Friday, September 28, 2007

Three fall movies--one of which is good


We're one for three on the new films TVOR saw this week. We'll start with the good, go to the bad, and then, finally, the ugly.

Into the Wild
Written and directed by Sean Penn (based on the book by Jon Krakauer)

First, the disclaimer: TVOR hasn't read the book. Any comments she makes about the film are just that--about the film, and not the film as compared to the book. Or the film as compared to what really happened, as much as that can be known. Strictly as a film, Into the Wild works, and works well. It's a true story about a young man who graduates from college, gets rid of his money and his belongings, and without a word to his family, takes off hitchhiking around the country. He experiences nature, meets people, and works his way toward Alaska where he plans to go into the wild and live off the land. He ends up dead.

The beauty of the film is how the story is told. It's not really a depressing movie, although there is a sense of sadness. Chris, the young man, makes various connections with the people he meets along the way, reads, and writes, and we come to know him a bit throughout his journey. We also see the pain of his family, not knowing where he is, or how he's doing. The beauty of the scenery, the sense of place--the actual places Chris traveled--and the music by Eddie Vedder add to the texture of the film. Most of all, though, it's the fine acting, with Emile Hirsch as Chris, and supporting players including Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, and Jena Malone, who make you care about this young man and the people in his short life.

The King of California
Written and directed by Mike Cahill

The King of California isn't horrible, it's just not that good. Michael Douglas does good work as a manic-depressive discharged from the hospital and returning to live with his 16-year old daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood. She's also good. Unfortunately, it's the movie itself that's not so good. I think it's trying to be charming and quirky. TVOR just wasn't that interested.

The Heartbreak Kid
Directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly

This "comedy" has one fatal flaw. It's not funny. Even though it's by the Farrelly brothers and has Ben Stiller in it. It was painful to sit through. Don't go. It would be a mistake.

Video notes:

Michael Douglas, Evan Rachel Wood, and Ben Stiller have all done much better work elsewhere than in these latest releases. See Michael Douglas' performance as a writer with a serious case of writer's block in Wonder Boys. See Evan Rachel Wood in Thirteen (or better yet, in the still-in-theaters Across the Universe). Watch Ben Stiller in any one of a number of films ( The Royal Tenenbaums, Zoolander, There's Something About Mary, Flirting with Disaster, etc.). Or watch the original 1973 version of The Heartbreak Kid, directed by Elaine May and starring Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd. Just don't waste your time on The King of California or The Heartbreak Kid (2007).

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Men on the Moon and Lucy in the Sky


There are a couple of films now in theaters where the lines will be short and the concession stands uncrowded. They're both worth your time, though, and both are best seen on the big screen.

In the Shadow of the Moon
Directed by David Sington

In this documentary, all of the surviving Apollo astronauts (with the exception of Neil Armstrong, who declined to participate) are interviewed about their experiences in the program and during their moon missions. This is paired with some amazing footage, some taken by the astronauts themselves. In the Shadow of the Moon is much more interesting than you'd think a movie would be that mostly consists of talking heads, but these men are very articulate and interesting. They've been doing some thinking about things in the last 40 years. And the pictures from space are spectacular!

Across the Universe
Directed by Julie Taymor

OK, here's the premise. You make a movie (with an actual plot, and actual characters) about a group of young people in the '60, and you do it as a musical, using only songs by the Beatles. Sure, it's not the greatest movie ever. But the fact that it works at all, and is actually pretty darn good, is truly amazing! I mean, who'd think?

Julie Taymor has directed films including Frida and Titus, but is mostly known for her stage work, particularly as the Tony award-winning director of The Lion King. The woman does know how to put together a musical number. And that she does, big-time, in Across the Universe. TVOR particularly liked I Want You (She's So Heavy), sung by Uncle Sam and some robotic soldiers in puppet heads in an army induction center. And then I Wanna Hold Your Hand, sung by one cheerleader to another, as football players do cartwheels in the background. And there's the psychedelic stuff too--well, it was the '60's, after all. Across the Universe isn't deep, but it's sweet and a lot of fun, and the music and visuals are definitely worth the price of admission. The acting and singing, mostly by relative unknowns, is good too. There are some interesting cameos to keep you on your toes, some so short it's hard to be sure they are who you think they are. And yes, Bono is the Walrus.

TVOR is, of course, of a certain age, and the Beatles were the music of her formative years. Her advice: if you know and like the Beatles, and just want to have a good time, Across the Universe is for you. If you're not a Beatles fan, and want a definitive, serious assessment of the '60's, you'll probably want to skip it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fatih Akin!


The Edge of Heaven
Written and directed by Fatih Akin

TVOR was in Toronto at the tail end of the Toronto International Film Festival and actually made it to a screening. This was not easy, as Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven, the movie she selected, was a very hot ticket. Fortunately, it was worth it. The film is the fifth feature by Akin, and this guy is good--and only 34 years old. The Edge of Heaven tells the stories of a number of German and Turkish characters whose lives intersect and intertwine in both countries. The film's themes of forgiveness, redemption, and grace are beautifully expressed and TVOR thought this was a pretty swell movie.

At this point The Edge of Heaven does not have distribution in the U.S., but if there is any justice in the world, it will soon.

Video notes:

Fortunately, a few of Fatih Akin's earlier works are available on DVD, and TVOR has seen a couple, which she highly recommends. Both films have Turkish and German characters and locations. In July, made in 2000, is a lovely road movie, a different take on the genre. Head-On, made in 2004, is a gritty story of two immigrants who meet and marry, mostly so the young woman can escape her traditional Turkish family. These films share a sense of optimism with The Edge of Heaven, and even though bad things sometimes happen, there is a sense of hope at the end of the road.

This guy has the goods. He should be big.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Summer's over, bring on the serious films--


In the Valley of Elah
Written and directed by Paul Haggis

TVOR didn't much care for this film. It was written and directed by Paul Haggis, the same man who made Crash, which won Oscars for best picture and screenplay in 2006. TVOR didn't much care for Crash, either, so maybe she's got some sort of Paul Haggis-related taste issues. In the Valley of Elah, like Crash, has a world view that the viewer may or may not share, and it is difficult to get fully into the world of the film without sharing that world view. There are questions about that world view that would be interesting to pursue--but unfortunately the film doesn't do that. It takes that view as a given and goes on from there.

In the Valley of Elah is about a father (played by Tommy Lee Jones) trying to discover the truth about his soldier son's disappearance shortly after returning home from service in Iraq. Charlize Theron plays a detective from a town near the son's base who tries to help. There is nothing wrong with the performances--Jones does excellent work as the father, and Theron is fine (although all attempts to make her look plain are doomed to fail). Susan Sarandon doesn't have much to do as the young soldier's mother.

TVOR won't say much more, in case you want to see it, as it is better to let the story unfold without a lot of foreknowledge. And if you liked Crash, maybe you'll like this one. TVOR has her doubts, however.

Video note:

Away from Her, the debut feature from the young Canadian actress Sarah Polley, is out on video this week. Ms. Polley wrote her own script, using a Alice Munro story, and the result is one of the best films TVOR saw this year. It stars Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent as a couple, married for decades, whose lives are ripped apart when she starts showing signs of Alzheimer's. It's not depressing or weepy (which, given the subject matter, could easily have been the case), but instead it's a wonderful story about love, and definitely one to see.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007



King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Directed by Seth Gordon

TVOR has a new favorite word, and that word is "chumpetize". It means what you'd think it means--to make a chump of. But it sounds way better. It's used as both a passive and an active verb, and it's really useful, as in "He totally chumpetized you", and "Don't get chumpetized!" Thanks to one of the inhabitants of the world of classic video games we meet in King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, we now have a word to describe something we rightly fear in this complex world, full of people and organizations that would think nothing of chumpetizing us, and would probably even enjoy it. But enough of the vocabulary discussion. And TVOR's paranoia.

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a documentary about world-class Donkey Kong competition, something probably 99.9% of us didn't know existed. It tells the story of Steve Wiebe, a nice guy from Redmond, Washington, who, after being laid off from Boeing, polishes up his Donkey Kong skills, which are considerable, and takes on the Donkey Kong establishment, another thing that 99.9% of us didn't know existed. Steve fights to have his top score acknowledged by Twin Galaxies, the official record-keeping entity, and to engage the current champion in a live, head-to-head match. Will the nice guy finish first? Or will he be chumpetized? And who are all these people? Don't they have lives? Am I that weird about the things I care about?

This film doesn't really need the wide screen, so it's not necessary to run out and see it in the theater--but you probably won't regret it if you do. It's definitely worth catching on video when it becomes available, though. The cast of characters is way more interesting than any you could make up. Which makes you wonder about the remake that's being planned, using actors. What's the point?

Video note:

New on DVD today--

The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach's Palme d'Or-winner from 2006, is a good movie with a bad title. Cillian Murphy stars in this tough, beautiful film about a young Irish doctor who becomes radicalized and joins the IRA in the 1920's.

Monday, September 3, 2007

A western worth watching


3:10 to Yuma
Directed by James Mangold

This western, based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, is a remake of a 1957 film of the same name. There's a very good guy, played by Christian Bale, an injured Civil War veteran struggling, and failing, to keep his ranch going and his wife and two sons fed. There's also a very bad guy, a murdering, stagecoach-robbing outlaw, played by Russell Crowe. The very good guy, desperate for money, signs on to deliver the very bad guy to the town of Contention (great name or what?) to be put on the 3:10 train headed for Yuma and prison. For this job, the very good guy is to get $200. Needless to say, things do not go smoothly. There is blood and shooting and things blowing up and much talk, as the very bad guy is intelligent and articulate as well as a vicious killer.

This is one of those westerns that's about the big issues of justice and right and wrong and heroism and honor. That could be really hard to take, but it all works in 3:10 to Yuma, because the acting is excellent and characters are interesting. Russell Crowe takes over the movie when he's on screen, and that is as it should be. Christian Bale, in a less showy role, is strong too. With these guys, there is no shortage of intensity on the screen. The rest of the cast supports them well, particularly Ben Foster as one of the baddie's henchmen, and Peter Fonda, as a bounty hunter. TVOR swears she saw Luke Wilson at one point, but he wasn't credited, so she may be hallucinating.

For those of us raised on Bonanza and Wagon Train, it's a pleasure to see a western several decades later that's actually interesting. The look, the action, the script, the's a contemporary take on a genre piece, and very well done.