Borderlands (Zev Berman, 2007): 6.5/10

The Magic Flute (Ingmar Bergman, 1975): 7/10

La Guerre Est Finie (Alain Resnais, 1966): 7/10

Speed Racer (The Wachowski Brothers, 2008): 8/10

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Location: milwaukee, wi

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (Jake Kasdan, 2007)

On the other side of the surprised-by-Americans spectrum from Sweeney Todd is Walk Hard, the hands-down funniest comedy of the year that couldn't make more than four million dollars on its opening weekend. Sure, it was a holiday weekend, but National Treasure 2 made 100 bazillion dollars or something. Seriously? SERIOUSLY?

But enough overestimating the moviegoing public. Walk Hard is a spoof of the recent rags-to-riches musical biopics that are sure Oscar favorites. In fact, Reilly himself has been nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as Dewey Cox, who chops his brother in half during a machete fight and spends the rest of his life trying to be "super-great" for both he and his brother. Along the way, he gets married at 14, makes a slew of hits, takes acid with The Beatles, wants to record an army of digeridoos, has a 70s variety show, hits rock bottom, and finds redemption (sort of). Everything you'd expect. Reilly is absolutely perfect in the role; hilarious and spot-on as Cox -- he's even a great musician. Kristin Wiig (who has grown on me in her last few years on Saturday Night Live) is hilarious as Cox's first wife; she delivers probably my favorite line in the movie ("It would if it never rained!" I almost choked laughing).

Of course, Dewey leaves his wife when he gets famous, and eventually hooks up with his June Carter (Jenna Fischer, looking cute even though there's not much else to do). They have the most ridiculously tumultuous relationship in film history. Also pitch-perfect are Dewey's backup band, Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell, and Matt Besser, who all get a few big laughs. Lots of the Judd Apatow regulars (he produced it, after all) show up, like Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Jane Lynch, and more.

The fact that this was such a box office bomb while Knocked Up and Superbad were such hits disappoints, but doesn't surprise, me. America just isn't ready to see John C. Reilly in a leading role, I suppose. For me, though, he is just wonderful -- I'd put him in my top 5 favorite actors, I think. I hope we see more big roles for him in the future, and America grows to love him like I do. But for now, all I can say is go see Walk Hard if you love to laugh. And who doesn't.


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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton, 2007)

Sweeney Todd is the antithesis of the traditional holiday movie; dark, bloody, and almost completely sung. But here it was, the weekend before Christmas, and Tim Burton's adaptation of the Broadway play came in fifth at the box office. For once, this was a happy surprise. While not Burton's best film, it is probably his most realized vision yet. Burton teams yet again with Johnny Depp in the title role of the man wronged by a lecherous judge (Alan Rickman, who is, as always, great), put in prison, and had his wife and child taken from him. 15 years later, he's bak in the guise of Sweeny Todd, and he's looking for revenge.

But it's not just the judge Todd is looking for revenge on; it's the entire world, as shown in the very first song, in which Todd describes London in the most pessimistic terms possible. But since this is basically Dickens' London, it is a filthy, poverty-stricken place. Burton's London is a place where the sun never shines, there are rats and roaches everywhere (even in the meat pies), and people are poor and getting poorer. The only time we see the sun in the film is during Mrs. Lovett's (Helena Bonham Carter, of course) fantasy sequence of her and Todd's imaginary life. This is one of the most pessimistic films in recent memory.

That being said, all the performances are fantastic. Some have said that Depp is a lock for a best actor Oscar, and while he wouldn't be my first choice, I certainly wouldn't be disappointed by it. Carter is a mix of Burton's corpse bride and a strung-out Marla Singer, a truly creepy and opportunistic businesswoman who finds a way to make murder profitable (quite the commentary on the beginning of the industrial revolution. The supporting cast is solidly good, especially Sacha Baron Cohen as Todd's rival barber, the only comic relief in this bleak film. Much has been said about the gore in the film, but the blood doesn't look realistic at all. It's theatrical gore, and while it's shocking in context, it certainly isn't disgusting. Sweeney Todd may not be the feel-good movie of the season, but it sure is a good one.


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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Somersault (Cate Shortland, 2004)

Somersault is exactly the kind of film I want to make, and exactly what I picture a film written and directed by a woman about being in that in-between stage of childhood and womanhood to be. Heidi (Abbie Cornish, in the role that first brought her international attention) kisses her mother's boyfriend and then, having been caught, runs away from home to Jindabyne, the Australian skiing city. From there, she gets an apartment, tries to get what she wants through her sexuality, and eventually connects with a young local who is trying to figure himself out as well.

Heidi is at once self-destructive and incredibly brave. At 16, she leaves home (when she doesn't need to) and goes to live on her own, but at the same time, she drinks heavily and gets herself into situations that aren't smart. She depends both on other people to take pity on her and help her out, but also on her own internal resources to figure out how to use people. In short, Heidi is a loveable and a contemptable character, an amazingly accurate representation of what it's like to be a teenage girl of a certain kind in today's society. Shortland doesn't particularly judge Heidi, and in fact, she shows a kind of empathy for her. Heidi is one of the most realistic characters I've seen on film in a long time.

The cinematography in the movie is gorgeous. Much of it seems like a dream, as it's shot in hazy blue tones. The making-of documentary on the DVD shows the actual colors of the Australian landscape as compared to the lushness of the actual movie, and it's like night and day. Shortland uses colors like a pro to portray the inner workings of Heidi, and her confused quasi-boyfriend Joe. The sequence portrayed in the above poster, where Heidi searches for herself in the mirror, is stupendous. The interplay between Heidi, who doesn't understand normal human interactions and can only express love through sexuality, and her coworker's brother, who has Asperger's Syndrome and can honestly not understand human interaction, is so touching, although it's totally from afar. When the boy's mother teaches him about emotions, Heidi watches on with a look that shows she wishes she could have that direct kind of instruction. It's heartbreaking.

Somersault is such an accurate depiction of a confused teenage girl who doesn't know the difference between sex and love that I cannot recommend it more. It's confident and a clear vision from a first-time director, a woman who knows what she wants to show and isn't afraid to do so. With her performances here and in Candy, Abbie Cornish has shown some real promise. Definitely rent this movie.


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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)

In order to avoid the first family holiday blowup this weekend, I ran away to the circus to the movies and finally saw Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, the pseudo-Bob Dylan biopic that utilizes six actors of different races and genders to portray the man in the different phases in his life: Marcus Carl Franklin is Woodie Guthrie (Dylan as a young, boxcar-riding man, based on what he told people about his mysterious background), Ben Whishaw is Arthur Rimbaud (the early artist, when he was fond of answering interview questions with Rimbaud quotes), Christian Bale is Jack Rollins then Pastor John (Dylan the young star, and 20 years later, the born-again Christian), Heath Ledger is Robbie Clark (Dylan the asshole, more or less), Cate Blanchett is Jude Quinn (Dylan gone electric), and Richard Gere is Billy the Kid (Dylan in exile).

The movie, then, has an obvious hook or gimmick. But this is so much more than its parts might suggest. All the actors are stupendous in the role, even though the demands are varying on each part. Whishaw and Bale have the least interesting, in my mind, roles, but even those are well-done. Whishaw, shown only in black and white, at a table being interviewed, has a film-long monologue about the nature of poetry and fame. But really, the movie belongs to Cate Blanchett. Her androgynous portrait of angry Dylan, just gone electric to England, is a bright self-destructive spark in the film. Quinn and his band take out guns rather than electric guitars; they might as well have, how angrily the audience reacted. Quinn is falling apart, physically and mentally, and even though he hangs out with an Edie Sedgwick-type (whose heart he has broken) and Allen Ginsburg (David Cross, whom I could almost take seriously), his life is in disarray. Ledger, Franklin (a true find by Haynes), and Gere are also remarkable in their roles. Ledger has the juiciest role, a real asshole, getting a divorce from his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and spouting misogynistic views.

There's really quite little I can say about this movie that really explains the experience of I'm Not There. I recently read a review that I can no longer find that said the problem with the film is that because it doesn't deal with Dylan as one person, it neglects to address the issue of how these constant transformations take a toll on the person. In the same review (and others), it says that only Dylan fans will be truly interested in the film. I'm no real fan of Bob Dylan, so I took this movie as both a loose biography of the man, but also just as a collection of remarkable stories and performances from one of the real visionary directors of our time. This is Todd Haynes' best work (visually, it is breathtaking), and one of the best films of the year.


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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Fido (Andrew Currie, 2007)

I'm not using the traditional poster art for Andrew Currie's surprisingly wonderful film because, as has been said better than I could, Lionsgate really screwed the pooch with their marketing of this film. Seriously, you've got to figure that they know there's already a built-in (weirdo) audience for a zombie family film/social satire of American culture, and, with a little smart marketing, this could have been a small breakout surprise. But alas, that didn't happen. That rarely happens.

Fido is the story of an alternate reality America, date unknown, that is premanently stuck in the ultra-perfect, stereotypical 50s America. Mom (Carrie Ann Moss, in an absolutely wonderful performance) wears beautiful dresses (of which I am eternally jealous -- I want her wardrobe in this film so badly) and bakes roasts; Dad (Dylan Baker, who is great in everything) is removed from his wife (physically -- two beds -- and mentally) and his son; and son Timmy (K'Sun Ray) gets bullied at school until his loyal pet stands up for him. But his pet Fido isn't a dog, it's a zombie. Since the zombie wars, cities have been fenced in and zombies are controllable via an omnipotent company ZomCon, who invented a collar to make zombies obedient. Billy Connolly is Fido, in an amazing performance, considering he doesn't have one single line. His entire performance is dog-like actions and expressions, and he does a great job at conveying the kind of love between a family pet and a human.

Fido was a smoker!

But more than a sendup of 50s America, this is a story about family, and about love. The last half hour, while the weakest part in the film in some ways, has some of the most touching, sincere displays of familial love I've seen in a while. Mr. Theopolis (Tim Blake Nelson), is in love with his zombie, Rammy, and treats her better than most of the human husbands and wives we meet. The quasi-romance between Mrs. Robinson and Fido is a very clever pastiche of All That Heaven Allows, and the zombies echo the plight of immigrants and the unseen in American culture, even today. But above all, this is a family story, about what keeps a family together, even through a zombie war, head coffins, and kids with pistols. Expect to see this in my best of list in a few weeks.


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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Pretty Baby (Louis Malle, 1978)

All 95% of people know about Pretty Baby is the fact that a 12-year-old Brooke Shields appeared naked in the film as a child prostitute in 1910s New Orleans. There, I've acknowledged it, though I'll come back to it, and now I can say a little bit more about the movie. Violet is the daughter of prostitute Hattie, who was the daughter of a prostitute as well. At the beginning of the film, Hattie, offscreen, is making gutteral moans that could only be from sex or childbirth. Hattie is giving birth to a baby boy, another child to be brought up in Nell's brothel, a lush, extravagant place of fabricated good times. Men come in and out, and some women, like Hattie, have regulars. The dream of all the women is to have a rich man swoop them up and take them away from this place; that's why these women deal with the occasionally violent and almost always insensitive johns.

One day, photographer Bellocq comes to the brothel to take pictures of Hattie. No one understands it, but they indulge him because he pays. The more and more time he spends at the place, the more enraptured he becomes with first Hattie, then Violet. Even though she's so young, her virginity is ultimately sold to literally the highest bidder, so she becomes a girl just like any other in the house. In this way, it's not that unusual that Bellocq falls in love with Violet, especially since she play-acts as a woman all the time. But in many other ways, it's incredibly unusual, especially when we see her naked.

Violet, played precociously by Shields, is always swinging wildly between womanhood and childhood - on one hand, she tells the other girls she knows what to do during sex and talks like a prostitute, and on the other, she throws wild tantrums and scratches out the faces on some of Bellocq's negatives. That's why it's so disconcerting to finally see her naked; it's not sexy, in any way. It's a reminder that Violet is, indeed, a child.

This film could never, in any way, be made today. Remember the vague controversy around Hounddog from last year's Sundance Festival? If I remember correctly, Dakota Fanning isn't even close to being naked in the film. Now, there are people all over the IMDB boards screaming self-righteously about how Malle and Shields' mother (against whom Shields does apparently hold this) and everyone else on the film should be thrown in jail. Thankfully, simply showing a child nude, for non-sexual reasons, isn't against the law in this country. And Malle's film simply doesn't show Violet naked for sexual reasons. It's just the opposite; it's as if Malle puts this in front of us to remind us that she's a girl, how could anyone take her otherwise?

It's not a great film, but it is beautiful and well-acted. I give it brownie points for being so brave, but it's probably not a film I would watch again. Pretty Baby represents the best in American (although Malle was French, this was an American production) filmmaking creativity, but the worst in the current political climate in this country. You can disagree with Malle and screenwriter Polly Platt's choices, but there's no crimes here. If you're interested, photos from the real E.J. Bellocq can be found here.


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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

On Juno

I am afraid to see Juno. I'll admit it.

Why? Unless you've been living under a film-blog rock (and I assume you haven't, since you've stumbled here), you know that Juno is this year's...well, Little Miss Sunshine, I guess, but I don't remember even that movie getting this ridiculous amount of hype. Everyone is sweet-talking Ellen Page's performance as Juno, the (of course) precocious pregnant teen (by Michael Cera, whom I obviously adore) who is giving her baby up to Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. Directed by Jason Reitman (whose first film, Thank You For Smoking, I didn't care to see either) and with a screenplay by it-girl-of-the-moment Diablo Cody (we'll get to her in a moment), even the poster advertises the "whip-smart" dialogue: it seems as if the actors are performing Cody's dialogue on a tightrope! The dialogue crackles with wit!

I usually hate movies like that, movies that are consciously trying to be witty. Wit, in my eyes, is something that isn't forced. It just happens. And when reviewers describe a movie as "whip-smart" and "crackling," to me, that usually signals forced wit and totally unnatural speech patterns. Juno just seems cute. And hip. The two things I hate most in a movie. I would often rather watch a stupid movie than one that's cute.

Diablo Cody has this public persona of being not hip but actually really hip -- here's a girl who had a sex column and was a stripper and now writes cool movies and even Steven Spielberg wants to work with her! I'm not buying it. There's something in my character that dictates that I always root against the Goliath, even when, in this case, the Goliath is actually a Hollywood David. If I had not seen Little Miss Sunshine right away, before all the hype, I almost certainly wouldn't have liked it as much.

So, like Pitchfork and Stereogum and their ilk are doing their unintentional part to kill indie bands by over-hyping them, so, I believe, film bloggers are doing with Juno. I could have gone to see it and enjoyed it perfectly fine, but not now, with everyone and their mother telling me it's by far the best film/screenplay/performance (I haven't even mentioned how I don't like Ellen Page -- well, I don't like her, the terrible movie that was Hard Candy and her performance there ruined her for me, at least for the moment) of the year. I'm predestined to not like it, to not give it a fair shot. And that stinks.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Girl 27 (David Stenn, 2007)

As long as I'm ranting about sexist things that make me angry, I thought I'd make it two days in a row with Girl 27, David Stenn's documentary about Patricia Douglas, who, in 1937, was tricked into "performing" at a party for MGM sales executives from all over the country and was subsequently raped by one of the executives. Although she was bold enough for the time to actually bring civil and federal suits against the man that had raped her, everyone was in MGM's pocket: the sole witness, the judge, the hospital (where they immediately gave her a douche to get rid of all the evidence), Douglas' public defender (who didn't even show up for the trial, three seperate times), the press, even Douglas' own mother, everyone. This is the story of a woman who chose to stand up for herself, and for that, she was deliberately destroyed by a huge corporation that basically owned Los Angeles at the time.

But the movie is as much about Patricia Douglas after the fact as it is about the crime itself. Because this story was buried by the press, never to be heard of again until Stenn brought it into the light, Douglas became a recluse, a woman who had three husbands and a daughter but says she's never been in love. There are several legal experts (including Greta Van Sustern, which is ironic, considering how if Fox News had existed in 1937, they certainly would have been a news outlet trying to defame Douglas) who say they'd never heard of the Douglas case, and considering how, for a short period in the late '30s and early '40s, this case was all the rage, that's considerable evidence for how well oiled MGM's machine-liked control over Los Angeles was.

Many have and will criticize the film for Stenn's placement of himself in a central role in the film; there are some cringeworthily self-lauding scenes, as when Stenn recounts telling Douglas' story to Jackie Onassis and having Jackie tell him he's the only one who could tell her story right (gag). But since the movie is about Douglas' retreat into obscurity, I think it's important and right that Stenn tell his part in the saga, about how he spoke to Douglas on the phone for countless hours before she'd even begin telling him about that night, and how even more time had to be spent slowly but surely convincing Douglas that this is an important story that she has to tell in front of the cameras. In fact, Stenn and Douglas' recountings of the first time they met is one of the most heartwarming moments in the film.

There are some truly heartbreaking moments in the film; Douglas, whose mother was married eight times, was eventually bought out by MGM for her testimony and spent the rest of her life trying to make it up to her daughter. When the daughters of the witness who was bought out by MGM speak about how they want to at least help one woman by speaking out about what their father did, a lump formed in my throat. I haven't even begun talking about the weird, warped relationship between Douglas and her daughter (whom I found rather contemptible, but understandably so).

Douglas died shortly after getting her story recorded for all to her; the final minutes in the film, when she speaks about how she'll be vindicated about the truth, because it always comes out, is heartbreaking, because it's not true. Even with Stenn's documentary, not much has changed. It's as if Douglas was waiting for her chance to speak before she could die. The least we can do is listen to what she had to say, and be glad that times are (at least a little) different today.


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Monday, December 03, 2007

An open letter to Katherine Heigl

Dear Katherine Heigl,

Today, news came that you think that Knocked Up was a little sexist. Now (male) film bloggers all over the internet are saying exactly what I expected: you're a money-hungry hypocrite, not a woman with actual opinions about your body of work! And what about MEN in romantic comedies?!

You know what I say? GOOD FOR YOU, GIRL. You are 100 fucking percent correct, and I applaud your bravery, as the main actress in one of this year's biggest movies, to come out and publicly air your concerns about the female role in said movie. Instead of calling you a hypocrite, I think you're a great role model for women. Why should we have to hide our feelings, even if it's on something we were involved in? Why can't we have honest, candid thoughts about these things without being called every name in the book?

Honestly, Katherine, between you and I, I think the backlash against you from these male bloggers has been so harsh because they know Knocked Up is "a little bit sexist," but that conflicts with their beliefs in general, so they choose to knock you down for acknowledging the elephant in the room, rather than actively, honestly taking what you said into consideration. There's no discussion here, just (sexist!) name-calling.

It's not sexist to like Knocked Up, not if you understand what's problematic in the movie (in case you forgot, I outlined it here) and work toward understanding why women are always presented this way in the media. So Katherine, even though you're going back to sappy romantic comedies, I'll always hold a little place for you in my radical feminist heart.

Jeez, things like this almost make you want to punch all men in the face. Almost.


Dana Danger

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Fast Food Nation (Richard Linklater, 2006)

Fast Food Nation, the book published in 2001, is one of my all-time favorites. I think Eric Schlosser is a great writer in the tradition of the Upton Sinclair school of muck-raking. So I was intrigued about Richard Linklater's adaptation of the book (the screenplay was written by Schlosser and Linklater together) as a fictional story, rather than a non-fictional documentary. While there are the foreseeable problems, this is a pretty effective movie with some really strong performances.

There are about five stories in the film, all revolving around the Mickey's restaurant and the products that go into making their new Big One burger. Greg Kinnear is the Mickey's executive who came up with the Big One, and who is now assigned to go to the meat packing plant where the Big One patties are made to investigate the high percentage of, ahem, fecal matter in the meat. Amber (Ashley Johnson) is a high schooler who has to work at Mickey's to support herself and her mother, but who undergoes a crisis of conscience when she learns facts about the environmental and humanitarian effects of Mickey's. Catalina Sandino Moreno, Wilmer Valderrama, and Ana Claudia Talancon are Mexicans who recently illegally crossed the border and thus are forced to work in the meat packing plant, and also get involved with meth and sexual harrassment on the part of the girls' manager at the plant. So there are plenty of social issues to be dealt with in the film, and sometimes it does feel like the movie is overstuffed with Schlosser's pet causes. Some smaller characters, such as Ethan Hawke as Amber's uncle and Kris Kristofferson as a rancher who shows Greg Kinnear the darker side of the meat packing industry, are used as mouthpieces to get the facts about these issues across through vaguely awkward monologues.

But Johnson and Moreno especially give great performances as young women who are in similar, yet widely divergent situations: both need the jobs that they have to support themselves, even though they hate them. The interesting part of the film comes when Johnson can quit her job, while Moreno can't. In this way, it's a liberal fairy tale and nightmare, all at once: the upper/middle-class whites (Johnson, Kinnear) can afford to speak their consciences, even though it means losing their jobs, but the illegal immigrants are without a voice in this country, even though their jobs might be infinitely more dangerous and ethically wrong.

The IMDB boards are, predictably, crazy over this film - vegans vs. meat eaters, left vs. right, all over the map, people are fighting about this film. While some call this film liberal propaganda, I think it's a refreshing, fictional film that forces us to take a closer look at what we eat and what the cost is. But during the cow slaughterhouse scenes (and all the discussion of the shit in meat), all I could think was I'm so glad I'm a vegetarian.


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