Saturday, April 4, 2009

Now in theaters, on DVD, or coming out of your computer


The Class
The Class follows a French high school teacher and one of his high school classes over the course of a school year. It's not a documentary, it's a narrative film based on a memoir by the same man who plays the teacher, a fictionalized version of himself. Oh, and the students in the class play are not played by professional actors, either. This may sound a bit confusing but the result is an engrossing story of a dedicated yet imperfect teacher trying to educate a group of teenagers with various backgrounds, capabilities, and levels of interest.

Two Lovers
This movie is about real people and real emotions and as such is kind of a melodrama. And TVOR doesn't mean that in a bad way. Those of us who are real people take our problems and the decisions we must face in life very seriously, even if they don't involve car chases, extraterrestrial bad guys, or international conspiracies. At least TVOR's don't--so far. Maybe yours do. Joaquin Phoenix is just about perfect as a man who has ended up living with his parents and working in their dry cleaning shop. He's depressed and bi-polar. Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw are the two women he's drawn to (or shoved toward, as the case may be). The acting, especially by Phoenix and Isabella Rossellini as his mother, is wonderful (if Rossellini does not win supporting actress awards for this, there will be some serious injustice going on) and the script and direction by James Gray are excellent. There's an overly convenient incident toward the end that TVOR has a quibble with, but she'll let it go.

This corporate espionage caper is also a romance with a bit of screwball comedy thrown in. In other words, it's a little hard to categorize. Tony Gilroy is an established screenwriter whose first directing effort, Michael Clayton, was none too shabby. This is his second effort, and he's two for two. Clive Owen is ex-MI6 and Julia Roberts is ex-CIA (yeah, I know--they're probably prettier than real-life spies, but this is the movies, after all) and they both end up working for large consumer products corporations whose CEOs hate each other's guts. There's wonderful witty dialog, flashbacks, and some plot elements to figure out (do bring your brain to the theater for this one) but it's not so complex as to be a problem. Clive and Julia are very good, and lovely to look at. The supporting cast is good too, although perhaps not as lovely as the leads. Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson play the duelling CEOs--and that is to be taken almost literally. Do not be late for this film, as the opening credits are not to be missed.

Sunshine Cleaning
This film is moderately entertaining, but the acting is better than the plot or the script or much else about it. It's sort of a comedy, sort of an empowerment through cleaning up crime scenes story, sort of a heartwarming recovering-from-what-your-parents-did-to-you story, sort of...well, it's sort of a jumble. But as TVOR said, the acting is good! Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Clifton Collins, Jr., Steve Zahn, even Jason Spevack as the requisite cute kid--all are way better than their material.

Everlasting Moments
Swedish director Jan Troell was kind of a big deal in the U.S. during the early 1970's, when The Emigrants and The New Land were released. They won awards, were nominated for Oscars, and were even pretty popular in theaters, considering that they featured the dreaded subtitles. Now, you can't even get them on DVD.

So it's nice to see that Mr. Troell is still at it, almost 40 years later. His new film, Everlasting Moments, is the story of a woman and her camera in Sweden in the early 1900's. She's a wife (of a guy who is not the ideal husband) and mother (of numerous children) who finds something special when she starts using a camera she won in a raffle. Any way TVOR would describe this film would make it sound corny so she won't say too much. The film works as a portrait of a place and time as well as a story of family relationships and the relationship between life and art. It's probably about some other things, too. And yes, it's beautifully shot. It's about a photographer, after all.

This is a reworking of Twelve Angry Men. It's not like your average Hollywood remake, though. 12 is a Russian take on this story, where the accused is a Chechen teenager on trial for murdering a Russian officer, who is also his adoptive father. Director and co-writer Nikita Mikhalkov (he acts in the film as well) comes up with twelve jurors who are a cross-section of Russia today, and puts them in an old high school gym while they deliberate. Although the word "deliberate" makes the process sound a bit more dignified than it is in the film. A warning--this is a long film (over two and and half hours). It is, however, engrossing and entertaining and worth the time spent.

This film is based on historical facts--facts that were lied about for decades. It's the story of thousands of Polish military officers who were murdered by the Soviet army in 1940. As the icing on the cake, the Soviets later blamed the massacre on the Nazis, pushing the date forward so it would appear to have happened while the Germans occupied Poland. Andrzej Wajda's film Katyn tells this story (in narrative, not documentary form) by following a group of these officers and their families as the horror of what has happened to them is compounded by the official lies and rewriting of history carried out by the post-war Polish government. The movie isn't as wonderful as TVOR would have liked it to have been, given the story it is based on, but parts of it are very effective. She can forgive the rest.

Silent Light
This film takes place in a remote Mennonite farm community in Mexico (apparently this place really exists). One of the farmers is convinced that he has ended up with the wrong woman, a situation complicated by the fact that he has seven children by the wife in question. There's not a whole lot of plot here, but there is a whole lot going on as we settle in and get a feel for life in the community and the crisis that this man and his family are dealing with. Silent Light is gorgeous to look at and listen to, and mostly acted by amateurs from the Mennonite community. The limited dialog is in an obscure Mennonite dialect that sounds sort of Germanic. Except for an occasional stop sign, you'd never know you were in Mexico.

The following movies have been out for a while, but may still be hanging around in theaters:

This Italian film about organized crime in Naples (the real name of the group is the Camorra--the film's title is a play on words) is a good one. It's not a romanticized view, and is about as non-Godfather-like as it could be. This is not a criticism of The Godfather--TVOR loves The Godfather. (At least parts 1 and 2.) It's just that this is a different animal. There are no Shakespearean arcs to the story, no tragedy or nobility. Instead, this film, based on a nonfiction book, is about organized crime that takes over an entire neighborhood and permeates all business activity. The criminals are a pretty unimpressive lot, not given to introspection. The filmmaker, however, takes the story and makes it about more than just a group of crooks in a city in Italy. Life is very cheap in the world of this film, but surprisingly, the amount of violence the audience sees on screen is relatively low. Gomorrah is one to see.

The International

TVOR had hope for this film. The director is Tom Tykwer, who made Run, Lola, Run, The Princess and the Warrior, and Heaven, all of which TVOR really liked. The cast is made up of actors who can act, people like Clive Owen and Naomi Watts. The film isn't terrible, but it's not great either. It's a cerebral thriller that isn't particularly thrilling, and not as cerebral as it would like to be. It's pretty nicely put together, though, and there's an entertaining shoot-out at the Guggenheim Museum (actually, it's a replica, but it's still a cool shoot-out). Just keep your expectations moderate, to minimize disappointment.

Gran Torino
Dirty Harry gets old. That's basically what Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood's latest movie, is about. Clint was good as Dirty Harry and he's good as Old Dirty Harry, too. In fact, the whole movie is not bad. Unfortunately, though, much of the supporting cast just doesn't have the acting chops to pull it off. TVOR understands that there probably aren't large groups of Hmong actors around from which to cast some key roles. But it would seem that perhaps a bit more could have been done to make these important characters more convincing.

Video Notes:

2008 theatrical releases are continuing to be available on video. If you haven't caught them yet, TVOR particularly recommends Milk, Rachel Getting Married, Frozen River, and Let the Right One In, all of which she's talked about in earlier posts. The following are also worth checking out:

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist--a tale of Nick and Norah, two high school students who have only just met, and who spend one night traveling the streets of New York City in search of a band, Norah's misplaced drunken friend, and some other things, too. They do it with a soundtrack of some very cool music in this sweet but not icky sweet little tale. A movie about teenagers that grownups will like too.

Tell No One--this is a tasty French thriller about a man who, eight years after his wife's murder, starts getting strange messages and indications that his wife may still be alive. There are all sorts of interesting characters and mysteries within mysteries, but the complexity doesn't get in the way of the fun. Our hero spends a fair amount of time trying to evade the police, and the whole thing has sort of a Hitchcock feel--in a very French way, of couse.

The House Bunny--this film is definitely in the "guilty pleasure" category. Ana Faris plays a Playboy bunny who gets thrown out of the Mansion and has to find her own way in the cold cruel world. Naturally she finds her way to a college campus where she gets a job as a housemother in a sorority house about to be shut down because the remaining few unattractive, loser girls can't get any new pledges. She finds this spot after being rejected by the house full of beautiful, popular girls. What will happen? There aren't many (if any) surprises in this story, although the quality of the script and the acting are pretty surprising, as well as the sweetness of the story. This movie is not great art, but it sure was a lot of fun.

And, coming to a computer near you:

Sita Sings the Blues

TVOR loved writer/director/animator Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues when she saw it at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2008. So did everyone else she knows. Theaters were packed, and some people not given to seeing movies twice in a short period of time actually planted themselves in more than one screening. It was the kind of movie TVOR wanted to recommend to her friends, except she couldn't because it never got released. Why, you may ask? Well, copyright problems. The film is an animated story sort of following the Ramayana and sort of about the break-up of a contemporary marriage, with songs by Annette Hanshaw, a blues singer from the 1920's who basically no one has ever heard of. The problem was the songs by the obscure singer, which were copyright protected. Nina Paley didn't have the money to pay for the use of the songs, and no distributors wanted to pick up the tab either. So that was that, except for film festival screenings, where the film met with much acclaim, and the random PBS showing, as somehow copyright issues do not apply to public TV. If you don't understand this, neither does TVOR. Anyway, this very strange but wonderful little movie has been denied to most of the world.

There has been progress, though. Ms. Paley scraped up some money (partly raised online), paid for the rights, and the film is available for download at For free. Yes, it's amazing but true. You can watch in on your computer screen or burn a DVD for no money whatsoever. TVOR hasn't actually tried this yet, but she hears from competent friends that it works, and she's sure you can figure it out. Given the film's torturous path to digital distribution, though, it would be nice to throw a few bucks Nina Paley's way if you like the movie (which you will). You can also get T-shirts, mugs, and other trinkets with the Sita graphics. Every little bit helps, and we want Nina Paley to keep making original and wonderful films like Sita Sings the Blues.