Joe's Movie Reviews

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Way Too many Movies, Part Two

There's hardly been a night during the past two weeks that I haven't been at a fest movie... except one night when I attended a book reading and signing by Sarah Vowell (you MUST read "Assassination Vacation", as well as her other three books), so there's been precious little time to write any reviews, as a result of which you have even more movies to deal with in this column that in "Part One." I hope I can keep the comments shorter this time... and I'll bet you do, too.

1. "McDull, Prince De La Bun." A delightful animated film from Hong Kong. A follow-up to the even more delightful "My Life As McDull" from two years ago, this MSPIFF festival entry is a series of episodes in the life of a young pig (yes, I said pig) and his single mother and their day to day lives in modern Hong Kong as young Mcdull attends classes in one of the strangest public schools you'll ever see, faces (along with his mother) the demolition of their run-down apartment building in an urban renewal project, and listens to a peculiar fairy tale his mother has written after reading too much "Harry Potter", a story which turns out to be a thinly-disguised attempt at filling McDull in on his father, whom mom had never talked about before. While not QUITE as effective as the earlier film due to its lack of one single unifying story, it still has charm, humor and warmth to spare. For anyone who THINKS Hong Kong movies are only about Kung Fu.

2. "Hari Om." Another MSPIFF entry, this film from India tells of a rickshaw driver who runs afoul of some thugs trying to take over his route and figures getting out of town for a while couldn't hurt. At the same time he meets a beautiful young French woman abandoned by her workaholic boyfriend and agrees to take her on an extended tour around the countryside. Many cultural barriers are crossed and a greater undestanding is established in a story with much to recommend it, but which is also sabotaged a little by its insistence on the two getting involved in a very predictable and formulaic not-wuite-love-affair. It's not enough to ruin the movie, but it does make it a little less effective than it could have been.

3. "Zaman, Man From The Reeds." Iran has become one of the main centers of world cinema over the past decade or so, but there's hasn't been a film made in Iraq for more than fifteen years... until "Zaman, Man From The Reeds", which was completed just a few months before the recent war and occupation. A man in an isolated rural community, whose wife has become seriously ill and in need of a medicine that can only be obtained in Bagdad, travels to the city for the first time in years to obtain it, and finds himself facing a bureaucracy so senseless and rules with so little logic that you might think you were still in the USA.
A fascinating reminder that people are pretty much alike everywhere, with the same hopes, dreams, frustrations and moments of joy. Also containing a powerhouse of an ending. Should you ever get a chance to see this MSPIFF fest entry, you should do so.

4. "The World." Still another MSPIFF entry (see, I meant what I said at the start of this column). This one is set in an unusual amusement park in Beijing, China... a theme park in which famous locations from around the world such as the pyramids and the Eiffel Tower are all recreated in this one spot so that citizens can "travel the world" without every leaving their home town. Some effective points are made about consumer culture, but once past that point the film doesn't really have much of a story... which might not have been as noticeable if it didn't run on for two and a quarter hours. Still entertaining viewing at least for a while, it begins to drag at around the halfway point and never quite recovers.

5. "Fever Pitch." WOW... this one wasn't part of the festival!! Amazing!
Drew Barrymore, a workaholic executive, falls in love with a sensitive young teacher played by Jimmy Fallon. He seems perfect until she begins to realize the depth of his obesssion with the Boston Red Sox... and I DO mean OBSESSION. Directed by the Farrelly Brothers in a toned-down style that makes it nearly impossible to believe these are the same guys who gave us "There's Something About Mary," this piece of fluff still has a surprising amount of effective (and funny) moments, Barrymore (whom I don't always enjoy) is a delight here, and Fallon at least doesn't embarass himself too badly. The ending, in keeping with romantic comedy tradition, relies on both major characters acting in ways that totally contradict what we've been learning about them all the way through the movie, and that brings the film down a bit, but still, it works more often than it probably has a right to. It's certainly no classic, but it gave me more than I was expecting, and how often does that happen?

6. "Melinda And Melinda." Another non-fest offering. Woody Allen's latest opens up with a group of playwrite friends at lunch in a New york restaurant, debating whether life is basically comic or tragic. To prove their respective points, a comic and a dramatic playwrite each the same central character and basic premise, and spin it off into a story in their particular style. The film isn't so much actively bad as just bland, with not all that many laughs in the "comedy" section (starring Will Ferrell doing a blatant Woody Allen impersonation, which doesn't help) and a not especially effective or very tragic "tragedy"segment. Allen tackled much the same question in a much more effective way back in 1989 with "Crimes and Misdemeanors", one of his very best films. "Melinda and Melinda" just isn't in the same league.

7. "Sahara." DEFINITELY light years away from being a MSPIFF movie. Mathew McConaughey stars as adventurer Dirk Pitt in an adaptation of one of the popular series of novels by Clive Cussler. In the course of the story, Pitt and his two colleagues (played by Penelope Cruz and Minnesota's own Steve Zahn) trek across the Egyptian desert in seach of a buried treasure contained inside an old battleship from the American Civil War (trust me, it's not worth going into here how a Civil War battleship got buried in the Egyptian desert), and of course they're not the only ones after it. The story if pure hokum from the first frame, a lot of chases and fights and a few explosions from first to last, only occasionally interrupted for a bit of plot. Still, it does have a good cast to recommend it: McConaughey is refreshingly non-macho in the lead, Penelope Cruz show more toughness and self-reliance than your normal action movie leading lady, and Steve Zahn provides great comic relief. If you have a slightly higher tolerance than me for movies that sacrifice action for plot you'll probably love it. As it is, even I enjoyed BITS of it.

8. "Clean." And now, back to MSPIFF. This French-made film, in which the action shifts back and forth from the USA to London to Paris, stars one of the world's best actresses, Hong Kong's Maggie Cheung, who won a "Best Actress" award at Cannes last year for her role here. She plays a drug-addicted would-be musician, whose addictions (and imprisonment because of them) caused her son to be put into the care of her mother- and father-in-law. When her husband dies of an overdose, she finally straightens out herself and tries to get her son back, but faces a considerable struggle with people who aren't ready to believe she's really finally "clean." The film isn't quite as powerful as it ought to be given the potent subject matter, but it's elevated considerably by Cheung's deservedly award-winning performance, as well as that of Nick Nolte as Cheung's father-in-law, a character faced with a dilemma that forces him to make some choices any one of which is going to hurt someone he loves. "Clean" is a perfect lesson in how a good-but-not-great movie can become, if not a great one, at least a very good one as a result of terrific acting.

9. "Crash Test Dummies." Another MSPIFF film, of course, this one from Romania. A young couple travel from Romania to Austria to make some quick bucks bringing a stolen car back home. When they find the car isn't quite ready yet, they have to stay in town a few more days, having a series of misadventures in a world very much unlike the one they've known. A very low-key, deapan style of humor is used to tell a darkly comedic satire of consumer society, the old Europe vs. the new, and assorted other subjects. Not exactly a knockabout farce, but quite effective at both making its points and making the audience laugh.

10. "Seven Times Lucky." Still another MSPIFF movie? Why, yes, funny you should ask. This one is from Canada, and stars Kevin Pollack as a down-on-his-luck con artist in debt to the wrong guy (that is, one who will break most of the bones in his body if he doesn't pay up), forced to resort to a very risky scheme with his two partners to come up with the cash in time. In addition to "puzzle" movies (see my review of "The Jacket") one other genre of movie I have a definite consistent attraction for would have to be complicated, twisty-plot-turns-around-every-corner stories about con artists where the audience isn't sure who's conning who until the last scene. "Seven Times Lucky" is a very worthy addition to that genre, with the usual comedic Pollack helping to bring a welcome sense of humor to this often somber style of film. It's a pleasure to be conned by a master in the safe, secure setting of a movie theatre, and "Seven Times Lucky" provides that pleasure in spades.

11. "Two Harbors." This made-in-Minnesota digital video feature was one of the most popular attractions at the MSPIFF festival. Twin Cities comedian (and actor) Alex Cole stars as a cynical smart mouth type who sells antiques in a local antique mall and spends most of his off-time in his gadget-filled trailer, sending radio signals that he hopes will be intercepted by some alien intelligence who will then respond to them. He becomes convinced that a young woman also working in the same antiques mall is the key to his success at this communication, and a very strange relationship forms. It's just about impossible to convey in words the atmosphere of this black-and-white feature and why it works as it switches from snappy one-liner-filled comedy at the beginning to deep tragedy to something almost out of David Lynch (if Lynch knew what he was doing), but I was impressed with the result. A strange little movie that I liked for that very strangeness, and for its pair of very effective lead performances, as well as some expert work from its director, making his feature debut here.

12. "In My country." Another NON-MSPIFF movie. This film takes as its subject the Truth & Reconciliation Hearings of 1996, when the new, nelson Mandela-led South African government offered amnesty to those who had performed attrocities under the old regime, provided they made a full public confession and convinced the committee that their actions were politically motivated. Juliette Binoch plays an Afrikaans reporter covering the hearings, and Samuel L. Jackson is a reporter from the Washington Post with the same assignment. There is a very, VERY ill-advised attempt at a romance between the two that comes out of another movie altogether, one much less effective than this one. Luckily, this takes place late in the film and isn't enough of a major plot point to weaken a very strong film that makes some uncomfortable but important points very effectively, and while not trying to provide any easy answers to its complicated questions, certainly makes you think about them... could you ever forgive such people even if they did confess? The poster features an admiring quote from Mandela himself, praising the way the film brings its message home with such impact. If you leave out the romantic sub-plot, he's right on target. Maybe he should review films more often?

13. "Anytown, USA." A very interesting and unusual documentary entry in this year's MSPIFF. It's the story of a small New Jersey town whose citizens are outraged at their incumbant Republican mayor and want to oust him... except that his Democratic challenger (referred to by many as like a character out of "The Sopranos") isn't any improvement. BUT THEN... enter the legally blind, very colorful independent write-in candidate. Things start to get very interesting, especially when Jesse Ventura's former campaign manager comes aboard to assist said write-in's campaign. A very informative and insightful look at the machinations of local politics (though, as it reminds is, "All politics is local") that also manages quite often to be very funny. Depending on how cynical you are about the subject, it could make you determined to either avoid ever becoming politically involved (huge mistake) or follow the example of Dave Musikant and dive right into the fray. I have no doubt which of these options the film's makers are advocating, and it isn't the path of cynicism. Recommended for anyone with an interest in any aspect of the subject matter.

14. "Crying Ladies." MSPIFF again, how'd you guess? This film from the Phillipines certainly isn't about a subject you're likely to have ever seen any other film about. In it, a trio of women who, several years ago used to make their living as "Crying Ladies" (mourners hired to wail at the funerals of strangers so the gods will be impressed by the size of the funeral turn-out and it will be easier for the deceased to get into heaven) are brought back to their old line of work by the very well-paying request of a very traditional local man who wants to hire them for the funeral of his father. Though it may be difficult to believe based on the subject matter, this is actually a very pleasant light comedy, with some very amusing performances and an interesting look at a subject I can honestly say I've never seen used as the basis for any film I've ever seen before. I always enjoy when a film can take me somewhere I've never been and show me something I've never seen. "Crying Ladies" not only does this, it provides more than its fair share of laughs along the way. Not a bad accomplishment.

Monday, April 04, 2005

The Welts

Just 24 hours after seeing what I then thought was going to be THE film to beat at this year's Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, I saw this film from Poland, which is not only the NEW film to beat at this festival, but may wind up being the film to beat THIS YEAR. Is it really that good? Not exactly... it's actually better. In fact, it's flat-out brilliant.

"The Welts" tells the rather harrowing story of a 30-year-old man narrating the story of his childhood as he stands staring into a bathroom mirror. It seems that as a young boy, his stern, disciplinarian father constantly beat him and humiliated him... "For his own good", of course, telling him that if his father didn't do it to him, the WORLD would. Finally having enough, he runs away from home, and the film then moves forward in time to show us the man he becomes... a person frighteningly similar to the father he hated.

If this sounds like a downbeat story, well... it only is up to a point. Facing the horrors of child abuse and the way it can turn the abused into an abuser himself, and someone afraid to admit to any "soft" emotions, is certainly a tough experience. But not only is that a problem faced by so many that understanding it better can only be to the good, but "The Welts" is ultimately a very hopeful film. It doesn't just wallow in the horror, but shows us how it's possible to ESCAPE the horror... how we don't have to follow the same path our parents walked, and even how sometimes... SOME times... it's possible for someone who has been responsible for pain and misery to realize they were wrong and change.

"The Welts" is not just a film about child abuse, either. It's ultimately a film that will be of interest, even fascination, for anyone who has ever begun to think that they were becoming exactly the person that one or the other of their parents were and reacting with horror. It's also for anyone who has simply has a complicated, hard to understand relationship with one or more parents. I guess that takes in most people, doesn't it? It's a film that takes you through pretty much the complete range of whatever emotions it's possible for a film to make you feel, and leaves you at the end with a strange mixture of exhaustion, hope and inspiration. It also has the absolutely single
best , most perfect ending of any film I've yet seen in this millenium, as we finally find out what mirror our narrator is staring into and why.

I don't give "ratings" to films in this column, but I thought it was relevant to mention that in the log I keep of what films I see, when and where, I do... ratings from one to then. This is the first film I've seen in at least three years that I've rated a full ten out of ten. It really is that amazing. It's unfortunate that at present, it has no scheduled release dates in Twin Cities theatres... it does have two more screenings at the festival, though, so keep checking the daily movie listings. As for myself, well... with April just barely begun, I think I may have already found the number one movie on my 2005 Top Ten.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Way Too Many Movies

Which is what you get when you go too long between columns. As a result of the overload in this one, each review in this batch will have to be a bit shorter than usual. I'm sure that very few, if any, will mind.

1. "The Upside Of Anger." Or, Kevin Costner does "Terms Of Endearment." The cliched, bitter middle-aged widow role Shirley Mclaine had is played by the marvellous Joan Allen, given nothing to do in the role of the, in this case, abandoned wife and mother who has turned into an angry shrew because she no longer has a man. But look, salvation appears in the form of the wacky, colorful next door neighbor played by Jack Nicholson... oops, I mean Kevin Costner... who awakens her to life again (Costner is playing a former baseball star now working as a talk radio host, if that matters: it's still Nicholson's role through and through). There's even a serious health scare for one of Allen's daughters (played by a group of TV stars), just like there was with Debra Winger. Add all these familiar ingredients together and mix with a last-minute plot twist that will have you shaking your head in amazement wondering what in the world the film makers were thinking, and you have a lukewarm soap opera that is an ideal cure for insomnia. If you're a major Joan Allen fan, you'd probably be better off giving this one a pass our of respect, and if you're a major Kevin Costner fan, I have only one question: WHY?

2. "Spider John Koerner: Been There, Done That." Spider John Koerner has influenced an incredible number of the giants of the music world (including Bob Dylan and John Lennon) without becoming nearly as famous as any of them. Still plugging away and as vital as ever more than 40 years after his career began, this documentary feature traces Koerner's amazing musical history in a series of interviews with Koerner and colleagues like Dave Ray, Tony Glover and Willie Murphy, and a string of live performances that ought to have you heading right out to the nearest CD outlet to get all the Koerner music you can lay your hands on as soon as the film is finished. If you think you don't care for folk or blues music, you probably have never heard Spider john Koerner. And if you haven't heard him, I really envy you... you have an incredible experience awaiting you.

3. "Schultze Gets The Blues". In this ultra low-key, bittersweet comedy, a middle-aged, layed-off, depressed German miner finds a new lease on life when he hears a snippet of a Louisiana zydeco tune on the radio and eventually heads over to the land of zydeco itself to experience his new passion right at its source. The film is the absolutel epitome of deadpan, straight faced humor: which is part of its problem. Directors like Finland's Aki Kaurismaki can be hysterical with this kind of stuff, but it's a very fine line: a lot of the time the approach comes off seeming like an unenthusiastic run-through of a group of not very involved performers, and that's what we often have here. There are a few sharp, perceptive moments separated by a few too many self-sonsciously "arty" passages in which not a lot happens and the actors aren't so much performing as just reading lines. And the film's attempt at switching gears near the end is rather ill-advised (I can't say why, if you see the film you'll know). "Schultze Gets The Blues" ought to have worked... it's the kind of film and material that I've often loved in the past... but as close as it comes at times, it never quite coheres into either a particularly memorable comedy or drama. Too bad: It coulda been a contender.

4. "Downfall." From a German comedic misfire to a German drama about the darkest moment in their history... and this one works wonderfully. "Downfall" is the German attempt to come to terms with the legacy of Hitler: it tells the story of his last 12 days, down in his Berlin bunker with his closest confederates, preparing for the end as the allies adavanced on Berlin. Hitler is played by the amazing Bruno Ganz in a stunning performance: playing Hitler as a very human man whose positive, sympathetic traits were overwhelmed by his madness, Ganz goes from sympathetic listener to raging madman and back again in the blink of an eye and makes it impossible for you to take your eye off him, while also making it NEARLY impossible to believe this is the same man who played the kindly angel in "Wings Of Desire." Based in part on a book by Hitler's last secretary, "Downfall" forces its audience to confront not merely the evil of one man, but the fact that millions of seemingly normal people were totally willing to follow his every word, and makes you contemplate why so many people saw enough of themselves and their concerns in him that they were willing to follow where he led. It's not an easy film to watch, but it will virtually take you right out of your seat in your comfortable theatre and put you right in the heart of darkness, and any film that can involve the audience that totally has accomplished something rare. And maybe this is just me, but watching this film about a national leader who was determined to follow his own empire-building agenda no matter what the cost to his own people, and a people who were willing to put figurative blinders on and follow him wherever he went no matter how outrageous his policies... well, I couldn't help but think of a certain country we all know and a certain president beloved by the joke writers of late-nate talk show hosts. Of course, as I say, maybe that's just me. But maybe it isn't.

5. "Miss Congeniality II: Armed And Fabulous." From the sublime to the even more than ridiculous. It's getting harder and harder to like Sandra Bullock, or to remember when she was funny, quirky and appealing. And movies like this aren't helping. The strained premise is this: Bullock's FBI agent Gracie Hart has become too famous as a result of the events of the first movie to be an effective field agent any more, so her superiors draft her to be a goodwill ambassador for the FBI on talk shows and book signing tours... until her friend, the current Miss United States, and the pageant host (played by William Shatner and a different toupee in almost every one of his scenes) are kidnapped, and against official orders Hart snaps back into action to rescue them. The movie has about fifteen minutes' worth of plot and maybe another fifteen minutes' worth of jokes, few of them funny: so how do they stretch it all out to just five minutes short of two hours? You'll have to trust me on this: you really don't want to know. If Bullock doesn't go back to doing some riskier drama like "Murder By Numbers" or at least a comedy that involves no action or pratfalls whatsoever, her career may be nearing its end. And so may the goodwill for past films and performances that drew me to the theatre showing "Miss Congeniality II: Armed And Fabulous."

6. "Sin City." Based on the comic book/graphic novel series by Frank Miller (which I've never read... while not totally out of touch, I haven't been the comics fan I used to be for maybe 20 years now), this movie tells not one but three interlocking stories all set in a very highly stylized film-noir city called Basin City (aka "SIn City"): a scarred, deformed fighter (Mickey Rourke) searches for the killer of a prostitute,
a criminal low-life (Clive Owen) tries to avenge a wrong done to another group of criminal low-lifes, and a detective (Bruce Willis)just out of prison after 8 years for a crime he didn't commit tries to find the 11-year-old girl (now 19) he saved from a killer before he went in, and gets a big surprise. The film looks absolutely amazing, and is a sure Oscar nominee for art direction, set design and the like: it looks as much like an actual comic book as a live-action movie possibly could. But the script goes SO FAR overboard rubbing your nose in its self-conscious low-life decadence than you feel like saying "Enough, already, I get the point, it's a dangerous, violent world: do you have any other points?" The dialogue (much of which, reportedly, is right from the comics) is totally artificial: not only do no people in the real world talk like this, very few people in comics or the movies talk this way either. And even the interesting conceit of filming most of the movie in black and white except for splashes of red and yellow grows old before long... it can work wonderfully in one or two scenes, like in "Schindler's List", but stretched to feature length it just becomes a gimmick. And let's not ignore the fact that there isn't a single woman in the film who isn't a prostitute, stripper or ciminal: yes, I know the men are low-life punks too, but at least they're all intelligent and aren't cowering and helpless. It's been said that the film is scrupulously faithful to the well-loved source material: if that's the case, this is one of those cases where I'm apparently just not seeing the same story everyone else is looking at. Who knows, maybe you'll see the same one they saw.

The following three films are the first three that I've seen in this year's Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival.

7. "I Love Cinema." Not many films from Egypt make the rounds of U.S. theatres, and if more of them are on the level of "I Love Cinema", then that's a shame. This is the story of a young boy coming of age in the Cairo of the 1960's, and his strained relationship with his father as a result of dad's insistence that movies, TV, music and dancing are all sinful pursuits that will send you straight to Hell, while his son... well, the title tells you what you need to know. The film blends light farce, bittersweet drama, and even political and social commentary seemlessly, as well as having a few things to say about people of whatever nation that allow their religious beliefs to blind them to the joys and beauty of the world all around them. And in spite of its defense of cinema, it dares to suggest that some people use it as a way to avoid engaging themselves in life, which is hard to argue with.
Movies that provide you with this much food for thought aren't often as amusing as "I Love Cinema", but then this is no ordinary film.

8. "Tarfaya." This is the story of a young woman whose three brothers all died in the process of trying to get out of Morocco, and who is now, in desperation, attempting the same thing herself. She arrives in a small border town where she's supposed to meet the man who will provide her with a safe journey for a small fee, but is robbed and left without money or identification, at which point she is taken in as one of the villagers and grows to rely on "the kindness of strangers", some of whom aren't all that kind. There are moments of real power and force in "Tarfaya" (which is the name of the border town), but there are so many long, long stretches of the ordinary, everyday and not terribly interesting or dramatic life of the village in which the would-be escapee is now living in between those moments that they rob them of a lot of their power, and make it difficult for the film to have the overall impact that it could. It's by no means a bad film, but it could have been a lot more.

9. "My Stepbrother Frankenstein." No, this Russian film has nothing to do with the legendary monster... well, not much, anyway. It's the story of a Russian family whose average existence is disturbed by the news that the father has a son he never knew about, and that son... whose mother recently died, and who has just lost an eye in the service of the army of his nation... is coming to stay with them until he recovers. The son seems at first to be a fine, upstanding young man, but begins to reveal a dark, even sinister side, then seems sweet again: how is the family to know what to make of him? For that matter, how are we? Well, the fact that the true nature of the son's character is such a mystery is part of what makes the film so fascinating... just when you think you've got it all figured out, there's another unexpected twist. Is he really imagining the "people walking around in the attic", or is there something to it? Are sinister forces whom he didn't quite eliminate in the war really coming after him? And is there a slight bit of subtext in all of this about how neither people or nations generally like to face up to the misdeeds of their past? Well, at least that last one is easy to answer: yes. It's also easy to say that this unusual, moody film is already, at this early stage, the film to beat at this year's Festival.
One thing's for sure: nothing like it would ever get made by a major Hollywood studio, at least not since the seventies. That's not to say that there's anything essentially WRONG with the notion of making popular, light-hearted fare, but when potent films like this are shut out, you have to think that Hollywood could use a good revolution like the one that happened some 35 years ago. Let's hope it happens. And in the meantime, there's still the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival.