Friday, March 30, 2007

The Namesake

THE NAMESAKE (Mira Nair, 2006)

Based on Jhumpa Lahiri's graceful novel about family and cultural tradition, THE NAMESAKE peers into the lives of the Gangulis. Ashoke (Irfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) enter into an arranged marriage that brings the shy woman from her home in India to the New York City suburb where her husband is a college professor. With 24-hour gas service and drinkable water from the tap, this new land offers greater comforts, but it also leaves Ashima's family half a world away.

Although they keep close ties to the Bengali community in their adopted home, the couple adjust to American customs as necessary. Upon the birth of their first child, a boy, the Gangulis are forced to name their baby before being released from the hospital. (They are waiting for a relative's letter to bestow the boy with a name.) Ashoke chooses Gogol in honor of his favorite author, the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol.

The name carries great importance to Ashoke, but predictably, it is a burden for Gogol (Kal Penn), who already stands out among his WASP classmates. Having a suicidal namesake doesn't help. As he prepares to enter Yale, Gogol tells his parents that he will now go by Nikhil. To further distance himself from his heritage, this pet name used by family members will be shortened and Anglicized to Nick.

While THE NAMESAKE deals with Indian culture, the film possesses a universality regarding the conflicts in wanting to break from tradition. The American-born Gogol and his sister Sonia (Sahira Nair) wish to fit in with the daily world familiar to them, not what their parents left behind. Gogol doesn't reject his background but wrestles with it on a constant basis. His journey of self-discovery is relatable to all who have sought to define themselves outside the expectations that come from cultural heritage and family.

THE NAMESAKE and Lahiri's exceptional short story collection INTERPRETER OF MALADIES radiate the ache of loneliness. It's a quality that director Mira Nair excels at conveying in the film, whether through minor words and actions or framing characters in a way that disconnects them. Ashima is not an insistent or dramatic mother, but we can hear the yearning behind her questions about her unanswered phone calls to Gogol. Intimate moments bleed with deep longing for connection. The paradox of THE NAMESAKE is that it takes breaking from tradition, and the great pain that comes with it, to find how we need to be accepted and, if we choose, reunite with our roots.

In telling the stories of two generations, THE NAMESAKE bridges the gap between immigrant parents and their American offspring and allows for fuller understanding of the cultural gulf separating the age groups. Knowing Ashoke and Ashima's backstories is critical in developing them into complete characters with interior lives. This invests more weight in their struggles with and concessions to Gogol.

Those character-building scenes are also welcome because Khan and Tabu deliver the most indelible performances in the film. Their quiet, soulful portrayals of a couple who sacrifice for the good of their future and their children's enhance the emotional stake of Gogol's search. Penn acquits himself in his first major serious film role, although he lacks the kind of range the part demands.

Told with compassion and delicacy, THE NAMESAKE provides a stirring view of cultural assimilation and personal discovery.

Grade: B


A very unexpected thing happened to me Wednesday. Something I wrote on this blog was quoted in the New York Times.

No joke. (Check the next to last paragraph.)

Even more incredible is that it comes from a tossed-off entry I wrote on September 21, 2005. That reporter must have done some deep digging to find my lines about the Wexner Center's renovated screening room.

Honestly, I think this is pretty cool, especially because I didn't know it was coming. I'm also sort of freaked out that something I wrote without much thought could end up in one of the nation's biggest newspapers.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Last Mimzy

THE LAST MIMZY (Robert Shaye, 2007)

While playing on the beach near the family cottage, Noah and Emma Wilder (Chris O'Neil and Rhiannon Leigh Wryn) spot a strange box in the ocean. After Noah retrieves the item from the water, the brother and sister examine the unusual contents of the box sent from the future. It contains unusual toys with extraordinary powers. Rotating, levitating rock shards called spinners create a field capable of atomizing anything inside it. A blue slug-shaped component generates enough energy to disrupt power in the entire region. It's not apparent what Mimzy, a plush rabbit with artificial intelligence, can do, but what little girl wouldn't love a stuffed animal that speaks to her?

Although they don't know it, the kids in THE LAST MIMZY hold future humanity's survival in their hands. The toys expand Noah and Emma's abilities to connect with the world around them and each other. The siblings can communicate telekinetically. For his science project Noah learns from and uses spiders to build an uncommonly strong bridge that could span the universe if given enough time for construction.

Science teacher Larry White (Rainn Wilson) takes an interest in Noah's work, particularly the notebook full of mandalas he's drawn. Ever since Larry and his girlfriend took a trip to Nepal, he has seen these geometric Tibetan representations of the cosmos in his dreams. He's struggled to find any meaning to it. Noah might be the key to unlocking everything.

With its all-age appropriateness and appeal, THE LAST MIMZY recalls family films of the 80s. It's easy to see this as a project that might have attracted Steven Spielberg at the time--MIMZY yearns for his touch--or fit alongside live-action Disney films like FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR. Unfortunately the effects work is stuck in that era. Kids reared on THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN are likely to be unimpressed with the decided lack of visual spectacle.

While the style resembles the 80s, the substance harkens to the 60s. Referencing Tibetan Buddhism, New Age spirituality, and environmentalism, this oddball movie searches for a message about healing our troubled times rife with war, pollution, and personal isolation through technology. There's even the equivalent of an acid trip scene for kids when Noah tunes into the spiders. The psychedelic aspect is in THE LAST MIMZY'S pedigree. It's adapted from the short story MIMSY WERE THE BOROGOVES, a line taken from Lewis Carroll's JABBERWOCKY. If that's not trippy enough, Pink Floyd's Roger Waters contributes a new (and awful) song.

THE LAST MIMZY'S flight of fantasy sputters as the story's potential fails to reach any magical points. The clunker of an ending doesn't help either. The mystery surrounding the objects and their connection to the future holds interest for awhile; however, the film feels like the first few chapters of a book, an introduction to better things to come rather than the underwhelming self-contained piece it is.

Grade: D+

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Gray Matters

GRAY MATTERS (Sue Kramer, 2006)

Gray (Heather Graham) and Sam (Thomas Cavanagh) are so close that the siblings are regularly mistaken for a couple. Roommates and dance partners, they're like two peas in a pod. It's a wonderful relationship, but finding romantic interests as compatible as each other proves to be a difficult task.

As with everything else, the brother and sister in GRAY MATTERS look for love together. Gray spots a woman in the park whom she thinks would be perfect for Sam and paves the way for an introduction. Charlie (Bridget Moynahan) hangs out with the two of them all day and stays out the rest of the night with Sam. The next morning Sam returns home and announces that he and Charlie are going to Las Vegas to get married. Of course Gray is invited to witness the happy union of their whirlwind romance.

Before the wedding Gray takes Charlie out for a night on the town that includes singing "I Will Survive" on stage with Gloria Gaynor. Back in their shared hotel room the liquored up women lock lips. The intimate moment causes Gray to freak out--is she trying to sabotage her brother's happiness?--while Charlie has no memory of it. As time goes along, Gray begins to wonder if her attraction to her sister-in-law means that she's a lesbian.

In this romantic comedy the actors deliver their limp one-liners at five hundred miles an hour, as if saying everything faster will make it funnier. (At least it likely shaves five to ten minutes off the running time.) The best that can be said of Graham is that she tries. Cavanagh tries out a weak Jerry Seinfeld shtick. As bad as GRAY MATTERS is, the last thing it needed was Molly Shannon. She dominates her scenes at work with Gray, largely because the actress is one of those people whose presence on screen is almost always irritating. The lone bright spot is Alan Cumming playing a sweet (and straight) cab driver with affection for Gray. His few scenes have more sincerity and feeling than the rest of the movie.

Decked out in its fondness for old Hollywood films and American songbook standards, GRAY MATTERS borrows the wallpaper from a Nancy Meyers movie to decorate its empty room. The director of SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE and THE HOLIDAY may indulge her love for golden oldies, but she also remembers to tell heartfelt stories. GRAY MATTERS fails to invest its characters with real human behavior. (Two future sisters-in-law who barely know one another hop into the tub together without blinking all the time, right?) It's impossible to believe Gray's sexual perplexity from the feeble evidence that she takes as proof that she may not be into guys. As a friend pointed out, Gray's understanding of being gay amounts to wearing hats as a fashion statement.

It doesn't help GRAY MATTERS that KISSING JESSICA STEIN covered similar territory with more humor and insight. This film seems to have been made under the misguided assumption that a Graham-Moynahan kissing scene was all that was needed to sell tickets. The problem is that crass moments like this are no longer controversy starters even on network TV. Make no mistake, their make-out session is nothing but a cheap ploy to make this forgettable film more marketable.

Grade: D-

Thursday, March 22, 2007


PRIDE (Sunu Gonera, 2007)

Employed to clean up the Marcus Foster Recreation Center for impending closure, Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard) also puts a sparkle in the eyes of the surrounding community in PRIDE. When Jim arrives in the north Philadelphia neighborhood in 1974, the center is a crumbling facility in which resident and maintenance man Elston (Bernie Mac) has more interest in monitoring his stories on TV than the building's infrastructure. Area boys play on the blacktop basketball court, but otherwise the place is for criminal rather than physical activity.

When a city worker removes the basketball hoop, Jim invites the boys inside for swimming. Intent to stop their clowning in the water, he accepts a bet from the most outspoken of the group. A former swimmer for Cheyney State, he has no problem winning the twenty dollars and their respect.

Five boys decide that they would like to learn how to swim like him. Jim patiently instructs them in the proper techniques and team discipline, but two questions must be resolved if his work is to have any value. Will his instilled lessons take root, and will Sue Davis (Kimberly Elise), a city councilwoman and one of the boys' legal guardians, be able to keep the Philadelphia Department of Recreation from shuttering the center's doors?

PRIDE is the latest in an endless supply of motivational sports movies inspired by true stories. Recent examples of this tried and true formula include WE ARE MARSHALL, INVINCIBLE, and GRIDIRON GANG. Take an unlikely underdog or a group of them, and follow the steps as they persevere against all odds. Separating PRIDE from the pack is its focus on swimming. When was the last time an aquatic sport received its own movie? The film imparts some basic knowledge about what Jim teaches these kids, but the real lessons are in pride, determination, and resiliency, not swimming mechanics.

On that level the film works. As the boys overcome the adversity of their circumstances and develop respect for themselves and those around them, it's easy to get caught up in the emotion of the moments. Movie studios return to this well so many times because it's hard to resist stories of the unlikely heroes coming out on top.

Where PRIDE falters is in creating memorable characters. For all intents and purposes, the swim team might as well be The One with the Glasses, The One Protective of His Afro, The Stutterer, The One with the Sister, The One Destined to be Leader, and The Girl. The team consists of character types, not well-rounded individuals.

The same extends to Howard's protagonist. Jim rolls into Philly looking for a teaching job at Main Line Academy but can do no better than doing janitor work at PDR. He's like a magical mentor who appears out of the ether to improve lives. Seriously. Beyond what we learn in the pre-opening credits sequence, in which Jim suffers the humiliation of racism at a college swim meet in 1964, what else do we know about the guy? He inspires the kids, sure, but there has to be something interesting about the real person that could have beefed up his lightweight screen persona.

Nevertheless, PRIDE rises with its feel-good message, soul classics of the 70s on the soundtrack, and Bernie Mac's comic relief. The film isn't a champion, but it makes you feel like one.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Reign Over Me

REIGN OVER ME (Mike Binder, 2007)

Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) bumps into old college roommate Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) on the streets of Manhattan, but Charlie doesn't recognize him. Alan knows that Charlie lost his wife and daughters in one of the planes that struck the World Trade Center on September 11, so he's willing to overlook the fog still lingering over his friend, even if his behavior is cause for concern.

REIGN OVER ME reunites these pals at a time when both are adrift in their own ways. Alan has a family and successful dental practice, but he feels as though he has no life outside of his wife, kids, and job. His lack of friends and hobbies make him feel incomplete. Although it is years after the tragedy that took Charlie's family, his coping method has been to run from reality. He severs ties with everyone who knew his wife and kids, especially his in-laws, and refuses to speak about them. In their absence he fills his time obsessively playing video games, listening to his iPod, shopping for records, and remodeling the kitchen. Content to putter around the city on his motorized scooter, Charlie leads a lonely life.

As they become reacquainted, Alan's concern for Charlie's mental welfare grows. He wants Charlie to get help but is rebuffed every time. Alan's interactions with Charlie consume larger portions of his day, which puts a strain on his marriage. The rekindled friendship is what both men need at this point. The question is whether they can assist one another in moving past their pain or will reinforce their desire to wallow in it.

REIGN OVER ME finds Sandler in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE mode. That's good news for those of us who believe his best work came in Paul Thomas Anderson's film and bad news for those who prefer his lowbrow comedies. Here Sandler has discovered another interesting venue for exploring different shades of the man-child persona he's created.

Sadness, anger, and the desperate need for love and approval are at the core of the characters he plays in every film. REIGN OVER ME taps into those qualities to reveal the human suffering in Charlie. Sandler's "please luv me" whimpering can be grating in his broad comedies, but it's surprisingly effective in a serious setting. He reverts Charlie to a child-like state, at least in appearance, and transforms that vulnerability into a shield and a weapon. What looks like passivity is actually aggression, another staple of Sandler's characterizations. To watch him fight the attempted breaching of his protective shell in this manner is to understand how deeply wounded he is.

Cheadle's performance anchors REIGN OVER ME but is prone to exhibit fewer fireworks. That's necessary to balance Sandler's half, although writer-director Mike Binder shortchanges Alan's psychological complexity. Ostensibly he is the main character, yet the film is less about his story. The tension between him and wife Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith) is explained as standard spousal movie conflict than anything developed organically. For as disheveled as Alan's life is supposed to be, he appears to have it together relatively well.

REIGN OVER ME is an unusual entry among 9/11 movies. It tiptoes around the explicit mention of what occurred while being an undeniable response to how to react in the face of those terrible circumstances. Binder suggests that it's best to let people mourn on their own terms. There is no statute of limitations for working through the process, although one might quibble with the film's implication that Charlie be permitted his own schedule. Presumably it's been five years since the tragedy took place. He's definitely in a position where he needs outside help.

Although muddled and inconsistent, especially toward the end, REIGN OVER ME succeeds with its portrayal of friendship in hard times. Sandler and Cheadle are a likeable pair who pull each other from the ashes of their charred mental states. It's an imperfect film but one worth seeing for their pleasing performances.

Grade: B-


PREMONITION (Mennan Yapo, 2007)

Linda Hanson (Sandra Bullock) is informed that her husband Jim (Julian McMahon) has been killed in a car accident, yet the next morning she wakes up and finds him sitting at their breakfast nook. Over and over in PREMONITION Linda experiences this tragic week out of chronology. The police officer who told her about the accident doesn't recognize her during a traffic stop. A female co-worker of her husband's shows up at the funeral and claims to have spoken with Linda a day or two earlier, something she has no memory of. Is she losing her mind, or are their supernatural forces at work?

Frantically Linda attempts to change this foreseen future. She never knows which day of the week it will be when she wakes, leading her behavior to become increasingly erratic. Her mother fears for the well-being of Linda and her daughters to the point where she has no choice but to have the grieving widow committed. Linda slowly pieces together the events of each weekday, but try as she might, it seems that she's a helpless participant in what's happening.

Like a dramatic version of GROUNDHOG DAY, Linda is doomed to relive a terrible week until she learns her lesson in PREMONITION. Caught in a loop that brings to the forefront the rut in her marriage, Linda is forced to examine her feelings about Jim and where their relationship is headed, assuming she can save his life. PREMONITION'S way of dressing its marital crisis material in TWILIGHT ZONE garb grabs attention but looks flimsy upon further inspection. The payoff certainly isn't worth all the fuss of the narrative trickery. The framework holds interest for awhile, but it becomes apparent that it is little more than a method of disguising a pedestrian story. The mysterious circumstances aren't explained except in the most general (and unsatisfactory) terms.

PREMONITION repeatedly breaks continuity in its shuffled storyline. As I understand the film, there are not alternate realities but one predestined path which Linda finds herself in time and time again. Either director Mennan Yapo is cheating in some early scenes, something which I'll consider allowable in establishing what's to come, or the filmmaker is as confused about the timeline and universe within the movie. Continuity problems persist, which suggests the latter is the correct observation.

Despite its shortcomings, PREMONITION is watchable with the hope of greater meaning being revealed in the end. Bullock does a credible job as the conflicted Linda, who mourns her husband's death yet harbors a grudge against him because of what she uncovers during the week's proceedings. If PREMONITION had the foresight to bind its loose ends with a sturdier conclusion, it might have worked as a modest reflection on breaking emotional stasis. Instead, the film leaves the audience retracing steps in the Möbius strip of a plot and feeling like it ended where it began.

Grade: C

Monday, March 19, 2007

Cleveland Film Fest: Lazy Sunday

I've played it looser at the festival this year, skipping sessions if I feel I need to and switching what I intended to see. Only one of today's films was originally on my list, but the changes likely paid off.

Since I had seen three of the films playing during Sunday's second round, it was a choice between one thatI had serious reservations about and one that I expected even less from. I disliked director Jamie Babbitt's BUT I'M A CHEERLEADER and thought THE QUIET was one of last year's worst films. That didn't bode well for ITTY BITTY TITTY COMMITTEE. The other option was HERO TOMORROW, a locally made film that may be brilliant for all I know. Fair or not, I'm pretty skeptical about the quality of local films, so ITTY BITTY won out. A colleague didn't like it but gave it a middling review, which was good enough in this instance.

Babbitt, a Shaker Heights native, was on hand to introduce her film. Plastic surgery clinic receptionist Anna (Melonie Diaz) falls in with a feminist group dubbed Clits in Action. The CIA is dedicated to bringing down what they perceive as the phallo-centric nature of the culture. Through guerilla actions, like spray painting and illegal art installations, they challenge the representations of women in the media and advertising, particularly anything regarding female body image.

Punk rock and Day-Glo aesthetics clash in this comic film of self-discovery and political action. The bright colors and slick visuals in the main story are interrupted by DIY music montage sequences in grainier film stock. That disconnect works for ITTY BITTY TITTY COMMITTEE, but the separation between the personal and political themes don't always coalesce. Babbitt isn't always sure if what she's addressing is an issue for women or lesbians. (The CIA members are either gay or curious.) Also, while it's sort of unfair to hold this film to a standard not expected of others, isn't there a little hypocrisy in telling women it doesn't matter what their body shapes are yet casting thin, attractive actresses in almost every primary role?

ITTY BITTY TITTY COMMITTEE does poke some fun at the earnestness of its characters. The CIA gets wrapped up in their wannabe Guerilla Girls activities and the impact they think they're having until they realize that the only people visiting their website are in the group. Where the film falters is in building their largest mission around opposing an anniversary celebration of the Washington Monument. Because it's really a big penis. It's this sort of juvenile attitude passing for political acumen that makes it hard to take the worthwhile ideas seriously.

Babbitt shows drastic improvement from her first two films to this one. It seems that she wants to make sweet, campy movies that have something to say about homosexuality and feminism. She's got the sweetness and campiness down, but she needs help integrating her messages.

And now for something completely different. Based on my negative reaction to LOOKING FOR LEONARD, I changed my mind about seeing Matt Bissonnette's new film WHO LOVES THE SUN. Instead I went to THE RAPE OF EUROPA. Sounds like a barrel of fun, doesn't it?

The doc is concerned with the Nazi plundering of art and cultural treasures during World War II and the measures that museum workers took to safeguard their precious collections. Workers at the Louvre and Hermitage cobbled together evacuation plans to keep their most important items from being stolen. Although decades in the past, the story continues with legal skirmishes waged over the rightful ownership of paintings taken at the time. The sheer volume of artwork the Nazis stole, hid, and destroyed is mind-boggling. In one sense, it's a miracle anything survived.

THE RAPE OF EUROPA also looks at the damage inflicted on architecture during the war and the repairs still being done today. Allied commanders had to decide what they would attack and bomb despite the historic or artistic value of the buildings. Information like this keeps the documentary fresh.

I wouldn't be surprised if THE RAPE OF EUROPA turns up on PBS or The History Channel at some point. It's a solid piece of work that presents a unique aspect about the war. The title suggests a bleaker film than it is. To be sure the loss of life in the war was a greater tragedy, but this film underscores the idea that valuable parts of culture and history were lost too.

With little time to spare, I zipped to the other side of the theaters to catch THE TRACKER. It is screening in the Director's Spotlight sidebar on Rolf de Heer. David Gulpilil of WALKABOUT fame is featured as the aboriginal man leading three men through the outback to find The Fugitive (Noel Wilton), a native accused of killing a white woman in 1922 Australia. The search party consists of The Fanatic (Gary Sweet), a mounted policeman with no regard for the lives of the aborigines; The Follower (Damon Gameau), who's new to the frontier; and The Veteran (Grant Page) drafted to assist.

de Heer elects to depict the violence through Peter Coad's paintings, a technique perhaps more effective than the explicit reality we've come to expect in films. It's still obvious that what The Fanatic does out of righteousness is terrible. If anything, it brings it to attention more because there's little in the way of graphic violence to look past.

Gulplil gives a commanding performance as The Tracker. He's a complex character, one whose actions and motivations are hard to divine. Why would he choose to hunt down one of his own, who will certainly be marked for death regardless of if he is innocent? Is he leading them on a wild goose chase? Through the smallest facial expressions Gulplil suggests a greater intellect than the others believe him capable of and a lifetime of suffering that he laughs away on the surface.

Boasting some outstanding location shooting and a powerful message about Australia's racist past, THE TRACKER was a fine way to bring my first jaunt to this year's festival to a close. There weren't any films I was dying to see at the day's last two sessions. Plus, I was weary enough that the thought of getting home at a decent hour was more appealing.

I kept true to my word to keep from going bonkers by seeing as much as I could. I'm in much better shape than if I'd crammed in films in the seven slots I left empty. I'll be back at it this Thursday through Sunday.

Prior Cleveland International Film Festival entries
-March 16: Back at the Cleveland Film Festival

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Cleveland Film Fest: St. Patrick's Day

Cleveland parties like no city I've ever seen for St. Patrick's Day, not that I've been in that many cities on the day. Having been caught unaware by the local celebration last year, I was more prepared to beat the mass of people flocking downtown and taking up all the closest parking spaces. A festival worker gave me a tip as to when would be a good time to arrive. I got up earlier than I would have liked, but it was worth avoiding the hassle of parking a long distance from the festival.

I used the extra time to have some coffee and write. Although I arrived more than an hour before my first film, I misremembered the starting time. I walked in during the opening credits of ANGOSTO (LA NOCHE DE LOS GIRASOLES). I knew I didn't miss much (if anything relevant), yet I had the nagging feeling that I lacked a key bit of information. It turned out that I wasn't out of the loop, but that may have contributed to my feeling that the film wasn't leading to anything.

ANGOSTO is told in six chapters, each of which focuses on a different character to advance the story of violence and revenge. While there is some slight reversing in time to begin the chapters, the story unfolds linearly.

Local resident Beni (Fernando Sánchez-Cabezudo) discovers the entrance to a cave near his rural Spanish town. The community hopes that the find might generate tourism, especially if prehistoric paintings exist on the cave's walls. They call in Esteban (Carmelo Gómez), a speleologist, to explore the location. His girlfriend Gabi (Judith Diakhate) makes a surprise visit to the town along with the replacement photographer who is to follow Esteban into the cave. While they go about their surveying work, Gabi bides her time in the hills, whereupon a stranger attacks her. This event puts the rest of the film in motion.

Writer-director Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo does a good job of developing several characters and keeping the story moving forward even when he has to backtrack to find the entry point to shift perspective. A well-made film with strong performances, ANGOSTO hooks you with the question of what will happen next. That it doesn't lead to anything (as far as I'm concerned) makes it ultimately feel like an exercise in style. Perhaps the film is intended to be a comment on the vicious circle of violence and revenge, but I'd like something more concrete than what we get here. As with BABEL, I can admire the filmmaking skill in linking everything, but would it kill these films to have meaning?

ANGOSTO has held up reasonably well upon reflection, and it certainly was a far sight better than my next film. The running time is a shade over two hours, not 100 minutes, which put me up against the start of LOOKING FOR LEONARD. In retrospect I would have been better off skipping this French Canadian dud.

The festival chose director Matt Bissonnette as "Someone To Watch" and is showing LOOKING FOR LEONARD, his debut film co-directed with Steven Clark, and his latest WHO LOVES THE SUN. After watching the excruciating LEONARD, I switched my plans to see his follow-up.

Montreal slackers Jo (Kim Huffman), her boyfriend Ted (Benjamin Ratner), and his brother Johnny (Darcy Belsher) break up their boredom by robbing convenience stores and dry cleaners. They're not getting rich, but it pays the bills. Ted and Johnny are getting tired of the smalltime stuff and want to begin robbing banks.

Meanwhile, Czech immigrant Luka (Joel Bissonnette) arrives in his new home country to find his furnished apartment not to be entirely what he expected and his promised computer job non-existent. He observes Jo brazenly shoplifting and decides to give her some pointers on how to be less conspicuous. They hit it off and go back to her place, but something goes wrong that will changes their lives significantly.

First-time writers are instructed to write what they know, but so many new filmmakers get seduced by trying to recreate what they've seen in the movies that they end up making something completely phony. Maybe Bissonnette knows the life of petty crime, but I doubt it. More likely he's familiar with the fiction writing class that Jo takes with her friend Monica (Molly Parker). There's not a single honest moment in LOOKING FOR LEONARD, just a bunch of low budget indie fallback ideas of what might sell.

There's a lot of talking, but the dialogue isn't funny or interesting. Lines are larded with unnatural sounding vulgarities. This is a film in which the characters definitely don't know how to swear. The story is a non-starter which makes LEONARD'S 87 minutes feel like twice that. While apparently set in contemporary times--references to a Suzanne Vega song, PRETTY WOMAN, and computer work peg this at least as being in the 90s--the fashion and set decoration suggest that it's set a couple decades earlier.

The title refers to Leonard Cohen, a Montreal resident whose BEAUTIFUL LOSERS Jo is reading. He's seen in some archival footage, but such scenes and his connection to the film are metaphorical. The characters aren't looking for Leonard Cohen but rather meaning in their lives.

After that disaster I skipped the late afternoon session. The African film BAMAKO had been on my radar, but despite the generally strong reviews, everything I've read about it makes it sound insufferable. Another Columbus critic at the festival saw some of it but walked out on it yesterday. That was all the excuse I needed to take a break. I considered going to THE OLD GARDEN, the latest from Im Sang-soo, but I wasn't that taken with THE PRESIDENT'S LAST BANG to feel like Im's film was worth the likely 112 minute slog. Since Tower City Center was swarming with people, so I needed the extra time to get something to eat anyway.

RED ROAD was next. Jackie (Kate Dickie) works for Glasgow surveillance firm City Eye. With a bank of monitors in front of her, she is constantly on the lookout for crimes on the streets. One day she recognizes Clyde (Tony Curran). He has some connection to her past, although what it is remains unclear to the audience for much of the film's duration.

Jackie obsesses on Clyde being released from prison back into civilian life and watches his moves via the monitors. She goes further and begins to follow him in person. Eventually she inserts herself into his social circle. He doesn't recognize her at all, which begs the question of what Jackie's fixation is on him.

Like ANGOSTO, RED ROAD displays terrific skill in its construction and excellent performances by its lead characters. Dickie's daring work brings to mind Emily Watson's immersive acting in BREAKING THE WAVES, and Curran conveys menacing charm that keeps Clyde unpredictable.

Director Andrea Arnold has made a rigorous character study akin to the films of Lodge Kerrigan. It's not without merit, but the question is if the key bit of withheld information is worth the long wait. I don't think it was, especially since a reasonable assumption can be made about what the secret is.

This may be a case of where preconceptions based on the festival program description led me to expect a different film. I wouldn't call it "an intense thriller".

With the day's three films all treading water in narrative terms, A GRAVE-KEEPER'S TALE (MAATI MAAY) was a nice change of pace. The residents of an Indian village warn their kids of the Ghoul, an evil female spirit who tends to those buried in a children's graveyard. One look at her could be deadly. Like the other kids, Bhagirath fears her evil eye. He asks his father Narsu about the Ghoul and is stunned to hear that she is his mother. The bulk of the film is devoted to Narsu telling Bhagirath how the once beautiful woman became shunned from their community.

I acknowledge that there is a culture gap I have with India, so perhaps my feelings that A GRAVE-KEEPER'S TALE is more radical in its messages promoting education and questioning traditions of inequality aren't accurate. Whatever the case, this simple film entertains and informs.

I know I vowed not to attend the midnight screenings, but it felt more appropriate to see the Norwegian slasher film COLD PREY (FRITT VILT) at the witching hour than at noon. It's a wonder that Lionsgate hasn't picked this up for domestic distribution because it's a far sight better than most of the horror films released here these days. It's a thoroughly mainstream piece of filmmaking...and the most entertained I've been out of the nine films I've seen at the Cleveland fest.

Five snowboarders hole up in an abandoned ski lodge when one of them breaks a leg going down the mountain. Unable to get cell phone reception and too far from their car or a town to walk to help, they settle in at the shuttered hotel for the night. Little do they know that they are not alone. Dwelling in the basement is an axe-wielding serial killer responsible for many other disappearances in the area.

The scenario is boilerplate horror film, but director Roar Uthaug livens up the proceedings with some novel twists on the formula and an emphasis on character development. More often than not the victims-to-be aren't distinguishable aside from one stock trait, but COLD PREY builds backgrounds and motivations for each one outside of their basic desire to endure the circumstances.

It's also great that the snowboarders behave intelligently, for the most part, and are decent people. The current wave of horror favors obnoxious characters whose survival is cheered against, a dispiriting quality I've noticed in the hours I've logged seeeing all this crap. Uthaug understands a fundamental truth of horror: it's scarier if you are invested in the characters and want to see them live.

On the other hand, the killer is a device rather than a monster with a complicated origin tale. It's refreshing to have a film dispense with mumbo jumbo psychology attempting to provide some awful and mundane history for the villain. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING and the BLACK CHRISTMAS remake provide evidence that knowing the reason for the killer's genesis doesn't make him scary. Nevertheless, there's a surprise about his background at the very end that is a nice touch.

Performance is often negligible in films like these, but Ingrid Bolsø Berdal is worth recognizing as the heroine Jannicke. She projects toughness, sensitivity, and smarts. It's silly to guess about her career prospects, but if this were a Hollywood film, I think it would provide an avenue for more serious roles.

While there's plenty of blood shed, COLD PREY doesn't rely on a lot of graphic violence to jolt the audience. Maybe this looks better to me because in recent years I've seen so many bad hack 'em-up films trying to outdo each other in the gore department.

And with that, I called it a night.

Prior Cleveland International Film Festival entries
-Back at the Cleveland Film Festival
-The rest of my March 16 recap

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Cleveland Film Fest: One director, two writers, and a lot of DJs

As a big fan of the Three Colors trilogy, THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE, and THE DECALOGUE films that I've seen, the documentary STILL ALIVE: A FILM ABOUT KRZYSZTOF KIESLOWSKI was a must for my festival viewing. Through Kieslowski's own words and those of friends and collaborators, director Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz traces the story of his days as a student until his untimely death in 1996.

This talking heads doc can be a bit dry, but overall it's an educational look at his roots and eventual ascendency to world cinema titan in the late 80s and early 90s. It's also a film for true believers in that it's of interest almost exclusively for those familiar with the Polish director's work, or at least the better known movies. Still, those like me, who know his last few films and haven't seen his early documentaries or BLIND CHANCE, NO END, or CAMERA BUFF, may feel on the outside looking in at times. Although this might sound like a backhanded compliment, it would be a good supplemental feature in a DVD box set of his earlier films.

I ended up bailing on the the 4:15 session. I'd penciled in the Hungarian film FRESH AIR, but I decided to take my time getting lunch/dinner and doing some writing. At Panera Bread I bumped into Rolf de Heer, who's in the director's spotlight at the festival. He must not have cared for what he saw because he left without ordering. As filmmaker spotting goes at festivals, I've seen stranger things--Bertrand Tavernier at Steak 'n Shake, John Malkovich in line at the Illini Student Union coffee shop, Todd Solondz wandering this very mall--but this sort of thing amuses me.

I set up shop at Panera, primarily because their wifi service doesn't block Blogger/Blogspot URLs. (Tower City Center's filtering program does.) I don't know if a couple hours off made the difference, but I felt reenergized for the rest of the day after taking the break.

The Norwegian film REPRISE focuses on best friends and aspiring writers Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman-Høiner). Mixing drama and comedy, director Joachim Trier fashions a character study of these two young men and those within their social circle. Phillip struggles with depression after his debut novel is published. Erik gets hung up on the gap between what he wants to be and what his life is.

REPRISE has elements of French New Wave filmmaking (the narration, story construction, themes, and editing) and would feel comfortable beside other tales of young adult uncertainty, such as the films of Noan Baumbach. It's witty without being too self-aware and buzzes with youthful energy. The exciting and exasperating quality in this time of life is anticipating big things for the future yet not quite being able to reach them. Hopefully Trier's promising first feature translates into the kind of success his characters think they can have.

Music docs are almost always a safe festival bet, assuming you like the music in them. I'm clueless when it comes to dance music, but I figured a documentary about DJs would prove to be an easier view for wrapping a full day.

Taylor Neary's documentary LIQUID VINYL includes interviews with plenty of the top DJs in the world expounding on the history of DJing and value of their work. The film's strongest aspect is showing how DJs evolved from being anonymous people in a booth to the center of attention and main attraction to the people on the dance floor. For all the talk about how being a DJ is about keeping the party going and introducing people to great music, there's more emphasis on the personalities than on how the DJs do what they do, though.

LIQUID VINYL can be self-serving at times. Any film like this tends to overstate the importance of the subject, which is to be expected when speaking to people who believe passionately in their work.

I would have liked more discussion about how technology is changing what DJs do. Anyone with a computer can make music playlists and do simple audio editing to mix it all together. That issue, more than illegal downloads and flagging dance music sales, seems to have a potentially greater impact on DJ careers. When an iPod can do your job, the big bucks the best-known DJs can command start to seem out of whack.

These quibbles aside, LIQUID VINYL does what a good DJ should: keep the music rolling, the tempo up, and the feeling positive. Like the Kieslowski doc, it's probably only for those with predisposed interest in the topic, but it serves it's niche audience well enough.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Cleveland Film Festival: What Means Motley?

I rolled into the Tower City Center parking area about an hour before my first film was to start. Parking was already tight, so I can only imagine what it will be like Saturday with the St. Patrick’s Day parade downtown.

I wanted to kick off the festival with something light, so first up was WHAT MEANS MOTLEY? The film is based on a real immigration scam from 1999. With a gift for blarney, Mickey Moynihan (Barry Mulligan) convinces the Irish Consul in Romania (Eamon Rohan) that his ragtag 41 Romanians with no musical abilities whatsoever are a gypsy choir. He's seeking visa approval for them to travel to Ireland for a music festival.

Mickey may be a crook, but he desires for these wannabe illegal immigrants to make it alive to their destination. Hiding them in plain view and tricking a government official can help him do that.

WHAT MEANS MOTLEY? has a terribly scattered beginning. Several people are introduced, with some of the set-ups not being essential to the story. The predicament Catalina (Irina Dinescu) is in--her father gambles her away to a gypsy gangster--spurs Mickey to whip up the scam, but her story could just as well have been handled with a line about needing to escape the country. While this scenario-driven film needs more character work, it squanders time by focusing on less critical details like this.

Essentially a less polished version of bumbling criminal movies--think of what the Coen brothers could do with this--and British arthouse crowd pleasers like THE FULL MONTY, WHAT MEANS MOTLEY? gets by with some solid pacing and an amiable nature. It's not all that funny or constructed well enough to work, but it's tolerable in a mediocre sitcom way.

Still to come...the documentary STILL ALIVE-A FILM ABOUT KRZYSZTOF KIESLOWSKI, the Norwegian dramedy REPRISE, and the DJ doc LIQUID VINYL.

Back at the Cleveland Film Festival

March madness of a different sort begins for me today, although I intend to practice better judgment than last year to make what I’m doing seem a little less crazy. I’m talking about the Cleveland International Film Festival and my third time attending. Two years ago I took in ten films in two days. Last year I gorged, seeing something during every session in my six days at the fest.

What drives such obsessive film viewing is a love of movies, obviously. Combining that with a press pass that grants unlimited access to screenings and the belief that this might be the only opportunity to see some of these films can be dangerous. Sure, it can be fun shuffling from theater to theater from 9:30 in the morning until the midnight session ends, but sometimes the pace can be downright brutal. Add in trying to find time to write, eat, and sleep (in that order), and you can imagine that there’s a line where fun becomes exhaustion.

I’ve promised myself that I won’t push to my physical and mental limits during my two stints at the 2007 festival. (I’m here for the weekend and returning again on Thursday.) Unless there’s something I absolutely must see, I’m skipping the 9:30 a.m. and midnight sessions. That still gives me the potential of seeing five films per day, which isn’t exactly a light schedule. I’ve already been to seven press/promo screenings this week, so it’s not like I’m in movie withdrawal.

If nothing in a session sounds particularly appealing, I’ll take it off. I’ve seen my share of good films here in the past, but I’ve also caught some real lousy ones too. (Try having a day in which you see six films and like none or one of them.) Chances are that if something doesn’t sound appealing from the festival program description and whatever other information I’ve dug up, it’s not worth the trouble. Maybe I’ll miss some masterwork, but I kind of doubt it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

THE LIVES OF OTHERS (DAS LEBEN DER ANDEREN) (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)

Armed with the ability and authority to monitor anyone worthy of suspicion, the East German secret police, known as the Stasi, were a fearsome force in the former Communist country. Tasked to know everything about the lives of the population, the Stasi relied on a web of informers and surveillance on a level that approaches omniscience regarding its subjects.

Typically on the observing end, THE LIVES OF OTHERS finds the Stasi under scrutiny in 1984 East Berlin. Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is assigned to keep an eye and ear on Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a playwright heretofore believed to be friendly to the government. Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) alleges that the writer may not be as loyal as everyone thinks and strongly encourages that he be put under total surveillance.

The action appears driven more by the Minister's interest in Dreyman's actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) than any tangible proof of subversion, but Wiesler carries out his duty to bug Dreyman's home and listen in on his every move and conversation. Initially Dreyman gives no indication that he harbors opinions counter to the ruling party, but as the oppressive regime's power is felt on a personal level, Dreyman begins to become the radical Hempf suggested he was.

As a Cold War thriller, THE LIVES OF OTHERS is gripping stuff replete with the nuts and bolts of all-encompassing surveillance. It's fascinating to see the lightning efficiency and near-invisibility of Wiesler's crew and his chilling admonition to a neighbor who accidentally witnesses the wiring of Dreyman's apartment. The film even finds time for blips of humor, such as the thorough reports documenting the most intimate (and inessential) details of their subjects' activities. Conversely, it's also interesting to observe how the monitored would take measures to sidestep suspected spying. It's a tantalizing game of cat and mouse except for the fact that people's lives were on the line in these scenarios.

The film's greater impact, though, is as a dramatic study of the characters and their circumstances. Ostensibly the bad guy, at least at first, Wiesler's transformation from a hardline member of the Stasi to a sympathizer with those he is surveilling is where THE LIVES OF OTHERS is strongest. In a delicate performance the stone-faced Mühe conveys Wiesler's crumbling fortitude as he invests everything he has in the lives of Dreyman and Sieland. With little to no life of his own, how could he not become tangled up in the welfare of these people leading lives he could only wish he had?

Much is made of changing hearts and minds in times of war. In being privy to lifestyles and ideas he is told are wrong, Wiesler is confronted with a decision that he may believe to be right but which will also lead to certain ruin for him. The Stasi may have desired to know everything about the lives of others, but what it couldn't know, or what it may have feared being known, is that the very thing they were trying to squash offered the hope that would be their undoing.

Grade: B+

Monday, March 12, 2007


ZODIAC (David Fincher, 2007)

Based on the unsolved case, the decades-spanning ZODIAC documents the intensive search for a killer who haunted Bay Area citizens and taunted authorities with promises of unpreventable future murders. In letters to three San Francisco newspapers, the man calling himself the Zodiac claims responsibility for lover's lane killings at Christmastime 1968 and on July 4, 1969. To add validity to his claims the correspondence includes details not made available to the public. The cryptograms that come with the letters supposedly reveal his true identity.

Police officers and newspapermen following the case can't help but become obsessed. Inspectors David Toschii (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are dogged in following leads, but they encounter a maze of dead ends. Police at the various jurisdictions involved with the Zodiac's alleged victims haven't shared their information and can be uncooperative in doing so.

San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) pores over the cryptograms and collects any scrap of knowledge he can find, including the discarded papers of reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.). The case drags on for years, yet Robert plunges even deeper into it assured that he can crack the investigation.

Director David Fincher lets ZODIAC unspool at a leisurely pace that permits it to examine evidence and details over a long period of time. The film leaves no stone unturned, a defining trait both admirable for how it draws a portrait of obsession and questionable for entertainment purposes. ZODIAC'S thoroughness is unparalleled among police procedurals, but all the shoe leather can become tedious. Granted, that's the point. The exhaustive process becomes all-consuming, and Fincher encapsulates that frustrating pursuit well. Perhaps he does it too well because the bogged down section devoted to the investigators gets tiresome.

Unlike THE NUMBER 23, a film undone by the silly and nonsensical, ZODIAC dives headlong into obsession and rationalizes it. As audience members trained to spot red herrings and foreshadowing in movie mysteries, we begin to believe we're finding clues and connections to bring about a satisfying resolution when one cannot be found. Like it does for Graysmith, the answer seems within reach even though going in one knows that the case was never solved. Still, that doesn't squelch thoughts that history can be changed within the confines of the film.

As obsession will lead people to do strange things, so will fear. It's also a driving force in ZODIAC and one that Fincher uses to connect these unsolved murders to today. The director doesn't equate the Zodiac and Middle Eastern terrorists, but it seems apparent that he's interested in linking how living in fear of them fulfills their goals too. While the threats both present are real or legitimately accepted as such, the likelihood of them directly impacting any individual's life is exponentially greater via their function as boogeymen. Yet parents pull kids off buses because the Zodiac threatens to shoot children unboarding from them. Airline passengers aren't permitted to bring liquids or toothpaste onto planes for fear of terrorist plots. In the minds of the public, both are granted extraordinary powers out of fear. (If you're seeking direct evidence of Fincher comparing the times, look no further than how he depicts the bureaucratic roadblocks in information sharing about the Zodiac, a section that echoes pre-9/11 intelligence gathering.)

An elegant sequence in ZODIAC shows the passage of time in the case while recreating the construction of one of the Bay's signature buildings. Similarly, the story is built beam by beam, but Fincher tweaks the final design of what we expect in the architecture of a serial killer movie. Doors don't lead where they normally do, and some rooms can never be unlocked. For that reason ZODIAC can be a vexing film, but its style and ideas compensate for the thwarting of conventions.

Grade: B

Wild Hogs

WILD HOGS (Walt Becker, 2007)

Four motorcycling friends in need of mid-life renewal set out from Cincinnati to the Pacific Ocean in WILD HOGS. Doug Madsen (Tim Allen) is tired of having to monitor the food he eats and afraid of seeming lame to his son. Bobby Davis (Martin Lawrence) feels emasculated because his wife wears the pants in the family. Although no one else knows, Woody Stevens (John Travolta) has lost everything, including his swimsuit model wife. Dudley Frank (William H. Macy) is single and geeky. With that name, what else could he be?

The guys are in need of some time to feel young again, so they hop onto their bikes and take off for a trip to the west coast. They vow to adhere to no rules--meaning no cell phones and predetermined schedules--in their attempt to recapture the energy they had before families and mortgages came along.

Calling themselves Wild Hogs, the four guys fashion themselves to be mildly rebellious types with their motorcycles and custom leather jackets. Upon rolling into a biker bar in New Mexico, they get a crash course in what it's like to be born to be wild. Jack (Ray Liotta), the leader of the Del Fuegos, pushes them around like a bunch of rag dolls and takes Dudley's motorcycle. While three of them slink away with their tails between their legs, Woody sneaks back to the bar and inadvertently blows it up. Needless to say, the Wild Hogs have found themselves some honest to goodness trouble befitting bikers.

While the characters in WILD HOGS strive to be something they're not, the film is perfectly comfortable with its broad, predictable humor. Amid the high concept and lowest common denominator comedies, there is something reassuring about a film content to exist in the middle. Like these suburban men, WILD HOGS is safe, familiar, and generally pleasant. There's nothing here you haven't seen many times before, but the actors possess enough charisma and good spirit to charm even if there's the sneaking suspicion that their skills are in service of something mediocre.

Straight out of a western (or SEVEN SAMURAI), the guys end up becoming the defenders of a meek small town. The Del Fuegos walk all over the locals in one of those quaint communities filmmakers love to depict. It's the kind of place where everyone knows each other and some festival is going on. The guys get to stand up for themselves, and Dudley even finds a sweet café owner played by Marisa Tomei to appreciate him. Allen, Lawrence, Travolta, and Macy have a good time playing off of one another. Even though the jokes are sitcom level, it's fun to watch them interact and not try to outdo one another.

What's less appealing is the film's aggressive homophobic attitude, expressed primarily through a series of recurring jokes with John C. McGinley's highway patrolman. It's not so much that the guys are embarrassed to be mistaken for gay men but the exaggerrated panic about it. The implicit message in WILD HOGS is about reclaiming what it means to be a man. The film doesn't need to adopt an "eww, gross!" attitude toward homosexuality to build up its main characters' self-esteem, which is why the flogging of outdated stereotypes is so disappointing here. (It also could have done without making Bobby's wife a harpy of the highest order too.)

Ultimately WILD HOGS relies too much on comedic crutches like the amazing malfunctioning computer--a lame joke seen most recently in BECAUSE I SAID SO--to support the goodwill the actors earn. These Hogs have been domesticated. There's nothing wrong with settling down, a conclusion the characters arrive at, but too much of the comedy is mild, not wild. It's like laughing at a joke you've heard your uncle tell a hundred times. OK, it's sort of funny, but mostly you're doing it to humor him.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Cleveland flicks

Last night I attended the Columbus preview for the 31st annual Cleveland International Film Festival. Since I also had a screening of 300 to attend, I didn't have much time to stick around other than for some quick conversation and eats, but I snagged a festival guide, which makes scheduling a lot easier than the website.

For those who haven't been, Cleveland's fest is a well-run event that is remarkably easy to navigate for something of its size. It runs from March 15-25. On some days they offer as many as seven sessions, with at least five of those providing four choices, so there's plenty to see.

I'm planning to exercise a little more sanity this year, so 9:30 a.m. and midnight screenings may not make the cut for me unless there's something I really want to see. (I'm trying to think if I caught anything I liked at those times. I don't think I did.) Without those I can knock out five films a day, which is a pretty full docket even for seasoned moviegoers. It may also make it easier for me to file reports during the festival and be more lucid.

I'd have to check my lists for an exact number, but I saw several films that haven't received commercial U.S. runs or have taken a long time to get them. (In some cases, the disappearance of these films is no great loss.) So if you're interested in catching some movies that you may be hard to come by in the future, this festival is worth your time.

In other festival news, I'm set for Ebertfest 2007. The films have not yet been announced, although now that I'm posting this they'll probably be named later today.