Reviews for 2010

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Carlos

Starring Édgar Ramírez, Fadi Abi Samra, Ahmad Kaabour, Christoph Bach, Nora von Waldstätten, Rodney El Haddad, Julia Hummer, Alexander Scheer, Talal El-Jordi.
Directed by Olivier Assayas.
Rating: 7/10

The first scene in Olivier Assayas's theatrically presentable three-part mini-series Carlos could be read as comic -- a man checks his car's engine and underside for possible bombs, decides that it's safe, then when he's inside and closes the door, the car explodes. It's obviously not meant to be funny, but in a way it is, and this description could be applied to the whole movie (I'm calling it a movie from here on) as well. This is because its agenda is to give a mythbusting biographical account of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, a.k.a. "Carlos the Jackal" (played thoroughly by Édgar Ramírez) who made his name in the '70's as a dreaded terrorist mastermind. What we find out, though, in the course of five-and-a-half hours, is that he really only had one great terrorist act to his name; his others were either botched or mostly ineffective, while most of his spare time was spent meeting with other terrorists, planning revolutionary acts, sleeping with women, and puffing up his own pride. Heck, even his one great act -- the hostage taking of OPEC leaders in 1975 -- was considered a failure by his boss at the time.

What we actually see is Carlos as a legend in his own mind. He chose anti-Western imperialism as his cause and decided that he would be one of its greatest soldiers, massaging his ego even though he continued to have little to show for it. The world at large was ready to believe his preferred image, as they saw him as the beret-wearing terrorist who had the nerve and leadership to pull off the OPEC raid. The movie shows how Carlos banked on his notoriety from this event, only to squander it over the next 15 years; it would be a tragedy if he weren't a terrorist, so I swear Assayas wants us to view this as comedy. How else are we supposed to react when Carlos and his partner meticulously plan the assassination of Anwar Sadat, only to be thwarted when someone else assassinates him first? If you happen to know any of this history, you'll also know Carlos was eventually captured and imprisoned, which, again, turns out to be pitifully funny since Carlos expresses many times that he's sure that his life will end violently. Sorry, no blaze of glory here.

Assayas tells this story as a parade of little events -- all those meetings and plannings, and interactions amongst a slew of characters -- with one big event, the OPEC raid, in the middle. Ignoring any need to create a movie's narrative arc (no climax, it's like a matter-of-fact telling of history), it's faithful to the disappointing pace of life, during which mostly nothing happens as you move on from year to year, save for certain memorably big events. The approach is doubtlessly effective in reaching the goal of making Carlos's life feel real and, ultimately, mundane, but it's also questionable whether we really needed to spend this much time to get this picture. True, the longer it goes, the more assuredly Carlos is brought back down to earth, but I do think this could've been accomplished in, say, two-and-a-half hours (in the U.S., they did edit such a version for theatrical release, but I didn't see it). Carlos, however, provides the strongest argument against its own biopic approach with its middle section -- the hostage taking is riveting, even more strikingly so when it's compared to the quieter surrounding parts one and three. I respect what the movie aims for and accomplishes, but that middle section did leave me thirsty for, perhaps, a different kind of story overall. (added 1/21/2011)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Starring Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes, Will Poulter, Tilda Swinton.
Directed by Michael Apted.
Rating: 5/10

We're now three movies into this series, and my reaction to each one has been about the same: a shrug. I'll admit, though, that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader wasn't too tough to sit through for several reasons. For starters, it's just under two hours (the first two were each about two-and-a-half hours long). Visually, it feels "experienced," which is my way of saying that most of the special effects are both convincing and pleasing to look at; I particularly like how Reepicheep (voice of Simon Pegg), the talking, fencing rat, looked and felt here. The story was also much less loaded this time -- it's essentially a simple fantasy quest movie, where two of the original four protagonist kids, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), are sent back to Narnia with their obnoxious cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) in tow. They run into King Caspian (Ben Barnes) and, in breif, end up looking for some missing lords and their swords in order to stop a formless evil. This simplicity is welcome, but unfortunately it also feels slightly generic and thematically thin. It also can't escape these movies' need to sermonize in the end, with a clunky denouement featuring everyone's favorite deified lion. The lead kids here have their charms, and while the film is functional it lacks distinction and a passionate sense of drive. I do feel now that I have series fatigue with The Chronicles of Narnia; if they make a fourth one, I no longer have plans to seek it out. (added 5/12/2011)

Clash of the Titans

Starring Sam Worthington, Gemma Arterton, Mads Mikkelsen, Alexa Davalos, Ralph Fiennes, Liam Neeson.
Directed by Louis Leterrier.
Rating: 1/10

To express disgust at the new Louis Leterrier-directed Clash of the Titans while proclaiming a love for the Desmond Davis-directed 1981 original might seem a bit silly at first because the original film was no masterpiece. I'll be the first to admit that the first Clash had a lot of flaws, mostly stemming from the stagey acting, led by a rather wooden Harry Hamlin, which all lent an air of cheesiness to the production -- though I'll also add that it's a sincere air. But this was also the swan song of the great stop-motion special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, whose on-screen creatures brought the monsters of ancient lore to joyous life. It can be said of many of Harryhausen's movies that plot mattered little -- like a good martial arts movie or a musical, in which most of the work go into the choreography, the magic of his cinema was represented by fantastic action set pieces, where the painstaking labor of animating posable figures one frame at a time bore fruit. While it may be argued that Clash of the Titans was not his best movie (though I may personally fight on its side), it delivered what any of his fans would have wanted, and it's capped by one of his greatest scenes -- the face-off with Medusa.

But what about the story? Long ago, in the back of my mind, the original movie's interpretation of the Perseus myth bothered me. True, it wasn't totally faithful, but I've grown to appreciate what the adapting screenwriter Beverley Cross came up with to better fill out the movie's drama. Now after seeing this new version, the original story looks like Shakespeare. Cross took time to set up a situation in which Perseus builds his destiny from the ground up -- he's placed in a "starting position" away from his family and homeland, he finds and falls in love with a beautiful princess, he outsmarts and outfights a hideous villain, Calibos, who stands in the way, and he even tames the winged horse Pegasus because the occasion called for it. Only after this whole first section of the story is established does Perseus then begin his main quest, which is ultimately to find a way to rescue his beloved Andromeda while also saving her city, becoming a hero in the process.

Compare this to the new Clash of the Titans, in which there is no establishing section. That's right, there isn't one. In Letterier's version, Perseus (Sam Worthington), bearing an inexplicably shaved head, sees his family destroyed as collateral damage when some soldiers dare to defy the gods and Hades (Ralph Fiennes) himself swoops down to destroy them. After this, Perseus is taken to the city as a refugee, angry at the gods and looking for a chance at revenge. After the city's rulers enrage the gods again, Hades orders the ultimatum of sacrificing Princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) or the city will be destroyed by a monster called the Kraken. This happens in roughly the films first quarter.

In other words, it doesn't take long for new Clash to throw most of old Clash out the window. Perseus doesn't even love Andromeda -- he goes on the quest for a solution against the Kraken mainly out of personal motive -- because killing Hades's pet monster will give him a shot at Hades himself. When one realizes this, one must wonder -- why bother including the ultimatum in the story at all? If Perseus isn't interested in rescuing Andromeda, why include her possible sacrifice? Hades could've simply said, too bad, I'm sending the Kraken to destroy your city in 10 days, and this story would've wound up the same way. So this movie has no use for the love story, no use for the subplot of Calibos (his involvement was the driving force behind all the danger Perseus had to face), and thus no real way of demanding Perseus's heroics. It's simply a straight point-A-to-point-B line of a quest that he and his men embark on. Travel a little, fight a monster, travel some more, fight the next monster. I would say it has a video game plot, but that might insult well-plotted video games.

And yet this new Clash wants to retain key elements from the original movie, perhaps not simply as homage but also to show off modern technology's ability to crank things up a few notches. No jittery stop-motion effects here, now we have full-blown computer effects! But the appearances of these elements are arbitrary to the way this story is written, so not only was Andromeda included for no reason, Calibos (Jason Flemyng) does return, although with entirely different background and motives, and no real effect on the plot; Pegasus is here, but for some reason he's black instead of white and he literally appears out of nowhere to assist Perseus -- no taming necessary; and giant scorpions are back, except this time, instead being as big as cars, they're as big as houses and could probably challenge one of Michael Bay's Transformers. But they're all just here to name check the corresponding characters and elements from the first movie. The new movie doesn't try to work them in story-wise -- they're simply inserted when they're queued to show up.

Why remake a movie that had a perfectly fine story by giving the new version the narrative equivalent of a runaway train? Letterier and his three screenwriters could've even gone back to the original Perseus myth if they wanted to do things a little differently, but instead they made every bad move possible in telling their tale. Not only does their story have no complexity -- it's all third act, with nothing resembling a first two acts -- they made their hero sullen, pouty, angry, and tiring to be around, and they wanted to escalate what was an individual's tale of adventure and heroics into something earth-shattering, where no less than the fate of mankind is at stake (see, as it turns out, Hades's goal is to destroy the king of the gods, Zeus (Liam Neeson), and his creation, man). And yet, even with such lofty peril, nothing builds Perseus up to become the hero he's supposed to be.

The movie's braindead approach to cinematic entertainment is exemplified by the sequence it would have the most to gain from by doing right: the Medusa sequence. And -- there's no other way to put it -- the scene is awful. In the original movie, that scene is one of the most suspenseful and creepy sequences filmed, and the audience sweats along with Perseus as he must find some impossible way to slay a truly scary monster. In this movie, instead of a slow-burn time bomb effect, Letterier went for adrenaline, as computer-generated Medusa slithers at lightning speed, chasing Perseus around crumbling columns and cackling all the while. As an action sequence, it's practically indistinguishable from the others that came before -- it's just another boss battle, with a Medusa that isn't even scary. But at least the action is fast so the audience doesn't get bored, right?

And I could go on and on. The new Clash of the Titans is badly put together, sees its audience as bored teenagers with no attention span, and has absolutely no imagination of its own. It's a real shame, because although I adore the original movie, I could see how an update could have worked. The story was in place, so all you needed were good actors, reworked dialog, and modern special effects that could enhance the scenes in which they were originally employed. How could this have been so completely messed up? Little boys playing with action figures could've improvised a better story than this garbage. (added 9/10/2010)

Cop Out

Starring Bruce Willis, Tracy Morgan, Adam Brody, Kevin Pollak, Guillermo Díaz, Seann William Scott.
Directed by Kevin Smith.
Rating: 4/10

It isn't difficult to see what director Kevin Smith was going for with Cop Out. With its police detective partners -- one white (Bruce Willis), one black (Tracy Morgan) -- its drugs-and-gangs plot, relaxed pace, smart-aleck attitude, and Harold Faltermeyer soundtrack (the man responsible for the soundtrack of Beverly Hills Cop), the movie is a knowing nod to the cop flicks of the '80s. And in case this wasn't going to be clear for you, the movie practically spells it out during Morgan's tirade about paying homage to old cop movies.

Although the idea behind this film may have potential for fun, it's not very compelling. At the most, you might get a harmless valentine of a movie. But Cop Out appears saddled with plenty of other problems, not the least of which involves its hit-and-miss script by brothers Mark and Robb Cullen. Yes, it's the first time Smith isn't directing one of his own scripts, but that doesn't absolve him from culpability. The movie brakes every so often for a dose of Smith's usual juvenile humor, but it gets old pretty quickly when applied to protagonists who are supposed to be seasoned policemen. Speaking of which, one's mileage may also vary regarding Willis and Morgan. Willis looks like he's on auto-pilot, knowing it isn't a serious role (and really nothing more than a straight man) and just kicking it as easily as he can. Meanwhile, Morgan seems on comedy overdrive, which isn't pretty. Basically, he's got the Eddie Murphy role, but Murphy made such parts smart and edgy while Morgan comes across as just whiny, which proves tiring. Eventually, Seann William Scott appears, and the little kid humor reaches a groan-worthy low.

The result? Cop Out feels like a half-baked concept halfheartedly executed. Smith manages to work in some of his warmer trademarks -- the bond between good buddies and the pride of a father -- to go along with the spotty comedy, and that lends the movie an air of good nature, which might be the most one can say for an otherwise underwhelming effort. (added 8/25/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Creation (2009; 2010, U.S. release)

Starring Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly, Jeremy Northam, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jim Carter, Martha West.
Directed by Jon Amiel.
Rating: 7/10

The name Charles Darwin has now become synonymous with the Theory of Evolution, and it carries with it all the controversy that scientific view engenders. One of the natural goals of Creation, then, would be to humanize Darwin, while at the same time not shying away from the subject that makes him notorious. This sounds like a tough task, but Jon Amiel's film handles it well by focusing on a tragic event in Darwin's life -- one with a major effect on him even years later as he prepared to write his magnum opus, On the Origin of Species. In summary, Darwin (Paul Bettany) has lost his beloved oldest daughter (Martha West, who's wonderful), which has not only caused him much anguish but also created an unspoken rift between himself and his wife (Jennifer Connelly). Unable to find closure and becoming physically ill, he has difficulty completing his book, one his devout Christian wife would likely disapprove of but which his daughter would have embraced, since she followed her father's teachings devotedly.

Creation does fall back on conventions for its storytelling, from little things -- like the frequent use of flashbacks, the colleagues who hound him and stress the importance of his works, a descent into madness where Darwin continually envisions his dead daughter admonishing him -- to the larger picture that this is mainly a grief movie about people who can't get on with their lives until they make peace with themselves. But the film does have something rather insightful to offer about a subject that, I believe, doesn't get addressed often. In fully accepting and, at times, articulating Darwin's evolutionary point of view, it is unapologetic to the Christian viewer, which is very much the correct approach, but then it takes this a few steps further to show how challenging it is not to simply accept this point of view, but to fully live with it. In the film, Darwin is shown losing his faith in religion and becoming more adamantly assured of the coldness of nature, but to say it's cold and to embrace it are two different things. A few sequences, such as the story of the captive orangutan named Jenny and the very effective time-lapse shot of a dead chick, emphasize the difficulty of being secure in the idea that nature contains no divinity, especially when one is brought up in an environment surrounded by people who believe in a higher power by default. Darwin getting over his daughter's death and seeking the approval of his wife are analogous to gaining the courage to bear convictions that would challenge the beliefs of the majority of society. If Creation might not stand out in other ways, it at least gives a well-approximated glimpse into the self-actuated challenges experienced by atheists and agnostics; popular opinion may see such persons as defiant and mocking, but most likely they were unable to help starting out in a position of doubt. The movie shows that all faith, any faith, is made stronger through questioning and emotional trial. (added 7/9/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Death at a Funeral

Starring Keith David, Loretta Devine, Peter Dinklage, Ron Glass, Danny Glover, Regina Hall, Kevin Hart, Martin Lawrence, James Marsden, Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock, Zoe Saldana, Columbus Short, Luke Wilson.
Directed by Neil LaBute.
Rating: 4/10

Neil LaBute's American remake of Frank Oz's 2007 British comedy doesn't change much from the original -- it swaps a largely African-American cast (which includes names like Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, and Tracy Morgan) in place of neurotic Brits (played by a cast of lesser-knowns), but otherwise follows almost the exact same narrative path. This means the component that stayed mostly the same is the writing, which is bad news to me, since my main beef with the original movie was exactly that. Yes, the cast delivers their moments with a different comic sensibility and different cultural flavor, but in the end the main plot points and big gags rely on the same lazy devices -- a mistaken drug, a homophobic revelation, and, worst of all, a really disgusting toilet gag. Looking for LaBute's trademark misanthropy, I couldn't really detect it outside of the way he utilizes the only returning cast member, Peter Dinklage, playing the same part -- he's a bit more aggressively mean here, which is amusing. Otherwise, this really is mostly the same movie, and I don't want to waste anymore words on it -- please read my review of the original because most of what I said there applies here. (added 8/17/2010)

Despicable Me

Starring the voices of Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Elsie Fisher.
Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud.
Rating: 7/10

The trick in Despicable Me is how its protagonist, Gru (voice of Steve Carell), isn't really that despicable. He effectively has a fairly harmless mean streak (that "freeze gun" could've easily been anything else) and ambitions of larceny on a grand scale, many of which we soon learn have either not succeeded or were not all that grand to begin with. Frankly, I think Ebenezer Scrooge's behavior was more despicable. Nonetheless, Gru's heart requires the exposure of its soft side, and so enters the influence of three orphan girls who prove more than a match for his "care," ultimately leading up to the same lesson that Scrooge ultimately learns.

It's obvious, though, that the main goal in Despicable Me is to tell this story with as little sap as possible, and on that it fares well. The girls are cute but not saccharine; they feel geunine in the sense that they're stubborn and independent-minded, and essentially earn Gru's admiration because they're willing to reciprocate attention, admiration, and devotion. The comic characterizations are also spirited, with Carell in particular perfectly understanding the tone of his role, while getting a surprisingly goofy assist from Julie Andrews, finally not playing herself. And though I think similar ground was covered better in Lilo & Stitch, Despicable Me proves to be a sturdy and funny iteration of this well-worn moral story, with its head happily in the clouds of cartoon logic to counterbalance its heartwarming intent. (added 1/21/2011)

Dogtooth (2009; 2010, U.S. release)

Starring Christos Stergioglou, Michele Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia, Hristos Passalis, Mary Tsoni, Anna Kalaitzidou.
Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos.
Rating: 9/10

Dogtooth drops you into the insular world of a Greek family with no warning, explanation, or exposition. It may take a bit of time to realize what you're watching -- everything is odd in an extreme way, with three grown children (two daughters and a son, played by Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, and Hristos Passalis) apparently living by rules and stories they seem to take as natural law, but, to us, are jarring and disconcerting. Eventually you may realize that the parents (Christos Stergioglou and Michele Valley) have created these rules to prevent the children from ever leaving the grounds of their home, and are constantly fed misinformation about the way the world works. Only the father ever gets to leave the house to go to work, otherwise even the mother never ventures out, and we're given no clue as to why all this is happening. What we observe is morbidly fascinating and frankly graphic, both uncomfortably funny and starkly disturbing, from the father paying one allowed outsider to visit solely to satisfy the son's sexual needs, to the son's slaying of a strange creature that wandered in (a cat!).

The movie is successful because it's thought provoking on several levels. Not only is it a direct satire on the perils of over-protective parenting, its meaning can be easily extended to the idea of cult societies, ruled by those who would have its followers fear the sins of the outside world. Psychologically, the film shows how strongly and significantly our environments shape us, that, without exposure to alternative ideas, we can be taught to believe anything; and Dogtooth goes to great lengths to show that these children believe, with no thought of their falsehoods, things we would find to be grossly absurd. Inevitably, by the film's end, the eldest daughter has been "corrupted" just enough by information leaking in that she finally attains a motivating level of curiosity about the outside world, thus suggesting how unnatural and doomed to failure the idea of enforcing conformity upon a people can be. Director Giorgos Lanthimos never breaks the fly-on-the-wall mode of the movie, making Dogtooth a kind of ingenious horror show you just can't take your eyes off of. (added 2/2/2011; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Easy A

Starring Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Thomas Haden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Cam Gigandet, Lisa Kudrow, Malcolm McDowell, Aly Michalka, Stanley Tucci.
Directed by Will Gluck.
Rating: 7/10

A teen comedy dealing with a populace's base tendency to be drawn to rumors and gossip, Easy A posits that scorn still persistently accompanies a promiscuous woman today, long after the time of Nathanial Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Emma Stone plays Olive, a good girl who's pressed by her best friend (Aly Michalka) into lying about having a sexual encounter. It's overheard by the school's crusading Christian (Amanda Bynes), and before you know it it's all over the campus. A gay student (Dan Byrd) who learns the truth then takes the opportunity to ask Olive to pretend to sleep with him, so that he can avoid bullying; after this event, Olive decides to embrace the notoriety that comes with her newfound false reputation (to the point of sewing the letter "A" on her garments), and things spiral from there.

As the story progresses, its dedication to exploring the fallout from having a bad reputation feels more nominal -- as if it wasn't for Bynes's character drumming things up, most of the high schoolers really wouldn't care -- and the movie seems to be getting more of its kicks from its functional aspects, i.e. the charm of its lead, Stone, and its wisecracking mode of delivery. Easy A could be called a "post-Juno" movie, with dialogue (by screenwriter Bert V. Royal) being spoken by high school students sounding more mature and culturally colorful than what one might have expected (also, see Olive's hip and understanding parents, played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, as reflections of the same kind of understanding parental figures found in Juno). Royal and director Will Gluck also reveal a motive for emulating those beloved teen flicks of the '80's, as Stone wonders at one point why her romances couldn't be more like Say Anything or Can't Buy Me Love, which led me to wonder what current high school girl remembers those movies at all. Still, Easy A's delivery does prove to be fun, and if the movie misses an opportunity to really dig in to find the modern-day connection between a girl's promiscuity and societal branding (or, better yet, the double standard that calls such girls nasty names while dubbing a boy's similar exploits as "conquests"), it does get by on lively energy, a creativity in its writing, and a star turn by Stone. (added 3/21/2011)

Eat Pray Love

Starring Julia Roberts, James Franco, Richard Jenkins, Viola Davis, Billy Crudup, Javier Bardem.
Directed by Ryan Murphy.
Rating: 5/10

The biggest mistake Eat Pray Love makes is taking itself too seriously, even while it contains all the trappings of one of the most lighthearted movie genres, the "travel romance" or "travel therapy" movie. Perhaps this is because it's based off of a real life experience -- that of author Elizabeth Gilbert, who dealt with great personal dissatisfactions in her life by traveling to Italy, then India, then finally Bali. No doubt finding profundity in her experience, she wrote about it in the book upon which this movie is based; but, on the way to the big screen, these personal experiences get translated into a familiar, unchallenging language relying on beautiful scenery and a naive awe at foreign cultures. Also, in a book, I would assume there's much more room to flesh out one's experiences in terms of relatability, whereas even in an over-two-hour movie, director Ryan Murphy can only express Gilbert's plight as something too similar to those of heroines from similar films, which is usually a mid-life crisis where the woman realizes she has made a mistake in love and now faces discontent. And because Eat Pray Love visits three countries instead of just one -- all in the hopes of making the whole journey deeper when actually this only makes each section less substantive -- all this long movie ends up doing is overstaying its welcome. If it wasn't for Julia Roberts playing Gilbert in her usual accessibly charming way, it might've felt even longer. But even she can't make natural the film's trait of inflating its own narrow, localized perspective -- the adventures of one troubled (and, as others have stated, privileged) woman hoping to inspire, yet unable to prove to be anything more inspiring or entertaining, than, oh, Under the Tuscan Sun. (added 12/29/2010)

Enter the Void

Starring Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Cyril Roy, Emily Alyn Lind, Jesse Kuhn, Olly Alexander, Ed Spear, Masato Tanno.
Directed by Gaspar Noé.
Rating: 8/10

I'm not sure what to think about French filmmaker Gaspar Noé, but I have a lot of admiration for the dedication on display for his latest film, Enter the Void. The simplest explanation of its premise might sound like this: a man is killed, and then his spirit hovers around to observe the people he was closest to at the time of his death, before possibly choosing to reincarnate. This view of the afterlife is reportedly a loose interpretation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is directly referenced in the movie. In any case, Noé goes for the most extreme of cinematic experiences: he presents this story strictly from the point-of-view of his main character, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), which means that, yes, when he's dead, we still see what he sees as he floats along the sky, through walls, and in and out of people's heads. Noé additionally makes Oscar an American drug dealer who has a stripper sister (Paz de la Huerta), all living in neon-saturated Tokyo, which couldn't be more appropriate as a location for this film. The trippy experience of watching this is, in a word, unforgettable.

Oscar is introduced as someone we can't see because we're looking at everything through his eyes -- one of the few moments we see his face is when he looks in a mirror -- and Noé even goes so far as to make the camera black out for split-seconds to emulate blinking. We can hear him speak, of course, but we can also hear the thoughts in his head; we also join his experience in taking a hallucinatory drug. He is, of course, killed, after which point the camera's point-of-view is often overhead, sometimes but not often leveling off to a character's eye level. We no longer hear his voice -- no more thoughts after you die, right? But the first part of Oscar's spiritual journey involves reliving his past, and when we're viewing his memories, we can see his head and shoulders in silhouette. After the back story has been filled in, the spirit moves on with observing the events after his death -- now sans head and shoulders, the camera takes the viewer on a pure cinematic ride through dark rooms and neon lights, watching people doing everything they would do when they know no else is watching.

The story is mostly about what happens to Oscar's sister Linda, who is involved with the sleazy proprietor (Masato Tanno) of a Tokyo strip club, with the subplots having to do with the people Oscar knew through his drug dealings. The feeling here, as in Noé's previous Irreversible, is bleak throughout, but whereas Irreversible concentrates on nihilism and futility, Enter the Void communicates more intriguing ideas, that certain human emotions such as regret and concern for loved ones are beyond the simple experience and boundaries of being human; that these drives strongly exist in our universe and in direct contrast to the futility of life. This is suggested without exposition or narration, and simply by the fact that in death this spirit is supposedly bound by nothing, yet chooses only to be concerned with his sister and the world that was local to his life.

The abundance of drugs and graphic sex along with the implication that Oscar and Linda may have had incestuous feelings give the movie a tawdry feel that only detracts because it gives one the idea that Noé is trying to shock and get cheap attention (at one point, the camera even zooms in and through an aborted fetus) when his technique has already proven to be impressive and attention-getting enough on its own. The film's hyper opening credits alone suggest Noé screaming, "I'm unconventional!" at the top of his lungs; and although the creativity and need to break the mold are laudable, a little restraint here and there might prove beneficial and lessen the potential for thought distraction. Restraint was also not applied to the film's running length -- over two-and-a-half hours -- which takes its toll in the form of a kind of tedious repetitiveness late in the movie. But these are really minor quibbles; for me, the much stronger impression comes from the film never breaking form -- the discipline on display here, to stick with concept and to execute it with consistency, is intense and considerable. It speaks volumes, earning Noé the right to be labeled "visionary" without requiring the assistance of his more garish tendencies. (added 2/14/2011)

Everyone Else (2009; 2010, U.S. release)

Starring Birgit Minichmayr, Lars Eidinger, Hans-Jochen Wagner, Nicole Marischka.
Directed by Maren Ade.
Rating: 8/10

Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) and Chris (Lars Eidinger), a young couple in love in Everyone Else, are vacationing in Sardinia. We're dropped in to observe them, and a few things slowly become evident -- they are clearly attracted to each other and have been together just long enough to be in that "comfortably settled in" phase of a relationship. He's concerned about his career and is a bit humorless and self-absorbed; she's spontaneous, prone to fits of laughter, and has a needy side. Both have insecurities, though it may appear she's more into him than he is into her. They're ensconced in the dynamics of their relationship, though some shifting in perspective occurs when they acquaint themselves with another couple.

Although there's no shortage of relationship stories, Everyone Else is notable for its realism. It could almost be a documentary. There aren't any story contrivances or melodramatic turns; no one even gets overly emotional until close to the end, and even then it's relatively mild. What we watch is the fairly common scenario of two people having fallen in love who are otherwise incompatible, and they are living through a relationship driven by mutual attraction but challenged by unaligned concerns and priorities. The movie plays fair because anyone watching could easily pick sides and find fault with the other. And you may wonder, "why is this person bothering to stay with so-and-so?" -- and if you do you're merely asking the eternal question. The need to exist in a relationship with someone is a uniquely human experience, and the complications it creates can flummox even the most assured being. Everyone Else is a humble display of all this, striking in its simple relatability regarding one example of an essential universal situation. (added 2/14/2011; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Directed by Banksy.
Rating: 8/10

Exit Through the Gift Shop hurts -- in a good way -- because it illustrates how our insistence and abilities in judging and evaluating art are often arbitrary, contradictory, and idiotic. This is a documentary by Banksy, notorious British street artist (highly skilled and creative graffiti vandal, really), which begins as a curious character study of one Thierry Guetta, a French-American living in Los Angeles, and ends up being a thorough deconstruction of the art realm within which Banksy operates. I'll try not to spoil the story here, which needs to be seen in order to appreciate the delirious and often hilarious absurdity, but I will say that Guetta starts out as a compulsive filmer who becomes obsessed with street artists as a subject, and then later has learned enough about the activity to co-opt it. A scholar might see the events here as examples of the differences between true artistic inspiration and mere copycat fakers, but the perspective could be expanded to show that the whole environment is a sham -- that the art world is every bit as fad-driven as mainstream commercialism, and while satiating that drive it doesn't really have the ability to distinguish what's truly inspired and what's not. In that sense, even the works of someone legitimately expressing oneself, as Banksy does, is devalued through the very existence of generalized art evaluation. At the very least, the film shows how fragile the standards are for any art, and perhaps that is its greatest bit of wisdom. I think Banksy was very brave in making this movie because in a way it deflates his own works and the effort he puts into them; but I also think the film reveals his understanding of the dynamics of the media he chooses to work in, and that, in order to continue on his own path of self-expression, he must constantly adapt. And, by making the insightful Exit Through the Gift Shop, he has already made a new move. (added 12/29/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Expendables

Starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, David Zayas, Giselle Itié, Charisma Carpenter, Gary Daniels, Terry Crews, Mickey Rourke.
Directed by Sylvester Stallone.
Rating: 6/10

That The Expendables is quite calculated seems already apparent -- the movie presents a gathering of action heroes from the past three decades all put together in one manly action-packed movie -- but it might take a longer look to appreciate just how calculated it is. Director and star Sylvester Stallone must have wanted the film to be a celebration and representation of the old, popular action films that gave him and his fellow stars their fortunes, and so his movie features an interchangeable plot with much of the stuff that came from the '80s, while ramping up on sleazy bad guys, hot chicks, foreign dictators, hand-to-hand combat, gunfights, car chases, lots and lots of explosions, and, most importantly, tough guy attitude.

It could have been great, too -- a knowing nod to the catharsis of might-makes-right excess -- but elements of letdown poke the movie throughout. Most of them are factors Stallone most likely could not have helped; for instance, the movie would have been so much better if Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson signed on, and if Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't limit themselves to cameos. Meanwhile, the presence of Steve Austin, Terry Crews, and Randy Couture doesn't really make up for what could have been.

Jet Li is on board, as is Dolph Lundgren, but they don't get that much screen time, so Stallone and Jason Statham carry the bulk of the weight. Stallone, though, must be fully blamed for adopting the counterintuitive strategy of shooting the action (especially that of the climax) in dark, frenzied, quick-edited shots of unintelligible mayhem. In a movie that's supposed to showcase a gathering of distinct men of action, it's a sin that it takes a lot of work for viewers to tell who's doing what during the big finale.

If The Expendables proves anything, it's that today's films lack the kind of action star/persona (the only exception possibly being Statham) that once felt like a regular part of moviegoing life before -- it's a sign of the times, but I think Stallone also wants us to believe we miss it. And he's not totally wrong; as such, his movie provides a decent, if not totally fulfilling, fix of that something we miss. (added 12/7/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Extraordinary Measures

Starring Brendan Fraser, Harrison Ford, Keri Russell.
Directed by Tom Vaughan.
Rating: 5/10

I originally did not plan to see Extraordinary Measures. Ads for the film made it look like a run-of-the-mill "disease-of-the-week" TV movie, and I didn't give it much thought. But after its theatrical release, I found out it concerned a father and businessman, John Crowley (played by Brendan Fraser), teaming up with a scientist, Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford), to speed the development of a cure for Pompe disease, an enzyme deficiency condition that kills infants. I suddenly had a personal interest in what the movie was about because, as it happens, my uncle, Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen, was a leading researcher for treatment of Pompe Disease during his time at Duke University.

This very fact about my uncle's involvement actually made minor waves on the internet about the "Hollywoodizing" of true stories. The "Dr. Stonehill" of the movie is a fictional character -- a composite of various scientists and researchers that the real John Crowley worked with. Somehow, the word had gotten out that the real scientist who should have gotten credit was Dr. Chen, and, to make things worse, a Chinese man of importance had been changed to Dr. Stonehill, a generically gruff white scientist played by Ford. The man who originally brought this information to attention was Roger Ebert, who in his review of the movie gives credit to my uncle for the development of the Pompe cure (Ebert, bless his heart, even included a nice photo of him). A few other sites, particularly ones about the representation of Asians in the media, picked up on this tidbit to express outrage.

By doing some further digging, I came upon an article I assume was one of Ebert's sources of information concerning the story of the Pompe cure. It's an informative piece spotlighting the work of Dr. Chen and his associates at Duke, and I recommend giving it a look. Digging even further, I discovered that the story of the search for the cure for Pompe disease is a sprawling epic, and to give my uncle main credit would be misleading -- the research was begun in the 1990s by Dutch scientists, Arnold Reuser and Ans van der Ploeg at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Dr. Chen's work at Duke ran concurrent to their ongoing work, so effectively there were two fronts fighting against this disease. A biotech company called Genzyme eventually got involved and helped fund the clinical trials in both fronts of the study; using all the information gathered, they engineered a medicine called Myozyme that successfully counteracts the effects of Pompe disease.

Based on Geeta Anand's The Cure, Extraordinary Measures doesn't really care about any of this. It would rather have you believe the research for the treatment of Pompe disease was going nowhere fast until Crowley got desperately involved. Crowley has two children diagnosed with the disease. In the movie, the elder one, Megan (Meredith Droeger), has reached the age of 9 but her condition won't give her more than a year to live. Crowley then seeks out Dr. Stonehill of the University of Nebraska, who has a radical approach to the solution but can't get anywhere because of lousy funding. They team up to start a biotech company dedicated to working off of Stonehill's research; eventually, their work is worthy enough to gain the attention of Zymagen, a large biotech corporation, who buys them out and places Crowley in charge of their Pompe division.

That last part is mostly true, except that Zymagen was really Genzyme. Buying Crowley's company, Novazyme, in order to incorporate their third-party research, they did place Crowley in charge of their Pompe efforts for about a year. Dr. Stonehill's primary analogue would not be Dr. Chen but more likely Dr. William Canfield of the University of Oklahoma, who founded Novazyme and partnered with Crowley.

In any case, the movie's main concern is to show that Pompe research and its path to clinical trials faced speedbump after speedbump, and that Crowley was the driver determined to push through all of them. He nabbed the ignored genius researcher, he brought his work to a giant biotech firm, he made the executives there more patient-aware, and he continually questioned a corporate system that, due to its commercial nature, put on an objective, cold face on the research it did to help real living, sick people. Admittedly, it's easy to root for a loving father fighting through the system, but Extraordinary Measures shamelessly piles on the sentimentality and disregards the real work of the many scientists dedicated to fighting this disease for years.

The movie plays up most of the regular clichés in the screenwriting playbook, starting with the loving, sad, and determined Crowley and his adorable family. His quest is sincere in the face of all obstacles thrown at him, and there are a lot of them, all designed to make his determination look better in the process, of course. But the most ridiculous cliché involves the character of Dr. Stonehill, who's one of those old guys so beaten by the futility of working at a university that he's become an irascible old crank. What a maverick -- he works with loud rock 'n roll music blaring, and if that annoys the youngsters, that's even better. He righteously takes every setback and criticism personally, and spends half his time yelling. At one point, he shouts, "Get out of my lab!" I'd like to see the standoff that would occur if he stepped on Clint Eastwood's lawn while Eastwood stepped in Ford's lab.

Although Extraordinary Measures milks all the drama it can, I wouldn't call it wholly unsuccessful. It does give attention to a lesser-known deadly disease. And any parent has that spot which gets hit when he or she sees a sick child whose father and mother are willing to do anything in the universe for (really, though, it's not that hard to draw up such a scenario and get instant tearjerking). The movie perhaps provides some insight into how public health research must accomodate a marriage to the corporate biotech world in order to make any kind of progress, but while doing so it glosses over the very real efforts of academics who are doing their best to work within this existing system and succeeding.

The film's major crimes, though, are that it's just corny and mawkish. To play up the efforts of one man (to whom I would wish the best in real life) and his off-the-cuff pluck, the barriers placed in his path are the stuff of screenwriting contrivance and cartoonish coldhearted villainy from skeptical venture capitalists and protocol-pushing execs. There are many people who worked together on the real fight, including Mr. Crowley, including Dr. Chen, including the people at Genzyme and the folks "Dr. Stonehill" is supposed to represent -- so the only real villain needs to be the disease. (added 5/22/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

(For further interest, here's a FAQ from Genzyme about the accuracy of the movie and Myozyme.)

Fair Game

Starring Naomi Watts, Sean Penn.
Directed by Doug Liman.
Rating: 7/10

A descendant in spirit to The Contender, Fair Game chronicles the events surrounding the Plame affair in 2003, when the name of a covert CIA agent, Valerie Plame Wilson, was leaked, presumably by members of the Bush administration as a way to punish and discredit Plame Wilson's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, for having criticized the government for starting a war with Iraq on dubious pretenses. Naomi Watts stars as Plame Wilson, with Sean Penn playing her husband, in what turns out to be a drama about the cost of idealism and sticking to your guns in order to bring truth to the light. Presented by director Doug Liman in the style of a political thriller, the movie takes its time establishing the routine of the couple's personal and professional lives before getting to the leak about half way through the movie, when it suddenly gains a shot of urgency.

The major conflict of what Plame Wilson's best course of action should be is fascinating to me, and truthfully there was a part of me that was hoping it wouldn't be cleanly resolved. After the leak occurs, Mr. Wilson goes on the T.V. news warpath, speaking out to anyone who would listen about his wife's years of faithful service and the current administrations duplicities. But the harder he tries to get the word out, the harder the government tries to fight back, and the damage falls on Plame Wilson, whose career is over and whose reputation is getting dragged through the mud. She is encouraged to go the route of laying low, of asking her husband to acquiesce, especially because his opponent is none other than the White House, a foe logically suggested as being too formidable for any one individual to challenge.

The dilemma of how to respond strikes a nerve, because I understand how easy it is to come up against this kind of situation -- to have the justification to challenge a wrongful authority on a personal level, though it might be wiser and better for one's livelihood to find some way around it and move on. It is effectively the direct battle between the realist and the idealist. I don't consider it a spoiler to say that Fair Game falls on the side of the idealist -- it's not hard to perceive, for instance, that the politically outspoken Penn is not so much playing Wilson as he is playing himself whenever he makes the case for standing up for the truth -- and it's something I say with a sort of nodding resignation since, after all, this is a historical story and for the most part the events did play out the way they did. I just find the conflict much more interesting than the resolution, so I'm glad at least Fair Game does much more than a fair job in presenting the pressure of that conflict. (added 4/1/2011)

The Fighter

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo.
Directed by David O. Russell.
Rating: 7/10

I'll just be straight here: I found The Fighter to be a fairly standard boxing drama, which in itself is not necessarily a denigrating statement. This subgenre of movies (which really should include all underdog sports dramas) is one of the most sturdy and, when done right, is almost always involving, inevitably building up to a cheering finish. By most measures, The Fighter is done right -- this is the story of real-life boxer Micky Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg), whose career was restarted in the late '90's. The movie covers the time before that resurgence, as he struggles to decide whether or not to keep his family -- particularly his manager mother Alice (Melissa Leo) and his fellow boxer and trainer half-brother Dicky (Christian Bale) -- involved in his career. He is persuaded to drop their influences, as they do not seem to have his best interests at heart, by his new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams). As with many of these movies, the story is not about the sport itself, but rather about the personal trials of the athlete -- here it reveals a portrait of the difficulties and pitfalls in mixing family with business, i.e. the ties that bind can also strangle. All the actors involved do well, and director David O. Russell, who usually makes satires, doesn't create waves in telling a straight story here. And even though I don't have any major complaints about The Fighter -- even the strange incongruence of Wahlberg and Bale's differing acting styles struck me as a funny observation more than a gripe -- I didn't find myself truly caught up in it. Nor did I dwell on it much afterwards. I'm willing to call it a well-made movie, one I enjoyed overall, but it may be unfortunate that, while I watched this movie, I happened to find myself particularly vulnerable to formula fatigue. (added 12/22/2010)

Fish Tank (2009; 2010, U.S. release)

Starring Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Rebecca Griffiths, Harry Treadaway, Sydney Mary Nash.
Directed by Andrea Arnold.
Rating: 8/10

Reasonably, Fish Tank has received comparisons to 2009's An Education -- the similarities they share include a focus on a British teenage girl feeling trapped by her environment and falling in love with an older man. But while the period and formal An Education does much to present its heroine as likable, smart, cultured, and consciously endeavoring to be looked upon as mature, the current and gritty Fish Tank offers up its protagonist as she is. Indeed, at first, it's hard to find anything admirable about Mia (Katie Jarvis), who's wayward, foul-mouthed, angry, and prone to bad behavior. But it doesn't take long to see how this teenager was shaped by her environment's socio-economic conditions, living in a public housing flat with her way-too-young hard-drinking mother (Kierston Wareing), who communicates with her daughter only through yelling and belittling. Mia copes by going to abandoned apartments to practice hip-hop dancing, but otherwise seems to find trouble. Throughout the movie she does stupid things, but, given her situation, none of it seems particularly implausible.

This eventually shapes into a story about growing up just enough to reach the first steps of adulthood by going through some painful/embarrassing experiences. Much of this is triggered by Mom's new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), ridiculously attractive to Mia and by all appearances quite a cool fellow. Fish Tank's story then follows a path, yes, similar to An Education, but instead of having the goal of slaying naiveté, it reveals the incidental arrival of the first trickles of emerging maturity -- learning that actions have consequences, that being controlled by emotions isn't exactly smart, that the world doesn't necessarily conform to your hopes and views, that there can be others with whom to form real connections. The movie strongly benefits from two stellar lead performances by Jarvis (a newcomer!) and Fassbender, who is fast becoming an actor whose work is worth seeking out wherever it may be; as well as from a harrowing third act that's uncomfortable but then snaps everything into focus with a chain of perfectly fitting events. Director Andrea Arnold's dresses down her story so that its power bubbles internally and feels genuine upon finish. Fish Tank thus comes together to deliver a warts-and-all human experience that transcends its familiar basic premise. (added 2/28/2011)

Flipped

Starring Madeline Carroll, Callan McAuliffe, Rebecca De Mornay, Anthony Edwards, John Mahoney, Penelope Ann Miller, Aidan Quinn, Kevin Weisman.
Directed by Rob Reiner.
Rating: 6/10

Director Rob Reiner retreats to a safe zone with Flipped, a movie about a relationship between a junior high boy and girl during the early '60s, one that might be described as the complete opposite of daring. This would probably not be worth noting if the film were less aggressive in its use of comfortable, pandering devices such as being set in an ideal version of the past, adding a soundtrack which is a neverending parade of old hits of the time, and utilizing voiceover narration from beginning to end. The movie is based on a book by Wendelin Van Draanen that's actually set in relatively current times, but obviously moving it back a few decades allows it to cater more strongly to folks longing for a large dose of nostalgia. In this way it's virtually guaranteed to find an audience receptive to good old warm and fuzzy feelings.

Although finding myself fairly annoyed by the obviousness of the methods used here, both in execution and goal, I thought the story was not without merits. It ping pongs back and forth between episodes experienced by the boy, Bryce (Callan McAuliffe), and those same episodes as experienced by the girl, Juli (Madeline Carroll). It starts with Juli having a big crush on Bryce, but as events transpire, her concerns become wider as Bryce, initially annoyed at Juli, begins to see her in a different light. The differences in their views and what they learn are so large it becomes comical, as we see Juli steadily building adult perspectives in various areas such as art and family, while Bryce's own view remains consistently narrow and nearsighted, as if frightened to acquire new truths. This is possibly an illustration of girls maturing faster than boys, but I also see it as a good lesson in how two people can have such an enormous gap between how they view things, even as they live in the same surrounding environments. The two characters have inherent differences -- not only in their genders but also their social classes -- that contribute to their situation, but otherwise Flipped makes a point of being able to appreciate how they live in entirely different worlds despite being neighbors. The importance of understanding varying perspectives is always worth communicating, and Flipped, despite its cloying approach, manages to deliver this idea with a decent amount of sincerity intact. (added 1/11/2011; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Formosa Betrayed

Starring James Van Der Beek, Wendy Crewson, John Heard, Will Tiao, Tzi Ma, Leslie Hope, Kenneth Tsang.
Directed by Adam Kane.
Rating: 6/10

Let's cut straight to the point: Formosa Betrayed is one of those public conscience movies about an international injustice disguised as a crime thriller. It's almost shameless in the way it presents itself -- there's a murder, yes, on U.S. soil, which leads FBI Agent Jake Kelly (James Van Der Beek) to Taiwan, and once he's more or less settled in, out come the dissidents from the woodwork to educate him about the atrocities committed by the ruling government against the original native citizens of the country. The main person of sympathy who helps Agent Kelly is a man named Ming, played by Will Tiao, who also shares story credit and producer credit for the film. There's no question about the political motivations of this production, which seeks to bring awareness to Westerners about the internal turmoil of Taiwan that has lasted for decades. The murder mystery plot is purely perfunctory, though functional -- it's effective enough, but the story's weakness comes from its transparency. Obviously, the film wants to outrage you for political sympathy.

Once I figured this out, though, I honestly didn't mind so much, and since I already have some background in this subject, it held my attention. I found it fascinating that anyone bothered to produce this film -- its subject isn't as urgent as, say, Darfur or Tibet, and frankly after viewing Formosa Betrayed most Westerners will probably only hold the information within the margins of their memory. Still, it's interesting to me that the filmmakers gave it this honest shot. Most Westerners probably aren't even aware of Taiwan's history being full of strife, which boils down to the native Taiwanese population's fight for independence from rule by either the Kuomintang party (aka the KMT) or the Communists on the mainland. Long story short -- during World War II, the Communists won China, and the losing side, the KMT, fled to Taiwan and took it over (from Japanese occupation, as it happens). The KMT, led by Chiang Kai-shek, ran the island under martial law, which is where this story, set in the '80s, steps in, showing us crackdowns on demonstrations and the outright torture and murder of any suspected dissenting citizens. Because my lineage has direct ties to this history, I'd say Formosa Betrayed is worth a look for the history lesson. Just remember it is a history lesson, one naturally colored with a strong Taiwanese perspective (it would have no place, for example, for the innocent KMT-affiliated families who had to flee the mainland in order to escape Communism and just stay alive) -- but if its ultimate goal at heart is awareness, it's a goal I would advocate. (added 7/18/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Four Lions

Starring Riz Ahmed, Arsher Ali, Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak, Adeel Akhtar, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julia Davis, Craig Parkinson, Preeya Kalidas, Wasim Zakir.
Directed by Chris Morris.
Rating: 6/10

The idea was out there, and somebody had to take it. Director Chris Morris's Four Lions is a comedy about a small band of would-be jihadists in London. They want very much to blow themselves up to make an idealogical statement, but they are hopelessly bumbling. Everything about the way they operate is the opposite of professional -- they squabble, can barely agree on a plan, are careless, and, frankly, just aren't very smart. To put it more directly, they're very human; the leader of the gang, Omar (Riz Ahmed), actually comes off as rather likable, with his wife and young son who actually support his plans of martyrdom. Yet the audience's realization occurs -- these buffoons, no matter how dopey, are still capable of causing great damage if they initiate even a portion of their plan.

A satire about suicide bombers? It's a daring concept, and Morris pulls it off with that distinctly British form of relentless, angry insult comedy. And though it's often quite funny to watch one guy berate another for incompetence, it's not certain what this satire really says in the end. That the wannabe bombers are as human as anyone else? That their ideology is warped and misguided, not only because they don't truly understand what it is they're making a statement for, but also because they seem to embrace the culture they're supposedly making a stand against? All this may be true, and perhaps it gives us a more insightful view of these deluded people, but it won't dim the pain that these tragedies regularly create in our world today. Four Lions seems to operating simply on the bluntness of this observance, thriving on the juxtaposition of the proposed comedy and the real-life terror -- to create an impact for the sake of creating an impact. However, it feels like an idea without a head.

Divorced from politics, the movie works simply as a lively farce. Four Lions functions as a sort of temporary catharsis, a fantasy where we're invited to laugh at these terrorists and their ineptitude. The comedy is as black as can be, both silly and sharp -- it reminded me quite a bit of In the Loop. It just doesn't quite succeed in its Dr. Strangelove-inspired goal of staring terror straight in the face and laughing about it. The more effective satires tackle subjects that can be taken down a few notches -- government authorities, warring nations, the people supposedly in charge of our lives. They have pompousness, arrogance, and pride that can be deflated; and laughter directed toward them is a weapon of criticism. By contrast, a suicide bomber is a brainwashed soldier, a pitiable, scary being with one inevitable path. To deal with their reality requires some kind of intervention of humanity, while laughing at them may only serve as short-lived solace for us. (added 3/8/2011)

Freakonomics

Directed by Seth Gordon, Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki, Heidi Ewing, and Rachel Grady.
Rating: 7/10

Freakonomics is an anthology of shorts -- mini-documentaries, to be exact, each directed by a different filmmaker -- and, as such, is susceptible to the hit-and-miss syndrome of such endeavors. Taken as a whole, though, it's quite entertaining -- a lighthearted plea to the audience to try to think outside the box when it comes to matters of causality. In other words, don't look for the usual suspects when trying to figure out why a certain trend is behaving the way it does. For instance, to kick things off, Morgan Spurlock humorously investigates the possibility that a person's name could be a key factor in whether or not that person grows up to become successful in life. As stated, certain segments work better than others -- the most fascinating might be Eugene Jarecki's piece about a possible and controversial factor responsible for the rise and fall of crime; while, surprisingly, Alex Gibney's section about detecting trends of corruption in something as plain-faced as sumo wrestling feels the most dry. The last segment, by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, takes a little too long to reach a predictable conclusion in their experiment involving bribing ninth graders to do better in their classes. It does, however, make you think about what are really the sources of motivation for young people. Similarly, the rest of the doc (with intro and transitional bits directed by Seth Gordon and featuring Freakonomics source book authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner) encourages the viewer to look beyond easy reasons whenever one might ponder, "I wonder why..." In a world bound by the tyranny of local, tradition-bound perspectives, this is not a bad thing. (added 1/7/2011; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

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