Joe's Movie Reviews

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Message From George W. Bush II

"Teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test."

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Today's Message From George W. Bush

"Our enemies are bold and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking of new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Four You've Heard Of

1. "Thank You For Smoking". There have been a few attempts at satire in recent months from Hollywood folk who don't seem to grasp that the lowest-common-denominator approach they so often take is completely at odds with what satire needs to succeed ("American dreamz", anyone?). Satire needs to be a virtual attack dog, and at last there is a mainstream American movie that understands this. It's almost unbelievable that "Thank You For Smoking" came out of Hollywood.

Aaron Eckhart stars as Nick Naylor, a dedicated lobbyist for the tobacco industry. If a film producer wants to place cigarettes in films to make them cool again, if a manufacturer wants to figure out new ways to get kids addicted at an even younger age... well, Nick Naylor is proud to be able to help them out. There are forces working to stop him, like a dedicated Vermont Senator (William H. Macy), but they're so weak and ineffectual that they don't stand a chance.

This film never takes the easy out of "American Dreamz" in trying to make Naylor likable or a figure of pathos... this is a guy who is, simply, nasty and unapologetic from first to last. He's the kind of guy who regularly meets for lunch with lobbyist from the gun and alcohol industries and tries to top them with stories of how many more people HIS industry killed than theirs. If you're one of those people who insists on being able to like the protagonist of a film, you're out of luck here. You won't even be able to like the people who you might think are supposed to be "good guys", such as Macy's Senator or the crusading reporter played by Katie Holmes. This is a movie which, in addition to deservedly bashing big tobacco, also wonders in amazement how the general public can be so naive as to continue to consume a product they know is so lethal. Nobody gets off the hook in this movie.

And yet, with all the bite and nasty characters, director/writer Jason Reitman (son of Ivan of "Ghostbusters" fame, working from a novel by Christopher Buckley) never loses track of the fact that the film is a comedy: there are more laughs per minute in this movie than anything I've seen out of Hollywood in several years. An amazingly witty script, a terriffic directorial debut, and flawless performances by the entire cast (well, okay, except for Holmes) add up to the sort of film you rarely see from the big studios... satire done right. You might as well catch this one while you can. Who knows when you'll get a chance to see that sort of thing from Hollywood again?

2. "Friends With Money". Nicole Holofcener is a rare director who can tell stories about ordinary people doing and saying ordinary things and make them fascinating. In "Walking And Talking" and "Lovely And Amazing" she made the stuff or everyday life among friends absorbing. Which is kind of what makes "Friends With Money" a bit of a letdown.

This is the story of a few weeks in the lives of a group of female friends played by a stellar cast of actresses including Holofcener regular Catherine Keener, frances McDorman and Jennifer Aniston. Most of the members of this little clique are indeed "with money"... except for former schoolteacher Aniston, now working as a maid in the homes of those much wealthier than her, and a bit of a kleptomaniac (and pothead). There's obviously a bit of a gap between her and the rest of the bunch... as one of them remarks, they probably wouldn't be all that close if they met for the first time now. This is just the sort of real-life contrast and conflict that Holofcener has mined for emotionally effecting material in the past. But this time, you just wait for the moments of impact that never quite arrive.

One of the central problems of the film is that it seems not quite finished. Important plot points are brought up, as when Keener finds out that Aniston has stolen from one of the homes she's cleaning... we even see her wrestling with the question of what she's going to do with this knowledge... but then it's never brought up again. McDormand's obviously gay husband isclearly being led to the brink of acknowledging his sexuality as he becomes more and more attracted to another man... but the man in question disappears from the story and the whole issue is dropped. And the ending is one of the biggest anti-climaxes in ages... the movie doesn't so much come to a conclusion as it merely stops, right in the middle of a scene, with numerous questions still unanswered, including what in the hell Aniston's boyfriend means by his final line of dialogue.

Even all of this would be at least somewhat forgivable if too many of the characters weren't so hastily sketched. Aniston's character never really comes alive, for one, and McDormand's husband at times comes just a little too close to the usual limp-wristed gay stereotype. There are isolated moments in "Friends With Money" that give you a glimpse of the kind of creativity that was in evidence in "Walking & Talking" and "Lovely & Amazing", but if this were the first Holofcener film you had seen, you probably wouldn't feel very inclined to seek out those two. I don't have any doubt that she will be able to come up with another gem the next time out, so for now we should probably just content ourselves with them and hope for the best next time. Holofcener is a director who's going to be going places, even if this particular film isn't.

3. "Inside Man". Spike Lee has a 20-year history of bringing us some of the boldest and most confrontational films in recent memory on subjects no other film maker would take on: "Do The Right Thing", "Jungle Fever", "Get On The Bus"... the list goes on. Now he has given us a suspenseful semi-action thriller about a masterful policeman who goes up against an equally masterful criminal who's holding a bank full of hostages. Has Lee sold out? Well, don't hold your breath waiting to see Spike Lee's superhero comic book adaptation just yet.

"Inside Man" might not be quite on the level of "Dog Day Afternoon" (which it blatantly references in dialogue in one scene), but it's not far off, either. And in spite of the fact that Lee himself did not actually write the screenplay, you still get plenty of sharply observed insights into racism and the abuse of authority (particularly in a scene where a hostage who has just been released is revealed to be wearing a Turban). And remember those trademark Lee scenes in which a character remains stock still, totally unmoving, but somehow continues to advance past the people and buildings surrounding him? Well, Denzel Washington has one such scene late in this film. It's enough to make you wonder if Lee had a hand in an uncredited rewrite.

It helps, as well, that the film has such an accomplished cast, all of whom are working at the height of their powers here. Washington is striking as the detective assigned to the case, Clive Owen is strong and extremely cool as the eloquent and surprising mastermind of the bank heist, Jodie Foster is enigmatic and fascinating as a mysterious figure with unspecified ties to local government figures who has her own personal agenda in the case, and in the relatively minor role of a cop who assists Washington in his job, Willem Dafoe makes his presence strongly felt. Then there's also Christopher Plummer as the bank president... I could go on for a long time like this, the cast is that good. And they're all playing characters with plenty of sharp incisivie dialogue and multiple dimensions to their characters. "Inside Man" is one of the better written, acted, and (it pretty much goes without saying) directed movies in commercial theatres of late.

So even if it is of a slightly more commercial nature than his usual style, "Inside Man" shows Spike Lee to still be a director who is interested in character more than spectacle, and very strong characters at that... one who has no interest in making a movie that doesn't give you something to think about, and doesn't contain dialogue and performances that you'll carry around with you long after you've seen the film. If this time out he's done all of that in a movie that fits comfortably into a commercial genre, well, just think of the "radical" film he'll be able to make next time out with the profits from this one. And while you're at it, you might also want to remember how REALLY cheap & commercial this film COULD HAVE been if it had been directed by someone like, say, Michael Bay or Brett Ratner. On second thought, maybe you might not want to.

4. "United 93". Okay, I certainly don't need to describe the plotline of this movie. You all know what it's about and what happened on September 11, 2001. The real question is whether the film is exploitative, whether it dishonors the memory of the passengers who died in that flight, whether it buys into any of the more outlandish conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11... those sorts of things. Well, anyone who has seen the previous movies of director Paul Greengrass knows that he is not a "tabloid" director and approaches his real-life stories such as his earlier film "Bloody Sunday" with a sense of wanting to tell the story as it happened with documentary-like realism. Whether that makes, in the this case, for a strong film that really needed to be made is still ANOTHER question, and one that I'm not completely certain can be answered in the positive.

Greengrass gives us plenty of footage dealing with the air traffic controllers and news people and government officials of the U.S. as they react to both the World Trade Center attacks & the one on the Pentagon, as well as the news about United 93... but we get absolutely nothing about the Arab community and their reaction to the news. The only Arab presence in this movie are the hijackers, portrayed as the typical flaming Anti-American fanatics. Now I'm not saying it wasn't possible that they were exactly that way, but how much effort could it have taken to present a small fraction as much of the Arab response to the day that we get of the American response?

Then there's the amount of time the movie devotes to people in front of screens (either the air traffic controllers, people watching news coverage of the events, or both), every minute of which takes time away from scenes giving us insight into WHO these people are, other than heroes (I mean, even heroes are individuals). There must be at least a half hour to 40 minutes about the attacks on the World Trade Center... okay, obviously you can't ignore that. But you never actually see any of the people involved in those events... it's all more people watching screens. And this is supposed to be a movie about United 93, after all. You wind up with a movie that doesn't really tell you anything about the people who died in the World Trade Center, and not very much about the passengers of United 93.

I could also, of course, bring up the whole question of the Bush government and their reaction (or non-reaction) to these events, and their lack of action that might have prevented them... which is more than this movie does. In the end, what you have in "United 93" is a film that definitely respects the courage and sacrifice of the passengers on that plane, and sincerely intends to honor the memories of everyone who died in whatever situation or circumstance on 9/11. This is not a cheap, expoitative film. But it's also not quite the film those people deserved, and it raises the whole question of whether it really is still too soon, less than five years after that day, to be making a film about it, to which I can't really give a definitive answer (though I suspect it may be). There will probably be a really memorable movie made some day about the events of 9/11... possibly even Oliver Stone's upcoming "World Trade Center" might be the one... and a movie that accomplishes all this one clearly intended to do is one that does need to be made. However, "United 93" did not.

Friday, May 12, 2006

MSPIFF, Part Two

Okay, you can relax now, it's finally here: the concluding installment of a batch of short reviews of films you've never heard of and will probably never see. What could possibly be more exciting? Couldn't think of anything, could you? Well, here they are...

1. "The Milk Woman". From Japan comes this fairly average story of romance that is elevated slightly by its rather less blatantly sentimental approach and its low-key style. A young woman who was too shy to tell her high school love how she felt about him watches him go off and marry another. More than 30 years later, still as isolated and single as ever and working delivering milk to area homes, she's surprised to encounter her old love and his wife... but his wife is not only dying, she also wants him to go on and find someone new? Will they become a pair now? And if they do, will it last? This is the sort of story that cheap romance writers turn into the stuff of overwrought melodrama in the West, but this refreshing Japanese approach makes the material come across more like an understated Haiku, and the cast never overplays it for vulgar sentiment. This definitely is a nice change of pace, but still a love story is still a love story (well, okay, with very few exceptions). And the conclusion takes just a step too far into the romantic cliches that the film had avoided up until that point. The romantically inclined may very well have a grand time, and even the non-romantics will find it above average of its kind. Still, it DOES help to be predisposed toward liking that kind.

2. "Street Fight". In 2002, the Newark, New Jersey mayor's race pitted the long-term, well-entrenched incumbent against a rabble-rousing newcomer, and when the incumbent decided that it was no holds barred as far as defeating his opponent, things really got ugly. Nothing unusual there so far... except that both men were Democrats. "Street Fight" (an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary) is a very enlightening look at a downright ugly and brutal aspect of American politics, where none of that stuff about being polite and respectful to members of your own party applies. If you vote regularly but are not politically involved beyond that, you'll learn a lot... and whatever your involvement, it will probably scare you. And by the way, if you wind up finding yourself an enthusiastic supporter of the incumbent, I don't want to know about it.

3. "The Shutka Book Of Records". In the remote regions of what was once Yugoslavia, a large population of Roma (the West knows them as "Gypsies") lives and competes. Competes how, you might wonder? It's more like how do they NOT compete. One man determinedly struggles to have everyone acknowledge his as the largest collection of suits. Another takes equal pride in his hats. Others strive to convince the largest number possible of their rather... well, let's just say "unorthodox"... spiritual and religious beliefs. And while you will never look down on them (the film has a genuine love and respect for them), you will nonetheless wind up laughing as hysterically as at any Christopher Guest mockumentary. The difference is, this is all real. It really does take all kinds to make a world (and a village), and "The Shutka Book Of Records" is a great illustration of how much duller a world this would be without the more eccentric among us. Long live the odd!

4. "Love". Like "The Shutka Book Of Records", this film has a Yugoslavian connection. But that's as far as the similarities go. "Love" is a deadly serious, somber story about a former soldier and assassin from Serbia, now living in New York City among the immigrant community there and continuing to carry on his trade. The very bland, emotionless narration informs us that as he watched his former country disappear, he gradually became more invisible himself and is now as non-existent as his former homeland. But what he really is, is simply an underwritten character whom you never get to know and probably wouldnt want to. Virtually the entire cast of characters consists of people with absolutely no emotion and flat, bland speach and who go through life mumbling everything they say like a bunch of bad actors. Having partially grown up in the midst of a heavily Yugoslavian community with grandparents who were born & raised there (one Serbian, one Croatian) I can testify that Yugoslavians are among the most emotional people in the world... you NEVER have any doubt what they're feeling. The fact that some of these characters have been through virtual Hell on Earth can't account for the WAY too understated manner ALL of them are portrayed...
and then there's the editing that leaves too many plotlines unresolved, and the way so many of those that are resolved are so predictable. "Love" is a film that had a lot of potential to make some powerful comments on the political in the context of a story about the very, very personal... but in this case that potential was far from realized. The one bright spot is the character of an American CIA agent after our "hero". Sly, amusing and sinister all at once, he makes you wish the whole film had been about him. But as those great philosophers, the Rolling Stones, once told us, you can't always get what you want.

5. "My Dad Is 100 Years Old"/"Uso Justo"/"Ashaman." This was a program consisting of three short films.

"My Dad Is 100 Years Old" was made for the centennial of the birth of the great Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini, directed by Canadian Guy Maddin and written by and starring his daughter, Isabella Rosselini. Far from the realism that Rosselini specialized in, it nonetheless encaspulates what made him great and suggests why as accomplished an artist is no so well remembered today. In a highly surreal scenario, Rosselini plays Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin and many other contemporaries of her father as they debate his film making style. The film verges on pretentiousness at times but succeeds in transcending it. It also succeeds at being a fascinating curiosity recommended for anyone interested in why directors make films.

"Uso Justo" might remind some of Woody Allen's "What's Up, Tiger Lilly?": the director has taken a segment of an old black & white Mexican soap opera and dubbed completely absurd and totally unrelated new dialogue on top of it, about a film crew descending on a Mexican village to make a strange, experimental film. While just as thoroughly silly and hilarious as the Allen film, "Uso Justo" also IS a GENUINE experimental film in its own right, one which in many ways has as much to say about the art of storytelling and film making as "My Dad is 100 Years Old". It can't have been easy to come up with an appropriate film to play on the same bill as that one, but Minnesota Film Arts has succeeded.

"Ashaman." Well, two out of three ain't bad. Like "Uso Justo", "Ashaman" takes found footage... in this case, a selection of clips from the films of a semi-legendary Mexican leading lady of the 1940's... removes all dialogue and sound, and replaces it with a new soundtrack, in this case a series of Mexican pop songs of the day. The goal, according to the film's "director", is to create a commentary on "pure film"... totally removed from the art of storytelling. But the result is more like a series of 1940's black & white music videos. And all the pretentiousness that "My Dad Is 100 Years Old" avoided, "Ashaman" steps right into the middle of. If you really want to see a film that creates its effect from pure images and sound without conventional storytelling, try to catch one of Matthew Barney's films. And if you really want more of what "Ashaman" offers, MTV does it better.

Well, wasn't that thrilling? Aren't you glad you came back? Oh, well, I thought I might as well ask. Coming soon, in the next installment: titles like "Thank You For Smoking", "Inside Man" and "United 93". In other words, movies that have actually played somewhere that you're likely to be able to see them! You just never know what to expect in the blog...

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

MSPIFF, Part One

Being the first installment of short commentaries on films that have played at the just-completed Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.

1. "Wah-Wah". The title is the equivalent among upper-crust British in the African colonies of "Yaddah-yaddah"... as in "It's all just a lot of wah-wah". The writing and directring debut of actor Richard E. Grant, "Wah-Wah" is the semi-autobiographical story of his growing up in the African colonies. The film may very well be an accurate portrait of Grant's youth, but it doesn't always make for an absorbing film... Grant's surrogate character is pretty much your generic resentful kid, Gabriel Byrne as his father seems to think that his being an alcoholic for most of the film gives him license to over-act as broadly as he feels like, and Miranda Richardson as his first wife is your typical movie witch (or similar word). However, Emily Watson is absolutely spot-on as Byrne's second wife, a brash American barging into this outpost of dignity and upsetting everything. Unlike Byrne, she reigns herself in just enough (in spite of the outgoing nature of her character) to make you forget you're watching Emily Watson performing and just see the character. You might wind up just a bit teary-eyed at the end, but that will probably be more of a tribute to Watson than anything else.

2. "John & Jane Toll-Free". A documentary from India about several native Indian citizens who work for one of those American call-in centers that you reach whenever you order something you've seen on TV. The film takes a fascinating look at how people of other nations, who have lived in and absorbed the native culture of their own land for more than 20 years, can find themselves not merely absorbing that of a different nation, but actually becoming ashamed of being who they are and trying to pretend to be "the other". One of the workers even talks about how he has no desire at all to have any contact with his fellow Indians or their society and wishes he could literally live in the call-in center so he'd never have to go out into the world surrounding him. For those who don't think globalization can ever be a bad thing, "John & Jane Toll-Free" might give you some second thoughts about how America is trying to gradually become the entire world, and the frightening extent to which it's succeeding.

3. "Shanghai Dreams". Many urban families relocated to the countryside during China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960's and 70's, and not all of them became adjusted to their new environment. "Shanghai Dreams" tells the story of a father who still longs to return to Shanghai some 15 years later and resents the wife who persuaded him to agree to move in the first place. On the other hand, his teenage daughter was born in the small community in which they now reside, and considers it her home... she loathes the very idea of moving back to Shanghai. A relatively typical dysfunctional family (people may not be totally alike all over, but sometimes it's close) has some unique elements added to their story by the cultural and historical context as well as some nicely restrained acting and directing to result in a "family" movie of definitely above average interest.

4. "A World Without Thieves". Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau stars as a dedicated professional thief working various scams with his increasingly reluctant girlfriend, who wants out of the game. The two of them encounter an extremely innocent (you mnight say naive) young man one day in their travels who is carrying his vast life's savings with him on his way home to get married (the young man believes nobody would think of stealing it from him and believes he lives in "A world without thieves", a notion of which Lau longs to cure him). The job is complicated by the fact that a totally different set of thieves have also set their sites on the man. It can't really be disputed that this film is very much a commercial effort, down to Lau's starring role... nothing of the art film here. That being said, it's still a well-made one, with attention to the smallest details in the story, casting, and all other elements. It moves along at the kind of brisk pace a film like this should and gets the viewer caught up in the complicated scheming and counter-scheming. Hong Kong commercial film making has been going through some difficult times at the box office in recent years, but it's still in strong creative shape if this film is anything to go by.

5. "The Hidden Blade". A few years ago, there was a Japanese film called "The Twilight Samurai" that was nominated for a foreign language film Oscar (and should have won), that played around with accepted notions of what a Samurai film is supposed to be while still exemplifying all the qualities of the best of such films. The same director now brings us "The Hidden Blade", and once again works the same kind of magic he did in his earlier work. At the heart of "The Hidden Blade" is an impossible love story between a dedicated, loyal Samurai and a housekeeper who, being of a different caste, is forbidden to him. The film also tells the story of a man who has dedicated his life to the service of a profession and a government governed by a rigid code of honor, and what happens when he finds that those he has been serving are not nearly as honorable as he had thought (no, I'm not suggesting there are any parallels here for the associates of George W. Bush to think about... no, not at all). And as if all of this wasn't enough, it's also a story that mourns the passing of an era... it's set in the same time as Tom Cruise's "The Last Samurai" (and is of course a much better film), as Western weaponry is entering Japan for the first time and changing the function and purpose of the Samurai (and as a result giving the film some moments of slapstick humor as the Samurai forces try to master the use of this unfamiliar technology). All of these very disparate elements are blended together smoothly and seamlessly into a genuine modern masterwork about a very human man trying maintain his beliefs and dignity as he's swept up into all kinds of vast events beyond his control. And, by the way... there is ONE major duel in the film (only one), but it's almost at the very end of the film. I TOLD you this was a director who likes to play with people's preconceived ideas of Samurai films. "The Hidden Blade" is a truly outstanding film, and one of the two best of the ten films I saw at this year's Festival.

Coming soon, reviews of the other five films I saw at this year's Fest, including the other of the two best... as well as reviews of a couple of new releases including "Thank You For Smoking" and "Friends With Money". Be here, or you'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.