10/28/09

This Is It

Okay, I have to start by admitting this is the first time I've ever seen Michael Jackson perform. Because I read so much, I was always aware of the Jackson family dynamics, so from the time he made his debut as a small child, I avoided watching him for the same reason I avoid zoos: I recoil from seeing helpless creatures exploited.

This was to have been a comeback tour, starting in London (50 shows, all sold out) and, if everything went as they hoped, the beginning of a world tour. Jackson had spent over a decade focusing on his children and he wanted to get back in the game.

Director Kenny Ortega has done an amazing job of editing down 120 hours of rehearsal footage to give M.J. fans a candid behind-the-scenes look at the blood, sweat and tears that went into the preparation for a show that never happened. The caliber of artists involved only serves to highlight the sort of person Jackson was: he was a terrific musician with an uncanny ear. The dancers were from all over the world; they grew up watching his music videos, consequently they are a perfect out-picturing of their idol in his youth, complete with iconic moves: moonwalks, shoulder pops and crotch grabs.

Jackson wanted every selection to be a blockbuster and no one could refuse him. Consequently we saw spectacular after spectacular, each one an over-the-top production number. How a man his age could have sustained his voice and his health during that lengthy run in London was more than I could imagine.

I was impressed by how consistent each selection was: the tempo, the music, the choreography. They could switch from an early rehearsal to a much later one and the only discernible difference was in the polish. I was also impressed by the respect and affection shown M.J. by everyone from props and costumes to the dancers themselves. When there was a slight error, Jackson would say, "Don't worry about it, that's why we rehearse."

The audience responded to familiar selections: Billie Jean, Thriller and Beat It, as all three were world-wide best-selling videos, but they are only a sample from the multitude of blockbusters on the program.

All in all, this will be a one-of-a-kind experience and will no doubt top all the charts, from movie ticket sales to the inevitable CDs and DVDs. This troubled but talented man was beloved throughout the world.

10/23/09

Everlasting Moments

Where, oh where, is a good clich├ęd plot twist when you need one?

Actually, that lack creates the power behind this sincerely felt domestic drama that looks at a Swedish family in the early 1900s. In "Maria Larssons eviga ogonblick" there are no easy outs, no magic solutions, no happily ever afters. Instead we become deeply invested in the life and times of these folks, particularly the wife and mother, subtly played by Maria Heiskanen. According to a voiceover, her character had won a camera at a fair and her date said it belonged to him because he bought the ticket. She told him the only way he can have the camera is to marry her. So he did.

Seven children later, he still has her (and the camera) but the effect the camera has had on her and her own sense of identity is profound.

This camera motif seems to pervade the award-winning cinematography for the entire film. Each scene is beautifully framed and is lovingly lit with an authentic, sepia-toned quality. The sense of real life for this struggling couple and their ever-growing family is fascinating: the rooms in their home are realistically small, their clothes are NOT glamorous, our hard- working heroine has a care-worn look with its own natural beauty.

Theirs is NOT a Disney family: The children get into mischief and fall ill; the hard-working father drinks and philanders; from our contemporary point of view, the mother takes too much abuse, although her maltreat- ment wasn't out of the ordinary for those days. In my opinion, director Jan Troell has flawlessly captured the quality of life in those times.

Even though the film is officially open in the US, it isn't exactly a block- buster, so it may be hard to find until the DVD comes out. The showing I attended was sponsored by the Nordic Heritage Museum and screened at Seattle Center.

This Swedish/Danish (with English captions) movie was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. The cast, film and cinematography won numerous prizes in European film festivals...and deservedly so!

10/22/09

Amelia

So what was it that left me dissatisfied? As a rule, I like Mira Nair's directing ("Vanity Fair" and "The Namesake"), but this time she didn't touch me. As a former private pilot, I usually like aviation movies, but this time I was frustrated by the artistic license they took. I know, I know, artists want a beautiful scene, but if Amelia Earhart was half the pilot the media made her out to be, she would have blushed!

Of course the great unsolved mystery is: What really happened to Amelia Earhart on that penultimate leg of her attempt to circumnavigate the globe? Hilary Swank ("Freedom Writers" and "Million Dollar Baby") stars as Amelia; she has the right look and pulls it off nicely. In fact, they use some real news clippings and it's impressive when you compare the two.

The film explores her off-and-on relationship with George Putnam, the man she eventually married, played by Richard Gere ("Hachiko" and "Chicago"). Lest we forget that she was a liberated female long before there was such a term, we also are treated to a peek at her long-term affair with Gene Vidal (father of Gore), played by Ewen McGregor ("Angels & Demons" and "Star Wars") while still married to Putnam.

After her first trans-oceanic solo (the first after Lindberg's historic flight), Amelia became the Paris Hilton of her day: Putnam crassly exploited her achievements, her face, and her fame, as he made hers a household name and helped raise money to support her flying habit.

This movie is capably done, I just hope your theater has better sound. Our screening was in the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field, and we suspect the venue might have been at fault.

Ong Bak 2

I missed the first "Ong Bak" but it was evidently successful enough to warrant a sequel and I certainly heard a number of audience members reminiscing about the noteworthy martial arts in that one. Other than the title, this latest one has nothing in it that implies an earlier film, although this ending absolutely indicates that there WILL be an "Ong Bak 3"! This movie from Thailand boasts an appealing lead actor/director Tony Jaa along with some truly despicable villains.

The training sessions with the bandit chief made me think of a Marine Corps Boot Camp. They master spears, swords, sabers, knives, nin- chucks (or numchucks), fists and fingers. They are killing machines!

Because I have never been a fan of the Chop Socky genre (although I get a kick out of Jackie Chan), I see very few of them. That means the spec- tacular moves the fighters make are not only impressive, they are brand new to me, so I gasp along with the rest of the audience. And Jaa doesn't over-do the slow-motion scenes.

There is very little story to recommend this actioner, so if you like non- stop martial arts that feature a lone hero confronted by insurmountable odds (in the rain!), this is just the ticket.

10/14/09

New York, I Love You

Similar to the 2006 film "Paris, je t'aime" this delightful film is a col- lection of vignettes, some witty, some poignant, but all memorable, and all featuring well-known faces and personalities, each vignette directed by an established professional. It was so much fun to recognize and identify name after name, face after face.

Just off the top of my head, I recall:

  • Hayden Christensen ("Shattered Glass") as a slick pickpocket
  • Andy Garcia ("Ocean's" franchise) as an even slicker pickpocket
  • Bradley Cooper ("The Hangover") as a frequent taxi fare
  • Natalie Portman ("The Other Boleyn Girl") as a Jewish bride
  • Ethan Hawke ("Before Sunset") is almost pornographic as a would-be seducer
  • Robin Wright Penn ("What Just Happened?") shines as a side- walk smoker
  • Shia LaBeouf ("Eagle Eye") is startlingly good as a crippled bellhop
  • Julie Christie ("Away From Her") plays a retired (and pensive) opera singer
  • James Caan ("Las Vegas") is a nosy pharmacist with a teenage daughter
  • Olivia Thirlby ("The Answer Man") is Caan's daugher: a method actor
  • Anton Yelchin ("Star Trek") plays a high-school senior whose dreams come true
  • Chris Cooper ("Breach") surprises us a couple of times... pleasantly!

Believe me, this is only a fraction of the stars you will smile about, laugh at and grieve for (but mostly laugh!). I would be remiss if I didn't pay a special tribute to Cloris Leachman and Eli Wallach as the 63-years-married couple trudging to Coney Island, kvetching all the way. In addition, Carlos Acosta stunned us with a one-minute dance solo that took my breath away. That segment, directed by Natalie Portman, is NOT to be missed!

This is a MUST-SEE movie for movie lovers.

More Than a Game

This inspiring documentary, gleaned from family videos, school photos, sports clippings, interviews and various other sources, shows us the development of a close-knit group of chums in Akron, Ohio, who started shooting hoops at their local Salvation Army gym when they were in elementary school. Their coach was one boy's father who had been a football player in school. He had to learn about basketball because that was his son's sport of choice.

Even before they entered high school, these boys showed unity and determination, they switched to a different school because the first basketball coach wouldn't accept one of them (he was too short). This little 4'11" whiz proved to be a remarkable scorer and was a major contributor to their overall success. This loyal gang of freshmen became a well-oiled machine that stood high-school basketball on its ear in the United States.

During their final year, the Akron Fab Five won the National High School Basketball Championship despite the suspension of key player LeBron James during a preliminary game because he had been given two t-shirts by a local sporting goods store (you'll love this game!). He appealed, and his suspension was revoked, so he was able to play out his senior year. Currently an NBA superstar, James is executive producer of this film. He insisted that ALL of his friends be featured, that it not be just a puff piece about him.

We see interviews with each member of the Fab Five and his family, any one of which would be a captivating story. Tales of family pride, family sacrifice and family struggles are the stuff of legend. Judicious editing unfolds each story in its own time, highlighting each player in turn, showing his prowess on the court as well as his family dynamics and his relationship with his four other friends; we see they are decent hard- working folks, one and all.

The little guy's father was shanghaied into the head coaching job when their first high school coach was recruited by a college, so this poor fellow had his own struggle, which is quite a story by itself. He came to realize that his job was not only to coach winning basketball, but to teach his boys how to be men.

Where the Wild Things Are

Maurice Sendak's wildly popular children's classic came out too late to be read by my sons or me. I read it for the first time to a four-year-old girl about two months ago (it only contains twelve lines) and I was dismayed by how dark it was. She seemed to like it fine, so I suspected I was out of step with contemporary tastes.

Now that Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich") has adapted the book into what will no doubt be a top-earning movie, I am POSITIVE I am out of step with contemporary tastes!

Judging by the ill-advised parents who had to take their bored toddlers out of the theater, please be advised that this is NOT your standard children's fare: it is dark, scary, slow, and fairly complicated.

The movie has stunning production values, terrific animatronics and a dauntingly realistic episode in a little boat. The book doesn't include other people, but in the movie we are thrown into a conflicted family scene with Max Records ("The Brothers Bloom") as our "hero" Max, com- pletely out of control: running wild, breaking his sister's things and even biting his mother, played by Catherine Keener ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin"). Consequently, I found it very difficult to be on his side as the story progressed.

The voice artists are terrific, They include James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry, Jr., and Chris Cooper.

If you've read the book, you already know how it ends, so I won't go there...after all, isn't that where the wild things are?

Law Abiding Citizen

This one is a dandy! Great plot, wonderful actors, lots of blowie uppie stuff, plenty of gruesome scenes (but you know when to hide your eyes) and it speaks to the frustration many of us feel when we watch loath- some criminals released back into society on some "technicality." In addition, this movie contains one of my favorite plot devices: two extremely smart people going head to head!

Gerard Butler ("The Ugly Truth") is a happily married, highly successful family man whose home is invaded one evening; not only is he brutally beaten and left for dead, his wife and daughter are also bludgeoned and slaughtered. When arrested, the more vicious of the two thugs quickly turns state's evidence and plea bargains an insultingly short prison term in exchange for his testimony which guarantees a death sentence for his accomplice. Jamie Foxx ("Ray") is the prosecuting attorney who cuts the deal, to which our widower is strongly opposed. He wants justice.

In this highly unpredictable movie, our hero does things we can only fantasize about: He takes on arrogant judges who throw their weight around, attorneys who play it safe, and career criminals who have nothing but contempt for their victims.

Some profanity, lots of violence, a bit of suspense and a number of people to care about. In other words, good old-fashioned movie making.

Let's hear it for director F. Gary Gray ("The Italian Job" 2003), script writer Kurt Wimmer ("The Recruit") and at least one executive producer, Gerard Butler! Smart man.

10/8/09

Couples Retreat

When Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) and Vince Vaughn (“The Break-Up”) started to write their new movie, they asked themselves, “Where would we like to spend a few months?” Of course the answer was Bora Bora, so they wrote a movie that would take place there. Clever devils, huh?

They wisely opted to have their movie directed by Peter Billingsley who we all remember from his classic “A Christmas Story” days as Ralphie, the little guy who wanted a Red Ryder BB gun, but he’s all grown up now and does a fine job.

Favreau and Vaughn have cast themselves as two of the four guys who bring their wives and/or girlfriends to a posh couples’ retreat in Bora Bora, along with Jason Bateman (“Extract”) and Faizon Love (“The Perfect Holiday”). This luxurious resort is run by Marcel, “The Couples Whisperer,” played to woo-woo perfection by Jean Reno (“The Pink Panther”). Marcel employs touchy-feely stuff that makes everyone uncomfortable except for control freak Bateman and his wife Kristen Bell (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), who used a Power Point presentation to entice the others.

To everyone’s dismay, that irresistible group rate turns out to be a classic bait and switch, as the snorkeling, jet skiing, and other resort activities come AFTER mandatory marriage counseling, and the only spouses who will admit to having problems are the aforementioned Bateman/Bell.

This predictable R-rated film has its share of adult humor (including a digital fig leaf), but I liked it when Vaughn called the long-haired yoga instructor “Fabio,” and I also agreed that no one would want to go to Applebee’s alone…smile…

Vaughn always casts his father in his movies. This time, Papa Vaughn plays Vince’s father. How’s that for typecasting?

The above Jon Favreau is not to be confused with President Obama’s primary speech writer, Jon Favreau. They are two separate but equally talented writers.

Funny dialog, beautiful setting, attractive stars, silly plot. We had lots of fun….

10/7/09

Zombieland

The thing that hooked me was a tantalizing remark by a reviewer: If you liked "Shaun of the Dead," you'll like "Zombieland!" And it's true! This had just enough gory stuff to sell tickets to the fanboys, with just enough potential romance for their dates and a nice road picture for the rest of us.

There were surprisingly long, peaceful intervals with great dialogue, there were lots of amazingly wrought CGI scenes of wanton destruction, there was a potentially sweet romance, and then of course, there was the great cameo by the big B.M! (My lips are sealed...smile...)

Of course our "Don't go in the basement!" moment was actually in an amusement park, but they covered it nicely; and our hero, Jesse Eisen- berg ("Adventureland"), has that sweet, decent, sorta virginal look that I thought Michael Cera had patented! I really appreciated his rules for survival in this post-apocalyptic world filled with flesh-eating zombies.

Each of the main characters is called by his/her city of choice:
  • Jesse Eisenberg ("The Squid and the Whale") is Columbus, who wants to find his parents.
  • Woody Harrelson ("No Country for Old Men") is Tallahassee, who just wants a Twinkie.
  • Emma Stone ("The House Bunny") is Wichita, who is trying to protect her baby sister.
  • Abigail Breslin ("My Sister's Keeper") is Little Rock, who wants to visit a theme park where she has happy memories.

Each of these characters is dealing with a very real loss of one sort or another, but this gore fest was LOTS of fun, just the same!

10/3/09

Whip It

For such a young woman, Drew Barrymore has led a full, rich life and has had an interesting career. In 1982 at age seven, she was in a blockbuster movie ("E.T."). She continued to work as an actress despite her stint in drug rehab when scarcely a teenager; she wrote a book about it but continued to work. In 1999 she ventured into producing movies, some in which she appeared ("Never Been Kissed") and in others she just furnished the voice ("Olive, The Other Reindeer"). With very few professional missteps, she soldiers on.

This time, she acts, produces AND directs a movie, and by no means has she embarrassed herself. In fact, I like the messages that provide the basis for the movie:
  • Love and respect your family;
  • have the courage to try something new;
  • dump your first love if s/he doesn't deserve you;
  • take your knocks and
  • try very hard to win!

For this action-filled movie about competitive roller-skating, she has wisely assembled an extremely game (they do most of their own skating) and capable cast:

  • Ellen Page ("Juno") is our heroine, a semi-shy misfit living with her parents (she 17) and a younger sister in a modest hamlet outside of Austin. She is saddled with a mother who is positive she can win a beauty pageant and who is pushing her hard toward that end.
  • Marcia Gay Hardin (won an Oscar for "Pollock") is her ambitious mother who wants her daughters to move beyond her own level: she's a mail carrier for the U.S. Post Office.
  • Daniel Stern (you probably remember him from "City Slickers" and "Home Alone") plays the amiable father of our reluctant beauty contestant.
  • Juliette Lewis ("The Other Sister") becomes our heroine's arch enemy when they encounter one another in an all-female roller derby.
  • Kristen Wiig ("Ghost Town") is a teammate who talks common sense to our heroine when her life derails.
  • Eve ("Flashbacks of a Fool") is another roller-skating team- mate named Rosa Sparks.
  • Drew Barrymore (see above) has a secondary role as Smashley Simpson, another skater.

This movie isn't as predictable as you might expect and the underlying messages are excellent. Barrymore has given generous screen time to supporting characters, so you will recognize many other faces. As an aside, the closing credits actually show the names along with the faces of many of the actors. I really appreciate that!

10/2/09

The Boys Are Back

It’s such a relief to see Clive Owen (“Duplicity”) move beyond shoot- ‘em-ups and romantic comedies. In this heartfelt film, inspired by a true story, he is a twice-married fellow with one son from each marriage. His second wife dies suddenly from an unsuspected cancer and he is left to raise their six-year-old son, played by Nicholas McAnulty. His elder son, played by George MacKay, lives in England with his mother, while our hero lives in Australia with the younger one.

This film is based on the 2001 memoir by Simon Carr, which tracks a young widower as he evolves from grieving husband to inept father. His parenting style is laissez faire at best and irresponsible at worst. He tries to bring joy back into the life of his six-year-old son by being a pal, and the result is chaos. When the older boy arrives from England for a visit, he is shocked at the disarray in the house, but manages to adapt as best he can. After some disastrous missteps, our struggling father is finally forced to face up to his shortcomings.

The director is Scott Hicks (“Snow Falling on Cedars”) and one of the producers is Greg Brenman (“Billy Elliot”), so we are in the capable hands of a team that understands family dynamics. No car chases, no sweaty bodies, no blowie uppie stuff, although when the two boys are alone and their home is invaded, we feel plenty of anxiety for their safety.

My biggest regret was that the volume in the theater was too low, so I missed over eighty percent of the dialog. Despite that handicap I found the story easy to follow, because Owen and the rest of the cast do a fine job.

The September Issue

The most surprising thing about this documentary was to see that the doyenne of fashion, Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue magazine, seems to be unfailingly polite. (As parodied by Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” my impression was that The Ice Queen was rude, demanding and abrupt.) Also, she seems partial to only one type of necklace; I saw her wear it repeatedly in two different colors, but no other variation.

The most UN-surprising thing about this documentary is how absurd I personally find haute couture. I realize that high fashion is a multi-billion dollar industry, but to see how seriously these experts take a single issue of a single magazine is risible, even Wintour’s own family finds it “amusing.” And I find the ridiculous outfits paraded by those anorexic coke-heads to be contemptible jokes foisted off on a gullible public. How anyone can take them seriously is beyond me. If you want to know how I REALLY feel, you have only to ask.

I found only two items of even vague interest: 1) Where are the missing photos of Sienna Miller which were taken at the Coliseum? 2) When Assistant Editor Grace Coddington manages, in the nick of time, to cancel Wintour’s instructions to Photoshop a candid picture of a photographer: Grace kept his slight tummy bulge in the shot.

Evidently September is the new January in the fashion world, so it is essential to Vogue’s prestige to launch a catalog-sized issue each September. If you are a fashion victim who dotes on the latest and greatest clothing trends, you absolutely MUST see this movie. For the rest of us, it’s sorta like discovering how sausage is made: We’d rather not know….

The Invention of Lying

Once upon a time there was a world where people not only did not lie, they didn’t know how, nor could they recognize a lie if it was spoken. Of course this automatically puts a damper on things like courtship (“If I had children by you, they would be fat and have stubby noses, so this will be our only date.”), advertising (a Pepsi ad says, “For when they don’t have Coke...”), and television (no fiction). Not surprisingly, this makes for a pretty bland world, as there are no illusions, no fantasies.

Ricky Gervais (the excellent “Ghost Town”) is a screen writer for a television show. He has been assigned to write about the 14th Century, which had only the Black Plague to recommend it, so he isn’t surprised when his script fails to generate any enthusiasm and he is fired. His secretary, played by Tina Fey (“Ponya” and “30 Rock”), volunteers that she won’t miss him, as she never liked him anyway.

Along with Gervais and Fey, you will enjoy the talents of:
  • Jennifer Garner (“Juno”) who is the reluctant object of Gervais’ affection;
  • Jeffrey Tambor (“Arrested Development”) is his boss;
  • Rob Lowe (“Brothers and Sisters”) plays a truly despicable co-worker;
  • Jonah Hill (“Funny People”) is a suicidal neighbor;
  • Louis C.K. (writer for “Saturday Night Live”) is our hero’s best friend;
  • Christopher Guest (“Night at the Museum…Smithsonian”) is a stuffy TV host;
  • Edward Norton (“The Painted Veil”) uncredited as a traffic cop.

Much of the humor in the early part of the movie is generated by people telling the bald, unvarnished truth. We come to realize how much easier life can be when it is leavened with little white lies. Our hero stumbles into telling his first fib at a bank; this new-found skill causes him to make his mother’s death a much easier passage, as he is able to allay her fears…to the amazement of the medical staff who overhears his well- intentioned fiction about eternal life, meeting long-dead loved ones and mansions in the sky.

This will probably generate a lot of flack from religious folks but personally, I found it not only lots of harmless fun, but nicely done, too… particularly the confused reactions of the populace as a whole, as people seek The Truth.

As an aside, I got a kick out of seeing the headboard of Gervais’ bed blocking his bedroom window. That seems to be peculiarly British; we Americans tend to leave our windows unblocked.