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Sound of My Voice (2011)
One of the best of Sundance
Sound of My Voice was one of the best-crafted feature films at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. I was fortunate enough to secure a ticket for the screening at The Library theater, and the place was packed.
Sound of My Voice is the story of two amateur documentary filmmakers who decide to infiltrate a secretive cult run by a mysterious woman who calls herself Maggie. They want to expose the cult for reasons that become apparent later in the film. Sound of My Voice is a thriller, so it is hard to describe much without giving away key plot elements, so I will simply say that the acting is superb throughout.
The real standout is double-threat Britt Marling who not only stars as Maggie, but also co-wrote the screenplay with Zal Batmanglij (Marling also co-wrote and starred in Another Earth -- which was also a Sundance standout).
The cinematography, editing, and score lend just the right edgy feel to this film. Even though Sound of My Voice was shot on a micro-budget, it pays off better than most of the indie films one sees at your local art house. In fact, I could easily see this film crossing over to play at some commercial theaters in large cities. You will be on the edge of your seat, desperately trying to discover the truth, and when the lights come up, Sound of My Voice will both satisfy and leave you begging for more.
You can't spoil Bruno -- It's already gone bad
As I compile my list of worst films of the year, certainly Land of the Lost and Year One will have to be in contention, but this week's releases: I Love You Beth Cooper and Bruno currently head the list, though not in that order. Bruno lacks the originality of Borat -- and it takes vulgarity to a level that leads me to believe that the MPAA is no longer interested in doing its job. If 30 seconds straight (it felt like HOURS) of a penis literally being wagged in your face cannot earn an NC-17 then I do not know what will.
While I checked the spoiler alerts box, one can not spoil Bruno -- it has already gone bad. The audience with whom I watched it never laughed, not once. Cringed? Yes. Groaned? Certainly. But the film simply was not funny. The kind of "look at me; aren't I superior" voyeur humor that Cohen tries to use collapses under the weight of its own tedium.
Instead of feeling sorry for his victims, by the end of the film I just felt sorry for Cohen. I cannot imagine what kind of demons must haunt a man to make his stoop so low for so little.
Land of the Lost (2009)
Not for Kids Despite the Trailer
The trailer for Land of the Lost makes it look like it could easily be a family film. Nothing could be further from the truth. The film contains profanity, one particularly bad word is uttered by Farrel, and a number of very explicit sexual references. In fairness, the MPAA rated this film PG-13 and explains that it contains crude sexual references, but the previews make this look like an action/adventure movie. Additionally, Farrell's character makes a completely unnecessary blasphemous comparison of himself to Jesus on the cross. I know that Farrell is an acquired taste. I thought he was great in Stranger Than Fiction, but he is back to wide-eyed stupidity in this film, it is not funny, and the film does not work. I predict long lines of parents asking for refunds and feeling misled by the trailers. This film may accidentally have a big opening weekend, but expect sharp declines in week two as word gets out about this stinker.
Expelled Opens the Door to Free Inquiry
I have seen this film twice at screenings. This movie is primarily concerned with exposing the lock that NeoDarwinists have on the academic world. You will be shocked (I hope) at the way that well-regarded scientists have their careers targeted and torpedoed by their philosophical opponents. (Well, at least they were well-regarded before they argued, in classes, or on bulletin boards, or in peer-reviewed articles published in prestigious journals, that the universe -- or aspects of it -- appear to be designed.) I believe that it is about time that someone took the Intelligent Design - NeoDarwinian Evolutionary debate out of the obscure places where it normally plays out, and on to the big screen where the public will finally get a chance to see the philosophical underpinnings of both sides. What everyone will immediately notice is that at the heart of the NeoDarwinist agenda lies a series of presuppositions that are not scientific at all, but philosophical. Unfortunately, the renowned scientists who are interviewed on the NeoDarwinist side happen to be philosophical lightweights who lack the tools to explain, let alone defend, their positions. Academic scientists spend their lives teaching 18-22-year-olds who depend upon the professor to secure their academic futures. It is nice to have adoring students, even if you have to threaten academic expulsion to get them to adore you so uniformly. This film is not a Christian harangue (Ben Stein is not a Christian). But the film is a thought-provoking look at the vanishing academic freedom increasingly experienced on many college and university campuses across the United States. Take a stand for academic freedom and integrity this weekend and see Expelled. Bring a friend. I guarantee you will have more to talk about afterward than anything else you could see this week at your local multi-screen theater.
The Visitor (2007)
You know a movie is good when you don't want it to end.
I saw this film at Sundance (along with about twenty others). It was the only film I screened that ended with a standing ovation. The accolade was well-deserved. Richard Jenkins completely inhabits the professor, Walter Vale, unmoored by the death of his wife. Drifting, without purpose, grinding through his days, he thinks his life is over -- he is just taking up space. But when that space is invaded by a vibrant couple, Walter has an epiphany.
Richard Jenkins is not the only actor of note in this cast. Everyone is pitch-perfect. But particularly be on the lookout for Hiam Abbass. Every time she is on the screen is a delight. This is one of those rare films that you really do not want to end.
It would be easy to pigeon-hole this film as a topical drama dealing with an uncaring government system. But this film transcends all that. Instead it is a heartfelt film about what happens when people -- with all their desires and difficulties -- bump into one another to express the best part of their humanity. If this is the kind of movie you would like to see made more frequently in Hollywood, vote with your wallet this weekend, then go again and take some friends.
The Golden Compass (2007)
Nice visuals - boring storytelling
The Golden Compass was one of the most anticipated films of the year. With a budget well north of $150 million and a best seller as source material, expectations were high. Despite all of the debate about the His Dark Materials books, the trailers made this film look like an awesome adventure fantasy. All I can say is ----- yawn.
Yes, some of the visuals work, but most look like set pieces. The integration level for many effects is low. Despite similar budgets, LOTR blows this film out of the water on every level. Compare any battle scene in LOTR with any battle scene in The Golden Compass and you will see what I mean. I never felt that Lyra was ever truly in peril.
The worst problem is the storyline. Screenwriter Chris Weitz significantly deviates from Pullman's book -- stopping very short of the dramatic conclusion of the first book in Pullman's series. I know that he was ordered to tone down the anti-Christian content of the novels, but instead of merely sanitizing the screenplay, he leaves out the climax. The scenes feel disjointed and you never get a chance to really care about any of the characters.
There are a lot of transition/traveling scenes and director Chris Weitz (yes, he bears double blame for this disaster) commits the ultimate cinema sin -- he spends too much time telling and not enough time showing. Even the scenes with the alethiometer become repetitive and tiresome.
Dakota Blue Richards does a creditable job as Lyra Bellaqua, but those expecting Daniel Craig (as Lord Asriel) to have much screen time will be horribly disappointed. He barely appears. Christian groups will not have to do any picketing to make this film tank. I cannot imagine anyone wanting to sit through it twice. Once was more than enough for me. Don't waste the money -- certainly not full price. If you want to see a truly magical film this holiday season, see Enchanted instead.
Edited in a Cuisenart
I knew that I was in trouble when, in the first few minutes of the film -- as Orlando Bloom embraced his lover in the sea -- the boom mic came into frame twice. The entire film appeared to be one long gimmick. The flashbacks were completely unnecessary. Some characters enter the film and then exit with no motivation or wrap up. Some of the dialog was completely laughable (in the press screening I went to some people DID laugh -- out loud and often). Characters were introduced, forgotten for an hour, and then reintroduced with little to tie things together. The criminals in this film have got to rank with the most idiotic in cinema. They could not find their behinds with both hands. Get Orlando Bloom back in elf ears or his pirate costume -- QUICK! Haven has rushed to nearly the top of my list of the worst films of 2006.
Hoot is a good family film
It is great to see a film starring kids whose idea of "acting adult" is not engaging in sensuality. Instead, these kids see a problem in their community and take responsibility for helping to solve it. Hoot is a film aimed squarely at families looking for a fun day at the cinema. The production values are good, especially sweeping shots of Montana and Florida. The soundtrack by Jimmy Buffet is a perfect fit. The young actors are spirited and refreshing.
The plot, about a trio of kids who work together to save some burrowing owls from death at the hands of an unscrupulous pancake house empire builder, will engage kids. So many films make children appear powerless, it is nice to see a movie that shows children working hard to make a difference. And even though parents are absent or temporarily distracted, it was pleasant to see kids who want to follow in their parents footsteps and try to right injustices.
If you are tired of all of the self-indulgent story lines about children that fill the cinema, give Hoot a shot. Then take some time to talk to your kids about the adventure of serving others and caring about the world they live in. A positive message from a positive film.
America's Heart & Soul (2004)
A glowing film about the best of American life.
America's Heart and Soul is one of the first documentaries to emerge from Disney in many years. It is easy to see why they selected this project for distribution -- it is upbeat, beautifully shot, and filled with enough stock quirky American characters to provide a counterpoint to the otherwise dramatic material. The film shares some features with the 360-degree surround films that have been a staple in the Disney theme parks -- the scenes are short vignettes featuring the lives of ordinary (and not so ordinary) Americans interspersed with soaring aerial shots of America's golden landscape.
Especially noteworthy are the stories of Michael Bennett, a convict turned Olympian; Erik Weihenmayer, a blind mountain climber; and Rick and Dick Hoyt, a father/son marathon team (Rick is paraplegic). Humor is provided by Paul Stone, and "artist" whose medium is explosives, and the folks at the Art Car Festival. But for sheer beauty it is hard to beat the segment on the Bandaloop Cliff Dancers.
Part biography, part travelogue, this film is not a documentary about American life as it is -- the gritty side of our nation is conspicuously absent. Instead it is a glowing portrait of what we deem best -- freedom (including the freedom to be incredibly silly), family, cultural diversity, caring, and determination. It's not a reality-check, it is a glorious vision. And, despite what some snootier critics might think, that's not always a bad thing. America's Heart and Soul is a great family film for anyone looking to see what's good and beautiful about America.