Monthly Archives: June 2010

Restrepo (Review)

Restrepo may be the year’s best movie; it will almost certainly end up on my best of 2010 list.  It is a cunningly crafted documentary that follows a platoon of soldiers during their 15 month tour in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, considered one of the most dangerous regions of that country.  U.S. soldiers faced fire every day when they arrived in late 2007 and the movie throws us into the constant shooting, so much so that I reached a point of thinking I wouldn’t be able to handle it, but then I felt a little silly.  After all, I was sitting through a two hour movie while these guys lived this.  A movie can never proffer absolute understanding about warfare for a lifelong civilian like myself, but this movie may be the closest one can come to it.

Restrepo avoids a phony narrative structure like last year’s over praised Hurt Locker and simply slips into the daily routines of these men.  There were moments when the almost lackadaisical narrative had me scratching my head, but in the end it worked.  Directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger set out to chronicle the lives of these soldiers with no distractions.  They talk to no one else, they include no background and that is a strength in helping us to understand how these men live day to day.  That their daily lives include habitual shooting and explosions is hard to wrap our minds around.  At one point, after the several members of the platoon have ended a firefight with the enemy (always unseen in the wilderness of the valley), one of the men is giddy with adrenaline.  He says, pure joy in his eyes, that there is no rush like being shot at.  Nothing can compare, no drugs, no extreme sport, nothing.  The gleam in his eyes is unnerving.  When one of the directors interrupts his rush to ask him how he will be able to return to civilian life we see the exhilaration drain from his face as he realizes he’s saying things that those of us over here will not and cannot understand.  He simply says he doesn’t know and the sadness and fear in his voice betray a deeper anxiety about how his experiences in Afghanistan are going to affect a transition back to civilian life.

To limit the ability of the Taliban to attack their platoon, a plan is hatched to build an outpost on a hill overlooking the village nearby their base.  They come to name the base Outpost Restrepo, after one of their comrades killed early on in their mission.  The rest of the movie is punctuated by references to and stories about Juan “Doc” Restrepo.  The men miss him and are haunted by his loss, but does the outpost really embody the man they knew and loved?  Probably not, but they feel like they need to do something to keep his memory alive.

We expect to see death in movies and documentaries about war, but what we don’t expect to see is the depth and immediacy of the emotions that Hetherington and Junger captured on film.  In a particularly intense battle several men are injured.  When news reaches some of them that one has died we see a gut-retching reaction that no screenwriter, no director, and no actor could have invented.  It is a startlingly raw moment that catches us off guard, the memory of which I have not been able to shake since seeing the picture two days ago.

Though the movie does not take any political position, it does show how futile things really are there.  A striking – and disturbing – thing about the movie is how little understanding there is of the locals.  The platoon commander attends regular meetings with the village elders but there is so little respect for them that we begin to wonder why he goes.  He makes lots of promises about what the U.S. can do for them, but they know better.  They understand that the U.S. soldiers will leave one day, but the Taliban isn’t going anywhere.  They are hedging their bets, hoping not to offend either force so they and their families can continue living without the bother of warfare.

It’s hard to understand how the military expects to win the “hearts and minds” (a phrase disturbingly resuscitated from the Vietnam War era) when they clearly have no respect for the people or their way of life.  When a cow gets caught in military wires and has to be shot, the owner turns up to be reimbursed.  That sounds reasonable to anyone who has ever watched an episode of Judge Judy, but word comes down that they will only give the man beans, rice, and sugar in a weight proportionate to the weight of the cow (that there is some indication the men of the platoon ate).  I don’t know how they expect to win friends when they kill a cow, an animal that can provide nourishment for years, and expect the owner to be satisfied with rice and beans that will not last more than a season.

Hetherington and Junger avoid politics but then so do their subjects.  Not once does someone in the movie say “This is important because…” or “We are fighting for…”  One soldier makes a vague reference about joining the army so he could fight for his country, but nothing about what they are doing in Afghanistan.  Our sinking suspicion that everything they are doing is fairly useless in the long run is confirmed by a tag at the end of the movie that confirms U.S. forces evacuated the Korengal Valley early this year.  So what are we doing to our soldiers over there?  The original goal was to fight terrorism, but I didn’t see much anti-terrorism or anti-al Qaeda activities.  I didn’t get the sense that they were protecting us from terrorism so much as our soldiers were the ones being terrorized.  Is there a subconscious desire by U.S policymakers to sacrifice our troops for a fuzzy and unsustainable promise of safety at home?  If they take the brunt then we can be secure?  That seems to be the case because these men are coming back scarred.  In an interview conducted after the tour in the Korengal, one young soldier talks about all the sleeping pills he has tried and how none have worked.  He says he would rather stay awake than fall asleep and have the nightmares that have plagued him since his return.  He smiles – the nervous smile of a man who uses levity to mask pain – but the seriousness of it all hits him, his smile fades and we see a man unable to cope with his experiences.  But his sacrifices, if the would be Times Square bomber is any indication, aren’t making us any safer.

Our country doesn’t have a great track record of learning from history.  I mean we are having the same tired arguments about how to fix the economy that Roosevelt settled in the 1930s.  And here we are having the same arguments about how to win a war of occupation in Asia that we had during the Vietnam War.  It would be funny if there weren’t real people being hurt and killed and Restrepo succeeds in humanizing the war.  It reminds us that all our high minded arguments about freedom and our hawkish tendencies have very real consequences that we as a nation are still are not willing to confront, especially when it comes to mental health for veterans.  I hope this movie will readjust the argument away from winning some elusive and ill-defined victory and towards doing what is right for both Afghanistan and our troops.  Kudos to Hetherington and Junger for not just having the guts to follow these men into battle (which is huge by itself), but also for having the skills to put the material they filmed to good use and create a great movie.

Grade: A

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Knight and Day (Review)

While watching Knight and Day I realized that I wasn’t really watching the movie so much as I was marking time.  I was so bored by what was going on that I stopped paying attention and thinking about why the characters on screen were rushing around, fighting, and wisecracking so much.  This movie is weighed down with a mess of heavy plot and weak characterization that makes for a below average clutter of things we’ve seen before done a whole lot better.

Cameron Diaz plays June Havens and is returning home to Boston from Wichita for her sister’s wedding.  At the airport she runs into a handsome and charismatic stranger, Roy Miller (Tom Cruise).  Roy uses June to smuggle something through security (classy) and once they are on the plane to Boston they strike up a conversation.  She is instantly attracted to him, but as it turns out everyone on the plane (except June) is an agent out to get Roy and he kills all of them, including the two pilots.  Roy crash lands the plane in a corn field and takes June to safety, but she inexplicably never asks Roy why he killed everyone or what is going on.  This was just the first of many signs that I was going to have trouble with this movie.  Despite her lack of curiosity June still gets caught up in Roy’s world of international intrigue and espionage.  Everyone seems to be after a battery Roy has that never loses its juice (Hitchcock’s famous MacGuffin), but again, June never asks; she just sits back and lets everything happen around her.  They end up on a tropical island, the Alps of Austria, and Spain, and while the locations are beautiful to look at, I just kept wishing there wasn’t so much busy nonsense going on in front of it.

Cameron Diaz’s performance is a bright spot despite the movie’s regressive attitudes about gender.  She upstages Cruise every chance she has, but it’s a shame her character is written as such a dope.  If she had had an ounce of intelligence this movie might have gone somewhere, but she’s frustratingly dumb and almost always passively reacts to what is going on around her.  I wonder why Diaz thought the script, as written, was worth her time when she is capable of much better.  She would have profited by asking why women are, in the year 2010, still written as bumbling idiots who need a man to guide and protect them through life?  Even later in the movie her plan to save Roy goes no further than getting kidnapped by the bad guys and waiting for him to rescue her.  That is mindless.

As for Cruise, this is the same stuff he has always done and usually does well: the smart, sexy, slightly crazy, but ultimate force for good.  Here it wasn’t fresh and it wasn’t charming.  Everyone thinks Cruise is crazy anyway so why not play with that?  If screenwriter Patrick O’Neill and director James Mangold had had any courage they would have exploited Cruise’s perceived insanity.  Make Roy Miller a nut.  Cut out all the cloak and dagger nonsense and turn him into a benevolent paranoid rogue agent.  If Roy lived in a spy’s fantasyland and operated as sort of a cross between Jason Bourne and Inspector Clouseau then the story might have had some wit to it (and it would have forced O’Neill to write June more intelligently).  But no, Mangold and O’Neill were dead set on a semi-serious plot (that is a real snoozer) and action! action! action!  There are lots of earnest action sequences that don’t pay off in any significant way because we don’t care a bit about anything going on.  Even Peter Sarsgaard, an actor I normally like, as a corrupt CIA (?) agent is just going through the paces.  His character is boring and his performance adds nothing compelling.

So at every turn we get something boring.  All the effort seems to have gone into the action and special effects which are fine, but the movie doesn’t take the time to build attractive and believable characters or insert them into situations we care about (why is it so awful that a Spanish arms dealer might get this battery?).  Without a truly menacing villain and likeable leads the movie just falls apart.

GRADE: C-

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Toy Story 3 (Review)

For years I avoided animated movies like the plague.  I can’t explain why I had a block against them, but there was no part of me that had any interest in seeing feature length cartoons.  A couple years back I forced myself to start watching them again after some friends of mine had to practically strap me down and force me to watch Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.  Well of course I fell in love with it (thank you Lisa and Erik) and I began to think about all the wonderful animated movies I remembered from my youth like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Dumbo,and Pinocchio and decided to stop turning up my nose at all the current ones, especially those that people had been raving about. I’m glad I had this change of heart because if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have gone to see Toy Story 3.

I didn’t even see the first two until very recently.  I liked the first, really liked the second, but the third is the best of the batch.  This is one of those rare movie series that gets better as they go on.  Toy Story 3 is one of the year’s best movies.  It is emotionally satisfying without being empty-headed.  It has a tight plot, sympathetic characters, and a well-thought out point of view.

We revisit Andy’s bedroom, but now all the toys are locked away in a chest.  Andy is 17 and getting ready to leave home for college.  He has outgrown his toys.  In fact, many have already been donated or thrown away, most notably Bo Peep.  But the core group remains:  Woody, Buzz, Rex, Hamm, Jessie, Bullseye, the Potato Heads, and Slinky Dog.  They are preparing themselves for an uncertain future: either a life of limbo in the attic or disposal in the trash.  At the prompting of his mother Andy packs up his old toys in a garbage bag, but saves Woody and puts him in a box for things he will take to college.  He intends to store the others in the attic, but through a mix up they end up on the street with the garbage.  Woody saves them, but they don’t believe Andy didn’t mean for them to be thrown away and, against Woody’s objections stow away in a box of toys belonging to Andy’s sister headed for donation at a local daycare.  Woody tries to convince them not to go, but he gets shut up with all the others and, along with a depressed Barbie, they make their way to their new home for cast-off toys.

Woody vows to get back to Andy but the others are mesmerized by the daycare.  Barbie is won over by a Ken doll and the charismatic and fatherly leader of the daycare toys Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear dazzles the rest with promises of a lifetime of love and play without being outgrown or being thrown away.  (If they are broken the other toys will pitch in and repair them.)  Woody wants none of it and escapes the building to get back to Andy.  Lotso assigns the other toys to the Caterpillar Room where they discover life with the littlest ones isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be; they are abused and drooled on.  When they want to leave the Caterpillar Room they discover that Lotso isn’t as benevolent as he first appeared.

Toy Story 3 is formulaic, but it uses the formula so well we don’t even care.  It reminds us why formulas became formulas and, if they are utilized thoughtfully, can still make fantastic movies.  What I love about this picture is screenwriters Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich have thought about what it would really be like for toys if they had consciousness.  They’ve thought about what their relationships would be with each other, with their owner, and his family.  This is true of the first two movies as well, but in the third installment they have carefully considered what becomes of toys once their owners outgrow them.  What would their fears about the future be?  What happens to forgotten toys?  This is a question they visited in the second film, but in this one they fully explore how forgotten toys might try to retain relevance and avoid the dreaded garbage bins.

I remember Everett and I having a disagreement after we saw Avatar.  I didn’t care for the movie because the story was recycled, the characters were cardboard cutouts, and the dialogue was silly.  I asked why, if a studio is going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make a movie, why they can’t be bothered to even try and write an intelligent script.  Everett told me they don’t have to and in the end I guess he’s right.  They didn’t have to.  People lined up and gobbled it up the way the studio hoped they would without much of a script.  But my point is why spend millions to make it look great and not have a story to match up with the visual effects?  How much more could it have cost?  (I’m sure James Cameron thought his script was A-OK, but, like Titanic, it really, truly wasn’t.)  Pixar has a great reputation of not privileging effects over story.  Even the Pixar movies I didn’t enjoy, like Wall-E, had a well-rounded(-ish) story.  Pixar and Disney could have slapped together a third Toy Story movie without much thought to the script and still had a success, but Toy Story 3 is a great example of how filmmakers (and I include live-action directors in this) should spend as much time on the script as they do on their CGI effects.  I believe Toy Story 3 (and the first two films as well) will survive the test of time, while Avatar will be looked back on as an expendable piece of nostalgia, like other past epics with bloated budgets and thin scripts (Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, King Vidor’s War and Peace, and those tiresome Biblical epics of Cecil B. DeMille come to mind).

This is meant to be the final film of the series and I hope it is.  The end of the movie is  incredibly moving that I was pushing back some tears.  (Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern wrote that the end “took his breath away”)  The wrap up is so satisfying that I want to imagine the future for Woody, Buzz and the others without that imagined future being interrupted by another narrative that might taint the progression of the series.  It’s a treat when anyone can make a movie that is well made and popular.  Normally the chasm between quality and popularity is wider than most filmmakers are able or willing to bridge, but director Lee Unkrich straddles the two successfully and has created a modern classic.  Whenever anyone complains to me about how corrupt or shallow Hollywood is I always disagree.  Yes, most of Hollywood is corrupt and shallow, but as long as something of intelligence and true feeling gets made, it can’t all be hopeless.  If Hollywood could make movies like The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, Vertigo, and E.T. then the town hasn’t been a wasteland.  And if Toy Story 3 can be made today then there is still hope.

Grade: A

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I Am Love (Review)

I Am Love is a gorgeously constructed and lushly photographed picture punctuated with thoughtful and emotional performances.  In short, this 2009 Italian movie (just being released in the U.S. now) is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.  Director Luca Guadagnino uses the ups and downs of an affluent Milanese family to remind us that melodrama isn’t necessarily a bad word and can enlighten us about life.  Ignore any comparisons you might read to a soap opera.  This is an incredibly rich and layered movie examining how love can both limit and enrich our lives.

The film opens on a snowy night as the Recchi family comes together for a birthday celebration for their patriarch.  The dinner is tense.  There are smiles and jokes, but we immediately sense that everyone has some ulterior motive.  Some just want to be liked or accepted.  Others want greater influence over the family’s textile manufacturing business.  After dinner, Papa Recchi announces that it is time for him to turn over the reins of the company.  Ignoring all the lessons of King Lear he divides control of the company between his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and his grandson Edoardo (Flavio Parenti).  As we will come to see over the course of the movie both have very different visions of where the company should go and we are set with a classic battle.   Guadagnino, however, doesn’t dwell on the business conflicts that inevitably emerge between Edoardo and his father.

Most of the focus falls on Tancredi’s wife and Edoardo’s mother, Emma (Tilda Swinton), a Russian émigré who married into the family.  She seems to be content with her life, but as the film progresses we sense a boredom and disconnect from the other members of the family, especially her husband.  She finds herself drawn to Edoardo’s friend Antonio, a brilliant local chef with dreams of opening a secluded restaurant in the mountains over San Remo.

It would be pointless to pursue the plot any further.  This is a movie about relationships and how they develop and evolve over time, not a formal plot.  Nothing is static, not even love, and Guadagnino allows the characters and their relationships to develop unrushed.  We feel like we are catching moments of these lives as all of the characters struggle to reconcile their ideal with the reality.  Edoardo wants the family company he loves to continue on as his grandfather ran things, but Tancredi wants to sell it off the and outsource most of the labor (to Russia no less).  Emma’s daughter Betta realizes she is in love with a woman.  Emma realizes she isn’t happy in her marriage and is drawn to the young chef Antonio.  One of the most interesting relationships is between Antonio and Edoardo.  Antonio seems to be a little in love with the young Recchi (and I don’t mean platonically) that I began to wonder if he was having an affair with Edoardo’s mother as a way of getting back at him for not returning his affection.  This may come out of left field, but some of Antonio’s reactions, like when Edoardo tells Antonio he is getting married, felt like there was a homosexual subtext.

There’s so much packed into two hours that I felt like it was a much longer film.  I don’t mean it dragged, but the world is so richly designed and peopled that hours after I saw it I was still working out everything I saw.  Countless kinds of love are portrayed here.  We watch romances flare and fizzle, maternal love tested, and platonic love strained.  Even Edoardo’s love of the past and tradition and Antonio’s love of food and taste are all crucial elements in the picture.  We watch all these passions ebb and flow.  The point is, of course, that we must be open to change.  The characters most open to change are the ones who end up better off than those who resist it, ultimately leading to tragedy.

The whole picture is anchored by two talents: director Guadagnino and the star Tilda Swinton, the first of which is somewhat flawed (more on that later).  Swinton’s performance however is exquisite, a clear contender for one of the best performances of 2009 (assuming I ever make it that far in my best performances lists).  While Meryl Streep is famous for seamlessly transitioning from one accent to another, how impressive is it that Swinton speaks only Italian and Russian in her performance, two languages she had to learn for the movie.  In a wonderfully ironic moment she is faced with an American who tries to talk to her in English, but she doesn’t understand and her mother-in-law translates.  There are countless moments of subtlety in her performance that ring true.  After her first romantic encounter with Antonio, Emma bursts into her bathroom, sits on the toilet and is so giddy that she can’t stop smiling.  She covers her mouth with her hand, but she just can’t control the overwhelming happiness, probably the first she has had after years of marriage to a perpetually absent husband.  There is another scene later in the movie where she is distracted in conversation at another dinner party and notices her son is agitated by something.  She glances down at what it is and immediately understands why he is so upset.  That is a powerful moment (more so than I can indicate here without giving anything away).  Her eyes spring to life but she retains her composure for the rest of the guests.   Swinton affects a convincing change over the course of the movie from a complacent bourgeois housewife to a passionate lover desperate for more out of life than what  her husband can offer.

The other anchor of the film is the director.  He has a style that is great to watch.  He turns what could have been ho-hum scenes into visual feasts.  At one point Edoardo calls his mother to him as she is walking away and Guadagnino cuts to an overhead shot as Emma looks back.  It’s a stunning image with the clash of the orange carpet overwhelming her in her purple (I think?) dress.  Guadagnino emphasizes what we can’t see making the most mundane incidents drama inducing.  Waiters quickly move around precarious corners when we can’t see what’s beyond them, convincing us that they will collide with one another.  Conversations are often shot from behind one of the participants, obscuring the face, sometimes only slightly, of the other person.  And Guadagnino doesn’t just do this visually.  He is brave enough to allow the audience to get to know the family without telling us too much at once and gimmicky introductions.  We first meet everyone at the opening birthday dinner and we feel like a stranger at the table.  We have only briefly been introduced and we are struggling to remember names and trying to map out the complex web of relationships before us, just like the way we do when we are plunged into large groups of strangers.  We get to know the Recchis slowly and informally.  I wasn’t bothered that I didn’t know what was going on as I was entranced by figuring in all out.  It was that compelling.

That said Guadagnino’s style does get in the way at times.  His abrupt angles and lush lighting are beautiful to look at, but there are a few times when they pull us out of the narrative.  I think the worst offence is a second lovemaking scene between Emma and Antonio in the grass that is redundant and goes on way too long.  I get the feeling Guadagnino loved the images (which are beautiful) so he just couldn’t snip the scene even though the narrative would have been stronger without it.  But this is a minor criticism in an otherwise stellar movie.  I don’t feel like I have really done the picture justice, but it is truly special.

Grade: A

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Winter’s Bone (Review)

Winter’s Bone sort of works on the level of a standard mystery story, but doesn’t live up to its own semi-docudrama ambitions leaving it, ultimately, a failure.  It’s straight-jacketed by a highly structured plot precluding any of the spontaneity of a more naturalistic structure that we might expect from an independent darling of the Sundance Film Festival.  Characters show up to do what the story needs them to do without any room for unstructured moments that might stray from the demanding and rigid plot.  Director Debra Granik (who co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini) does a strong job with the formulaic mystery story, but the characters aren’t fully developed and the entire rural backdrop torn apart by the meth epidemic feels exploited rather than considered with any depth.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17-year-old struggling to hold together her family in the Ozark region of Missouri.  Her mother is ill, unable (or unwilling) to talk or do much of anything else, and her father is nowhere to be found, lost in the world of meth.  She stands in as the surrogate matriarch for her younger brother and sister, stepping in to teach them the necessities of survival.  The scenes where Ree instructs her siblings on the basics of hunting or cooking are some of the best of the movie, but they come and go so fast that we don’t have time to savor them.  I was especially taken by the scene where Ree is teaching them how to shoot, but it peters out because Granik rushes back to the tiresome plot.

It isn’t enough to explore the complexities of rural life marred by methamphetamines in modern America.  Early in the film the local sheriff visits the house and he tells Ree that her father’s court date is in a week and she needs to be sure he shows up.  Her father put up their house for the bail and if he fails to appear they will lose it.  Ree sets out to find him, but meets resistance from family and assorted meth addicts and dealers along the way.  Despite dead ends and threats, Ree continues her search, determined to save her family’s home and keep her siblings together.

I grew increasing frustrated as one person after another warned her away from her pursuit, telling her some people don’t want to be found or her father has to make the choice to turn himself in.  Even after she tells them why she needs to find him they still refuse to help her.  I didn’t understand why it was such a bad thing for her to try to save her family home.  (I kept waiting for Ree to ask people flat out why they won’t help, but she inexplicably never does.)  By the time the big mystery is revealed at the end I almost threw up my hands.  That was the big secret?  It wouldn’t have taken much for any one of the people she approached to help her.  In fact, after all the threats and the beating she endures, some of them actually end up doing just that, leading her to her father.  It isn’t really clear why they couldn’t have helped her 45 minutes to an hour earlier.

Meth is a major problem in the United States and rural communities are particularly affected by it.  Granik could have made a thoughtful film about meth tearing apart families and communities, much like the HBO miniseries The Corner did for crack in the inner-cities.  Instead she uses the subject as a convenient backdrop for a standard Hollywood story.

The characters are surprisingly shallow as well, because they exist solely to propel the plot forward.  One exception is Ree’s Uncle Teardrop, memorably brought to life by John Hawkes.  In early scenes Teardrop is unpredictable and threatening, but as we come to understand him he grows on us, though we never fully accept him.  Despite the distance we feel from him we recognize that he is more conflicted about his brother’s disappearance than we were lead to believe early in the picture.  Hawkes delivers a convincing performance, unpredictably wavering between threatening and comforting.

I also liked how Ree is written with intelligence, a quality female roles often lack even today.  Every chore is an opportunity to teach her siblings something and she goes about it with such patience and cleverness that those scenes (as I wrote above) are a joy to watch.  And her determination to find her father doesn’t cloud her natural intelligence.  Late in the film after she is beaten by a large group because she refuses to stop looking (and why would she quit if her family will end up homeless?) one of her attackers asks what they are going to do with her.  She calmly wipes the blood from her mouth and says, “Kill me, I guess.”  Writing the scene with her cowering and crying would have been the easy way to go, but Granik and Rosellini were smart enough to keep Ree tough and not intimidated.

Other than Teardrop and Ree the others in the movie are mostly caricatures of rural life, revealing nothing more about small town residents or their lives that I couldn’t have imagined on my own.  I didn’t learn one thing about what life in the Ozarks is like beyond the movie’s stand that everyone is a rotten meth-head or meth dealer looking out for themselves.  Where is the depth or the insight for which so many filmgoers flock to independent moviemaking?  It is absent here, as though the entire script were written from the confines of LA or New York without even a visit to the area or interaction with people the movie portrays.  The dirty little secret of independent movie fetishists is that most independent movies are just as empty-headed as big Hollywood pictures.  Like Winter’s Bone, they simply plug characters absent from Hollywood productions into standard screenwriting school scripts.  Granik missed a real opportunity here to say something meaningful about the scourge of drugs on rural America.  Instead the themes worked in service of the plot rather than the other way around.

Grade: C

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Ondine (Review)

I saw Neil Jordan’s new movie Ondine last week but I hadn’t planned on writing anything about it.  I don’t see much point in panning a movie that not many people have heard of, but a few people have asked me if I had seen Ondine so I will tell you what I think.

I didn’t like the movie, but the theme is intriguing.  The idea that we use fantasy and mythology to construct meaning out of things in life we don’t understand is fascinating.  These fictions fill gaps in our knowledge and understanding but sometimes people can be so consumed by them that they cloud their perception of the world, not just filling in those gaps but preventing a true understanding of the world because our constructions often defy logic.  This has gone on for centuries, but the Enlightenment and the Age of Science have supposedly made myths less relevant.  Of course they aren’t.  Urban legends continued when superstition proved irrelevant to the modern world.  These modern fairy tales teach us lessons about our impersonal and unpredictable world, many miles away from the close knit societies of the pre-Modern Age.

Ondine is a film that wonders what happens when fairy tales reenter modern life.  It explores how mythology can still affect lives despite the preponderance of reason and science.  As interesting as all that sounds, Jordan fails to turn it into a compelling picture.

Colin Farrell plays Syracuse, a recovering alcoholic fisherman living in a small Irish coastal town.  He shares custody of his wheelchair-bound daughter Annie with his still drinking ex.  He is a failure at fishing and a failure in life, but still pushes ahead trying to provide all he can for his ill daughter.  In the opening scenes of the movie Syracuse, or “Circus,” a nickname he can’t shake from his buffoonish drinking days, pulls up a half-dead woman in his net.  He saves her life, but she claims to have no memory.  She asks him to call her Ondine .  What Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) does know is that she does not want anyone to see her so he can’t take her to a hospital or tell anyone about her.  Intrigued by the beautiful woman he takes her to an isolated house that belonged to his now deceased mother.  From there, naturally, they begin to fall in love.

It’s a little silly that he would go to these lengths and accept her story of amnesia, but I suppose men do stupid things for beautiful women all the time.  He does tell her daughter about her and she is immediately convinced that the woman pulled from the cold water is a Selkie, a mythical water nymph.  Annie’s assumptions about Ondine soon cloud Syracuse’s ability to accurately process what is going on around him, or even to ask the right questions especially as he falls in love with her.  Unconsciously he begins to make the same assumption as his daughter, more out of a desire to hold onto their love than any real conviction that she is a water nymph.  Believing that Ondine is a Selkie rather than just a girl with a past like the rest of us allows Syracuse to live in the fantasy he and Ondine constructed for each other a bit longer without dredging up the messy past.

The first couple of acts are quite good.  Neil Jordan films the story with a quiet tenderness that succeeds.  The problem comes in the last act when the story devolves into a typical crime chase vehicle that just isn’t credible.  It undermines everything good that came before it.  And to get to that climax Jordan needs characters to do things that don’t make sense and frustrates us.  Why does Syracuse start drinking again?  Nothing had happened that would have pushed him back to the bottle, but Jordan needed him drunk to make a dumb decision crucial for the story.  That is sloppy storytelling, especially disappointing when we have invested in the movie up to that point.

Colin Farrell though is very good.  His performance is restrained and awkward (in a good way).  We see a man trying to put his life back together, always conscious of his clownish drunken past.  (Hence the nickname Circus.)  He is cautious at all times, tiptoeing through life after playing the town drunk for so long, desperately trying to prove he is a real man and father again.  There are two characters with which he connects:  his daughter Annie (played with a wonderful intelligence by Alison Barry) and the priest.  He has some delightfully written and acted scenes with Stephen Rhea as the town priest who he treats more as a therapist than as a confessor.  There is a joy and honesty both of the actors bring to these scenes.  It’s a shame that Farrell has such a bad reputation because he is a solid actor.  He doesn’t just do the big action movie like S.W.A.T. and Miami Vice well, but he has been good serious dramas, like A Home at the End of the World.  He also had a great turn as a conflicted hit man in the 2008 comedy In Bruges.  I hope other directors are willing to overlook his reputation and give him a chance to prove his worth as more than a sex symbol.  He is a shamefully underrated actor.

I wish I the end of Ondine didn’t ruin what came before it because it was shaping up to be a quietly beautiful little movie.  Grade: C+

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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Review)

The opening shots of the new documentary about the life and career of Joan Rivers are jarring.  Extreme close ups on her face as makeup is being applied reveal an unrecognizable face, despite being one of the most recognizable in the world.  The skin is cracked, wrinkled and red, nothing like the smooth and plastic-y face we know so well.  Immediately we know that this movie is going to show us a side of the comedian that may be uncomfortable, but we will not be able to look away.  Joan Rivers is often dismissed as a caustic bitch, but we forget what a pioneer she was and we know little about her personal life.  The opening shots remind us that this is a flawed woman and the movie will show her to us blemishes and all, though I think that the movie gets cautious and fails to explore some areas that are clearly painful for her.

What we learn before anything else is that Joan Rivers is a workaholic.  Early in the movie, Rivers says she will show us what fear looks like and she cracks open an empty date planner.  Square after square is clean and glaringly white.  She tells us that if her book looked like this it would mean everything she did in her life meant nothing and everyone had forgotten her.  At 75 Joan Rivers doesn’t just continue to work, she is obsessed with working.  It isn’t that she loves it or that she needs the money: work is the measure by which she defines herself.  It is a part of her being and retirement is a concept so foreign to her she would rather play in a club in the Bronx at 4:30 in the afternoon or do adult diaper commercials than fade away.  Asking her to stop working would be like asking her to stop breathing.

Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg followed Rivers for a year, catching some of her highs and lows.  They trailed her to glitzy events like a Lincoln Center tribute to George Carlin and to the less than glamorous like a show at an Indian casino in northern Wisconsin.  In the process we come to know a deeply insecure woman struggling to maintain her relevance in a business that wrote her off long ago.  She refuses to let people call her an icon or tell her she opened doors.  “I’m still opening doors,” she barks back.

During all this running around Stern and Sundberg show clips from her early appearances and we are reminded why Joan Rivers was so revolutionary in the 1960s.  She challenged not just the male dominated comedy world, but the whole of U.S. culture and society.  In one memorable clip from the Ed Sullivan Show (if I remember correctly), she jokes about a woman who had fourteen “appendectomies, if you know what I mean.”  She remembers that this coded joke about abortion scandalized her manager at the time telling her that women shouldn’t be talking about things like that.  As we know, she vehemently disagreed.  She worked to stake out a place for herself as a woman in a society not yet ready to accept women as capable and equal.  Then, as now, some loved her and some hated her.  (She remembers Jack Lemmon walking out of one of her shows when things got a little risqué.)  It does seem to be a contradiction that Rivers never was bold enough to challenge our concepts of age, retreating to the same boring youth obsession that so many aging women find themselves trapped in.  How would we think of Joan Rivers today if she had aged naturally and not become a plastic surgery joke?  Why was she so daring in one area and not in the other?  The movie doesn’t unpack her thoughts behind this contradiction.

As good as the movie is of presenting a portrait of a profoundly funny but insecure person, the documentary avoids or glosses over some of the lousy career choices she made.  Like the question about plastic surgery, the movie would have been stronger had the directors probed them more.  Why, for instance, did she decide to walk away from The Tonight Show?  (She was a regular guest host in the 1980s.)  It would have benefitted if she had talked about her decision to accept an offer from Fox to host her own late night talk show opposite Johnny Carson, a man who essentially made her career.  She says he was extremely angry with her, even slamming down the phone when she called to tell him what she was doing.  But she never discusses what led her to the decision.  Was she unhappy guest hosting the Tonight Show?  Did she feel like Carson was great for her in the beginning, but then he held her back?  The documentary never explores her thinking behind this move, nor does it really ask her if she regretted the move.

But more than bad career choices, we see how Rivers’ insecurity has held back her career.  She says she always primarily considered herself to be an actor, but she never did anything substantial in the theater or in film.  I think it becomes clear that her failure is related to her insecurity rather than a lack of talent.  (One thing that we learn watching this is that she could have been a very good actor in both comedy and drama.)  A 1973 foray into theater ended in disaster when rotten reviews halted it.  She talks about how devastating the failure of the show was to her and, working on a show in London, waits for the reviews with an almost maniacal single-mindedness.  The reviews are for her the only redemption she is looking for.  When the reviews come back mild to negative the show ends with no discussion of taking it to New York.  She ignores the enthusiastic response from the crowds, focusing only on the reviews of critics, as though positive reviews would redeem the 1973 debacle.

Despite these gaps this is a surprisingly candid documentary.  Joan Rivers opens up in a way we have never seen before, about the suicide of her husband and the rocky relationship with her longtime manger.  I have a new appreciation for Joan Rivers after seeing this movie.  We get past all of the bluster and bitchiness that has come to define her and get a glimpse, just a glimpse, at a real person.  I wish itgave us a little more, but it is still a fine documentary.

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