is pushing for effect here, but rather play everything with the right tone of sad weariness, that simply feels right. Even Ceveris, who has the flashiest role as the bad guy doesn’t go over the top. Yes, he is a religious fanatic, but he’s one that feels real. Damici strikes the right note as the man who kills vampires, and has a dark past that he simply will not reveal. He won’t even tell anyone his real name.

The film was directed by Jim Fickle, who finds the right tone for the movie. The film won the People’s Choice award for the Midnight Madness segment at last year’s TIFF. Genre fans are going to love the film, like they did then. The film is intelligent, well made and violent, It’s a horror fans dream.

DVD Review: Outside the Law

Outside the Law ***
Directed by: Rachid Bouchareb.
Written by: Rachid Bouchareb.
Starring: Jamel Debbouze (Saïd), Roschdy Zem (Messaoud), Sami Bouajila (Abdelkader), Chafia Boudraa (La mere), Bernard Blancan (Colonel Faivre), Sabrina Seyvecou (Hélène), Assaad Bouab (Ali), Thibault de Montalembert (Morvan), Samir Guesmi (Otmani), Jean-Pierre Lorit (Picot).

Rachid Bouchareb’s 2006 film, Days of Glory, looked at what happened to Algerians who fought for the French during WWII. Despite sacrificing as much as anyone else, they had to wait decades (well after many were dead) to get full pensions for their service. Now, he’s back with Outside the Law, that takes a look at what happened to Algerians after the war - right up until the their fight for independence in the 1960s. The film focuses on three brothers, and it’s quite clear that Bouchareb has in many ways modeled his film off of The Godfather - or at least was inspired by it.

In the years after WWII, three brothers take different paths. Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) becomes a protestor who wants freedom for Algeria. At a peaceful protest, that turns violent only when the French military shows up, he gets arrested and thrown into a French jail for a decade for his beliefs. Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) joins the French army, and spends years fighting in Vietnam, comes back scarred by his experience both emotionally and physically. With one brother in jail, and the other in the army, the youngest Said (Jamel Debbouze), moves his mother to France, and in order to support her, turns to crime - first running a few prostitutes, and then slowly expanding. He brings shame on his mother, but he has no other way to make money - and he dreams of going straight. When Abdelkader gets out of jail, he immediately joins to the Revolutionary movement, and becomes one of its leaders. He wants to draft his brothers into the ranks, and although he is tired of violence, Messaoud agrees, and becomes the muscle. Said just wants to continue to make money - to him money is power, and so he is fighting in his own way. He certainly gives a lot of money to the movement that it needs to carry out its missions.

Days of Glory is one of the best war films in recent memories. Yes, it used war movie clichés - especially in terms of its characters - but that was somewhat the point of the film - to show that these Algerian soldiers were just like everyone else who fought for the Allies. That film used Saving Private Ryan as its blueprint in many ways, and this one seems inspired, as mentioned above, by The Godfather. There are scenes that deliberately call to mind Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, and of course, that film also had three brothers - who were very different - at its core. Bouchareb’s filmmaking is visually striking with its dark tones, and shocking violence. He also gets good performances from his actors.

And yet, I do not think Outside the Law is nearly as accomplished as Days of Glory was. The main reason, I think, is that Bouchareb tries to cover too much ground. From it’s opening scene, set in 1916, to the end, well over 40 years is covered, and for the first half of the movie, the film seems to jump ahead two, three sometimes even five years every five minutes or so. After spending so much time with Said in the first part of the movie, he is pretty much abandoned once Abdelkader gets out of jail, and Messaoud comes back from Vietnam. For the rest of the film, he shows up periodically simply to argue about money and ideals. And by focusing on three characters, and trying to develop them all equally over the course of a movie just over two hours in length, none of them truly get the attention they deserve.

And yet the movie remains fascinating and involving from beginning to end. Whatever flaws the film has, they are outweighed by its virtues. The film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar last year, and while I certainly don’t think it was quite good enough to deserve such recognition, it is still a fine film.

DVD Review: Super

Super **
Directed by: James Gunn.
Written by: James Gunn.
Starring: Rainn Wilson (Frank D'Arbo / The Crimson Bolt), Ellen Page (Libby / Boltie), Liv Tyler (Sarah Helgeland), Kevin Bacon (Jacques), Michael Rooker (Abe), Andre Royo (Hamilton), Sean Gunn (Toby), Stephen Blackehart (Quill), Don Mac (Mr. Range), Linda Cardellini (Pet Store Employee), Nathan Fillion (The Holy Avenger), Gregg Henry (Detective Felkner).

The past coupe of years has produced a number of movies about real people who decide to become superheroes. The best of the bunch is inarguably Kick Ass, which somehow managed the right mixture of humor, violence and drama to make an extremely entertaining movie. The Canadian film Defendor featured a great performance by Woody Harrellson as a mentally unbalanced man who decides to fight crime, but the film itself wasn’t up to him. Now comes James Gunn’s Super, which tries very hard to get the same tone as Kick Ass, but fails. The film is much too dark and violent to be truly funny, and yet too over the top to be taken seriously. Kick Ass walked a fine line - one that Super just cannot.

The film stars Rainn Wilson from The Office as Frank, a short order cook, who falls apart when his ex-addict wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) runs off with a sleazy drug dealer, Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Flipping through the channels on TV while in the depths of his depression, he comes across The Holy Avenger (played by Nathan Fillion), a religious superhero who helps teenagers defeat the evil demons of sexuality and unhealthy food. Looking for further research, Frank goes to the comic book store staffed by Libby (Ellen Page), to get tips on how a regular person can become a superhero. Soon he has transformed himself into The Crimson Bolt, and he is fighting crime wherever he finds it. His basic strategy is to jump out at people and hit them in the head with a wrench. It’s crude, but effective. His ultimate goal is to take down Jacques, but he warms up with low level drug dealers, pedophiles and even people who cut in line. Libby, who proves to be even more unbalanced that Frank, soon joins him - but is too far gone to be any help.

In Rainn Wilson, the film has its biggest asset. He can effortlessly play an everyman loser, and he does so quite well here. In his film roles, Wilson has tried to distance himself from Dwight from The Office, the role that made him famous. And here, memories of Dwight fade pretty quickly. Yes, both characters are losers, but in completely different ways. Here, you even feel a little bit sorry for Frank, who loses everything he cares about when Sarah leaves. As the movie progresses however, Frank becomes impossible to care about. He takes things way too far, becoming increasingly violent. I know that some of that violence is supposed to be entertaining comic book violence, but Gunn makes all too realistic. This is offset against Ellen Page’s wildly manic, over the top and completely unbelievable performance as Libby. I don’t necessarily blame Page for just how bad this performance is - she plays the role as written, and that is completely unhinged, emotionally imbalanced and psychotic dialed up to completely unrealistic proportions. And it seems like most of the rest of the cast followed Page’s lead, not Wilson’s, who at least tries to maintain some degree of believability. I normally like Kevin Bacon, but here, he never quite decides if he wants to be an over the top comic book villain, or a realistic bad guy. But at least he has a role, which is more than I can say for poor Liv Tyler, who spends most of the movie simply looking like a strung out junkie. It’s like Gunn forgot to write her a role.

Super will likely become a cut hit. His last movie, Slither, a horror-comedy about zombies and slithering aliens, was not quite successful, but showed promise, and was loved by a certain segment of the audience. Super will most likely do the same thing, But to me, the movie never quite finds the right tone. Super is all over the map, and for every moment that works there are at least one that completely fails. It all adds up to nothing much.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Movie Review: Amigo

Amigo ***
Directed by: John Sayles.   
Written By: John Sayles.
Starring: Joel Torre (Rafael), Garret Dillahunt (Lt. Compton), Chris Cooper (Col. Hardacre), DJ Qualls (Zeke), Yul Vazquez (Padre Hidalgo), Lucas Neff (Shanker), Dane DeHaan (Gil), James Parks (Sgt. Runnels), Stephen Taylor (Private Bates), Bill Tangradi (Dutch), Rio Locsin (Corazon), Ronnie Lazaro (Simon), Irma Adlawan (Josefa).

The thing I have always admired about the films of John Sayles is how relaxed and unhurried they feel. Yes, his movies all have a plot – often times a complex one like in his best film Lone Star – but he doesn’t rush through them. He allows his characters a chance to breath, to develop at their own pace, and for the audience to get acquainted, not just with the characters, but with the surrounding Sayles immerses us in. His latest film, Amigo, has life and death decisions being made – has the threat of violence hanging over nearly ever scene – and yet Sayles smartly uses the same technique that has made him one of the most distinctive voices in indie film for the past three decades.

The film is set in 1900 in the Philippines, which is near the tail end of the war between America and that country – a war that began because of political interest in Cuba, and Spain’s influence there. Essentially, the Philippines are just a pawn in a game between two much larger powers. By the time the movie has opened however, America has essentially occupied the country, and is dealing fighting the insurgents, or revolutionaries, who live in the jungle and do quick hit and run attacks on the local villages that where American soldiers are staying. This movie is about one of those villages – and the impossible situation that everyone is put in.

Lt. Compton (Garret Dillahunt) is assigned along with his garrison of men to stay at a small village in the middle of the jungle – their mission is the keep the insurgents from sneaking up behind the larger force led by Col. Hardacre (Chris Cooper). At first his men look suspiciously at the locals, but as the movie progresses – and very few attacks actually happen – they settle in with them. The “head man” is Rafael (Joel Torre), who the Americans dismissively call Amigo – because although he cannot speak English, there have been enough Spanish people around that he knows that word means friend, and he tries to convince the Americans that is what he is. It isn’t easy because the last remnant of Spanish control is a priest, Padre Hidalgo (Yul Vazquez), who hates Rafael and lets his opinion be known to the Americans – and also tells them other secrets, like the Rafael’s brother Simon (Ronnie Lazaro) is the head of the local insurgency, and Rafael’s son has fled presumably to join them. But gradually, they do learn to trust Rafael, who has too much to deal with to really make trouble. He is in between a rock and hard place – if he helps the Americans, the insurgents will sentence him to death, but if he helps the insurgents, the Americans will kill him. He tries his best to make everyone happy, but of course that can only be sustained for so long.

I liked the easy feel that Sayles had for this material. Yes, it can easily be seen as an allegory for the current war in Iraq, but other than in a few moments where the dialogue is a little too on the nose (“we’re supposed to be winning their hearts and minds”), Sayles does not force this parallel, but simply lets it play out naturally. Instead, what he does is allow his characters room to grow and evolve – showing us them both in times of crisis and during times of leisure. The violence comes in the last act – and when it does it is quick, brutal and bloody – but Sayles concentrates more on the people being killed than the actual killing.

Sayles is an intelligent director, who has spent his entire career making the film that he wants to make. He doesn’t compromise and all of his films have a very distinct feel to them. Amigo may not be as good as Lone Star or some of his undeniable triumphs, but it is still a very good little film – and one that only Sayles could have made.

Movie Review: The Future

The Future *
Directed by: Miranda July.
Written by: Miranda July.
Starring: Miranda July (Sophie / Voice of Paw-Paw), Hamish Linklater (Jason), David Warshofsky (Marshall), Isabella Acres (Gabriella), Joe Putterlik (Joe), Angela Trimbur (Dance Studio Receptionist),  Mary Passeri (Animal Shelter Receptionist), Kathleen Gati (Dr. Straus).

Poor Paw-Paw. He is the cat who narrates much of Miranda July’s new film The Future. He tells us that he has never spent a day indoors in his life - has never been petted, never been loved. He has a broken paw and renal failure, yet if he gets regular injections, he could still live for years. He just has to wait for his paw to heal, and then the people who found him are coming to adopt him. He spends his days in his cage at the animal shelter counting down until he gets to go home and be loved. Unfortunately, he was found by Sophie (July herself) and her boyfriend Jason (Hamish Linklater), which is worse for his health than homelessness, broken paws and renal failure put together.

Had July not included Paw-Paw in her movie, The Future, I may have enjoyed it. After all, I enjoyed her first film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, which was also about her navel gazing. Her character in The Future is even more self involved than she was in that movie, but it has the same tone. But this time, I just couldn’t forgive her for being as self involved as she is because of Paw-Paw. Jason at least has an excuse for not showing up to pick up Paw-Paw in time - he has stopped time to try and hold onto to what he loves (long story), but Sophie is just plain selfish. And I found that unforgivable. Had July viewed things similarly - as Todd Solondz may have done had he made a film about two 30-something naval gazers whose selfishness leads to the death of a cat - the movie may well have worked. But July insists on trying to make her character sympathetic and lovable. But Sophie is just pathetic.

The movie is about Sophie and Jason who find out they have 1 month before they can pick up Paw-Paw. Realizing that having a sick cat, who could last another 5 years, means a commitment (the horror), they decide to live life to the fullest in that time. Sophie quits her job as a dance instructor for five year olds, and decides to do “30 Dances in 30 Days” and post them on YouTube, which she feels will lead her finally to her career as a real dance artist (never mind she’s 35, and has no discernable dance talent). Jason quits his job as a tech support worker (they still have those not based in India?) to try and find what “he is supposed to do”. What he settles on is volunteer work going door to door in LA trying to collect donations for trees. But he soon gets tired of that, and tries to quit that as well - but is quilted into staying on. So instead of quitting or staying on, he spends his days hanging out with an old inventor who likes to write dirty holiday cards for his wife of 60 years.

The Future tries too hard to be hip and clever, and to me, the whole movie just fell flat. I didn’t like Sophie at all, and worse yet, she isn’t very interesting either. I’m not sure why Jason loves her, and I certainly don’t see why another man falls in love with her and asks her to move in with him almost instantly. She doesn’t say or do anything interesting for the entire movie. It’s not that Jason is much of a prize either, but at least he seems to care about something - perhaps just himself and Sophie, but that is one more thing than she does.

For the most part, I found The Future insufferable. Sometimes movies that try to be this hip and clever work. Yet sometimes, the movies become so self referential and needlessly hip and clever, that I simply cannot stand. Miranda July plays a character in this movie who is 35 years old, and yet she acts with about as much maturity as a 15 year old. It’s time to grow the hell up. Poor Paw-Paw may well have been better off where he ended up than with these two.

Movie Review: 30 Minutes or Less

30 Minutes or Less ** ½  
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer.
Written by: Michael Diliberti.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg (Nick), Danny McBride (Dwayne), Aziz Ansari (Chet), Nick Swardson (Travis), Dilshad Vadsaria (Kate), Michael Peña (Chango), Bianca Kajlich (Juicy), Fred Ward (The Major).

Jesse Eisenberg is one of the best young actors working today. In films like The Squid and the Whale, The Hunting Party, Zombieland, Adventureland, Solitary Man and of course The Social Network, he has proven to be versatile and effective in a variety of roles. However, he is not quite good enough to prove to me that he is a 25 year old slacker who still works delivering pizzas in his latest film, 30 Minutes or Less. He simply seems too smart, too driven to be this lackadaisal in a movie. It’s not that he is bad in 30 Minutes or Less, but he is simply miscast. And that kind of describes the movie as well - not bad, just not quite right either. It’s a little too dark and violent to be a truly good black comedy, but not serious enough to be an effective thriller. It’s straddles the line ineffectively.

Eisenberg stars as Nick, who has no ambition in life except to get high and watch action movies with his best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari). Oh, and sleep with Chet’s sister Kate (Dilshad Vadasaria) once again like he did on high school graduation night, and has been pining for over the last seven years. On a routine delivery, he is jumped by Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson) and knocked out. When he regains consciousness, Dwayne and Travis are in monkey masks, and reveal that they have strapped a bomb to Nick’s chest. He has 9 hours to rob a bank and get $100,000 and give it to them, or the bomb goes off. Dwayne and Travis need the money, because they have hired Chango (Michael Pena), through his stripper girlfriend Juicy (Bianca Kajlich) to kill Dwayne’s father The Major (Fred Ward). The Major won the lottery years before, and Dwayne wants his hardass father off his case, and get his hands on the money now. Nick decides he has no choice but to rob the bank, and enlists the help of Chet. But of course, things don’t go according to plan.

The film is directed by Ruben Fleischer, who made his debut two years ago with Zombieland, also starring Eisenberg. That film straddled the line between horror and comedy pretty much effortlessly, and the result was one of the most entertaining films in recent years. Unfortunately, 30 Minutes or Less does not straddle the similar line between crime film and comedy nearly as effectively. The film starts out as a straight ahead comedy - and its here where the film is at its best. Despite being miscast, Eisenberg is funny at the beginning of the film, and he is aided a great deal by Ansari, who puts his motor mouth comic persona (effectively of display on the show Parks and Recreation) to good use. Danny McBride and Nick Swardson are best used in small doses, and at first, their idiotic interplay works well. For the first 45 minutes or so, I thought the film was pretty good.

Unfortunately, as the movie progresses, it becomes darker and less effective. The film becomes more violent than I was prepared for, and that violence doesn’t really work well, with the films stoner comedy vibe that keeps popping its head in there. The last half of the movie is an uneasy mix of crime film and comedy, and it quite simply doesn’t work.

30 Minutes or Less isn’t a bad film by any means. It has enough in it that you will most likely be mildly amused by it, and not feel ripped off or bored by the film. Yet the film isn’t very satisfying either. It’s just kind of there. I hope that all involved go on to make better films than 30 Minutes or Less.