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Thursday, November 19, 2009

UP IN THE AIR

By D.E.Levine

Director: Jason Reitman
Writers: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner (screenplay), Walter Krn (book)
Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Danny McBride, Melanie Lynskey, James Anthony, Steve Eastin, Dave Engfer et al.
Producers: Jeffrey Clifford, Daniel Dubiecki, Ivan Reitman and Jason Reitman
Executive Producers: Michael Beugg, Ted Griffith, Joe Medjuck and Tom Pollock
Associate Producers: Jason Blumenfeld and Helen Estabrook
Original Music:Rolfe Kent
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Country of Origin: United States
Language: English
Genre: Comedy, Drama

According to Jason Reitman, when he started writing Up In The Air over two years ago he had no idea how relevant it would be today. How could he possibly know that unemployment would rise to 17% (that we know about) and that massive layoffs would actually be done by "hired help".

Flash to 2009 and we're facing the worst unemployment statistics ever and Up In The Air strikes a chord in the heart of every viewer.

Rick Bingham is a self-centered "executive for hire" who flys around the country firing people from companies whose management doesn't want to do the dirty work themselves.

With a pat pre-rehearsed line of platitudes and a pile of severance packets, Rick flys American Airlines Business Class, stays in upscale Hilton Hotels with a food and drink allowance and has his eye on making the 10 Million Mile Club for frequent flyers' loyalty. He will be only the seventh person to achieve that status and he revels in the knowledge that he has set that as his goal.

He's extremely capable, travels 322 days a year and loves the lifestyle. He's among the elite, traveling with one small rolling carry on bag and receiving top-level members-only treatment wherever he goes. He's efficient in his packing, his traveling, his time and his emotions. Basically, he has very little emotional and human psychological interaction on a personal level.

One day he meets a like-minded executive woman, Alex, in a lounge and tells her his dream of the 10 Million Mile Club. Rick seduces a willing Alice and finds they are birds of a feather. They have an easy going relationship, planning their trips so they can meet at airport layovers and seem to be thoroughly enjoying each other and the sex that's included in the relationship.

When a hotshot twenty-something named Natalie convinces Bingham's boss to cut costs by video conferencing and doing all layoffs remotely, it looks like Rick is grounded.

Forced to take Natalie on the road with him and teach her the ropes of how to deliver the bad news of being fired, the film examines the difference in the way Rick and Alex see things as opposed to Natalie's perspective. It's darkly funny.

In a fascinating conversation with Natalie, Rick insists that he never wants marriage and children and is perfectly happy with life the way it is currently. He doesn't have and doesn't want much human connection. He savors his life and wants no hint of commitment.

However, feeling obligated to attend his younger sister's wedding, he takes Alex along for fun and takes her on a tour of his youthful haunts. Along the way he finds that sharing his days and his life with Alex is fun.

Although his older sister scorns him for escaping the ordinary lives the rest of the family live, she calls upon him to use his motivational skills to get the bridegroom over his cold feet and to the alter on his wedding day. While he grudgingly makes an offer to walk his younger sister down the aisle, the job has already been taken by the bridegroom's uncle, and Ryan remains only a guest at the family wedding.

Back in Omaha, Rick is told to train on the video layoff system as his firm goes ahead with plans to ground all the hired firing experts.

Motivated by her boyfriend dumping her, when a woman Natalie laid off commits suicide, Natalie quits the Omaha firm and heads to San Francisco to pursue a dream she gave up. With Rick's reference she lands a job and starts a new life which we suspect doesn't include firing people.

Meanwhile, Rick, now told that video layoffs are on hold while the company takes another look at the process and the after effect, is back traveling in his hired gun capacity.

The question is whether his former lifestyle will now satisfy him once his defenses have been broken down and he has acknowledged that personal relationships matter.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

THE ROAD

By D.E.Levine

Director: John Hillcoat
Writers: Joe Penhall (adaption and screenplay), Cormac McCarthy (book)
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robefrt Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker, Michael K. Williams, Garret Dillahunt, Charlize Theron, Bob Jennings, Agnes Herrmann, Budy Sosthand, Kirk Brown, Jack Erdie, David August Lindauer, Gina Preciado, Mary Rawson
Producers: Paula Mae Schwartz, Steve Schwartz and Nick Wechsler
Executive Producers: Marc Butan, Mark Cuban, Rudd Simmons and Todd Wagner
Co-producer: Erik Hodge
Original Music: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
Running Time: 112 Minues
Country of Origin: United States
Language: English
Genre: Drama

This is definitely the most depressing film I've seen this year. Taken from Cormac McCarthy's novel which is full physical descriptions of the United States after an unexplained catastrophe, the film is bleak and depressing. It focuses on the journey of a father and his son as they journey south towards the coast after his wife abandons them and chooses to die alone outside in the woods.

As the earth continues to erupt and the crust breaks, barren trees topple over, fires break out, extreme cold incapacitates them, and they are hunted by men and women who have turned to cannibalism because of the endless hunger due to lack of crops and food.

The father has a revolver with two bullets in it, one for himself and one for his son. He plans to end their suffering if the worst happens and they are unable to fight off predators or find food.

The film is filled with flashbacks to life with his wife before and after the birth of their baby. Memories are triggered by small and big things alike. Finding a piano that hasn't been destroyed triggers the memory of playing the piano with his wife and then chopping it up for fire wood.

McCarthy's novel was mesmerizing but Hillcoat's film is bleak, dull and lacking in suspense. There is nothing to propel the story forward, instead the episodic telling of the tale is carefully paced.

The film is basically the tale about the relationship of a dying father and his innocent son, who sees good in everyone and several times ventures into situations where they could get killed. As the father struggles to stay alive and care for the boy, he also struggles to give the boy some values but is unable to explain why he and the boy are "the good guys" while the others are "the bad buys."

It is only during the last few minutes of the film that the action and the actors give the viewer an emotional jolt that validates the film.

Monday, November 16, 2009

EVERYTHING STRANGE AND NEW

By D.E.Levine

Director: Frazer Bradshaw
Writer: Frazer Bradshaw
Cast: Rigo Chacon Jr., Beth Lisick, Jerry McDaniel, Luis Saguar, Diana Tenes
Producers: A.D.Liano and Laura Techera Francia
Executive Producer: Steve Bannatyne
Original Music: Dan Plonsey and Kent Sparling
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Country of Origin: United States
Lamguage: English
Genre: Romance

Shot in the East Bay Oakland area of San Francisco, this sweet film examines the monotony and stillness of Wayne's (the central character) life.

With a wife, two children and a home, Wayne is ostensibly living the American dream. But Wayne is preoccupied with the life he thinks he wants, frustrated by the life he actually has, and nothing that happens shakes him off the track of the life he doesn't remember choosing.

This is partially accomplished by the long shots and the successive shots of rooftops, buses and the kitchen table by first-time director Frazer Bradshaw. After seven years working as a DP, Bradshaw knows how to convey feelings through cinematography and paint a visual picture.

Clad in orange overalls and either walking or taking the bus, Wayne, a carpenter, sees himself as a clown, a character that he actually assumes at children's' parties.

Performances, deliberately flat, help to convey the frustration of the characters' lives. Laconic narration by Wayne and flashbacks let us know that before the kids were born Wayne and his wife Beth liked each other and had fun together. They had dreams about their life and the future. But youthful dreams have been deferred to adult reality.

Wayne comes to understand the difference between his needs and desires. He also realizes that his friends are equally bored and trapped - Leo separating from his wife and Manny, shooting crack in his car.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

2012

By D.E.Levine

Director: Roland Emmerich
Writers: Roland Emmerich and Harald Kloser
Cast: John Cusak, Armanda Peet, Chiewetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt, Thamas McCarthy, Woody Harrelson, Danny Glover, Liam James, Morgan Lily, Zlatko Buric, Beatrice Rosen, Alexandre Haussmann, Philippe Hausmann, Johann Urb, John Billingsley,
Chin Han, Osric Chau, Chang Tseng, Lisa Lu, Blu Mankuma, George Segal, Stephen McHattie, Patrick Bauchau, Jimi Mistry, Ryan McDonald, Merrilyn Gann, Henry O et al.
Producers: Roland Emmerich, Larry J. Franco and Harald Kloser
Executive Producers: Ute Emmerich, Mark Gordon and Michael Wimer
Co-producers: Aaron Boyd, Volker Engel and Marc Weigert
Associate Producer: Kirstin Winkler
Original Music: Harald Kloser and Thomas Wanker
Running Time: 158 Minutes
Country of Origin: United States
Language: English
Genre: Disaster, Action, Adventure

The plot may not be different but the special effects are mind boggling. Even with all of the great digital, 3D and CGI technology being used in films today I've never seen anything like the special effects in 2012.

By now everybody has heard the story that the Mayan calendar ends in December 2012 and forecasts the end of the world specifically on December 21, 2012.

While the entire world is destined to be destroyed, the filmmakers begin here at home in the United States. Beginning with Los Angeles going into the sea, the film follows Jackson Curtis and his family as they escape via plane to Yellowstone National Park where he seeks out a broadcaster/hippie who has a map of where safety ships are being built and maintained.

Since Yellowstone goes up in a blaze of widespread fire, erupting volcano-like explosions, and caving earth crust, the Curtis plane barely gets off the ground before Yellowstone is a thing of memory.

We are voyeurs of the destruction of Saint Peter's Cathedral in Rome and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janiero. Has God forgotten man if he is letting this happen? Or is this the way God planned it all along?

Curtis takes his family to Las Vegas where they try to get a plane to China, because that's where safety is supposed to be found.

Curtis, a published author who has been driving as a chauffeur for a very rich Russian businessman manages to get his ex-wife, kids, and the wife's fiancee on the Russian's plane with his family only because the fiancee can act as a co-pilot on the flight.

Out of fuel they are forced to land on a Himalayan glacier where the wealthy Russian and his two sons are picked up by the Chinese military and abandon the Russian's girlfriend and the Curtis family.

The entire premise is ridiculous of course, but the special effects are so fantastic that the viewers are spellbound and never bored. As we see tsunami waves swallow entire ocean liners and naval military vessels, and as we watch the water level rise to the top of mountain ranges while totally flooding the landscape beneath, we can only stare in awe at the visual mastery.

Through the humane efforts of an elderly Chinese couple who convince their monk son to take pity on the stranded Americans, the American party reaches the safety of the ships that are moored, but have to sneak aboard since they don't have tickets or passes.

Trapped in a compartment that's filling with water and preventing the doors from closing, it's the illegal Curtis who risks his life to clear the gears and save the American ship.

The movie has no point of view and no actual message. Based on the premise that the world is coming to an end in 2012. There are no deep philosophical or intellectual messages or even a religious perspective.

2012 is a totally visual picture full of adventure and physical frenzy. It can't be taken seriously. It must simply be enjoyed for what it is - pure entertainment.

Friday, November 13, 2009

BROKEN EMBRACES (LOS ABRAZOS ROTOS)

By D.E.Levine

Director: Pedro Almodovar
Writer: Pedro Almodovar
Cast: Penelope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Blanca Portillo, Jose Luis Gomez, Ruben Ochandiano, Tamar Novas, Angela Molina, Chus Lasmpreave, Kiti Manver, Lola Duenas, Mariola Fuentes, et al.
Producer: Esther Garcia
Executive Producer: Agustin Almodovar
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Country of Origin: Spain
Language: Spanish with English subtitles
Genre: Drama, Romance

As usual, Pedro Almodovar has written and directed an extraordinary film. The difference is that this particular film lacks a certain fire and focus found in the others. On the other hand, the cinematography, whether in color or black and white is stunning and brilliantly done.

Basically Broken Embraces is a movie within a movie. At the beginning, as the credits roll, we see lighting doubles being replaced with Penelope Cruz and Lluis Homar. Since the actors have not yet stepped into their roles are we to assume that movies double life?

Blind Spanish screenwriter Harry Caine is informed of the death of Ernesto Martel, an industrialist who once produced a film of his. Caine, who used to be a director named Mateo Blanco, was blinded in an accident that took the life of Lena, his love and the star of his last movie (the one Martel produced). Lena was also Martel's mistress before she left him for Caine/Blanco.

The back story appears through flashbacks to 1992. Magdalena "Lena" Rivero was the secretary of a corrupt and wealthy Madrid industrialist Ernesto Martel, who fell for the wanne-be actress/call girl and made her his mistress.

While living with Martel, Lena auditions for a part in Blanco's film "Girls and Suitcases", which Martel agrees to produce. Blanco and Lena fall in love. Martel is a very jealous fellow who doesn't trust Lena so he gets his son to spy on the filmmaker and the actress by saying that he's making a documentary about the making of Blanco's film.

Running the daily footage the son provides without sound, and using a lip reader to decode the conversations between Blanco and Lena, Martel discovers the feelings the actress and director have for each other and the contempt they feel for him.

Lena and Martel break up after a stay on Ibiza when she discovers him sitting with the lip reader and reviewing the footage. Lena leaves Martel both on the screen and through the sitting room door

Enraged, Martel starts a sadistic revenge which is designed to destroy Blanco. His plan causes tremendous humiliation and suffering to Lena.

Finally, while staying on the island of Lanzarote at Famara, Lena and Blanco watch Rosselini's Viaggo in Italia on TV. There is a scene where archaeologists uncover the shape of a male and female body intertwined for thousands of years while their actual bodies were burnt to ash.

Almodovar picks up on this and uses the imagery of associating ash with love later when Mateo and Lena embrace above the black sand of Golfo Beach.

When a terrible car crash occurs, blinding Mateo and killing Lena, Mateo retreats into the identity of Harry Caine, which he previously used for screenwriting credits. Almovador is telling us that Blanco died in that car crash 14 years ago on Lanzarote.

The life he lives now is one of a man who has retreated from life and he is frequently assisted by Diego, the son of his friend and former assistant, Judit. Later in the film Judit confesses to Diego that he is the offspring of her affair with Caine/Blanco and that she never told Caine/Blanco that he has a son.

The film is complex, as are most of Almodovar's films. Once again, Cruz steals the film with both her beauty portrayal of Lena proves. The other actors are all believable and make the story believable but I imagine each time a viewer sees this film they will discover another facet that Almodovar has intentionally included.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

FANTASTIC MR. FOX

By D.E.Levine

Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach (screenplay), Roald Dahl (novel)
Cast: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Wallace Wolodarsky, Eric Chase Anderson, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Jarvis Cocker, Wes Anderson, Karen Duffy, Robin Huristone, Hugo Guinness, Helen McCrory, Roman Coppola, Juman Malouf, Jeremy Dawson, Garth Jennings, Brian Cox, Tristan Oliver, James Hamilton, Steven M. Rales, Rob Hersov, Jennifer Furches, Allison Abbate, Molly Cooper, Adrien Brody, Mario Batali, Martin Ballard
Producers: Allison Abbate, Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson and Scott Rudin
Executive Producers: Arnon Milchan and Steven M. Rales
Co-Producer: Molly Cooper
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Country of Origin: United States
Language: English
Genre: Animated, Comedy, Satire, Fantasy

Fantastic Mr. Fox is truly fantastic. True to the Roald Dahl's childrens' book of 1970, the film tells the story of a fox family and extended clan of animals who successfully elude capture and annihilation by human predators.

While this season is full of CGI-augmented animation, this film is pure animation without CGI and full of Wes Anderson trademarks. It should appeal to a gown up audience as well as children.

Another lure is the wonderful professional cast who voice the characters and a soundtrack of popular favorites from every genre of music.

Mr. Fox is a natty dresser and a rogue who poaches regularly from three nasty farmers named Boggis, Bunch and Bean. The farmers want his pelt very badly.

After a near disaster when they are captured outside of a chicken coop and his mate announces she's pregnant, they escape.

Anderson then jumps forward a couple of years where we find that Mrs. Fox, who is equally fastidiously attired as her husband, has made Mr. Fox give up poaching, settle down and support his family.

Bored with his job and feeling cramped in their underground quarters, Mr. Fox moves his family to a tree. He's haunted by feelings of wanting to steal chickens.

Obvious to viewers are the U.K. landscape and language of the humans which is in stark contrast to the American accented animals.

Although he's had his tale shot off by one of the farmers who's wearing it as a tie, things seem to be going smoothly until the farmers launch a combined assault on the Foxes and their friends because Mr. Fox, true to animal nature, has fallen off the wagon and gone back to poaching.

The idea here that animal nature cannot be avoided or escaped and animals will revert to it regardless of their thoughtful desires and efforts, makes a strong statement.

In order to escape, the Fox family and their friends dig rapidly and furiously through numerous layers of earth in order to stay ahead of their pursuing enemies.

While digging through these earthern layers scenes that are vividly represented on the screen) Mr. Fox burrows into each of the three farmers properties and steals enough for a major feast among the animals.

The Foxes have one son who is uncertain about living up to his father's high expectations. Other animals who flee with them have their own hangups and uncertainties.

As the animals flee the humans they are challenged to maintain their individual personalities and draw upon their character strengths, some of which they don't even realize they poss

The animals are poised and sophisticated, indeed more so than the human farmers. Appearing highly civilized and well attired, they fall back on their natural animal instincts and ways during arguments and when sitting down to their feast.

The running humor about the differences and similarities between the animals and the humans is always apparent.

Anderson admits that portions of his direction were done remotely while in other parts of the world than where actual filming was taking place. This was also true for some of the voice recordings. None of this seems to have adversely affected the film.

His style is deliberately jerky and he strives for a vintage look rather than the smooth, polished look in most current animated films. Yet his characters are believable and seem wonderfully imaginative and alive.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

By D.E.Levine

Director: Spike Jonze
Writer: Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers (screenplay) Maurice Sendak (book)
Producers: Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Bruce Berman, Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, Maurice Sendak, John Carls and Vincent Landay
Cast (Voices): Max Records, Catherine Keener, Steve Mouzakis, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandofini, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose and Pepita Emmerichs
Music: Karen O and Carter Burwell
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Country of Origin: United States
Language: English
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure

Spike Jonze has done an amazing job of taking a 300-word children's book first published in 1963, and turning it into a haunting and original feature-length film .

The movie lives mainly in the mind of Max, a nine-year old who goes through feelings of isolation that drive him to where the wild things are found. Max learns that the world and the children in it can be cruel.

Absorbing that lesson through tears and hurt, Max is left with a wound that won't heal and Max erupts roaring at his Mother who roars back. Finally he sails into the world adrift and alone.

The world he finds himself in is an island that is simultaneously scary, wondrous, confusing, expansive and gorgeous. Perhaps only a 9-year old could dream such a wondrous place up. Lush woods abut endless desert sands and a roaring ocean.

The creatures are have wondrous, mostly furry, oversized costumes and CG-augmented faces. A few have horns, a few have tails that twitch and they all appear to have sharp claws and very vicious, sharp teeth. They waddle through the film and appear more cuddly than the creatures in the original book.

Max himself goes through the place where the wild things are dressed in a wolf suit with a bushy tail and a hood with ears and whiskers. He himself is a wild thing with many complex parts to his personality. And, he becomes King of the creatures.

Each creature that Max meets evokes a different part of his own personality. The first creature Max meets is Carol, who is busy crushing everything insight. Max becomes fast friends with Carol since he can relate to her need to be loved, her insecurity and her temper mixed with her sweetness.

Max interfaces with the different wild things in different ways, befriending Carol, ignoring the goat-beast who is timid, seeking to impress the big sister substitute wild thing KW and bullying the bird-man.

However, Jonze has not attempted to interpret the story through Freudian analysis. The story has been expanded but remains a story about a boy, his Mom, his sister, his room, his loneliness and his creative imagination.

The tears, frustration, temper tantrums and anger that appear in the first 20 minutes all resurface on the idyllic island. This could be indicative of how our waking hours invade our dreams.

Many things could be analyzed and reinterpreted, but with this film it's better to sit back and enjoy the fantasy that Spike Jonze weaves.

Monday, November 9, 2009

TO SAVE A LIFE

By D.E.Levine

Director: Brian Baugh
Writer: Jim Britts
Cast: Randy Wayne, Deja Kreutzberg, Joshua Weigel, Steven Crowder, D.David Morin, Sean Micahel, Bubba Lewis, Robert Baily Jr., Kim Hildago, Arjay Smith, Orin Mozon, Lamont Thompson, Trinity Scott, Janora McDuffie, Laura Black, David Starzyk, Monique Edwards, Joseph Narducci, Lori Rom, Dee Baldus, Nicole Franco, Lee Ann Kim, Christian Pike, Jason Evans, Andy Crisp and David Kasdan
Producers: Jim Britts, Steve Foster and Nicole Franco
Executive Producer: Scott Evans
Co-producer: ChristinaK.Y. Lee
Running Time: Not Available
Country of Origin: United States
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Inspirational, Religious

To Save A Life is an inspiring and uplifting film aimed at teenagers and examining a variety of issues facing teenagers today.

The joint effort of Jim Britts and New Song Community Church in Oceanside California, the film is a particularly high quality in appearance and is acted by experienced professional actors.

The writer, Jim Britts, is a youth pastor who has penned a script about challenges faced by youth today. The film centers around a popular teenage athlete, Jake Taylor, who rejects his childhood friend, Roger Dawson, in high school, and the consequences of that rejection.

Roger, who became permanently maimed in childhood by pushing Jake out of the path of a car and having his leg crushed, becomes so depressed that he commits suicide in school, in front of Jake. Jake, who has been living a life of popularity and prominence, is profoundly affected by Roger's death which causes him to examine his own actions and the guilt he feels because of them.

After finding Roger's blog has posts describing his feelings of unhappiness and hopelessness, Jake discovers that there are many other teenagers feeling alienated from family and society and they are calling out for help in their comments and blogs posted on the Internet.

Not a religious person, Jake begins attending youth services at the invitation of an offbeat youth pastor and to the astonishment of his parents and girlfriend.

Discovering things about himself and his world that motivate him to make changes in his life, he begins reaching out and befriending those teenagers who are less popular than himself.

While his discoveries propel him to take action, his acceptance with the popular crowd is diminished as as he begins to befriend and encourage members of the less popular and more alienated teenage group.

As Jake deals with his shift in popularity, accepts responsibility for the pregnancy of his girlfriend, and examines his life and actions, he has to make some very adult decisions such as sacrificing some very big dreams and expectations of his own in order to step up and take responsibility for his past and present actions.

His experiences cause him to realize that other teens, especially those who are ostracized by the popular teenagers, are yearning to be heard, and he reaches out to them offering help and empathy. Persisting, even when some of the depressed students reject his overtures, he literally prevents other suicides.

Throughout the film there are inherent questions put to characters and viewers such as "how important is saving the life of another human being to you" and "what would you be willing to risk to save a life?"

The film is being distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films, a major independent film studio that has found surprising success with the distribution of religious motivational productions (i.e Saving Grace)

Goldwyn is partnering with Outreach Films division of Outreach Inc. in Vista, CA. Outreach Films concentrates on providing high quality inspiring entertainment and has been extremely successful in providing rewarding experiences to an expanding audience base. It has helped promote The Chronicles of Narnia and The Passion of the Christ, films that were extremely popular in mainstream America and which carried inspirational and religious messages.

Popular films carrying religious messages have been extremely profitable as well as popular worldwide, and have shown Hollywood the potential of tapping into the Christian audience. This audience is sophisticated and expects professional products on a par with other Hollywood productions and through the participation of major studios like Disney, they're getting it.

To Save a Life is a polished film that is the first written screenplay by Britts, who is a graduate of Biola University's film school. Biola is a university that focuses on Biblically centered education. To Save A Life is also the directorial debut for Brian Baugh, who has been Director of Photography on many other films.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

THE BATTLE FOR WHITECLAY

By D.E.Levine

Director: Mark Vasina
Cast: Frank LaMere, Duane Martin Sr., Russell Means, Lyle Jack, Rhonda R. Flowers, R.L.Coyne, and members of the Nebraska State Highway Patrol, members of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, members of the Nebraska legislature, members of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, members of the Oglala Sioux police
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Genre: Documentary

Heroes come in many forms and the hero in this film is a local Nebraska activist named Frank LaMere.

The documentary film deals with LaMere's effort to engage government officials in stopping the sale of liquor in Whiteclay Nebraska, a Nebraska border town within walking distance of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota.

This isn't a new project for LaMere, but rather it's his passion and he's been pursuing it for years. He has every intention of meeting with President Obama and bringing the issue to his attention.

LaMere and fellow American Indian activists Duane Martin Sr. and Russell Means, while conducting totally peaceful protests, have been handcuffed and jailed by both Nebraska and Oglala Sioux police.

They are filmed at protests and in board rooms, presenting their arguments and repeatedly getting turned down for help.

Watching this film it's amazing that the Nebraskans in political office can so calmly take the situation under advisement and then rule in favor of allowing the liquor stores to renew or get new licenses in Whiteclay.

Native Americans are not permitted alcohol on the reservation. They're also not allowed to drink alcohol on the local roads, while driving or walking, in stores, restaurants or motels and yet they buy it from the distributors in Whiteclay, get drunk and get into trouble.

When LaMere argues that shutting down the distributors or revoking their licenses will make it much more difficult for people from the reservation to purchase alcohol because they won't have the means or want to travel further, he is ignored by people in authority.

The rate of alcoholism among the Native American population in Pine Ridge is high and yet legislators insist during meetings that cutting off the alcohol will not help lower alcoholism.

Their argument seems almost ridiculous,since it's a fact that alcoholism is a medical disease and providing a close source of alcohol simply feeds the illness.

Watching this film is uncomfortable for the viewer. Some scenes are just difficult to watch while others are extremely frustrating.

It's clear to see that something has to be done and the Lincoln, Nebraska legislators have it within their means to do something positive by voting to cancel the licenses for the four distributors which would make obtaining liquor very difficult for residents of the Pine Ridge SD reservation.

I had the pleasure of hearing Frank LaMere speak following a screening of the film. He is as compelling a speaker in person as he is on screen. His arguments and suggestions make sense and one wonders how legislative committees can listen and then ignore his pleas.

Even worse, although always peaceful, an American, and a resident of Nebraska, he has been arrested for walking from the South Dakota reservation down the road across the state line, into Nebraska, where he is a registered resident and actually resides. What a terrible infringement of human rights.

Vasina's approach to making this documentary is brilliant because he focuses on the activists who are vocally but peacefully fighting for change in the border town.

He doesn't reiterate the stories about reservation families suffering because of alcoholism or follow those individuals who are wrecking their lives by buying alcohol and drinking in Whiteclay.

Instead Vasina mentions that the four stores in Whiteclay sell over 11,000 cans of beer daily, and it's to the Native Americans primarily, not to the tourists who come to visit where the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre historic site.

Vasina films the activists and their supporters making compelling and logical arguments. Among the best is LaMere's questiion "Would we allow these things that happen in Whiteclay to happen in western Omaha or southeast Lincoln?"

The answer is obvious. No. If the same type of drunken activity went on in western Omaha or southeast Lincoln, the residents, primarily white men, would vote to put an end to it.

It becomes obvious as we follow the trials and tribulations of the activists that the white legislators aren't concerned with helping the Native Americans, placing a lesser value on their lives and their problems.

Instead the legislators consistently vote to reissue licenses to the Whiteclay distributors, allowing them to continue making high profits by selling alcohol to people suffering from the illness of alcoholism.

Limiting alcohol in Whiteclay may not cure alcoholism but it will definitely have an positive effect in controlling a serious illness and contribute to a healthier way of life for all residents of the Pine Ridge S.D. reservation.

More information is available on the film's site http://battleofwhiteclay.org

Saturday, November 7, 2009

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS

By D.E.Levine

Director: Grant Heslov
Writer: Peter Straughan (screenplay) and Jon Ronson (book)
Cast: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick, Waleed Zuaiter, Stephen Root, Glenn Morshower, Nick Offerman, Tim Griffin, Rebecca Madefr, Jacob Browne, Brad Grunberg et al.
Producers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Paul Lister
Executive Producers: Barbara A. Hall, James A. Holt, Alison Owen and David M. Thompson
Associate Producer: Luillo Ruiz
Original Music: Rolfe Kent
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Country of Origin:
Language: English
Genre: Comedy


This is a deadpan absurdist comedy inspired by a true story, where the usually cool George Clooney sheds his normal sophisticated character and embraces his inner clown.

As Lyn Cassady, a fictional character who belongs to a weird army unit. With tics, eyeball bulges and explosive gestures, Lyn joins the very strange unit of Bill Django and becomes a star at staring at goats so hard that bad things happen. He also practices cloud bursting.

Django is a military hippie concentrating on creating a superpower army. He intends to create a unit of soldiers with psychic abilities who can walk through walls, stare animals to death and use subliminal messages in music, hugs and peace symbols to disarm and overcome the enemy.

It's based on the true story of Colonel Jim Channon who wrote about his ideas in a 125-page report entitled "The First Earth Battalion. He had a great deal of support both financially and through the ranks, for his supernatural notions. In 2004 Jon Roston explored Channon's ideas in his book "The Men Who Stare At Goats".

The film begins with a journalist named Wilton from the Ann Arbor newspaper (ironically Ann Arbor's newspaper has just folded). When the newspaperman meets a man who relates he was a member of the New Earth Army, a super secret unit of paranormals being trained to spy from afar, penetrate enemy lines in spirit instead of body, and kill just by staring, he becomes interested enough to follow the story.

Flying to Kuwait in 2002, Wilton hooks up with Cassady, who has the reputation of being the best of the paranormal unit, and crosses into the war zone.

By pumping Cassady for information, Wilton learns that 20 years earlier he was being trained to be a Jedi warrior. There are flashbacks between 20 years before and the training that went on in the unit, and the present with the two men in the war zone.

Kevin Spacey plays Hooker, who hates Cassady 20 years before, and manages to get Django dishonorably discharged.

Flash forward to the present and Wilton and Cassady wind up at the training ground for the paranormal unit which is now under Hooper's command and where Django has been hired as a consultant.

While not the best comedy, the film is funny and the actors are extremely good. Because the story is based on real events, the question is raised about whether a unit of this type exists today and whether there are men and women from our current military being trained as psychic soldiers.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A PROPHET (UN PROPHETE)

By D.E.Levine

Director: Jacques Audiard
Writers: Thomas Bidegain and Jacques Audiard (screenplay), Abdel Raouf Dafi and Nicholas Peufaillit (original script)
Producer: Martine Cassinelli
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoiubi, Reda Kajeb, Jean-Philippe Ricci, Gilles Cohen, Antoine Basler, Leila Behti, Pierre Leccia, Fouad Nassah, Jean-Emmanuel Pagni, et. al.
Original Music: Alexandre Desplat
Running Time: 155 Minutes
Country of Origin: France
Language: French with English subtitles
Genre: Drama

A powerful prison drama from French director Jacques Audiard, Un Prophete won the Grand Prix prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It is mesmerizing despite its long running time. Audiard is an amazing storyteller who weaves his tale flawlessly so that you never lose interest.

The lead, a wayward Arab youth named Malik El Djebena is brilliantly played by a first time actor, Tahar Rahim.

Landing in prison at age 19, the youth cannot read or write. Innocent in prison ways he's at the mercy of older, more worldly thugs.

Struggling to survive within the violence of the prison, repeatedly humiliated, forced under threat of death by the Corsican gang that runs the prison to befriend and murder a fellow Arab, the young prisoner is aligned with the Corsicans despite his wishes.

He serves the Corsicans as a gofer/slave, doing menial tasks in exchange for protection within the prison. Over the years Malik learns to read and write and educates himself in the ways of the prison, although his path is partially paved by the Corsican leader.

It's amazing to see the amount of crime that goes on while the prisoners are incarcerated, both in and out of the prison. The convicts continue to run their crime operations outside of the prison.

In the end, Malik learns so much that he manages to challenge the prison's existing power structure and by playing groups outside the prison against each other, he manages to construct his own empire.

What stands out immediately in this film is the violence and brutality, the raw impact of the encounters, and the believable characters as portrayed by the actors.

What the viewer takes away is the understanding of how power is manifested within the prison and within life.

Even within prison hatred exists, as the Corsicans show disdain and fear towards the bearded Muslims and are willing to practice extreme violence in order to maintain control.

The tale this film tells is almost like a coming of age tale. This Arab youth who is essentially a nobody within the prison structure goes on to become the most respected mobster in the prison.

We see it happen before our eyes and we're never bored as the director rolls out the story with minute details that make it believable.

Un Prophete is a commentary on race relations in France, societies in prisons and achievement through determination.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A SERIOUS MAN

By D.E.Levine

Directors: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Cast: Micael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, Peter Breitmayer, Brent Braunschweig, David Kang, Benjy Portnoe, Jack Swiler, Fyvush Finkel, Alan Mandell, Adam Arkin, Jon Kaminski Jr., Ari Hoptman. Simon Hellberg, George Wyner, Michael Tezia, Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson, Claudia Wilkens, Simon Helberg et al.
Producers: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Executive Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Robert Graf
Original Music: Carter Burwell
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Country of Origin: United States
Language: English with some Yiddish and Hebrew
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Autobiography

The Coen brothers are known for the diversity of their writing and the wit that they insert into their films. However, since their 13 other films have centered around subjects like Texas mass murders, North Dakota lawmen and lifestyle, Irish mafia, supposed government spies and stoned Los Angeles bowlers, we can never assume that they are writing autobiographical material.

In A Serious Man, their 14th film, the Coen brothers touch on their Midwestern Jewish roots for the first time, returning to their boyhood community in Minneapolis, Minnesota and filming a story about Jewish life.

The film begins with a darkly comic prologue that takes place in the Yiddish language in a 19th century Eastern European shtetl and frames the film for the story that follows.

What follows is the story of Larry Gopnik, a suburban Minneapolis physics professor in 1967, descended from the East European family, who's trials and tribulations (tsuris) can be attributed to the curse placed upon the family by a malevolent spirit (dybbuk).

It must be the curse. Why else would the mild mannered, devoted husband, father and teacher be told by his wife that she's leaving him for a neighbor and wants a Jewish divorce, a get?

Simultaneously, his potential tenure is being anonymously sabotaged by letters to his department head and colleagues, a failing Korean student attempts to bribe him for a grade change, his daughter steals from him, his son steals from his daughter, while instead of studying for his bar mitzvah, his son listens to rock and roll music in Hebrew school and gets stoned on pot, and Larry's slobby, unemployable brother is sleeping on the couch and writing in a book entitled Mentaculus.

Larry is thrown into a spiritual crisis by all of the negative things happening to him. He doesn't find any resolution from the three different rabbis he consults.

Although his own misfortunes seem random, he consuls a wayward student that "actions have consequences". Larry has faith but no understanding of what's happening. He longs to be the "serious man" of the title and yet his wife reserves the term for Sy, the neighbor and friend who steals her from him.

The Coen brothers paint an accurate picture of 1960s life in Jewish America. The spiritual crisis continues although Larry is almost Job-like in his persistence and perseverance.

All things appear to be converging on the day of Danny's (Larry's son) bar mitzvah. Is God going to reveal some important truth to Larry and to the viewers on that day?

Is the film a drama or a comedy? There are plenty of jokes in it although the viewer might need some understanding of Jewish culture to understand them.

The viewer must question whether the Coen brothers are suggesting that we live a nihilistic life. They present a Jewish view of cosmic injustice, where no one person sees the entire picture. In their Jewish American culture the rational is rendered irrelevant by the mystical and throughout it all, Larry Gopnik remains hopeful.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

THAT EVENNING SUN

By D.E.Levine

Director: Scott Teems
Writer: Scott Teems (screenplay), William Gay (short story "I Hate to See the Evening Sun Go Down")
Producers: Terence Berry, Walton Groggins, Ray McKinnon and Laura D. Smith
Executive Producers: Raul Celaya, Adrian Jay, Larsen Jay
Co-Produces: Jeanine Rohn
Associate Producer: Anthony Reynolds
Cast: Hal Holbrook, Ray McKinnon,Walton Groggins, Mia Wasikowska, Carrie Preston, Barry Corbin, Dixie Carter, Baarlow Jacobs, Anthony Reynolds, Brian Keith, Bruce McKinnon, William J. Mode and Jacob Parkhurst
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Country of Origin: United States
Language: English
Genre: Drama

Hal Holbrooke has long been known as a superb supporting character film actor. He was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for Into The Wild. In this film he definitely tops that performance.

On stage, for years he has mesmerized the audience in his one man performance as Mark Twain. However, memorable lead roles in films have long escaped him.

In That Evening Sun Holbrooke, at age 84, turns in a lead performance that is undoubtedly the best he's ever done. As good as the rest of the cast is, Holbrooke's character, Abner Meecham, totally controls the film.

An independent, rural set drama helmed by a first time director Scott Teems who also wrote the screenplay, the film depicts 80-year old Abner Meecham, an Tennessee farmer angry at his son for recently putting him in a nursing home, and angry at the impending sale of his beloved farm to a young man he never liked.

Both hateful and sympathetic, Meecham appears in every scene as a senior who is both dynamic and troubled. The intensity of Holbrooke's performance actually brings out better performances in his fellow actors and enhances Holbrooke's reputation as a consummate actor.

While the subject matter may not appeal to everyone, the film is so absorbing, the feeling of the southern rural community captured so well, and the performances so believable that once the film begins time passes without notice until suddenly the film is at an end.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

DISNEY'S A CHRISTMAS CAROL

By D.E.Levine

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Robert Zemeckis (screenplay) and Charles Dickens (novel)
Cast: Jim Carey, Steve Valentine, Daryl Sabara, Sage Ryan, Ryan Ochoa, Bobbi Page, Ron Bottitta, Sami Hanratty, Julian Holloway, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright Penn, Bob Hoskins, Jacquie Barnbrook, Leslie Manville, Molly C. Quinn, Fay Masterson, Leslie Zemeckis, Paul Blackthorne, Michael Hyland, Kerry Hoyt, Julene Renee, Fionnula Flanagan, Raymond Ochoa, Callum Blue, Matthew Henerson, Amber Gainey Meade, Aaron Rapke, Sonje Fortag
Producers: Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey and Robert Zemeckis
Associate Producers: Katherine C. Concepcion and Heather Smith
Original Music: Alan Silvestri
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Country of Origin: United States
Language: English
Genre: Fantasy, Capture Animation

This is a story that is visually stunning but in the translation to new technology loses the heart of the original novella.

It isn't "A Christmas Carol". Now it's "Disney's A Christmas Carol" and it has been subjected to the latest and greatest in digital technology.

While making the film breathtaking with special effects, the transition changes the essence of the underlying message since the emotional meaning of the film is subjugated to technological sleights of hand.

We must remember that Dickens wrote an unforgettable horror tale about miserly Ebernezer Scrooge's night of being assaulted in his own bedroom by the menancing spirits of his long-dead business partner Marley and three others.

With clanking chains they take him through his past, present and future life, exposing his misanthropic nature and his miserly manner.

When asked for a donation for the poor and the orphaned he asks "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" That stinginess and prevailing social atitutude is as frightening as the visions he sees and the voices he hears during his night of terror.

Dicken's tale is a dark and forboding look at Scrooge's soul. It is an examination of how emotions can get trampled and stunted but it is also a story of redemption when Scrooge learns that life is richer and better when with empathy and affection he opens his life to others and is rewarded with joy beyond anything he's previously known.

The Disney version is true to the original story with text being identical to the novella, but using the latest in 3D digital technology, motion picture capture and computer animation Zemeckis has made the film his own and in some ways changed the story's impact.

The use of animation and advanced technology allows the star-filled cast to play multiple parts since only their characters, not the actors themselves, are seen on screen.

However, the use of motion capture, distorted faces and figures, plus exaggerated body language, make the characters into caricatures.

Because Dickens created prototypical or classic characters, turning them into caricatures detracts from them and from the overall tale.

In the original novella, Tiny Tim is an important character representing the true spirit and true message of the book. In Disney's film Tiny Tim seems like a relatively unimportant character because his character never embraces the far flung exploits made possible by technology.

The third of Zemeckis's motion capture animated films, it is better than either Polar Express or Beowulf. The voice work is excellent, Victorian London has been designed remarkably well and the animated figures look very much like the actors who do their voices.

However, the heart and emotion that I still feel when watching the 1951 Alistair Sim version is missing when I watch this latest effort. At some points it's almost like watching a video game rather than a film.

The viewer is never as emotionally involved with Scrooge and the other characters as with the characters in the preceding films.

Still, this is a not to be missed film that will keep children enchanted and a bit scared, while offering adults a look at the latest advances in digital technology, motion capture and animation.