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Miss Gulag (2007)
Celebrating beauty in a cold, hard place
Considering the extremes to which the reality TV phenomenon has been taken, it was only a matter of time before America was treated to a beauty pageant at a women's prison in Siberia. But this is actually a true story, and a surprisingly good film to boot.
Russian-American filmmakers Maria Yatskova and Irina Vodar give us an intimate glimpse into the lives of several current and former inmates of prison camp UF-91/9. These young women have struggled with the challenges of life in post-Soviet Russia, as drugs, poverty, and violence led them each onto the wrong side of the prison walls. It's a harsh work camp, where the women work long hours making uniforms for soldiers, but once a year they are allowed to use the sewing machines to express their own creativity and femininity. The inmates take their "Miss Spring" contest seriously, and the results are both amusing and endearing.
Despite a light, humorous tone to many of the scenes, "Miss Gulag" captures the frustration and despair felt by those who have been denied a share of the new prosperity and personal freedom in Russia. But it's also a testament to the power of human imagination to flourish in unlikely places. Highly recommended.
Audience of One (2007)
Documenting a delusion
A pentecostal preacher sees his first movie at age 40. He receives a vision from God telling him to produce a science fiction epic. He convinces his family and parishioners to dedicate all their money and time to shooting this movie in Italy, on a 65 mm camera. The plan involves God providing a 200 million dollar budget after they start shooting. No, just in case you were wondering, this isn't going to end well.
Director Mike Jacobs gives us a front-row seat as Pastor Richard Gazowsky and his Christian WYSIWYG production company fight a losing battle against reality. Thirty years after Jim Jones led a similar San Francisco congregation on a descent into madness, there's an element to this tale of history repeating itself as farce. Yet Gazowzky comes off more like a deranged version of the Music Man than a sinister cult leader. He's a charming and naive huckster who has conned the people around him, including himself, into indulging his fantasy. When he bravely led his wife and kids onto the stage at the Silverdocs Festival to answer audience questions, it was hard not to feel some grudging admiration for a man who is so unwilling to let others discourage him from pursuing his dreams.
But "Audience of One" relentlessly chronicles his reckless abuse of other people's money and faith in pursuit of those dreams. At times, the terrible decision-making on display is stressful to watch. This is a fascinating character study, and a fair and honest treatment of a strain of religious faith that deserves to be seriously questioned.
It is a rich irony that God's plan for Richard Gazowsky gave us an excellent film after all.
Vores lykkes fjender (2006)
A profile in courage
In 2003, as Afghanis assembled at their Loya Jirga to draft a new Constitution, and Western politicians and pundits celebrated the advent of freedom and democracy in Afghanistan, one young woman stood up in front of the assembly and asked a question that nobody wanted to answer: Why were the warlords, drug lords, and Islamic fundamentalists who destroyed her country participating in the new government, instead of standing trial for their crimes?
This documentary follows that bold young woman, Malalai Joya, as she campaigns to be one of the first women elected to the Afghan Parliament. Driven by a fierce belief in democracy, Joya fights to improve the lives of her countrymen, but she faces determined opposition from the traditional tribal leaders who seek to consolidate their power and preserve a way of life that treats women little better than slaves. As a result, powerful people want her dead and she (ironically) has to wear a burqa in public for her own protection.
The only real flaw in "Enemies of Happiness" is that it's too short. The film ends on a hopeful note, but Joya was recently kicked out of the Parliament and the US State Department had to fight to get her an exit visa so she could attend the screening at the Silverdocs Festival. There is more to this story than what was captured on film. But director Eva Mulvad did an impressive job in a dangerous environment, and she deserves praise for bringing us this profile in courage.
Children of Men (2006)
Love it or hate it, just don't miss it.
Children of Men is the sort of film that elicits strong opinions, both positive and negative. Cuaron hurls his audience into an alternate world with minimal exposition and expects us to figure out what's happening on our own. The science-fictional plot device is absurd and no effort is made to provide a scientific explanation. The narrative is propelled by unlikely developments and the occasional deus ex machina. The dystopian future of 2027 bears an unfortunate resemblance to the worst neighborhoods of our own era, and those hoping for stylish futuristic sets (a la Blade Runner) will be disappointed.
But those who are drawn into Cuaron's world will be mesmerized. There is a vitality and immediacy to the cinematography and directing that has been all too rare in recent years. In the final 30 minutes of the film, viewers are dragged into the hell of a third world refugee camp and forced to experience the chaos and confusion of being innocent bystanders on a battlefield, with no guide book or interpreter. The emotional reaction is powerful and genuine, not coaxed out of us with fluttering flags and orchestral accompaniment. Despite being marketed as science fiction, the power of the movie comes from its extreme realism.
This is a film that takes itself seriously, but to me it was not the least bit stuffy or "pretentious." The action is intense and often fast-paced, and the characters do not deliver grandiose monologues. The depth of this film lies in its truths that are unspoken, and in its attention to detail. It can be seen in the way the characters grieve for a celebrity death rather than the routine tragedy of a street bombing. It can be glimpsed through a bus window in a refugee camp. It is ultimately driven home in an allusion to the World War 1 Christmas cease-fire, one of the most bizarre, yet illuminating moments in human history. This is not a "message movie," but there is more than one message here if you choose to look for it.
There are many valid criticisms that can be made of Children of Men, but I strongly reject the claim that this is a work of political propaganda. The political message is powerful precisely because it is NOT propaganda. This film offers us no ideological heroes or easy answers. It simply takes the extremes of poverty, war, and hopelessness in our own world, and eliminates the distance between us and them. Cuaron isn't giving us a solution, but he's forcing us to confront the issues.
If you ask me, this is the most powerful and gripping movie I have seen in years. Your mileage may vary.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Charlie Kaufman-lite isn't such a bad thing...
"Stranger than Fiction" is a smart, entertaining film that doesn't quite achieve greatness, but it's definitely worth a trip to the theater.
This is the story of a stiff IRS Agent who slowly realizes that he's actually a character in an unfinished novel, narrated by a voice in his head, and he's slated for imminent death. It would have been an easy setup to play for cheap laughs, or as pseudo-intellectual Oscar bait that takes itself way too seriously. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this is actually a very good movie.
Will Ferrell's performance is so understated in the early scenes that it almost defeats the purpose of casting him in the role. But as the story builds up steam, he does a fine job of balancing the comic and serious aspects of his character. Ferrell also has surprisingly good chemistry with Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is terrific as usual. Although the romance is not well developed (which makes sense, I suppose, in a film about the formulaic and arbitrary nature of fiction) the scenes between the two are memorable. Queen Latifah is unfortunately wasted in an underdeveloped role, but the rest of the cast is pitch-perfect.
It's true that Zach Helm's script can be described as "Charlie Kaufman-lite", but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The dialogue generates laughs without forcing them, and the story is clever without aggressively reminding us about how clever it is. The metaphysical and literary themes of the story are handled with a light touch, which keeps the fantasy plot devices from feeling completely contrived. By focusing on the human side of the story, rather than just trying to dazzle us with narrative complexity, "Stranger than Fiction" is ultimately more satisfying than Kaufman's "Adaptation".
This may be lite literature, but it's very funny in places, it has a stellar soundtrack, and it doesn't require you to check your brain at the door. As far as I'm concerned, that's entertainment.
The footage is better than the film
Although Andrew Berends was unable to piece together a compelling storyline from the footage he shot in Iraq, the footage often speaks for itself.
With incredible access into the lives of Iraqi Shiites during six crucial months in 2004, Berends shows scenes of turmoil from a variety of different perspectives -- the grieving family of a young man who was accidentally shot by US troops, an anti-American rally led by Moqtada al-Sadr, American soldiers on patrol, and Mehdi Army insurgents firing on the Americans. Many of the scenes are harrowing. Put together, these scenes don't add up to a comprehensive picture of Iraq that makes any sense, but this problem has plagued nearly all coverage of the Iraq War. The war itself makes very little sense.
Unfortunately, the film focuses too closely on Ibrahim, the younger brother of a slain Iraqi civilian. He's a petulant and unsympathetic figure, and it was probably a mistake to build a full-length feature film around his story. "Blood of My Brother" works best when Berends wades into the chaos of Baghdad's streets and lets the events speak for themselves.
Jesus Camp (2006)
The Culture War goes to summer camp.
I saw this film at the Silverdocs festival, expecting it to be little more than an oddball slice of Americana, but I was pleasantly surprised.
"Jesus Camp" revolves around a pentecostal minister who hosts a summer camp for children in North Dakota, and the sectarian Christian conservative families who send their children to this camp. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady wisely chose to avoid the polemical tone of most politically-motivated films, and instead opt to present a mostly unfiltered glimpse of this odd subculture. But through carefully selected images and the use of talk radio commentary as a framing device, they construct a subtle, yet damning narrative about a religious movement that isolates its children from mainstream culture, indoctrinates them into right-wing causes, and uses them as political props.
At Jesus Camp, the daily activities include standard camp fare such as spelunking and go-karts, but they also include speaking in tongues and smashing coffee mugs emblazoned with the word "government". Children learn that "science doesn't prove anything," and learn to consider themselves part of an Army of God. They are compelled to pledge that they will fight to end abortion. They are even pushed into publicly confessing their impure thoughts, and many of them cry and wail charismatically.
The camp director explains that she admires the way Islamic cultures raise children so devoted they will risk their lives for their faith. When we ultimately see several of the campers being placed by their parents on the steps of the Capitol with tape over their mouths, protesting abortion, the real purpose of this camp is driven home.
But the most touching scenes are the ones where the children are alone, and we see the ways that this indoctrination creeps into the most innocent elements of childhood. 11 year old Tori loves dancing to Christian rock, but frets that it's not always easy to dance for God instead of "dancing for the flesh." On an outing to the bowling alley, 9 year old Rachael feels compelled to walk up to strangers and awkwardly evangelize to them, without being prompted. A roomful of boys telling ghost stories after dark are interrupted by an adult who warns them about stories that don't glorify God.
No doubt some viewers will accuse the filmmakers of the dreaded liberal bias. But this is not a work of fiction, nor is it slanted reporting. These are real people and real events, captured on film. If the evangelical movement comes off badly in this film, the people on screen have no one but themselves to blame.
Minority Report (2002)
Should have been much better...
This was an enjoyable movie, but ultimately disappointing because it should have been a truly memorable film.
Steven Spielberg should simply steer clear of any story that contains the slightest element of film noir. His directing style is completely unsuited to this type of project. This movie careens wildly between noir imagery and heartstring-tugging sentimentalism, between stylish action sequences and bubble-gum. It never builds any lasting tension. It never takes the time to revel in its glorious futurish sets. The camera rarely steps back from its claustrophobic POV to give us a sense of atmosphere. Spielberg is always more interested in pushing his viewers' emotional buttons than in creating a coherent work of art. This impulse serves him well when making family-oriented movies, but it has haunted him in his recent efforts to make serious adult-minded films.
To the extent that "Minority Report" succeeds in engaging us, it owes a great debt to its source material. Phillip K. Dick's short story, upon which the movie is based, was one of his classic brain-teasers. In the future, murders can be predicted in advance and prevented... but only if people are willing to cede many cherished safeguards of freedom to a creepily totalitarian government agency. It's a thought-provoking concept that the movie fleshes out fairly nicely... until a completely unnecessary and haphazardly tacked-on ending sequence opens up mile-wide plot holes and dilutes the impact of Dick's message.
This film worked best when it stepped away from its narrow storyline and engaged us with its its vision of 2053 America. The billboards which scan people's retinas and deliver individually-tailored ad pitches were a nice Orwellian touch. The oddball side characters (especially Peter Stormare as a creepy black-market eye surgeon) lent a unique character to the movie. The cyberpunkish set design was generally quite good. Unfortunately, the strengths of "Minority Report" were consistently undercut by its uneven direction and the weaknesses in the script.
This is what happens when a good film gets Spielberged.
I think most people will enjoy this movie, just don't set your expectations too high. And don't think too hard about how much better it could have been in the hands of a truly edgy and daring filmmaker.
Altered States (1980)
An interesting mess...
It's probably not worth trying to explain "Altered States" to someone who hasn't seen it. This is an acid film, and since the only mind-altering substance at my disposal while watching this was a bottle of Labatt's, I don't think any explanation I can provide would really do this movie justice. As a story, it's a convoluted mess. But it succeeds to a great extent on the strength of its highly unique visual style.
William Hurt plays a brilliant (yet clearly schizophrenic) psychiatrist who becomes fascinated with studying the induction of hallucinogenic trance-states via a sensory deprivation chamber. He becomes convinced that within these "altered states" of consciousness lies the key to understanding some of the great secrets of life... death, religion, evolution, etc. This obsession leads him to a mountaintop in Mexico, where he obtains a powerful mushroom concoction that is not likely to be approved by the FDA in the near future, and begins to allow Hurt to physically regress into increasingly primal states of being. From there, the movie descends down some well-trodden paths (2001, Jekyll and Hyde) and culminates in a disappointingly conventional ending.
But "Altered States" only stumbles when it tries too hard to make sense-- and comes off as pretentious posing. When it trips out and turns on its visual power, this is an impressive bit of art. Bizarre religious imagery straight from the Book of Revelations captures beautifully the descent into the madness of a bad trip, and it only gets more mind-altering as the film progresses.
Charles Haid gives a strong supporting performance, as does Blair Brown (and she's not a bad bit of eye candy, either.) Ken Russell's direction is definitely over the top, but the special effects were quite well done, and made me long for the days before filmmakers were spoiled by today's hollow and lifeless CGI graphics. All in all... not a bad movie.
Worth a rental...
This is not by any stretch of the imagination a great film. The characters are two-dimensional, the plot is clunky, the sound is spotty, the directing is uneven... but "Foxfire" is worth watching because a previously unknown young actress named Angelina Jolie waltzed onto the set and completely stole this movie.
From her memorable entrance, with the camera panning slowly up from her boots, this movie belongs to Jolie. Part riot-grrl James Dean, part goth Ingrid Bergman, smoldering with sexual tension-- she's simply perfect in this part.
The rest of the cast is pretty solid, the indie rock soundtrack is great, and the story manages to avoid being completely predictable... which is pretty rare for a teen flick. "Foxfire" is a schlocky movie, to be sure, but it's definitely a guilty pleasure.