My liberal sensibilities make me a sucker for movies that lament the exploitation of the weak and celebrate the power of the people. Even the Rain (También la lluvia) does both as it follows a Spanish film crew in Bolivia making a movie about Christopher Columbus’ violent conquest of the American Indians. Why is the film crew in Bolivia? It’s a landlocked, mountainous state smack dab in the middle of South America when Columbus actually tooled around the Caribbean. The producer of the film, Costa (Luis Tosar), can hire Bolivian Indians cheaper (two dollars a day) than anywhere in the Caribbean. The irony of this isn’t lost on the film’s writer/director Sebastián (Gael García Bernal) and constantly needles his friend and colleague for his spendthrift ways (but never really challenges him in a serious way). All of this plays out in 2000, the year Bolivians initiated mass protests against foreign ownership of their water systems and the exorbitant prices and debilitating shortages that came with it. (The title of the film refers to a law which prohibited Bolivians from collecting rain water for their use, codifying foreign control over all of Bolivia’s water.) The instability and violence stalls production of the film and forces Costa and Sebastián to reassess what is truly important – their film or their ideals.
The film could have better explained the water issue, but it does a great job of revisiting the horrors of sixteenth century colonization through rehearsals (including a great table reading scene), actual filming, and watching the rushes. Yes, the irony of a film crew making a movie about exploitation while exploiting is obvious (maybe inelegantly obvious), but director Icíar Bollaín plays the story out well. Also look for some nice supporting performances from Karra Elejalde playing the actor playing Columbus and Juan Carlos Aduviri as the Bolivian actor portraying a resistance leader who also turns out to be a leader in the water rights fight. It is an effective and engrossing film that highlights the disparity between idealism and reality, and the insidious parallels between colonialism and globalization. It is, he argues, much easier to decry the violations of the past while turning away from injustice today. It is also remarkably relevant considering the recent mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt and the current ones in Libya, Bahrain, Morocco, and Wisconsin. (Never thought I would see a list like that.) These protests and the protests in the film remind us that power still does reside with the people and if their leaders are deaf and/or corrupt they will find ways to take their governments back. (Rating ****)
Cedar Rapids is a rare new-release comedy that works more often than not. Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is a sheltered, small town insurance salesman sent to an annual convention in the big city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tim is awed and overwhelmed by everything from a typical car rental to the key card in his hotel. His roommate is the incorrigible and irrepressible Dean Ziegler played by John C. Reilly (a character he has been playing variations on for years though he is particularly effective here). There’s nothing terribly fresh here; we have a pretty good idea where things are going from the first scenes, but director Miguel Arteta handles the material well and mostly resists the urge to resort to cheap gross-out gags. The movie could have descended into mean-spirited condescension, but Arteta avoids it mainly thanks to his cast. Ed Helms is always sympathetic – we’re meant to appreciate his naivety, not look down our cosmopolitan noses at him. He might not be all that bright or worldly but he’s good, true, and still believes in things like honor and honesty and, even as an insurance salesman, has not bought into the cult of the dollar like many of his colleagues. Two particularly refreshing supporting performances come from Isiah Whitlock Jr., who has fun with his fame from The Wire (incidentally one of the best television series in history), and Anne Heche who reminds us that she used to be a pretty good actor before she turned into tabloid fodder. (Rating ****)
I Am Number Four is a surprisingly decent action movie – but just barely. If not being bored and not getting angry is the worst one can say about a movie, I suppose that is a borderline recommendation. The story is well-treaded ground and offers few surprises, but it all unfolds nicely despite lackluster performances. Leads Alex Pettyfer and Dianna Agron may be great to look at, but they don’t truly create characters and inhabit the roles – you know, act. Pettyfer has an attractive screen presence, but that will only take him so far. His cut abs don’t distract from his empty eyes and uninspired line readings. (Well, OK, they do a little.) He is, however, head and shoulders better than the icy Ms. Agron, who doesn’t do much beyond what she is called on to do in Glee. She has the most boring character in that show and has carried her over into this movie, making us unsure why it is John (Pettyfer) is willing to risk so much for her. John is one of nine protectors of an alien planet that was destroyed by an invading force when he was a baby. The nine and their protectors (who seem fairly useless) came to hide on Earth. John’s protector Henri (Timothy Olyphant) takes him from one city to another so the invaders, who have tracked them here, can’t find him. They can, it seems, only be killed in sequence and at the beginning of the film, Number Three is murdered. John knows they will come for him next and, even with supernatural powers, he and Henri don’t stand a chance. But, of course, he just wants to be a teenager. (That’s pretty lame – how many people died to keep him alive and he wants to go to high school and play sports?) I Am Number Four works if you want a brainless action movie (and there are plenty of plot holes someone with a brain can find). It is, however, fun, fast-paced, and, for the kind of movie it is, satisfying. (Rating ***)
I was mostly curious about seeing Unknown because I wanted to test whether I had figured it out from the trailers. I’m disappointed to say that I did. I’m disappointed because I was hoping that the upshot wouldn’t be obvious, that they would have had a twist in there for me, but they didn’t. Watch the trailer and you can, more or less, figure out exactly what is going on. (There are two lines that really give it away and should have been excised from the trailer.) Liam Neeson plays Martin Harris, a doctor who has just arrived in Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotech conference. He is in an accident, wakes up after being in a coma for several days, and suddenly no one, including his wife, seems to know who he is. The more he insists, the more people think he’s crazy until he is forced to concur. After all, if everyone says you’re crazy, maybe you’re crazy. But when someone comes to kill him, he figures something must be up. Neeson does his best, but he’s just as lost in this material as his character. And like Agron in I Am Number Four, January Jones transfers her cold character from Mad Men, Betty Draper without showing any range – if we can call Betty Draper range. Luckily she doesn’t have a lot of screen time and Diane Kruger and Bruno Ganz have opportunities to shine – and they do, which must have been hard in this drek. Ganz does have a great scene with Frank Langella, two old spies talking over the good old days and dancing around the problem today, but that was a rare gem. There are some well choreographed action and chase sequences, including a breathtaking car chase through the streets of Berlin that was refreshingly shot in Berlin rather than an Eastern European stand in, but there the scenes between are listless, a pale combination of Frantic and The Bourne Identity. The movie finds a better footing in the last act, but the poorly paced and awkwardly written first two thirds stymie any connection with the film as a whole. We just don’t care what is going on. (Rating **)