Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Men Who Stare At Goats: Grade C

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)
George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey. Director Grant Heslov.

McGregor is a Midwestern reporter during the first Iraq war who meets Clooney, a military contractor, in Kuwait and he hopes Clooney will take him inside Iraq for a story. The reporter learns that Clooney is actually an undercover American operative, part of a black operation of supersoldiers with psychic powers. Clooney describes the program, started in the 1970’s when the government investigated the military use of psychic powers (true), using a small team of special recruits headed up by a Lebowskian Jeff Bridges.

There is an awful lot of talking head in this movie, with McGregor narrating his whole backstory then Clooney narrating his. That is just poor writing and poor filmmaking. There is plenty of good sketch comedy however, as we see the recruits, who include Spacey and Clooney, develop their psychic powers, some of which involve concentrating hard enough to stop the heart of a hamster and even a goat. But there is enough silliness shown and discussed to make us realize that all these so-called psychic powers were probably nothing but delusions.

So McGregor and Clooney travel into Iraq, for unknown reasons, and are kidnapped, and try to “psych” their way out of the situation. There are again funny sketch scenes, but none with any real point. There is no character development, unremarkable acting, and even the main story idea, of military use of psychic powers, is not treated seriously. So in the end it is just 90 minutes of silly gags like you might expect to see on SNL. Fun, but not worth seeking out.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Good Hair: Grade A

Good Hair (2009)
Chris Rock. Director Jeff Stilson.

In this documentary, Rock explores the world of hair styling for African-American women. He interviews numerous prominent figures, from Kerry Washington to Maya Angelou (and even Al Sharpton), about why they use hair relaxer (sodium hydroxide, a nasty and toxic chemical) to straighten their hair, when they first started doing it, and how they feel about it.

There is also a section showing a huge chemical factory in Atlanta that produces such hair products and runs a beauty school for women to work with African-American hair. There is a brief trip to Chennai (Madras), India to investigate where human hair comes from for “weaves,” the hairpieces many women wear. There were a couple of interviews of black men who discussed what it was like to be with a woman whose hair you were never allowed to touch. The film ends with an annual, national black hair stylists convention, competition and trade fair, which is actually mostly theatrical spectacle and wholesale product promotion, and not much about hair styling, but it allows the film to end on a high note of color, music, and dancing.

I found the documentary completely fascinating, at times horrifying, and often funny. I felt a strong sense of racial divide, since white people are only vaguely aware of the black hair industry and what goes on. Of course it is obvious that movie stars and other entertainers straighten their hair and wear hairpieces. Anyone who was alive in the “afro ‘70s” remembers the original look. But for most of us, especially males, hair products and hair styling, are simply not topics worthy of much attention. Rock’s contribution is to focus attention on the magnitude of the black hair industry (billions of dollars annually), its exploitative nature (nearly all the black hair product companies are white-owned), the widespread extent of black hair straightening treatment, its high cost to individuals, its effect on children and on interpersonal relationships, and its health and safety risks.

These are all important topics that have remained outside the mainstream consciousness. Quite a few of the interviewees were visibly embarrassed to talk about hair treatments in the black culture, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, but suggest some kind of racial tension.

Rock does not attempt to provide any answers. He does not ask, nor do interviewees say, why they feel it is necessary to straighten black hair, except “to be beautiful,” which of course begs the question, why is straight hair more “beautiful” than curly hair? I think we all know that answer to that question anyway. It is media (commercial) manipulation of the country’s norms and values and the failure of the education system to instill critical thinking skill. It’s the same manipulation that makes hemlines go up and down, cars to go in an out of fashion, and people believe that “fast food” is really food. That would be a different documentary, maybe one presented by Noam Chomsky. Rock found a compromise between the need to raise important issues of personal values and the need to entertain an audience with lightweight media fluff. In that regard, the documentary is a masterpiece.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Seraphine: Grade C

Seraphine (2008)
Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur; Co-writer and Director Martin Provost. (French and German, subtitled).

This biopic is based on the life of French painter Seraphine de Senlis, who flourished during the interwar period. She was a cleaning lady who started painting in her forties and was lucky enough to clean house where a famous German art critic (Tukur), was living in France before the Germans invaded. He “discovers” her work and subsequently finances her continued efforts while showing and selling her paintings in Paris.

The highlights of the movie are the costumes and sets which are rich and sumptuously detailed, especially the kitchen scenes. However, the acting is only adequate and the story is virtually nonexistent. That could have been overcome with more focus on the artwork itself, how it was made, what inspired it, what it meant in social context, what Seraphine’s motivation was, or at the very least, more pictures of the actual art. Instead, the movie wants to be about the characters of Seraphine and the art critic, but they are not very interesting people.

Maybe Seraphine de Senlis was uninteresting in real life, so then the movie should have told a story about the art world, or the effect of the war on artists, or the consequences of being transformed from a cleaning lady to an international star, or any number of other interesting stories that could be imagined. But none of that happens here.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Precious: Grade B

Precious (2009)
Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Mariah Carey, Paula Patton; Director Lee Daniels.

Sidibe plays Precious, an obese, impoverished, illiterate black teenager pregnant with her second child by incest. And her situation gets worse from there, if you can believe that. Her mother (Mo’Nique) is the same person only grown up, who lives with Precious on welfare, watches daytime TV, smokes, and reminds Precious how stupid and worthless she is. The school expels Precious for pregnancy but a kind teacher directs her to an alternative school where she might earn a GED. Despite being illiterate, she is soon writing articulate entries in her personal journal and sometimes reading them aloud to the small class. Over time and tribulation, she develops a modicum of self-respect and self-efficacy.

The movie is very well directed, so these stereotypes seem somewhat realistic. While it is basically a maudlin tear-jerker of a story, the outstanding acting, directing, sets, and dialog, get you inside the minds of Precious and her mother, so you are able to glimpse their world through their eyes rather than just shake your head in sociological pity. The overarching theme, that literacy makes everything possible, is too well-worn a cliché to be believable, and seems like an afterthought. Nevertheless, the level of detail selected by the writer and director, and the high quality acting, raise this tale to above average.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Capitalism: A Love Story: Grade D

Capitalism: A Love Story
Michael Moore; Writer and director Michael Moore.

This latest offering from serial documentarian Moore considers the political and economic machinations that led to the financial collapse of 2008. He purports to be shocked and outraged that corporations are in business ONLY to make money, and that politicians are corrupt and hypocritical. Well, maybe those facts will be news to some people just recently arrived to America. Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson was head of Goldman Sachs just before its government bailout? Who knew? Not Moore, apparently.

As for his explanation of capitalism, he is way out of his depth. He obviously has little education in economics. His “people before profits” message is shrill and totally one-sided. The film meanders from one diatribe to the next with without focus or purpose. On the plus side, Moore skillfully interweaves archival footage of business and political figures with contemporary interviews, often humorously, to highlight hypocrisy; and he excels as always in editing his interviews to make his subjects look stupid, malevolent or melodramatically heroic. So his considerable craft is evident. But as for content, there just isn’t any.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Up In the Air: Grade A

Up in the Air (2009)
George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick; Director Jason Rietman.

Clooney is an HR consultant hired by firms to fire people when they need to cut staff. He lives most of his life flying and traveling through airports. Along the way he meets Farmiga, also a frequent flyer, although it is unclear what she does. They strike up a relationship in an airport bar and continue a no-strings attached sexual friendship whenever their travel schedules intersect. It is an extremely slow starter. Clooney describes his life and values in a deadly voiceover and the dialog with Farmiga is so rushed and cute it is simply not believable. The first half hour is boring as mud. That relationship eventually turns extremely interesting however.

Kendrick’s character is a recent hire to the HR firm. She is assigned to travel with Clooney to learn the ropes. Her acting jumps off the screen and she certainly holds her own against Clooney and Farmiga. Her character is clunky, naïve and nerdy alternating with sensitive and sophisticated, but she overcomes the weak writing by sheer force of acting ability.

Sets, costumes, locations, cinematography, and even hair-dos are perfection in this movie. The airport hotels and the Milwaukee wedding are especially cringe-producing in their accuracy. The music is just awful, mostly a nasal folk singer whining over a thin guitar, and they gradually crescendo the sound track until it is deafening and you have to hit the mute button. That happens at least four times in the movie, so there must have been some kind of payola going on to justify it.

And speaking of payola, the movie was well-funded by product placements: American Airlines, Hertz, Hampton Inns, Hilton, to name a few. Nevertheless, a huge collection of production companies was announced in the beginning, so it would be interesting to learn how this picture came together.

The collection of wisely deleted scenes illustrates how the themes of modern alienation, difficult relationships, and economic hardship were carefully refined after shooting. Despite its flaws, I rate the movie highly because of strong acting, especially by Kendricks and Farmiga, but Clooney also acts, a departure from his usual mugging, and because of those poignant existential themes that make it provocative, a movie that makes you think about the human condition in modern America.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

As it Is in Heaven: Grade B

As it Is in Heaven (2005)
Michael Nyqvist, Frida Hallgren; Director Kay Pollack. (Swedish, subtitled)

An internationally famous conductor (Nyqvist) suffers a mild heart attack and decides to retire. He returns to his childhood home, a small village in Sweden, where he soon is the local church’s musical director and conductor of the small choir. He works with the townspeople to bring out each person’s “natural inner voice” and before you know it, they sound beautiful, and have formed an emotionally tight community.

The choir's sound, obviously dubbed by professional singers, is too good to be believed, but the music is quite nice. The conductor develops a special relationship with one of the singers (Hallgren), who cautiously falls for him. Meanwhile, the preacher, an uptight, bible-thumping caricature, is shocked by all the “free-spirited” self expression, resentful of being displaced as the center of attention, and suspicious of his wife hanging out with the new conductor. He accuses the conductor of untoward behavior and eventually dismisses him, right before the choir is supposed to perform in a competition in Austria. This could have been a basketball movie with the same plot – coach is removed right before the state playoffs, but the ragtag team goes on without him… you can guess the rest.

The story is highly stereotyped and predictable, but the acting is excellent, and the sets, scenes and costumes are perfect. The actors are ordinary looking people, not the plastic Hollywood glamour standard, which made them all the more believable. Despite the film’s sentimentality and predictability, the acting, directing, and sense of time, place, and person are so completely authentic that you can’t look away.

Monday, March 01, 2010

The Informant: Grade B

The Informant (2009)
Matt Damon, Melanie Lynsky, Scott Bakula; Director Steven Soderbergh.

Damon is Mark Whitacre, the high level employee of ADM who blew the whistle on the company’s illegal price fixing in the mid-1990’s. In this it roughly parallels the far superior 1999 movie, The Insider, in which Russell Crowe blows the whistle on tobacco company shenanigans.

Whitacre reports the price fixing activity to the FBI, for motives that are unclear, and works for them as an informant for three years, wearing hidden microphones at meetings and so forth. For some reason, perhaps poor directing, there is very little dramatic tension throughout the first half of the movie while this is all going on. It is presented almost as a straight documentary, and the pace is far too slow.

But in the second half it takes a turn when tone and mood are properly separated. Just after the FBI makes the raid on ADM headquarters, Whitacre’s believability starts to break down and the FBI is horrified to learn that all has not been what it seems. The drama develops a light comic tone as incredible (but true) revelations continue to unfold. The last half of the film is quite interesting and the writing seems much stronger.

I had no idea Matt Damon could act, but this proves it. The supporting cast is also outstanding, including Whitacre’s wife (Lynsky) and even a tiny role with Anne Cusack (I love all the Cusacks). Photography is attractive throughout, although a bit heavy on the sepia tones. Everything was not sepia toned in the 90’s – it wasn’t that long ago! Sets and costumes were perfect. So all in all, an enjoyable time can be had with this picture.

The Boys Are Back: Grade D

The Boys are Back (2009)
Clive Owen, Nicholas McAnulty, Laura Fraser, Emma Booth; Director Scott Hicks.

Owen is a single father in Australia with an 8 year old boy and a teenage boy by a former marriage. As a newspaper reporter he struggles to take care of the kids and hold down the job, a familiar theme for the single mom scenario, the single dad theme being not quite as common. The main part of the story is the father trying to connect with the kids for the first time in his life. The story line is essentially non-existent beyond that, just a collection of sentimental family scenes that add up to nothing.

The casting of tough-guy Owen in a sensitive role seems a blatantly cynical attempt to change his career direction. He’s not getting any younger and perhaps he wants to avoid the pathos of the aging action hero (Segal, Van Damme, Willis, etc.). He has always been a competent actor, and he actually cries in this movie. That’s what we’re supposed to notice. But what I noticed was that he was miscast and misdirected. He was given no room to exercise his signature trait of grim resolve or his excellent comic timing, so if you didn’t know who Clive Owen was, you would just say the lead character is really flat in this movie. We’re left with a couple of hours of syrupy, maudlin, domestic claptrap and some lovely photography of south Australia.