30 March 2010

Brothers (Jim Sheridan, 2009)

Tobey Maguire goes off to war in Afghanistan leaving behind his wife Natalie Portman and their two daughters. He's reported dead. Cliche ex-con brother Jake Gyllenhaal picks up the slack and he ends up kissing Natalie Portman on the lips. Tobey Maguire isn't dead though. That's not really a spoiler so if you're reading this just chill out, okay? Anyway, it's overblown and half-baked. The writing is terrible. The acting seems bad as well. I'm willing to blame the writer and the director but maybe these people are all hacks. I usually like Natalie Portman though and I expected better from Jim Sheridan. I don't know what the hell is wrong with "legitimate" film critics since they're always gushing about crap like this. Puke. I watched this with four friends the other night and it was a lot of laughing at it and looking at each other like, "What the hell is wrong with these people?" D

The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner / Светът е голям и спасение дебне отвсякъде (Stefan Komandarev, 2008, Bulgaria)

The story begins with a car accident in Germany. Sashko, a beautiful and sexy man in his late twenties or so, survives the accident but loses his memory. His grandfather, who hasn't seen him since his parents fled Bulgaria with him when he was a child, comes to Germany to try to help him recuperate. They end up riding to Bulgaria on a tandem bicycle and their trip is intercut with flashbacks that tell some of the story of their emigration. The film is sentimental and slight and that's probably why it's so popular. I'm sure it's big with the Geritol set. Also, I didn't understand why they never saw each other after the fall of the Iron Curtain; that's one thing that didn't make any sense to me. C

Gordos (Daniel Sánchez-Arévalo, 2009, Spain)

Gordos is a sort of black comedy about a group of people partaking in a sort of weight loss seminar. It's also about the people in their lives. I really liked it. It's funny. It's touching. It gets at some true things about the various long term relationships in our lives. The guy leading the seminar is the dreamy husband of a pregnant gym teacher. There's a guy who deals with his guilt by encouraging everyone else around him to eat up. It's also about his wife and their children and the issues in the family. The daughter is a student of the therapist's wife. Then there's the religious lady with her deranged devout boyfriend who wants to keep her fat. The high strung business lady in an LTR rut. The big gay spokesman for a weight loss program who's losing everything because he can't stop putting on weight. I thought the dynamics in the relationships were relatively true to life. It seemed like there were moments they could have done easy things like judge the religious people for example, but the movie is mostly unjudgmental. The audience seemed to like it quite a bit and I have to say I really enjoyed it. It tells some things I haven't seen in a movie before, even if parts of it are on the conventional side. B+

29 March 2010

Around a Small Mountain / 36 vues du pic Saint-Loup (Jacques Rivette, 2009, France)

When people talk about quirky French movies and roll their eyes or shake their heads or screw up their faces they're talking about movies like this. It's an essentially pointless, empty, quirky, romp around a mountain with a little circus that seems kind of lame and run down and surprisingly intimate for a production that has such a caravan... A woman breaks down on a mountain road. A mysterious businessman in a sports car stops and silently fixes her car in like three seconds. Then all this boring stuff happens where he insinuates himself into the circus community, which seems to be about four people, and tries to fix all the issues. It was dull. I dozed off for a few minutes. I read a review that said Jane Birkin was horrible but she was the only thing that made this movie at all interesting for me, not that her character or acting were too interesting, just her voice and her presence, I guess. I'd give it a lower score but feel like my dozing off for a few minutes could have made me miss something worthwhile, unlikely as that may be. I'm really surprised that this movie made it on a few critics' ten best lists last year. C

Brotherhood / Broderskab (Nicolo Donato, 2009, Denmark)

The premise is gay love between a new initiate of a neo-Nazi group and a more seasoned member. It sounds like a lurid gay fantasy and there are definitely parts that play that way pretty strongly. The movie starts with Lars, a sergeant or something, being turned down for a promotion because of rumors he came on to some of his men at a bar. It seemed like this information may have been false but perhaps it's like The Children's Hour where a false rumor hints at something that might be near the truth... He's drinking with some friends at one of their homes and some skinheads come and start talking about the Muslims at the asylum center and at first he gets up to leave but he gradually gets sucked in and of course falls for the dreamiest, most secretly sensitive neo-Nazi you could dream up. Sometimes this movie is seems like such a sensationalistic, homo-fantasy that I found myself laughing a lot. What makes this movie remarkable, however, is that it really turns it around by the end. There were moments between these two guys that were really lovely and the drama that ensues is generally effective. I kept thinking, these guys can't just walk into the sunset because they've done some really objectionable things but it's also so boring and unsatisfying if they get murdered or end up all sad sack or hateful or whatever. You really see transformations in this film and I think the end managed to serve up both justice and a satisfying movie experience. I thought it was great. I'd recommend it to most of my friends, especially all the gay guys who inexplicably have endless fantasies about amorous skinheads... I was surprised at first that it won the award at the Rome Film Festival but it seems to make some sense now. B+

P.S., David Dencik is really dreamy as the Nazi rival cum love interest:

Whiskey with Vodka / Whisky mit Wodka (Andreas Dresen, 2009, Germany)

Movies about movie shoots don't usually work out so well, in my opinion. This is a sort of German comedy about an alcoholic actor who seems to have a reputation akin to the Laurence Olivier of Germany or something. He's making a movie, which is said to be a great artistic film though it looks like it would be a terrible film and not particularly artistic but who can say? The last film he was on was never finished and the producer is worried the same kind of behavior from the leading man will sink this production as well so he comes up with the idea of hiring a second actor to shoot all the scenes in case the drunk mucks everything up. The idea seems to be that it might encourage the drunk to straighten out and get the job done. It's really not very interesting, except for Corinna Harfouch as the leading lady in the film. She apparently played Frau Goebbels in Der Untergang (Downfall) so that's probably why she seemed familiar to me although she also seems to have been in this crime caper I saw once about old ladies robbing a bank or something called Jetzt oder nie--Zeit is Geld. I liked her a lot, though she didn't have much to do and was kind of wasted here. I'd like to see her in something else. I wish we could get Tatort in America. Every time I watch a mediocre German movie, I just get wistful for the things I enjoyed on German television. Oh, Evelyn Hamman, how I miss you! C

28 March 2010

Hadewijch (Bruno Dumont, 2009, France)

Shortly after our story begins, our protagonist, a novice at a convent, is dismissed for going overboard with the abstinence and mortification. Her story is interwoven with the story of a bricklayer and petty criminal but I'm not entirely sure I know why. The mother superior says to go put herself to use in the world and she goes back to live with her wealthy parents in their majestic Ile Saint-Louis residence. She hooks up with some Arab guys at a cafe one day and goes with them to this MAJESTIC concert on the quay; it looks like punk but it's all accordion with itself. She ends up being friends with one of the boys, who has the hots for her, but she tells him she's with Jesus and that while she can ride around on stolen scooters with him and her dog, she's not going to put out for anyone but Jesus. She meets the kid's brother, who leads religious meetings upstairs from a shawarma place. There's all this religious crap that follows, including them suddenly being in the middle of a war zone in the middle east and then back in Paris seemingly up to no good. I didn't really buy it. I didn't buy the ending. I thought it was okay if you read it as a criticism of religious fervor that might indicate the thief has more to do with the main man in their fairy tale religion than anybody else. Or not. The music is lovely. The images are lovely. I liked the actors. I found the story a little cheap though. C

27 March 2010

Slaves in Their Bonds / Οι Σκλάβοι στα Δεσμά τους (Adonis Lykouresis, 2009, Greece)

I read somewhere that Greece originally submitted Dogtooth to the Academy Awards this year but changed their mind and sent this instead. Since I've seen both Dogtooth and Strella I'm completely baffled by this decision because this is one of those movies that has you thinking it must have been the only movie made in that country that year, which it obviously wasn't. This tedious period piece plays like the worst installment of Masterpiece Theater never made. Aside from being incredibly drawn out and uninteresting, it also seems like it was shot on a camcorder. The story involves a bunch of rich, boring assholes on the island of Corfu. It seems to take place around the beginning of the last century and it seems like the aristocracy is withering away and being replaced by a seemingly unsavory bourgeoisie. The main event in the movie is the family basically forcing their elder daughter to marry this slimy doctor who went out and bought up all the father's IOU's. The other daughter is rebellious and hot to trot. The elder son is a shiftless lawyer in a loveless affair with a woman married to a much older, wealthy man. The younger son is a gambler and a thief and not really different than rich people anywhere in his extreme self-centeredness. The mother is likable enough. I suppose the women in general are likable enough, possibly because they're so broadly drawn. I saw it in a theater packed to the rafters with Greeks and they seemed to like it pretty well. Of course, Greek people seem to like anything Greek as a matter of principle, in my experience. D

The Misfortunates / De helaasheid der dingen (Felix Van Groening, 2009, Belgium)

This was Belgium's submission to this year's Academy Awards. It's a dingy movie about a boy in some small town in Belgium in what might be the 1980s, based on the Limahl haircut. He lives with his father, his grandmother, and his three (two?) uncles. The men are all drunks and deadbeats. The grandmother more or less silently makes the best of things. The kid's about puberty age and he's having trouble at school and things at home don't seem very healthy. The story of his youth is intercut with the story of him as an adult, a struggling writer who knocks up his girlfriend. The movie is funny sometimes but it isn't all that engaging because it's hard to care about the characters a lot of the time. Most of the publicity stills from the movie are from the town's yearly nude cycling contest. There's also a yearly event where all the men dress in women's clothing and drink for three days. The movie isn't attractive or engaging or enlightening, to my mind, but I think it was really honest so it has that going for it. You don't see many honest depictions of these kinds of people, I guess, and this one seems relatively unsentimental, which was nice. It seemed to ramble though and I'm not sure it was consistent philosophically. Maybe it is and I just didn't think it through rightly because it didn't sing to me and because I thought the story about the kid as a grownup was kind of weak. C

23 March 2010

Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore, 2009)

This movie is basically stuff I already know about. I guess that's what makes me better informed than most people. I usually don't have the patience to explain my politics to people but I feel like this movie iterates my worldview pretty well. It might run a hair on the paranoid side but that's about it. In case you've been living in a bubble or Alabama or something, it's Michael Moore's movie about the financial crisis. There's grandstanding and foolishness but it tells this story which should be told over and over again in perpetuity. A-

Prima Primavera (János Edelényi, 2008, Hungary)

Gabor is a fifty-something year old son of a Holocaust survivor. It's hard to tell if he's retarded, autistic, or if he just hasn't recovered from a painful event in his childhood. The movie starts with him and his mother in a beautiful cemetery next to a jail. He's lost and doesn't remember that the pine trees were cut down twenty years ago. The scene is a great example of the cinematography throughout. The shots are beautiful, if a little grainy or a little off in the coloring or a little too obviously digital. I found myself thinking in this movie that if there is a trade off of some technical aspects in exchange for a greater diversity in world cinema that means more lovely movies like this one then bring it on. The story gets going when Gabor and his mother go to the bank with their lawyer so Gabor can sign some papers that seem to relate to his inheritance, though he doesn't seem to be following what's going on, perhaps because he can't cope with the possibility of his mother's death, although while I was watching it I just found myself wondering if he was more seriously retarded than I had anticipated based on the description. Suddenly the bank gets robbed, Gabor intercedes in a way that makes things go terribly wrong but he ends up seeing the face of the gunman. Naturally, the gunman wants Gabor out of the way. He also wants the getaway driver out of the way, a prostitute who seems to have been the girlfriend of the robber who dies in the bank robbery. The dutch gunman enlists the prostitute, Joli, to help neutralize Gabor but they get away and go on the run. He tells her they can stay at his grandmother's house in Serbia and their adventure begins. I can see how some people might come up with some criticisms for this movie but I found it really winning. I could see someone calling parts of it cheesy but it all really worked for me. There were a number shots in the movie that were really lovely and I thought the story mostly worked through the whole thing, although the guy who plays the dutch gangster is a little broadly drawn and not acted as well as he might have been. It was a good time at the movies. I'd watch it again. This is another one of the movies at this festival that might inspire me to want to visit the countries depicted. I'm putting a bunch of pictures here and there are a few more on the website, which does a pretty good job of representing the film, I think. I enjoyed parts of the director's statement. B+

22 March 2010

December Heat / Detsembrikuumus (Asko Kase, 2008, Estonia)

This was Estonia's submission for the best foreign film Oscar. Of the ten I've seen so far, this one is currently ranked at number eight, between number seven from Romania and number nine from Hungary. It's handsomely produced, if melodramatic and intermittently cheesy, but the main thing is that it comes across as a little stridently political, almost propagandistic, which kind of makes sense since it seems like it was basically commissioned by the Estonian government to mark the 90th anniversary of the Republic. Of course, my knowledge of Estonian history is about as vague as possible and is mostly informed by my vague knowledge of the histories of the other Baltic states. I can't really find much information about the specific event depicted in the movie but it seems to have taken place in 1924. What was really strange is that the subtitles were intermittently inept and in particular the dates were rendered in such a way that I couldn't decide even what decade this was taking place in. I think it was more clear in the opening title but I didn't really process it all because of all these infernal latecomers. The dates in the subtitles during the movie ended up being three digits and a pound sign or a quotation mark or something. No, I didn't watch a bootleg with some half-assed internet subtitles, I saw this at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of the EU Film Festival, for reals. Anyway... It seems that Estonia had a war of independence in the late teens where they gained their independence for the first time since 1227. Apparently, in 1924, Russia attempted to orchestrate a communist coup in Tallinn, the nation's capital. This is the story of how that coup was prevented, culminating in a sort of silly and hard to believe scene in a telegraph office. Most of the actors are fairly capable. The lead couple is attractive and likable. There's a story about a baker and his wife and son that's pretty effective. I sort of felt like the movie focused too much on a handful of rebels and military personnel and should have liked more context about the locals. It's interesting that the film seems firmly anticommunist and anti-Russian, perhaps resentful toward foreigners in general, but it also depicts rather overtly the abuses of the capitalists during the short-lived Republic. It was certainly engaging but perhaps not quite weighty enough and, I think, a little too nationalistic or something like that. C/C+

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2006, Romania)

Mr. Lazarescu hasn't been feeling so well today. In the evening he calls for an ambulance, which arrives after a relatively long time. He needs medical attention pretty badly but there's been a big bus accident and the hospitals are swamped. They're also full of unfeeling, unqualified people, it seems, though they also have great employees. He's escorted throughout the night by an EMT nurse, rough around the edges but well-intentioned. The title pretty much tells you what the whole movie is about but it's so much more entertaining and thrilling and beautiful than I had expected. I also expected it to be very much about the failings of the Romanian healthcare system but most of what you'll see here could be translated to any city in America. This is the kind of foreign movie that should be remade in America, given our own healthcare crises. The actress who plays the nurse is pretty amazing. There are so many interesting details in this story. It's not only about more than the Romanian hospital system, it felt like it touched on many other facets of life. It's time for my bedtime but I'm really glad I finally watched this. It's not as dour and punishing as it sounds. Highly entertaining and also very beautiful. I highly recommend this movie. A

Zero (Pawel Borowski, 2009, Poland)

Zero is a sort of network narrative investigating the underbelly of life in a large city in Poland. A lot of the characters are likable. Many of the scenes are charming or funny or shocking. Some of the situations are even quite compelling. I'm just not sure it fit together very well as a whole. I definitely checked the time a number of times when the movie seemed to be dragging or meandering toward nowhere. There's an executive who hires detectives to get a photo of his wife having an affair. A poor family who need money for their son's organ transplant. A pregnant pornstar and her deranged gangster boyfriend. A door to door puppet salesman struggling to make ends meet while harboring resentment for his son who committed a robbery a year ago. A creepy, kind-ish old man who says he's from a children's foundation. An old lady who needs sexual healing and the male prostitute who wants to marry his girlfriend. There are some great touches here. I like the way it begins and ends with the newspaper salesman on side of the busy road. I like that it's a dark movie with a glimmer of light. I can think of a lot of things I liked about this movie but I don't feel like it was fully realized as a whole film. And I can't forget how some of the parts were about as tedious as Disengagement, which I had just watched. C