Cloud Atlas

October 28, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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 ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I find it impossible to know how to review this film for those who have not read the book, particularly as my primary enjoyment of the film came from being reminded of a book that I dearly loved.  Directors Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) and The Wachowskis (“The Matrix”) eagerly try to hit all the right notes and do a fairly good job of capturing the grand scale, emotional resonance and the epic nature of the book.  The different stories all have different tones in the book (eg pulpy detective noir, snarky British comedy, morality tale, love story, sci-fi action) and the directors capture those modes in the film.  However, the book had a russian doll structure of each story descending into the next and then back out again that was largely lost in the film.  This decision to splice all the stories up, lead to structural, tonal and plot confusions that might have been frustrating to those who did not read the book. Also distracting were all of the reoccurring actors.  While it was a clever way (and far less subtle than the book) of reinforcing the idea of reincarnation, it became a sort of Where’s Waldo game, where the audience was trying to figure out, “is that Asian man actually Halle Berry?” and so on.  It was fun to see actors transform themselves from story to story (Tom Hanks was especially good at it) but the racial and gender transformations were often particularly distracting.  The film was visually beautiful, clever, funny and had the same endearing message of human vulnerability and connectedness that I loved in the book, however, I think the film makers traded story coherence in order to achieve those larger themes.


The House I Live In

October 22, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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This limited release documentary takes on the injustices of the U.S. War on Drugs.  We are given a mix of history lesson and testimonials from inmates, former inmates, family members, prison guards, police officers, various academics and David Simon (writer/director of “The Wire”).  What we do not get is any alternate opinions or counter arguments.  Everyone here knows the War has failed and says so to varying degrees of eloquence.  Simon is particularly convincing and effective in the way he breaks down what the War is really about and what the costs are.  Documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki has done some interesting work in the past (“Why We Fight” and “Freakanomics” are both provocative and well worth watching).  However, there was nothing here I did not already know and, as is so often the case, this film will likely only be seen by those who need no convincing.   As such, I found it all a bit depressing and tedious.  Perhaps, if there had been some eloquent arguments for the other side or some creative solutions suggested, I might have had more to think about when I left the theater.  As it was, all I was left thinking was, “what’s for dinner?”


October 22, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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True to what you may have heard, the only thing that saves this script from being a ludicrous Hollywood action caper is that it’s almost entirely true.  Based on the CIA operation to secure the escape of 6 Americans during the Iran Hostage Crisis, this story is full of the improbably twists and turns, narrow escapes and breathless moments one expects from a major studio movie.  Even though I knew the final outcome, I found myself anxious more than once as the Americans and their operative, played by Ben Affleck, tried to stay one step ahead of the Iranians.  Filmed entirely in and around Hollywood, the film feels authentically Middle Eastern; the buildings, streets, cars, clothing, etc. all felt like 1979 Tehran.  The acting was commendable and suited the film but there were no great performance, nor were any required.  Overall, the film was informative, interesting visually and entertaining.  This is not a classic film, nor even a fantastic one but it is a pretty good one.  I had fun and, with this film, that was good enough for me.

Searching for Sugarman

October 17, 2012 at 11:07 am | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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I really cannot recommend this documentary enough, especially to those who love music and/or heart-warming stories.  It tells the tale of Rodriguez a Detroit-based folk singer in the late 60s, early 70s, who cut two albums that went less than nowhere.  In the USA, that is.  Through some too-crazy-to-be-real circumstances, his first album became a huge hit in South Africa and a galvanizer for the young anti-apartheid movement.  Yet, nobody in the US had any idea of this and all people in South Africa knew was that Rodriguez had killed himself in the late 70s.  From there a rather gripping detective story begins and two South Africans decide to track down exactly how Rodriguez died.  The story takes them to Paris, Amsterdam, L.A. and places in between as they slowly root out the truth against all odds.  What starts out as one type of film ends up becoming another, equally pleasing one.  Part history lesson, part detective story, part a heartwarming story of redemption, this film never made me bored and left me wanting more of Rodriguez’s fantastic songs.  His music reminded me so much of Nick Drake but with the sort of grittiness you expect from Lou Reed and the occasionally turn of phrase like Leonard Cohen’s.  If anybody wanted to know what to get me for Christmas, one of his two albums would do the trick nicely.  I challenge anyone not to like this film.

Seven Psychopaths

October 14, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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Ugh.  Ugh.  Yeah, I said it twice, like the annoying Sam Rockwell character who seems to randomly repeat things twice, at least at the beginning of this waste of celluloid.  Maybe I am so annoyed because I expected more from a film with Rockwell, Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson and Tom Waits.  How can that not be weird and fun?  Well, Martin McDonagh (director of the rather brilliant “In Bruges”) pursues not-remotely-fun rather doggedly.  Absolutely nothing works in a movie where everything seems like it should work.  I could see all the many, many places where the audience is supposed to roar with laughter but my audience (myself included) could barely get out a weak chuckle from time to time.  It was all too obviously referential of Tarantino, too deliberately quirky and too self-amused by half.  Throw in some mind-numbingly ordinary violence and moments of inexplicable sentimentality and you have “Seven Psychopaths.”  I would have found the Seven Dwarfs both more funny and threatening.  Ridiculous.  The only reason I didn’t give it zero lozenges is because it only annoyed me for wasting my afternoon, it didn’t piss me off, unlike the cynical dishonesty of “Kick Ass” or the pseudo-pop-psychology of “What The Bleep Do We Know” (yeah, as in not even real pop-psychology).  So, 1/2 a lozenge, but barely.

Chico & Rita

October 10, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

ON DVD (I am going to start indicating when I see a recent film on DVD instead of in the theater).  To sum this film up, the story is not the story.  A fairly simple love story, I would hardly recommend this film so strongly based on that.  However, the true story of the film, and it’s true star, is the beautiful cityscapes.  Taking place in Havana, New York, Paris and Las Vegas between the 1940s and the present, the pen and ink animation creates a beautiful moodiness to each city with backdrops that seem more like watercolors than an animated movie.  Unfortunately, the people are animated in a much more rudimentary way, though the animation technique (ie tracing and then hand coloring film stills of live actors in front of green screens) does lead to very natural movements.  But, like I said, the people and their individual stories are far less compelling than the overall vibe of the movie, with it’s gorgeous period scenery and lavish Cuban/Jazz music.  The whole film feels exuberant and full of life.  I don’t want to appear to be panning the love story; it is far from a simple one and does a decent job of presenting the complexities and ambivalences of these two performers over the decades of their relationship.  I don’t want anyone to get the impression this is some Jennifer Garner-esque romantic comedy; it is far more complex than that.  I am just saying that the strength of this film is the music and the visuals.  The images reminded me a lot of 2010’s “The Illusionist,” though this film is not as good as that one.  In the end, you may or may not fall in love with Chico and Rita but everyone will fall in love with their Havana.  By the way, this is not a children’s film, as it contains a little bit of each of the following: violence, profanity, drugs, sex, full frontal nudity and erect nipples.


October 8, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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First, a confession.  I am an ambivalent Tim Burton fan.  At his best (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Batman,” “Ed Wood”), he is one of the most unique and visually entertaining directors in Hollywood.  However, as with so many other directors, I feel that his formula has gotten stale and a bit self-indulgent over time (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Dark Shadows”).  With that out there, I can now admit my skepticism approaching this film and why I am happy to report that I actually liked it.  Though “Frankenweenie” is no masterpiece, it is filled with many small pleasures; the richly textured black and white creates just the right atmosphere and horror film references abound, from multiple “Frankenstein” nods (including a pet turtle appropriately named “Shelley”) to references to Godzilla, The Mummy, Vincent Price, Gremlins and a young girl who looks an awful lot like Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice (and is also voiced by Winona Ryder).  The humor is similarly referential and clever at times.  But this is a modest film with an immodest purpose; Burton now has money and power and wants to make the film Disney denied him years ago.  This may be why it felt a bit under-developed; none of the characters felt very interesting to me, except maybe the Vincent Price like teacher we barely see.  The story was cute but never deep or compelling or even scary.  I actually found “ParaNorman” to be a better film in all of those ways.  Funnier, too.  “Frankenweenie” is worth seeing in a dark room, but only to better appreciate the black and white.  “ParaNorman” is worth seeing, period.

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