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February 5, 2011
Cinequest 21 San Jose Film Festival
English / German / Dutch
75 Minutes
Crime / Thriller
Ed Gass-Donnelly

Peter Stormare = Walter
Jill Hennessy = Rita
Martha Plimpton = Sam

Much better than expected. A small Canadian town is shocked by the news of a dead girl found at a local fishing lake. Sheriff Walter and his deputy appear to be the only police in town. The town is a farming community where trucks rumble past main street, there’s a barbershop and a diner, and a large Mennonite community.

Walter has a dark past involving his temper, though we’re never sure exactly what that past infraction was. We know he’s born again, lives with a simple-minded waitress named Sam, attends church regularly, and knows everyone in town. It seems that the 911 call after the body’s discovery was made by his former lover Rita, who is now shacked up with a druggie bad boy (with especially bad teeth). Walter may be known by everyone, but he is also ridiculed by quite a few. Whatever his past indiscretion, you can believe the whole town, if not the larger community knows what happened. His deacon reminds him, “you can’t change who you are.”

After the incident, Rita left him, and his father stopped speaking with him. A single, terrible violent event in a community known for pacifism. Redemption is the theme of this film.

The vistas are vast, the people appear to be real small-town folks. Hardly anyone is recognizable to movie audiences. The authenticity drips from the screen. Farmers speak in their native tongue, people pretty much act like normal people, the sun appears to be in a constant state of settingness. And though I’ve probably never written this before, even the dead body appears authentic. How do you stop your eyes from blinking and your neck from pulsating? From the bartender to the old woman serving tea, these characters are perfect.

And the music, what about the music?

If the native tribes of North America converted to Christianity, were recorded by Peter Gabriel’s World Music label, and only brought their drums and five part harmonies, the music would sound like it does in this film. It’s mostly religious in nature, many traditional songs, with a few aching love songs thrown in for good measure. And the drums are loud in the best possible way. It is foot-stomping to be sure. The music is by Bruce Peninsula.

The film is broken into chapters with huge text declaring bumper sticker bible verses. “God Meets You Where You’re At” and “Live In The World But Not Of It” or some such advice. This strangely doesn’t take away from the film in any way. The performances are fantastic. Stormare, especially, who appears to be [this close] to going haywire finds the tone between born again calmness and vein-popping hot-head. He is something to watch.

But the town is the real star. Shots are perfectly composed including a double-wide mobile home being driven through the town with police escort. Sunsets, boats on lakes, tractors going this way and that, horse-drawn buggies. It couldn’t have been shot on a soundstage. I loved the look.

My only complaint might be that it’s too short. The stuff around the murder mystery is as important as the crime itself. I would have liked to have spent some more time in the town.

This is a good one.

SMALL TOWN MURDER SONGS screens as part of the San Jose Cinequest 21 Film Festival on March 4, March 6, and March 11.

7.8 IMDB


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January 16, 2011
Camera Cinema Club
Spain / Mexico
Spanish / Wolof / Cantonese
147 Minutes (though seems longer)
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu [Amores Perros; 21 Grams; Babel]

Even Javier Bardem’s broad shoulders can’t carry the weight of this much hopelessness. Within the first five minutes of this feels like three hour “epic”, Bardem is given a cancerous death sentence, communicates with the dead, pisses blood, and attempts a reconnection with his bi-polar mess of an ex-wife. Who’s an abusive mother. And ex-drunk. And sleeping with his brother. Oh yeah, and he has two small children to care for and his only job apparently is picking up a couple of bucks from grieving families who need closure, and his “business ventures.”

In true Inarritu fashion, there are interconnected lives, though not to the degree of his past three major films. In this case the three story lines are Bardem’s dying, a sweatshop full of Chinese illegal immigrants who make knock-off purses in sweatshop conditions, and the Senegalese men who sell those purses illegally (along with some drugs) on the streets. Bardem pays off the crooked cops, argues with the Chinese about quality-control, and befriends the Senegalese sellers and warns them off the drug sales.

Bardem does all of this with the deep, soulful eyes, he’s famous for. He may have smiled twice during the film’s running time. Everywhere he turns, the world is against him, someone is taking advantage of someone, and he feels is. Or at least we’re supposed to think he feels it. Although the Chinese workers are locked in a freezing basement at night, we are led to believe that Bardem’s character, Uxbal wants to treat them better. Even though only one of the workers has any lines–his babysitter–Uxbal’s face tells us that he really, really cares about the plight of the immigrant workforce, both from Africa and Asia. Unfortunately, the screenplay affords us only two members of this downtrodden lot who we will recognize. The rest serve as background noise to the “immigrant experience” in Barcelona.

Bardem’s burden is so heavy that when one of his Senegalese sellers is deported, he feels responsible enough to look after the man’s wife and small child. When his ex-wife engages in behavior that would cause most of us to cut ties to her, he gives her another chance. When he hears of the poor conditions of the Chinese workers, he tries to do the right thing in a telegraphed tragedy–no good deed goes unpunished.

There’s not getting around the fact that the sheer shape of Bardem’s face can keep an audience’s interest for more than two hours. In fact, upon further review, his mopey face may be the only reason to recommend this film at all. It is two hours of sadness, dressed up in fancy colors and quick edits and showy focus tricks.

Bardem’s mopeyness doesn’t even stop when he meets his brother at a strip club where, no joke, the dancers have a single huge breast where there heads should be.

7.6 IMDB
5.3 Metacritic


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January 11, 2011
San Jose — Cinearts Santana Row
108 Minutes
Biography / Comedy / Crime / Drama
George Hickenlooper [Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse; Some Folks Call It A Slingblade; Mayor Of The Sunset Strip]

Spacey chews the scenery in this semi-true story of imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Spacey plays him as a super-jew, super workout guy, super schmoozer, super loyal husband, and super cocky. Barry Pepper matches him overacted scene for overacted scene. Not sure if it’s a black comedy or a realistic portrayal of broken Washington. Not hard to watch, though John Lovitz is pretty much replaying every slovenly medallion wearing character he’s ever been.

As a political wonk, I enjoyed seeing real-life people portrayed by look-a-likes. George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Tom DeLay, etc. Real footage of congressional hearings is spliced in. Hints are given that Abramoff had his hand in all sorts of malfeasance, including the recount in Florida in 2000.

Spacey appears to be having fun, though.

Kevin Spacey; Barry Pepper

6.5 IMDB
5.0 Metacritic


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January 11, 2011
San Jose — Cinearts Santana Row
110 Minutes
Adventure / Drama / Western
Ethan Coen and Joel Coen [Blood Simple; Raising Arizona; Miller’s Crossing; Barton Fink; The Hudsucker Proxy; Fargo; The Big Lebowski; O Brother Where Art Thou?; The Man Who Wasn’t There; No Country For Old Men; Burn After Reading; A Serious Man]

Jeff Bridges; Hailee Steinfeld; Matt Damon; Josh Brolin; Barry Pepper

Terrific from start to finish. Young Hailee Steinfeld is a force to be reckoned with, playing 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who wants justice against the man who shot her father and won’t take “no” for an answer. Not many of the telltale signs of the Coens here. It’s a beautifully shot film to be sure, but it lacks the wackiness, winking, and matter-of-fact violence that has made the Coens such great filmmakers. In a strange way, I wanted it to be more adult. They never venture past the PG-13 line, either in language or violence. I felt like an R-version of this film would have been monumental.

Having said that, I want to see it again, and some of the Coen magic shows up in the fast-paced dialogue, where Matty all but hoodwinks anyone foolish enough to negotiate with her. The language is almost West Wing level, circa late-1800s, full of legalese and old-fashioned-sounding put-downs. An early extended courtroom scene sets the stage for the verbal gymnastics we’ll be exposed to as the film goes on.

Another vintage Coen touch is a “medicine man”, dressed inside of a bear skin, complete with head attached. The Coens love to pause and watch characters tangential to the plot (the coffee shop scene in Fargo comes to mind). This man adds texture to the proceedings, though not much story.

The acting is first-rate, with young Steinfeld holding her own against Bridges and Damon, who get into a “measuring dicks” contest that is hilarious. The landscape realism had me shivering and feeling dusty. At some points the dialogue had me thinking of, yes, the late, great DEADWOOD.

Barry Pepper and his teeth play a bad guy who honors the code of the west. As part of that code, native Americans are not afforded the same “any last words” privileges that pale faces are.

When my daughter is old enough, I’ll take her to see this. There are far worse role models for young women than Mattie Ross.

8.3 IMDB
8.0 Metacritic


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December 20, 2010
Campbell CA — Camera 7
115 Minutes — December 17, 2010
Biography / Drama / Sport
David O. Russell [Spanking The Monkey; Flirting With Disaster; Three Kings]

Mark Wahlberg; Christian Bale; Amy Adams; Melissa Leo.

Disappointingly traditional sports story about two brothers from Lowell, MA who enjoyed different levels of glory as professional boxers. Wahlberg plays Micky Ward, who is younger brother to Dicky (Christian Bale), who remains a big-shot in Lowell because he once held his own in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard. In that fight, Leonard fell down, and the town continues to argue over whether it was a knock down or simply a slip. Either way, Dicky is chummy with the whole working-class town, especially with a group of crackheads he spends time with. Micky has looked up to Dicky (yes, the names are annoying) his entire life and is hard at work training for his shot at the title. Dicky acts as trainer, but with a crack habit like his, he isn’t exactly the most punctual worker.

Micky excuses Dicky over and over again, until a fight in Atlantic City when the original opponent of Micky’s is unable to fight. He reluctantly agrees to fight a man fresh from prison, who outweighs him by 25 pounds. Micky’s clock gets cleaned. Meanwhile, their not-exactly-classy mother, Alice, played by Melissa Leo, acts as a sort of manager to Micky. She is fiercely protective of her two sons. She is also protective of her seven daughters. She and Dicky often speak of the importance of family even as that same family is keeping Micky from any real success.

Micky spots Charlene (Amy Adams) in a local bar, where her cleavage and famous rear end are two of the main attractions. She is feisty and smart and holds her own against the drunks in the bar. Micky is instantly smitten (as was I).

Will Dicky drag Micky down? Will Micky turn his back on the family? Will all seven of his sisters hate Charlene for making their brother happy? Will Alice smoke another pack of cigarettes? Will Micky get his shot at the title?

Do you really have to ask?

Wahlberg plays Micky as a timid, though buffed, brother who seems to love the shadow of his hyper-verbal older brother. We never get a real feeling for why he wants to box. It doesn’t seem to give him any joy. His scenes with Adams are pretty good, but when she sticks up for him, it sure seems like he’s substituted one mouthpiece (Dicky) for another (Charlene).

Amy Adams is adorable. She attended some college before dropping out due to partying too much. She was an elite high jumper, but now works in a bar. She’s one of those movie constructs where a hot woman makes a man the best he can be, even if she needs force him to go against everything he knows.

Melissa Leo is just this side of a caricature. If she wasn’t such an acting stud (see FROZEN RIVER or HOMICIDE), it would be laughable. She’s all tight skirts, a poofed up hairstyle, animal prints, and potty mouth. Why she continues to worship the ground her crackhead son walks on is never explained. Unfortunately, each one of the sisters is there to make the audience feel superior. They appear to be real women from around the way in Lowell. Each sister’s hairstyle requires more Final Net than the last. Each accent is stronger than the last. Each pair of white Reeboks and acid-washed jeans and half-shirts is more stereotypical than the last. The film takes place in 1993 and some allowance can be made for their fashion sense. But oh, the hair. My goodness.

The sisters immediately hate Charlene because she’s been to college and has engaged in, you know, book learnin’. There is no group of sisters so ridiculous. When they all cram onto a sofa for a family meeting, it’s like a rouge’s gallery of the rejects from a Whitesnake video. Whitesnake, incidentally, is the music played when Micky enters the boxing arena. Here I Go Again, indeed.

The entire film would have crumbled under it’s own seriousness if not for the performance of Christian Bale. He’s already rightly famous for the lengths he goes to physically in changing his body to fit the role. Here, he needs to be crackhead skinny, but not only that. He also needs to look strung out, yet energetic. He needs to be lanky and unwashed, but ready to spar in a boxing ring. His eyes are hollow and he’s got the accent down. He also made me tear up several times. He is all bravado and self-delusion. A camera crew from HBO is following him around–he says to film his comeback, they say to film stories about crack addiction. I believed that he was HNIC in Lowell. He is charming enough for people to look the other way at his drug habit, a fact that hurts him obviously more than it helps him.

The boxing scenes were pretty good. There aren’t many ways to film fight scenes that hasn’t already been tried, but this film finds a way. All of the action that takes place inside an arena is filmed on video, like we’re watching the HBO tapes. It really was effective. I forgot once in awhile that I was watching a movie and wondered why Adams and Bale were in Atlantic City watching a fight. Wahlberg is passable as a boxer, I suppose. We don’t really see that much boxing, though.

The announcers are the real team from HBO and Michael Buffer does the intros. I’m not sure if they used the actual transcripts, but this is the kind of film where an announcer will say “Micky’s finished, someone should stop this thing” exactly when Micky finally lands a punch that hobbles his opponent. Perhaps to someone new to boxing films, the things done in this one will be spectacular and riveting, but I was tired of hearing “he’s getting killed” and “this unknown is taking way too much punishment”.

Good use of locations. Exciting editing and pretty great use of music. That is, when it wasn’t hitting us over the head. “Back In The Saddle” by Aerosmith is played, when not one, but two characters are shown “back” where they belong. This film had the surprising inclusion of the greatest bass drum song of all time, “Good Times, Bad Times.” I’d always heard that Zeppelin was too expensive to license (see ALMOST FAMOUS).

I’m a sucker for sports movies. I inevitably tear up a little when our hero’s dreams are fulfilled (“Rudy, Rudy, Rudy”; “Rocky, Rocky, Rocky”; “Hey Dad, Wanna Have Catch?”) and this one was no exception. And Bale is remarkable. I hope he’s remembered during awards season. The rest of the film, is way too paint-by-numbers to be anything above the ordinary.

8.5 IMDB
7.8 Metacritic


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December 19, 2010
Netflix Criterion DVD
Soviet Union
Russian / Italian / Tatar
205 Minutes
Biography / Drama / History / War
Andrey Tarkovskiy

#43 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

Imaginary episodes from the life of a 15th-century icon painter.

“A superb recreation of medieval life dramatizes the eternal problem of the artist, whether to take part in the life around him or merely comment on it” — **** — Halliwell’s

“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.

First things, first. Yes, it’s a butt-numbing 205 minutes. It’s in black and white, has no “normal” narrative, and is mostly in Russian. This is the only DVD in my 10-year Netflix history, that I’ve mailed back unwatched, and then put back on my queue at the top position. The first time the length just seemed too daunting. But, there must be a reason that it’s number 43 on THE LIST. It deserved another chance.

With older, less mainstream films like this one, I sometimes like to read about them before watching. What I learned was not to expect a linear style of storytelling, with plot point A leading to plot point B. I wasn’t to expect the title character, Russian painter Andrei Rublev, to be on screen very often–in fact, there are several long scenes where a character takes the attention of the camera for an extended period of time, never to be seen again. The man on the balloon in the first vignette is a perfect example. Who is he and what are the circumstances of his balloon flight? And what does this have to do with painting or faith or being a monk? We are never told.

I was instructed in these essays to be aware of the movement of the camera, the brutality of the images, and most importantly, the background of each scene. This proved to be the best advice I could get before viewing ANDREI RUBLEV.

The film may, in fact, be about the struggle to find beauty in the harsh Russian winters (and summers for that matter). Or it may be about artistic motivation–how a painter sees the world and his faith and incorporates that into the icons he paints. It could be about the pettiness and jealousy that humans–including the most holy monks–struggle with on a daily basis. I have no idea.

It’s the story of a famous real-life painter with no scenes of painting. It is divided into a half-dozen chapters, some of which have no relationship to each other. Our main character isn’t in every chapter, and even when he is, he is dressed exactly like the other monks, making his identification difficult, if not impossible. “Which guy is that, again?” For the last hour, our hero is wordless, because he is punishing himself for a sin any of us would have likewise committed.

I can’t tell you if the acting is good or not. If the actors are dressed in authentic costumes or speak as they should. But what I can tell you is Tarkovskiy has composed shots, the likes of which I’ll never forget. Everything I marveled at in Kurosawa’s RAN–the horses and flags and the burning temple–are done better in this film. And horses? Oh my goodness, the horses. Every broken horse in the USSR must have had a cameo in this film. Horses are inside churches, falling down steps (in a famous, brutal, and real scene), running into battle, rolling on the ground, frolicking in the water, and eaten as a treat. To simply marshal this number of horses and riders is grounds for celebration.

An early scene has three monks traveling the Russian countryside, through mud and rain. (I was chilly for the entire 3 plus running time–never has a landscape looked less hospitable.) They enter a tavern (or is it just a barn) to take shelter. A jester is performing some sort of anti-governmental song and dance as the drunk patrons laugh along with him. When he’s finished, long after another director would go to some sort of conversation amongst the monks, Tarkovskiy instead does a slow 360 degree spin of the inside of the room. We see every face looking at us–the monks, the peasants, the drunk guys in the corner, some children in the shadows. He does two spins, I think. Most of the film is in wide shot, but on a few occasions we see close-ups of naturalistic Russian faces.

There are what appear to be throw-away scenes of nature–a water snake, a man covered in ants, a dead bird, a cat walking amongst a pile of dead bodies.

The outdoor shots are where the film really shines. The first scene, involving the balloon, has the camera follow the “pilot” as he walks around a church, enters it, climbs some stairs, climbs out a window, and reaches for the ropes which are keeping the balloon from flying away. We have somehow gotten outside with the pilot and in the background, perfectly framed, is a rapidly approaching group of men in canoes paddling towards the church to stop his flight. Both the ropes, the balloon, the man, and the distant background are in focus.

There are countless outdoor scenes involving hundreds of people and horses, where you’ll scratch your head wondering how everyone ended up in the right place at the right time. An attack on a village where the action takes place on four levels, a raiding army whose horses gallop on both sides of a lake, and in a part of the film rightly heralded, an entire village helps to create a huge church bell for the town.

This bell scene involves a boy who claims that his dead father left the secrets to bell-making in his hands only. This boy has not been seen by the audience in the first 2 1/2 hours of the film, but at this point he becomes the protagonist. He has little actual skill at this craft, but he does have some sort of natural bell-making ability. He orders workers around, discovers the right molding clay by literally sliding in it, and does not show the Tsar the respect he usually gets. The digging and melting of metal and pouring of the mold and the fire and sparks is thrilling. In a scene I’ll never forget, the men begin chipping away at the clay to reveal the smooth and huge bell beneath. It takes the whole of the village to lift it out of its hole and as the Prince and other royalty ride up to see it, we all know that if that bell doesn’t ring, the boy will lose his head.

This shot is spectacular. We are up a hill, on top of the bell and in one cut, we pan from the miles away village and its protective wall, follow a line of horses as they cross a river on a bridge, see the ropes that have helped to hoist the bell, pan over to men winching the bell out of the ground, look down on the boy, and finally straight down on the bell itself. Fantastic.

Was ANDREI RUBLEV exciting from start to finish? No. Do I have any idea what it’s about? No. I took a two-hour break in the middle to gather myself and, frankly, to wake myself up a bit. Plot-wise, there’s a lot of talk about the wickedness of man, along with some examples (the raiding Mongol army, the pagans who strip naked to run though the forest, the rapists, the guy who pokes out the eyes of artists so that they can never recreate what they’ve already produced.) But the shots are just superb. There are things happening in the background of every shot. There is choreography of hundreds of extras that left me speechless.

Am I in a hurry to see it again? Not exactly. But I’m glad I did.

8.2 IMDB


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August 14, 2010
Sneak Preview Cinearts Santana Row San Jose
90 Minutes — August 27, 2010
Comedy / Drama / Romance
Rob Reiner [This Is Spinal Tap; The Sure Thing; Stand By Me; The Princess Bride; When Harry Met Sally...; Misery; A Few Good Men; The American President]

You Never Forget Your First Love.

There is not a single moment within FLIPPED’s 90 minutes that could possibly offend anyone. Except maybe people looking for a compelling story or strong acting or well-rounded characters. But language and subject matter and the blossoming of young love are done with such apple-pie restraint, that I hate myself for hating it.

Bryce Loski moves into a new neighborhood across the street from Juli Baker. Juli introduces herself and appears to be ready to spend the day with the new family before their moving truck is even unpacked. We are told the story almost entirely in voice-over. First Bryce gets to explain what happens, and then it flips (get it?) and Juli tells us the same story from her point of view.

Bryce is played to an almost unbearably bland level by a kid named Callan McAuliffe, whose sole qualification seems to be his blond hair and skinny frame. Why Juli likes him, we cannot speculate. Juli, on the other hand, is equally attractive, but is at least given a back story and a personality which Bryce is sorely lacking. Juli is a spitfire, she isn’t afraid of what other people think, she mounts a tree sit-in 40 years before Julia Butterfly Hill will do the same thing up in Humboldt. Juli is played with a smile and energy by Madeline Carroll, whose list of credits dwarfs McAuliffe’s.

This romantic mis-match continues to their respective families. Bryce has an older sister and snobby parents played by Anthony Edwards and Rebecca De Mornay. Edwards’ character is seen with a constant scotch in his hand and a negative word for everyone, while De Mornay doesn’t appear to do anything. The one bright spot in the family is Bryce’s grandpa, played by John Mahoney who seems to figure out how great Juli is before the rest of the family does.

Juli has twin brothers, a hard-working mother (Penelope Ann Miller) and a bricklayer father, who spends his free time painting, well-played by Aidan Quinn. There is also an uncle who is in an expensive institution, which explains why the Bakers, gasp, rent their home and don’t own it like the self-respecting Loskis do. Dismissed as hillbilly dreamers by the Loskis, the two families don’t interact. But the Bakers are seen singing at the dinner table, raising eggs in the backyard, and being loved, while the Loskis argue and suffer the rage of Edwards’ character. And we suffer right along with them.

The plot is as follows: Girl sees boy move in, girl stalks boy, boy avoids girl for five years, boy realizes that she’s pretty great, girl now hates boy, boy apologizes for being a dickhead, hands are held. The end.

As I’ve mentioned, though, the girl’s affections are something worth fighting for, while the boy is a blank-staring guy with obnoxious friends.

The voiceover stuff is necessary to move the plot along, but it tries to put us in the mindset of every other, and much more well done, nostalgic film we’ve seen. The Richard Dreyfuss stuff in STAND BY ME, a much better Rob Reiner film, did this in a great way. Much of the praise for that can be leveled at Stephen King, a man who has had some success in the publishing arena.

But FLIPPED has too much voice-over and then we have the other character voice-over us a bit more. There is also a big problem with what they’re saying. They are speaking at a level of clarity and self-awareness (and vocabulary for that matter), that no 13-year-old could possibly handle. Not for a second did I think these characters were doing the talking and not some older writer or director.

The side-trip to see the retarded uncle was painful. It is nearly impossible to play mentally challenged (as Robert Downey, Jr. explained in TROPIC THUNDER), and this was no exception. Wait until you see what happens when he drops his ice cream cone. Oy.

There is a 15-minute meaningless sub-plot about the eggs that Juli’s hens are laying in her backyard. Two neighbor women begin paying her for several dozen eggs a week and she gives Bryce’s family some for free as a thank you for past niceties. During a meal, the Loski family begins by being thankful of the eggs, and then with Bryce’s help, by the end of the meal they’ll all be convinced that there is either an embryo or salmonella hiding under each shell. This leads to throwing them out, but still accepting them from Juli on a regular basis.

Quinn and Carroll are very good in their roles, Mahoney does the best he can, but the rest of the cast is not given much to work with. Edwards, especially, is never seen smiling, yells at his kids at the dinner table for seemingly no reason, and harbors preconceived notions about just about everyone he comes in contact with. His role is thankless.

After watching this, I’m convinced that TOY STORY 3 should be the film with a PG rating and this one should have eliminated one utterance of “asshole” and been the G-rated family film that it’s trying to be.

One side-note. Pay attention to the Bryce’s lawn and parking strip. When shot from Juli’s house, the strip is clearly covered in dark-green astroturf, while the lawn appears to be real. Then the strip is magically back to normal, then turf, then normal. If there’s a symbolism there, I’m not sure what it is.

You can safely take your grandmother and your six-year-old to this film. And then apologize for it later on.

6.5 IMDB


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August 10, 2010
87 Minutes
Jeffrey Blitz [Spellbound; The Office; Parks And Recreation]

Everyone knows that playing the lottery is a ridiculous way to spend money. The opening stat says that “people” believe there’s a 1 in 6 chance of winning, when the statisticians will tell you that the chances are more like 165 Million to 1. And yet, even with these stats, some people play their state’s lottery every single week. In fact, compounding the irrationality of the enterprise, when the jackpots get up over $100 Million, even more people buy tickets, even though their chances become slimmer the more people who play. I last bought a ticket when some co-workers and I went in on about a hundred tickets when everyone was talking about the huge payoff. I knew there was no chance, but: 1) it was a social thing to do; and 2) just imagine how sucky it would have been had all of them won after I chose not to play. That was something I couldn’t accept.

This film follows a half dozen winners who illustrate the maxim “be careful what you wish for.” They are all a bit wacko, except maybe the couple who lost all their friends and moved from Pennsylvania to a waterfront mansion in Florida after claiming a $110 Million jackpot. They tried to continue life normally, but it just couldn’t happen. Conversations about waking up in the morning for a hated job or about where the cheapest gas was available no longer meant anything to them. Friends would stop talking when they approached. One woman who was a friend of the couple said that every day she wishes it were her and she stays up at night wondering why it wasn’t. They’ve kept some of the thousands of letters they received about business opportunities and donation ideas. Their two teenage kids remember not being allowed to leave the house for the few months afterward for fear of kidnapping.

We should all have such trouble, right?

Another Pennsylvanian winner bought 400 pairs of identical pants when he found a style he liked. He didn’t say no to any offers for business partnerships, he promised his family a million each, he built a hilltop mansion that was so poorly designed that he couldn’t add drywall for fear of its collapse. He bought more than one limo. Then his siblings sent a hitman to kill him and someone sold him a car with all the chassis bolts cut off hoping he’d kill himself in it. He now lives in the storeroom of a supply company owned by a friend. And he appears happier for it.

There’s the heartwarming story of a Vietnamese man who won the Powerball with co-workers and could buy his family in America as well as Vietnam a huge house. He and his wife tear up while describing their escape by rickety boat.

And then there’s a cat man who is clearly not mentally stable, put off dating and friends to help his parents with their business. After they both died, he became a crazy cat man hoarder whose property was about to be condemned so full of coke bottles and cats that you couldn’t move around in it. Down to his last three bucks he bought lotto tickets and won around $6 million. He has a friend who sort of counsels him on what to do and makes all interested women speak to him first. Under his supervision the man moves to a better house, but one year later finds himself at a motel that rents rooms by the hour where he appears to feel more comfortable. It’s $200 a week and his day seems to consist of talking to his motel neighbors and feeding about a dozen cats at a local body shop. Oh yeah, and he spends money on strippers and other back-of-the-alternative-weekly companionship.

Everyone interviewed (even the woman who continues to play but has never won more than $1,000) seems to think that there’s something larger at work than random chance. Even the Berkeley mathematician. He, of all people, should know never to play, but he attributes his success to the state of “theta brain activity” he went into to get glimpses of numbers, which he wrote down in a book and played for 18 months until those numbers hit. Even he seems like a wacko. His wife, having no more use for him after his win, divorced him and took half his winnings.

I’m not sure that viewers will have their behavior changed by watching this film. If you think it’s stupid to play now, you’ll probably come out of the experience with that view solidified.

There is a prank played on a guy (first seen on THE FRESH PRINCE OF BELL-AIR) whereby his friends show the guy a tape of the previous numbers with a new lottery ticket. And then they film it. He jumps all over the room to the degree where a heart attack might not be out of the question. So that guy can tell people that he knows what its like to win the lottery. Though he has no cash to show for it.

7.2 IMDB


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July 18, 2010
Camera Cinema Club
Ireland / Sweden
72 Minutes
Lance Daly

Kylie = Kelly O’Neill
Dylan = Shane Curry

Kylie’s goldfish has died. We see the color drain out of it until it appears, in closeup, a decaying gray. Kylie is an eleven-year-old girl, with an abusive older sister, an angry mother, and a despicable uncle, among other members of her family. Next door to her lives Dylan, a peer who spends his time avoiding his violent father, a man who in the opening scene appears to be losing a fight with his toaster. Dylan plays his videogames, sometimes hidden in cupboards, while his father drinks and yells at him until his mother comes home from work at which point his parents target each other instead.

Dylan is teased by some boys on those asinine tiny motorcycles while Kylie is taunted by older, experienced girls in the neighborhood (pushing a baby carriage), who wonder how far she’s gone sexually with Dylan. These two kids appear destined to spend their winter holiday avoiding their families and wandering the streets of their dismal Irish town.

Returning from a walk, Kylie’s face reflects horror as she sees a motorcycle parked in her driveway–”look who’s come to see you,” her mother says. It’s her Uncle and a series of heavy-handed filmmaking tricks including an ominous shadow, a shot of his boots while she hides under the bed, and her reaction to “give us a kiss” tell us all we need to know about what kind of man he is.

Dylan puts in headphones after his mother comes home to silence the her screaming at his father. The fight escalates and Dylan finds himself in between his parents as they trade punches. He throws his beloved Nintendo at dad, breaking it on his forehead. And then he runs upstairs for his life.

Kylie has been listening in to the argument and because she’s the coolest next door neighbor girl ever, finds a ladder and puts it up to the bathroom window where Dylan has hidden himself. A narrow escape, followed by some property damage, and the two kids are running off vowing to never return to their dismal and depressing home lives.

Though the neighborhood rumor tells the tale of a father murdering a son, Dylan is sure that his runaway older brother is living in Dublin and they set out to find him. They are 11-years-old. They have about $100, which Kylie found in a sibling’s shoe.

Getting away from their homes, even just a few miles, seems to lighten their spirits, the soundtrack, and the audience’s mood. It isn’t for another 20 minutes or so that we realize that color has been added to the film in slow, subtle ways. Like the further they get away from their side-by-side houses, the brighter the world seems. Your subconscious will feel something changing before your eyes notice something changing.

They hitch a ride with a reluctant waterway captain who in the space of an afternoon, provides more parental warmth than either child has probably experienced in their whole lives. This is also a part of Ireland that we’ve never seen. The captain is moving a dredge from their small town waterway to the mouth of a river in Dublin. Along the way, Dylan will learn about and hear his first Bob Dylan song performed with a strong accent by the boat captain. They will learn how to tie knots and how to work the boat locks and the proper impression of a monkey. It is magical. They might not have a plan once they reach their destination, but getting there is nothing short of soul-cleansing. Fictional characters have been taking trips down rivers by boat for centuries. It always seems to do the trick.

The almost unbelievably-kind boat captain gives Dylan his official jacket and off the two kids go to find his older brother on the bright, but harsh streets of Dublin.

But first, they have money and time on their hands. A haircut, sweatshirt, and his and her heelies are important enough to spend money on. Scenes of the two (who quite frankly are more accomplished at this skill than any real-life kids I’ve seen) rolling quickly and gracefully through a crowded shopping mall are beautiful and fun. They are just kids after all. And being kids, they spend their last money on gummy snakes, neglecting to plan any future meals.

There are long passages of the film without dialogue, using hand-held cameras and fantastic music which make us forget the brutality the kids have left behind, if only for a few minutes. When one of them gets down, the other picks them back up. When Dylan thinks their search is hopeless, Kylie continues knocking on doors. When Kylie has a very serious scare, it’s Dylan who rises up to save her.

Kelly O’Neill and Shane Curry are so fantastic in these roles that it’s almost scary. O’Neill plays Kylie as a brave, wise, talkative, fiercely loyal best pal to Dylan. It is impossible not to fall in love with her. Every boy wants someone like Kylie watching over them. Her home life may be the only one worse than Dylan’s and she vows much more strongly than he that she’ll never return. Curry plays Dylan as an asthmatic boy who turns his pain inward, having no friends but Kylie, and no enjoyment besides his videogame. He spends a great deal of time pouting and it usually takes the energy and work of Kylie to get him to break out of his funk. These two actors are crazy talented for being so young.

The story on paper seems incredibly depressing. Abused, poor kids run away and become targets for all manner of adult malfeasance in the big city of Dublin as they try to find a ne’r do well older sibling without money or a roof over their heads. But somehow, kids make it through hardships of all kinds.

There are plot issues I had trouble with. Let’s just say that the boy’s skill using his new shoes ends up probably saving Kylie’s life. And most adults they come into contact with are more than nice to the pair, they all seem to be able to impart a bit of wisdom, perhaps some food, and maybe a few coins and a song. Bob Dylan even gives them a beer to share as he waits to return to a stage for an encore.

Besides the manipulation of color based on the characters’ mood, we also got swirling camera work when the kids were playing, and scary dark alleys when the kids weren’t playing. The music was uniformly great and included a few Bob Dylan songs performed by both actors and the man himself. Also, for the first time that I can remember, there were subtitles, but only intermittently. When they stopped about 10 minutes in, I thought it was another film maker manipulation whereby he thought that we were comfortable enough and could follow along from that point forwards. But then they returned in most cases, and I began wondering if he only subtitled the most important dialogue. By the end I came to no great understanding of why they were sometimes there and other times they weren’t. Luckily, the actors’ faces really told us everything we needed to know.

The feeling of the film, the child-like wonder that is still evident, regardless of past experiences–the optimism and energy of youth, and the idea that with one loyal friend, the world can be taken conquered. All of this was in the faces of the two young leads. The conversations were realistic and age-appropriate. The ending left some questions unanswered. There was hope hidden within all the bad stuff we see.

Even the final scene which included a clenched fist that turned into a hug, a shared smile, and a blown kiss, were perfectly paced.

Go see it.

6.9 Metacritic
7.2 IMDB


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July 18, 2010
88 Minutes
Comedy / Crime / Drama / Sport
Robert D. Siegel [wrote THE WRESTLER]

Paul Aufiero = Patton Oswalt

Oswalt is perfectly cast as a die-hard New York Football Giants fan who spends his working hours in a small box in a parking garage listening to sports radio and writing the script for one of his nightly calls. He is one of those movie-level losers, like MARTY, who lives at home with his mother, has filthy friends, and posters of his sports heroes on his walls. He also sleeps in sheets that I myself had back when I was twelve. The ones with all the NFL teams on them.

His sister is married to a businessman and his brother is a personal injury lawyer as seen on TV. They all wonder what he’s doing with his life. But Paul seems to be content simply following the Giants, talking about the Giants, calling in to sports shows as a representative of the Giants, and wearing only clothes that come in Giants colors. On homegame Sundays, he and his buddy, Sal, played by indie-everywhere Kevin Corrigan, put on jerseys and facepaint and drive from their homes on Staten Island, down 95 to the Meadowlands, where they cheer with the other fans, walk around throwing the football, but strangely, don’t seem to eat or drink anything. Just when I was wondering how a guy who works in a parking garage could pay the astronomical NFL ticket prices, we cut to a shot of the two men, in the parking lot in camping chairs, watching a TV which is hot-wired onto their car battery while the real game goes on 100 yards away. This is the kind of humor the film has to offer. It’s very dark, it’s borderline mentally ill, and just this side of unbelievable.

The scripts that Paul writes for his call-ins (which he claims he says off the cuff) are full of grammar and spelling errors. And he works on them for hours. His calls end up lasting a minute or two and typically end with Scott Farrell saying “always great to hear from Paul in Staten Island.” Unfortunately, his mother often pounds on the wall imploring him to keep it down.

Paul’s single greatest hero (and here’s where we as viewers have to substitute our own–I’ll use Bono) is a killer linebacker named Quantrell Bishop. He has posters of the guy and he always wears his number 54 Bishop jersey to the parking lot. One day, the two losers are out for pizza when they spy Bishop and his posse getting gas for his Escalade. “What are they doing in Staten Island?” they ask each other before giving chase in a run-down Corolla. They stop off at a row house for something that seems vaguely criminal and then head into Manhattan. The film really gets going when we see the two men, who are complete products of their Staten Island surroundings, get nervously excited as they cross the bridge into the bustle and parking difficulties of Manhattan. Never mind the high prices. They follow Bishop into a strip club, where they are shocked to drop $29 within minutes of entering and they grab two seats facing the VIP lounge and the Bishop entourage.

In real life, this must happen all the time. I once bumped into (literally–it was crowded) Derek Jeter and his entourage at the Palms in Las Vegas (which makes me sound much cooler than I actually am.) Everyone who’s seen a celebrity in public knows that they just seem to shine brighter than those around them. I did get to glance into the famous blue eyes of Jeter, but what I also noticed was just how the energy of him being there, smiling, added a kind of buzz to the surroundings. People see celebrities in airports and hotels and concerts and they do appear to be different than we mere mortals.

But here’s the question the film asks: what if your hero turned out to be not only rude, but to beat the shit out of you until you went into a coma? I have been in the presence of celebrity probably 50 times. The soundboard at U2 shows, their hotels, in airports, at film festivals. And I’m always asked why I didn’t get an autograph. My answer is that I never want to be disappointed. And how a signature and a two-second human interaction means that I’ve “met” Bono or Stewart Copeland or Colin Farrell, I’ll never know. Gene Siskel used to say, when asked about interviewing actors and then giving them bad film reviews, something like, they’ll never be your friends–you won’t be going out for coffee with them. Plus I know they all have as many problems and they are as assholish and as messed up as the rest of us.

I say all this because in the film, the pair try to send a drink over to Bishop, who refuses a screwdriver (the only mixed drink they’ve ever heard of), so they decide to walk over anyway. They are at first ignored, then ridiculed (“look Bishop, you do got fans, ha ha ha ha.) This scene is unbearable to take. We know that Paul the schlub meeting Bishop the multi-millionaire cannot go well. But the scene takes a terrible turn when it’s discovered how long the two had been following him and Paul is punched and kicked into unconsciousness.

This alone makes a good movie, but what makes it even a bit better, and where the connections to my choice of Bono no longer work, is that the more trouble Bishop gets into, the less successful the New York Giants are on the football field. If I were to go up to Bono and say, please sign my copy of OCTOBER, and he beats me unconscious, they need to postpone some concerts. After Bishop stomps Paul, he is suspended and the Giants playoff hopes dim, the longer the investigation goes on. This part I loved. Paul is such a Big Fan, that he may decide to put his own health and a well-deserved payday aside so that he can continue to follow his beloved Giants (on TV at least) as they make a run for the Superbowl. If his name gets out, will his fellow fans hate him? Was he too much of a pest and somehow had the beating coming?

Oswalt is absolutely perfect. I’ve always known there was an actor hiding inside his schlubby comedian body. (He does a bit on a 1980s video from Night Ranger that is making me laugh right now as I remember it.) He almost dies, yet he wants his Giants to win. He has made the success of the Giants his reason for living, and without them, his family would be even more right about him. No girls, no adequate job, no life. And if it turns out that his lawsuit is the reason for the Giants demise, could he live with himself?

Added to the picture is another caller to the sports program, a guy named Philadelphia Phil, who revels in any Giants defeat and who is the arch-enemy (radio-version) of Paul from Staten Island.

Sidenote: I was at a San Francisco Giants game this year, and there was a presentation about cancer research, I think, and the spokesman was Tommy Lasorda. Now, Tommy Lasorda may be the single most hated person in San Francisco Giants history. Wanna get beat up? Wear Dodger Blue to Pac Bell Park. Or Chiefs Red to the Black Hole in Oakland. Maize and Blue in Columbus? You get the idea. However, Lasorda was years removed from being a Dodger. He was raising money for medical research. And you should have heard the boos. Oh my. Whenever the jumbotron showed him, the profanities began (from the normally white-wine sipping Giants fans). Sidenote over.

I bring it up because the hatred between the Giants and Eagles was shown pretty perfectly in BIG FAN. The two fans of different teams at first simply spar on the radio show, but over time, they get more angry and mean and how long can Paul keep the truth of his beating from the AM radio audience.

The specificity of Staten Island and the portrayal of a unique type of obsessive, the American football fan, make BIG FAN a fabulous, though not exactly fun, film.

What if your hero (Steve Jobs, Obama, Thom Yorke, Lebron) ignored you–made fun of you–almost killed you?

7.0 Metacritic
6.9 IMDB

Big Fan @ Amazon


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This morning, I went to my favorite theater, The Camera Seven Pruneyard in beautiful Campbell, California, to “test-drive” one of the 22 new theater seats they’ve just installed there. The Camera Seven is part of the Camera Cinemas group, a South Bay institution, which opened its first theater, the now-closed Camera One, in 1975. The company has a total of 24 screens in four buildings. They continue to bring Indie film to the Silicon Valley when no one else will.

All theaters, and the Camera chain is no exception, are being faced with lower attendance and more people enjoying films at home as prices on flat-panel TVs have dropped and a service like Netflix streaming puts thousands of films at your fingertips. Movie theaters are finding ways to fight back, to get all of us lazy people to leave the house and enjoy movies where they should be experienced–in a theater.

Though the chain is regional and relatively small when compared to the AMCs and Cinemarks and Regals, they have been at the forefront of several trends.

–Thanks in large part to their support, The Cinequest San Jose Film Festival completed its 20th year this past Spring. Most of the screenings have taken place at a Camera theater.

–For 14 years now, me and 400 of my closest friends have been meeting 10 times a year on Sunday mornings to enjoy a secret film, some breakfast, and then a chat with the filmmakers. The Camera Cinema Club continues to be a highlight of my movie-going life.

–They have four screens that are using Sony 4K Digital Projection, which is 4 times the pixels of 2K projection, whatever that means. All I know is that it’s sharp and bright and doesn’t “feel” digital. Like most movie snobs, I was against the whole idea of digital, but it sure looks good in those theaters.

–And beginning this Friday July 16th, with the release of Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION, another technical milestone will be met at the neighborhood Camera Seven. D-Box Motion Seating.

Here’s what I can tell you from the fifteen minute test drive that I had this morning:

* There are 22 extra-wide seats occupying the two best rows in Theater One. These eleven seats per row take the place of 15 normal sized seats. They are cushy and red and have a ridiculously heavy-duty cup holder on the left hand side. The right hand is used to adjust the “severity” of the motion.
* Each seat is numbered so that when you buy a ticket at the box office, the staff can direct you to your exact seat, which will then be activated. No ticket sold for that seat, no activation.
* Each seat has a cool light on it that reminds me of “terminator” or “battlestar galactica” or what other sci-fi reference you want to use. It “flows” up and down, up and down, until someone sits in the seat. This is cool if you’ve arrived and the theater has already been darkened, but as an OCD moviegoer, I noticed the moving lights on the seat next to mine during the demonstration.
* The seats don’t lean back like the ones we’ve all become used to. They are really wide and feel sturdy. I’m not sure I’d sit in one without the motion effects because it’s a bit stiff and my legs dangled a little bit.
* If you sat in the third row, you’d probably feel completely left out because the people in front of you will be oohing and aahing and smiling as they move around and you’d be sitting there, as always, not moving. This will probably provide great upsell. I can imagine someone sitting in a normal seat but hearing the fun the other people are having during a trailer and running off to the box office to upgrade.

Here’s what I saw today:

1) A quick instructional/commercial clip on what’s going to happen. That clip can be seen here. When the animated chair on the screen went left, we went left; when the chair had a wave splash water on the seatback, I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel a wave “splash” my seatback.
2) A trailer for THE EXPENDABLES. There were gunshots and motorcycles and bombs going off. I was trying to calibrate my chair so I didn’t look up very often, but when I did, here’s what I noticed. When Mickey Rourke was on a motorcycle, my butt was rumbling and when that motorcycle turned, so did I. Less successful was when a guy got shot or kicked or something and fell over from left to right, my seat sort of tipped me to the right. When the soundtrack bumped, so did my seat. Think TERMINATOR 2 (dum-dum dum dum-dum [pause] dum-dum dum dum-dum) your seat will bounce in time. Which is pretty cool.
3) A trailer for TRON: LEGACY, which in my opinion used the D-Box technology a bit better. There was a helicopter shot of the top of a building (think Batman looking over Gotham) and my seat “flew” and banked like the camera did. That was my favorite effect of the day, the flying. There was more action and the light-cycles and more soundtrack thwacking. And on a side note, the Tron logo looked a crisp as anything I’ve ever seen in a theater, thanks to the 4K projectors mentioned above. It was during this clip that I noticed I was smiling.
4) Then we saw the pre-credit sequence from FAST & FURIOUS (the 4th one, I think). The part where they high-jack a gas truck (which somehow is pulling FIVE trailers up and over some Dominican Republic mountains.) When Vin Diesel spun his car around, my seat seemed to spin; when Michelle Rodriguez jumped out of the car onto the gas trailer, my chair sort of “jumped”. The footage was loud and crazy and as I was being thrown this way and that way, I glanced over to my right and watched another viewer as her head moved around. I then turned my seat down to 2. I also tried 1, but wanted more. The sequence ends with a flaming tanker rolling down a hill and Diesel timing his drag race just perfectly so that the truck bounces over his car. Then stuff blows up. Loudly.

None of the three clips I saw were from films I’d probably see in a theater. Especially Fast & Furious. But the day wasn’t about artistic creativity. It was about immersion. The first film which will utilize this technology is INCEPTION which has been my most looked-forward-to film of the summer for quite some time.

I have some questions about the technology. There’s been a great deal of debate lately over the merits of 3D. Are studios simply releasing things in 3D to pick up the $3 surcharge or are they starting from scratch to make an immersive experience? Some films are turned into 3D after filming if finished (Alice In Wonderland) and some are made 3D from scratch (Avatar, Toy Story 3, Up). Toy Story 3 is a good example of a film whose 3D didn’t call attention to itself. It was just there. It added a little something to the film experience. Nothing shot out at the audience or caused them to duck or showed off the technology. If this D-Box technology can find a way to subtly add motion to already good films, I’ll be sold. After the presentation had been finished for 15 minutes, my arms were still tingling from the Fast & Furious shaking. But then again, I had it on level 3 for most of the clip.

This D-Box experience will set you back $8 on top of the price of admission. So a 3D, Saturday evening show, could run you $20 a head. This isn’t for everyone, and if a film needs a seat to swing around to and fro to keep an audience’s interest, then maybe the plot isn’t up to snuff to begin with. How many times have we seen couples on dates eating hot dogs and nachos and sodas and candy and popcorn. All of which ends up being much more expensive than $8. A guy on a date, who is trying to impress his lady friend can easily one-up his peers by springing for the extra experience of “feeling” INCEPTION, while his friends merely “watch” INCEPTION. The experience is not unlike those amusement park rides where you swoop around left and right and get motion sick even though you’re not really moving anywhere. $8 is a small price to pay for that kind of fun.

Will the technology take off? I’m not sure. This is not something that can be inexpensively done at home, though the company does sell home theater seats that also move. Would a three hour film like AVATAR lead to “D-Box fatigue” or some kind of motion sickness. We’ll have to wait for reports to trickle in.

I think it’s a great idea to have INCEPTION be the first film to utilize this technology. By all accounts, the film is for thinking people, and the clips show a world where gravity is not absolute. I anticipate that once people find out about these seats, all 22 of them will be occupied for at least the first few weeks.

I want to thank Camera 7 General Manager Alejandro Adams, and Camera Cinemas District Manager Dominic Espinosa for letting me sample the newest technology that movie-going has to offer. And I got a bonus tour of the projection booth too!

You can follow Camera 7 on Twitter to hear how the technology is being received.

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March 20, 2010
English / Spanish
80 Minutes
Davis Guggenheim [NYPD Blue; ER; The Shield; Deadwood; An Inconvenient Truth; It Might Get Loud]

5 Teachers. 180 Days. Our Children’s Future.

As a high school teacher myself, this is the documentary that I want to show people so they can see what sort of challenges we face every day at work. I don’t just mean the many people I speak with who are confident that “anyone” can teach. I mean the supportive ones who have no idea how the dynamics of a classroom can change in an instant. This has much more truth than the heralded French film, THE CLASS, which was praised for its authenticity. While that film was more realistic than most classroom-set films, and was allegedly work-shopped for a year, it doesn’t come close to THE FIRST YEAR.

Five teachers, representing five different grade levels are featured. We meet all of them on the first day of their first year. They all work in Southern California, most thanks to the Teach For America program. A smiling teddybear from Illinois teaches kindergarten, a bilingual white man from a family full of teachers has a 4th grade class, a woman lets us into her 6th grade class, a community activist teaches 11th grade ESL social studies, and a fiery woman moves from classroom to classroom dragging her suitcase full of lesson plans and teaches social justice.

I told myself I’d give this film 10 minutes. It didn’t take that long to get me. The brief running time is divided up with different title cards. “First Day”, “Who gives up first?”, “I have a child I’m concerned about”, and so on. Lest the audience think that every day is fabulous and hugs are given all around as life lessons are learned, each teacher deals with at least one kid who is disruptive to all the others. This proves to be the most interesting portion. At least for me. The incredibly patient kindergarten teacher navigates budget cuts and pitiful staffing numbers while fighting for a doll of a boy with a severe stutter and speech problem. He also begins home visits when parents don’t show up for their conferences.

My school has a night where the parents are invited to come to school and follow their child’s schedule. I can assure you that the ten parents or so who show up each period have children who will try hard and be no trouble behaviorally the entire year. It’s the other kids I worry about. As this man pleads and begs and makes phone calls and opens his classroom early to help, the viewer can’t help but wonder exactly when he’s going to give up. A homophobic outburst in the social justice class requires an intervention, a boy with anger management issues takes the other 30 kids off task, another boy laughs during a serious ex-gang member presentation after the speakers say “what if they were aiming for you but hit your mother instead, would you be laughing then?”

It’s inspiring and honors the profession. It is also propaganda which is actively trying to recruit new teachers. Because there are five subjects followed in the 80 minutes, and because we are seeing brief periods of a full school year, we don’t ever see a “normal” day in a classroom. There are often days where everything goes well. There are days when teachers hide in their cars to sob. And there are days when all the extra preparation in the world wouldn’t have resulted in alert students engaged with the subject matter.

That film is still waiting to be made.

7.2 IMDB

The First Year @ Amazon


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March 7, 2010
Cinequest 20
USA / Poland
Polish / English
83 Minutes
Steven Meyer

Is there really another worthwhile documentary to be made about the Holocaust? This brief, interesting documentary says that there is. This one follows survivors of a less well-known concentration camp called Maidanek, where participants of the Warsaw Uprising were sent. This one lacked a railroad track so the prisoners were marched from the town’s station into the front gates of the camp after traveling for days with no food or water. This camp was also unique in that prisoners were given time in a field which was in between two barracks. Another difference was that it seems as if the Nazi guards made no secret of the ultimate fate of the inmates. At other camps, prisoners on their way to the showers were told to neatly arrange their personal items so that they could find them when the shower concluded. No such charade went on at this camp. Knowing that all the gold and money they had brought to bribe the guards wouldn’t secure their freedom, the prisoners then began burying these items in the field to keep them out of the hands of the Nazis.

The film is a mixture of survivor stories and a methodical archeological dig, as well as a story about the red tape of modern Poland. It’s no shock when items are found (what sort of documentary would it have been if these stories of buried treasure proved unfounded), but hearing about a couple’s buried wedding rings or an entire family’s supply of gold is much different than seeing these items being unearthed. The items are cataloged and the survivors get a chance to hold them, struggling to see tiny inscriptions in some of them.

A post-script tells us that less than 1% of the area has been excavated.

It has become no easier over the years to watch an elderly survivor of a concentration camp walk back through the gates of the camp that killed their entire family. Sobs and memories flood back and we can somehow see their pain. Most were the only one of their large extended families to survive World War II.

Not particularly uplifting, but worth seeing.


The Cinequest Program Said:

When facing even the most dire of situations, the strength of the human spirit prevails.

In 1943, thousands of survivors of the Warsaw ghetto uprising were taken and held in the Maidanek death camp. There, a revolution of a different kind would occur. Realizing they were being selected for death, the inmates, in an act of defiance and bravery, secretly buried their personal possessions so that the Nazis could not take and use them to support their war effort. Sixty-three years later, an international team of survivors and experts from around the world convened for an archeological expedition to unearth the hidden treasures.

Director Steven Meyer’s inspirational Buried Prayers is a beautiful homage to the human spirit and our necessity to survive and fight against those who attempt to take our humanity away from us. And what they discover lying six inches beneath the long-untouched earth are not just relics, but incredibly powerful stories of hope.



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Cinequest 20
Sweden / Ireland
94 Minutes
Comedy / Drama
Teresa Fabik

Sort of a Swedish “Real Women Have Curves” where an overweight, but bubbly teenager shows the audience that she has feelings too. Just because this film was predictable from the first frame to the last, doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

The title character, Maja (Zandra Andersson), is an 18-year-old aspiring actress. She is also huge. She takes acting workshop classes where it’s clear she takes her craft much more seriously than the other, bored members of the troupe. She also is the butt of jokes at her school, and is bumbling in the way that only the cinematically big-boned can be. At a wedding (where she trips into the wedding cake, catches it before it collapses, and then licks the base of the bride & groom figures before quickly reconstructing the top tier, all without anyone noticing), she strikes up a conversation with the wedding videographer. Like all wedding videographers, Erika (Moa Silén) believes that she’s destined for greater cinematic glory. As she’s reviewing her video from the wedding, she stumbles upon Maja speaking directly to the camera about wanting to be an actress and declaring her availability for any projects that Erika might have.

Erika is at first intrigued by Maja’s klutziness and her seeming disconnection between her dreams and her body-type. She begins filming a thrilled Maja while shopping the footage around and being turned down at most production companies, except for one which wants to make her the basis for a comedy film called “Phat”.

When a call comes in about a role in a sitcom, Maja jumps at the chance, Erika does the driving, and a “sensitive” male classmate sneaks out of his house to go along so that he can meet with his “brother”. As this film holds no surprises, we know that Maja’s role will be described as a “hideously obese creature” who set up a blind date with the sitcom star. Erika will struggle with her conscience after setting up the part for Maja with an ex-boyfriend who has become much more successful than she has. The boy from school will learn how men posting ads online will often not, gasp, be exactly who they say they are. Maja will be in heaven as she spoons with the hot, but “theatrical” boy while they share a bed in the big, exciting, city.

There will be drama as Maja’s mother invites a large party over to watch the show, as Erika’s plans for a film at Maja’s expense are exposed, as the boy tells Maja a secret that the rest of us have known about for 45 minutes.

There are some things that the film surprised me about.
1) The boy did go to the big city, meet a man, and have some form of sex with him. Maja: you didn’t do things you didn’t want to do, did you? Boy: [no answer--then tears]
2) The acting troupe is putting on The Twelfth Night (I believe) which includes a character who is so hideous that the rest of the cast pretends to be attracted to him, until he realizes and has a speech about how evil they are by playing with his heart. This role will be played, of course, by Maja, who will wow the community theater crowd to the point of tears with her heartfelt acting talent. But the thing is, Andersson is a really good actress. We want to applaud along with the rest of the auditorium during their curtain call.
3) The film said some things about the actual chances of someone of Andersson’s build becoming famous at anything. There were scenes that were reminiscent of PRECIOUS when she pretends she’s at the BET Awards with her light-skinned boyfriend. There are dream sequences here as well.

The moral of the story I suppose is that if you’re a filmmaker, don’t make fun of your subject, find their inner soul and show it to the audience. And if you’re an overweight aspiring actress, simply find a gay man to hitch your wagon to and he’ll design a graduation gown that will be talked about for years and years. Or something.

I’d let kids of any age see this. It’s empowering. It’s crowd-pleasing. And completely predictable.


The Cinequest Program Said:

Everyone wants to be seen, everyone wants to be noticed.

Finding the perfect balance of comedy and drama, Teresa Fabik’s Starring Maja inspires with a poignant, coming-of-age tale that examines our hopes and fears, about discovering ourselves and about following our dreams.

Meet Maja, an 18-year-old girl from a small town in Sweden. She dreams of becoming an actress and getting the world to see her for the beautiful person she is. But it’s difficult to get anyone to look past her portly physique, her awkward social skills, or her clumsiness. Along comes Erica, a struggling documentary filmmaker, who sees an opportunity to create some comedy and make some money by recording Maja’s daily antics. As time passes, Maja’s warm-hearted enthusiasm wins Erica over and has her questioning her motives. Maja’s journey is riddled with comedy and sadness as she struggles to find the self-esteem and courage to live her dream—on her own terms.


6.9 IMDB


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Cinequest 20
South Korea
128 Minutes
Crime / Drama / Mystery / Thriller
Joon-ho Bong [The Host]

The closing night film of Cinequest 20, was a film by Joon-ho Bong, who also directed the much-better HOST in 2006.

This is basically the story of a mother’s loyalty to her mentally-retarded son. I’ve read a bit about this film and the phrases that continually come up are “challenged,” “simpleton,” and “slow” which I dismiss. The boy in this story is a barely functioning retarded youth who hangs out with a small-time criminal who uses him for whatever bad idea he can think up. I have seen hundreds of filmed portrayals of mentally challenged characters and few dramas have asked me to believe as ludicrous a character as Do-joon who stares at people with his mouth open and answers questions in slow motion. He forgets events and activities the second they are finished. But when he needs to be, he appears to add IQ points instantly. I almost couldn’t get past him. But Hye-ja Kim, who plays the mother, kept me at least partially entertained.

As did director Joon-ho Bong, who may have created a terrible, long, and frustrating mystery, but who can’t possibly be accused of not having the technical skill to pull of beautiful scene after beautiful scene. In one, a police interrogator karate kicks the apple out of the son’s mouth. This had nothing to do with any of the other 127 minutes, but it sure looked awesome! The opening scene showed Mother dancing, with abandon, in a field for reasons that we hope will be made clear by the end, but in actuality never are. But it was still hilarious, stunningly beautiful, and strangely emotional to watch this actress look at the camera and dance as if no one was watching.

The film is full of such moments. A building is engulfed in flames off in the distance as Mother walks through some woods. An incredibly tense scene follows a gratuitous sex scene (nothing wrong with that), in which a spilled bottle of water and it’s resulting puddle make you hold your breath as it spreads toward the dangling fingers of the bad guy.

Plot-wise, not much there. Mother runs a herbal store and moonlights as an illegal acupuncturist. She lives with her 20something son, who would forget to feed himself if she wasn’t around. Son is hit-and-runned by rich guys in a Mercedes. Boy and Thug drive out to the golf course to confront them and end up in the police station where Mother bails Son out and gives out free samples of some sort of herbal drink. Later, after a night of drinking, Boy is accuses of killing a loose schoolgirl and then displaying her for the neighborhood to see. Mother begins an investigation to find the real killer, going so far as to enlist bad guys to beat confessions out of people.

After all, her son couldn’t have possibly done what he’s been accused of, right?

And on and on. For more than two hours. Once the “mystery” has been solved, we are still subjected to another 20 minutes of slow-paced often inexplicable scenes which seem to have no connection with the original story.

I am a huge fan of Asian cinema. I enjoyed The Host and most of the creepy Korean horror films of the past decade. But this one just sucked. I don’t care if it’s from an established and much-heralded director, if this had been made in the US, no one would be giving it a second glance. Somehow it garnered an 8.1 at IMDB and a not-terrible 6.9 at Metacritic. There’s no accounting for taste.


The Cinequest Program Said:

Some secrets can only be uncovered by a determined force of nature…

For twenty years Cinequest has empowered the Maverick via innovation and discovery. It fits this tradition to close a milestone program with a Maverick moment that will truly electrify…and give you one of those special moments when you leave the theatre knowing you’ve discovered something very original, very powerful.

There are many forces of nature. Perhaps the most organic and committed force is that of a mother for her child. And this power and experience of motherhood carries a universal understanding, respect and community. What would you do if your child were accused of a brutal crime?

Mother delivers a breathtaking and hugely entertaining mystery, delving into the realms of truth within the shadow side of humanity.

When it comes to her mentally challenged adult son, Do-Joon, there is nothing this middle-aged matriarch won’t do. Her devotion is put to the ultimate test when a schoolgirl is found murdered and all signs point to Do-Joon as the killer. Denied help by the authorities, she sets out to prove her son’s innocence. Using her amateur sleuthing skills, she uncovers a host of unpleasant secrets among the tormented townspeople. As the quest deepens, the heroine’s own maternal instincts become increasingly blurred.

Rather than stun with shocking sequences, director Joon-ho Bong (director of the hit film The Host) emphasizes and amazes with detailed cinematography. Shots of open fields and mystifying landscape are equally dazzling and fundamental to the mother’s journey. While her eternal love for Do-Joon may come across as shameful and outrageous, the powerful performance of the matriarch overshadows all else on screen.


8.1 IMDB
6.9 Metacritic


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March 6, 2010
Cinequest 20
85 Minutes
Martin Zandvliet

Though I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen Natasha Richardson look-a-like, Paprika Steen before, I can assure you that I’ll try to catch her in any future projects she might be involved in. She is just that good. She plays an alcoholic actress in Applause, and judging from the way she’s treated by others, a quite famous one. In a bit of too-meta storytelling, Thea is playing an alcoholic in a stage play each evening, while trying to kick the habit during daylight hours. She has also driven away what appears to be a pretty great husband and is trying to reconnect with their two young boys. But as a diva and a boozer, she isn’t exactly sure how to go about winning their trust again. Awkward hugs and unsuccessful trips to Toys R Us are just a few of the problems Thea encounters on her way to becoming a more normal-acting mother.

She attends AA meetings, but insists on visiting her neighborhood bar, even if she only enjoys a club soda and the flirtations of the men there.

The camera work is shaky and close-up. We seem to peer into her eyes, or maybe they just do a great job of catching ours. Thea is at a specific age in an actress’ life. Still beautiful, but with all of life’s years written on her face. She is mean to most of those around her, but Steen never lets us forget the humanity behind the rudeness.

There is also a scene towards the end which will give you the heaviest sense of dread.

A fantastic character study.


The Cinequest Program Said:

“Even though you can’t tell, I am a good mother.”

The reason for the emotional impact achieved in Applause can be summed up in two words: Paprika Steen. One of the world’s most vibrant actresses (having starred in such films as Adam’s Apples, The Substitute and Open Hearts), Steen has the innate ability to make us laugh, cry and, yes, even to fear her with just a glance.

Steen’s tour-de-force performance as Thea in Martin Pieter Zandvliet’s debut film is, in short, fearless. A celebrated actress, Thea has been battling alcoholism for years—an addiction that led to her divorce and the loss of custody of her two sons. Pampered at work and lacking even the most basic social skills, Thea does not suffer fools gladly and fills the lives of those around her with a caustic, venomous sarcasm. But Thea wants her children back desperately and pleads with her ex-husband to let her spend time with them. But how far is she willing to go?


7.2 IMDB


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March 6, 2010
Cinequest 20
102 Minutes
Comedy / Drama
Mika Kaurismaki

This is the kind of comedy where a man, while getting orally serviced by his girlfriend for rent, tosses a lit cigar out his window onto dry grass, where a brush fire ignites, and as the man rushes outside wearing boxers and brandishing an extinguisher, he loses control of the hose and it sprays all over his face and the window before finally hitting its target. The crowd erupts in laughter. And…scene.

A couple in their 30s is divorcing, but neither wants to leave the lakeside house, so they decide they’ll both live there, as long as they live by a set of ground rules. Samples are, we split the bills, and, no new people allowed inside, which really means that they can’t bring their new lovers over. This rule lasts about an hour. The woman calls a former one-night-stand participant and he flies his seaplane over and docks it at the house. The man asks his pimp half-brother to secure the services of a prostitute who will pose as his new love interest. But she’s on the run from a scary female mob boss who accuses her of stealing some money.

The man’s best friend is some sort of blow-dried, tight-acid-washed-jeans wearing guy who seems to have a way with the ladies, if not with his toothbrush.

The entire plot is based around a divorcing couple, who through jealousy and kidnapping and a next door neighbor with a huge dog, find that they are better together than apart. There isn’t a single surprise, and the mood changes from madcap slapstick to serious tied-to-a-chair torture seemingly at random.

Skip this one.


The Cinequest Program Said:

It’s divorce: Finnish style.

In this wicked comedy, Juhani and Tuula, a successful family therapist and a business trainer, cannot practice what they preach. When they decide to divorce but continue to share the house, reason not only doesn’t prevail, long repressed emotions erupt like childish, playground tantrums. First Juhani brings home a bar pickup, infuriating Tuula so much that she gets even with a tryst of her own the next night. Juhani then ups the ante by hiring a prostitute who’s being tailed by the local mob that thinks she’s stolen a big chunk of their money, to pose as his girlfriend.

Director Mika Kaurismäki’s wild ride through domestic dysfunction not only earns its laughs, it also exposes the futility of false personas where matters of the heart are involved. Ultimately, love, in all its guises, is a part of the human condition none of us can do without.


6.6 IMDB


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February 28, 2010
Cinequest 20
105 Minutes
Amit Rai

Not very successful film about a Muslim community in India. A suicide bomber has blown up a marketplace and the Indian authorities respond using force against other Muslims, detaining them for two weeks without trial. Tired of being blamed for the actions of one man, the local leader calls for a general strike, whereby each shop owners will close his store until the unjustly incarcerated men are set free. Our protagonist, an auto mechanic, is given an important job to do by governmental engineers on the day before the strike is to commence. An 1940s Ford engine is brought to his shop by official looking people who need him to fix it. It seems that the final urn of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes was recently found in a bank vault and the government is getting prepared to drive the ashes to the final Indian river using the exact same truck that carried them after his death. This is a huge honor to be picked to fix this engine, but if he keeps his shop open to do the work, his fellow Muslim businessmen will think that he’s disloyal. He will try to speak to the community leaders, but they won’t listen. He’ll be assaulted by the thuggy Muslim youth for going against orders. He’ll try and try to point out that Gandhi may have been murdered for being sympathetic to the plight of Muslim Indians. He’ll lose sleep and rely on his closest friend, a doctor who will tell him to stop stressing.

And what will the women say? We have no idea because there are only two women who appear on screen, only one of whom has a line of dialogue. There is a funeral scene which involves only men.

By the time the film ends, all warring parties will come together in a show of support that the Mahatma would have wanted to see. There is really no surprise here.

Simplistic and boring and overacted. There are some Bollywood type songs that you can bob your head to. I suppose we don’t see many films about the Muslim population of India. However, just last year at Cinequest Firaaq played, which told the story of race relations in India with much more heft.

6.9 IMDB [25 votes]


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February 28, 2010
Cinequest 20
107 Minutes
Atsushi Funahashi

I don’t need plot or the camera to move or dialogue or sex or violence or fast pacing to keep me interested. But Holy Toledo was this thing slow. I was sitting with a full cup of coffee, it was my first film of the day, and I’ll be damned if I could stay awake.

In the Yanaka neighborhood of Tokyo are a whole bunch of Buddhist temples and old-timers. And a huge, five-story pagoda used to stand over all of it. The children played around it, and it made the neighborhood happy to have it. Everyone alive at the time agrees that it burned to the ground in 1957, though how it caught on fire has two story versions. Either a crazy homeless man did it, or two lovers killed themselves by lighting it on fire while they were inside. Either way, the burning of this structure has deeply wounded the neighborhood and a student film society sets about interviewing people about it. They are also after the holy grail of filmed footage of the fire itself.

Two characters discuss how important it is to make the elderly interview subjects comfortable before asking them painful questions about the burning. This is supposed to help us in the audience go along with film maker’s pacing, which involves slow, static shots of this temple and that. Of a blind woman scrubbing tombstones. Of various ceremonies for the dead. There is also footage of the young people from the film society (actors, I think), interviewing people with memories of the pagoda (real-life citizens, I think). These stories meander until we end up learning about why the neighborhood isn’t as good as it used to be when the pagoda stood sentry. Some of the interview subjects lament that no one worships dead relatives anymore. Another doesn’t like the crime that’s moved in. Others talk about the beauty of the structure itself and how the designer went against the convention of the time and hung off the edges of the immense structure without ropes.

It is filmed mostly in Black and White, though there are rare shots of color and a few in sepia. The mixture of real neighborhood residents, a real historic fire, and actors working around them is mostly successful. The shots are uniformly beautiful, even while watching someone sweep for five minutes. But oh my goodness is it slow. And dark. And quiet.

Slow, static shots…temple after temple…some young people are collecting film from old-timers…a five-story pagoda built in 1600s, then destroyed, then rebuilt in the 1800s, and burned in the 1950s…old-timers reminisce about what the huge structure meant to the town..


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February 27, 2010
Cinequest 20
Norwegian / Polish / English
100 Minutes
Sara Johnsen

Terrific film about the nature of fate. And love, of course. Axel is an advertising executive in his 20s with a completely dicky demeanor. He is Asian, but was adopted at a young age by a Norwegian couple. He treats women poorly, is reckless and handsome and snobby. His adoptive parents live in a large, expensive house, and it’s clear he’s the most important thing to him. His family hires a new maid, Maria, a sexy woman from Poland, whose own son lives with her mother back in her home country. They are immediately attracted to each other, though when not having sex, he treats her as if she were his family’s maid–which, of course, she is. Maria works a second job washing dishes at an Asian restaurant in a not-so-great part of town. A co-worker, Anne, is quiet and thoughtful and was also adopted by a Norwegian, though her mother has a blue collar job working as a coat check woman in a hotel lounge. Rounding out the cast is a blond farm boy named Per, just back from the Gulf War, after being photographed brandishing a rifle in the face of a small Afghan boy. The publicity from the photo resulted in his being discharged from the army, and sent back home where he is anxious to begin his college studies. His first apartment is across the street from the restaurant. The four will become two couples.

There are several things going on in this film and not all of those things work. The film opens with night vision shots of a war zone, but Per’s military story is by far the least compelling one. He has an embedded photo-journalist (a hot one, to boot) follow him around as he goes about his army business. A car speeds through a roadblock, he kills the driver and screams at the kids in the back seat to get out. A photo is taken and he becomes a scapegoat. He has trouble sleeping afterward, but is polite and smart and ready for college.

The more successful theme is one of class distinction. Axel is spoiled and wealthy and handsome and entitled and works in a high-priced ad agency. Anne is beautiful and sweet and is a waitress at a local restaurant. Maria is in Norway on a worker’s permit, lives in a different country than her son, is both a maid and a dishwasher. That’s our hierarchy. But what caused them to reach the class level they’ve reached? Maria came to Norway looking for a better life. Axel and Anne were adopted as children from their homeland by two vastly different families. One a single mother working in a hotel, the other a well-to-do couple who throw lavish parties, support liberal causes, and think nothing of their mid-20s son coming home to live after a work suspension (for inappropriate language towards a female, of course).

Add to this the relationship that Maria and Axel enter into–she is employed by his family, how can any love affair be equal? When he’s mean to her, his barbs are always aiming towards her domestic servant status.

What if the situation were different? The girl was adopted by the wealthy couple and given all the advantages that Axel now enjoys.

I must say that as someone who was adopted as an infant, this sort of what if discussion is never far from my mind. What if the family before the one I ended up with had decided to take me? How would everything have been different–or the same? Biological children probably don’t go through this, but we “chosen babies” do. So this film hit quite close to home.

Beyond the plot, the film is populated by good looking people of various backgrounds. Axel walks around completely nude–and why shouldn’t he with that body. Anne is striking in her poise and posture and quietness. She has a first kiss that will make you swoon. Maria is louder and demonstrative and sexy. And Per is buff and handsome and as Norwegian as apple pie. Each does a fabulous job with their characters. The music and photography is great.

If you forget about an incredible coincidence for a moment and just let it wash over you, you’ll be in for a great film experience.

Coincidence aside, fabulous story of siblings, adopted from Asia to Norway…the son is an affluent advertising creative type who is just an asshole to everyone he meets…his adopted family is beyond wealthy…clearly he’s had everything he’s ever wanted…we see him as the film opens paying his buddy to sleep with his girlfriend, thus proving her unworthiness–it’s a loyalty test she fails…sent home on a semi-suspension (for inappropriate language), Axel meets his family’s new maid, a Polish hottie who he treats like trash…Maria also works as a dishwasher at the Vietnamese restaurant where her best friend Anne works. Anne was also adopted from Vietnam, but her mother is a coat checker at a posh hotel…An ex-soldier, who becomes infamous for a photo of him aiming a machine gun in an Afghan boy’s face, moves into Maria’s low-rent building to being his college studies…the soldier finds comfort in the restaurant and the advertising exec finds comfort in the maid…there are some interesting things being said about the luck of life’s draw…both Vietnamese young people seem smart, one was adopted by affluent parents, the other by a working-class woman…how does this adoption lottery affect those involved…the cast is magnificent, and the Norway we see is less fancy, clean, and healthy than divided, racist, and full of class divisions…not sure if the soldier’s story is as compelling as the others…the scenes of war seem a bit out of place…they are good, but the vibe is different…the film is all about how big events can affect everything that follows, whether it be an international adoption, a child left in another country, or an act during wartime…

7.1 IMDB


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February 25, 2010
Cinequest 20
92 Minutes
Shu-Peng Yang

A crowd-pleaser that left me sort of cold. Two bumbling thieves walk the countryside until they arrive at a village which is full of idiots. They claim to be hunters desiring water, but it quickly becomes clear that they are after any valuables the villagers have. One of the robbers has an incredible likeness to Toshiro Mifune, but a bit more chubby, and this bumblier of the bumbling duo takes a liking to the daughter of the man they first rob. Before they can get away, some soldiers show up, abuse the villagers in minor ways, then begin to abuse the daughter in much more serious ways. As the rape is taking place (though this rape is mostly played for laughs), the robber with the crush stabs the soldier, which begins a full-on samurai fight with four soldiers vs. two robbers.

This is when the film takes off into supercool territory. The soundtrack is “300-esque”, full of speed metal riffs that have nothing to do with authenticity, but just sound bitchin. As the men are running around and stabbing each other and shooting arrows into each other, the blood spurts, the villagers recoil in horror, and the soundtrack thumps on.

But as soon as there is life in the film, it begins running out of gas. Instead of thanking the robbers for saving a young maiden from her soiled fate, the village elder gets the rest of the men in town to take the two men prisoner. This will happen several more times in the course of the film. The men will save the asses of the village, the dim-witted mayor and his even more dimwitted townspeople will tie up the two men, and they’ll find any number of ways to get out of their control. On one occasion, one fakes the need to pee–in another, a sympathetic (and sexy) butcher-badass leaves one of her knives within reach so they can cut their way out.

But it’s ponderous when the same plot happens over and over. The mayor fakes paralysis in order to sneak away on a donkey to tell the army what the robbers have done with their comrades.

The film is bookended with scenes of an ancient man and woman and their crazy kid who stop for water at a village full of scared people.

The music is cool, but the film is ridiculous. I suppose if you have a soft spot for slapstick, this one might do the trick. And apparently dick jokes translate into any language and dynastic era.

5.9 IMDB


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February 7, 2010
Netflix Criterion DVD
86 Minutes
Ko Nakahira

Sort of a “Rebel Without A Cause” for Japan. It’s the 1950s and the beach kids in Japan are too bored to be rebelling against anything. They are well-to-do and spend their summer at jazz clubs, playing cards, and accumulating female conquests. They wear Hawaiian shirts and strum ukuleles and hang out at their wealthy friend’s house most of the time. They are in college, but school is the last thing on their minds. If the Hamptons had a boardwalk with amusements, it’d look a lot like the place depicted. There are sailboats and powerboats and sports cars available whenever these boys want them.

Brothers Haruji (younger, innocent, naive, angsty) and Natsuhisa (older, smoker, mistreater of women, deceiver) spend their days waterskiing and tanning and lamenting their existence. Haruji, who has apparently never mentioned a girl before, becomes smitten with someone he sees at the train station. Her name is Eri and he goes slow with her, teaching her to waterski, swimming with her, and laying out on rocks where their legs _almost_ touch. A party is held whereby each boy is to bring three girls and the one with the best “hand” wins. When Haruji and Eri walk in, the contest is over. She is poised and beautiful and bejeweled, acts innocent, but doesn’t push away her dance partners when they pull her close.

Brother will betray brother, feelings will be hurt, and Eri will turn out to be anything but the giggly schoolgirl she purports to be.

CRAZED FRUIT (what kind of stupid Anglicized title is that, anyway) is pretty frank in its depiction of sex, especially for 1950s Japan. A woman who was “passed around last night” has a conversation with virginal Haruji while they wait for his brother–she’s wearing a nightgown. A girl pulls a boy’s hand to her breast, a skirt is torn open in a moment of passion, a knowing glance turns to an embrace.

The soundtrack is full of Hawaiian music while the boys lounge in the beach house during the hot parts of the day, and jazz is loud at night. The nonchalance of their casual hookups with women must have been shocking to middle-aged moviegoers back in the day. It leaves the modern viewer with a “not much has changed” attitude.

7.7 IMDB

Crazed Fruit @ Amazon


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January 12, 2010
San Jose CA — Cinearts Santana Row
112 Minutes — December 16, 2009
Scott Cooper


CRAZY HEART is the subject of Cinebanter Podcast Number 85. 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 CRAZY HEART Discussion
• Break
• 22:06 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 22:37 The Last Five®
• 1:00:08 GLAAD Award Nominees
• 1:07:02 Credits & Outtakes


8.0 IMDB
8.4 Metacritic


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September 19, 2009
Netflix DVD
Germany / USA
95 Minutes — March 19, 2005
Erik Skjoldbjaerg [Insomnia]

Overly depressing story of a young, talented journalist who gets a full-ride to Harvard and begins writing for Rolling Stone while trying to keep her unraveling life together. Ricci is fine as the real-life writer, but Jessica Lange was over-the-top and oppressive as her put-upon mother. Ricci enters therapy after her friends find her editing and re-editing an article on Bruce Springsteen, setting aside things like eating, sleeping, and bathing.

The 1980s references are spot on, the costumes worn to college parties perfect, and I remain unconvinced that mental illness can ever be properly captured on screen. She seems to grow more angry and paranoid, which isn’t the same as growing more depressed. I’m not sure if that’s the fault of the acting, but one scene of a person unable to get out of bed does not an in-depth portrait of serious depression make.

Say what you will about the overly-dramatized (and sanitized) Ron Howard film A BEAUTIFUL MIND, but when he was looking at all of his scribbling and the formulas jumped off the walls so that he could form them into the answer he was looking for, we at least understood that he sees numbers differently than we do.

No such luck here. Jason Biggs plays a way-too-patient love interest and Michelle Williams is one of her verbally attacked roommates.

6.2 IMDB


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July 22, 2009
Belgium / France / Italy / Germany
French / Albanian / Russian
105 Minutes — July 31, 2009
Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne [The Child]
Arta Dobroshi plays Lorna

We are immediately dropped into these characters’ lives. We are trusted to catch up on our own. Without someone spelling out every character and every motivation. This fact alone makes the first moments of LORNA’S SILENCE compelling. Lorna is at the bank where she makes a deposit. She is married, though clearly unhappily, to a man named Claudy, whose emaciation tells us that he’s an addict of some sort. Lorna is as cold as can be to this man. What has he done (besides get hooked on smack) to make her treat him this way? We are mostly in hand-held closeups at this point–in fact, this “you are there” quality will make the whole experience of the film much more visceral.

Claudy is clearly in terrible shape. He’s looking for companionship from Lorna, trying to get her to play some cards with him before bed. She then announces, I’m going to bed, adding “are you coming?” Which throws us for a loop as her body language, stoic face, and coldness towards him doesn’t exactly spell marital bliss. Alas, he needs to get his bed roll out of the other room and she sleeps in her bed while he tosses and turns out in the living room while trying to kick heroin–and not for the first time. This sounds like every other junkie-trying-to-clean-up movie that’s ever been made, but this heroin portion of the film really isn’t important. The film is about so much more.

They live in a dismal, drab apartment. She continually pulls out her ID to tell people she cares about that she’s “nearly Belgian.” The story becomes more clear. She has married Claudy in order to get a green card. She’s Albanian. The terms of the arrangement are spelled out: $5,000 Euros for marriage and $10,000 Euros for a divorce. Lorna is in a hurry for this divorce because it will be her turn to get paid when she marries “The Russian”, a crime boss of some stature. And so on, and so on, and so on.

What if you wanted to immigrate to a new country, but couldn’t do it legally? A sham marriage might be just the ticket. But the authorities are used to such capers, so it would really help Lorna’s case for divorce, if her Belgian husband abused her. But he can’t. So desperate and lonely is he, that her occasional tiny displays of caring and compassion mean everything to him. Perhaps she’s been supportive in prior attempts at quitting drugs.

There are harrowing scenes where he demands that she lock him in their apartment while she goes to work as a drycleaner so that he can’t leave to make a buy. Even more hard to watch are the scenes where Lorna pleads with Claudy to beat her, so that she can file a police report and get her divorce quicker. But he won’t. So she’ll have to bruise herself and blame it on him. But she’ll need a witness.

Lorna seems dead inside most of the time, but her eyes come alive with sparkle during the few meetings she has with her boyfriend, Sokol, another immigrant who is always traveling here and there to pick up whatever work he can. They all answer to Fabio who has the connections, the seed money, and the gun to run the whole enterprise. This is a story about the people we don’t notice. It reminded me of DIRTY PRETTY THINGS.

If Lorna claims spousal abuse, she’ll be questioned thoroughly, but if her husband were dead (he is a junkie after all), wouldn’t that make the whole situation a bit easier? Lorna wants to be rid of Claudy, she wants the $20K the Russian has promised, she wants to be out from under control of Fabio, and she wants to open a cafe with her beloved Sokol. But to her horror, she realizes that she has a conscience. If Claudy overdoses by his own devices, she can’t be held morally responsible. But if he really tries to get clean, asking her for help, doesn’t she have to support his decisions? Things aren’t as easy as they first appear.

This film is full of magnificent little moments. Claudy’s treatment ends and he promises to cook Lorna dinner. She receives a letter from a judge telling her that her divorce is final. Claudy, though expecting this to happen eventually, is not okay with it happening so soon, and puts on his jacket in order to go out and meet his connections. She refuses to let him go and he must physically fight her to get out of the apartment to score dope to drown his sorrow at losing his sham wife. This is a wordless scene that lasts about ten minutes. They awkwardly wrestle, she grabs him, she throws his key out the window after locking them both in, and then she reverts to the only urge that can possibly challenge the need for heroin. It is an incredibly touching scene–something I won’t soon forget. She is giving herself to him for comfort, for congratulations, for her own guilt about taking advantage of him, for thousands of other reasons. No dialogue is necessary.

This is actress Arta Dobroshi’s first major role and she is magnificent. Her big eyes are perfect at projecting hope, fear, apathy, and desperation. A scene where she’s questioned by some cops is a superb use of few words going a long way.

The film unfolds as a sort of mystery. Who is The Russian, what is the relationship between the two people who share the apartment, why does Lorna deposit money in the bank? The Dardennes make us do the work in finding out. It is easy to believe that Lorna was living her life in Belgium well before we started following her. There is a feeling of us sort of happening by, the camera picking up her story by accident, though it could be many immigrant’s story.

The last ten minutes play better as metaphor than as plot and I’m not sure they’re successful. But the rest of the film is spectacular.

8.4 Metacritic
7.3 IMDB


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July 21, 2009
97 Minutes — August 21, 2009
Documentary / Music
Davis Guggenheim [Relativity; NYPD Blue; ER; The Shield; Deadwood; An Inconvenient Truth]

Jimmy Page. The Edge. Jack White.

Guitar players have no reason to read any further. Take the day off work or school, and find the loudest movie theater you can. Go ahead. The film was made for you. It’s like “guitar porn.”

Led Zeppelin fans, I’m about to say something to you that will make you stop reading and head to your nearest theater. Non-fans probably won’t know why it’s a huge deal when I tell you that Jimmy Page will take us to see the hallway / staircase where John Bonham recorded his “WHEN THE LEVEE BREAKS” drum parts. Off you go, now.

Jack White fans. Unfortunately, due to my, er, age, I need to report that I have absolutely no frame of reference for White or The White Stripes or any of the other half-dozen bands he plays with.

And finally, for U2 fans, I’ll give you two reasons: 1) You will see “The Bulletin Board” at Mount Temple Comprehensive School; and 2) In Edge’s kitchen, he will put an old cassette in a player, mutter “not sure what this is”, and we will hear a 4-track recording of an early run through of “WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME” complete with extra high-hat, and Bono in the background counting out “4-5-6! 4-5-6!” to the rest of the band trying to figure out Edge’s rhythm structure. A perfect edit takes us whooshing to the Slane Elevation show just as the lights come on, and as I sat there in open-mouthed amazement, I realized that none of us have seen that show on a big screen before.

If you’re a student of musical history, the director, Davis Guggenheim, could scarcely have found three better guitarists to follow. James Patrick Page is 65; David Howell Evans is 47; and John Anthony Gillis (more on that name later) is 34. Page was there for the very birth of heavy metal, 60s Prog Rock, the era of the sessions guitar player, and his band had their own plane, “The Starship”, some 30 years before U2’s Elevation Air took off. Edge proves to be a good tour guide on the political influence of music, how punk rock made attitude as important as musicianship, and the cost of sonic perfection. White leads us through a depressed Detroit, hearing in blues music from the 1930s an expression at the anger he felt in the late 1980s when you were looked down on if you could play an instrument.

I need to get my own prejudices out of the way.

1) U2 is my favorite band. I’ve seen them more than 50 times, my first show being in 1984 in San Francisco. I have never waited for an autograph from any other celebrity of any kind, but I have waited for the band, both backstage, and at hotels. When I talk to close friends, many of whom I’ve met because of our love of the band, we still marvel that somehow, way back, we chose the “right” band to fall in love with. My first show was 25 years ago, and I’ll be seeing them again in October. Same lineup. Bigger stadium. Still the biggest band in the world. One of the things I love about them is that they are, by far, the best example of a band being larger than the sum of its parts. To a ridiculous degree. Any one of the four of them on their own or in a different band would probably not inspire any of the adoration they now claim. Except, maybe Edge.

2) John Bonham died when I was 13 years old. People sometimes play that “What single concert do you wish you could have attended?” game. Music fans answer all over the place, Elvis’s ’68 Comeback Special, Beatles on Ed Sullivan or at Shea Stadium, The Who when Keith Moon was alive, that Motown TV show where Michael Jackson first moonwalked, Springsteen Born In The USA Tour at the Meadowlands, the Nirvana Unplugged show. U2 fans usually say Red Rocks or Point Depot New Year’s Eve or Live Aid. If I could go back in time, I’d go to a Led Zeppelin concert from 1977 or so. I’m not even sure it’d be a good show. Back then, people sat in chairs to listen to the 20-minute laser-aided compositions, while inhaling god-knows-what. (In March, 1975, they played a version of “DAZED AND CONFUSED” that lasted a butt-numbing 43 minutes.) But to just be in the room with them. What was that like? I’ve been in the room with U2 before and that was pretty cool. Much like U2 is greater than the sum of its parts, Led Zeppelin is probably not-quite-as-great as the sum of its parts. Because those parts are spectacular. John Paul Jones is a far better bassist (and keyboard player) than Adam Clayton will ever be. Bono has only recently challenged Robert Plant, in his prime, as a vocalist (though not lyricist—Bono wins there.) And John Henry Bonham is the best drummer that will ever live. Period. End of sentence. I had a Zeppelin poster over my bed until I graduated from high school. There is one important thing that Led Zeppelin and U2 have in common. When John Bonham died, there was never even a conversation that the band would go on without him. Can you imagine three of the members of U2 touring with anyone else but the fourth? Me neither.

3) I probably have one White Stripes album. As I went in to IT MIGHT GET LOUD, I thought that Jack was one of those “trying-really-hard-to-appear-to-not-be-trying-really-hard-to-be-cool kids. Why the hat, why the bowtie, why the old-fashioned car, why live in Tennessee? I must say I came out feeling the most differently about him, as he was the one I knew the least about. He also has the most to overcome. Page, Edge, White. One of these things is not like the others. Yet.

The conceit of the film is that three guitarists from different eras, with different backgrounds, and different styles, would come together in a warehouse to talk about their love of the guitar and music in general. And they’re bringing their guitars (and guitar techs—Dallas Shoo gets plenty of screen time.) This is referred to in the press notes as “The Summit”. Seeing three professional guitarists discuss their craft would probably be compelling enough, even if two of them weren’t my favorites. But this Summit is only a small portion of the film, and not the most exciting part. For those viewers looking forward to a concert recital by the three men, you may be disappointed.

We will spend a great deal of time with each of the three individually, in hometowns, guitar shops, next to record players, surrounded by amps, and in the backs of cars as they each take us on their own musical journey. While this can be seen as self-indulgent on Behind The Music, none of them come across as conceited. Which is weird because they’re superstar guitarists. The difference here, I think, is that they are reminiscing on behalf of the guitar. The participants know that the guitar itself is the star, not the player. We will visit places and hear songs important to the courtship of each man and his guitar. This isn’t a film about stardom; it’s a film about musicians.

It might be a good time to point out that we will never really hear one of the three say that they’ve been influenced by either of the other two. Edge won’t tell stories of playing along with Zeppelin records, White won’t even acknowledge that the other two exist, claiming instead to study early 20th Century Blues. But each of them will, to an incredible degree, give praise to dozens of players who came before them.

We get no clue as to whether or not the three men even like each other’s music. And this proves to be a help to the film, not a hindrance. There is no hero worship here (except by us and the director) and the three men have such different styles that none of them could be accused of stealing from either of the others. But it also leaves the meeting between the three as sort of cold. This was the first time any of the three had met, and it didn’t appear to be the beginning of any musical collaborations. In fact, I don’t think there is any way in hell that the three of them went out for a beer afterwards. I’d be surprised if any of them had spoken with any of the others since the film was completed. Again, the guitar is the focus, not the individual.

The credit sequence at the beginning tells you just about all you need to know about the direction the film will be traveling. With titles that mimic a guitar font somehow, we are treated to close-ups of shiny frets, razor sharp strings, and smooth, polished curves of guitars. If instruments can be made into porn, Guggenheim has done it. A Page voiceover says, “caress it like a woman,” and damned if the director didn’t sex-up the instrument with loving angles.

The first scenes are of Jack White on what I assume to be his Tennessee farm. A cow moos as he picks up a single string, a coke bottle, and a piece of wood. This MacGyver move results in a quick slide-guitar performance. This build-your-own aesthetic is something that is very important to Jack White.

We next see the three men headed towards The Summit. White and Page are in the back of town cars, while U2 fans will be proud to watch Edge drive his own Mercedes to the meeting. In Los Angeles, Edge has the home court advantage. The three men are probably being prodded from off camera about what they expect to happen. White sarcastically says “we’ll probably have a fistfight” and “I’m hoping to steal everything they know about guitar playing.” Edge is excited and hopeful. Page says “we’re bringing our guitars, so there’s no telling what could happen” and then says of Edge, “he is a sonic architect”, which is as good a description as I’ve ever heard for him.

Since this is basically a documentary about guitars, drama must be manufactured and we see a super-slow-motion shot of the three men, in unison, walking up three different stairs to the raised platform where the summit will take place. Begin and Sadat wish they would have been photographed as lovingly. Hands are extended, still in slow-motion, smiles are exchanged, and we leave the warehouse and go back in time.

Jack White is all about “overcoming” a musical instrument in order to get it to do what you want. He is also about cultivating an image. It’s no mistake that the White Stripes only used red, white, and black—White got the idea from both the Coca-Cola logo and the Nazi flag. White is sometimes a hard man to like. The biographical sketch we get in this film probably requires some fact-checkers before we take it as truth. He was the youngest of ten kids, growing up outside of Detroit, under poor circumstances. He had a seven by seven foot bedroom and in that bedroom were two drum kits, a reel-to-reel, and all his records. He claims to have slept on a mat laying diagonally between bass drums. Unlike the other two, White’s growing up story in the film is animated. We don’t see a childhood home, and in fact, White doesn’t give us a tour of many important places to him. At the time, he played drums because two of his older brothers were already playing guitar. Also, White says, “I have no interest in playing guitar because everyone else is.” He gets a job in an upholstery shop and he and his manager form his first band. His first guitar is payment from a thrift store for borrowing his van to move. He loved it. An interest in old blues music was born, and to this day, he claims that the Son House song, “GRINNIN IN YOUR FACE” is his favorite song of all time. The song features a man singing and stomping his foot and that minimalism appealed to White. He seems to choke up when he plays that song for us while holding the roughed-up album sleeve.

For some reason, White’s story includes a 9-year-old kid, dressed exactly as White is, learning about music from present-day White. Not sure who’s idea this was, but Old White kicks a Montgomery Ward guitar and then Young White does the same. This Montgomery Ward guitar will be one of many old, out-of-tune, and low-cost musical instruments that White collects.

He formed the group The White Stripes with his ex-wife Meg White. When they married, he took her name. While I’m in favor of his feminism in this move, he negates all of my good feelings when the press notes still refer to “his big sister Meg.” But when it comes to the music itself, I can set aside his dress, his cooler-than-thou-ness, and his “authenticity”. Because he says things like “making music should be a struggle” and “sometimes I put the organ four steps away instead of five so I have to run faster to get there.” And then he said something that will make U2 fans stop in their tracks. He claims that when the White Stripes toured, neither he nor Meg knew what the first song was going to be. They’d go out. And try something. And if that didn’t work, they’d stop and try something else.

There is concert footage of White in various bands, and he is really good. I know, newsflash, right. But he has a soulful, bluesy thing going that he has no right to have. The filmmakers captured a guitar solo during a show in Austin where White was so into the music that he didn’t realize (or did he?) that his fingers were bleeding all over his guitar. He was literally bleeding for his music. At a different show somewhere in the Northwest, a single camera is behind an amp, facing the crowd. It follows Jack as he plays and the crowd is jumping and pumping their fists and he’s manically playing and jumping around and then he turns and begins singing and the place goes nuts. White’s stage setup is substantially smaller than either of the other two participants as you might imagine.

Jimmy Page is seen as a 13-year-old kid playing the song “MAMA DON’T WANT TO SKIFFLE ANYMORE” on the British TV show “All Your Own” in 1957. One of the biggest laughs of the film is when a cracked-voice Page answers the hosts question about his post-school plans with “I want to do biological research.” And then the fun for Zeppelin geeks really begins.

Page gets out of a car at Headley Grange, a former workhouse outside of London. Page once claimed that the estate was haunted, and I don’t know if it’s true or not, but Robert Plant wrote the lyrics to “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN” there in a single day, and Peter Gabriel likewise had no trouble with writer’s block as he wrote most of “THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY” there with other members of Genesis.

Now, Page is an old man, with a goofy grey near-mullet. He is a bit of a caricature of a retired country gentleman, bumbling about his estate, remembering the good old days when he ruled the music world. But it can’t be overstated what a production genius he once was. There are things he did in the late 60s and early 70s with no technological help that are still being used today in music recording. He believed in the maxim: distance equals depth. One of the most famous things that he did was to set up microphones both right next to the amps, as usual, but then he’d place a second microphone some 20 feet away from the first and mix the sound to be right in between the two. The sound of the room and the natural echo were just as important as the notes in many cases. He changed recording engineers for each Zeppelin album–he was completely hands-on as a producer. This changed on Zeppelin’s final studio album, “IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR” when the rest of the band would be happy if Page would come out of his drug stupor long enough to record anything. Page’s genius resulted in guitar sounds that weren’t like any others, and more importantly, he took the sheer strength and power of John Bonham and made him into the cornerstone of the band.

Page takes us inside the house and says, “this is the entryway, and there’s the staircase. This is where Bonzo recorded WHEN THE LEVEE BREAKS.” Page looked all over the house for the right spot for echo and power and found it at the bottom of the staircase in the front hallway of Headley Grange. The microphones hung down from the second floor and everyone left the room and John Bonham played. Page claps his hands to listen for the same echo and recalls that after Led Zeppelin IV came out, bands began putting their drummers in all manner of industrial setting. Elevator shafts, cement basements, etc. all trying to capture the same sound.

We next find ourselves in Page’s country house as he plays us some of his records. This is giggle-inducing. Page saying, “listen to this part” and “that was extraordinary” while playing air guitar to old 50s and 60s hits. I couldn’t help but notice that on the shelves behind Page are all of the Zeppelin box sets that you were too poor to afford back in the 80s when they came out. Page will play “RAMBLE ON” in his living room.

Jimmy sits on an old chair in his backyard and plays a beat-up old mandolin. He’s playing “THE BATTLE OF EVERMORE,” outside, by himself and it sounds magical. During the Page portion of the movie, we see plenty of black and white footage and hear of the pain he went through once he realized that he was just a guitarist for hire. He would be called to this studio and that, without any connection to the songs he was playing. His skill made him much sought-after, but he gave it all up after one session where he realized he was playing guitar with the Muzak orchestra. In response, he formed The Yardbirds. The many years past have not lessened Page’s anger at the rock press, especially for their response to Led Zeppelin IV. “One paragraph—that album had Stairway and Levee and Misty Mountain Hop and Rock And Roll—and they could only write one paragraph.”

Bono-haters will be happy to know that he doesn’t appear on camera saying anything. Fans will recognize the first clips we see of Edge as he does Yoga on the roof of his Miami hotel while holding a Blackberry. We then go to Hanover Quay where Edge and Dallas try to lead us in a tutorial on the effects pedals. It takes both men to change the music to the exact sound Edge was looking for. If it wasn’t clear before this film, no Dallas Shoo, no Edge. Seriously. It’s to the point where Dallas can read his mind. Edge fiddles with something, Dallas stares, trying to remember this exact setting for the next time Edge wants it. Edge plays a bit of “GET ON YOUR BOOTS.” He also plays “ELEVATION” without any pedals and then with the full court technology press. Edge will play guitar at Hanover, at his house, at the warehouse, and on the Irish coast.

In Edge’s kitchen, he’ll pull out the 4-track of “WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME.” He’ll give us a tour of Mount Temple School, including Mr. MacKenzie’s music room, where Edge says the band pushed the chairs to the side and tried to make a ruckus. He also jumps up on the stage-like platform where the band would play early gigs. He jokes that he stood at stage right for a reason he can’t remember “and I have been ever since.” And then, set your watches, because you will see the early single “STREET MISSION” on the big screen in all of its big-hair glory. And, though it may require rewinding when the DVD comes out, a full five-minute ear to ear smile is seen on the face of the once-jovial Larry Mullen. Edge is filmed all over Dublin, providing his own voiceover. He’s on the docks at sunrise, and these scenes are interspersed with the October photo shoot on those same docks.

Edge remembers the lengthy guitar solos of the 1960s and 70s and how self-indulgent they seemed. We see a schematic of an electric guitar and Edge describes how he and his brother, Dick built it, right down to wrapping the magnets. He was an electronics geek even at a young age. He recalls first with frustration the fact that Top Of The Pops was the only TV show that Irish kids could watch to learn about and hear new music. Then he turns downright giddy when he remembers seeing The Jam perform on the show. Twice the same year. His life would never be the same. No longer was musicianship more important than attitude. Suddenly, the fact that the band couldn’t really play their instruments was no longer a detriment to their breaking big.

Edge recounts a trip to New York City with his family. “People looked and talked just like they did in the movies,” he says. He saw a guitar in a window and went in to play it. Here’s your U2 pullquote: “Twenty minutes in that store defined the sound of the band. I thought, this better work.” While we watch an animated guitar, amp, and effects pedal, Edge explains how he discovered that creative use of echo could fill in notes when he wasn’t playing any, resulting in a much more full sound. How he takes away notes from chords, making them more clear. This is the part that U2 cover band guitarists will rewind over and over again on home video.

Edge takes us to the house where the “WAR” album was written and some demos recorded. He was full of anger about the “Troubles” and was concerned that he couldn’t express that anger with his guitar. Bono said something to the effect of “Go off and find it, Edge” or something else equally Bonoesque. Edge goes on at some length about looking at trees in an orchard and suddenly realizing that this group of trunks and branches and chaos was actually lined up in perfect clarity. Or something. Edge’s introspection resulted in “SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY.”

And yes, towards the end of the film, Edge stands in front of the very bulletin board where a young Larry Mullen, Jr. placed a notice looking for students to join his band. Edge reflects thoughtfully on what would have happened if he hadn’t responded to that first notice. He says he’d still be playing guitar, but with whom?

They each get to perform for the other two at the Summit. Edge will play Elevation while the other two look on. (He gets credit for the title saying “This might get loud for a second” as he fiddles with his equipment.) White will play something as well, but the real fun, and my favorite moment of the entire film is when Page stands up, while the other two remain in their comfy leather chairs. Page coolly rips into “WHOLE LOTTA LOVE” and Edge jumps to his feet like a tweener at a Jonas Brothers concert, his smile huge, his eyes pinned to the fingers of Jimmy Page. White is a bit cooler and leans in, tapping his foot, and also staring. The two of them appear to be trying to decipher the mystery of the universe. Edge is standing and actually moving slowly towards Page while he plays, his over-sized brain taking in every nuance of the song. It was the coolest.

All of these individual stories of the three guitarists are divided up with footage of the warehouse and songs from each of them, and old clips and there are chapter titles for each new section. The editing is pretty perfect, showing us modern day images juxtaposed with how the person looked when they were just starting out. We hear the voices of the participants, see rare photos, and have the privilege of listening to dozens of songs. (Final stats: Page: 18; Edge: 20; White: 17)

The best chapter titles say simply “Edge’s Explorer”, “Jack’s Kay”, and “Jimmy’s Strat.” And then we hear about how the love affairs started. It’s always difficult to capture creativity in a film, but this one does a pretty good job. Each man asks “what if I…?” at specific points in his life, and that decision, coupled with hard work, gave them each a very lucrative career.

For a rock guitarist, Edge is by far the most normal of the three.

Page used to wear purple silk dragon-adorned pajamas, for pity’s sake. Page used a violin bow, Page had a double-guitar for “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN,” Page bought the house of Aleister Crowley, Page used an actual theremin onstage, Page had a thing for barely teenage girls. White wears bowties and vests and guyliner, and took the last name of his former wife who he still refers to as his “Big Sister Meg.” Edge is thoughtful and polite and self-deprecating and by my estimation, we see much more of Edge and hear much more U2 music (Bass Trap! Passengers! One Tree Hill! Tomorrow!) than from the other two musicians.

We are left with three very different people doing the same job. Page and his cohorts in Led Zeppelin were responsible for many heavy metal clichés which are still laughed at today. Both the double-necked guitar and violin bow that Page required were mocked by the quintuple-necked bass and violin v. violin solo in Spinal Tap, (a clip of which we see). The “self-indulgent guitar solos,” as Edge refers to them, were a staple of Zeppelin shows. (Wait until you see the clip of a concert by the Edgar Winter Group.) Edge claims to have cried while watching Spinal Tap because he knew it was truthful. Punk rock itself can be seen as a response to Zeppelin and Queen and Yes and every other band who created 15-minute songs when a 2:30 Ramones masterpiece would do. Page brings this double-neck guitar to the Summit and see if you agree with me that Edge is sort of laughing at it as Page explains how it was necessary in order to quickly switch from acoustic to electric during “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN.”

By the same token, Edge’s tutorial on his effects rack and several dozen pedals is immediately followed by White saying, “technology is the enemy of creativity.” White built a guitar in front of us and Edge needs his own carbon offset to play his. White fronted a two-piece band, and claims his favorite song was made by a man stomping and singing the blues. However, White enlists a guitar tech to mount a harmonica microphone inside one of his guitars so that he can grab it and sing through his amp. So he’s not the tech-hater he claims to be. White will bring this guitar to the Summit.

Page was often thought to be the single best guitar player in Britain, playing on many, many songs as a session player. White studied the old bluesmen. Edge admits to not having a particularly deep musical knowledge. Of the three men, (let the e-mails start), Edge is clearly bringing up the rear in terms of guitar virtuosity. Even the choice of songs the three men play with each other at the Summit tell us something about their proficiency.

The Page song the three play is “IN MY TIME OF DYING,” a masterpiece of slide guitar. This performance alone is worth the price of admission as Page slides like a master, Edge somehow harmonics it up, and White finds the blues. White’s song is “DEAD LEAVES AND THE DIRTY GROUND,” and he barks out orders to the others as they play. The Edge song chosen is “I WILL FOLLOW,” which Page and White could probably play with their eyes closed, but which wouldn’t sound like Edge. Edge has overcome musical ability with musical uniqueness. There are guitarists who sound like Page and White, but none who sound anything like Edge.

Having said all of this, I’m not entire sure that the film will work for everyone. Fans of any of the three men’s music, or the guitar itself will have themselves a ball. Musical historians can find something to enjoy in the way that music has evolved from 1957 until today. But for those who see the trailer and think they’ll be treated to a concert by the three men, think again. We see relatively little footage from this heralded meeting. Most of the information is compiled during the individual portions. The warehouse also features a box of records that we never hear. We can only hope that a DVD extra will be the complete warehouse meeting including songs listened to and played and any demonstrations the men did for each other.

When I walked out of the theater, I realized that my face was hurting because I had been smiling so much while watching it. I may have shouted (or at least mumbled) at the screen. You rarely get a chance to see musicians you love on a large screen, so it’s right to feel a little giddy when you can. I would suggest something that I normally never do. Go see this in the loudest theater with the biggest screen you can, even if you normally avoid the chains like a plague, as I do. This film needs to be felt and experienced. Don’t wait for the DVD.

7.3 IMDB [102V]


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July 20, 2009
90 Minutes
Paul Saltzman

Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954. Charleston High School in Mississippi finally integrated their single high school in 1970. In that year, the seniors had two proms. One for the white kids and one for the black kids. And that’s the way it continued until Charleston’s most famous resident, Morgan Freeman, offered in 1999 to pay for a single prom, provided it was integrated. He was turned down. So he tried again in 2008. This time the schoolboard and the seniors themselves said yes.

The high school has 415 students, 70% of whom are black.

The documentary crew gave cameras to a dozen or so students, probably the most outspoken of the group. All of the kids were fine going to an integrated school and living in an integrated town. At least all of the ones who appeared on camera. One white senior male was photographed behind a screen for fear that his family would see him brazenly say things like “I’ve had white lovers and black lovers and it’s what’s inside that counts.”

Whenever something comes up that speaks for the other side–that is, the racist side–the cameras aren’t there to capture it and we see events unfold with animation. People in this town may be racist, but they also are careful. A white girl claims that a black girl threatened her and then brought a gun to school the next day. We hear from the black girl but the white one is nowhere to be found.

A prom committee is formed and rules are established. One white girl resigns from the committee because she would not be attending the mixed prom, though she would go to one if it were white-only.

Meanwhile, the townspeople are reacting. We hear from several parents, who remember their own segregated proms. We meet one white senior girl (who looks to be about 14) who openly talks about her black boyfriend (who looks, maybe 15). They aren’t particularly demonstrative at school. They don’t hold hands in front of people, and neither has ever been allowed to visit the other one’s home. They claim to be in love, and with West-coast 2009 eyes, they seem like a naive, though cute couple. But to people stuck in the past in Mississippi, they might just represent the downfall of the human species.

The woman’s father is by far the most open about his thoughts on their relationship. He is one of those “you can either love me or hate me. I hope you love me, but if you don’t, keep to yourself and I’ll do the same” type of southerners. He claims to have plenty of black friends, but he feels like his girl will be hurt when she gets out into a real world that won’t approve of her boy choice. The boy’s parents take a more “be careful” approach. The man tried to punish his daughter by grounding her and taking her cell phone, but she stayed with the boy. As the school’s sole interracial couple, the prom has extra meaning for them.

We need tension, and it comes in the form of some parents paying for and holding a white-only prom after all. A meeting is held in someone’s house and two of our interview subjects recount being there and hearing a father say “no black boy is going to rub up all on my daughter at a dance” and they take off denouncing the meeting and the prom. Some white kids refuse to go, but others don’t. And the ones who went received much less scorn than I would have expected. They took dates to a party to which an entire ethnic group was excluded. And they didn’t feel particularly bad about it.

The white parents hire a lawyer who speaks to the film crews in their stead. He begins saying things that make them look worse while trying to make them look better. One obvious question for a lawyer is “why won’t those parents speak to us?” To which he replies “They don’t want to appear racist.” By holding a white-only event, they don’t want to appear racist. Nice.

Clips of Freeman driving around, clips of kids worried about dresses and tuxedos and big enough limos and whom to go with begin to take over. Beauty parlor scenes, texting, music apprehension. It all seems pretty normal.

One thing that isn’t easy to see is that just about everyone we see in town is poor. These kids come out of trailers and walk down milk crate steps while dressed in beautiful, colorful outfits. It seems like the town much more alike than the older generations would lead you to believe.

The film is most successful in documenting an anachronistic town, with a single small high school, who can’t seem to get their head around racial diversity and interaction, more than 50 years after the Supreme Court ruled on the matter.

8.4 IMDB


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July 19, 2009
Camera Cinema Club
95 Minutes
Comedy / Drama / Romance
Henry Jaglom [Hollywood Dreams]

Time Never Kills The Love Of Your Life.

Actress Tanna Frederick. Remember that name, please. Although you’ll be hard pressed to forget it after the credits for IRENE IN TIME spend what seems to be a full 60 seconds where they say simply “Tanna Frederick In”. In huge letters, while background images of the ocean are changing. Someone (director Henry Jaglom) really must think that the name Tanna Frederick either means something now to audiences, or will soon mean something to audiences. She also starred in his last film, HOLLYWOOD DREAMS, and fool me once, shame on me, but fool me twice…you know the rest.

Frederick plays a 20-something, unlucky-in-love, singer who is recording an album. While Ms. Frederick’s voice won’t make you nauseous, neither will you believe for a second that she has a recording contract. Nor will you believe that the obviously hip producer spends his time staring out his booth’s window at Frederick while mesmerized by the dulcet tones coming out of her mouth. Someone told the actress she could sing, Jaglom encouraged her, now she’s playing a singer. (This is something I’ve referred to for years as the “Potsie Principle” named for the Happy Days character who found a way to sing in nearly every one of the later episodes of that classic sitcom.)

Never mind that her songs include one call “Dancing With My Father” (lyrics: I’m dancing with my father by the light of the moon) and a song that must be heard to be believed called “Starbucks” about a woman who walks into the coffee shop with a cellphone thus making the retail chain (ticker symbol: SBUX) magical. Or something.

I really enjoyed the 2007 Irish film ONCE, and one of the reasons why was the recording studio scenes. Typically films have a big “reveal” whereby a band or singer hits one, maybe two notes and the heard-it-all producer stops what he’s doing, silences his co-workers, and stares longingly at the musicians behind the glass. ONCE didn’t do this. The first verse of the first song was shaky, but it got better and better, and while the recording engineer didn’t gaze at the band as if witnessing greatness, he did smile at the surprise of hearing something decent.

IRENE IN TIME has sweeping camera shots of what seems to be entire songs, where our beautifully lit star, Ms. Frederick, is singing with such passion that every other musician in the room can’t help but stare. And producer, and later love interest, Jakub, sits in a director’s chair absorbing every note that comes towards him. He even uses his love of her singing to land a date with her. I don’t doubt that people may find her whiny voice appealing, but I defy anyone to tell me that the rest of her band, including four other professional singers, would smile as much at one singer, when they have much more important things to worry about–like producing their best performance. It rang completely false.

There are also those films where the director needs to show us that the actor or actress is really singing. And that he or she is really remarkable. And that the words that the character wrote are so deep that we need to hear every verse and every word. And then the whole band has to hug and high-five afterward to prove that magic was made during the session we just witnessed. Somehow IRENE IN TIME covers each of these bases. And did I mention the song called “Starbucks”.

This film is completely populated with boring, self-centered people. And the queen of the self-centered is Irene. This gaggle of women meet up to drink wine, swim in a posh Santa Monica bungalow’s pool, and bad-mouth their former and present boyfriends and their mostly absent fathers. There are tears aplenty. Whenever this group of women meet, or even when a group of older friends, male and female, hold poker nights, Irene gets to be the first and last person to talk. Her problems are so much bigger than everyone else’s. She gets to be first in telling the story about how great her now-dead father was, how he would lie to teachers to get her out of school and take her bike riding or sailing or to the circus. In fact, why limit these incredibly compelling stories to just friends or even just acquaintances? Why not discuss her father on first dates? And, believe it or not, why not discuss her father with the unknown high school student at the next table at a restaurant?

There’s a scene where a father and daughter are having dinner in a restaurant booth. She is one of those only-in-the-movies teenagers who speaks of existentialism and parental boundaries and how her dad could have been a better father. He leaves to go to the bathroom, against her wishes. Meanwhile, our heroine’s date, a jazz singer’s manager, has been getting eyes from the restaurant’s hostess (played by Dorothy’s little sister and the ex-Mrs. Bogdonovich, Louise Stratton) so he leaves his date to go talk with her. This shows us that another man in Irene’s life will be a dog like all the others, but that’s not the worst of it. Irene scoots over to talk with the young woman. Are you with your dad? Yes. My dad used to come to school and lie to the teachers and take me bike riding. And within minutes of meeting, she’s explaining the greatness of her dead father to yet another victim. The teenager, who is both wise beyond her years, and much more aware and intelligent and grown up than Irene mentions that her date is right now flirting with the hostess and “he’s not the right match for you.”

In addition to the contract rider which provided Frederick with three full songs to sing on camera, there must have been an equally enforceable clause which required that she appear in a bikini. Don’t get me wrong, she looked fabulous, but with the exception of a scene that actually took place poolside, the other two bikini-scenes were were completely gratuitous. Frederick has obviously been hitting the gym and if I had a body like hers, you know, but more guyish, I’d scarcely keep my shirt on anywhere. But sometimes scenes are added to films just because the actress wants them. To the best of my recollection, she never actually sang while in a bikini. Though perhaps those scenes will surface in the DVD release.

All of the characters come from money. Irene’s father apparently gambled a lot and on one of the occasions when he won, it paid for the down payment on the house she grew up in. Irene currently lives with a friend and her friend’s mother (Karen Black), in a huge house with a pool and fountain. It’s not clear how Irene makes a living. Surely not in the hour a day she spends recording songs with such titles as “Starbucks.”

In the mid-point of the film, Irene visits the house she grew up in as her mother hosts a last party before selling it. She escapes to her old room to look around. She finds a music box and inside of it is a note in her father’s handwriting. Why she waited this many years to open the music box even though many a childhood treasure hunt started there, is never explained. The clue inside says to look in a box in the closet and in that box is the photo of a young singer. At this exact moment a family friend comes into the room and nervously says “put that away before your mother sees.” Uh oh. The plot thickens. Or maybe, the plot finally starts. Not really.

Next scene: a woman is rehearsing a jazz song while her manager watches. Irene comes in at the exact second the singer starts performing a song. Irene begins shaking and crying and sobbing and looking on in mouth-agape wonder as the woman continues to sing. When it’s over, Irene (who is unknown to both singer and manager) demands to know “where did you get that song!” Again, Irene walked in just as the song was starting. The manager tries to cool her down and asks if she’s a fan, but she isn’t. The singer comes over and tries to comfort Irene. Irene, never one to hide her emotions from strangers, begins a story. “My daddy and I wrote that song together and I haven’t heard it for 15 years, I demand to know how you got it!” The answer is obvious to we in the audience, though it isn’t so obvious to Irene because apparently nothing is obvious.

Yes, her perfect father (disappearing gambler, breaker of public school truancy laws) may have had a mistress or two on the side and perhaps this singer was one of them. The singer tries to lessen the blow by saying “you remind me of him” and “I loved him so much”, etc. Once we find out that Irene’s mother adopted her, it doesn’t take a genius to deduce that the singer is the mom and Irene is the daughter and the father wasn’t the prince that she thought he was. Her constantly rosy view of her “daddy” is finally cracking a bit when faced with this kind of evidence.

Irene is a “close-talker”. Irene stares at people and says things like “I feel this connection” or “Daddy is watching over me.” Irene is apparently so incredibly beautiful, inside and out, that every man who comes within her zone of influence is immediately smitten and must date her. But what about the women in her life? Thanks for asking. In what may be the most ridiculous scene in a film full or ridiculous scenes, there is a bathing-suit-clad couch scene where four women are talking. One of the more forward women, who looks like a former Olympic swimmer, is all but devouring Irene with her eyes. “I find you very attractive” she purrs as her hands stroke our heroine’s bare shoulders. “Have you ever been with a woman?” Only in the movies do we hear “let’s kiss to see if we feel anything” and our giddy main character kisses the Olympian to see if her problem isn’t with her choice in men, it’s with her choice of males. Then the other two have to kiss, but they don’t take it seriously. Then Irene gives her review: “your lips are softer than a man’s–it’s like kissing yourself,” which in retrospect is probably something the narcissistic Irene has always wanted to do.

The next male who falls for her is the record producer, a buffed, seemingly normal guy who all but begs for a date. She agrees (while close-talking) and he picks her up while holding a bouquet of red and blue balloons. You’d think he was a medium who contacted her father from beyond the grave by the way she acts. She again shudders and cries and sobbingly says “Oh my god, when I was a kid, my dad would give me balloons that were also red and blue! How did you know?” she says through her tears. He replies, “I thought of you when I was picking the colors.”

To review the men we see with Irene. 1) Man comes over for dinner at Irene’s house. She admits how happy she’s been with the past three months together. He counters that it’s really only been 2 and a half. Gone. 2) On date with architect, her chirpy, borderline retarded interaction with him (“Close your eyes. Now think of your favorite drafting tool”) results in his replying something that the rest of us will wonder for the rest of the film “what’s wrong with you?”. Gone. During the meal. 3) A man returns to L.A. after six years and has lunch with Irene, her friend, and another man. By the way, the friend has to “pretend to be straight this one time” and though she ends up telling her date she likes women, he almost changes her orientation with a single kiss. The man who returned after a long absence used to date Irene and he continues to talk about the good times and how he’s grown and changed the way she wants and then he proposes marriage, right at the bar. Gone. 4) Jazz singer’s manager, calls her up, they bike ride on the Santa Monica boardwalk (the better for Irene to again tell the story of her father “kidnapping” her to go for a ride), and they have the aforementioned meal while the hostess licks her lips while watching him on his date. She gets dropped off by him after a different date saying “you make me feel like an awkward 8th grader” though I’m not sure what that means. Gone. 5) Record producer who stares at her through the glass, is smooth and handsome, and picks her up with huge display of tear-inducing balloons. They have what appears to be romantic walks on the beach and good sex. This man leads Irene to invite her complaining girlfriends over for a ceremonial burning of the huge collection of self-help dating books she’s collected. They throw them into the fireplace with enthusiasm. Irene then says “this past week with Jakub has been great. I think I finally found the one.” Yup, it only took her a week, but she knows for sure. A later phone call will reveal that Jakub is on his way back to Chicago where his wife and family live. Gone.

Zero for five. And none of them are as great and warm and loving as Irene’s Father was.

Frederick (or her character, and I’m not sure which is which) is as self-centered and neurotic as Woody Allen, with none of his humor or charisma. That’s right, she has less charisma than Woody Allen. Her mother will say “did you know you come from a long line of narcissists?” Anyone who watches this film will be nodding their head vigorously. This film was full of boring people (mostly women) who continuously boo hoo’ed over their man problems. And each of them connected their present day problems with men and the fact that their father left them, or were abusive, or were perfect, or were too caring, or not caring enough. We get it.

Fathers have incredible “power” over their daughters’ formation of male roles and relationships. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that fathers have been responsible for untold negative relationships between daughters and the men they attempt to love. On the other hand, fathers have also been responsible for well-adjusted and fulfilling relationships between daughters and the men they form partnerships with. Most of us have parents who mostly did the best they could. It’s time to move on and take responsibility for ourselves.

This film was a mess of talky scenes where characters I didn’t care about lamented how terrible their lives were, while surrounded by affluence. No one is seen working or paying for anything or checking off anything on their to-do lists. They were just seen talking. Over and over again about the same thing. Mostly, about the father that Irene hasn’t seen in 15 years.

A final title card says (in flowery script): For My Daughter.

5.4 IMDB [20 Votes]


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July 18, 2009
San Jose CA — California Theatre — 70MM
France / Italy
French / English / German
124 Minutes
Jacques Tati
#87 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.

I was lucky to catch this in 70MM at the beautiful California Theatre in downtown San Jose. It was my first exposure to Director Jacques Tati, who appeared in the film as “Monsieur Hulot”, but there isn’t really a main character. In fact, there is absolutely no discernible dialog in the whole film. It’s in French and German and English, but you can’t really pick up on what anyone’s saying. It is all background noise. Hulot stumbles from place to place, first to a huge bureaucratic building, then to a fancy dinner club, then to a guy’s apartment, but here’s the thing: we have no idea why he is wherever he is. There is also an American tourist who follows her tour group around from gray building to gray building, never seeing any of the sights that made Paris famous (except in creative window reflections.) The two of them will cross paths, but again, we don’t know why. They’ll end up at a department store, in a traffic circle, and in a splendid lengthy scene in a restaurant on its grand opening day.

The film was made in 1967 by its crazy director who took two years, mortgaged his financial future, and actually built a small city outside of Paris in which to film it. He also never, I mean not once, filmed anyone or anything in close-up. There are no shots, I don’t think, with one actor only. Shots are held for long periods of time and in the background and corners things are happening. There are also cardboard cutouts on buses and in building windows and in the far background whose purpose appears to be populating the frame. At other points, live actors will be frozen in the background and only “come to life” at certain points in the scene. Not sure what that choice was about.

But if ever a film was full of whimsy, and not manufactured whimsy, like CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY or THE TRUMAN SHOW (even if you like those movies.) How a story with mumbled far-off dialogue and no plot and no explanation for why people are doing what they’re doing can be so compelling and interesting is beyond me? The entire thing is funny, but there aren’t many laugh-out-loud moments.

I very much liked the experience.

7.9 IMDB

Playtime @ Amazon


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July 17, 2009
Netflix DVD
82 Minutes
Christine Fugate

From housewife to porn star.

A documentary about Stacy Valentine, a porn star from the late 90s. “Encouraged” by her husband, she sent nude photos of herself to a men’s magazine which printed them and then flew her to Mexico for a nude photoshoot with some Adonis. Upon her return to her small town in Oklahoma, she packed up her things, and left her husband and town behind to start her new life in Los Angeles.

There are a whole slew of documentaries like this, both full length, and as a part of HBO’s Real Sex or some other titillating cable series. Besides the obvious, the reason I continue to watch them is twofold: 1) are there really any well-adjusted, non-abused or addicted women who get into porn; and more importantly, 2) How does a porn actor or actress ever have a normal romantic relationship. Most of these kinds of documentaries try to answer both questions. PORN STAR: THE LEGEND OF RON JEREMY; WADD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOHN C. HOLMES; SEX: THE ANNABEL CHONG STORY; THINKING XXX all tried.

As to question 1, this film claims that while Stacy was adopted (gasp, so was I) and her father had a temper, she was never abused in any way. She also claims to love sex (as every porn star in recorded history has claimed) and be good at it. Although it’s easy to hide, her wholesomeness makes me believe that she has no drug addictions. In fact, she’s sort of a square.

As to question 2, that’s where this film is pretty well-done. At the beginning she’s interviewed on her bed and she says that if she’s horny, she goes to work and if she wants someone to talk to after work, she has her cats. But towards the end, she’s tried to start a relationship with another porn star, Julien (who I did recognize, the pool of men in the business being much smaller than the pool of women). They seem, dare I say, cute together. Both dumber than dirt, both look every bit the porn star they are. They talk about handholding being more intimate that intercourse, and how they don’t care if their work involves sex. There is a scene towards the end that could only happen in the adult business. For the first time, Stacy agrees to shoot a scene with Julian and another man. The other guy goes first and we zoom in on Julian as he watches the woman he claims to love having sweaty sex with another man. Though he knows that it’s just work, the look on his face is heartbreaking. He literally curls up in a fetal position with a pillow on his lap, unable to perform while his wife acts like she’s having the best sex of her life. They break up soon afterward, though he appears to really care about her.

Another angle this film tries to hit is Stacy’s complete lack of esteem about her body, which is a pretty important part of being a porn star. She got her first boob job soon after marriage and the film includes three pretty gross scenes of breast reduction, liposuction, and lip augmentation. She is never satisfied, thinks that she’s fat, and often laments that her co-stars won’t be aroused by her body. How weird for a person who is in the most exposed vocation on earth to be so unsure about how she looks.

Stacy seems like a nice enough young woman. Her mother is aware of her chosen profession and even accompanies her to the AVN awards in Vegas. When Stacy is shut out of the five categories she’s nominated for, you’d think her life were over. Equally upsetting to we the viewers, when she wins Star of the Year at a knockoff parallel Cannes Film Festival for porn, she can hardly contain her joy and rushes back to the hotel to call her mother back in Oklahoma “Mom, you are talking to the Best New Starlet of 1998!” Exactly how does a parent respond to such a call?

We watch her at conventions where men have no trouble just putting their hands on her, and we see her arrange a date with a rich fan. She comes back and throws the money in the air, just like in a Hollywood romance.

A post-script tells us that she left porn after four years and got a job as a “model recruiter” at Penthouse.

6.9 Metacritic
6.4 IMDB

Girl Next Door @ Amazon


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Written by Michael W. Cummins