Archive for January, 2009

2008

January 31, 2009
Cinequest 19
USA
English
91 Minutes
Documentary
Don Hardy & Dana Nachman

Some Convictions Are Criminal.

In 1983, in Manhattan Beach, California, the mother of a young boy went to police with a story so repulsive (involving sex, torture, Satan, and the kitchen sink), that the media couldn’t help but take notice. The case became known as the McMartin Preschool Trial and it lasted for seven years, becoming the most expensive criminal trial in American history. The word “McMartin” has now become shorthand for any type of overzealous prosecution using coached witnesses, many of whom are too young to know what they’re saying.

WITCH HUNT is a documentary about a similar set of trials which took place in Bakersfield, California in 1984. A new “tough on crime” District Attorney had just taken office (where, sadly, he remains to this day), and he brought with him bravado and mandatory minimum sentencing. John Stoll was one of the first to be accused. He was a hard-working divorced man who had a swimming pool which his son enjoyed on hot summer days, sometimes with his friends. He is woken up by police and taken to jail, where he is told that his son has accused him of sexual abuse. By the time he is arraigned, two other boys have allegedly come forward and told police the same story.

When something like this happens in a documentary, we find ourselves trying to “read” the man’s face as he explains his ordeal. Does he look like a molester? What exactly does a molester look like? Why would his son say such things if they weren’t true? Isn’t there a child molester behind every tree and broadband internet hookup?

When Stoll gets to prison he finds himself sharing a cell with another accused pedophile whose photo had been plastered all over the newspapers. Looking the other man in the eye, a man Stoll assumed to be guilty, he begins to see a pattern. What makes this pattern different from other molestation accusations, is that the initial accusation came from their very own children. A son accuses his father. Two girls accuse their father. Two boys accuse both their mother and father. Over and over again. Regular, normal, young couples are dragged in front of TV cameras and shown as examples of the molestation wave that appeared to be sweeping the town of Bakersfield, the State of California, and the country at large.

Is there a worse crime than child molestation? While in prison, all of the accused are held away from the rest of the prisoners for their own safety. Children are placed in foster homes, estranged spouses leave town, whispers turn to yelling. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, right?

If this were a film about a single man who was wrongly accused, you might come to the “better safe than sorry” conclusion and feel that a prison sentence is probably a good thing. But we see couple after couple after couple being sentenced to hundreds of years in prison and it’s obvious that something else is going on here. Judges are routinely disallowing evidence for the defense, child witnesses are testifying one way, then after court recesses, coming back to testify exactly the opposite way. The press can’t get enough. Husbands and wives are separated permanently. Prosecutors tell juries about photos of acts, which are never seen. Houses are lost, communities broken up.

It is incredibly hard to watch.

The talking heads collected by WITCH HUNT involve most of the accused, and a handful of the children who made the original accusations. One couple, who have moved away from Bakersfield, refuse to show their faces this many years later. The rest of them speak about their legal ordeal with pained eyes as if it happened yesterday. The children, all approaching 30 now, bravely talk about how the trial changed their lives. We hear from former California Attorney General John Van De Kamp whose office was brought in due to the overwhelming workload in Kern County. He begins to see problems with the prosecution’s cases.

We hear over and over again how these working-class men and women believed at every step, the truth would come out and they’d be headed home. One of the couples, during the deliberation, plan to have a victory dinner at a local restaurant. We are as shocked as they are when they are instead sentenced to several hundred years in prison. Surely, someone will come to their aid, the children will recant, the prosecutors will drop the charges, the judge will come to his senses. Not so much.

Every moment we spend with one of the couples, the Kniffens is heartbreaking. There is plenty of footage from the trial, both of them in fashionable 1984 haircuts, both of them looking as normal as the waitress at Dennys and the guy who fixes your car. Mrs. Kniffen, when accused of sodomy, has to have the act itself explained to her by her husband. They were in love in 1984 and continue to be in love in 2008. They sit next to each other during the interview and finish each other’s sentences. There is footage of Brenda fainting to the floor after her sentence is handed down. Scott speaks in the quiet tones of someone who has seen parts of life the rest of us don’t want to visit. After their victory dinner is denied them, they head off to separate prisons. At one point, Scott ends up at San Quentin, surrounded by the most violent offenders California has to offer. Being a convicted child molester is a quick way to a shanking, and he feared for his life every day until his appeal letter was finally read and he was transferred to a less-violent prison.

Thanks to the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara Law School (http://law.scu.edu/ncip/), some of these cases began being reviewed. When a retrial is held after six years of prison, the Kniffens see each other for the first time. Brenda says to Scott that he should be using rogaine, as the years in prison have not been kind to his hairline. The appeal goes on and on–tapes of children being questioned are listened to proving their obvious coaching by both prosecutor and Child Protective Services employees. One by one, they are released. Mr. Stoll was arrested at the age of 41. He is released at the age of 61. He never saw his son again.

I’ve often told people that I have an unnatural fear of being wrongly accused. It makes films like THIN BLUE LINE and TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE and THE VERDICT that much more frightening for me. This film had me shaking my head with worry. Some will argue that it’s better to err on the side of caution. If there’s even the slimmest chance that that person could have been a terrorist or touched a child, isn’t it better to lock them up for the greater good?

I subscribe to the better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man go to jail idea. (See origins of that law school cornerstone here: http://www.law.ucla.edu/volokh/guilty.htm) Part of my public school teacher training in our modern post-Letourneau, post-priest-scandal world (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Kay_Letourneau) stresses the boundaries between children and trusted authority figures. As a teacher, I need to be conscious every day that a few words from a young person could not only change my life, but effectively end it. I hear personal stories from students about the most atrocious things imaginable. The problems exist, but at some point we began to believe that everyone was a predator. A now-ridiculed recent statistic was that something like 40% of teenagers have been propositioned online by a sexual predator. I have taught close to 700 teenagers in my career and not one has ever been the target of one of these people.

The topic makes for compelling television. To Catch A Predator, the NBC entrapment-case-study-in-the-making causes us to cheer as man after man is dressed down by the camera-ready host.

This environment of fear has some side-effects and they are on frank display in WITCH HUNT.

The film is narrated by Sean Penn and perfectly uses Pearl Jam’s Long Road towards the end. There are two ways to review a documentary: the story it tells and the way it tells the story it tells. The story of WITCH HUNT is compelling, scary, sad, and maddening. The way it tells the story is a bit static. Old TV news footage is mixed with modern-day talking heads. There are old family photos which seem to me to look haunting even in upbeat documentaries. I wonder what filmmakers will do 20 years from now when there are no printed photos from which to choose. There is a five-minute portion at the very end, showing us Mr. Stoll’s life since prison, that is creative and powerful and completely different than the sober 85 minutes that came before.

The film breaks no new technical ground (as THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE or WALTZ WITH BASHIR do), but with a story like this, it doesn’t need to.

And how have the lives of the young accusers changed? Drugs, mental health issues, the guilt of sending people to prison.

Surrounded by the sadness of the film, perhaps the saddest moment is when one of the young accusers tearfully admits that he never gave his own son a bath for the first year of his life, so afraid was he of being accused himself of inappropriate touching.

More info on the cases: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kern_County_child_abuse_cases

WITCH HUNT will be shown at Cinequest 19. Details here: http://www.cinequest.org/detail.php?m=1619

WITCH HUNT

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2008

January 29, 2009
DVD
USA / UK / France
English
122 Minutes — December 5, 2008
Biography / Drama / History
Ron Howard [Grand Theft Auto; Nightshift; Splash; Cocoon; Gung Ho; Willow; Parenthood; Backdraft; Far And Away; The Paper; Apollo 13; Ransom; Edtv; A Beautiful Mind; The Missing; Cinderella Man]

400 Million People Were Waiting For The Truth.

I’m a huge fan of political films. I watch THE WEST WING continuously–often with tears in my eyes. I love the pageantry of the office of the President, the customs of the US Government–to the point of watching a particularly close Congressional vote on CSPAN. For god’s sake, I teach High School Government. So I should be the guy this film is trying to reach.

But I waited a long time to see it and now that I have, I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. No matter how you slice it–how exciting you make the edits and music–you simply cannot make a sit-down interview as exciting as a boxing match, which is exactly what director Ron Howard is trying to do here.

I’m not old enough to remember Nixon or what he stood for or how much people hated him. And for people younger than I, whose only exposure has been through history classes, this film will probably cause them to have more sympathy for an old man who made a few mistakes, but was basically good. That fact must infuriate people who were in their politically aware 20s at the time Tricky Dick held office. There simply isn’t enough backstory in this film to tell the uninformed viewer the gravity of his crimes. I’m not saying that this film is the place for a complete review of the Watergate break-in, but depending on your age, this film will be a piece of negative nostalgia, or the story of people with funny haircuts sitting down for an interview back when you were allowed to smoke wherever you wanted. (The “aggressive” 70s product placement is one of the problems with this film–the famous Iron-Eyes Cody PSA is seen on the TV while people drink TAB).

As with most Ron Howard films, his one or two main themes are spelled out, heightened with music, repeated again, and then paused after for effect. One of these themes was something that actually was “achieved” by David Frost during these interviews, when Nixon admitted that no matter what he did as president, it wasn’t illegal because it’s impossible for the president to do anything illegal. This statement obviously has more weight in a post-Bush United States where the former president never met a signing statement he wouldn’t make or found a way to put the office of the President above the law in the name of “The War On Terror.”

The parallels between 1974 and 2008 are not lost on us (and with Howard at the helm, we have no choice but to think about them).

The other theme is that Nixon was a lonely man who wasn’t good with people. Boo hoo.

Setting aside the facts of the case, the film tries to make the high-pressure world of presidential interviews something of a sporting event. In this corner, David Frost, a man who drinks, smokes, bangs models, and hosts the 1970s equivalent of America’s Got Talent. In this corner, a disgraced president, who somehow thinks that if he says just the right thing during a one-on-one interview that he’ll be invited back to DC and receive a hero’s welcome. In 30 years, we might see David Hasselhoff v. Bush II.

Nixon thought he’d wipe the floor with Frost. How could a limey from across the pond hope to match his intellect? Frost thought he’d show all those naysayers by finally getting the secretive Nixon to admit to the whole business.

The performances are good. Unfortunately for Oscar-nominee Frank Langella, Nixon has been played by so many people by now that we scarcely remember the real man. The supporting cast is good: Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon, and Rebecca Hall is a very sexy woman who’s only purpose in the screenplay is to stop the sausage-fest.

Here’s your one-sentence review: A film about an interview. Really, how exciting can that be?

Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director Ron Howard, Actor Frank Langella, Screenplay, Editing

8.0 Metacritic
7.9 Critical Consensus
8.1 IMDB #242 All Time

Frost/Nixon [Theatrical Release] @ Amazon

FROST/NIXON

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2008

January 22, 2009
DVD
USA / Germany
English / German
124 Minutes — January 9, 2009
Drama / Romance / Thriller / War
Stephen Daldry [Billy Elliot; The Hours]

How Far Would You Go To Protect A Secret?

It’s been more than a week since I’ve seen it and I can’t seem to figure out how to go at this film. It is not good. In fact, it’s a bit preposterous. Winslet is a fabulous actress, but in THE READER she must choose between dour, embarrassed, angry, or predatory. There is no in-between.

It’s just after World War II in Germany. A young boy of 15, stricken with fever, is helped by Winslet’s character. After his recovery a few weeks later, he goes to her house to thank her, and before you can say “you’re 18, right?” they’re in the sack. What he sees in her is obvious. She’s nearing 40, is hot, and he’s 15 and would probably avail himself of just about any opportunity. What she sees in him is a bit less obvious. He’s a nubile 15 to be sure, but why couldn’t someone like her find someone within a decade of her age, at least? I suppose he’s naive enough to not ask too many questions, to not question his incredible luck. What a story he’ll have to tell that summer at camp!

Strangely, she begins to demand that he read to her before each encounter. Which is a small price to pay for him, I’m sure. A more successful homework system has yet to be devised. He catches the eye of other, more age-appropriate schoolmates, but what chance do they have against a fully grown, willing woman who doesn’t ask questions? They fight, they break up. He heads off to law school. And the film begins to self-destruct. Because during a field trip to the courthouse, who does he see on trial for Nazi atrocities? That’s right, the woman who took his V-power, in the flesh. And here’s the kicker: she’s accused of writing an intricate plan for others to follow which leads to the deaths of 500 Jewish prisoners. That she shows no guilt for what she did is bad enough. But when she’d rather admit to something she didn’t do than admit to not being able to read or write, the film goes off the rails.

That’s right. In post-war Germany, killing Jews in the name of Hitler isn’t quite as bad as admitting that you don’t know how to read.

Ralph Fiennes shows up as the grown up boy who then begins his very own Audible.com franchise, sending tapes to Winslet as she spends the rest of her days in jail.

Ridiculous, but Winslet is pretty hot and rarely has a film made reading the classics seem quite as sexy as THE READER does.

5.8 Metacritic
7.0 Critical Consensus
8.0 IMDB

The Reader (Book) @ Amazon

THE READER

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2008

January 21, 2009
Campbell CA — Camera 7
USA
English
104 Minutes — December 12, 2008
Drama / Mystery
John Patrick Shanley [Moonstruck; The January Man; Joe Versus The Volcano; Alive]

My overriding impression of DOUBT? Boring.

Streep, Hoffman, Adams. Great cast. But it’s just so slow moving and ponderous. And every time something important is about to happen, the wind blows or rain hits a windowpane or a tree branch crashes down in the courtyard. And then the music swells.

It’s 1964 in Brooklyn. Hoffman is a Catholic Priest (hazard alert). Streep is the principal of the attached school. Amy Adams is the naive, wide-eyed character that we’re supposed to chuckle at and then feel for. Adams thinks she sees Hoffman put a boy’s shirt back into his locker. This boy is the only black kid in a sea of white, which is the excuse Hoffman uses when confronted with the suspicion that he plied the boy with alcohol. But not just any alcohol, mind you; the holy communion wine, the very blood of Christ. Viola Davis plays the boy’s mother who is remarkably nonchalant about the accusation, preferring to hide her head in the sand until summer when her boy graduates.

Streep is on the warpath against Hoffman and the two play several loud, spittle-rattling scenes where they try to scare the other one into backing off. We know Streep is the humorless disciplinarian because we see her walking the aisles of the church scolding anyone slouching or whispering while the sermon is taking place. She strikes fear in the children and other nuns alike. She is a cartoon movie archetype along the lines of the guy in Lean On Me (I’m the HNIC, now), and every other film about school and an evil paddling headmaster.

Hoffman appears to be kind, he connects with the kids, he write sermons that don’t immediately cause his congregation to sleep. But what earthly reason does he have for taking such a shine to the young black boy? We have two choices: 1) he’s a closeted homosexual predator who can’t wait to add another notch on his priestly bedpost; OR 2) he’s a caring priest who ministers to his congregation. Which one do you think the film favors?

We aren’t given any reasons for the actions that the characters take. Except maybe Amy Adams. She sees something and she goes to her superior to discuss it. Fine. Streep makes it her mission to kick Hoffman out of the parish. We are only given hints about the characters’ pasts. Hoffman is apparently at his third church in a short period of time. With 2008 eyes, this is a warning sign. Not so much back in 1964. Streep’s character is a widow who has known life outside the convent, but now finds herself ruling one. She is probably the only non-virgin on the campus.

If there’s a well-rounded and nuanced character, it’s Viola Davis as the mother. The boy has an abusive father, the mother thinks that the boy is gay (although you can bet that word is never used by anyone in this film), and if the priest needs a little loving while he protects the boy from the racist bullies in the hallway, well then, that’s a small price to pay. Davis hits a “if my nose runs and I don’t wipe it during a crying scene I’ll get an Oscar just like Jane Fonda in Klute” move perfectly. Then when we’ve been sufficiently mezmerized by her dripping nose, she miraculously finds a kleenex, wipes herself, and heads off to work like nothing happened. The words that the two women say to each other in the Davis v. Streep walk-and-talk are pretty good. But then the whole scene is ruined by the “foreboding wind of doom” that causes several dozen leaves to press up against Streeps legs. God help us.

So let’s see, Streep thinks that the priest is guilty, Hoffman maintains his innocense, Adams is first sure one way, then the other, and Davis doesn’t really see the big deal either way. You see, they all have DOUBT about what happened. Adams’ doubt puts her on Hoffman’s side and Streep finds a way to keep her doubt at bay. So we all know what the dilema is.

Wait a second, I have an idea. Why doesn’t someone ask the kid what happened? He’s not five years old, he’s in 8th grade! Wouldn’t he be able to at least give an impression about what happened or didn’t happen in the vestry? Is he so in love with the Father that he’d lie under questioning? He’s the only other witness.

I just don’t get it. Any verbal fireworks this film had were more than countered by the clumsy staging, and hit-me-over-the-head symbolism. It saddens me to report that my favorite part of the film, the only point when I wasn’t near dozing, was the spectacular church choir and organ song played loudly over the credits. What a shame.

Oscar Nominations: Meryl Streep Actress; Philip Seymour Hoffman Supporting Actor;Amy Adams Supporting Actress; Viola Davis Supporting Actress; Adapted Screenplay John Patrick Shanley;

7.0 Metacritic
7.1 Critical Consensus
8.2 IMDB

Doubt (book) @ Amazon

DOUBT

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2007

January 18, 2009
San Jose Camera Cinema Club
Vietnam / USA
Vietnamese
97 Minutes
Drama / Romance
Stephane Gauger

10-year-old Thuy runs away from her mean (but not too mean) uncle’s bamboo blind factory and heads for Saigon after he yells at her when she makes a production mistake. She breaks open her piggy bank, gives away some items to friends, and is on her way. She shows up in the bustling city with one outfit and a pink princess backpack containing her two beloved dolls. She falls in with the other kids who try to make a living on the street, selling postcards, food, or roses. No one she comes into contact with is particularly sinister and all have advice for the new girl in town: “customers can’t say no if you have a good story.”

Meanwhile, a flight attendant checks into her regular room at a rather-nice hotel. She is 26 and attractive, with a good job. But she finds herself meeting a married pilot for an afternoon of non-feeling sex. Of course, he’ll never leave his wife. Lan knows this, but she falls back into easy patterns of behavior. “I’m not good at dating” she tells a setup over dinner after she sneaks out the back way. The people she comes into contact with can’t seem to figure out why she’s single.

Across town, at the Saigon City Zoo, Hai tends to the animals, especially his favorite young elephant who has been sold to a zoo in India. Hai was recently dumped by his beautiful, high-maintenance fiance. “She just changed her mind” he says. When asked why he’s single, he replies that he’s not the type of man women like. Hai gets more enjoyment from the animals, having grown up living at the zoo while his father worked as a zookeeper.

We know that somehow these three intricately drawn characters will cross each other’s paths. But before they do, we already care what happens to them. It’s the weirdest thing. We fear for the young girl’s safety in the big city, of course, but we also want Hai and Lan to be happy almost from the moment we meet them. Their loneliness is written all over their faces. In fact, the runaway little girl seems to be happier than the two adults.

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The film is shot with hand-held cameras which take us right into the crowded alleyways and shops of the city. We’re in traffic with the characters, we experience what they experience. The city is every bit as big a part of this film as Mumbai was for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE.

The anchor of the story is young Thuy. A non-professional actor chosen for the part with just two days to learn the lines before shooting, it can’t be overstated what a screen presence she is. Her open, trusting face and her ability to carry us along with her as she meets every challenge with calm thoughtfulness. She is given a crash course in sales by the other children. She never complains about her fate; “I’m used to sleeping on the floor–it’s good for the back.” She seems genuinely touched when someone shows her a kindness. And the first adult to do so is zookeeper Hai. He lets her feed the elephants sugarcane, he explains the hidden dangers of some of the animals. She follows him around as he does his duties, he offers her lunch (which she needs to protect from his pet Orangutan). She doesn’t talk in the way of wise-beyond-their-years child actors that we’re used to. She seems to suck everything in and digest it before speaking. By the same token, she isn’t afraid to ask questions of her adult friends. A favorite is “why are you alone?” which is typically answered with “you ask too many questions, sometimes.”

Thuy meets Lan while trying to sell her a rose as she eats alone after another miserable date. Lan sees something in the young girl. An honesty, perhaps. A girl who isn’t so different from Lan when she was 10. Or maybe Lan just needs something to live for; something to protect. Whatever the cause, a simple sharing of some Pho turns into an offer of a roof over her head. Thuy is beside herself with appreciation. Lan is happy for the company, even when Thuy applies Lan’s makeup while she sleeps to see what it’s like to be a grown-up.

Young Han Thi Pham inhabits the role of Thuy as if she’s living her life in front of our eyes. Part of that is probably due to the hand-held cameras which captured what was happening without lengthy setups or too large a crew. Thuy sees that what both of her adult protectors are missing is each other. She mentions them to each other and finally tries to arrange a meeting at a restaurant. The scenes of the three of them, each adult holding one of Thuy’s hands, is nothing short of magical.

There are something we know while watching OWL AND THE SPARROW. The uncle will search, the authorities will find out she’s a runaway, there will be a scene in a (pleasant) orphanage, tears will flow, children will be ripped out of arms. But the ending is never in doubt. The zookeeper’s lower status, the flight attendant’s far-away job, and the girl’s relatives are all merely speedbumps on the way to the inevitable. And I loved every minute of it.

OWL AND THE SPARROW is being self-released and is playing in pockets of California now.

8.5 IMDB

OWL AND THE SPARROW

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2008

Campbell CA — Camera 7
USA / UK
English
119 Minutes — December 26, 2008
Drama / Romance
Sam Mendes [American Beauty; Road To Perdition; Jarhead]

How Do You Break Free Without Breaking Apart?

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REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is the subject of Cinebanter Podcast Number 66. After you’ve seen the movie, listen to the spoiler-filled review by Tassoula and I by clicking the play button right here:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Show Description:

• 00:00 Intro
• 00:32 THE WRESTLER Discussion
• Break
• 23:58 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 24:54 REVOLUTIONARY ROAD Discussion
• Break
• 45:06 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 45:35 The Last Five®
• 1:03:53 Credits and Outtakes

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6.9 Metacritic
7.4 Critical Consensus
7.9 IMDB

Revolutionary Road @ Amazon

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

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2008

January 11, 2009
Campbell CA — Camera 7
USA
English / Hmong
116 Minutes — January 9, 2009
Crime / Drama / Thriller
Clint Eastwood [Per Qualche Dollaro In Piu; Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo; Play Misty For Me; Dirty Harry; High Plains Drifter; Magnum Force; Thunderbolt and Lightfoot; The Eiger Sanction; The Outlaw Josey Wales; The Enforcer; The Gauntlet; Every Which Way But Loose; Escape From Alcatraz; Bronco Billy; Firefox; Sudden Impact; Heartbreak Ridge; Bird; The Dead Pool; Pink Cadillac; White Hunter Black Heart; The Rookie; Unforgiven; In The Line Of Fire; A Perfect World; The Bridges Of Madison County; Absolute Power; Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil; Mystic River; Million Dollar Baby; Flags Of Our Fathers; Letters From Iwo Jima; Changeling]

MichaelVox Twitter Review in 160:
Gran Torino (08 Eastwood C) Clint as Catskills comic–A Don Rickles Capt. Amer–inhabited by stereotypes, not characters–Get Off My Lawn!

I’ve listed all 33 movies that I’ve seen where Clint Eastwood appeared as an actor or as director. That is a lot of baggage and Hollywood history to overcome when you need to take on a new film role. Which is the fatal flaw of GRAN TORINO. We’ve seen Mr. Eastwood for too many years. While watching GRAN TORINO, it borders on the impossible to “forget” Dirty Harry or The Man With No Name, or more specifically for this story, the hot-headed drill sergeant he played in Heartbreak Ridge.

Eastwood plays a grumpy widower who has just buried his wife and is now free to complain about how his Michigan neighborhood and the country at large has changed for the worse. We are hit over the head with this belief of his when, at the very funeral itself, the first scene, one of his grandkids shows up in a Lions jersey and another in a belly shirt, navel ring glinting. Then we see a woman in the back text someone something. At this point, it’s okay to agree with him. We really have become a nation of ugly Americans. But that agreement will end shortly. Eastwood will turn into a jokester Archie Bunker–one who carries a gun and uses language that Television doesn’t allow.

His next-door-neighbors are Hmong. Grandma, mother, daughter, and weak teenage son. We know that every time we hear Eastwood use another all-asians-are-the-same racist remark, he’ll make up for it at the end by respecting and helping and realizing that the world is one great big melting pot. Or something. There are the scenes where he is indoctrinated into the customs of the Hmong; where he tells his drinking buddy the one about the jew, the mexican, and the colored fellow who walk into a bar (punchline: The bartender says “get the hell out of my bar”); where he will flashback to his days during the Korean War, where he’ll have a racist-off with his buddy the barber. Many of these scenes work. None of these scenes are unique or surprising.

The first hour of the film is like watching Eastwood the Catskills comedian. He even narrates his own life. “Why does that grandma hate me so much?” he says to his trusty golden retriever. Eastwood is playing a stereotype, not a character. And unfortunately, so do the other characters. We have the wigger, the three tough black guys, the sassy asian girl, the Hmong gang who sound like they’ve listened to too much T.I., the veterans, the construction supervisor, the shaman, the catholic priest who even has red hair, the money-grubbing daughter-in-law, the selfish grandkids. Everyone who comes on screen is playing a genre, not a person.

But can I say something here? The crowd I was with loved it. They wanted to hear Eastwood say “Get Off My Lawn!” while holding a rifle. They wanted to see him squint and say with his gravely 79-year-old voice “I’m the guy you don’t want to f**k with.” They laughed when he called his neighbors zipperheads and slopes, his barber a dago half-jew, and the young man next-door a pussy. He was like Don Rickles trying to be Captain America. It didn’t work. Eastwood is supposed to be so taken with the son-next-door that he teaches him a trade, gets him a job, protects his honor and even gets him a date. And this was after the boy tried to steal his beloved car.

I’m under the impression that the Hmong cast was non-professional and while it made it a bit more realistic, it also made the film a bit harder to decipher. With Eastwood grumbling and the Hmong speaking too quickly and with inconsistent accents, I’m not entirely sure about half of the dialogue. Sometimes you want realism and sometimes you want people to be able to act. I wanted actors this time. The ending is exactly what you’d expect, but what will stay with you is the dumbed-down script. Way overrated.

7.2 Metacritic
8.4 IMDB #125 All Time
7.1 Critical Consensus

Gran Torino @ Amazon

GRAN TORINO

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2008

January 11, 2009
January 2, 2009
Campbell CA — Camera 7
USA
English
115 Minutes — January 9, 2009
Drama / Sport
Darren Aronofsky [Pi; Requiem For A Dream]

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THE WRESTLER is the subject of Cinebanter Podcast Number 66. After you’ve seen the movie, listen to the spoiler-filled review by Tassoula and I by clicking the play button right here:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Show Description:

• 00:00 Intro
• 00:32 THE WRESTLER Discussion
• Break
• 23:58 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 24:54 REVOLUTIONARY ROAD Discussion
• Break
• 45:06 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 45:35 The Last Five®
• 1:03:53 Credits and Outtakes

~~
~~

MichaelVox Twitter Review In 160:
The Wrestler (08 Aronofsky A-) much better mortality tale than BButton, Rourke as good as advertised, Tomei deserves more praise.

Some of my bullet points referred to in the podcast:
–The music is perfect—opening Metal Health Quiet Riot, Cinderella, Round and Round, Sweet Child O’Mine, Balls To the Wall by Accept
–Set design perfect—trailer, backstage, we could probably navigate the grocery store, VFW halls
–glasses/hearing aid/boots, jeans, duct tape on jacket
–tanning/hair/shaving/roids
–bar scene (“just one beer”) among the most romantically perfect I’ve ever seen. An old song, even a terrible one, brings people together. They are happy for five minutes. What Rourke does is amazing, singing terribly, dancing ridiculously, all in front of a woman he’s trying to impress.
–Sweet Child is a perfect song. It is now 22 years old, isn’t it? It’s not just perfect for the film, it’s just perfect.
–Every word of regret that Rourke says can be seen on his pounded up face
–Tomei has the harder role—her femininity is on display, her sexuality is being questioned, her only power (as she sees it) is slipping away from her—drunken customers tell her to her face that she’s too old to be seductive—no one will remember a particularly fabulous pole dance she did once—she was a star in an even less highly-thought-of profession than Ram
–Wrestlers are friends, Ram is supportive, doesn’t have any self-pity that I can see. If he doesn’t pay rent, he sleeps in his van; he doesn’t whine when staples are taken out of his body; he quietly works the deli counter, and then becomes an expert who is comfortable with customer contact.
–The run at the end to make it to the big match was too Hollywood. The speech, while also a movie convention, made sense in this context.
–Aronofsky doesn’t show us Rourke’s face for several minutes at the start. We are always following him at shoulder level, like his sheer size can protect us. That backstage room is full of huge wrestlers, but Ram is their leader.
–Little things: Ram can’t get out of his jeans at the tanning place, the shopping trip to the dollar store, the video game with the kid, the payphone, the autograph session, the kid playing with the action figure, the way Tomei knew how to get money out of Ram but didn’t feel exactly great about it, the way Ram goes through curtains to the cheers of the crowd or the silence of the deli counter.
–Not sure about the fireman girl. She has posters of fireman he of Angus Young
–Daughter stuff didn’t work. Evan Rachel Wood, who I’ve loved since Once and Again, is too angry without explanation. A mad face and brief “not again” are not enough for me. His scene at the beach with her worked in spite of itself.

8.1 Metacritic
8.7 IMDB #59 All Time
8.7 Critical Consensus

The Wrestler @ Amazon

THE WRESTLER

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2008

January 4, 2009
DVD
USA
English
101 Minutes — October 31, 2008
Comedy / Drama / Romance
Kevin Smith [Clerks; Mallrats; Chasing Amy; Dogma; Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back; An Evening With Kevin Smith; Dinner For Five; Jersey Girl; Snowball Effect: The Story Of ‘Clerks’; Clerks II; Siskel & Ebert & The Movies; An Evening With Kevin Smith 2: Evening Harder; Live Free Or Die Hard; Reaper]

Disclaimer: I’m a few years older than Kevin Smith and when I first heard him interviewed in the mid-90s as he was becoming well-known, I used to tell friends that he was the first person younger than me who I completely admitted was better at what he did than I could have been. That is, when he spoke or wrote, I knew I’d be hard-pressed to keep up. This was a revelation to me. He is one of the best guests that Howard Stern ever had on his program; he somehow was insightful and smart when he filled in for Roger Ebert, even though he was trying to critique people he may some day work with. I have his books on my shelf right now, Silent Bob Speaks and the screenplays to Clerks and Chasing Amy. I’ve downloaded every episode of his Smodcast podcast (though he and Scott can be so wordy that I can’t take a full 90 minutes per week).

If he’s involved in something, I want to read/see/listen to it. I hope that as he grows into middle age, he’ll become some sort of film or pop culture historian. Sort of like what Scorsese does with his documentaries and what Tarantino tries to do in his screening room with young actors. Smith is an aware social critic, pointing out hypocrisy in culture and politics. He can often give compelling arguments as to how comic books are an art form. He finds a way to be a good catholic and a smut peddler at the same time. I remember reading a piece somewhere about John Madden, the football magnate. The quote was “Madden is a genius who masquerades as a lunkhead.” The same can be said for Kevin Smith. Get past the language (and for god’s sake get past the poop humor–please!) and you’ll find stories about love and self-awareness and inferiority and all the other parts of the human experience that artists have been trying to make sense of for hundreds of years. If you haven’t seen them, go watch An Evening With Kevin Smith 1 and 2. He is charismatic and charming. If he keeps filming his Q & As, I’ll keep watching them.

He has said himself on many occasions that he’s a terrible director, but he makes up for it in his writing. His blog posts and his essays and his book of random thoughts are compelling, humorous, and honest. He has no trouble (often to a fault) exposing his thoughts and beliefs and idiosyncrasies to whomever is there to listen. I suspect he’d be exposing these same thoughts if there was no one listening.

So it is with great sadness that I have to report that ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO is a failure on nearly every level of filmmaking.

Plot:
Zack and Miri are friends from childhood who live in a terrible Pittsburgh apartment. They act as brother and sister, get in arguments, make fun of each other–all the groundwork needed for an inevitable hookup down the road. The fact that Elizabeth Banks seems too smart, driven, and beautiful to be living in such an apartment is just one of the film’s many problems. The two buddies are so low on cash that their utilities are turned off and they decide to film a porno as a last-ditch effort to make some money. Not get more hours at the coffee shop, not cut back on hockey expenses, not take on another boarder, but film a porno. In the real world, modern porn has much higher production levels than these two can come up with. In the real world, distributing a movie to 800 classmates would barely begin to turn a profit. In the real world, people don’t film porn in Pittsburgh coffee shops. And the actors don’t look like Zack (at least since the retirement of Ron Jeremy). And with downloading now an issue, how many copies were they hoping to sell? And why wouldn’t those same customers just get on the almighty internet to get their fix of amateur couplings? None of this occurs to Zack and Miri.

Casting:
Seth Rogen plays Seth Rogen. He is frumpy, lazy, mutters quips under his breath, and will end up with a girl way out of his league. I have been a fan of his since Freaks and Geeks, but he is in even bigger danger than Michael Cera of being typecast as the exact same guy for the rest of his filmic life.

Jason Mewes is in the cast of the fake porno and he actually has improved since his other attempts at acting in Kevin Smith films. His heroin habit apparently behind him, he actually does exactly what the part needs him to do.

Traci Lords and Katie Morgan have actual porn experience, so they lend the film whatever realism it has to offer.

Craig Robinson plays an unhappily married co-worker of Zack’s who incredibly gives up a flat screen TV (how he can afford one while having the same job as Zack who can’t keep his heat on is a question the film doesn’t attempt to answer) in order to “produce” the movie. Robinson’s scenes are both funny and incredibly demeaning. When the script calls for hip street language, Robinson is there to deliver. When there’s a hint of racism, Robinson is there to comment on it. When there are grammar rules to be broken, call up Robinson. He is the one exception to the lily-white cast. He does more with two minutes on The Office when wiping the floor with Michael Scott than he does here in a full length film. Go rent KNOCKED UP and watch his single scene as a club doorman and think what might have been. Examples of his delivery in this film (watch the grammar): “What? Han Solo ain’t never had no sex with Princess Leia in the Star War!” and “Her name Bubbles”. His “boob audition” scene was pretty funny.

But the person who emerges the most worse for the wear is Elizabeth Banks. She has proven to be that special combination of cute and funny on Scrubs and 40-year-old Virgin. She is a sweet girlfriend in Invincible. I hear she’s good as Laura Bush in W. But she is completely miscast in this film. She is too cute and smart to be surrounding herself with either Rogen as a roommate or any of the other people she comes into contact with. But the fatal flaw with her is that I simply never believed that she’d talk the way her character talked, act the way her character acted (her squirm-inducing seduction of the popular guy from high school was well-done), or involve herself in the money-making idea that she follows through on in this film. It’s like she’s pretending to be a hard-assed f-bomb throwing girl-next-door and it didn’t work. At one point, she even says “Hey Zack, no one wants to F-in watch us fuck.” That’s right, she used f-in and the full work fuck in the same sentence. I believe that someone like Sarah Silverman actually talks like that. I believe that Kevin Smith talks like that because I’ve heard him talk like that dozens of times. But I never bought that Banks was speaking realistically. To be clear, I’m not saying that people don’t act or speak like Smith writes, I’m just saying that I don’t believe Banks or her character would. I found myself embarrassed for her.

Which leads us to writing: If Smith only gave the world Chasing Amy, he’d be rightfully held in some regard for finding a way to weave both a tender can-I-turn-a-lesbian-straight romance and a here’s-why-she’s-called-fingercuffs raunchy comedy into something special. (Setting aside the male-dominant view that all any lesbian needs is a perfect guy to “cure” her.) It wasn’t Ben Affleck that made that movie, it was the writing. But here, again, is where ZACK AND MIRI fails. The “realistically dirty” language we’ve come to love from Smith (and Apatow) is here used to prove something, I think. Like Smith is afraid that when we boil down the story we’ll see a sappy love story, not unlike WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, and to avoid accusations of becoming soft, he goes for the verbal grossout. I simply do not believe that Banks would recount in casual conversation the time that Zack tried to fellate himself for about an hour. I’m pretty sure that she wouldn’t stay around that long to watch. But the script has that experience as one of the many that is supposed to make us feel like these two have shared everything with each other except feelings. As a guy with far more female friends than male, I can say that when Zack claims to have never wanted to sleep with Miri, even though they share a bathroom and 25 years of friendship, I say, bullshit. Plain and simple. That the plot has us believe that until they were scheduled to have on-camera sex, the thought of trying out a romance with each other never occurred to them is preposterous. And from the second they do, the movie goes completely haywire. Slow motion, closeups of their faces in love-filled ecstasy, a completely different song by the band Live which seems to be playing only in their heads, all combine to turn the film into something else. Something it neither earned, nor does particularly well.

There have been hundreds of films where two characters fall for each other after a hookup or a good talk or some other event. What is this one saying? “The search is over, you were with me all the while” to quote a sappy 80s song. Tell us something new.

But that’s not the worst of it. After a misunderstanding at a party, whereby Zack leaves with a pornstar to have sex after Miri has given permission, the next morning brings an argument, which sends Zack peeling out, then moving out, then working at the Penguins hockey games as a human target. The screen says “Three Months Later,” but not 30 seconds in, we see Robinson who has come to get the two crazy kids back together.

I can’t explain just how off the pacing is at this point. Zack drives off, film crew wonders why, Miri sees that Zack has moved out (where to? we never find out), “3 Months Later”, we are there to see Robinson contact him for the first time by using a quote that only they would recognize, they rekindle a friendship (not sure why they broke contact with each other), Robinson entices him back to his basement where they are still (after 3 months) editing the film, then the big reveal that Miri never had her second on screen sex scene, a ridiculous attempt at a serious line from Robinson about how people make you believe you can do things that you didn’t know you could or something, a musical cue that sends Zack back to Miri where a final misunderstanding involving her new male roommate gives way to a tearful hug and reunion and happily ever after.

It may have been the most painful 15 minutes of film I’ve seen in years. It’s made more painful because it’s my hero Kevin Smith who’s in charge.

I haven’t brought up the music: fake porn background music throughout, even when the scenes change; great 80s pop at the high school reunion; sappy I love you songs when the two are having sex..making..doing whatever they did.

I can remember exactly two laugh-out-loud moments: Jason Mewes in the last five minutes discussing the “Dutch Rudder” was deadpan delivery at its best.

The other one was a spectacular cameo by Justin Long as an “actor” in L.A. who attends the high school reunion with his football hero lover. “Really, you’re an actor? What kind of movies have you been in?” “All kinds of movies with all male casts.”

Zack Brown: All male casts? Like “Glengarry Glen Ross”, like that?
Brandon: Like “Glen and Gary Suck Ross’s Meaty C**k and Drop Their Hairy N**s in His Eager Mouth”.
Zack Brown: [pause] Is that like a sequel?
Brandon: Sort of. It’s a reimagining.
Zack Brown: Oh, like “The Wiz”.
Brandon: More erotic. And with less women. No women, to be exact.
Zack Brown: I apologize in advance if I am outta line here, but are you in gay porn?
Brandon: [smiles] Guilty as charged.

[I've added the *] The fact that his lover is played by the guy in the new Superman movie is one of the fanboy tips of the hat that Smith is famous for. Long is funnier in those five minutes that the remaining 95 minutes of the movie. Don’t get me wrong, whenever a character like Rogen’s talks as quickly as Smith’s script call for, there will be chuckles. “Where’s the clitoris again?” caused me to smile. But those smiles were so few and far between and so hidden by the rest of the “look how outrageous my dialogue is” that the impact was weak.

I wanted so much more from my former BFF Kevin Smith.

MichaelVox Twitter Review In 160:
Zack And Miri Make A Porno (08 Smith C-) Dear Kevin, I’m breaking up with you after 14 years of bliss. It’s not me, it’s you. WTF happened?

5.6 Metacritic
7.5 IMDB

Zack and Miri Make a Porno @ Amazon

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO

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2008

January 2, 2009
DVD
USA
English
109 Minutes — January 9, 2009
Drama / Sport
Darren Aronofsky [Pi; Requiem For A Dream]

This film award season has been much worse than past years in terms of release schedules of quality films. I live in the 10th largest city in the country, but in order to have access to the films with all the buzz, I need to drive myself an hour north to San Francisco, which is typically just after New York City and Los Angeles on the release schedule. THE WRESTLER won’t open in a local theater until the 9th, but I couldn’t stand waiting. This is all a long way of saying that I will withhold a more in-depth review until I see it on the big screen, the way nature intended.

But before that happens I need to say that this film will absolutely be somewhere on my top ten of 2008 list, and I’m not sure that any of the other slow-to-open films being hyped will land above this one. This film says things about mortality and the briefness of life that Benjamin Button was trying to say, but failed under the sheen of fairytale warmth.

I can’t wait to see it again.

MichaelVox Twitter Review In 160:
The Wrestler (08 Aronofsky A-) much better mortality tale than BButton, Rourke as good as advertised, Tomei deserves more praise.

~~
~~

THE WRESTLER is the subject of Cinebanter Podcast Number 66. After you’ve seen the movie, listen to the spoiler-filled review by Tassoula and I by clicking the play button right here:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Show Description:

• 00:00 Intro
• 00:32 THE WRESTLER Discussion
• Break
• 23:58 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 24:54 REVOLUTIONARY ROAD Discussion
• Break
• 45:06 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 45:35 The Last Five®
• 1:03:53 Credits and Outtakes

~~
~~

8.1 Metacritic
8.7 IMDB #72 All Time

The Wrestler @ Amazon

THE WRESTLER

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THE BICYCLE THIEF
1948

January 1, 2009
Netflix DVD
Italy
Italian
93 Minutes — December 13, 1949
Crime / Drama
Vittorio De Sica
#14 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.

An Italian workman, long unemployed, is robbed of the bicycle he needs for his new job, and he and his small son search Rome for it.

The story could scarcely be simpler. A man (Antonio Ricci), out of work for a year is finally offered the job of poster-hanger. The only catch: he needs to use a bike at his job. Unfortunately, his bicycle is in a pawn shop, where he put it to get money for living expenses. When he tells his wife his dilemma, she wordlessly takes the sheets off their bed and heads down to the pawnshop for the exchange. That evening, his adoring young son, Bruno (you could spend the whole film watching him watch his father) cleans it and oils it. He knows every inch of it. The next morning, the whole family is excited. The man in his new uniform; the wife proudly packs his lunch; Bruno is happy to ride on the handlebars to his own job where his father promises to pick him up that evening.

Antonio’s job is to hang posters of Rita Hayworth. He is taught how and then sent on his way. Within minutes, a group of men watch him for awhile, and then one of them takes off on the bike while the others misdirect Antonio who chases the wrong man. 15 minutes of film time has passed. The rest of the movie is taken up with the man’s quest to find and reclaim his bicycle. He enlists friends to help him look in the usual marketplaces. He consults with a psychic. He threatens and follows people. He is in the middle of Rome–his chances are not good.

The story of the film is not the important part. It’s as if non-professional actors are appearing in a documentary about a bicycle theft, not a fictional story about a man’s lost bicycle. The difference is important. The townspeople Antonio comes into contact with don’t have an acting bone in their bodies and therefore the impact is much greater. We go into a church for Sunday services and it’s like we’re disturbing the worshipers while our protagonist is there. A rainstorm hits and we hide under an awning along with the rest of the neighborhood.

It’s hard to find a modern-day equivalent of the importance of this man’s lost bicycle. He will lose his job without it. His joy at finally having work that morning is dashed by noontime. The unconditional love of his son (looking like a ten-year-old Bruno Kirby) is something to behold. No trained child actor spends as much time looking into his father’s face as this boy. He walks at the same pace as his movie father, he checks the man’s face for understanding every few seconds, he makes sure it was okay to partake in a bit of wine at a cafe, and the look on his face in the last 5 minutes of the film is heartbreaking. I may never forget the boy.

THE BICYCLE THIEF is not an uplifting drama. But it shows us post-war Italy in a very specific way. We are in specific neighborhoods populated by specific people. We feel for this specific man and his world. Almost in spite of myself, and the hangdog expression of our protagonist, I found myself not only caring deeply about what happened to him, but feeling like I knew him and, more importantly, felt for him. I wanted him to get his bicycle back. I wanted to shout at the people acting as obstacles–those who didn’t believe his story or realize its importance. The survival of his family is at stake–this is no simple “find the toy for the sad man”. I wondered what I would do in the same situation. How long could I hold on to my dignity? What if my young son was watching my every move?

I was reminded thematically of WENDY AND LUCY about the woman and her dog who breakdown in a small Oregon town.

This film is rightly considered one of the best of all time. You’ll be sucked into its dreamlike pace and its documentary feel.




ON: Screenplay

“The epitome of Italian neo-realism, the slight human drama is developed so that it has all the force of King Lear, and both the acting and the backgrounds are vividly compelling” — Halliwell’s Film Guide 2008.

**** Halliwell’s
**** Ebert
**** Maltin
A–Tobias, The Onion
8.4 IMDB #106 All Time

The Bicycle Thief @ Amazon

THE BICYCLE THIEF

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Written by Michael W. Cummins