Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.
2010. Rated R, 148 minutes, Spanish.
Javier Bardem
Maricel Álvarez
Hanaa Bouchaib
Guillermo Estrella
Edward Fernández
Luo Jin
George Chibuikwem Chukwuma
Lang Sofia Lin
Diaryatou Daff

Early on, we learn that Uxbal (Bardem) is a criminal. With one hand, he helps find employment for a group of Chinese immigrants. Currently, this means they manufacture bootleg merchandise. He then provides that merchandise to a group of African immigrants who sell it on the streets. Both groups are living in Spain illegally. This is not the part of the man we focus on. We focus on the fact that he’s a single dad to two children, a girl and a boy. His business exploits apparently aren’t making him rich. The family stays in an apartment that appears to be coming apart at the seams. They’re all they’ve got.

Uxbal is actually still married to Marambra (Álvarez), the mother of his children. However, they are separated due to some serious issues of hers. Most seriously, she’s bipolar and refuses to take her medication. Then there is her job. She’s a masseuse that does housecalls. Even though its not made explicity clear, it seems safe to assume sex is part of the package she delivers. At least Uxbal seems to think so. When she decides to visit, he rushes her out the door as quickly as possible. It’s like he’s trying to minimize the damage she does to the children.

There are two other strands to the story. Uxbal is very sick. He can also talk to the dead. The former worries him. He’s not really worried about himself. He’s afraid for his children. He grew up without his parents and doesn’t want them to go through the same thing. The latter is something he does on the side. Some believe he’s authentic, some do not.

We follow Uxbal on his daily travels through all the areas of his life. We get to know him pretty thoroughly. Director Iñárritu weaves in and out of each effortlessly. As Uxbal’s world is coming apart we are drawn in. Javier Bardem’s wonderful performance helps in this regard. His is not a mencing portrayal like his role in No Country for Old Men. This is more nuanced and shows a wide range of emotions without being showy or over the top. He strikes each note precisely as he should.

The pace of the movie feels a bit disjointed. There are a few places where it drags and we start to feel the near two and a half hour runtime. There is also one particular aspect that feels like it should’ve been left out. Remember how I mentioned that our hero can talk to the dead? It feels shoe-horned in and completely changes the tone whenever its brought up. At times, an element of horror is introduced that’s totally out of wack with the rest of the film. It’s supposed to justify the opening and closing scenes. However, those scenes would be fine on their own and need no justification. Overall, it’s a good watch with excellent work from its star. Its problems keep it from its full potential, but Bardem deserves to be seen.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Imitation of Life

Directed by Douglas Sirk.
1959. Not Rated, 125 minutes.
Lana Turner
Juanita Moore
Susan Kohner
Sandra Dee
John Gavin
Dan O’Herlihy
Robert Alda
Terry Burnham
Karin Dicker

By chance, Lara (Turner) meets Annie (Moore) and the two women strike up a friendship that would last the rest of their lives. Both women are single moms. Lara’s daughter Suzi (Burnham at age 6, Dee at 16) and Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane (Dicker at age 8, Kohner at 18) are only a couple years apart in age. Lara needs a nanny while Annie offers her services for nothing more than room and board for her and her little girl. It’s a match made in heaven. Of course, there’s still something off-kilter about these fast friends, especially in the era not long before World War II. Lara is white and Annie is black. For those unaware, this is in the days before most people had heard of Martin Luther King Jr. That blacks were second-class citizens in America was not up for debate. It was a blatant reality. On top of this, Annie’s daughter was fathered by a white man. If blacks were second-class citizens, bi-racial children may have been third. Sarah Jane is sensitive to this at an early age. She’s very fair-skinned and desperately puts most of her effort into passing for white even if that means distancing herself from her own mother. Lara and Suzie obviously have very different, but no less relevant issues. Lara dreams of being a Broadway star and works hard to reach that goal. This means many hours, days, weeks and even months away from her daughter. Therefore, Suzie is effectively raised by Annie. We follow these four through the ups and downs of the next decade or so.

The novel Imitation of Life is based on was written in the 1930s by Fannie Hurst. It was originally brought to the big screen in 1934. I have not seen that version, but now I must to satisfy my curiosity of the differences. Made in 1959, this version appears to be a movie ahead of its time. It predates other landmark films dealing with race such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night. Half a century after its release there are still elements relevant to our society. How whites and blacks view each other and themselves in relation to one another is still a hotly contested issue.

Within their home, three of the four ladies try to isolate themselves from such topics. However, Sarah Jane continually drags the ugly world with her into the house. Her entire being is troublesome for her and us. Her yearning to be white and the drastic choices she makes to be accepted as such are torturous. She is clearly an example of the archetype known in American literature as “the tragic mulatto.” That means she cannot be happy simply due to the fact she is of mixed blood. Her storyline is prevalent and provides the movie with its climax. She also makes it difficult to gauge. Is her saga a triumph for her black mother or a cautionary tale for those considering procreation with someone of another race?

Speaking of the black mother, Annie is also problematic. She is a 20th century version of another archetype, “the contented slave”. To oversimplify, the contented slave is more than happy, even grateful to live a life of servitude. In the case of female slaves, this usually meant deriving a special joy from raising the children of their masters. These traits are immediately evident in Annie. As I said, she gleefully offers her services as a live-in nanny and is practically offended when Lara offers to pay her. She refuses to take money for her work and dutifully looks after Lara’s daughter out of the goodness of her heart. Annie and Sarah Jane make us question whether IoL is really ahead of its time or just pretending to be.

On the other hand, this is enthralling melodrama. To go along with the aforementioned mother/daughter spats, there’s Lara’s on again/off again romance with Steve (Gavin), her rise to fame and havoc it wreaks on her relationship with Suzie. There’s Suzie’s first crush and always Sarah Jane is sinking to new lows. Hearing her talk to her mother is absolutely gut-wrenching. All four of our principals turn in excellent performances, though the pitch of Sandra Dee’s voice is somewhat annoying. Without knowledge of the archetypes I spoke of above, it’s probably easier to take at face value, easier to believe it is what it says it is. Even then, there is still much to discuss. All eyes may not see it the same way.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The King's Speech

Directed by Tom Hooper.
2010. Rated R, 118 minutes.
Colin Firth
Geoffrey Rush
Helena Bonham Carter
Michael Gambon
Guy Pearce
Claire Bloom
Derek Jacobi
Eve Best
Timothy Spall

The Duke of York has a problem. Bertie (Firth), as he’s called by his family, has stammered all his life. On those occasions when he has to speak publicly he struggles mightily with disasterous results. Over the years, he’s tried numerous speech therapists to no avail. He’s given up hope. His only consolation is that as the younger son of King George V, it’s unlikely he’ll ever rise to the throne. He won’t be called upon to address the nation.

At the urging of his wife (Carter), Bertie tries one more therapist. Lonnie (Rush) was recommended to her by a friend and is known for his unconventional methods. After all the failures in this area of his life, Bertie is understandably reluctant and skeptical of the possibility he could be cured. Lonnie agrees to take the job, but only on his terms. The two men start an uneasy work relationship that over changing times and circumstances develops into a real friendship. Through some unforseen circumstances, Bertie does indeed become king, King George VI whom this movie is based on.

The King’s Speech takes two genres and mashes them together to create a triumphant inspirational film. The plot outline follows the template of a sports movie with our Duke in the underdog role and the therapist, his charismatic coach. This simply replaces the athletics with speech. What plays out amidst the machinations of the plot is pure bromance. The interesting dynamic is how Bertie keeps trying to distance himself from their relationship, yet keeps getting drawn back. It seems Lonnie is the only person he can confide in.

A movie where the title implies the climax will be made up of dialogue and not action has to be well written. This one is. It not only humanizes a member of British royalty, it makes him a sympathetic figure even though he’d much rather have us leave him alone than pity him. Remarkably, nothing feels as if its done for effect, at least for our purposes. For Lonnie’s purpose, most things are ploys designed to help or learn how to better assist his troubled pupil. This is why we root for Lonnie as much, if not more than Bertie. Bertie’s successes and failures are equally Lonnie’s. They will validate or invalidate him.

In these roles, both Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are superb. Firth’s performance runs the gamut of emotions. Yet, even at his most regal we sense his fragility. The show he puts on in public is easily seen through by those who know him. Firth lets us know him. He does this whil keeping his stammer from being ridiculous and causing inappropriate laughter. As Lonnie, Rush is a sturdy beam for Bertie to lean on. He’s full of genuine compassion, but also curiosity. He often approaches his student as a riddle to be solved. In a strange, but totally effective way, Lonnie carries himself more like a monarch than Bertie. We sense this quality has something to do with why Bertie is drawn to him.

When we get to the end, we’ve become vested in these men, their friendship and their quest. We’ve watched them struggle with one another over a period lasting many years and gone plenty of growing pains. Eventually Bertie, by now King George VI, finds out that as World War II threatens his nation, he has to make a speech to galvanize it. This is the big game. We want them to win.

MY SCORE: 8.5/10

Monday, August 22, 2011

Waiting for Guffman

Directed by Christopher Guest.
1996. Rated R, 84 minutes.
Christopher Guest
Eugene Levy
Catherine O’Hara
Parker Posey
Fred Willard
Larry Miller
Don Lake
Bob Balaban
Deborah Theaker
David Cross

The 150th anniversary of Blaine, Missouri is fast approaching. To celebrate, the town is putting on a musical dramatizing their history. Corky (Guest) is a transplant from New York who is also an off Broadway director. Make that a way off Broadway director. He is tasked with bringing the production to life. Waiting for Guffman is a mockumentary about the trials and tribulations of Blaine’s most ambitious theatric endeavor.

Corky holds auditions amongst the townspeople anxious to show their chops to flesh out the cast. He finally settles on Dr. Pearl (Levy) the town dentist, Libby (Posey) the girl who works at Dairy Queen and local travel agents Mr. and Mrs. Albertson (Willard and O’Hara, respectively) who seem to have been in every play made in their hometown. The director finds a couple other players elsewhere. Together, this ensemble sets out to make Corky’s vision a reality. They uniformly work hard. There are occasionally spats, but ehy eventually become like family. Their bond is further galvanized by news that Mr. Guffman will be at their performance. He is a New York City theater critic who is coming to assess the troupe’s chances of taking their play to Broadway.

WfG is a movie that makes us laugh. It’s funny because through all of the goofiness everyone plays it perfectly straight. We don’t see them as actors going for laughter. We see them as earnest people unaware of just how funny they are. A perfect sample of this revolves around Corky’s sexuality. It’s painfully obvious to us he’s lying whenever he mentions having a wife. By itself this is only mildly amusing, not really worthy of a chuckle. When placed in conjunction with the fact most people in Blaine are completely oblivious to the possibility he might be gay it’s downright hilarious. The thought never crosses their minds. So when the play appears to be falling apart and Corky seems ready to quit, we double over in laughter when Mrs. Albertson speculates he’s having a hard time because he misses his wife whom she’s never met and never seems to be around. There is one character that suspects Corky’s secret. It’s a cameo appearance that eventually changes the course of the movie. Nope, I won’t spoil it.

There are lots of clever moments sprinkled throughout WfG that keep us giggling. The sheer absurdity of it all elevates the humor and a certain plot twist breaks our heart, temporarily. However, it’s also not so absurd that we couldn’t see it happening in real life. This is important because it gives the movie its charm. This is a fun excursion that takes a cerebral approach to comedy instead of slapstick, pratfalls or stringing together an incessant run of four-letter words. That means some may find it boring. Those not in need of such things will find plenty here to enjoy.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Directed by Banksy.
2010. Rated R, 87 minutes.
Thierry Guetta
Space Invader
Shepard Fairey
Rhys Ifans
Deborah Guetta

For all of his adult life Thierry (pronounced Terry) has carried around a video camera and filmed everything he came across. To say he was obsessed with the activity is an understatement on the level of saying the sun is kind of warm. By chance, he meets and latches on to a street artist named Space Invader. Invader’s specialty is putting up characters from the iconic video game on any surface he could get to and get away with around Los Angeles. Thierry tags along on Invaders excursions with the camera always rolling. Through Invader, Thierry starts meeting all sorts of street artists, some would call them vandals. He becomes entrenched in their community, allowed to film them constantly. Eventually, his new obsession of recording as much street art as possible takes him around the world. It also puts him on a collision course with Banksy, the most notorious and mysterious street artist in the world. With this and the mound of footage he’s amassed Thierry decides he’s going to make a documentary. Exit Through the Gift Shop is not that movie. In essence, this is a documentary about a documentary no one has ever seen. It’s also about what happens to Thierry after it becomes apparent he’s no documentarian. I realize that sounds ominous, but it’s not like that at all. Thierry’s life is a fun and amazing journey. The question is: is what happens to Thierry good for his beloved street art and what does his experience say about it?

Exit is intriguing, funny and cautiously triumphant. It’s also visually captivating watching thes guys take a guerilla style approach to getting their work seen. Fans of graffiti, of which street art is a direct descendant, will thoroughly enjoy this aspect. Once Banksy is introduced, what we see is not only candy for our eyes, it offers food for thought. The artist himself is a shadowy and compelling figure. However, Thierry is the unquestioned star. He has fun talking. We have fun listening.

If there is a major flaw in Exit, its that it brings up the tough questions then sidesteps them. We never really get a serious discussion on whether or not street art is actually art. We don’t find out about the current state of the relationship between Thierry and the street art community. Is he an artist? What about the effect all of this has had on his wife and children whom he spent many nights away from on what appears to be a fruitless endeavor. All of these things are touched on, but not delved into. This is much more about Thierry’s account, as well as of those who were there, of how he arrives at the place we meet him. If you’re looking for a seious meditation on street art or a chronicling of its history, don’t look here. If you want a fun time, an interesting story and to see some cool stuff then Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ip Man 2

Directed by Wilson Yip.
2010. Rated R, 108 minutes.
Donnie Yen
Sammo Hung
Lynn Hung
Simon Yam
Siu-Wong Fan
Kent Cheng
Darren Shahlavi
Xiaoming Huang

At the end of the first movie, we’re told Ip Man relocates to Hong Kong and begins teaching martial arts. Roughly ten years later, he finds his prize pupil in none other than the legendary Bruce Lee. Ip Man 2 covers the time in his life between those two events. When we catch up with our hero he hasn’t been in Hong Kong, nor had his school open, for very long. In fact, he doesn’t even have any students yet. Eventually, one young man finds his way to Ip’s school hoping to learn Wing Chun. Of course, before he decides if he wants Ip as a master he has to try to defeat him first. After all, no sense learning how to fight from a guy you can beat up. If you saw the first movie then you know how such things turn out. Not only does the young man become Ip’s student, he brings back a bunch of friends before fully agreeing. Yes, they all try to beat him at once before they figure he’d be a good teacher to have.

If you know anything about movies then you know things aren’t all hunky dory after this. After word spreads about Ip’s school he fins he’s run afoul of the local crime-boss who also leads sort of a syndicate of martial arts masters. It seems you can’t teach martial arts in Hong Kong without their permission. How do you get their permission? Yup, gotta do some more fighting. This time it’s on a tabletop. You gotta see it to believe. In addition to all this, the British Army has a large presence in the city. One of their high-ranking officers has recruited their country’s heavyweight boxing champ to show these “Chinamen” a thing or two. He’s big, brash and has his WWE swag going full tilt.

Both films in th set are formulaic. The first is expertly crafted, helping us to gloss over its flaws. This one is well done also, just not quite as well. With such a easy reference point as its predecessor the formula, and the cracks in it, are more apparent. There is also an additional problem. Ip’s family recedes even farther into the background despite the fact they are about to add another mouth to feed. This lessens the overall experience. They help the first movie become greater than just a kung fu flick. That movie is about growing as a man, accepting responsibility, revenge and national pride. This one keeps the last two elements, but is much more about fighting than the original.

Don’t get me wrong. IM2 is still a very entertaining watch. The formula still holds together. It’s not quite as moving as it was t he first time, but it does the job. Then, there are those fight scenes. Once agina, we get a number of adrenaline pumping battles for us to feast our eyes on. To thank for that, we have the one and only Sammo Hung. He’s been in tons of kung fu flicks since the 1960s. To most Americans, he most remembered for starring in the TV series “Martial Law.” Here, he plays Master Hong, the crime-boss/martial arts master. However, he has a dual role. He also choreographed the fighting, as he did for the original film. Kudos to him. Martial arts fans and fans of the first movie should definitely check out this installment.

MY SCORE: 7/10

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman.
2010. Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.
Aaron Eckhart
Ramon Rodriguez
Cory Hadrict
Michelle Rodriguez
Bridget Moynahan
Michael Peña
Adetokumboh M’Cormack
Noel Fisher

Let’s not kid ourselves. If you’re interested in Battle: Los Angeles you’ve already seen it a dozen times or more. Random aliens land on Earth and promptly start exterminating humans. There is no “I come in peace,” or “take me to your leader.” They just land their ships and hop out shooting. We follow a small group of heroes who’ve been suddenly thrust into war with an intergalactic enemy. In this case, it’s a platoon of Marines led by Staff Sgt. Nantz (Eckhart), sorta. Lt. Martinez is supposed to be in charge and talks like it. However, he’s fresh out of school and apparently just recently stopped wetting the bed. The crew is made up the normal Hollywood band of merry men. There’s a few white guys, a few black guys, a couple guys of other nationalities. Of course, they each have their issues. One guy is stressed over helping his fiancée plan their wedding, another guy has anger management problems, and so on. Which guy is which is largely irrelevant. The only thing that matters, aside from some very grumpy extra-terrestrials, is that a bunch of Marines under Nantz’ command were killed the last time he was in a combat situation. Oh, one other thing: along the way they pick up a few random Marines, including a dad with two small children. That’s more than you need to know.

If you’re looking for non-stop action, this is the place to be. If plot is important to you, this is not. For what it is, it’s well done. Danger lurks around every corner, down every dark corridor and surrounding the outside of whatever our heroes are trapped in. They strategize, build each other up, tear each other down, strategize some more and still don’t always make the most logical decisions. It’s a fun time. Still, it is what it is: rehashed, predictable and far too lazy to bother with any reasonable explanation for what the aliens hope to accomplish. Well, there is a reason. Assuming they had to come from millions of miles away, it makes no sense. It’s basically equivalent to getting in your car and driving six hours to get gas. Watch it for the action. It’s an effective popcorn flick. If you think about what you’re seeing though, you’re asking for trouble.

MY SCORE: 6/10

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Cove

Directed by Louie Psihoyos.
2009. Rated PG-13, 92 minutes.
Richard O’Barry
Louie Psihoyos
Hardy Jones
Michael Illif
Paul Watson
Doug DeMaster
Ian Campbell
Joji Morishita
Charles Hambleton

Tahji, Japan has a dark secret. What’s known is that this small town is the world’s leading supplier of dolphins to aquariums and theme parks. Large schools of them are herded into a small area just off the shore where dolphin trainers from all over the globe pick out the ones they want. Dolphins sell for up to $150,000 each. Another part of the process has been kept under wraps. The dolphins not lucky enough to be purchased are moved to a secluded area and blatantly slaughtered for their meat. That meat is then packaged, often purposely mislabeled and sold. The problem with selling it is that it is highly toxic and should not be consumed by humans. It is estimated that 23,000 dolphins lose their lives each year in “the cove”.

The man who has tasked himself with bringing these horrors to an end is Ric O’Barry. A lifetime ago, he actually helped capture and train the dolphins that performed on the TV series “Flipper”. The success of that show created an international market for dolphins. It’s a market he’s now dedicated his life to shutting down. He has enlisted the help of a team of like-minded, but younger activist to expose Tahji’s secret to the world.

Simply put, The Cove is one of the more powerful documentaries you’ll ever see. It does a magnificient job of transferring its own sense of responsibility onto the viewer. Therefore, even though it is one-sided, we applaud. That’s because the other side is an affront to our humanity and feels cruel merely for the sake of being cruel. It also injects some spy-movie goodness into the proceedings. These moments bring us to the edge of our seats the same way our favorite action flicks might. When the movie is over we feel both good and bad. We’ve found triumph in a tragedy, but also tragedy in a triumph.

MY SCORE: 10/10