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Four Brothers (2005)
REVISED Involving Look at Macho Camaraderie Amidst Violent Revenge
29 March 2008
"Four Brothers" takes an off-kilter premise and makes it credible, even though over-the-top violence challenges the extensive efforts to create realism.

The film is anchored in the strong, macho camaraderie of the four excellent lead actors who convincingly portray two white and two African-American boys raised together as rough foster brothers adopted by a kind-hearted ex-hippie. The easy chemistry among the four is physical, both in interactions and how they move around their childhood home, and in their running graphic teasing. Their back story is smoothly relayed as police report summaries by Terrence Howard, convincingly using his third accent in a film this summer after "Crash" and "Hustle & Flow." (Also stay for the credits when sort of home movies are shown about the brothers' earlier experiences.) While Mark Wahlberg's swagger is a bit much, though worked in as an ex-hockey player context, each actor effectively embodies a unique character at a raw point in his life. Particularly outstanding as non-stereotypes are Garrett Hedlund, as an androgynous rocker haunted by past abuse, and André Benjamin, as a husband and father struggling with a business. Brit Chiwetel Ejiofor very effectively masters Americana as a head hood.

While director John Singleton said on "Charlie Rose" that he sees the film as a Western in the tradition of John Ford and Howard Hawks, it's more like Sam Pekinpah crossed with detective "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" twisty noir vengeance mysteries. The gritty one-on-one confrontations are much more effective than the exaggerated machine gunned destruction, even as Singleton brings unexpected poignancy to a key rampage through a sympathetic victim that is heartbreaking.

Ironically the ex-marine brother is not the lead expert of the four with guns. While this seems like the third in a recent trilogy of using Detroit as a violent wasteland, after the remake of "Assault on Precinct 13" and "Land of the Dead," Singleton accents the usual urban abandonment scenes by telescoping the action between wintry Thanksgiving to Christmas of constant snow, culminating in a white frozen climax that is more cleverly mano a mano and less violent than the preliminary confrontations. It would recall Springsteen's "Meeting Across The River" except that the soundtrack song selections instead superbly are later Motown, visualized nostalgically with '45's playing with the notable local skyline on that dark blue label. The rocker brother is a nice tribute to the city's white kick out the jams heritage as well. Unfortunately, the instrumental score is clunky and unsubtle.

The women are strictly ancillary for stereotypical uses, though respected by the men. Sofía Vergara as the "La Vida Loca" old irresistible girlfriend feistily adds to the multicultural mix.

Both for the violence and the blunt language, I thought it was really inappropriate that parents brought young children to the matinée I attended.

(Revised 29 March 2008 - evidently the version I submitted on 22 August 2005 offended someone)
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Croupier (1998)
REVISED Thinking-person's Twisty Noir
29 March 2008
"Croupier" is thinking-person's noir, very much like "Spanish Prisoner" or "House of Games" or "Hard Eight." The voice over doesn't 100% work, but has some rationale as literally a writer's voice.

While Clive Owens' intense performance is the primary reason to see the film, it does provide the opportunity to again see Alex Kingston in a role almost as sexy as in TV's "Moll Flanders." It has a nicely complex plot that reverses and turns in and around and keeps you guessing and then swirls back again.

It is worth seeing on a big screen.

(originally written 5/2/2000)(revised 3/29/2008 as my version submitted on 30 November 2005 offended someone)
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REVISED A Contemporary "Grapes of Wrath" for Illegal British Immigrants
29 March 2008
"Dirty Pretty Things" returns director Stephen Frears to the multi-ethnic, working class Britain of his early success "My Beautiful Laundrette," but now he's looking at illegal immigrants from countries that were not necessarily part of the British Empire and are more desperate.

It is a shadow world of fear more commonly shown in American films than British ones -- and that's without including any information of how they got there, what with the news full of crushed train-runners in the Chunnel and limp smuggled bodies in trucks and boats. Audrey Tatou is far from the gamine American audiences were first introduced to, as a prickly Turkish immigrant.

The plot has twisty and intricate double-crosses that reminded me of the old sci fi movie "Coma," not just natives vs. immigrants, but frequently fellow immigrants manipulating, abusing, and taking advantage of others lower on the food chain as they use every possible trick to survive.

While we get a glimpse at the very complex motivations of the push/pull driving immigration, from social and religious restrictions to political refugees to economic betterment, there is a bit too much of the Noble Immigrant vs. the venal Nativists, culminating in a very explicit statement of assertion that could be straight from the mouth of John Steinbeck's Tom Joad: "We are the invisible ones who clean your rooms . . ." with a much more explicit etc. about being used as sex workers. But they are individuated and we care for the individuals very much.

As far as I could tell, the title is not explicitly referred to, but the accents are frequently difficult to decode.

(REVISED March 29, 2008 as my original submission on 31 August 2003 evidently offended someone, probably due to a direct quote I included from the film's dialog.)
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Beyond Honor (2004)
REVISED - Issues Presented Very Stereotypically and Tritely
29 March 2008
"Beyond Honor" takes extremely important and serious issues of the treatment of women and didactically reduces them to the stereotyped treatment of an R-rated after-school special.

From the heavy-handed symbolic opening scene of an innocent little girl observing the ritual slaughter of a goat, debut writer/director Varun Khanna draws all his immigrant characters in the most simplistic outlines.

While the central character of the striving medical student "Sahira" is dynamically brought to life by Mirelly Taylor, the rest of the acting seems to be done by stick figures. Wadie Andrawis's father loses any point of demonstrating specific issues of possible suppression of women in Arab immigrant communities to seeming to be at the very least a universal domestic abuser of his wife and children to seeming to be violently mentally deranged. Even the traditionally religious men in border-line agit prop Middle Eastern films as "The Circle (Dayereh)", "Kadosh" and "Osama" weren't presented so cartoonishly evil. By the end of the film the dialog pretty much consists of shouted obscenities.

Though the same day I happened to see this film in a theater, "E.R." broadcast a very similar story line with a similarly obsessed revengefully religious brother driven partly by post-9/11 pressures and a blond boyfriend, that doesn't make this character any more human here, as he was equally poorly written, with an added twist of repressed sexuality spilling out into in ever more abusive ways.

The traditional women are presented en masse with as eyes-only visible through their chadors or burkhas, or whatever they are called, though my understanding is that they wouldn't wear those indoors among family members.

The climatically violent scene is presented like a slo-mo "Perils of Pauline" silent film confrontation.

Though this film does a poor job of representing such a serious issue, it does tack on the end of the film facts and links about female genital mutilation. Over the past few years there have been many excellent films about the Middle-Eastern/South Asian-immigrant experience in the U.S., including issues for women. A much more effective and dramatic treatment about honor killings was a short I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival "In The Morning", directed by Danielle Lurie, which is evidently being used by non-profit organizations who are more effectively fighting such horrors than these unfortunately cardboard caricatures accomplish.

(My original version of this review, posted 24 March 2006, offended someone. This has been revised 29 March 2008)
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Somersault (2004)
Sympathetic Portrait of Runaway Teenager as Child/Woman
2 August 2006
"Somersault" is a fresh spin on the in-over-their heads teenager movie, particularly the mixed-up city girl confusing the well-meaning country boy sub-genre. It is a sophisticated look at the motivations and resourcefulness of a teen age runaway.

In her debut feature, writer/director Cate Shortland poignantly captures a girl's search for love and independence through sex. It isn't often that we see a film about tantalizing jail-bait from the girl's perspective.

The town settings from Canberra to Jindabyne in New South Wales are unusual for Australian films we usually get to see in the U.S., providing an unusual meeting place for cold-weather tourists, the poor in their service industry, and farmers in from cattle stations.

Abbie Cornish is a marvel in the central role. Looking startlingly like the young Nicole Kidman from her early Australian movies such as "Flirting", she morphs from coltish girl to sexual aggressor, even as it's clear she doesn't understand what she's getting herself into by thinking she can live out her fantasy in following one guy after another who she has met on the road. With the glimpses we get of her tumultuous inner world through a childish diary, "Heidi"s naiveté is palpably painful as Cornish projects her at different times in the film as being the character's actual 16 or pretending to be 20 when she thinks she can use sex as a manipulable tool without realizing what creepy situations can result. The subtlety of her performance extends to how differently she relates to men than women, particularly as she keeps seeking out mother figures.

Sam Worthington is heartbreakingly sweet as equally naive, somewhat older "Joe", who clumsily becomes her protector and something more. I wasn't clear, though, about his back story with issues in his past (there's a lot of family secrets all around). The film also comments on bloke culture, including the ambiguous touches of homo-eroticism in male bonding.

The scenes between these two marginalized young people are engrossing with their attraction and hesitation, as they clumsily imitate adult behavior that they can't really handle. Bouncing between maturity and immaturity, tenderness and aggression, they have enough trouble expressing and understanding their feelings without adding sex into the mixture.

A side story with an autistic child leads to a way too didactic discussion about empathy and emotions, with flash cards no less.

The cinematography had a lovely blue haze, but used fuzzy focus too often.

I had some difficulty understanding the male dialogue among thick accents and low sound projection in the Time Square Theater, compounded by the restless male audience, up and down, in and out, slamming doors, who seemed mostly attracted to the film by Cornish's nude scenes.

This film is a creative contrast to American indie films that tend to see young women on the cusp of adulthood more as victims as they experiment with their sexual power, such as "Blue Car" or "Hard Candy", or in commercial fare as innocents, like "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants", let alone male fantasy objects as in "American Beauty". A spate of recent non-American directors have focused on their impact on males, such as in "The Holy Girl (La Niña santa)", "À Tout de Suite (Right Now)", and "Lila Says (Lila dit ça)", with varying degrees of the success of this film in capturing their girl/woman confusion.
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Beautiful Looking Recreation Undercut by Modernisms
30 July 2006
"Beowulf & Grendel" is a beautiful looking, modern re- interpretation of part of the legend with a reluctant hero and sympathy for the monsters.

The barren Icelandic coastal scenery with wind-swept sounds dominate the film, and will doubtless be lost on small screen viewing, but the characters may then seem less dwarfed by nature. (I did wonder where they got their food, fuel and metal from these rock-hewn shores.)

Though the ponderous narration duplicates the on screen words as well as the visuals, debut feature film screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins makes several bold interpretive choices for a renowned man vs. monster legend, at least as I know it from Seamus Heaney's recent poetic translation.

The original's artistic focus on the power of the storyteller is frequently mocked, almost "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"-style, as Gerard Butler's Beowulf is consistently embarrassed by how his exploits have been carried and exaggerated by ever more flattering troubadours -- even as debut feature film director Sturla Gunnarsson has him quite dramatically emerge out of the sea from a shipwreck. His different accent, Butler's own Scottish brogue, is even explained by his distant homeland. Within the scope of modern manly epics, Butler carries off the costumes and fighting better than Clive Owen in "King Arthur", but doesn't come up to the high bar set by Russell Crowe in "Gladiator".

From the opening unprovoked attack that establishes the basis for Grendel's life-long revenge-seeking, Stellan Skarsgård's increasingly haunted King Hrothgar seems to intentionally recall the obsessively grieving king Denethor of "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King", in a nod to Tolkien's significance as a Beowulf scholar.

Grendel himself seems to come out of a classic Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movie, though without CGI, as a giant who selectively tears into men (and there is quite a bit of blood spewn in his attacks). "Grendel's Kin" (the script refers to them as "trolls") is scarier in the water before she vengefully stomps onto land, looking a lot like a Very Tall Wraith from the TV series "Stargate: Atlantis".

I haven't read the John Gardner version, but this one is certainly sympathetic to Grendel from the beginning, and on as Beowulf oddly finds he can communicate with him, through the quizzical character of the alleged witch Selma (Sarah Polley returning to Iceland as in "No Such Thing"). While explaining her Canadian accent due to having been carried off as abused spoils in war from yet another outpost, her gradual seduction of Beowulf doesn't have much more heat in this cold clime than her other sexual encounters. She does spit out the sharp-tongued retorts quite well -- when Beowulf tries to establish sympathy that he too had been a war captive, she wryly comments that he hadn't worried about being made a whore by the victors. Unfortunately, her Cassandra-like prophesies kill some of the suspense.

As Beowulf gradually figures out the background truth, he becomes increasingly ambivalent about helping the king, which raises the question that maybe successful movie epics aren't meant to have Hamlet-like, hesitant heroes. His rueful warning that the others who come after him will be different is literally a double-edged sword.

The language is a confusing effort at trying to seem both ancient and modern, though the very contemporary Mamet-like profanity effectively gets across that this is a testosterone-fueled world of rough warriors. The actors all seem more natural and passionate when the dialogue is more modern. I assumed the male teasing was intentionally funny Shakespearean-like jibes, but no one else in the audience laughed at the sarcastic comments and one guy kept yawning. The literal pissing contest between men and monster was also funny.

The Christian overlay in a bloody pagan tale of magic is dealt with by having this Danish tribe presented as being on the cusp of Christian conversion hastened by the old gods seeming helplessness against the monsters' attacks.

The men's wigs and beards are among the best and most believable I've seen in an historical saga. However I would find it hard to believe that the Queen's hairdo was supposed to intentionally recall "Princess Leia" from "Star Wars". She doesn't get to do too much but is a strong helpmate covering up her husband's weaknesses. Polley's 'do is pretty much just a rat's nest.

The score is overly bombastic, but occasionally incorporates tribal sounds of percussion and eerie voices that are more evocative.
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Gripping Re-Creation of Muslim Slackers Accidentally Caught Up in Terrible History
14 July 2006
"The Road to Guantánamo" is not a documentary. It is a series of interviews interspersed with dramatic recreations and news video. It comes across viscerally as a powerful docu-drama with the feel of "based on a true story" prison films like "Midnight Express" or war, extending beyond the style of "Reds", or Holocaust memoirs that edit together the real and the reel.

Co-director Michael Winterbottom's recreations in situ are so blazingly hyper realistic that they are hard to distinguish from the non-identified actual news video. Though the in-your-face feeling is interrupted near the end with jarring omniscient narration, the film has the direct immediacy of his "In This World" exploration of young Afghan refugees going in the opposite direction.

But this feckless, eyewitness journey from slacker British young men of a variety of Muslim South Asian backgrounds to modern Pakistan for an arranged marriage to an ancient Afghanistan with motor transport that explodes into the chaos of a war in coalitions from tribes to bombs, and then into the no man's land of Gitmo are undercut by co-director Mat Whitecross's unchallenged interviews with "the Tipton 3". (It is a bit difficult for American ears to always understand their accents and it did take me awhile to keep them straight, as each interviewee is also portrayed in action by an actor, until the conclusion when we see real documentation of them completing the original purpose of their trip.)

While we understand that any first-person account will be self-serving, self-aggrandizing and deflective, their ingenuousness is so remarkable that it is simply hard to believe that any guys presented as this foolish and reckless can live outside a "Clerks" or "Bill and Ted" movie. You were going where in October 2001? Because you heard the nan bread there was really good? Because you wanted to "help"? And they were originally four, with one missing and presumed dead from the initial attacks. The illiterate kids on the Iraqi border portrayed in "Turtles Can Fly (Lakposhtha hâm parvaz mikonand)" without even understanding the English on CNN seemed better informed than these guys. We don't learn until near the end of the film they are ex-juvenile delinquents (though their brushes with the law ironically provide their alibis).

Though it is a bit confusing as to why it took so long for them to admit their British citizenship, their very idiocy and naiveté effectively undercuts the rationale for Guantánamo and its counter-productive interrogations of alleged evil-doers and their sympathizers. The years it took the U.S. and Britain to realize their incidental involvement in history also emphasizes, especially through flashbacks and daydreams to the guys' Western-style adolescence, how late the authorities were to realize that their on-the-ground observations could have been useful intel about the pull of Muslim solidarity, recruitment and attitudes.

The titular progression is key as once they are caught up in the war, each move they experience you think can't get any worse to endure, and then it does get worse and ratchets up further. Their experiences at Gitmo itself seem out of the Inquisition, if not medieval witch trials and look much more like revenge out of Chan-wook Park's Vengeance Trilogy than really providing any useful information that the fictional "Jack Bauer" would get for immediacy's sake in "24". While this doesn't quite get into the territory of the kind of extreme accusations of what happened at Abu Ghraib, and the prisoners are grateful for tiny kindnesses of Americans such as stomping on a threatening scorpion, there is clear disrespect for the Koran and Muslim beliefs, reinforcing the other side's rallying point. We don't see enactments of the hunger strikes or suicides we have heard about recently, so perhaps those happened after these three were released.

As has so often happened to political prisoners through history, these young men end up impressed that their fellow inmates who best withstand the nightmare with discipline are the most observant and ideological such that they are radicalized and by the end they of course refused to cooperate.

I was thinking that the British actors portraying American interrogators had terrible accents, until a closing line that a Brit later claimed he was one of the alleged Americans.

While a viewer has to take the facts with some grains of salt, the film is as gripping as it is cautionary on many levels.
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Only Human (2004)
Very Funny and Poignant International Update of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"
12 July 2006
"Only Human (Seres queridos)" is a broadly comic "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" for Shabbat. Even with some of the same silly slapstick as the parallel over-the-top satires "Go for Zucker! (Alles auf Zucker!)" and "When Do We Eat?", it is both intelligent and funny.

Amidst the nonsense that happens when the prodigal daughter returns from a job in Spain to her Argentinian Jewish family with an older academic fiancé who happens to be almost as perfect a Palestinian as Sidney Poitier was a Negro, there are surprising moments of poignancy and truth.

The first refreshing element is that this secular, assimilated family who has changed their last name does not look or act like Jewish stereotypes - they don't seem any crazier than any other family. They are not rich (the father got demoted at his salesman job), though the film does gently mock the daughter's pretentious intellectual TV program like those we've seen in several French films lately. Her fierce sibling rivalry with her sexy single mother, belly-dancing sister has spark. The blind grandfather has a complicated Holocaust and Zionist past that contradicts stereotypes of Argentina as a Nazi haven, though it recalls the family in "Lost Embrace (El Abrazo partido)". The brother's effort to become Orthodox has become a common comic foil in films lately, though his subversive effort to teach his niece Hebrew is quite droll.

The second surprise is that heavy philosophical discussions are made both effectively personal and very funny. including a debate about atheism vs. fundamentalism and Spain's role vis a vis the Inquisition and Muslim Moors. The misunderstandings about his Israeli passport are geo-politically amusing, including his travel travails. When told his mother is from Nablus, her confused mother is surprised: "There must not be many Jews in Nablus." Even though we don't learn too much about him (other than that Guillermo Toledo of "Crimen ferpecto" is one sexy dancer), he becomes increasingly more human as he's caught in awkward situations during the course of the film, culminating in a hilarious, no holds barred "I'm not a racist!" lovers' quarrel about religion, lifestyle, history and politics.

The slapstick is mostly funny, particularly a traveling frozen and defrosted chicken soup. Perhaps lost in translation is a too long side odyssey the dazed father takes through the city streets, let alone a silly duck.

The score and klezmerish and Middle Eastern musical selections are marvelous, though used a bit too much to emphasize the slapstick, including "Havah Nagilah" too heavy-handedly in one scene. The setting is mostly limited to one apartment, with every inch used very effectively.

The subtitles are always legible, though the print released in the U.S. uses British spellings and quizzical slang, that may have something to do with the four country funding from Britain, Spain, Portugal and Argentina. As is usually frustrating with subtitled comedies, dialogues are put on screen before the punch line is spoken out loud.
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Individuals vs. Society Beautifully Portrayed in the Closing Age of Samurai
12 July 2006
"The Hidden Blade (Kakushi-ken: oni no tsume)" is filmed in a deceptively old-fashioned and leisurely style to make pointed observations of Japanese society, much as "Far From Heaven" did for the U.S.

Director/co-writer Yôji Yamada again adapts Shuuhei Fujisawa stories as he did so beautifully in "Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei)". Taking place just a few years before Hollywood's "The Last Samurai", this feels like a rebuke and response to that very Westernized interpretation of some of the same issues of how changes in military technology impacted feudalism and imperialism, as well as visually referencing many classic Japanese samurai films, but from a more individualized point of view then Kurosawa, Kobayashi or Inagaki

The first half of the film establishes the complicated domestic life and frustrating work of the struggling samurai (a solid and sympathetic Masatoshi Nagase, channeling Toshirô Mifune). The broadly comic scenes of fumbled rifles and cannon training recall similarities with the "Sharpe" TV series of the just a bit earlier Napoleonic wars. Particularly lovely are household hearth scenes of warmth between generations and between master and servants.

But this is not the idyllic village where Tom Cruise sojourned, as darker abuse is revealed and the samurai flaunts rigid social protocols to do right by those he cares for, especially the young maid "Kie" (Takako Matsu channeling the three little maids from "The Mikado" a bit too much). He is slow to reveal emotions or take action (the romance goes beyond Jane Austen in its cross-caste sidling and very slow resolution), suppressing vivid childhood memories we see very briefly in flashbacks in contrast to his voluble friend who rebels, including against traditional suicide.

The emphasis throughout the film is on generational conflict, as elders who are to be venerated are constantly shown to be fools or much worse -- old uncles complain about younger people (whose names they can't keep straight) using the new Western weapons, but place a higher priority on eating; a mother-in-law viciously mistreats her daughter-in-law to increase profits; a corrupt senior retainer (the feudal titles do not seem well-translated in the subtitles) lies and manipulates while enjoying geishas and complaining about his prostate problems. But a teacher derided as a "crazy old man" who can still best the young swordsman passes on more useful stealth techniques than the martinet drill sergeant who has inherited the honorific "sensei" with his British guns.

While as usual in such films, I simply cannot follow the Byzantine shogun politics even with a superfluous narration, as I've never studied Japanese political history, the second half ironically builds on the iconography of the genre with unusual sights and sounds. Macho conflicts are filmed voyeuristically, with sidling camera angles that indicate a passing from mano a mano duels to the anonymity of modern weapons, and thus justifying the use of the titular vengeance.

The exquisite cinematography and sound design create a special environment. With a look of faded epic cinematography like the passing of an age, we see snow falling on parasols, cherry blossoms on the path and rain fall on unrequited love. We hear them too, as the breezes, wind, crickets, birds, rain and the household sounds of tools and crackling fire punctuate long silences and dominate more than the conventionally soaring score that is used judiciously. But a prison and eventual bloody fights in a heavily symbolic fog are not minimalized.

The production design is much more elaborate in showing us traditional architecture than most such Japanese films.

I'm sure some of the social and historical commentary just goes by a Western audience unfamiliar with particulars, but the themes of individuals caught up in social proscriptions who rebel and seek love, respect, peace and, most of all, control over their lives is universal and very involving.
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Keillor Collaborates with Altman for a Lovely Tribute to Old Timey Radio and the Midwest
12 July 2006
"A Prairie Home Companion" is a sweet adaptation of Garrison Keillor's radio show. Much as director Robert Altman adds his trademark ensemble dialogue touches, it is strictly for fans. I have been one for decades ever since I caught it on the car radio and mistook it for just this kind of old-fashioned radio program that appears like Brigadoon out of the ether from the opening shot of transmission towers as night falls, just as I used to catch variety shows at night on my AM transistor radio, like WWVA's Country Jamboree, that still airs at the same time as Keillor's.

Unlike the show's brief stint on the Disney Channel (satirized effectively on "The Simpsons" as too cerebral humor for television) or the recent version of some of the same songs and skits from the film on PBS's "Great Performances", this is not just a film of the broadcast, which I've seen in person twice (once at its home base as shown here at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul and once on the road in NYC where I remember the participants running around more frantically just in time to sound casual on the air), but a tribute to the kind of show that inspired it.

Keillor's own script, not dissimilar in plot to a Muppets movie, has regular characters from his stories appear, with mixed effectiveness, as real people, literally or as types. Though there is only elliptical reference to Lake Woebegone, Kevin Kline is gumshoe "Guy Noir", Virginia Madsen is an angel of intersecting coincidences (with an ironic joke about NPR driveway moments), and Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are funnier and more musically talented ersatz cowboy duo "Dusty" and "Lefty", respectively, than we usually hear. Instead of Keillor's monologue all at once, we get a running joke of pieces of his drawn-out explanation of how he got started in radio.

Who raises the film to larger interest is Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin playing a sister singing duo. Not only are they magical masters of Altman's overlapping dialogue technique as the camera circles around them (such as we briefly saw when they introduced Altman for his Honorary Oscar), but clearly improv around the situation. They spur Lindsay Lohan as Streep's sullen daughter to new heights of interacting with chemistry and singing in character. Streep's sweet and supportive, but not wholly disingenuous, sister and mother is amusingly the opposite of her titular boss in the simultaneously released "The Devil Wears Prada", in case we needed more proof of her range as an actress.

The fictional radio show is almost all musical. Unlike the public radio show's more typical "Ed Sullivan Show" mix of international, jazz, classical or regional music, this more Grand Ole Opry version has a heavy emphasis on red state values inspirational songs. We see usual guests the Hopeful Gospel Quartet with the addition of a Negro spiritual interpreter to add some visual diversity, along with Maya Rudolph with nothing particularly to do as a pregnant stage manager's assistant. We also see the weekly show's past and present regulars from usual back-up band (Andy Stein, Butch Thompson, Pat Donohue, Peter Ostroushko) and sound effects expert Tom Keith. Most of the songs are Keillor's twist on traditional or familiar tunes with modified humorous lyrics, including an acerbic "Frankie and Johnny" by Lohan in updated celebration of the murder ballad.

Even when corny, the humor was gentle (and the trailer gave away most of the best jokes) and the older audience constantly chuckled appreciatively, in a converted multiplex theater much like the Fitzgerald.

Except for an epilogue that doesn't quite jell, the casual action mostly takes place in a back stage stuffed with decades of performance memorabilia that reinforces the sense of place. This is a lovely tribute to the culture of Midwest America.
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The Voice and Songs of Cohen Surmount Visual Gimmicks
12 July 2006
"Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man" is an entertaining and informative tribute to the iconic singer-songwriter/poet.

Structuring the film as a mostly chronological autobiographical interview with Cohen, director Lian Lunson intersperses his personal family photographs and home movies with cover performances at a Sydney Opera House concert to illustrate themes in his life. While his experiences in New York City have been well-documented to fans, especially in his own songs, the depth of the influence of his Canadian heritage is a new insight. With only a humorous nod to his reputation as a "ladies man" (he sounds like every rock 'n' roller on VH-1 cheerfully admitting that he became a musician to pick up chicks), his spiritual explorations are well explained, including his Jewish background and a visit with his Zen mentor.

Unusual for this adulatory genre, Cohen is articulate about his songwriting as a painstaking craft in general, though only a couple of specific songs that we see intensely performed or the albums they are from are given more context, such as who "Suzanne" was and working with Phil Spector.

Throughout, the performers from Canada, the U.S., England, Ireland and Australia, male, female, straight and gay, discuss his songs and the impact they have had on their lives and art. While it is not mentioned until the very last credit, this 2005 concert is based on a packed 2003 concert in Brooklyn also produced by Hal Willner, as part of the Canadian Consulate's annual Canada Day sponsorship in Prospect Park, under the rubric "Came So Far For Beauty: An Evening of Songs by Leonard Cohen Under the Stars," which featured many of the same performers captured on stage here, including Rufus Wainwright, who relates surprising personal anecdotes about his formative connection with the Cohen family, his sister Martha Wainwright, his mother and aunt Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Nick Cave, the Handsome Family (Brett and Rennie Sparks), Teddy Thompson and his mother Linda Thompson, and Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen who have backed Cohen on his last two tours, with an all-star downtown NYC band led by the horns of Steve Bernstein and the master guitar of Mark Ribot.

Instead of Laurie Andersen at that magical night, added are Jarvis Cocker and Antony Hegarty (known respectively as the leader of the bands Pulp and Antony and the Johnsons, though that's never mentioned in the film) and Beth Orton. The performers are only identified in the opening and closing credits. While the concert footage nicely mixes close-ups and full band shots, it is more than half-way through the film before we hear any audience reaction, and we only see glimpses of the audience towards the end. Added climactically just to the film is Cohen singing with U2 at a small club.

The interviews are all talking heads, with the extensive Cohen conversations focusing on the planes of his face, particularly as the camera gazes at him adoringly during silences, including a lot of freeze frames. There is an annoying repetitive device of blurring with fades in and fades out, and theatrical focus on a back stage scrim of beads, accompanied by odd theremin-like sounds. This reinforces the somewhat cabaret interpretations of several of the performers that would seem more appropriate to a Tom Waits tribute and are very unlike the two tribute albums that have already been produced.

Cohen himself is so charismatic and his rumbling voice is so magisterial that he surmounts the visual gimmicks.
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Post Traumatic Stress Malaise Well Captured
10 July 2006
"The Great New Wonderful" marks the lead-up to a nervous anniversary I vividly remember - September 2002 -- so it is difficult to separate out my own recall of feelings of unease and dread in comparison to the film's portrayal of how a somewhat disparate group of New Yorkers experienced the same month or to evaluate it as a film on its own.

It certainly will have more resonance to New Yorkers than to others, even as TV's "Rescue Me has" already sneered at such feelings of those like most of the characters in the film who didn't directly lose a loved one or colleague on 9/11. But the documentaries and TV shows have focused on survivors and first-responders so that this attempt to capture every day New Yorkers, albeit mostly neurotic middle-class white ones, provides fresh insight.

The film well captures the malaise that seemed to infect us all, powerfully enough that I cried just before the climax, though to me it's like commemorating a yahrzheit, an anniversary of a death. When three-quarters through the film a plane traverses the screen, I gasped, just as I did at noisy planes throughout that month. While it took me over a year until I could even walk by Ground Zero, and then only by looking away from that hole in the ground, the repeating panning to the new skyline has already gotten too familiar to us and no longer has the shock of the gaping hole in the sky, or maybe the golden-tinged panorama is more of midtown with the Empire State Building restored as our icon than of lower Manhattan.

Directed in an European-feeling style by Danny Leiner, like an inter-edited take on the 2002 collection of 11 minute thematically-linked films by 11 international directors "11'09''01 - September 11", the mordant script by debut screenwriter Sam Catlin emphasizes festering explosions of repressed violence in various forms, mocking New Yorkers' contentions that 9/11 would somehow change us forever to be more serious and to appreciate life and despite what we read in the wedding stories in The New York Times for a year or two afterwards.

Sharply edited through leisurely short stories that gradually ratchet up in pacing, the characters do not have coincidental mutual impact as in "Amores Perros" and even fewer interrelations than the characters in "Nine Lives" except for occasional propinquity that has a frisson of 9/11 jitters.

The five boroughs are represented, with an age range from senior citizens (a terrific Olympia Dukakis' restless Jewish wife in Brooklyn) to a frazzled couple (Thomas McCarthy and Judy Greer) coping with their creepy child who is manifesting more symptoms of an incipient serial killer than the teens in the Columbine-inspired "Elephant", to service workers of the rich-- an ambitious pastry chef (Maggie Gyllenhaal as the skinniest baker in the world) and her circle very amusingly prepare for a "My Super Sweet 16" on MTV-like party in a satire of "let them eat cake" as she unironically offers a fancy dessert called "The Ophelia"; a meek cubicle denizen (Jim Gaffigan) who apparently was in the Twin Towers that day so is in mandated counseling with therapist Tony Shalhoub that is surely inspired by similar scenes from "Miracle on 34th Street"; and a pair of Indian security guards (Naseeruddin Shah and Sharat Saxena). I kept expecting the last set to have perceived some increased tensions for being South Asian, but instead the two are coping in divergent ways.

What all the characters share is no control over their lives and dependence on other people's decisions. Each does takes an unpredictable step-- climaxes and catharses (whether violent, sexual or artistic) that vary in their credibility within the film. For most of the characters we see the build-up of their frustration and its aftermath but not their existential act-- like looking at that skyline before and after.

Some secondary characters work better than others. The only character at peace has Alzheimers and wonders how World War II will end. Edie Falco's business lunch with Gyllenhaal is a masterpiece of understated bitchy competition in its timing and politesse, but Will Arnett as the slacker husband does not add anything. Stephen Colbert, as always, is the master of the unctuous, here as the odd student's private school principal. Seth Gilliam is the opposite of his macho cop in "The Wire".

The film is full of very New York touches -- we see playwright Tony Kushner backstage at a Kevin Kline performance at The Public Theater, the residences reflect different neighborhoods, and there's lovely scenes of bedraggled Coney Island with a yet still beautiful Atlantic Ocean. Visual juxtapositions abound, such as a very effective scene as the camera backs up to gradually revealed to be taking place on Liberty Island.

The cinematography by Harlan Bosmajian is very washed out. One scene brightened up and I at first thought there was some symbolic importance about characters' growing emotional clarity towards the end, but then it seemed more of a brief accident.

While the score by Brett Boyett and John Swihart is effectively understated and helps to connect the segments, the pop song choices were just plain odd, with zero connection to New York, from Bob Seger singing about L.A., to a karaoke of Canadian Sarah McLaughlin's ode to ice cream, to New Zealand's Neil Finn over the credits.
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Yet Another Bloke Changes His and His Family And Friends' Live with an Impossible Dream
14 June 2006
"On a Clear Day" is another of a familiar genre of the plucky bloke who is retired (like "The World's Fastest Indian") and/or unemployed (like "The Full Monty") and/or grieving (like the "Rocket Man" mini-series shown in the U.S. on BBC America) and finds self-esteem by achieving an impossible-seeming, galvanizing goal.

Alex Rose's debut script tries hard in an over-long effort to find conflict, personal growth and resolution as inspired by a true story of a laid-off dock worker who decides to swim the English Channel, but it is ultimately not as moving as the best of these can be (David Lynch's atypical "The Straight Story").

The film does find a fresh angle in an exploration of masculinity, as Peter Mullan's typical working class guy, who of course takes an opportunity to tell off his boss, is contrasted with his son the house husband (nice to see ruggedly handsome, earnest Sean McGinley who I mostly know from TV series) with a too bland wife but with adorable twin sons. While it was also amusing that this is the second movie I've seen this year where a Scotsman is inexplicably held up as an example of the New Man, as in "Take My Eyes (Te doy mis ojos)", their estrangement seems trumped up over a not very big secret and too drawn out, as is everything in the film, and could just as well be about the difficulties of male-to-male communication, as it finally resolves in a lesson learned for both. There is a lovely small scene with Mullan watching a class of handicapped kids at a swim lesson, but unfortunately that's used for inspiration and not second career options.

The impacts his efforts have on his wife and the usual assortment of eccentric friends to be inspired to take parallel steps toward conquering their very personal fears are a heartwarming, if very predictable, side story, and I would have welcomed more of their lives and half-hour less of Mullan's comic training travails (though the funniest lines were already in the trailer). Brenda Blethyn in particular is wonderful as a mature, independently determined wife with a dream to become a bus driver, the opposite of her fluttery "Mrs. Bennett" in "Pride & Prejudice".

The cinematography makes great use of the Glasgow street scenes in sharp visual contrast with the white cliffs of Dover and the bluest Channel water I've ever seen in a British film.
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Bureaucracy vs. the Individual Under a Lacerating and Funny Microscope
30 May 2006
"The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu)" acidly crosses Frederick Wiseman's documentary "Hospital" with TV's melodramatic "E.R." for a brutally realistic yet blackly comic indictment of the intersection of bureaucracy and human nature at its most vulnerable.

Health care in post-Communist Romania is only the location of director/co-writer Cristi Puis's lacerating satire that cuts so close to the bone with Andrei Butica's hand-held camera it looks and feels like a docudrama of an actual 12+ hours. Ironically, we don't actually see the title expiration; rather, through a 360 degree familiarity with the titular, evocatively named, irascible, cantankerous, stubborn, elderly, lonely, cat-owning and yes ill "Dante Remus Lazarescu" we see step-by-step, hour by hour how his whole life led up to this final treatment by society, as he is uncompromisingly played by Ion Fiscuteanu.

A lengthy half-hour or so prologue sets the pacing as the cranky "Mr. Lazarescu" first starts to feel his symptoms, even as we see his isolated living habits and rude interaction with his estranged family and annoyed, patronizing, ineffectual neighbors who only very reluctantly get involved in this problem. Despite being surrounded by intellectual books (and being quite knowledgeable about medical issues around his ulcer), his communication is cryptic even before his condition makes explanations of his health situation more and more difficult to his neighbors and to the medic (Luminita Gheorghiu as a maturely cynical heroine) on the slow to arrive ambulance. A key narrative technique for the film's odyssey is to have her play a more and more important role in his life and in the film, and ultimately with the circles of hell that are several hospitals' hierarchy.

A prime recurring theme is how each person he comes into contact with demands to know if anyone is with him. Being alone is clearly the worst sin if you're old because then you lack an advocate and there is even a limit what a heroic medic can do outside her proscribed role up against issues of gender, class, age, personal relationships and professional gatekeepers (let alone miscommunication that's like an unfortunate game of telephone with no considerations of his body as a whole or in the context of his life). Well into the film is a wonderfully natural conversation between the medic and the driver about parenting that confirms her as a responsible adult compared to how the doctors have been treating her, but in general all the conversations sound natural.

Another intriguing theme is the system's blame the patient mentality if the real or perceived ailments are considered to be self-inflicted. And he doesn't even have, say, AIDS. This is a stark, abject lesson in how attitudes and assumptions affect how a patient is treated (I have a personal experience in how this affected the doctor's intended treatment for a family member if I hadn't insisted on correcting a false impression). It is fascinating to see how over the course of the night he gradually loses his individuality and just becomes a problem.

While the British TV series "Bodies" and Paddy Chayefsky's "The Hospital" focused on incompetence and power among medical professionals exacerbated by budget limits, "Bringing Out the Dead" focused on burn out, and "E.R." has only a couple of times given us the patients' point of view before they are heroically saved, let alone the cynicism of "House, M.D." that the patient is always at fault for lying (not that anyone is doing much of an expensive differential diagnosis here), this film is particularly droll at poking fun at the kind of romantic and other staff interactions that we usually find so entertaining in shows like "Grey's Anatomy" but are not so amusing when they interfere with patient care. This is the best examination I've seen of how Kafka-esquire bureaucracy is built up of the actions of individuals one-by-one since George Lucas's first sci fi film "THX 1138".

Though the subtitles are always legible, some of the translations are confusing so it is sometimes hard to tell what is a malapropism in the translation or errors by the characters, or perhaps Romanians use different medical terms than we're used to hearing on "E.R." The credits are not translated into English but there's a long list of doctors as advisers.

This film should be required viewing for anyone in the medical professions.
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Preservation is Enthrallingly Life or Death in the Wilds of the Tibetan Pleateau
29 May 2006
Set in stunning scenery on the titular Tibetan plateau, "Mountain Patrol: Kekexili" recreates an extraordinary grassroots effort in the 1990's by supremely dedicated idealists to stop poaching of the Tibetan antelope -- mano to mano with no satellite phones or navigation equipment or much in the way of weapons.

For all the thrilling nobility of the volunteers and grueling challenges they face from man and nature, the film naggingly feels like a propaganda effort supported by the Chinese government to show how it supports Tibetan initiatives (including a somewhat smug statement at the end that they have now taken over the protection job from the volunteers). I felt complicit in the occupation even as I got caught up in the film.

Their struggle to save the antelope vividly recalls scenes of how the buffalo was decimated in "Dances With Wolves", though we get no inkling of the role of the antelopes in Tibetan culture, so saving them just seems either altruism about a rare animal, nationalism, obsession, stubbornness or macho independence.

While we meet several of the volunteers in their isolated monitoring stations and frustrating chases who have a range of personalities and relationships, it is a bit hard to differentiate them other than by the vehicles they are driving or jewelry they're wearing. The exceptions are the patrol's charismatic leader Ri Tai (Duobuji captures the screen) and our entrée to this world, a Beijing-based investigative journalist with Tibetan roots (Ga Ju played by Zhang Lei who effectively communicates his transformation by his experiences).

Whle the sense of swaggering male camaraderie is well captured in a military-like bonding of living, traveling and partying hard, they say the area's name translates to "land of beautiful women" and that's supported by the few we see during brief respites.

In addition to the breathtaking scenes of the Tibetan plateau, better seen on the wide screen than on TV, in a range of extremely challenging weather and geographic elements (one scene in quick sand is particularly harrowing), the views of Tibetan towns and quotidian life in the mountains are an intriguing sidelight.

The subtitles were only hard to read as white on white a few times, though a couple of times they lingered on the screen too long past a dialog, blocking views.

National Geographic co-produced the film and has additional information about the film and the cause at their Web site (though for some reason IMDb doesn't consider their's the official movie site).
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Kinky Boots (2005)
Ejiofor is a Lola Who Gets What He Wants -- An Entertained Audience
29 May 2006
"Kinky Boots" crosses "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" with "The Full Monty" in combining the flash of entertaining transvestites with the pathos of working class unemployment.

While we don't often get to see factory workers in films these days, let alone factory processes, and this is ostensibly inspired by a true story of a traditional family-owned shoe manufacturer finding a new market (and I have a friend whose almost identical old business went under without finding such new products though Army boots kept it going during the Gulf War), the trajectory of the genial story feels too predictable.

The humor is mostly of the fish-out-of-water variety, whether it's the drag queen in the Midlands or the factory workers in the "Cabaret"-like club.

But just as the featured James Brown song we hear that the world would be nothing without a woman or a girl, this movie would be nothing without Chiwetel Ejiofor as the drag queen. And in the same year that he played a Detroit gangster in "Four Brothers". (Only Cillian Murphy has had a similar character range this same year from "Breakfast on Pluto" to "Red Eye".) Yes, that is truly him singing and dancing up a storm. We get a few flashbacks about a troubled childhood by the sea due to strict paternal expectations, but oddly don't see him in any relationships to explore more his sexual orientation. A nice touch though, regardless, is how his character gains self-esteem in finding something else he is good at. The choreography is better than in "Mrs. Henderson Presents" and the song selections for his numbers are wonderful, if more fantastical than realistic, especially at the climax, including the flashy medley of "These Boots Were Made for Walkin' / In These Shoes / Cha Cha Heels / Going Back to My Roots / Yes Sir I Can Boogie," plus additional numbers on the sound track, including, over the credits, the original of the late Kirsty MacColl's sardonic "In These Shoes."

Joel Edgerton is a sweetly wistful schmo as the factory scion torn between a new career in London with a fiancée who is less rigidly stereotyped than in most such movies and saving the family business by adapting to a niche market (very similar to the situation in the Scottish series "Monarch of the Glen"). The factory workers are an entertaining range of personalities, even if their interactions with the drag queens are as expected.

Unfortunately, Julian Jarrold's direction milks non-musical scenes for slow sentimentality, surprising as his background has mostly been in sharp, gritty Brit TV mysteries.

The shoes - and their matching costumes -- are fun. Too bad most of the good jokes were already seen in the trailer.
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Mostly A Sophisticated and Imaginative Satire
27 April 2006
"C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America" is an effective satire of History Channel-type documentaries.

To illustrate an alternative reality of the past hundred years as if the Confederacy had won the U.S. Civil War (with foreign help) through a faux British TV documentary, writer/director Kevin Willmott makes excellent use of detailed research and archival footage to seamlessly create dead-on parodies of decades of movie styles (D.W. Griffith here makes "The Yankee" instead of "The Clansman", to a 1930's style hagiographic bio pic of Jefferson Davis, to a World War II-style movie here set in a war to take over South America as the Confederates dreamed to do, etc.).

Particularly chilling throughout this supposed televised presentation are the "commercials" of racist products and horrifically cheerful slave controls, where ads for reruns of the old sit com "Beaulah" fit in comfortably (the syndicator may now pull this one just as CBS keeps "Amos and Andy" in the vault as she sure does look like a mammy). The footnote coda chillingly demonstrates that representations making use of the most exaggerated stereotypes were not fictional but were actual racist artifacts or activities, though producer Spike Lee also used them in his parallel "Bamboozled" of a satirical TV minstrel show taken at face value. (A recent episode of "Nip/Tuck" also had a pleasant extremist mom have an Aunt Jemima collection.)

Some of the historical imaginings are creatively scabrous, such as exporting slaves to get the U.S. out of the Depression, and raises intriguing issues of slavery in an industrial economy. The film is particularly nasty about "traditional values" and Christian hypocrisy. While there are many "Daily Show"-type jokes, there is plenty that can't be laughed at.

The script's imagination falls flat and finally trails off as it imagines how a CSA would fare in world affairs, spreading its racist gospel to the Japanese and the Africans, less thought out than Philip Roth's take on allying with the Nazis and what the U.S. actually did to Japanese-Americans was worse than described here. But it's not always clear what this CSA's foreign policy would have been, other than "Red Canada" where the talking head black scholars can lash out from the safety of Montreal.

A story-telling mechanism of the film that falters into personalities as it heads into the 1970's is focusing on a fictional first family of the Confederacy who is meant to be the Adamses or Kennedys in public service, with plenty of borrowings from the life of Dixecrat Senator Strom Thurmond.

Until it fades off, this is a very sophisticated and imaginative satire.
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Funny Dialog Tails Off for a Sprightly Ensemble
13 April 2006
"Friends With Money" evens the score for all those movies and books about men having mid-life crises with equal time for women. This is a distaff take on Neil LaBute.

While nowhere as cynically incisive nor sweetly relatable to as writer/director Nicole Holofcener's previous "Lovely and Amazing", the unsympathetic setting of four women for-some-unknown-reason friends and their men among the upper class of the Los Angeles entertainment, fashion and entrepreneurial elite is offset by some funny dialog and breezy acting in a comfortable ensemble. One of the ongoing jokes is that as we're thinking negative thoughts about a character, another in the next scene comments, usually talking in cars, to another just what we were thinking.

At least the L.A. professions are used to illustrate something about the characters. The always droll Catherine Keener and her husband, played by the-never-mentioned-how-hunky-he-is Jason Isaacs, are screen writing partners, but this works to good effect visually as they act out the dialog quarrels of their characters.

A marvelously salty, road-raged, hair-unwashed Frances McDormand, the stand out in the film, is a not too believable dress designer, but is paired with a fussy metrosexual botanical body care products maker. She's like a femme Larry David in "Curb Your Enthusiasm". Unfortunately there's no real pay-off in the trajectory of the tension in their relationship as the elephant in the room never really seems to appear.

The comic queen Joan Cusack is woefully underused as the beneficiary of family wealth, though she has an easy chemistry with Greg Germann as her husband.

The production design doesn't quite give the L.A. luxury pay-off as in "The Dying Gaul" of seeing Jennifer Astin cleaning other people's houses, complete with lots of product placement. Regardless of her job situation, and her ups and downs aren't that crazy these days, it's just not clear why she has such low self-esteem that she gets into a series of relationships with desultory men, regardless of their income in silly plot twists. The Scott Caan character is so macho inconsiderate as to be unbelievable for more than a one-day stand.

But then it's not clear if any one learns much of anything after going through their nervous breakdowns and the movie tails off.

The kids are all sweet naturals with no phony child actor type in sight.

The new Rickie Lee Jones songs on the soundtrack are lovely to hear, but don't add any commentary to the action. There are some less heard bands such as The Weepies as well.
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Hartnett in a Towel and a Smile Trumps Alarming Body Count for Noir Entertainment
13 April 2006
"Lucky Number Slevin" at first seems like a humorous noir tribute a la "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" of mistaken identity before it harshly turns into "V for Vendetta".

Telegraphed by a long prologue with the incredibly adorable kid from "E. R." with the crinkly eyes Oliver Davis, the first half of the film is dominated by the simply wonderful chemistry between a dryly laconic Josh Hartnett (with the crinkly eyes), quite attractively draped in a very low rise towel for at least a third of the film, and Lucy Liu in her best role since TV's "Ally McBeal". I'm not just biased that Liu grew up just down Queens Boulevard and went to the same high school as my son to admire that she plays an unusually smart cookie for a genre film, who is always thinking while she's volubly flirting, even while distracted by what's under that towel. I would certainly look forward to the two co-starring as a talky team again, even as he towers over her by over a foot. When the screen goes black as they hit the sack, with not even an old Movie Code fireplace or wind-blowing curtains in sight, director Paul McGuigan uses how much we want to see them together to cleverly distract us in the story when they have a cute morning-after.

Morgan Freeman is ever wily, especially in arch monologues, but Sir Ben Kingsley grinds the film to a halt as "The Rabbi". Though he was so scary in "Sexy Beast", he was similarly miscast in HBO's "Mrs. Harris" as a Jewish heavy, his "Rabbi" here is not just ludicrous in accent, plot and Talmudic rationalizations (it's usually British mysteries that enjoy the visual comedy of Hassidic criminals), but just seems like a desperate stretch to avoid the usual Italian or Russian mobster clichés.

Stanley Tucci doesn't get to play cop often and he sure seems to be enjoying gritty here. Mykelti Williams is almost unrecognizable, playing closer to his "Forrest Gump" character than his usual more recent wise acre cops. Robert Forster is a marvelous raconteur in a cameo monologue.

While bread crumbs are left throughout the film, especially through nagging little disrupters that at first seem like debut feature writer Jason Smilovic's script or continuity errors but turn out to be clues, the tone of the film changed quite abruptly as the bodies piled up, particularly those of characters we'd gotten to know. The audience fell into an uneasy silence, partly because you could literally hear people concentrating to follow the sudden plot twists. The ending, however, is surprisingly less cynical than usual for the genre. But then Hartnett's smile could melt any cynic.

While the cool opening credits recall classic Saul Bass, it doesn't live up to other film references, including Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" and various Bond movies. The discussion of L'il Abner's "Schmoo" seems too "Pulp Fiction" pop-culture referential, but I certainly will remember this film's definition of a Kansas City Shuffle if it's referred to in a future film.

The production design of each character's apartment and entrance hallways is amusingly garish, looking like Britain in the mod-'60's. Some of the exterior shots do seem too obviously set in the fictional NYC of the other Bruce Willis with guns movie this year "16 Blocks" that is really in Canada (odd that in promotional interviews the cast said they shot the film in Montreal whereas all the credits acknowledge Toronto and other places in Ontario).

The original trailer kept the mystery twists, but unfortunately the more recent ad campaign is giving too much away.
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Amusing Talk But Stolen By the Quirky Best Friends
11 April 2006
"Failure to Launch" feels like a cynical Hollywood attempt to create a perfect date movie, with equal time to girl talk and guys doing guy stuff. It works about half the time.

The premise was completely given away in the trailer, and we only get a bit more back story on the characters than that, as to how they got in the position of a hunky guy Matthew McConaughey living at home with his supportive parents and Sarah Jessica Parker as a professional incentive to leave.

There is a lot of funny, sprightly dialog, especially among the friends, but the movie stops to a dead halt every time the guys go off on another slapstick sports adventure and encounter silly, animatronic animals of various kinds that seem out of a Disney kids' story. The guys in the audience did seem to like those parts.

As so often happens in such movies, the best friends steal the show. Though we don't learn much about her, Zooey Deschanel is a feisty depressive. Her reluctant match up with the endearing Justin Bartha as an adorable tekkie geek is worth its own little movie, though "Dopamine" may have already done that.

The visual and dialog references to "Philadelphia Story" and "Irma La Douce" do not do this script any favors.

The soundtrack includes upbeat, updated covers by Fastball and the eels of romantic songs. Unfortunately, the songs do not add to the commentary.

Other than missing seeing attractive people 20 feet high or whatever, this movie will work just as amusingly on DVD as in a theater.
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Iron Island (2005)
Vivid Imaging of an Isolated Society
11 April 2006
"Iron Island (Jazireh ahani)" vividly works on at least three levels. Opening with a prayer, the premise itself is visually arresting and the story is simple but imaginative.

Settled on an abandoned oil freighter off the coast of an unnamed Middle East peninsula, a rag tag community of squatters is ruled by a wheeling-dealing landlord, a benevolent, Messianic dictator of a captain, like out of a Werner Herzog film, controlling a limited barter economy with the outside world. The huge hulking ship in the bright blue sea is eye-popping, but it even feels like writer/director Mohammad Rasoulof is just pointing his camera at at a documentary of how traditional families adapt to such a physical and economic environment while retaining their social structure with its rigid gender and age stratification.

I equally believed, on the one hand, this could be a post-apocalyptic society as in the "Mad Max" movies or "Waterworld", the new "Battlestar Galactica" or even "Land of the Dead" or, on the other, that it could even have been based on a true story, as much as "Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai)" was based on a real incident in Japan of abandoned children.

But it works equally well visually, emotionally and intellectually as a brilliant allegory, not necessarily of Iran but of any traditional, isolated society with a rotting infrastructure, selling off its resources and émigrés to global capitalism and living off the promises and lies of its paternalistic leaders.

Working under the captain's watchful eye, the frustrated school teacher, a Cassandra-like scientist, uses the Islamic madrassas style of repetitive memorization. But with only old newspapers about a mysterious war and enemy as texts, the students are required to repeat truisms about the glories of living on the sea. Unfortunately, the English subtitles do not translate what is on the black board so some subtleties are doubtless lost.

Just as any society has channeled restless adolescent boys into armies, the "Captain" (a marvelously oily and charismatic Ali Nassirian) organizes the boys on board into teams of coordinated manual labor to salvage resources on the ship that have the breathtaking look of "Nanook of the North" teams ritualistically pulling together for a common goal and their choreography is a wonder. Even so, they still keep trying to get snatches of contact to the outside world with satellite TV and radio.

But we get caught up on in the story of one of these adolescents, his assistant, a lovelorn orphan (played by Hossein Farzi-Zadeh who also movingly played a similar young man in "Beautiful City (Shah-re ziba)"), who stands up to him, recalling "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner", or a more cerebral "Star Wars", with an even more dramatically wrenching rebellion. How young love finds an outlet even through elaborate burhkas is a touching tribute to the universality of the human spirit. The audience held their breaths as to who would win the battle of wits and endurance.

Women are especially ground under in this patriarchal society, with physical and labor restrictions and barely puberty arranged marriages around issues of honor. A lack of health care particularly affects the constantly pregnant, child-caring women.

The premise doesn't make 100% practical sense and the ending is so ambiguous that the guy next to me optimistically thought it was happy for all, while I was cynically dismayed. But the images are unforgettable.
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Fascinating Look at the Impact of Movie Musicals as Propaganda on Participants and Audience
10 April 2006
"Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works" is a fascinating look at the impact of cultural propaganda on the participants, the resisters and the different generations in the audience.

Outside of China, we had heard how Mao Tse Tung's wife, former actress and later labeled as Gang of 4 conspirator Jiang Qing, had been the force behind propaganda presentations, but in the West we had neither gotten to see them nor understood that they were the only performances allowed, both in live theater and as films.

A highlight of this documentary, especially as seen in a theater, is the excerpts in faded Technicolor. Because they are surprisingly good. They did not follow the Soviet Socialist realism style, but rather were inspired by Hollywood. Discounting the silent film style superficial acting, which isn't that different from operatic acting anyway, and the lyrical worship of Mao, the talent on display is enormously appealing, especially the dancing and the instantly earworm melodies that also incorporated musical elements from the Beijing Opera. But it is striking how much they drew on MGM and other musicals; many of the women seem to do identical moves as Cyd Charisse. How different is equating Mao's victories to the glory of the rising sun than that paean to capitalism at the height of the Depression of Ginger Rogers dressed only in a large silver dollar in "Golddiggers of 1933" singing "We're in the Money"? And the Democrats used "Happy Days are Here Again" from the 1930 "Chasing Rainbows" as a theme song for decades. George Orwell had Big Brother's minions create politically correct pop songs in "1984".

While the excerpts are interspersed throughout the documentary, writer/director Yan Ting Yuen, who we hear on screen frequently asking quite pungent questions, does not tell their story just chronologically. We meet people today of various generations and only gradually is it revealed what their direct or ironic connection is to the people and productions of the model works. The people in their '60's range from dancers, conductor, writer to censored (and punished) lyricist to performers of the Beijing Opera who lost their livelihoods when traditional arts were banned. Though not having been able to perform for almost 20 years (we see the impact of the political winds changing again), the dancers' marvelous kinesthetic memories recall the divas in "Ballet Russes" as they put youngsters to shame in their expressiveness. (One confides to the camera: "They're all so young! I'm 57 and they're 17!" then she outshines them.)

The people in their '30's who are now benefiting from the loosened economy remember the difficulties of the Cultural Revolution nostalgically, as we saw in "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Xiao cai feng)", including the guys preferring the work where the dancers were wearing shorts, revealing legs usually banned from sight. I was curious if man on the street reactions would have gotten the same musical memories as some interviews that seem staged or if Germans felt the same way about Leni Riefenstahl's films. The horrors of this period are not glossed over, however, as filmed scenes of the violence are included.

The very contemporary teen agers are the most fun, as we see them pursue their musical and dance interests that would have been banned, from folk lore to rock 'n' roll and disco clubs. Very similar to Jennifer Garner's time traveling reenactment of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" choreography in "13 Going On 30" or Janet Jackson bringing back Cab Calloway in the Simon Temple-directed video for "Alright," the very talented kids stage two reinterpretations of the model works that are enchanting, even though they are quite obviously done only for this film.

This staginess also intrudes in having a fictionalized silhouette and voice of Jiang Qing explain her purposes. While we are used to having actors take on the voices of famous people from Ken Burns' documentaries, these are not exact quotes but loosely based on information from Ross Burrill's biography "Madame Mao: The White-Boned Demon". This weakness is accented when we finally do see the dragon lady herself in a very brief video at her trial where she's even more formidable than fictionalized. Has no other audio or video of her survived?

Though an effort is made for the English subtitles to be legible, the thin yellow lettering is frequently unreadable against pale backgrounds. Some words seem quizzically translated.

What a shame that though this was being shown just down Houston Street from Chinatown at NYC's Film Forum there were no Chinese-Americans in the audience among the handful at a matinée.
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Iowa (2005)
Low Rent Meth Madness
6 April 2006
"Iowa" wants to be "Requiem for a Dream" for Midwest meth, but it comes across as a hard R rated "Reefer Madness".

Yes, drugs are bad, and meth is horribly pernicious, as an addiction and how it destroys people, families and communities. But these characters who are either dumb or ridiculous and the eye-rolling plot won't teach that lesson to anyone.

While writer/director/star Matt Farnsworth has some charisma on screen, his partner Diane Foster plays a wincibly silly wide-eyed innocent corrupted by drugsas was already satirized by Susan Sarandon in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show". I really felt sorry for her for all the totally unnecessary nudity she was put through. It wasn't until the end of the film that I realized I was supposed to think these two were recent high-school graduates to explain some of their naiveté, as we are bombarded by their school photos, but if so, they even looked older than the folks on "The O.C.". While they have good chemistry on screen, they are a pale imitation of a "Badlands"-type couple.

The guest stars are badly used. Michael T. Weiss, who was so good in TV's "The Pretender", is completely ludicrous as a corrupt parole officer and his brutal violence is just plain crazy, as his character pretty much ruins any social significance for the film. Rosanna Arquette has to be even sleazier than she rolled around for David Cronenberg as a very low rent Livia Soprano. John Savage even has to mouth the old baby boomer excuses about I did pot but this is worse. A Goth chick shows up, with the odd explanation that she's a stripper from Des Moines. The obligatory Latino drug dealer appears - in Iowa?

With a limited budget, the interior view of meth use is portrayed quite vividly, with quite scary hallucinations. We certainly see them go crazy.

While the Iowa locations are used very well (including an amusing scene of a propane gas robbery), the accents and church references are confusingly Southern Baptist. Guns seem to be used by law abiding and law breaking citizens here more than in any inner-city drug-dealing movie.

The songs of Iowa's best known bard Greg Brown are used throughout, but oddly are not listed in the credits. I hope they were used with permission.

I caught this at its commercial run in NYC because I missed it at the Tribeca Film Festival where it got considerable-- and inexplicable-- buzz.
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Sweetly Charming for Nostalgia and Dancing Cares Away
5 April 2006
"Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School" is a slow paced, but sweetly charming and amusing film.

It is like a "Mad Hot Ballroom" for grown-ups, crossed with the period feel of "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" and some of the nostalgia wallowing of "Mrs. Henderson Presents".

Extended from a 1990 short film by co-writer/director Randall Miller, much is made that it takes place in 2005 but each of the three periods that are stories within stories has a different cinematographic tint, blue for the opening situation, yellow for 1962 (that are actually from the original film) and color for moving forward.

But the small matinée audience responded with warm chuckles to the humor and poignancy, especially for the flashbacks to twelve year olds that wonderfully captures boys and girls. (Recreating boys' junior war games was particularly effective).

While these are all non-dancing actors, with, unusually, no ringers in sight, the choreography is pretty lame and there's very little real dance step learning that goes on, and I don't even watch "Dancing with the Stars" though this should appeal to those fans. But this is not about the serious amateurs like in "Roseland". This much more about human behavior than dance steps as the Misses Hotchkiss seem to accidentally work a lot like "Nanny McPhee".

The large ensemble of recognizable actors is enjoying mostly playing against type, such as Robert Carlyle as an almost monosyllabic baker (like Nicholas Cage in "Moonstruck") compared to his usual motor mouth, even as the script manages to finesse his accent; Marisa Tomei as a shy wallflower (there's a leg here at issue rather than the arm in "Moonstruck"); Mary Steenburgen as a robotic emcee; Camryn Manheim in a vivid cameo; Donnie Wahlberg as an ineffectual Lord of the Dance (with a joke that "he's not even Irish" as several others also play against their usual ethnics). Some of the characters, though, are a bit one-note, such as an exaggeratedly lascivious Sonia Braga and a weepy widower. John Goodman does have the longest wounded monologue scene outside most opera and Shakespeare, but that happens frequently on "E.R." as well.

The now grown-up kid from the original film has a small role as Carlyle's co-worker, and it's not far-fetched that we could be seeing that in his imagination.

The opening rendition of "Over the Rainbow" (I couldn't catch if it was by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole or covered in his style) has been way over-used in too many films, but the arrangements of dance music and the musical period selections are fresh.

While the outline of the film is predictable, as each person faces their grief, guilt or other family issues and brightens through dancing and human contact, it is overall a lovely and heart warming film.
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A Lovely Documentation of A Major North American Artist's Influences and Appreciations
5 April 2006
"Neil Young: Heart of Gold" is a lovely companion to his latest album "Prairie Wind", providing insight into both his life changes and the influences that led to its recording.

The opening pilgrimage to the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the former home of the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, has been used in many films, including "Walk the Line", with the same shots of some of the same musical touchstones, Hank Williams, etc. And we met Young's band Crazy Horse, in more detail, in Jim Jarmusch's "Year of the Horse", that documented their years of touring as a jammin' rock 'n' roll band up through 1997; here we get only a very brief introduction as they arrive, and we don't even meet everyone who will be on stage.

But we learn quite matter-of-factly that the album was recorded at the time Young was diagnosed with a brain aneurism and he wasn't sure he would survive the surgery. So this smoothly spliced documentation of two special concerts after the surgery emphasizes his appreciation for music, life and family love that infuse the lyrics even more passionately than on disc. Like the album, the film is dedicated to his father, who passed away shortly before the filming.

Director Jonathan Demme has staged the concerts in a formally conceptual tribute to the Opry. As we hear but do not see the audience throughout, each song is introduced by a different painted scrim of a Western scene behind the performers, reinforced by Ellen Kuras's gorgeous cinematography and lighting, the first act with a gold "harvest moon" hue (a recurring imagery in Young's songs over many albums) and the second with a blue, sunset tinge. Everyone we see fits into the background with wonderful Western-inspired outfits, demonstrating the gloriously distinctive work of Manuel. (From the official web site: "Equally key to the dream-mood of the film's look are the original costumes created by Nashville's legendary artist/designer Manuel for every person seen on stage, including Neil Young's technical crew. Manuel conceived costumes that were both period and timeless. . .") The instrumentation evokes a range of Americana and gospel music with voice and singing styles, guitars, banjo, fiddles/violins, harmonica and autoharp.

Unlike Young's own "Greendale" that approached conceptualizing his songs by explicitly acting out the lyrics, the words here actually have more impact, reinforced by effective close-ups, as the influences on Young's life and music are there on the stage with him. He is joined by family (his wife Pegi Young), and long time band mates, as well as frequent past collaborators, from the many individually added players to the Memphis Horns, Emmy Lou Harris, noted singer/songwriter Spooner Oldham and the Fisk University Singers, for a selection of songs (though not all of them) from "Prairie Wind" that reflect on his childhood in Canada, his faith, his daughter, wife, father, Willie Nelson and Hank.

Unfortunately, the second act, with a change to more country-ish costumes, does not quite pack the emotional wallop as the first, as he picks out popular hits from his past albums that fit the theme.

Particularly annoying is how Pegi Young overwhelms the angelic harmony of Harris such that she literally seems to be moving her lips with no sound coming out, particularly as she sings so beautifully on the album. (The apparent tension between the two of them reminded me of Patti LaBelle and Joan Baez unequally sharing a microphone at the climax of the first Live Aid concert.) The credits list many, many re-mixers at work so one wonders who dialed out her contribution of the final mix.

But the concluding "Four Strong Winds", with one of Young's few introductions during the film (in addition to the background on "This Old Guitar"), as he explains his fondness for songwriter Ian Tyson and the Canadian memories this classic stirs, ratchets up the sentiment. Similarly, the rendition here of "Old Man" is strikingly different from the one Jarmusch captured, movingly incorporating Young's recent experiences.

Without seeing this beautiful film, I wouldn't have realized that "Prairie Wind" is as much a concept album as Green Day's "American Idiot". This film is an important documentation of a significant artist who has absorbed the heritage of North America's music to create a major body of work that looks both to the past and the future.
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