Wednesday, August 31, 2011



The technician and pianists studied up close in Pianomania, a 2009 Austrian documentary, are searching for the perfect sound.  They always get close, but I am not sure any of them well confess to ever actually hearing it.  Stefan Knupfer is Steinway & Sons master technician based out of Vienna.  He works at the Vienna concert house tuning, re-tuning, breaking apart and re-constructing grand pianos.  Working closely with the most famous and skilled pianists in the world including Lang Lang and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, they have intense discussions concerning tone, flavor, color, air, etc…
It turns out that grand pianos each have their own respective flavor, shape, and feeling.  Is the sound round or too round?  Is it full, thick, thin, light, or heavy?  In Pianomania, Stefan describes the piano as the perfect music machine.  Its full volume can reach 4000 in a single hall.  Conversely, another technician raises the question of just how much of a musical instrument it really is.  It takes three people just to move it around and if you draw on a particular string you will slice your hand open. 
Pierre-Laurent Aimard will record Bach concertos in one year at the concert hall.  A full year before these recordings, Stefan is already hard at work on it.  He travels to Hamburg to painstakingly select the back-up piano in case the first one is not to Pierre’s liking.  He goes over to the Hofburg to consult harpsichord and clavichord experts because he feels he must know their sounds better.  He almost self destructs when new hammerheads arrive (the parts which hit the piano strings) and they are 0.7mm too skinny, a fact he can tell just by looking at them. 
Throughout the year, Stefan works hand-in-hand with all of these accomplished solo pianists to find the sound they are so desperately trying to describe.  Tension frequently arises when they either cannot understand one another or when a piano sounds amazing to one person but like garbage to another.  Well into the film, it is not odd to hear phrases such as “the tone is fine, it is what is in the tone which sounds off.” 
Listening to the musicians play after they have finally decided the piano is ready is a real pleasure.  There are extended sequences devoted to them.  The camera work veers off every now and then though to try and match the sounds such as filming clouds reflecting on water or blurry neon lights.  Those shots do not work very well but they are few and far between.  Also, once the Bach recordings begin a year later, they can become quite tedious as you will see microphones adjusted and re-adjusted and Stefan running up and down the stairs repeatedly between the stage and the recording booth.  This conveys exactly what it is supposed to, that recording major works of classical music is extremely challenging, but it also not very amusing for the audience either.
I recommend Pianomania to those who appreciate classical music and would like to peek behind the curtain a bit.  Beware to those of you who do not seem interested by these descriptions, you will probably be bored.

The Debt (2010)


Is the truth actually what happened or what everyone believes happened?  The Debt attempts to answer the question and almost succeeds if it were not for some very poor screenwriting.  It is 1966 and Mossad has finally tracked down the infamous Birkenau surgeon, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen).  Dr. Vogel is very high on the list of Nazi war criminals the Israelis are hunting down because of the atrocities he committed at his concentration camp.  He would deliberately blind children to see if he could change eye color and cut off hands and feet and reattach them on the wrong limbs to see what happened. 
The spy team assigned to kidnap him and bring him to justice are team leader Stephan (Marton Csokas), David (Sam Worthington), and Rachel (Jessica Chastain).  Their story is told in flashback and the first half of it is absolutely riveting.  Rachel poses as a woman with fertility issues and becomes a patient of Dr. Vogel who is hiding as an OBGYN in the Soviet sector of East Berlin.  The tension during the examination room scenes are the highlight of the film with both Rachel and the doctor verbally maneuvering to ensure the other person is who they think they are. 
After a convincing action sequence, the story abruptly turns from a kidnap/escape scenario into a hostage situation.  This is one of the points where the film just falls apart.  Mossad and their agents are the best in the entire world at their art.  There is no way such highly trained agents would fall victim to and resort to the amateur hour theatrics which come with the hostage sequence.  The script is riddled with illogical and bizarre events which only occur during the film’s most important sequences for some reason. 
Fast forward to 1997 and now older Rachel (Helen Mirren) is at her daughter’s book release party which describes the team’s successful mission to Berlin all those years ago.  Older Stephen (Tom Wilkinson) is also around for the recollections.  The 1997 scenes are adeptly written and filmed, especially scenes with Mirren.  Tom Wilkerson is just along for the ride.  Unfortunately, the movie’s climax is one of the most preposterous situations a decent film has been saddled with.  It is so ridiculous that a two hour meeting with the writers would still not convince me this was the best way to resolve the story’s actions and issues.  The mood and atmosphere are destroyed and the audience collectively shook their heads in disbelief at the mockery on screen.
Screenwriters Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass), and Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare at Goats) adapted this screenplay from an earlier film.  The Debt’s first hour is quite good with adept flow from 1997 to 1966 and the truly suspenseful scenes between Chastain and Christensen.  However, their handling of the hostage situation and the absurd climax are what really hurt this film and makes the audience shake their heads with the ‘Oh, what might have been’ lament.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Incendies (2010)


Lebanese-Canadian Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) has passed away.  She was at the swimming pool, started staring off into space, and then slowly faded away in the hospital.  She has left behind her twins, Jeanne and Simon, who are in their early ‘20s.  To them, their mother was a secretary to a local notary, liked to swim, and that is all.  Their mother does not have a past, at least not one which she ever brings up in conversation.  There is no father in the picture and the twins assume he died back in Lebanon during the war. 
At the reading of Nawal’s will, the twins receive startling news.  Their mother has left instructions for them to deliver two letters, one to their father and one to their brother, relations which they know nothing about.  The twins take the newfound discovery in completely different ways.  Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) accepts what her mother wants her to do and takes off for Lebanon, a place that is familiar to her only from textbooks.  Her brother, Simon (Maxim Gaudette), refuses to have any part of this nonsense and wants to stay out of the affair altogether.  For Simon, his mom may have had some alternate, hidden past, but that was not who she was to him.  She was a Canadian secretary, not some Lebanese village girl. 
I will reveal absolutely nothing about what comes next, that is for the audience to discover right along with Jeanne.  As Jeanne slowly pieces together the facts of her mother’s previous life in Lebanon, the film cuts to Nawal in the past and shows her experiences firsthand.  The children start the plot of Incendies; however, Nawal gets most of the screen time.  Furthermore, the film does not take time to explain what the war in early 1970s Lebanon was all about.  It assumes the audience is familiar with the right-wing Christian militias and the Palestinian refugee camps in the south.  If you are not, it may help you to read about the different sides beforehand so you will not waste time during the film trying to sort it out. 
This is very well written script and the acting is high-quality.  What the film lacks is a score.  There are two Radiohead songs played in the film which fit in nicely and help shape their introspective scenes.  On the other hand, the rest of film is sparse, just dialogue and scenery.  This is most likely what the director (Denis Villeneuve) intended, but a memorable score would have gone a long way in helping the events portrayed here land with a deeper impact.  The choice of two mellow, thoughtful Radiohead songs though was a very good idea.   

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)


Guillermo del Toro prefers his fairy tales to contain a certain amount of artistic fantasy, wonder, and even violence.  Children today are exposed to a kinder, gentler sort of fairy tale than they were a few centuries ago when they were much more graphic and held dire warnings for wayward children.  In the past, del Toro has successfully revived those stronger veins of story.  Don’t be Afraid of the Dark is based on what seems to be the tooth fairy tale but rather than the wonder and enchantment you may expect from a name like Guillermo del Toro shown twice during the opening credits, this film focuses much more on the suspense and horror elements. 
There are creepy-crawly things which live deep below a Rhode Island mansion and they crave ‘child’s teeth’.  There is a brief prologue showing their modus operandi to obtain these items and then there is a cut away to the present day.  Alex (Guy Pearce) appears to be a mansion/old house restorer and his live-in girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), also serves as his interior decorator.  Alex’s daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) unluckily arrives during the restoration process to live with him for only hinted at reasons; her mother is not up to the task of raising a child who does not fit in very well with the other kids.  This vague description is not intentional; the script’s explanations are truly this vague.  There are no overt reasons for Sally to move in with her father and any past psychological or social problems are only barely broached.  Naturally, Sally has an immediate dislike for dad’s girlfriend. 
This stage setting is not very quick either.  The writers choose to take their time with the character introductions and young Sally’s discovery that this house is not all it appears to be.  Against the warnings of the cranky, old caretaker Mr. Harris (Jack Thompson), Sally stumbles upon the fact that the house has a basement which former tenants have creatively hidden for later occupants.  Now, Sally begins to hear whispers and soft voices calling for her to come to the basement and play.  This is the catalyst for a chain of events which at best are repetitive and monotonous but the descriptors of annoying and time-wasting are not out of the argument here.
The tedious repetition of scurrying feet, nighttime shenanigans, and the increased skepticism on the part of the adults do not aid the tension and suspense, they instead kill the mood the movie is trying to create.  Over and over again poor Sally is traumatized by happenings emanating from the basement and nobody will help her.  The old standby that only the child understands and adults are stupid and too old is worked to death by the script and shatters any wonder or curiosity of what the heck is actually going on down there.  An explanation and history of it all is so briefly brought to light and talked over it is actually maddening when they cut away from it for another scene of Sally in trouble.  The writers make a fatal choice to ignore what would be the most interesting bit of the underground creatures, their past, and choose instead to stack whisper upon whisper and scene upon scene of monotonous, dark, and cringe-inducing boredom.
Dark is definitely an important word here.  It is dark outside even during the day.  Every room in the house is extremely dim including Sally’s bedroom which is truly one of the darkest settings ever shot.  The house restorers did not give too much thought to properly lighting any rooms whatsoever.  The basement has an excuse as to why it is so dark but it is actually one of the lighter areas since they included a handy skylight to brighten up the place.  Normally, dimly shot scenes belong in a film which warns you not to be afraid, but no worries, any thought you would have of being afraid is erased after the third of fourth iteration of the exact same scene set-up you have already witnessed before. 
Katie Holmes does not show up in very many movies anymore which makes this film an odd choice for her to say yes to.  Perhaps she wanted the prestige of being involved in a movie written by Guillermo del Toro.  Most actors would also raise their hands to work with him considering he wrote Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy screenplays, and The Devil’s Backbone.  Unfortunately, Katie got her chance in his worst script yet.  Guy Pearce’s bumbling character gets a few scenes less than Katie does which maintains his current streak of supporting roles.  Guy used to be a leading man but recently he has popped up only briefly in The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Animal Kingdom, and The Road.  He was good in all of those roles, but they had extremely limited screen time.  Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, an extremely uninspired film title by the way, will not help him if he wants to be a headliner again in the future.      

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Colombiana (2011)


As an action genre film, Colombiana is just a bit above average.  Even though dialogue is one-dimensional and stunted and even though the plot is as predictable as the next cookie from the cookie cutter, the elaborate scenes of Zoe Saldana sneaking through ducts and hanging from ledges to assassinate her next target are really fun to watch.
When Cataleya was nine years old, her gangster father and mother were gunned down by the evil Don Luis and his henchman Marco in her native Colombia.  Naturally, she spends the rest of her formative years learning the intense tradecraft of ‘killer’ so one day she may exact revenge on those two.  She develops expertise in disguise, weaponry, munitions, and reading blueprints.  Her extended family in Chicago takes all of this in with no surprise and becomes her agency who finds her the next target to take out.
Zoe Saldana as Cataleya does not have to do very much acting on screen; blank, intense stares are most of what is required but so are a lot of stretching, kicking, and climbing.  I also had to keep reminding myself I was watching Saldana instead of Thandi Newton; these two girls could be twins.  For whatever reason, the Colombians in the movie speak English which was a poor choice by the director.  I would have enjoyed some subtitles much more than the ridiculous bad acting from these gentlemen who sound like they do not like speaking English very much.  The authenticity would have helped as well.  Cataleya also has a string along love interest to take some pressure off of her real job.  Alias alum Michael Vartan gets a few scenes but it is thankless work. 
There truly is not very much to Colombiana.  Do not see it for the script, the acting, the plot, or the scenery.  See it to appreciate writer Luc Besson’s intriguing and original set ups when it comes time for Cataleya to mop up the bad guys.    

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Guard (2011)


The Guard has been guarding a tiny village outside of Galway, Ireland for a long time.  He has his routines and his eccentricities and he knows everyone else’s routines and eccentricities.  When events disrupt his village and startles outsiders, the Guard never gets too excited about it and usually thinks things can wait another 24 hours.  The Guard is Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) who is lonely, loves his dying mother, and gets his kicks from taking this piss out of outsiders, which not only means Americans, but from people as far away as Dublin as well.
Events do start happening in this sleepy hamlet though.  An unorthodox murder is carried out with disturbing symbolism attached to the corpse which Sergeant Boyle does not get very much worked up about.  Then FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) shows up in western Ireland and does not fit in very well.  He’s African American and Sergeant Boyle does his best to pepper him with racist and stereotypical questions about African Americans and claims his ignorance about all of that stuff is because he is Irish and Irish culture is about being racist. 
The screenplay is mostly funny when it comes to the interactions between Boyle and Everett.  They spar with one another but work on figuring each other out.  However, the script is a bit too clever and tends to show off how witty it can be.  One of the lead criminals is Clive Cornell (Mark Strong) and he loves to sit back and pontificate about the lowlifes one must interact with in the drug business.  A payoff to the cops becomes very awkward and drawn out and seems as if the screenwriter/director (John Michael McDonagh) was attempting a Guy Ritchie conversation which he does not pull off. 
The criminals and what they are attempting to do in Galway is more background material though.  The film’s focus is Sergeant Boyle and his strange idiosyncrasies.  Gleeson has a lot of fun picking on Everett, zapping one-liners at the Dublin cops, and enjoying the comforts of a lady of the evening or two.  He is a bit corrupt, but not in a completely self-serving way, more to help the community.  After a car full of teenagers kill themselves in a road accident, he does away with their drugs so their mothers will not find out about it, after helping himself to some of course. 
Unfortunately, the script puts on too many airs to fully recommend this film.  Gleeson is fun to observe but  the remaining characters including Don Cheadle, Mark Strong, and the rest of the philosophical gang are not very interesting to watch.  The Guard is at its best when Gleeson is on screen messing about with the locals but the actual plot and its story are best left on the sidelines.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Names of Love


You will never change your political opponents’ minds by arguing with them, but what if you have sex with them?  Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) lives her life by this mantra.  She is an ultra-leftwing idealist who sleeps with right wing fascists to convert them politically.  She even keeps a scrapbook of her successful conversions; most of them are now some sort of shepherd.  While listening to bird-flu expert Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) in a radio station one day, Baya bursts through the studio’s door and argues with him on the air that if you can’t trust ducks, then what is this world coming to?  This is a very amusing argument and also makes for a humorous lead character introduction.
Any other film, such as an American one, would construct Arthur as a rock solid conservative and make it Baya’s quest to convert him.  Ah, but this is an intelligent French film.  Arthur is a socialist and while not nearly as leftwing as Baya, he proudly states he voted for Lionel Jospin.  A warning: if you do not know who Lionel Jospin is, you will miss an amazing and funny scene.  The Names of Love takes a sharp turn from where the film was leading the audience.  It is not a romantic comedy, well, not all the way.  Much screen time is devoted to Baya and Arthur’s respective families and to what extent they identify themselves as French citizens.
Baya’s father is from Algeria and vividly remembers the French Army shooting many of his relatives in the war.  Her mother is a hippie who thinks everything non-French is fascinating which is why she marries a man with the last name Benmahmoud.  Arthur’s folks at first appear to be the exact opposite of the first couple and are shown boring and set in their specific way of life.  However, there is a lingering secret past with Arthur’s mother which is not necessarily hidden from view, but takes on more of a role as the film progresses.
The Names of Love starts out at a fast clip with both leading characters taking their turns talking directly into the camera about their youths and where they imagine themselves on the political spectrum.  After a half hour or so, this starts to taper off and a more somber and contemplative mood takes over what was almost a comedic farce.  Arthur and Baya are shown interacting with each other’s unfamiliar cultures and testing their respective boundaries.  The script is whip smart and expects a lot from its audience, especially from its non-French audience.  I give a high mark to how intelligent and probing this film is, but be wary of the shift from light comedy to more serious introspection.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sarah's Key (Elle s'appelait Sarah)


On 16 & 17 July 1942, French police in occupied Paris rounded up over 13,000 Jews in what has become known as the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup.  Vel’ d’Hiv is short for Velodrome d’Hiver which is an indoor bicycle racetrack where the Jewish families were taken awaiting transport to internment camps and then finally Auschwitz.  In a filmed adaptation of Tatiana De Rosnay’s novel of the same name, Sarah’s Key concerns one Jewish family, specifically the daughter, as they are rounded up and sent off for execution.
Sarah Starzynski  (Melusine Mayance) looks to be around nine or ten years old when the policemen show up at their family’s apartment and demand they pack very lightly because they are being collected up to be taken to the Velodrome.  The police know there are two parents and two children; however, they do not find Sarah’s younger brother, who is around four or five years old, because she has locked him in a bedroom closet to avoid arrest.  Thinking they will return soon, Sarah gives him a glass of water and makes him promise not to leave his hiding place until she comes back for him.
Fast forward to present day.  Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a journalist writing an article about how current French youth have no idea what the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup is.  As she begins to dig into history, she uncovers a surprising amount of coincidences of how her husband’s family was connected to the Starzynski family.  These coincidences set up the film’s mystery, what happened to Sarah and her little brother?  Julia makes it her business to find out even though her relationships with her husband and daughter begin to suffer for it. 
Sarah’s Key is shot just like chapters in a book; 1942 scenes alternate with present day interruptions.  Unfortunately, this style destroys any flow the film has achieved and abruptly switches gears on the audience.  This is especially true when the story jumps from the past to the present.  Compared to some of the nightmare scenes from the Velodrome and the internment camp, the present day sequences are trite, insignificant, and sometimes just silly.  Events happen to Julia affecting her and her family and the audience does not particularly care because they are still stuck back in a 1942 mindset begging to find out what happens to Sarah next?  This back and forth usually works in novel format, but on screen, a more linear approach would have helped its narrative structure. 
The film aims to educate its audience and even has a chorus of young staffers ask what the Vel d’Hiv was and then debate what they would have done if it was happening to them.  Sarah Starzynski is an excellent use of a fictional character to explain just what happened in July 1942 and emphasize the role that ordinary French citizens had in the affair.  Jacques Chirac is shown on TV in the film in 1995 finally apologizing for the state’s role in the Vel d’Hiv Roundup.  Unfortunately, the current scenes with Julia interacting with her family and sleuthing around after the truth do not hold up equally with Sarah’s scenes.  This creates an unequal yet important film nonetheless. 

One Day


There is a lingering and persistent distraction throughout One Day which severely impairs the audience from becoming absorbed in the film.  This is Anne Hathaway’s atrocious accent.  Many Americans have at varying degrees in the past successfully pulled off a believable British accent.  However, Anne Hathaway’s character, Emma Morley, sounds at different times Irish, Scottish, and American, but never British.  It truly was irritating after awhile.  Why didn’t the filmmakers just cast a British actress?  Or, if they were dead set on Hathaway playing Emma, then move the whole story to America.  If not for the distracting aural miscues, this film would most likely be much more enjoyable.
Emma and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) meet the night of college graduation at the tail end of an all night party.  This is not a meet-cute either.  They are the only two left as the last couple pairs off with each other; therefore, fate has thrown them together to have a one night stand.  Things get in the way and they end up deciding to be friends and start a very long platonic relationship.  This is mostly convincing as Emma is seen to be truly infatuated with Dexter who does not see her in the same light, in fact, he treats her rather poorly as the years go by.  Graduation night was July 15th by the way so naturally the pair concocts a plan to meet up annually on that day or at least check in my telephone if this is not possible. 
Surprisingly, every July 15th is actually a pretty horrible, sad day for each of them.  Very rarely is one or both of them in a good mood and happy with where their life is at when the film jumps forward to another July 15th.  Furthermore, the film focuses much more on Dexter than Emma with extensive scenes concerning his alcoholism and career missteps.  Emma even authors a successful book and it hardly gets a mention until Dexter happens upon it.  This made me wonder that if Dexter was to have so much more attention and screen time than Emma, why all the fuss to make Anne Hathaway British?
Since the screenplay was written by the same gentlemen who wrote the novel this film is based on, the story’s climax is inevitable even though it is forced and manipulative.  The scene is also very poorly shot.  The director, Lone Scherfig, who made the brilliant An Education two years ago, completely misses the mark with this scene and the rest of the film suffers for it.  The event is set up in a way that even people who venture out and see one movie a year will be able to see what is coming up.   
Another miscue is Patricia Clarkson’s role as Dexter’s mother.  It feels her role has been severely cut during the editing process.  Not only does she have dialogue in the preview which is not in the movie, but she only shows up in about two-three scenes, moves the plot along, and then she’s out of there.  I have not read the novel, but I guarantee she is a much larger presence on those pages than what seems to be a faint echo of her in this movie.
P.S. There is an atrocious Elvis Costello song over the closing credits which destroys any lingering fondness or afterthoughts the audience may have been enjoying during the closing scenes. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Future


Any audience member who has seen a previous Miranda July film knows what they are in for if they go to another one.  July loves silly and awkward conversations which spring out of thin air and make her characters seem quirky.  If you love quirky and oddball then Miranda July is the filmmaker for you.  However, July is one of those filmmakers who do not have much a gray area when it comes to reactions.  Movie goers either love her or cannot stand her. 
July’s latest film is The Future.  Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) have been in a relationship for four years and live together in Los Angeles.  They have steady jobs, her as a dance teacher for kids and him in the IT sector.  One day, this couple makes a huge decision; they decide to adopt a cat.  Yes, for this couple, this is a gigantic and tortuous decision.  The cat is hurt and in a veterinary hospital so they much wait for one month before than can bring him home.  Also, the cat has a speaking role.  Miranda July supplies its voiceover narration.  If you have seen a previous July film, this will not surprise you in the least.
Sophie and Jason now believe they have one month of freedom left.  Once the cat arrives, everything will change; they will have responsibility, they will grow old, and then they will die.  One month.  Therefore, they quit their jobs and follow their individual quests not so much for self improvement or to follow their dreams, but to follow whatever happens to cross their path.  I will stop the synopsis there so as to give away any of the more odd and yes, quirky, plot turns. 
I really enjoyed July’s last film, Me and You and Everyone We Know.  It was a pleasant blend of dialogue and original filmmaking.  The Future is not quite as enjoyable because now I am waiting for the next awkward and quirky conversation to start.  Another overarching and enjoyable element to a July film is a sense of depression and melancholy which the characters have.  They are neither steadily happy nor sad, but it looks like they feel some sort of weight in their otherness.  Sophie and Jason are not like a normal couple.  They play silly games like pretending to stop time and agree on a song they would play if one of them lost their entire memory. 
Sometimes there can be too much quirky and even for what is a simple film, July can get a bit too symbolic and the audience might miss a metaphor or three.  However, some of scenes are quite amusing to watch and this film is a breath of fresh air from superhero extravaganzas and anything you find at the local 34 screen multiplex. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Whistleblower


The vast majority of the time one hears the words ‘government contract’ it is safe to assume it is not the best and brightest people who are volunteering to go for extended periods of time to locales termed war zones.  Sure, there are those altruistic few who take up the charge to make the world a better place, but routinely, it is just someone willing to exchange six months of their life in exchange for a juicy paycheck.  The Whistleblower’s heroine, Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Wiesz) is one such person.  She was a Nebraska police officer who signed on with a company called Democra who had a security contract with the United Nations.
For six months of her time and $100,000, Kathryn was to monitor the local Sarajevo police and advise them on proper police procedures.  Very quickly, she discovers the word monitor means turn a blind eye as Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks abuse whatever power they have to continue a sort of undeclared war on each other.  The Serb policemen will not investigate or prosecute domestic violence cases, especially if the woman is Muslim.  Kathryn successfully leads Bosnia’s first case against domestic violence earning her a more visible job as the department head for gender affairs. 
Now her scope includes far more than standard local police issues.  Young Eastern European and Russian girls are turning up on the streets and shelters looking severely assaulted and sexually abused.  To her shock and dismay, Kathryn learns that United Nations employees from all nations are not only the girls’ customers, but frequently aid local human traffickers in their transport and have an interest in holding the girls against their will.
Nobody in any position of authority ever raises their hand for a scandal, so all of Kathryn’s investigations and findings are swept under the rug and she is ostracized from the rest of her compatriots who are either not interested in obtaining justice for the girls or believe so much in bureaucracy and paperwork that they sometimes send the girls right back to their rapists.  On Kathryn’s side is the High Commissioner for Human Rights rep played by Vanessa Redgrave and an internal affairs agent played by David Strathairn. 
Frequently, the subject matter and scenes of girls undergoing sexual abuse and torture are stomach churning.  The film can be relentless at times showing various punishments and cruelty.  Human trafficking, especially if it involves a trusted world organization and its sleazy contractors, is an extremely important subject to cover and make films about; therefore, be ready to adjust uncomfortably in your seats as you watch downright disgusting and brutal activities perpetrated against teenage girls. 
The Whistleblower deserves applause for bringing to light the company Democra which still carries out government contracts to this day.  However, when the film takes a break for showing the girls’ plight, it focuses on Kathryn’s personal life and back story which are choppy and do not come across as fully thought out.  There is her home life back in the states which she left, including her daughter, and an awkward budding romance with a Dutch security contractor.  Including romance and relationships in a film with this disturbing subject matter would be tough for any director, and this first time feature director does not quite pull it off. 
It will take this reviewer some time to get over some of the images in The Whistleblower; tread at your own risk.  But this story deserves to be told and shown in all of its brutality.   

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Devil's Double


Uday Hussein was a monster.  The world knew this before he was killed, but after seeing The Devil’s Double, the world has a good reminder just how horrible of a man he was.  Uday would patrol the Baghdad streets in his sports car, kidnap school girls, rape them, murder them, and then have his goons dispose of the bodies.  Nothing would ever happen to him because he hid behind daddy, Saddam Hussein.  It appears he had no conscience; he proudly maintained videos of torture sessions, especially from underperforming Iraqi Olympic athletes.  There are particular scenes in this film depicting crude torture techniques which are quite gut wrenching for the audience.
Dominic Cooper plays the dual role of Uday Hussein and the man ‘taken’ to be his body double, Latif Yahia.  Cooper seamlessly disappears into these two separate men.  He plays Uday with a high pitched voice, forever animated and crazy-eyed.  Latif is laconic, thoughtful, and deeply troubled by the events occurring around him.  This movie is based on actual events as written by Latif Yahia himself.  Uday and Latif were classmates and later on, Uday remembers their similarities and has Latif plucked from the Iran/Iraq battlefield.  This was not a job recommendation either; Latif either would become Uday’s double or he and his family would be tortured and executed. 
Latif could now enjoy all of Uday’s luxuries, except his women.  The inevitable involvement with a woman Latif should not have been socializing with is the film’s one weak spot.  Ludivine Sagnier plays Sarrab, a woman who Uday plucked from a club once and has yet to release from his grasp.  Sagnier has starred in high quality work in the past both with Swimming Pool and 8 Women, but Sarrab’s character does not fit very well here.  The Devil’s Double is about the relationship between Uday Hussein and Latif Yahia with the background of the first Persian Gulf War and Latif’s desperate attempts to deal with the crumbling situation.  There is not very much room from Sagnier and her character more often than not just gets in the way of what should be the central theme.  For example, during the Baghdad bombing in the opening days of the 1991 war, instead of showing what Uday was doing or where he was hiding, the audience gets a scene between Latif and Sarrab.  This was the wrong choice for both the screenwriter and director to make.
The director, Lee Tamahori, is a veteran action film director with credits including a James Bond film, Die Another Day, and other sporadic attempts with Along Came A Spider and the xXx sequel.  This is not an action film though.  It is a tough, psychological thriller and Tamahori does an admirable job with it except from the previously mentioned scene.  The writer, Michal Thomas, has been around a long time but his work is mostly unknown except for his Ladyhawke screenplay and an episode of the Crash television series.  He has adapted Latif Yahia’s own novel and has done a forthright job of it. 
Thank goodness Latif’s novel was adapted for the big screen.  One will read in the newspaper occasionally that Iraqi citizens miss Saddam Hussein’s regime because at least the country was more stable than it is now and they had electricity and employment.  When those thoughts spring up, they should be required to watch The Devil’s Double to remind them of the insanity their country has moved away from. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens


A man with no name and no memory wakes up in the middle of the desert.  He has no idea how he got there but it appears he has been in some sort of violent situation and there is a metal bracelet attached to his wrist.  The stranger (Daniel Craig) unluckily attracts frequent attacks including bounty hunters, local thugs, and then aliens.  He may not remember his past, but he certainly remembers how to fight and shoot.  This comes in handy since the film’s title is Cowboys & Aliens.
Craig moseys into town trying to find answers but all he finds are the sheriff (Keith Carradine) who has a warrant out for him, the town strongman, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), Dolarhyde’s pathetic son (Paul Dano), a mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde), and a nest of marauding aliens who attack from shoddy, metal flying contraptions. 
The aliens show no motive for their chaotic attacks on the town but they do kidnap some of the town folk with metal lassos.  The survivors put together an ad hoc posse to go and rescue them lumping together most of the named actors who are now on the same side even though they were enemies just before the attack.
The veteran actors take the material seriously and provide their respective enjoyable performances.  Both Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford play grizzled and world weary men who do not seem all that shocked by aliens.  They might as well be Indians or the other side in the Civil War.  The supporting cast is less convincing and looks like they are just giddy to be in a film with Harrison Ford and Executive Producer Steven Spielberg.
Paul Dano engages in a bit of farcical slapstick acting during his few scenes and his protector and team tracker (Adam Beach) is downright atrocious.  He was quite good in Clint Eastwood’s 2006 Flags of Our Fathers but seems to have lost his way here.  Olivia Wilde joins the crew as an attractive woman who just happens to be in town and may not be all that she appears to be.  Sam Rockwell doubles as the town doctor and bartender but is underserved with his small role and Keith Carradine who is always a pleasure to watch has barely any role at all.  I have a feeling much of this cast signed on to be able to share credits with Spielberg and Ford.
There are nine credited writers on this film which may be a clue as to why the script is not very good (too many cooks in the kitchen).  The lead two screenwriters are Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman who appear to have worked together on all of their projects. They have produced winners with the Star Trek remake, Mission: Impossible III, and work on the Alias series but have also disappointed with the first two entries in Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy. 
The weight of the film feels light.  There is no overriding mystery or any particular southwestern atmosphere.  An Indiana Jones type mystique is absent.  The script has the characters just bounce around between action sequences and lacks a positive narrative flow.  Some members die, some members join, and then another battle scene will start.  If there is only one alien film you get to see this year, make it Super 8 and not Cowboys & Aliens.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Another Earth


Another Earth contains both an outward looking expansionist grand vision and an inward focused deep introspection.  First, the external and gargantuan stimulus is that another planet appears in the sky.  At first, it’s just a speck like any other planet or distant star.  Then it keeps coming closer is soon apparently our same planet dubbed Earth II.  The internal and emotionally scarred center of the film, however, is Rhoda (Brit Marling) who is just released from prison four years later after being convicted of vehicular manslaughter.  As a 17 year old girl who just got accepted to MIT, she drove drunk, hit a car with a family in it, and killed the pregnant wife and five year old boy.  The husband, William Mapother, went into a short coma.
To avoid human contact and most forms of communication, Rhoda opts for janitorial work upon release.  Her family wants her to resume her life where she left off but her psyche will not allow that.  So begins a deeply philosophical exploration on regret, guilt, forms of forgiveness, and compassion all while a new, mirror-imaged planet is coming closer and closer.  Did Rhoda commit the same mistake on Earth II?  Is that family torn apart or still together on that new planet?  These and a host of other theories and possibilities are tossed around for the audience concerning not only a mirror planet, but about past events and moving forward.
In real life, Brit Marling graduated from Georgetown with and economics degree and instead of pursuing a banking career with Goldman Sachs (an offer she turned down) took off for Hollywood.  She was only offered smaller roles in cheap horror flicks.  So instead of demeaning herself in garbage like that, she sat down with the eventual director, Mike Cahill, and wrote her own script.  Brilliant move.  It was a much harder road to travel to write her own script and then get it picked up by Fox Searchlight who bought the distribution rights at Sundance, but she pulled it off.  It really is a breath of fresh air to see a film like this, learn its back story, and become immersed in it as opposed to whatever the most recent superhero movie is. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love.


Crazy, Stupid, Love is naturally about relationships.  The one which consumes most of the film focuses on Steve Carell and Julianne Moore who have been married for a very long 25 years.  They are stuck in a rut.  They look exhausted and seem to just be going to through the motions of their monotonous relationship.  In fact, they are getting a divorce.  Carell moves out and immediately finds the local bar.  It is here that Ryan Gosling notices him as a very sad case of a man and assumes a Fairy Godmother role of personal improvement.  He initiates new clothes, a new hairstyle, and a new way of thinking on the newly single and confused Carell.
Most of this seems like a standard run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, which for some part it is.  But the script is a bit savvier than to just throw formulaic plot movements at the audience.  The chemistry between Carell and Moore works.  Carell reminds you of his Dan in Real Life character a bit and both actors really show a weight on their shoulders which their marriage has become.  What does not work is the Ryan Gosling situation and how he latches on to Carell.  The motivation is lacking and the script really never bothers to explain it.  Naturally, the womanizing Gosling meets and falls for Emma Stone and this relationship does not work either although they share a quality late night scene together.  In fact, the Emma Stone character dangerously approaches Sweet Home Alabama territory as she throws away a decent guy (Josh Groban’s first film appearance) for the womanizing chauvinist. 
Unfortunately, what was once a real and tough script at points collapses into farce and a Three’s Company misunderstanding at the film’s climax and becomes so unbelievable that I was a bit sad that Carell and Moore’s marital problems are reduced to stock slapstick.  Another let down is the inclusion of Marisa Tomei in the cast.  It has nothing to do with her character, but what is Tomei doing in such an underwritten and one dimensional role?  I thought her acting comeback in The Wrestler would have saved her from something as minimal as this. 
On one hand, I praise this script for probing much deeper than the average insipid rom com.  However, it severely plummets at key points and in a conniving manner manipulates certain characters which spoil its originality and wit.  Also, what is going on with the movie poster?  That particular scene in no way whatsoever represents this film.  This was a particularly poor choice by the advertising department.      

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger


Superman came from Krypton.  Thor came from Valhalla.  Batman was at least quite wealthy.  Captain America: The First Avenger – he’s a Brooklyn kid born and raised.  World War II has broken out and all able bodied men are accepting their patriotic duty and volunteering for the military; everyone except for Mr. Steve Rogers of course.  The pre-Captain America is a 90 pound nothing with asthma.  He even tries lying on his enlistment papers but with no success. 
Obviously, the kid eventually gets in lest there be no film.  His pure heart of gold gets noticed by a top scientist (Stanley Tucci) and BOOM he is now the superhero with the worst uniform of them all, Captain America.  What kept gnawing at me as I was watching the film is that Captain America as a person and as a superhero is rather average, not necessarily boring, but definitely on the uninteresting end of the spectrum.  There is no anguish or emotional torment which many other superheroes endure.  There is no single force which is his foe ala kryptonite.  There is just a very physically fit guy who expertly flings his shield at the bad dudes.
Speaking of the bad dudes, Nazis always have and always will make fantastic villains.  Nobody is ever pulling for the Nazis to win or sympathizes with them.  They really do make the perfect antagonists.  Hugo Weaving turns out to be Captain America’s alter ego and has a vague resemblance to Hellboy who also happens to get his start in World War II but is a bit of an anti-superhero in comparison.  Two other things also work well in this film which is the Colonel played by Tommy Lee Jones and Captain America’s romantic interest in Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell).  Tommy Lee Jones is a great choice to play a grizzled and annoyed person no matter what the film is about. 
Unfortunately, the awesome Mr. Jones cannot save a lackluster script which includes an awkward showbiz interlude early on in Captain America’s career and somewhat repetitive fight sequences.  This whole film appears to be a setup for next year’s The Avengers but as a prequel for that, it does not set the bar too high.    

Rise of the Planet of the Apes


The original 1968 Planet of the Apes spawned its own sequel titles and even had its own remake with Tim Burton’s 2001 version.  Now the original film acquires its own prequel which is also setting itself up for sequels.  Confused?  Think of the Star Wars franchise as a comparison and that should help.  So who started it all in Rise of the Planet of the Apes?  James Franco ladies and gentlemen.  Franco’s father, John Lithgow, is fading away through Alzheimer’s.  Luckily, Franco is a leading scientist when it comes to ideas and methods to regenerate brain tissue.  Before these syringes full of regenerative juice can be injected into humans though, they must first be tested on chimpanzees. 

Through a series of misunderstandings and then guilt, Franco acquires and brings home baby Caesar and raises him as his son.  At first, Caesar does not recognize he is a chimpanzee or at least does not bother to ask why he is different from daddy.  Unfortunately, Caesar learns harshly that other humans only see him as a ‘dirty Ape’.  The zoo chimps also do not recognize Caesar as one of them so here we have our lead character with the ultimate identity crisis; not an ape, not a human. 

I was skeptical going into this film about sitting through yet another iteration in the Ape franchise.  Was this summer blockbuster just made as a one off attempt to win the box office one week or would it have a quality script with complexities?  I believe it chose the latter – most of the time.  The first half hour and the last half hour of this film are outstanding.  Watching Caesar come of age at first and finally become a leader and spur on the film’s climax are really entertaining to watch.  Unfortunately, the middle hour of the film sometimes feels like a burden to sit through.  These are scenes which of course are required to show Caesar figuring out reality and his place in it, but it does not always make for riveting movie watching for the audience.  There are also repugnant characters to endure including Brain Cox and Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) as chimp caretakers. 

The payoff is worth it though.  No actual chimpanzees were used in this film; every single one you see is CGI and I suppose that is how it could only have worked.  These chimps need facial expressions and require a bit of knowing behind the eyes.  Also, there are a few sneaky hints throughout which reference the original film which are fun to watch for.  I hope the next film in this franchise is up to the challenge to be as good as this one. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon


The third (and hopefully final) installment in the Transformers franchise is just as weak as its immediate predecessor and far weaker than the opening salvo in the trilogy.  The scenario setup had promise though.  The Apollo program and the space race were an elaborate front to get to the moon and check out a UFO which crash landed there.  This crashed ship turns out to be a casualty from the Transformers home world of Cybertron and naturally holds some cargo which both the Autobots and Decepticons desire.  These events are combined with more historical fiction including Chernobyl and with quality writing could really have taken off somewhere intriguing.  Unfortunately, Michael Bay chose to focus on an extremely uncharismatic Shia LeBeouf and his insecurities of unemployment, jealousy concerning his girlfriend, and wishing he had more recognition from his previous attempts to save humanity.  To extend an even bigger weakness, John Turturro is also back again and now seems like even more of a Daffy Duck sidekick instead of an actual human being.      
Michael Bay tries harder this time to make the hand-to-hand combat amongst machines work but anyone sitting in the audience will continue to find it quite challenging to tell the difference between Autobot and Decepticon until they somehow untangle themselves.  At the beginning of fight scenes, the action changes to slow motion to show the actual connection of machine on machine.  Right after that though, it speeds right back up into complete chaos.  Also, the humans scurrying around beneath their robotic feet while dodging falling bits of building somehow never get accidentally squished which should really give a lot of credit to the machines situational awareness.    

The Autobot leader, Optimus Prime, reprises his ministerial role and speaks only in philosophical platitudes which contribute nothing to anyone and is most likely why he receives far less screen time to perch on his soap box and preach at whoever is unlucky enough to be in the room when he begins a sermon.  His speeches resemble a page-a-day motivational calendar. 
The female lead this time, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, is not Megan Fox but is interchangeable enough that it does not matter.  Casting also added ensured the new accent brought a British accent with her to make her even sexier to the American male audience.  The first hour of the film has her getting in and out of quite a few low-riding vehicles in extremely short dresses which have most of the audience straining to catch a glimpse.  I wonder if Megan Fox left this series before or after she read this script; she dodged a bullet here.     
The new additions of Patrick Dempsey, Francis McDormand, and John Malkovich hold their own with limiting material but Ken Jeong’s character is just flat out ridiculous.  John Turturro is already in the film to provide the lame comic relief; adding Jeong helped make the first hour even worse than it was already shaping up to be.