Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 45: Sophie's Revenge

I really have to work at not reading enough to spoil the movies I'm interested in before I've seen them. It's worth the effort: I don't want someone else's opinion to color my first reaction, and I hate knowing what's coming next because some reviewer outlined too much of the plot. But I feel like I'm constantly battling the barrage of publicity filmmakers and distributors want you to see, and I don't always win. Sometimes I don't get to be surprised enough by a film because I know too much about what's in it. And sometimes a clever publicity hook reels me into a movie that's not really for me.

That happened yesterday with Sophie's Revenge, a self-consciously Hollywood-style romantic comedy from China that's part of this year's New York Asian Film Festival. Whoever wrote the blurb for the festival's website got me with this: "You need to know: the conspiracy is real. 20 years ago, American film distributors secretly met with the CIA and were told that it was their patriotic duty to convince audiences that China was hell on earth. To that end they agreed to only import Chinese movies about unwashed orphans riding in the backs of rusty trucks through industrial hellscapes populated by unwed mothers sitting in the dirt and crying over their abortions."

They're exaggerating, of course: The NYAFF has always been largely about giving earnest joylessness a good kick in the head. But they have a point. I've fallen in love with several recent movies by Jia Zhangke, Hou Hsiao Hsien, and other Chinese directors, but none of them has exactly made me want to sign up for a cruise down the Yangtze. So I thought it would be fun to see a piece of silly Chinese escapism.

But lightweight escapism is only fun if it's light on its feet, and Sophie's Revenge is pretty flatfooted. Zhang Ziyi, who gave herself the title role (she produced the movie too) is loaded with charisma, but even she couldn't get me to root for Sophie's harebrained scheme to avenge herself on the fiancé who dumped her for another woman. The problem's in the script or the editing, or maybe both, which make it glaringly obvious from early on that Sophie's plan is misguided and that her real soul mate is right there beside her, so her single-minded focus on revenge makes her look either hopelessly stupid or obnoxiously self-absorbed—and unappealingly childish.

I probably could have forgiven even that if the comedy had been sharper or the romance more appealing (I'd like to see what Pedro Almodóvar would do with this premise), but there's a canned feel to it all, from Sophie's Sex and the City-fabulous bitchy/glamorous girlfriends to her Bridget Jones-style penchant for talking like an empowered feminist but acting like a girlish klutz.

Well, I guess China's entitled to its own cut-and-paste rom-coms. And I'm entitled not to like them.

Written for The House Next Door

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 44: The Return

The idea that you can watch as many DVDs as you want for one monthly price and keep them as long as you want with no late fees, which drew me to Netflix a decade or so ago, already feels too restrictive. The discs I order one day are rarely what I'm in the mood for when they arrive, so they tend to sit by the TV for weeks while I download others from the Watch Instantly list. Sure enough, when I got home from a live performance too late to go to a movie theater last night, I skimmed through the instant downloads and found The Return, a Russian movie from 2003. I'd missed that when it came out, and it sounded like just the thing.

I used to think it would bother me to watch movies on my laptop, but the sound and image quality are usually just fine, and I sit so close that the image takes up about as much of my field of vision as the screen in a movie theater does even when I sit near the front, as I usually do. Watching a movie like The Return does make me wish for a bigger screen, though, since so much of its power comes from its visuals.

The Return feels very Russian: moody and brimming with significance and potential tragedy even when nothing much seems to be happening. Like Sunflower, it starts with the return of a father from a forced labor camp—at least, I assume that's where he was, though we know only what his sons know, and they're never told. In both films, there's a son who has no memory of this authoritarian stranger and resents his intrusion in what had been a very happy life. But the similarity ends there, since Sunflower takes the gauzy, art-house soap approach to the story, while The Return is intense but elegantly spare.

There are two brothers in this story: Andrey (Vladimir Garin), who's probably about 15, and Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov), who's probably about 13, though that's just a guess since the script doesn't bother with that sort of extraneous data. The film follows the boys day by day, starting with the one before their father appears. On his first day home, he takes them on what's supposed to be a fishing trip, though it turns out to be a tense, often perilous journey with a mysterious goal and a tragic twist. None of the three talk much, so we learn about them mostly by watching them cope with setbacks and test each other's limits—and, ultimately, their own. Their uncommunicative, unsmiling father appears at first to be untrustworthy, maybe unstable and certainly cruel, but it gradually becomes clear to us, if not to the increasingly resentful Ivan, that he's just trying to give his sons a crash course in the survival skills he's convinced that they need.

From the moody greens of the shoreline and beautifully decayed buildings of the boy's hometown to the black-and-white stills we see at the end, like a slide show of their lives shown in reverse order, it's all beautifully shot—so beautifully that I wish I had seen it on a bigger screen. Guess it's time to hook up my TV to the Internet.

Written for The House Next Door

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 43: Grown Ups

In the SNL skits and silly comedies that made his bones, Adam Sandler acted like a slightly funnier version of that guy who cracked you up in English class, a likeable, friendly doofus who’d be a lot of fun to have a beer with. But he’s always struck me as meaner and more complicated than that, a passive-aggressive alpha dog who stays on top at least partly through bullying and intimidation. Comedians are always competing with and riffing on each other, so it might be too harsh to call what Sandler does bullying, but I left his latest movie, Grown Ups, feeling as if Hollywood had given me a great big wedgie.

The overgrown boys in this ironically titled movie are supposed to be great friends, but they haven’t seen each other in decades. The five get together for a Fourth of July weekend (the tossed-off pretext is the funeral of their beloved junior high basketball coach), where they try to recreate the lost glories of their youth, and, of course, learn valuable lessons. It’s a lot like Hot Tub Time Machine – only meaner, since this reunion feels like one long frat hazing, as they ogle hot chicks and riff on each other’s shortcomings.

Rob (Rob Schneider) is goofy-looky, New-Age-y, and too uncool to hide his emotions. Lenny (Sandler) has put on weight, and Eric (Kevin James) is downright fat. Marcus (David Spade) is still living like a member of the Rat Pack (though it’s not clear whether his friends look down on his behavior or envy it.) And Kurt (Chris Rock) is a henpecked househusband. Not that his friends ride him much about that. They don’t need to; his live-in mother-in-law, who comes along for the weekend, does it for them.

The women get it even worse in this casually misogynistic parade of pain. Rob’s wife, Gloria (Joyce Van Patten) is (horrors) older than he is and (gasp) not even hot, but what’s worse is that she and Rob actually have sex. Ewwww! Kurt’s mother-in-law has really ugly feet and can’t seem to stop farting. Old women are just so gross, aren’t they? Then there’s Eric’s pathologically clueless wife, who still breastfeeds her doted-on four-year-old son while ignoring her furiously unhappy daughter. As Lenny’s fashion designer wife, Roxanne Salma Hayek rebels at one point, protesting that she’s not some cold-hearted, workaholic dragon lady and she won’t let Lenny make her out to be one. Nice speech, girlfriend, but it’s too little too late. Maya Rudolph comes off best as Kurt’s wife, partly because she seems smart and self-aware and just as quick on the draw as the guys (she gets off a couple of mildly funny jokes about her own hugely pregnant belly), but mostly because they didn’t develop her character enough to give her any distinguishing characteristics, good or bad, other than that baby bump.

Sandler is listed as the cowriter of Grown Ups, but it feels like it wasn’t so much written as pieced together from the notes an assistant jotted down while Sandler and a couple of his acolytes riffed. All the main characters started out as comedians, and so did a lot of the people in supporting roles (Colin Quinn, Tim Meadows, and Norm McDonald all make appearances), and their interactions mostly play like a one-upmanship contest backstage at a comedy club. They do get off a few funny lines, like when Meadows and Rock argue over which of them is the town’s token black guy and which is “the other black guy,” the one people are afraid of. But for the most part, Sandler and posse are just interested in scoring points off each other – and laughing at people who don’t look or act the way they’re “supposed” to.

I’ve sat next to guys like that in class, too, but I didn’t enjoy it.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 42: Crime Wave

Just about everything I've written about so far in this Movie a Day series is pretty easy to find no matter where you live: If it's not in a theater near you, it's on DVD or due out soon. But not Crime Wave, the 1985 film I saw last night. It was selected for a one-night screening by Not Coming to a Theater Near You, which should give you an idea of its status. According to the film's director, John Paizs, who was at the screening for a Q&A afterward, Crime Wave was released on VHS (as The Big Crime Wave, since Sam Raimi released Crimewave that year), but it's not on DVD or Blu-ray.

That's a shame. Crime Wave is a gas, probably the most inventive movie I've ever seen about the agony of trying to fill an empty page. Paizs plays the tormented screenwriter, Steven, who's a whiz at beginnings and endings, but can't figure out what to put in between. After the screening, Paizs said he knew he wasn't a good enough actor to read lines for the part, but he figured he could pull off a silent role. He was right: His speechless schmo's stunned-fish affect gives him a primal, Harpo Marxish innocence that's both comic and endearing.

We learn what Steven's thinking by seeing discarded bits of his writing played out and by listening as his landlord's precocious preteen daughter, Kim (Eva Kovacs), addresses the camera or provides voiceover narration. Kim has a major crush on her neighbor, so she follows him closely, becoming an expert in all things Steven Penny. Paizs gets her voice surprisingly right, but this is no World of Henry Orient-style coming-of-age heartwarmer. It's much odder and more stylized than that.

Paizs was an illustrator and then an animator before he was a live-action director, so it's not surprising that he put a lot of thought and creativity into the movie's look (he even made the dramatic, '30s- and '40s-style crime movie posters that paper Steven's apartment.) During the Q&A, he said he made the movie as a rebellion against the realistic, documentary-style features coming out of his native Canada at the time. He was going, he said, for a "more stylized, '50s-style aesthetic," and sure enough, his saturated colors and lurid title sequences could have come from a Douglas Sirk melodrama. The soundtrack is amped up too, shunning the aural wallpaper of ambient sound to emphasize noises like the crinkling of the pages Kim rescues from the garbage can where Steven threw them. Paizs's model, he says, was "the very limited palette of sound that you would hear in a radio play."

The shaggy-dog plot zigzags between the often absurd "color crime" scenarios Steven cooks up or gets into, making a few stops to follow Steven as he explores the town or to peer in on Kim's stolidly middle-class parents, who are framed and lit like zoo specimens. That loose structure leaves plenty of room for pungent little spoofs on then-new cultural phenomena like Amway salesmen, self-help gurus, and TV puff pieces about successful artists. Paizs also throws in some mini-lectures that evoke those earnest how-to films that used to be so popular in the '50s, and some pure, goofy surrealism, like the sight of Steven with a broken streetlamp stuck on his head like a freakishly elongated, intermittently glowing helmet.

This kind of movie isn't for everyone, as Paizs pointed out last night: "I feel like I'm defending it a lot," he mused. Realizing how limited the audience was for this film, he says, made him resolve to do something more mainstream the next time around. For years, he tried writing scripts with more traditional characters and stories, but "there was nothing new or special…I really kind of lost my way and lost my individuality."

I'm sorry to have discovered him just to find out that there's not much else to see. But I did find his second film, Top of the Food Chain (also called Invasion!), on Netflix. I look forward to seeing what weird pleasures that one contains.

Written for The House Next Door

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 41: The General

I have a confession to make: I outed a celebrity last night. I felt mortified the moment I'd spoken the words, so I blame Buster Keaton. I had just seen The General and was out of my head with Buster-induced bliss, and so, when a comic actor I love gestured me onto the escalator, I blurted, "Steve! It's Jeff Garlin!" My husband had the presence of mind to ask Garlin if he'd just seen the movie too, and wasn't it great? "Yes, just about as great as anything can be," Garlin said. "It made me so happy."

Exactly. It's always an enormous pleasure to see this Buster Keaton classic, which may be my favorite of his feature-length films (though The Cameraman also delights me from start to finish). But to see it on a big screen, in a print recently restored by the Museum of Modern Art, preceded by two reels of brave and brilliant physical comedy from Steamboat Bill Jr. and accompanied by Ben Model? Heaven/I'm in heaven...

Most of the pleasures of The General are the same every time you see it, of course. Train conductor Johnny Gray is a prototypical Keaton hero, with his wistful melancholy, valiant heart, and frenetic bursts of astonishing action, not to mention that beautiful, soulful, sloe-eyed face. Marion Mack is as game as Buster's leading ladies always had to be, her Annabelle Lee making Scarlett O'Hara look downright prissy and passive. The impressively realistic costumes and sets include military camps and battle scenes, but rather than glorify war Buster mocks it, showing the gallant Johnny's hopeless incompetence as a soldier (it's amazing how much comic business he can find in one discarded saber). And that's not to mention the incredible stunts, all done without benefit of CGI or even stuntmen, or the laugh-out-loud funny but psychologically acute little bits of business that set up the characters and their relationships, like when Annabelle's father tosses out a photo of Johnny with the junk mail.

But you don't watch your favorite movies over and over just to see the same things every time. The films may not change, but we do, so there's always something new to appreciate. This time around, I was struck by how well The General's pacing still works, four generations after its 1926 debut. The world was a much slower place then and movies were still a pretty new medium, so filmmakers tended to draw things out far longer than they do now, keeping the camera running as actors held a dramatic pose or playing out scenes for what now feels like an eternity. But Buster's pacing, which probably felt breakneck at the time, still holds up. The General opens with a sweetly funny, narratively economic setup that packs a lot into a short time. One bit, for instance, about two kids who follow him everywhere, tells us something about what a good guy Johnny is, provides us with an elegant variation on the old walk-this-way joke, and culminates in a beautiful little bit where Johnny tricks the kids into leaving him alone so he can court Annabelle.

As soon as we know everything we need to understand about our hero and his situation, we hurtle into the almost nonstop action of the rest of the film. Who knew you could wring this much suspense and laughter from a chase scene involving steam engines? Buster, who co-wrote and co-directed The General, also co-edited it, and I suspect it was he who made sure we always see just what we need to and not a frame more. There's great comic timing in these edits, but there's also a genius's understanding of his medium. That train of Buster's will always run ahead of the curve because he knew how to electrify us just enough to galvanize our imaginations without shorting them out.

Written for The House Next Door.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 40: Living in Emergency

A title card at the end of Living in Emergency announces that Doctors Without Borders (or MSF, the acronym for its original French name) treats 10 million people a year. Just as you’re absorbing that impressive figure, another card announces that 2 billion people live outside the reach of any kind of medical assistance. That one-two punch distills the impact of this thoughtful documentary, which conveys both the satisfaction of saving one life at a time and the difficulty of turning your back on countless others in need—or, as Chiara Lepora puts it, “the nonsense of not doing something once you know something needs to be done.”

Lepora is the head of a Liberian mission, one of two MSF beachheads the movie explores (the other is in the Congo). Both countries were chosen because of the horrendous civil wars being waged there, since MSF’s emergency-medicine triage system starts with choosing which parts of the world are in greatest need of doctors.

You might expect a documentary about MSF to focus on the people it treats—or, like 2009 Documentary Short Oscar-winner Smile Pinki, to tell the inspirational tale of one charismatic patient while providing cameos of others. Director Mark Hopkins does a little of that, showing us heartrending cases like a Congolese father shot in the head in his own home, or a young daughter with one arm torn open by a bullet, still in the fetal position from the trauma of seeing her whole family gunned down. He also provides a few glimpses of the horrors these patients or their countrymen have endured (one particularly vivid segment shows teenage soldiers laughing while terrified civilians run and a grief-maddened woman weeps on Liberia's chaotic streets, during the war one doctor describes as "pretty apocalyptic, really.") But that's all just the backdrop for this movie's real subject: how MSF's doctors process their stress, grief, guilt, and frustration—and what motivates them to keep working for the organization or to quit.

The film touches on other interesting issues in passing, like the tension between local doctors and nurses and these expat "experts," the copious smoking and drinking that helps the doctors release stress, and the "huge level of responsibility" they feel as they triage, their decisions made all the more difficult by constant shortages of needed supplies. We also witness a lot of anger directed by MSF staff against each other. At one point, Lepora insists that MSF doctors aren't saints. "It is not about being a good person. It is not about that," she says. Living in Emergency makes a convincing case that she's right—and that that's good news for us all. MSF docs, it turns out, are just fallible, flawed human beings, doing what comes naturally to at least some members of this war-happy species.

Written for The House Next Door

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 39: Wah Do Dem

The softer they come, the softer they fall in Wah Do Dem, a microbudget indie (it was shot for about $75,000) about a blinkered Brooklynite. Max, played by a mouth-breathing, deadpan Sean Bones as a hipster Napoleon Dynamite, is the kind of plaid-shirted, knit-capped, self-satisfied lad you can't picture much more than five miles from Williamsburg. Or, as a fellow passenger on the cruise he won in a contest puts it: "Surprise, surprise. You don't fit in everywhere in the world." Of course, in real life, Max would have sold the cruise on Craig's List, or used it as a launching pad for some arty project, the way co-directors Ben Chace and Sam Fleischner decided to make the cruise Chace won into a setting for their first feature. But I'm glad he didn't, since his story turns out to be an entertaining culture clash fable.

Wah Do Dem (the title, which is never explained, apparently translates roughly to "What's wrong with them?") starts slow, with too much footage from the cruise (hey, did you know people eat and drink a lot and dance really badly on those things?). But then we land in Jamaica and things start to get interesting. Max's provincialism and narcissistic faith in his own coolness make him an easy mark for hustlers, and the dumb decisions he keeps making leave him more and more stranded, but it's all irie in the end. Literally losing his shirt sets him off on a journey—by car, bus, motorcycle, and ultimately on foot—that gives him the taste of "the real Jamaica" that he was looking for.

Max's excellent adventure could easily have degenerated into PC cliché or offensive exoticism, and it does slide dangerously close to that edge when a fellow passenger on a bus turns around to introduce himself and self-consciously performs a song, or when a red-eyed mystic (Carl Bradshaw) takes Max on a walk through tall weeds while chanting a nonstop monologue about the meaning of life.

Some pointless herky-jerky camera movement toward the beginning nearly made me seasick, and there are too many tourist's-eye shots of picturesque shacks and crippled dogs. But some of the landscapes are so gorgeous and the faces so interesting that they register despite the uninspired camerawork, and there's lots of good music, both by Brooklyn musicians (including Bones) and Jamaicans. Eekamouse sings a song, and Norah Jones, who makes a couple of brief appearances as the girlfriend who dumps Max just before the cruise, sings a duet with Bones on the soundtrack.

Best were the scenes that have the immediacy and energy of unrehearsed reality. In a pickup soccer game Max joins, the elation he shares with strangers in a bar when Obama's win is announced, his wordless flirtation with a girl at that bar, and his encounter with a young man who first tries to rob him and then decides to help him, Wah Do Dem captures enough Jamaican flavor and street wisdom to say a little something about what the people in steerage have to teach the folks on the upper decks.

Written for The House Next Door

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 38: Vagabond

Writing about the latest from Agnès Jaoui yesterday made me think about another Agnès who makes movies in France: Varda, that great soul in a little body. Varda's late-career autobiography, 2008's The Beaches of Agnès, was my first taste of her work. Since then, I've since seen only Cléo from 5 to 7, so the pleasure of watching everything else for the first time still lies ahead. Except for Vagabond, that is, since I watched that last night on, which is hosting a pretty comprehensive Varda retrospective.

Watching this matter-of-fact masterpiece made me wonder how much Gus Van Sant was thinking about Vagabond when he made Last Days—and how much Varda herself thought about Mouchette, another poetic yet starkly realistic meditation on the final days of a doomed young protagonist, when she made her film. We first encounter Vagabond's free-spirited Mona (Sondra Bonnaire) as a dead body in a ditch. The slow downward slide she takes in the flashbacks that follow include plenty of menacing or melancholy moments, but Varda's film is much lighter than the other two, both tonally and literally, thanks to the lovely natural light that suffuses virtually every scene.

An unseen narrator who's trying to puzzle out who Mona was and how she died interviews people who encountered her during her last year of life. Sometimes these "witnesses" talk to the camera or to a man we see only from behind, but mostly we see shards of Mona's recent past play out. We learn about her less from anything she says than from her determined stride, amused glances, quick temper, and easy laugh, and from the un-selfconscious pleasure with which she does simple things like eating an apple or kissing one of the lovers she takes along the way. We also learn about the society she rejected.

The people Mona comes across in her travels are no more simplistic than she is, so her interactions with them are often surprising, like when she shares a hearty laugh and some brandy with an elderly woman who comes alive only in Mona's unpatronizing company, having been written off by her live-in companion and her few remaining relatives. But at least as often as she makes a temporary friend, Mona runs up against predatory men and people who can't be trusted, like the duplicitous nephew who puts the old woman in a nursing home so he and his greedy wife can have her house.

Varda has a photographer's eye, and the beautiful scenes she keeps laying at our feet are as full of life as Mona's unfettered laugh. The camera has a habit of panning over a scene before Bonnaire walks into the frame or lingering after she's gone on, so we can savor eloquent images like the shot of Mona and a bunch of other drifters she has briefly taken up with, all heaped together like alley cats, or the flustered goat she sees trying to escape as a boy circles it tightly on a moped and a barking dog keeps it jammed up against a tree. Or like Mona herself, drunk and boiling over with aimless energy, banging into the phone booth where — unbeknownst to her — that no-good nephew is justifying his decision to betray her. The unfocused anger Mona seems to be expressing there is more than justified, as Varda shows us. That nephew's betrayal is just the last in a long line of selfish or thoughtless acts that land this vital young woman in that drainage ditch.

Written for The House Next Door

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 37: Let It Rain

Director/writer/actress Agnès Jaoui is often compared to Woody Allen. I can see why: Her talky, often obnoxious protagonists generally come from or aspire to the cultural elite, the observational humor that suffuses her films lightens even some of the darkest scenes, and she has a way of touching lightly on deep issues in movies that at first appear to be interested only in the daily concerns of a small clan. But if I were going to compare her to an American filmmaker, it would be Nicole Holofcener (Please Give), who has those same things in common with Jaoui and then some.

Maybe because they're women, Holofcener and Jaoui root their movies in the shifting sands of interpersonal relationships, while Allen's pictures tend to explore the internal landscape of one (usually male) protagonist. Maybe that's also why the questions Jaoui and Holofcener raise aren't about the big existential issues that torment Woody, whose characters are always ruminating about the meaning of life. Instead, they're about things that devil us on a day-to-day basis: like class, race, gender, and social mores. And surely it's why, like Holofcener, Jaoui generally puts women at the center of her stories, though her films include plenty of sympathetic men—including Michel, Let It Rain's likeable loser, who's played by Jean-Pierre Bacri, Jaoui's creative and life partner (he co-wrote and stars in all three of Jaoui's films).

Michel is an incompetent filmmaker. At first he seems relentlessly annoying, but we come to see him the way a former producer describes him: as a good person who just isn't good at doing anything much. He's making a documentary with Karim (Jamel Debbouze), a hotel clerk who wants to be a filmmaker. Karim is supposedly learning from his former teacher, though in fact he's much smarter and more gifted than Michel. Tasked with filming accomplished women, they decide to start with Agathe (Jaoui), a self-involved feminist author who's running for political office.

The deftly woven story introduces us to the characters two by two, only gradually revealing how closely they're all related to one another as they experience a series of little events, which are sometimes serious, sometimes absurd, and sometimes both. Every time you're about to decide it's not adding up to anything much, the tone shifts and you're hooked again, watching relationships teeter on the edge of collapse or come back together. As in life, things change all the time, and often because of something as minor as a chance encounter. Karim's relationship with a coworker, for instance, switches from indifference to infatuation one day when he snaps at her as she comes in, follows her into the coatroom to apologize, and hears her crying on the phone.

There's some funny stuff, including a running joke about bad filmmakers as Michel finds endless ways to botch his documentary and puff up his resume (his claim to fame, we learn, is a movie he made about bullfighting from the point of view of the bull.) Agathe, who is far from perfect but doesn't deserve the criticism everyone heaps on her, is an object lesson in how hard we are on independent women, particularly if they call themselves feminists. And Karim and his self-effacing mother, Mimouna (Mimouna Hadji), who has been a live-in servant to Agathe's family for her whole adult life, provide a window into the exploitation of ethnic minorities. But what Let It Rain illuminates best are the little pleasures and discomforts of middle-class life.

In one of my favorite scenes, Agathe waits in a farmer's house with Michel and Karim after they've driven to the country to shoot an interview and gotten stranded due to Michel's imcompetence. Agathe has missed a rally where she was supposed to give a speech, the farmer is gazing at her from just inches away as if he wants to eat her, and she has an earache that aspirin can't help. She barely speaks, but her agony comes through loud and clear. It's funny, yet you feel for her too, and that combination is the essence of a Jaoui movie.

Written for The House Next Door

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 36: Last Best Chance

Another documentary about the foiled fight for U.S. immigration reform from How Democracy Works Now, Last Best Chance delivers the message that was missing from the other film from this series that's playing at the Human Rights Watch festival. Mountains and Clouds zooms in so tightly on the macro view of the fight to pass or derail a relatively small piece of legislation that we never learn what motivates the fighters, but Last Best Chance takes the wide-angle view.

Directors Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini and editor Jane Rizzo lay out the stakes this time with admirable clarity and impact, starting with a prologue that explains the need for immigration reform. The filmmakers aren't above using Power Point-style lists or that honeyed, voice-of-reason voiceover that I found so annoying in both films, but they don't resort to those often. For the most part, they stitch together powerful snippets of conversation, speeches, and lectures by eloquent and impassioned people.

The bill being debated this time around is the mother of them all: comprehensive immigration reform. The film starts with the debate over the film introduced by senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain in May 2007, then follows the fight as it gets really down and dirty after the right-wing Republican talk-radio and TV talking-points machine shreds its basic premises. (Sneering at the bill's effort to bring undocumented immigrants "out of the shadows" on Bill O'Reilly's show, Ann Coulter says: "Who cares if they're living in the shadows? They're illegal!")

We also hear from political heavy-hitters like then-Senator Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Lou Dobbs, and a kinder, gentler McCain, who reads from a newspaper account about the terrible deaths suffered by undocumented workers in the Arizona desert. But the star of this show is Kennedy. Visibly weakening as shooting progresses, though no mention is made of his illness, he's the white-haired knight credited with having "made us a multi-ethnic, multicultural society" with the immigration bill he championed in 1965, an effort he is determined to build on now.

Kennedy is everywhere, cajoling and praising his staff, telling them war stories, and explaining the art of riding the Senate's ever-changing political tides. He also makes some of the most stirring and eloquent speeches in a film that brims with heartfelt and moving oratory. The best is the one he reads on the Senate floor just before the bill goes up for a vote. Framing the fight for immigration reform as the latest great civil-rights issue, he reminds the Senate that this is about "the family values of people who want to work hard, men and women of faith, people that care about this country and want to be a part of the American dream...Now is the time, this is the place," he thunders. "Are we going to vote for our hopes or are we going to vote for our fears? Are we going to vote for our future or are we going to vote for our past?"

As in Mountains and Clouds, the filmmakers are good at detailing the politics involved, making even wonky stuff like cloture and "killer amendments" easy to understand. And once again, they get excellent access to key people, though only on the pro-immigration side. I got a little backstage thrill from listening to one of the activists, whose constituency gives him some clout, though he has no official role in the debate, telling Karl Rove "you have kicked our ass from one side of the room to the other" before trying to win back some of the ground the outnumbered Republicans have stolen out from under the Democrats. I'd say that's a pretty vivid lesson in how democracy works now.

They also capture a few small-scale moments that hint at the toll the fight takes on the people involved, like when one of the activists puts her very young-sounding daughter on speaker phone to talk about when she'll get home. "Um, well, there's another big vote at 7:30 tonight," says the mom. "Okay. Well, do you think you can maybe watch it from home?" asks the daughter, who's clearly an old hand at this negotiation.

By this point in Last Best Chance, there's no question why a mother would sacrifice dinners with her daughters for the fight over immigration reform, which the filmmakers and their subjects see as nothing less than a fight for the soul and the future of our nation. The directors couldn't resist ending with one of their pious voiceover comments, but I think they could have ended with New York Senator Chuck Schumer. Speaking to the press after the bill was defeated, he says: "When you study why great countries fail, it's because they're unable to deal with the problems facing them. They devolve into petty little disputes and appeals to the lowest common denominator, and those prevail."

Written for The House Next Door

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 35: The Killer Inside Me

Even if it weren't directed by Michael Winterbottom, I'd have gone to The Killer Inside Me just to see what gets people riled up over movie violence these days. The first question after it screened at Sundance was from an outraged woman who asked why the festival had shown it, and the discussion since has focused mainly on whether or not the film is unforgivably violent and misogynistic.

Well, I've seen it now, and I don't understand the objections. No doubt, violence is too common and way too commonly sanctioned in our society. And yes, movies are partly to blame, since they're a big part of the way we communicate with each other about violence—not to mention the way we exploit and glamorize it. But I believe movies are more a reflection than a cause of our love affair with violence, so our protests against movie violence are usually a matter of killing the messenger. That seems to be the case here.

We all draw the line somewhere different for movie violence. What bothers me is when it's in a film just to titillate or show off a filmmaker's new toys, or when it glorifies killing or warfare. I was offended by the endless battle scenes in Avatar, which felt like one long orgy of CGI effects designed to indulge James Cameron's love/hate affair with the military, but I didn't object to the no-tech, drawn-out murders in The Killer Inside Me. When Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), the film's psychopathic deputy sheriff, beats two women to death with his bare hands in scenes that drag on for several minutes each, I think Winterbottom shows that horrific detail not to sell tickets, but to make sure we grasp just how sickening the killings are. Like Jim Thompson, whose novel the movie is based on, Winterbottom isn't interested in violence per se, but in what lies behind it. He wants to know what kind of man would kill so brutally—and apparently senselessly, since Lou murders the women who love him most.

What bothers me about The Killer Inside Me is that it doesn't answer that question. It tries, but I just didn't buy the glib references to Lou's childhood that were apparently meant to explain how he got sex twisted up with violence. And, since Lou is the ultimate unreliable narrator, I didn't believe what he said about the "score" he had to settle that supposedly led to the first killing—which led, in turn, to the rest.

This isn't a bad movie; it's just not a very good one. It has a surprisingly laconic tone considering the subject, as if Winterbottom were leaning over backward to avoid sensationalism. Images like the sight of Lou's fiancée's gloved hand crawling toward the toe of his boot as she lays dying were often riveting, but the words too often edge into clunky literalism, like when the lyrics of the country songs on the soundtrack spell out what's going on or when Lou tells us: "The trouble with growin' up in a small town is everybody thinks they know who you are."

We get it, deputy: The folks in your town all think they know you, but none of them really do. We just don't want to be in the same position when the end credits roll.

Written for The House Next Door

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 34: Toy Story 3

I'll get to Toy Story 3 in a minute, but first I wanted to tell you about something else I've been thinking about today. We're designed to search for patterns, so I guess it's no surprise that you can't see a lot of movies without noticing trends. Sometimes it's something minor, like a stylistic trick you see repeated or an actor who keeps popping up. But when two movies open a window onto the same little slice of life, it can change the way you experience both. That happened to me the other day when I came across For Neda, an HBO documentary about Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman who was killed by a government gunman during the protests that followed Iran's last election.

As it happens, I'd just seen Women Without Men, one of the characters of which was a fictional forebear of Neda: a strong-willed young Iranian woman who defied taboos and risked death half a century ago to protest an illegitimate regime. Women Without Men was a little too underdeveloped and For Neda a little too didactic for my taste, but as I watched one and thought of the other, they melded into a kind of double exposure. Like Astaire and Rogers, in that quote about how he gave her class and she gave him sex, each movie made me appreciate the other more: The art-house film gave the documentary historical perspective, and the doc made the fiction film feel more urgent.

And now for our feature presentation.

I always feel grateful to movies that don't let me down, so if Toy Story 3 had feet, I'd be kissing them now. This lovely little movie never thinks too much of itself or too little of its audience. The characters keep looking to the past, but unlike Cars, which is still Pixar's only major misfire, Toy Story 3 is no emotionally hollow exercise in nostalgia.

We pick back up with Woody and pals when their owner, Andy, is about to go to college. Like jilted exes, each of the toys has its own way of dealing with rejection, and the filmmakers don't gloss over their anger or pain. There's also some scary stuff involving an evil daycare center where the toys get pressed into bondage by a cartel. A nightmare vision of toddlers from the point of view of their battered and beheaded playthings, that bit is an extended take on one of Pixar's first shorts, 1988's Tin Toy, but much better looking, of course, since the technology has improved so since then. As Ed Gonzalez pointed out, this part of the movie is also "practically a statement on gentrification," showing how the privileges enjoyed by the haves depend on the suffering of the have-nots, though a feel-good resolution undermines that message.

But Toy Story 3 isn't, like some kids' movies, just a flimsy envelope wrapped around a pious message. This is a film about living in the moment that leads by example. The filmmakers give us plenty of action, laughs, and interplay between old friends and new, and they do it all with a precise and loving attention to detail. They play with genre, giving us a bit of film noir, a heaping helping of great-escape, and the whacked-out Monument Valley western that opens the film, complete with a fight on the top of a trainful of orphans. And they make it all look amazingly lifelike.

The toys' movements and faces are so expressive that I never got tired of the visual joke when they assumed their positions on the floor or in a toy box to fool the humans, limbs akimbo and faces back to their bland, factory-issued expressions. Their surfaces are marvelously realistic looking too—not just the sleek plastic that was the easiest to mimic with early computer animation, but the nubby fur of a well-loved teddy bear or the grimy, battered tin of a toy telephone. And we've all see a doll like Big Baby, with its lumpy cloth legs and permanently half-closed eye.

My favorite new character is little Bonnie, a human child who becomes the new keeper of Andy's flickering flame. Watching her spin stories for her dinosaurs and dolls to act out, I wondered how many kids play that intensely with anything other than a video game these days. Maybe Toy Story 3 is unrealistically nostalgic after all.

Written for The House Next Door

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 33: Mountains and Clouds

The second movie in a 12-part series on the politics of U.S. immigration reform, Mountains and Clouds is an IV injection of inside-baseball maneuvering for political junkies -- but directors Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini have bigger ambitions than that for the series. As Robertson says on the series website: "Our hope is that if you watch the shows, and get to know Esther or Frank or Alfredo, or Randy, Margaret, Becky, pretty much any of our friends who helped us get these movies made, they will inspire you to be a more active participant in the running of this country." It's a noble goal, but I wonder how many of us are up for it. All I could think, after watching this earnest film, was: I'm not worthy.

Robertson and Camerini picked a great topic and had great luck in their timing. They even end this one with a kind of cliffhanger, warning that the battle it covers strengthened the hand of anti-immigration zealot Tom Tancredo and his allies. But the earnest tone of Mountains and Clouds (the film is named for the Calder sculpture in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building) made me long for a little more sizzle and snap. A little time behind the scenes with the anti-immigration activists, for instance, might have given this more insight into that point of view, and more effectively dramatized the gap between the two sides.

The filmmakers, who spent six years filming, started in early September 2001, when comprehensive immigration reform looked likely. Then the World Trade Center towers fell—an event they wisely refrain from showing yet again. Immigration dropped way back on Congress's agenda and got mixed up in talk of terrorism and protecting our borders. The directors got very good access to some of the key people working for reform, primarily aides to senators Sam Brownback and Senator Ted Kennedy and staff of an immigration reform advocacy group. As they strategize, schmooze, and react to setbacks, the intensity and sincerity of their commitment is clear. So, for the most part, are the stakes, though I suspect you need to watch more of the series to get the filmmakers' take on why we need immigration reform to begin with.

A large part of this film focuses on the political maneuvering to try to pass just one small bill: a law allowing illegal immigrants married to U.S. citizens to stay in this country while waiting to have their cases heard. After a small but effective anti-immigration group whips up sentiment against it, the pro-immigration people decide to drop it and save their political capital for a bigger fight. In the silky, NPR-ish voiceover that periodically adds context and measured commentary, Robertson says Kennedy's immigration aide estimates the law would have saved 80,000 families a year from traumatic separations.

That's a moving insight, but the focus is generally on the people making the laws, not the people affected by them. Mountains and Clouds sometimes descends into mind-numbing procedural detail, like when Brownback's aide chortles geekily about his own story of how Senator Byrd finessed some obscure parliamentary point to get his way. This movie may show us how the sausages are made in D.C., but it's a strictly fat-free affair.

Written for The House Next Door

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 32: Women Without Men

For all of our famously shortened attention spans and YouTube-enabled lack of tolerance for anything over nine minutes these days, the institutions that support storytelling still favor long stories over short. Just as it's much easier to publish a novel than a short story, theaters and film festivals, and just about every other venue for showing films, favor features over shorts. That must be frustrating for filmmakers who gravitate to the short form, who can either stay with what comes naturally and struggle to be seen or go long and risk diluting their work. I wonder if that's what happened with Shirin Neshat in Women Without Men.

Neshat is a visual artist whose photos and short videos are beautifully composed statements about the oppression of women in fundamentalist Islamic regimes. I haven't seen any of her work in a gallery, her setting of choice, but what I've seen online and in magazines looks powerful and intriguing.

She and her husband and frequent collaborator, Shoja Azari, adapted her first full-length feature from a novel by Shahmoush Parsipour. The novel tells interlapping stories of five Iranian women in the '50s (the film condenses it to four), all oppressed by men in various ways, who find freedom and solidarity in a beautiful, semi-mystical old orchard. Neshat's settings and compositions are gorgeous and her film is full of strong performances, but it feels like a series of loosely connected and sometimes didactic set pieces. With a little tweaking, a lot of these segments might have made good short videos—in fact, you can see one on YouTube. But they don't add up to a coherent movie.

The narrative feints this way and that—first toward character development, then an anti-imperialist reading of Iran's recent history, then magical realism—without staying long enough with any of them to hook us in. The one theme that abides throughout is the suffering these women endure at the hands of men and the peace they find in their girl-power paradise. That garden is a comforting myth, but the movie would have been a lot stronger if it had either given us a clearer picture of the real world outside the orchard's iron gates or steered clear of reality altogether.

Written for The House Next Door.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 31: Honeymoons

There's a wonderful new film about the near-insurmountable hurdles facing a charismatic young couple that just wants to escape a repressive regime and live out their modest dreams. It's Bahman Gobadi's Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, and if you haven't seen it yet, you need to find it on movies-on-demand or add it to your Netflix queue.

Honeymoons really, really wants to be that movie too. But instead, it's the cinematic equivalent of a Theodore Dreiser novel, a social-justice story with its heart planted firmly in the right place but its author's heavy hand too much in evidence. The interactions too often feel contrived, the dialogue is clumsily expository, and the camera keeps pushing into people's faces to focus on welling tears or thousand-yard stares of despair.

The honeymoons of the ironic title are those of two young couples, one from a small town in Albania and the other from Belgrade. In typically literal-minded fashion, the screenplay underscores the similarities between these young innocents from warring cultures by sending each to a lavish family wedding before they try to escape to Western Europe. By the time they head out, you understand why they need to leave a place where murderous enmities divide people even within families, corruption runs rampant (even a bus driver expects a bribe), and nothing quite works the way it's supposed to. So we root for these four underdeveloped but clearly sensitive and sympathetic young people—mournful Maylinda, gallant young Nick, musician Marko, and bravely smiling Vera—to get to a better place, even as we know that vicious thugs, cruel cops, opportunistic fellow refugees, and deterministic filmmakers will get between them and their freedom.

It feels obnoxiously privileged to mock a movie haunted by the ghosts of so many real people. But while those tormented souls might appreciate director Goran Paskaljevic's well-meaning attention, they deserve a better story.

Written for The House Next Door

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 30: The Girl on the Train

One of my favorite kinds of film, when it's done well, is the sort that mimics reality so faithfully you feel as if you're watching life unfold. Directors like Mike Leigh, Rahmin Bahrani, Laurent Cantet, and Jia Zhangke keep the neorealist flame burning in their movies, using a lot of improvisation and mixing real people with gifted professional actors to tell documentary-style fictions about a particular place and time and the people who live there. The plots of these movies are sometimes so loosely constructed they barely provide a through line, let alone a neat dramatic arc, but the insights and interactions they capture keep them interesting, whether they're character studies of a person, like Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, or of a place, like Zia's studies of the monumental changes taking place in China these days.

André Téchiné may not be part of the nuclear family of neo-neorealists, but he's definitely a member of the tribe. The Girl on the Train, which I missed in theaters earlier this year but caught last night on pay-per-view TV, fits into that tradition, with its artful mix of fact and fiction (a title card at the end identifies it as "a work of fiction inspired by true events") and stalwart refusal to fit reality into too neat a box. In the end, The Girl on the Train was a little too shapeless and inconclusive even for my taste, but I'm glad I saw it, as there was a lot in this beautifully shot meditation on human nature that I loved.

The actors bear a lot of the burden of making movies like this succeed, and Téchiné lined up some world-class sherpas. Émilie Dequenne, who looks like a cross between Drea de Matteo and Alia Shawkat, is enigmatic yet sympathetic as Jeanne, the "girl" of the title (she's really more of a young woman, stuck in that awkward place between adolescence and adulthood). But most of my favorite parts of The Girl on the Train involved watching the mesmerizing Catherine Deneuve, who plays Jeanne's mother, Louise. Deneuve is something of a muse for Téchiné (she's been in six of his movies, starting with 1981's Hôtel des Amériques), and he gives her as much screen time here as anyone else but Dequenne. That gives the actress space to develop a nuanced portrait of a woman who leans back from life, though she can be warm too. I loved watching this cool character interact with the toddlers she tends to at her in-home day care. She also has great chemistry with the emotionally accessible Michel Blanc, whose sad-eyed stillness helped center The Witnesses and who plays a lawyer here.

Jeanne and Louise still live together and are very close (Jeanne describes them as inseparable), yet they seem emotionally distant too, each one enclosed in her own private world. So it's not too surprising that her mother is taken completely by surprise when Jeanne draws some swastikas on herself, cuts herself up a bit, and claims she was attacked by anti-Semites on the train. Louise has no idea why her daughter would have done such a thing, and neither do we, since the film offers no explanations. Not even Jeanne seems to understand why she did it, but the second half of the movie offers some markers that may light the way to the truth.

Earlier, when Jeanne's boyfriend is arrested as an accomplice to a drug dealer, one of the cops who questions Jeanne tells her she needs to "learn to open your eyes." That pretty much sums up what we see of this clueless young woman, who seems to be drifting through life with no discernible interests other than rollerblading and travel, no common sense, and no marketable skills (when she applies for a job, her interviewer muses: "Your exact skills escape me"). The camera sometimes shoots her through a scrim of trees or water, the visual equivalent of our murky sense of her inner life.

That murkiness can feel a little frustrating, and there's a lot of business with a bar mitzvah in the lawyer's family that seems irrelevant except as a way to shoehorn some Franco-Jewish culture into a movie touching on French anti-Semitism. But I appreciate the fact that Téchiné didn't invent some tidy reason to explain why inchoate kids like Jeanne—and Tawana Brawley, to name just one from our own recent headlines—do this kind of thing every so often. And whatever motivates them, as this movie implies, you probably can't find it by digging too deeply.

Written for The House Next Door

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 29: Tom Jones

Some people I've talked to about this Movie a Day series have said, well, sure, you can find interesting movies in New York, but it's not so easy out here. We just have one art house within driving distance, or none, or one movie theater, period. Like the great Humungus, I feel their pain: One of the things I love about New York is how easy it is to find good movies here. But trust me, you can do that anywhere these days. Some places just require more digging than others.

I know because I've spent most of my adult life in towns that didn't have a ton of movie options, and I still write about movies for a newspaper entertainment supplement in Central Jersey. Every week, I review a movie that has just opened or is about to play in a theater in one of the towns covered by our dozen or so papers. These include college towns like Princeton and New Brunswick, which have a lot more options than average, but the pickings can still get anorexic when you rule out the movies you can find can find on DVD, on TV, or online if you have a high-speed internet connection and some on-demand movie channels. But interesting movies also get screened at quite a few non-commercial theaters -- mostly in colleges and libraries.

Take this week, for instance. When I saw that the only new movies opening in TimeOFF's area were The A-Team and The Karate Kid, a thin-looking pair of '80s retreads, I kept looking. Turns out Tony Richardson's Tom Jones is screening next week at Princeton's public library. I'd liked the bits and pieces I'd seen in passing on TV over the years, so I was glad for the excuse to see it yesterday (I downloaded a streaming video from Netflix and watched it on my laptop). Here's my TimeOFF review.

Tom Jones

Director Tony Richardson’s brilliant 1963 adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 18th-century novel Tom Jones is silly, smart, and endlessly energetic. Richardson, one of the young British directors who pioneered the kitchen sink school of social realism, was quoted in his New York Times obit as saying he was tired of filming “the rainy, industrial cities of the North” when he came up with the idea for this film. “I wanted something full of color and fun," he said.

Richardson’s comic romp packs in all the key episodes of Fielding’s busy plot. The birth and adoption of the bastard infant Tom Jones is covered in a brisk prologue shot in the style of a silent film, complete with exclamation-studded title cards and Keystone Cops-style music. Then the credits run and we’re back to conventional sound for a story that’s divided into almost equal halves. In the first, we follow the young adult Tom (a beautiful young Albert Finney) as he grows up on his adoptive father’s estate, fools around with the gamekeeper’s daughter, and falls for the lovely and sensible Sophie Weston (Susannah York), the daughter of a neighboring landowner. In the second, we go on the road with Tom after he’s banished from the estate and forbidden to see Sophie.

Fielding was the first novelist to keep reminding his followers that they’re reading a piece of fiction. Richardson translates those reminders into devices like stopping action in freeze frames, having characters address the camera directly, and adding a worldy-wise narrator who comments wryly on the characters’ progress.

Fielding piled on the distractions like a novelistic Jerry Bruckheimer, starting with Tom and Sophie’s idealized and ultimately triumphant love. There are the swordfights the gallant Tom keeps getting into as he defends the honor of one woman or another and the Dickensian coincidences in which people keep running into people they’re intimately connected with – often in ways they never suspected. There are farcical sequences where people rush in and out of rooms, narrowly missing each other. And there’s plenty of sex as Tom pauses to dally with a nonstop procession of women and girls.

Unusually explicit for their time, the sex scenes seem pretty tame now, but they still feel fresh – and far more life-affirming than most of the face-sucking and soft-core porn that passes for love-making in movies these days. Richardson finds ingenious ways to imply the guilt-free and fully consensual game that sex seems to be for Tom and his partners, most famously in the foreplay scene where Tom and one of his bedmates face each other at a dining table, trading quiet grunts and sleepy smiles as they devour their food in more and more explicit ways.

But Fielding and Richardson were also interested in social commentary, so Tom encounters outcasts and low-lives as well as the posh set on his action-packed journey to London. The movie’s impressively detailed and often convincingly greasy and grimy costumes and sets make it one of the earliest realistic portrayals of 18th century England. In one unforgettable set piece, a bloodthirsty horde of dogs and lords on horseback stream after a terrified hind, abusing their own horses and trampling other people’s barnyard animals until they overtake the poor thing and tear it to shreds.

The people in this social satire are broadly drawn types, which must have presented the actors with a challenge. But they rise to the occasion almost without exception, stressing one note to the point of absurdity without ever winking at the audience or descending into camp caricature. Fielding’s parade of hypocrites, fools, and a few honest folk gives us some delicious villains, like the Lady Bellaston (Joan Greenwood), who sounds like Elizabeth Ashley and acts like Prince Machiavelli, or the poisonously envious Bilfil (David Warner), who hides his black heart under an unctuous exterior.

A good man who sees only good in the people he meets, Jones is as one-sided as the others. He’s a sweetheart, but the real star of this movie is its all-seeing, all-knowing narrator, Fielding’s authorial voice translated to celluloid. A man of the world who can forgive just about every sin but hypocrisy, he invites us to embrace our imperfect selves and meet life with an open heart, like Tom Jones always does.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 28: Cropsey

A too-long exploration of too many blind alleys, Cropsey pulls out all the scary-movie stops. Plinkety-plonk piano music plays over voiceover pronouncements about how "every suburbia has its secrets" and talk of Cropsey, the axe-wielding or hook-handed bogeyman Staten Island kids used to scare each other with. Meanwhile, the camera creeps across forest floors or pans the now-deserted interiors of the infamous Willowbrook home for the developmentally disabled, which are often filmed at night, for no reason other than to make them look that much creepier. But that carefully constructed sense of dread doesn't jibe with the central story, an amateur-detective exploration of the presumed kidnappings and murders of a series of Staten Island children.

For a while, it looks as if Cropsey is going to be about a community's scapegoating of an innocent man. After Jennifer Schweiger, a good-natured little girl with Down's syndrome, disappeared from her home in 1987, police arrested a disturbed-looking homeless man, André Rand, who was soon found guilty of her kidnapping. There was no evidence linking the two, though Schweiger's body was found on the grounds of Willowbrook, where Rand had worked as a custodian and where he went back to live after it was closed. While Rand was in prison, the Staten Island police revisited their cold cases involving missing children, decided that four might be linked to Schweiger's killing, and put Rand on trial for the killing of a second young girl. This time, plenty of witnesses were available to link him neatly to the crime.

A little too neatly, perhaps. The voiceover's many references to scapegoating give credence to the skepticism that is expressed by many of the people interviewed, who claim the locals needed a bogeyman to blame for the disappearance of innocent children and found a handy one in Rand. But just as we're almost convinced that Rand is a kind of real-life Boo Radley, Cropsey switches course. Unaccountably late in the game, the filmmakers start to look into who Rand really is, and they learn things about his past, his reported ideas about the need to "cleanse the world" of people with developmental disabilities, the "more and more bizarre" letters he wrote to them, and even a reported admission of guilt that make it look as if the police might have arrested the right man after all.

Co-directors Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zernan (he wrote the script and does the voiceover) sometimes put themselves on camera, playing detective as they plumb the mystery of who killed those kids. But they're more Inspector Clouseau than Nancy Drew, giving every kooky theory they encounter equal time and failing to ask some basic follow-up questions. For instance, why did Rand's sister say she thought he was manipulating the filmmakers? Why did the cops think those four other cases might be connected to Schweiger's? If Rand told the minister he stayed with just before his arrest that he killed Schweiger, why didn't the minister testify during his trial? Meanwhile, they keep going off on tangents, often repeating themselves in the process. And the more they talk about urban legends, rumors of devil worship and necrophilia, or the fact that Staten Island has long been a dumping ground for New York City's detritus, the less I understood what any of that has to do with the deaths of these kids.

By the time it fizzles to an end, Cropsey hasn't shown us anything to match the horror of the 1972 TV exposé of Willowbrook it excerpts. Whatever you may think about the young reporter who filed that report, you gotta admit: Geraldo Rivera knows how to tell a story.

Written for The House Next Door

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 27: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

As she keeps pointing out in this clear-eyed documentary, Joan Rivers is 75, but she's as driven as ever. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work shows its subject running after the electric rabbit of fame, with insecurity, resentment, and an insatiable need for acceptance nipping at her heels. It would be a tragedy if she weren't so damn funny.

Surprisingly funny, in fact—and surprisingly angry. If you've only seen her on network TV, A Piece of Work has news for you: Rivers can swear like Richard Pryor, her live act includes jokes about anal sex, and when a heckler attacks her, she rips him to shreds. Talking about her early career, she tells filmmakers Ricki Stern and Ann Sundberg how transgressive she was for the times in the '60s. What she doesn't have to say, since the film says it for her, is that she still has the power to shock, and Lord knows that's not easy to do these days.

This movie made me think about Comedian, a documentary about Jerry Seinfeld that apparently reflected its subject's personality as neatly as this one reflects Rivers's. The Seinfeld of Comedian was part of a neurotic, intensely competitive, but close-knit community of comedians who, like cops, had far more in common with each other than with regular folk. In contrast, Rivers is usually alone in A Piece of Work, though she's sometimes attended by somebody whose main focus is her needs: her patient daughter, Melissa; her New York or L.A. personal assistant; the couple that keeps her ludicrously opulent Upper East Side apartment running; or her manager of many years, who she parts with during the filming of the movie.

She feels sorry for herself for being so lonely (Rivers cries a lot in this movie, always for herself), but Melissa points out that her mother brings on the isolation herself, making no effort to reach out to other people and burying herself in her Blackberry in public places. And sure enough, even when she's talking to one of her most ardent fans, Rivers seems withdrawn, her face generally averted and her side of the conversation limited to a happy murmur or a "Thank you." Maybe it's partly embarrassment about her angry-doll face, which is so distorted by her compulsion for plastic surgery that it's messed up even her relationship with the cameras she craves. ("Be nice," she says to one set of photographers. "Not too close.")

True to his public persona, Seinfeld revealed almost nothing of his private life in his movie, but Rivers happily fillets herself here, analyzing the anger that fuels her comedy, her relationships with Melissa and her husband Edgar, and her bottomless need to be on top. She's always funny, except when she starts feeling sorry for herself, and the more clearly her toxic mix of self-pity and self-loathing and the black hole of insecurity and rage at her center come into focus, the more impressive it is that she can extract so much humor from them.

Rivers has always struck me as the kind of woman who appeals more to a certain type of gay man than to women like me, with all that bitchy competitiveness, how far she'll go to look the way women are "supposed" to look, and the contempt she rains down on women—most famously Liz Tayor—who violate that code and "let themselves go." A Piece of Work didn't turn me into a fan, but that's not what it's after. Instead, and much more interestingly, it showed me what drives this old greyhound, and why she can't bear the thought of leaving the track.

Written for The House Next Door

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 26: War Don Don

How does a nation cope when a civil war? How does it heal? There are way too many examples we could study to answer that question these days. War Don Don looks at one of the newer methods: holding an internationally sanctioned war crimes trial to create an official record and to punish those judged to have borne "the greatest responsibility."

The title means "war is over" in Sierra Leone's Krio language, but Rebecca Richman Cohen's documentary shows how tenuous the truce is in a country where, just a few years earlier, people were enslaving, raping, and amputating body parts from their neighbors, if not killing them outright. It also looks at how hard it can be to distinguish between victim and victimizer, especially when most of the soldiers who committed the atrocities were conscripted as children and brainwashed/terrorized into becoming brutish outlaws.

War Don Don revolves around the trial of Issa Hassan Sesay, the second in command of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), in an international court that convened in Sierra Leone almost immediately after the end of the war. The RUF fomented civil war for a decade starting in 1991. Its initial aim was to free the people from corrupt one-party rule (or so it claimed), but it soon degenerated into its own nightmare version of corruption and abuse. In league with Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, the RUF became a scourge rather than a savior for the people of Sierra Leone.

The documentary's drama doesn't emerge from whether Sesay will be found guilty; we hear his sentence at the start of the movie and then at intervals throughout, as we watch different people react to the news. The dramatic arc is the change in our own reactions to the verdict. The first time I heard it, I felt like the amputee who says he feels vindicated every time the word "guilty" is applied to one of the perpetrators. But as Cohen knit together a 360-degree view of Sesay, it became harder for me to see his sentence as a simple triumph of justice.

First-time director Cohen trained with Michael Moore (she was an intern on Bowling for Columbine and an assistant editor on Fahrenheit 9/11), but she doesn't seem to have absorbed any of his trademark methods. This somber doc carefully avoids editorializing, giving equal time to a wide variety of opinions and leaving it up to us to make up our own minds. Even questions about Sesay's essential nature are left open. Is he, as one of the court's chief prosecutors is convinced, literally soulless? Or is he the "intelligent and charming" person the lead counsel for the defense describes as "a man I've come to like a lot, actually."

The real question is how much responsibility Sesay bears for the atrocities committed by RUF troops. As his lead counsel puts it: "Was it a criminal organization or was it an organization that contained a huge number of criminals?" The prosecutor is convinced that the RUF's leaders ordered the mayhem, even reveled in it. "As the rule of law slipped down the gutter and into the drain, they did it because they could," he says. "It was Mad Max Thunderdome. They just had fun doing it." But Sesay's lawyers are convinced the guerillas were too disorganized to have been controlled like an official military. They argue that Sesay had no idea about many of the things many "thugs" were doing under him, in a system of which he too was a victim.

What's never in doubt is the nature of the crimes. Diamond-hard facts are read into the record, and evidence is written on the bodies of survivors. Cohen interviews the head of an amputee soccer league, showing us one member balancing on crutches to kick with his one remaining leg. She gathers man-on-the-street opinions about Sesay's guilt and how best to handle it from people like a man shopping for produce with hooks and a beautiful young woman with a bandaged stub where one hand used to be. And she draws out one heartbreaking moment in the trial when a woman testifying about having been forced to laugh at a pile of severed heads breaks down when she recalls seeing her own child among the dead.

Cohen may leave things a little too open. The film barely touches on some of the issues it raises, like the cost of the international court and what else that money might have been used for, the ethics of convicting some war criminals on the testimony of others who go free, and the hidden workings of the court itself. But when it comes to the sticky question of what to do about the people who get sucked into the maws of 21st-century killing machines not as victims but as killers, War Don Don gives us plenty to chew on.

Written for The House Next Door

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 25: 12th & Delaware

12th & Delaware takes place almost entirely within—or just outside—two innocuous-looking one-story buildings on the sunny Florida street corner of the title. One is an abortion clinic and the other is a "pregnancy center" run by Christian foes of abortion, put there to confuse and divert the women who come to the clinic for abortions. Cutting back and forth between the two, this knockout documentary anatomizes anti-abortion zealots' relentless fight to end abortion by any means necessary.

It starts inside what turns out to be the anti-abortion storefront, though it takes a while to figure that out, putting us in the same position as the mostly young women who wind up there. We stay long enough to get a clear picture of what goes on there, following Ann, the thin-lipped director, as she "counsels" a few women, talks to her staff, and discusses her work. Ann's main tools are the free ultrasounds she gives every woman who comes in and the miniature plastic baby dolls she shows them, claiming that they look like their fetuses. She also leaves them alone in the waiting room long enough so they can read the literature there, which is full of frightening misinformation about abortions.

Across the street, protesters stand outside the clinic whenever it's open, holding posters of bloody fetuses (and traumatizing the kids at the grade school down the street, as the mother of one tries to tell them) and trying to dissuade patients as they go in. They also harass Arnold, the man who picks up and drops off the doctors who will work there, bringing them in with sheets over their heads so they can't be identified and picketed at their own homes—or worse.
By the time we go inside the clinic, we don't need to be told why Candace, Arnold's wife and the clinic's director, is eying the protesters nervously through burglar bars and half-closed blinds. In a visual manifestation of that unease, the filmmakers sometimes show the protesters as seen by the surveillance cameras the abortion clinic installed as one of its safety measures, but this movie's power comes from its content, not its mostly undistinguished format.

Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, Freakonomics) switch back and forth between the two camps, penetrating equally deeply into both. We hear from Ann, who sees the abortion clinic as a business whose owners just want to make money by killing babies, and muses, "The evil is just so powerful… but it will end. I know that. I just don't think it's going to be pretty." We hear from Father Tom, the minister who inspires her, whose innocuous manner belies his fiery preaching. "There's got to be demons involved" in abortion, he says, calling the people who support a woman's right to choose "diabolical" and part of "the powers of darkness." We even get in the car with an angry anti-abortionist as he follows Arnold to his pickup spot and identifies the license plate of one of the doctors, crowing about how he'll pass on the doctor's name and address to people who will know what to do with it.

The filmmakers also film several women as they are counseled in the pregnancy center, following some outside to get their perspective. One, who seems as sure of herself as Ann is, takes a break from her attempted indoctrination to tell a friend: "This bitch is getting on my final nerve. If I have the baby, she's not going to get up in the middle of the night and make a bottle." Another, convinced to forego her abortion at the beginning of the movie, talks to the filmmakers later at home, when she is seven months pregnant. Staring wistfully out a window, she talks about the home remedies she tried to end her pregnancy, scared by Ann's spiel about the dangers of legal abortion.

Meanwhile, inside the abortion clinic, Candace talks about the women she counsels, comforting them with a grandmotherly concern and repeating her mantra about wanting to make sure that "this is what you need to do. Not want to do. Nobody ever wants to do this." She goes through clippings about doctors who were murdered by anti-abortion activists. And she talks about the fire that was set in her office a few months earlier and the guns and bulletproof vests her doctors all carry to protect themselves. "I just want to cry," she says. "I want to go over there and shake those people. What are you doing? Why are you messing up these girls' lives? Why are you playing around with them like that?"

There's no need for a voiceover, though title cards add context now and then, telling us things like the fact that there are 4,000 pregnancy centers in the U.S. and only 816 abortion clinics. But mostly we just listen, to people on both sides of the divide and to women who are caught in the middle.

A report from inside a powerful campaign of domestic terrorism that may already have won, 12th & Delaware is a real-life horror story. "It was gruesome," says one young woman after her talk with Ann, as she sits in her car with the friend or sister who accompanied her. "It was like watching a scary movie."

You said it, sister.

Written for The House Next Door

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 24: Oceans

With the BP gusher in its eighth week, yesterday seemed like a good time to meditate on what we're screwing up, so I checked out Oceans, Disney's latest live-action postcard from Mother Earth. Directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud also brought us Winged Migration, and they get just as close to the underwater creatures here as they did to those birds, capturing some similarly dramatic and touching moments. But where Winged Migration's story was almost as gripping as its images, detailing the challenges, perils, and sheer scale of migration, Oceans skips along the surface of its subjects' lives like a stone bouncing across a lake.

The cinematography is impressive: The filmmakers get amazingly close to these animals, and the lighting approximates the feeling of natural light. A night sequence on an ocean floor that was supposedly shot by moonlight really looks as if it was, though there must have been additional lighting or we'd never see the action so clearly. And there's some interesting action: In that scene, a shrimp emptying out its underwater cave is challenged by a crab and fights it to the death, and a fish that looks like a mossy boulder lies in wait until another fish pauses nearby, then gulps it down. In others, dolphin surf in huge breaking waves surely big enough to crush them and a mother walrus cradles her baby in the water, teaching him to swim.

But that's as much drama as you get in what's essentially a series of snapshots. A blue-and-gold ribbon eel undulates across the screen. Black-and-white eels, the top parts of their bodies sticking up out of holes in the sand, move together in what Pierce Brosnan's nonstop voiceover describes as "a dance." Yellow jellyfish swim by like pulsating parachutes. Giant schools of glittering sardines morph into different shapes in rapid succession—now a tornado funnel, now a beehive. The sea boils as a pod of whales leap out and fall back in. And my favorite, and what Brosnan informs us is one of the oldest species of fish, which looks like a salmon crossed with the elephant man, gawps at the camera with eerily human eyes.

It's beautiful and sometimes awe-inspiring, but it doesn't add up to a movie exactly, and the narration doesn't help. In place of facts, we get passing references to dragons and unicorns and magicians, oh my. At one point, the voiceover rhapsodizes about how clearly you can hear the sounds of the creatures when you're underwater, and I found myself wishing the filmmakers had just recorded those sounds and played them instead of an endless stream of Brosnan's soothing platitudes scored by a predictably solemn/triumphal orchestra.

Oceans keeps dropping hints about how clueless we humans are. Two or three times it touches directly on the harm we're doing, but those parts are handled glibly and over fast. I imagine they wanted to make the movie kid-friendly, but a little more information would have made this a much better movie. Instead of marveling at the creatures, I kept wondering things like: What does space exploration have to do with the oceans? Why does the narration keep referring to "the ocean" as if there were just one? Why does it call our oceans "the source of our greatest stories and legends" without offering a shred of evidence? Is that true? Why are those two armies of identical-looking crabs making one gigantic crustacean mosh pit? What are they up to, and why?

The main point of seeing movies like this in the theater is the added impact of playing on the big screen, but this one had me wishing I'd waited for the DVD so I could put it on mute. But even that might not have as much impact as I'd hoped.

When gorgeous close-ups of nature become just one more thing to consume, they also become impossible not to get numb to, just another brick in the wall between us and the natural world. Nature can even seem downright unnatural when we see it this way, so differently than we would ever encounter it ourselves. I found myself wondering if the filmmakers had used CGI to capture some of Oceans' images of perfect-looking fish, and I saw a comment string on IMDb after watching the movie where someone else said the same thing. The assumption underlying movies like Oceans is that seeing nature's magnificence and variety will inspire us to protect it, but I wonder if they're more part of the problem than the solution.

Written for The House Next Door