Sunday, February 8, 2009

More catching up


There's a good documentary coming into our homes this Tuesday, February 10th, as part of the PBS series Independent Lens:

Tulia, Texas, directed by Cassandra Herrman and Kelly Whalen, is worth turning on the TV for. In the late 1990's and early 2000's, the War on Drugs came to Tulia, a small town in the Texas panhandle. An undercover police officer, paid for by DEA funds, came to town and when he was through, 46 people were arrested on drug charges, 39 of them African American. As the cases went through the courts, defendants pleaded guilty or, if they did go to trial, were convicted and given very long prison sentences, some up to 90 years. Then some of the citizens of Tulia started to wonder about things. The filmmakers talk to all the parties, from the undercover cop to the sheriff to the townspeople to the defendants to the attorneys to the press. A fascinating film, about race and justice and drugs and federal policy and probably some other things too.

If you're willing to step away from the television, here are a couple of good things to see in a theater:

Waltz With Bashir
This Israeli film is an animated documentary about the experiences of director Ari Folman and others as young Israeli soldiers during that country's early 1980's war with Lebanon. In other words, it's a strange animal. An animated documentary? A film about a war most Americans are only dimly if at all aware of? And not so much about the war but of young soldiers' memories of it? How does that all work? Beautifully, actually. Folman's (real) interviews with his fellow former soldiers are animated, as are the memories, dreams, and hallucinations of those soldiers. The film is beautiful and difficult to watch.

Cherry Blossoms
German director Doris Doerrie's film Cherry Blossoms: Hanami (which now seems to be called just Cherry Blossoms) was one of TVOR's favorites at SIFF 2008. It's finally getting a bit of a regular run, starting in the big cities on the edges of the country, and then heading into the hinterlands. Wherever you live, don't dilly-dally, because it's unlikely to play for long. It's the story of aging parents from a small town visiting their busy urban-dwelling adult children, who have little time for them. The film is about families, death, grief, Japan, and butoh dancing. And it's not depressing. It's kind of hard to explain but it's definitely worth seeing.

On video:

Tokyo Story--Cherry Blossoms is an homage (or at least makes reference) to Yasujiro Ozu's 1953 film Tokyo Story. This is no secret, but TVOR somehow missed this tidbit of information, and only made the connection a couple of weeks ago when she saw the older film as part of an Ozu kick she is currently on. Older couple from the country, children living in the city who are too busy for them...hmmm...something is familiar here...oh, yeah! Tokyo Story is a wonderful film, and it's interesting to see it paired with the Cherry Blossoms. Ozu has a very particular style-- his camera is still and low to the ground, there are no quick cuts, people walk in and out of scenes, and things unfold as they might in real life.

Other Ozu titles TVOR has really enjoyed are Equinox Flower and Late Autumn, both made late in his career. The subject matter is very human--that of families and friends and relationships, and the move from tradition to modernity. He continues to use a low and still camera, and adds color in these later films. Every shot is a thing of beauty. Although the films are about the stuff of normal life, they are not dull. People are complicated and interesting, and Ozu shows us that. If you're not familiar with him (and most of us aren't) you could do a lot worse than spend some time with his work. TVOR will be doing some more of that herself in the very near future.

Now for some more recent video releases:

Shotgun Stories--this film got some good press at film festivals last year and had a small run in theaters. You had to be in the right place and act quickly, though, or you missed it. First-time filmmaker Jeff Nichols made this story about two groups of half brothers who have very different experiences and relationships with their recently deceased, alcoholic father. After abandoning his first family, he got sober, found God, and started a new one. The film is a beautifully shot, well-acted (especially by Michael Shannon in the central role) story of revenge (the shotgun does get some use, although not as much as TVOR feared) and heroism and nobility. Sort of. It's hard to describe, but worth watching.

Married Life--this film came and went pretty quickly last year, but it's actually a pretty decent dark comedy. The time is 1949, the place, we assume, is New York and environs. Chris Cooper plays a guy who falls for a young lovely and decides that rather than cause his wife pain by leaving her, he'll do the compassionate thing and kill her. Patricia Clarkson is the wife, Pierce Brosnan is the best friend, and Rachel McAdams is the young lovely. None of these people behave exactly the way he (or we) might expect them to.

Burn After Reading--Joel and Ethan Coen lite. It's sort of a comedy, but although it has its moments, it's not consistently funny. Much of this lack of humor is due to the complete idiocy and unlikeability of the vast majority of the characters. It's not funny if a stupid loser creep slips on a banana peel, it's simply appropriate. And these people slip on some major banana peels. Some of the acting is pretty good, especially that of Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt's hair.

My Brother is an Only Child--this Italian film tells the story of a working-class family in the 1960's. The two sons of the family are drawn in opposite directions politically, yet toward the same woman. It's entertaining, and full of interesting characters.

Pineapple Express--this product of the Judd Apatow machine is sort of a stoner buddy comedy and sort of an action movie. They should have skipped the second part. (FYI, stoners aren't the most reliable people to have around when action is needed.) Seth Rogen is the stoner, the wonderful James Franco is the sweetest drug dealer ever, and Danny McBride is perfect as a courteous, upwardly mobile middle man. Most of the plot and the rest of the characters are forgettable, but if you're feeling shallow, you can have some fun with this one.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Catching up


TVOR has been away from her blog for a long, long time. First, she spent several weeks in Peru, which was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Then she had rotator cuff surgery which was considerably less fun and hampered her typing for some time. Then she went to the Palm Springs International Film Festival and she was back in fun mode.

Now she has returned to her post, watching movies, typing with two hands, and ready to opine. And there's so much on which she can opine. Here are some thoughts on what's out there right now.

Slumdog Millionaire
TVOR saw this before it became a big deal. And she liked it. Good story, good energy, nice visuals, good music. It was a nice little movie. It's not so little any more but it's still good.

This film about the brief political career of Harvey Milk is one of the better year-end releases. Even though everybody knows what happened at the end of that career, the movie still grabs you, with its compelling story and wonderful performances, especially those of Sean Penn and Josh Brolin. Plus it's painfully reminiscent of the 70's and all those unfortunate fashion and hair choices.

The Wrestler
This is definitely one to see. It's a human scale movie, with a story about humans--including the wrestling kind. Mickey Rourke is back, although you may not recognize him. Marisa Tomei is also very good as the stripper in his life. A warning--TVOR had to look away during some of the wrestling scenes. It may be fake competition, but it's brutal. Bruce Springsteen sings a nice song over the closing credits, too--for which he was not nominated for an Oscar. He was robbed.

There aren't too many surprises in this film, but it's an entertaining story and very well-acted. Frank Langella creates a fascinating and complicated Nixon.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
TVOR was really underwhelmed by this one. It's technically very interesting, with great visuals. The problem for TVOR is that it was two hours and 47 minutes of Brad Pitt playing a not-very-interesting character. Sure, he starts old and gets young, but that doesn't make him any less dull as a person. Maybe a great actor could have done something with this, but Brad Pitt certainly couldn't. TVOR tried to care about whether or not he'd get together with Daisy (played by Cate Blanchett) but unfortunately she did not succeed. Daisy was kind of a bitch for most of the movie and who cares if a bore and a bitch find true love? TVOR did like a lot of the supporting characters, especially those played by Tilda Swinton and Jared Harris. Unfortunately they disappeared way too soon. Did TVOR mention that this movie is two hours and 47 minutes long?

The Reader
This wasn't another one that didn't work very well for TVOR. Kate Winslet is good, as usual, but that wasn't enough for TVOR to buy the premise. It's based on a book that TVOR hasn't read. Maybe the book is more credible.

This is a very Hollywood-ish take on a true story of a group of Eastern European Jews who fought back and survived during World War II. It's an amazing tale, and the movie has a wonderful cast including Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell. It wasn't terrible, but it would have been so much better without the whole Hollywood movie feel.

Wendy and Lucy
No Hollywood feel here. A lovely little movie about a young woman living on the fringe of society, in danger of losing what little she has. The film has an excellent performance by Michelle Williams.

Rachel Getting Married
Sure, this one's been out there for a while, but if you haven't seen it yet, do. Anne Hathaway is amazing as the one-woman wrecking crew who descends on her sister Rachel's wedding. Too bad about that guest from hell--the wedding looks like it would have been really cool otherwise. It's in a great location, with interesting-looking guests, and wonderful music. Actually, it's only too bad for Rachel. It's very lucky for the viewers.

Frozen River
If by some miracle this film has reappeared at a theater near you, check it out. Melissa Leo is excellent as a single mother willing to step outside the law to make the payments on a new mobile home for herself and her two kids. And it's not just her performance. The whole movie is good.

Let the Right One In
This is another one that just might still be floating around in a theater. OK, it's a Swedish vampire movie. Don't dismiss it, though. Even if you think you don't like vampire movies, particularly Swedish ones, there's a good chance you'd like this one. It's lovely, and about all sorts of things other than Swedish vampires. Don't question. Just go.

Video notes:

There are many good reasons to stay home and watch videos right now, if it's just a little too much to think about leaving the house.

The Visitor--Richard Jenkins is wonderful in this film about a widower forced back into the world by some unexpected and unwanted guests, but he's not the only reason to see it. Tom McCarthy, the director of The Station Agent, has done it again.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona--This is the best Woody Allen movie in years. With a great (and beautiful) cast, and a great (and beautiful) location, this funny/sad story is a good antidote to winter. You will probably want to make some travel plans.

Tropic Thunder--This is not a particularly good movie, but it's fun and silly does have its moments (particularly in the opening "trailers") and, of course, it also has Robert Downey Jr.

In Bruges--Ralph Fiennes is Mr. Mopey in The Reader, but he's wonderful in this Martin McDonagh film, as are Brendan Gleesan and Colin Farrell, and pretty much everything else, including the city of Bruges. This film is much more interesting than most of the Oscar nominees. And get ready to make more travel plans.

Man on Wire--While most Americans past kid-hood were paying attention to the final act of the implosion of the Nixon presidency, a crazy French man was planning to walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center. This documentary tells the story of that caper, but is about more than just that. One of the best documentaries of the year.

Trouble the Water--This is another must-see documentary. A couple of filmmakers, in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, encountered a woman in the Superdome who had home video of the storm. The film that was developed with her footage is stunning.

Encounters at the End of the World--Werner Herzog. Documentary. Antarctica. See it.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster--You may not think you're interested in a documentary about steroid use, but you actually are. Fascinating and highly entertaining. Another one you really need to see.

Young @ Heart--This is another documentary that you may not think you're interested in, but once again, you are. It's the story of a senior citizen chorus that sings music that might be considered "nontraditional" for their demographic. As in songs by the Clash and the Ramones. TVOR also regards it as a how-to on aging.

Ghost Town--TVOR will be amazed if you saw this in theaters, as she believes only about twelve people did. Maybe a romantic comedy starring Ricky Gervais and Tea Leone was a hard sale. And the trailer was lousy. Amazingly, the film works pretty well. Apparently dead people can be very irritating if they keep hanging around.

So go out or stay home--it's your choice. But do go to the movies.