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Children of Men (2006)
High expectations dwindle over the course of the film
Children of Men got a great deal of attention last year for its bleak portrait of a future Britain after a catastrophic epidemic has caused the sterility of every woman on the planet but the attention was mostly for the political allegories embodied in the plot: roundups of illegal immigrants, refugee camps, a country ruled by the national security state, looming ecological crisis. The fact that the director was Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) brought the film even more attention. But seeing the film left me ultimately frustrated; my expectations were high at the beginning but dwindled over the course of the playing time.
The opening is positively enthralling horrific, but enthralling. Simply becoming immersed in a society contemplating the future extinction of its species, and the political response to increasing hysteria, pretty much guarantees that you'll be compelled to watch. The story itself fades in comparison, despite strong roles by Clive Owen and Michael Caine. Julianne Moore has a surprising role as a leader in an underground organization that may be a terror group, but may also represent humanity's best hope for survival. The political allegory turns into a run-and-chase film, and then a bloody massacre in a squalid apartment block that looks like a cross between Gaza City and the Brixton of the 1970s. The ultimate scene takes the film in a mystical direction that I found unpersuasive.
Without giving away the plot points, I'll just say that I found the set design, cinematography, and sound direction enthralling (check out the Spanish-language version of "Ruby Tuesday"), but the story left me wanting more.
Art School Confidential (2006)
Zwigoff, Clowes, and great acting - less than the sum of its parts
Considering the sheer firepower involved, it's shocking that Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes' Art School Confidential is so dreadful. The two did stupendous things together on Ghost World, adapted from Clowes' graphic novel, but the same combination somehow just doesn't congeal in Art School.
Max Minghella stars as Jerome, a lonely and sensitive art school student at an urban New York art college. He's got a buddy (Joel Moore) who revels in pointing out the art school stereotyped characters surrounding them, but it's just a copout to point out stereotypes, and then structure the film around the selfsame characters. The film has some great actors -- John Malkovich, Anjelica Huston, Jim Broadbent -- and Sophia Myles is touching as Jerome's love interest, but the whole thing is lost in a dire plot line. Acting is fine, diolog writing is good ... but gah, the plot turns could be forecast fifteen minutes ahead of time, and watching good actors enact those routines just got painful after awhile.
Well-meaning and handsome, but too stolid
Omar Khayyam was a Persian astronomer, mathematician, and poet in the 11th Century, famous today for Edward Fitzgerald's 1859 translations of his works into English. The Keeper is a well-meaning and handsome (if a bit stolid, and poorly edited at times) attempt to render his life meaningful today, written by Iranian-American lawyer/filmmaker Kayvan Mashayekh.
To keep things relevant, Mashayekh presents through the eyes of a young Iranian-American boy in Houston (Adam Echahly) who is a descendant of the family who takes it upon himself to "keep" and transmit the story. The title character (Bruno Lastra) is presented in an admirable if a bit sycophantic light, as is his love story with Darya (Marie Espinosa), to whom he composed most of his most famous love poems. The scenes (set in Uzbekistan, with period jaunts elsewhere) are ably filmed and mostly elegant, although the level of the actors' engagement doesn't rise above a slow simmer most of the times. The principal conflict is between Khayyam and lifelong friend Hassan (Christopher Simpson), which Mashayekh hopes to make emblematic of a host of larger conflicts - between science and religion, between universalism and sectarianism, between worldliness and Islamic separatism. It succeeds only in pieces. The editing is also a bit spotty, and at certain points I felt that too much of the story had been cut.
The film is one of those that serves a valuable public function; informing the movie-going world about Khayyam's legacy and the larger history of Islamic science and mathematics is a meaningful one, and I saw a host of Iranian-American families at the screening taking part in their cultural heritage. It doesn't win on purely cinematic terms, but it's an engaging and wholly good-hearted exercise regardless.
Sweet, but slight
A sweet but slight portrait of Chinese-Canadian community outside Vancouver, Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity benefits from two wonderful leads Sandra Oh and Valerie Tian but comes out a bit short everywhere else. Oh (who is really Korean-Canadian, but who's counting) plays the harried single mother of Mindy (Tian), an adorably geeky twelve year-old. Mindy is desperate to fix her mom up with an eligible bachelor (Russell Yuen) who works with her at a Chinese restaurant, and turns to Chinese traditional medicine and Taoist magic. In the meantime, other members of the community struggle with family strife, economic hardship, and conflicting values. Only the romantic mother-daughter story, and a story about a son who turns to religion rather than working in the family butcher shop, are really interesting. The rest is kind of a muddle interesting in its way, but failing to contribute to the plot.
Because of Sandra Oh's recent high-profile appearances in Sideways and Grey's Anatomy this might get improved distribution on DVD. I got it through the filmmovement.com series.
OT: Our Town (2002)
Fascinating characters and story, although generic film-making
An interesting documentary that looks at two teachers' attempts to put on a theatrical drama in the context of some of America's most notorious urban poverty, OT: Our Town has a lot of fascinating characters and story, although pretty generic film-making. It's a documentary so it's hard to complain, but in terms of setting up character development, other films (Spellbound, for example) have done better. Director Scott Hamilton Kennedy apparently met Catherine Borok, an English teacher at Compton's Dominguez High School, and fell for her she's both sexy and smart and committed and only then decided to make a film about her efforts to direct Thornton Wilder's Our Town as the school's first dramatic presentation in twenty years. As a result, he missed a lot of back story and tries to catch up. The actors in the drama are fascinating - many of them are the school's most dynamic and motivated students, but even they have suffered tremendously from urban poverty, violence, and broken families. Ebony Starr Norwood-Brown, the stage manager in the play, is tremendously charismatic; Archie Posada is a natural comedian. Borok struggles to motivate and direct them all, and by the end of the documentary has successfully held the first dramatic presentation in two decades. In the meantime the director gets in a lot of digs at high school sports, and some funny/sad Waiting for Guffman-like amateur theatre bits.
The DVD adds a lot of value with followup interviews of the students, teachers, etc. The high school has now held sold-out annual plays for the past three years, and many of the actors in the production of Our Town have become highly successful in college or elsewhere. The success of the OT documentary brought Hal Holbrook the Stage Manager of a 1960-era TV production of Our Town to meet with many of the students, which is a nice scene in the bonus footage.
Interesting Without Ever Actually Being Good
A tremendous disappointment, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou the most recent Wes Anderson film, falls apart on a host of levels, remaining interesting at times without ever actually being good. You've seen the trailers, so I won't go into the plot, except to wonder why exactly Anderson thought the life of a Cousteau-inspired underwater explorer and filmmaker would make a good backdrop for a musing on fatherhood and mortality. (On the other hand, I couldn't figure out Tannenbaums either, although I loved Rushmore and thought Bottle Rocket was impressive for a first movie.)
I'm increasingly convinced that Anderson wants to tell Important Stories With Morals about families, responsibility, etc. but that the only tools he's ever been able to use are zany characters with idiosyncratic behaviors in peculiar settings. So he has started to misapply the techniques that worked so brilliantly in Rushmore, continually upping the weirdness quotient: first a lonely, manic and desperately romantic kid in a WASPy prep school, then a family of genius misfits, and now a madcap oceanographer and his band of explorers. Unfortunately, he's not figured out where to play up the zaniness, and where to focus on the stories. As a result, Bill Murray - whose work has been simply astonishing in a lot of films - is now getting reduced to a stock character, a washed-up legend who is bitter over the poor decisions made in his life while pining for the glories of his prime. He's good in Life Aquatic but he has too little to work with. Of the Team Zissou squad, Anjelica Houston is touching at times, as is Cate Blanchett as a quietly miserable English journalist. Owen Wilson is -- well, what the hell is he? The issue of his purported parentage is never resolved, although it's strongly implied that he's not Zissou's child after all, but is meant to represent Zissou's urge to serve as a father figure. The hick Air Kentucky get-up and accent are pointless, and go along with the weird CGI fish as Andersonian self-indulgence. And if we don't care about the characters and their relationships with one another, what's the point of all the family moralizing? The rest of the actors in the film - a long list including names like Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, and Michael Gambon - might just be slumming.
Things that deserve merit in the film, however, are the brilliant set-design to show the interior of the ship, the lovely tropicalía renditions of David Bowie material by actor/singer Seu Jorge, and the clever name of the ship, which is a great pun.
Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel (2004)
Beautiful story, heartbreakingly told, with a few technical weaknesses
Among the most fascinating and ultimately saddest stories in American popular music is the brief life and odd afterlife of Gram Parsons, one-time Byrd, Burrito Brother, quasi-Rolling Stone and inventor of the "cosmic American music" that became alt-country or Americana after his death. Fallen Angel: Gram Parsons, a UK-Germany television production that screened as part of the Portland Reel Music festival, is a feature-length documentary that explores Parsons' life and musical legacy with a host of the musicians and family members who knew him best. Director Gandulf Hennig a small and hyperactive German hosted the screening in Portland, and was clearly blown away by an audience queue that extended around the block, forcing a sold-out showing and emergency late-night screening for the remaining audience.
What is clearest about the Parsons documentary is that everyone who knew him realized they were in the presence of genius - a completely self-destructive and obnoxious genius, but genius nonetheless. His most prominent musical partners, including Chris Hillman of the Byrds, Keith Richards of the Stones, and Emmylou Harris, testify so eloquently. But the same self-assured genius made Parsons almost completely unbearable as a musical, romantic, or family partner, and he tore down relationships that could have saved him and enriched music immeasurably, alienating himself from his most dedicated allies. It's also clear that in his abbreviated life, Parsons was able to play key roles in some of the most significant musical transformations of his era - taking the Byrds into proto-country, performing on the bill with the Stones at the disastrous concert at Altamont, bringing Emmylou Harris to national attention, and playing an active role in the rediscovery of American roots and country by the rock audiences of the time. Keef in particular expresses his remorse at playing with Parsons, recognizing his gifts and his talent, and not recognizing how Parsons' own habits and weaknesses were threatening his prospects to continue his musical growth (Mick Jagger, not interviewed here, is depicted as a far more competent professional who tried to encourage Parsons to take his career, health, and family life more seriously).
I was never a huge Parsons fan; my knowledge of his musical legacy comes from the performances by other musicians of his songs. But seeing the old concert footage - from sophisticated live sets to ramshackle house jams - makes it clear that he was a true one-of-a-kind, with a gorgeous voice and spectacular physical beauty, coupled with songwriterly gifts that were just beginning to grow - before alcohol and drugs caused caused his eventual decline and death at the age of only 26.
I'm much less interested in the morbid tale of Parson's afterlife - the theft of his corpse and his partial-cremation in the desert by a road manager. But as Peter Buck of R.E.M. says in the film, that sort of mystery explains a large part of his mystique.
My only complaint about the documentary, which is incredibly detailed, loving, and sympathetic to both Parsons' survivors and his musical colleagues, is that the director puts too much emphasis into talking-head commentary and fails to show any complete performances, or any live footage longer than a minute or so long. Additionally, there were either very few interviews ever recorded with Parsons or Hennig chose not to include them. As a result it's harder to get a sense of how Parsons himself spoke or expressed himself.
Anonymously Yours (2002)
Ambitious, courageous, but not a great film
As a humanitarian exercise, it's hard to imagine a more ambitious and courageous venture than a behind-the-scenes documentary on the women victimized in the Southeast Asian sex trade. It's impossible not to be impressed director's courage in filming women in the repressive state of Burma, and smuggling the film out to be edited and shown to Western audiences. She depicts four young women in detail, allowing them to tell their stories - including rape, violence, abortion and abduction - in their own words, with minimal interruption. The women are in turn calm, animated, spirited, and heartbreakingly, visibly wounded by the abuses they've experienced. One, nicknamed ZuZu, appeared scarcely a teenager but recounter a lifetime of despair, confusion and pain with the mien of an old woman.
The film is an important and impressive one, but had some serious flaws. It's too long for a talking-heads format, and the digital footage - shot surreptitiously under many circumstances - is variable in quality. Because the film jumps back and forth between woman to woman, it's hard to keep the individual stories straight, and a bit more context (on the government, economy, etc.) would have been appreciated.
Still, this is a worthy contribution to the generally woeful state of Western knowledge on the abuses present in the international trade in women.
Bread and Salt (1992)
A klutzily earnest early-1990s documentary on the changes in Russian society around the time of perestroika, Bread and Salt is hosted and narrated by Irina Muravyova, who emigrated to Boston in the middle-1980s and returned in 1991 with scholar Richard Lourie. She marvels at the changes in the society, visits her mother's grave and meets her friends, sees a faith healer outside Moscow and generally just observes. She's a fairly melodramatic host. Lourie is more fun, but we see less of him. The documentary is educational but scarcely riveting.
L'Chayim, Comrade Stalin (2002)
Interesting story, presented somewhat blandly
The unlikely story of a Soviet attempt to create a Jewish homeland in the hinterlands of Asian Russian, near the Chinese border. Interviews (in Russian, Yiddish, and English) with some of the would-be colonists round out a rather bland voiceover by Ron Perlman. Unfortunately, while the stories are individually very interesting, the film lacks resonance and coherence and is somewhat unprofessionally presented. There are about ten things I could suggest to improve the overall quality of the documentary, but a few in short: Tell us the names of people! Let a story emerge, rather than jumping back and forth! Give us more hard facts on current life in the Jewish Autonomous Okrug! Tone down the Soviet era propaganda film/music excerpts!
Anyway, the story of the Jewish Autonomous Okrug is a fascinating one, but the film could have been greatly improved.