Friday, January 6, 2012

Short Attention Span Movie Reviews

I love movies. I'm willing to give almost any movie a chance and I usually find something I like about most of them. My reviews won't be rants but sometimes they'll be raves. And they'll be short.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
I missed the 3D theater version so I had to settle for Netflix 2D. The film, written, directed and narrated by Werner Herzog, is about the 30,000-year-old cave paintings in Chauvet, France, discovered in 1994. The paintings depict animal life in the area and they are breathtakingly beautiful. The most astonishing are of horses and lions, with bison a close third. The cave is littered with animal bones, including cave bears. The artists' techniques anticipate Renaissance painting and modern art. The walls of the cave are scarred by cave bear claws. Hand prints identify at least one of the artists as someone 6' tall with a twisted pinky finger on his/her right hand. It is astounding, and deeply moving, to imagine someone painting these images by torch light over 30 millenia ago. The artist reaches across time, in fact obliterates time, to celebrate humanity and the natural world in which we live. This is a profoundly beautiful, soulful and soothing film. It puts the chaos of modern life in perspective. Great sound track. Get ready for Herzog's somewhat distracting but oddly charming narrative voice.

The Descendants

Here's the problem: George Clooney is a movie star, not an actor. I have nothing against him or movie stars, and he's been in some good movies in recent years, but he is so limited as an actor that his films only work because of the real actors sourrounding him. Beau Bridges is a real actor. He gets more out of his character in five minutes than Clooney does in 105. Watch the scene between them and you'll see what I mean. The best part of this film are the young and old actors. Shailene Woodley can act. Robert Forster and Barbara Southern can act. Now think of Tilda Swinton and Tim Wilkinson in "Michael Clayton" and Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air." Think of the look on Bogart's face when Ilsa walks into Rick's or stands him up on the train platform in Paris. Clooney is good at two facial expressions: bewilderment and ironic pleasure. That's it. It's hard to care about his characters, and you want to care about a guy who's faced with Clooney's decisions in "The Descendants." It's not a bad movie, it's just the wrong guy playing the leading role.

Our Idiot Brother

My wife and I rarely spend the money to watch light comedies in the theater. We prefer to wait until they're available on Netflix or at the local video store. We weren't expecting much from "Our Idiot Brother," starring Paul Rudd, Emily Mortimer, Zooey Deschanel and Elizabeth Banks. Rudd is the idiot brother whose two biggest faults are, one, that he falls for the lies of others and, two, he always tells the truth, especially when falling for the lies of others. There were enough laughs to keep us interested and the three sisters were fun to watch and played their roles well. But the movie became most worthwhile when the focus became clear: what happens when someone's innocent yet undeniably truthful statements expose the deceitful secrets of others? That's when the squirming begins, when denial, blaming and misdirected anger moves to the foreground. This is a comedy, so of course the bloodletting has to lead to happy endings (mostly), which isn't always the case in real life, but there was enough subtle truth in this movie to give it a thumbs up. Throw in an organic gardener with an attitude and a golden retriever named Willie Nelson and you can't go completely wrong.

The Future

What would you do if you woke up one morning in your mid-30's still sporting a head full of frizzy alt hair, living in a cluttered apartment with mismatched furniture and meaningless knickknacks, wondering what happened to the life you were hoping to create? If you hired Miranda July to write, direct, and played the lead in a movie about your fix, your life would include a talking cat, a talking moon and a t-shirt that creepy crawls across the floor to its owner like the tingler. You'd also be able to stop time, have a completely inexplicable affair with someone you barely know, and try to save the planet by selling trees door-to-door in LA. You would do all this while having the energy level of a sloth and the zonked look in your eyes of someone on a perpetual high. If all of these ingredients sound intriguing to you, check out "The Future," a bizarre but strangely appealing indy comedy about a couple with the problem described above. Their level of intimacy has been reduced to sitting face-to-face on the couch with their legs outstretched while deep into their individual laptops. She thought she would be a famous dancer. He thought he would be a world leader. Instead, they're stuck: in time, in bad jobs, in pale lethargic bodies, in a life that will soon be nothing but "loose change," according to Jason, played by Hamish Linklater. If you've ever experienced this kind of anxiety, or wonder about people who do, "The Future" is the movie for you.
Midnight in Paris

The average viewer gets treated to (at least) two fantasies in Woody Allen's latest romantic comedy.  The first is to have enough success and money that long expensive vacations in Paris are a possibility, followed by the decision to give up life at home and remain in Paris indefinitely. Luckily, Owen Wilson's character, Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter, is guileless and likable enough that we don't hold this against him. We get to see a sensationally beautiful Paris through Gil's star-struck eyes and it is as enchanting as we might imagine it to be. His viewpoint reinforces Allen's opeing montage of Paris shots, backed by Sidney Bechet's music, a four minute love affair similar to the opening of "Manhattan." Who wouldn't want to wander around Paris leisurely, even if it did cost buckets of euros? The second fantasy is time traveling to a previous era and meeting all the luminaries of the period, in this case the 1920's Paris of Stein, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, Dali, Porter and a host of others. And if that's not enough, going back to the Maxim's of the Belle Epoque and meeting Lautrec, Degas and Gaughin. Yes, it's a liberal arts major's fantasy, and maybe not for everyone, but the beauty of the film and the love affairs (with Paris, the arts, celebrity, and the astonishingly beautiful Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard) should satisfy anyone with a functioning heart. Also starring Rachel McAdams as Inez, Gil's insufferably cold and shallow American fiance, the perfect foil for Wilson's warmhearted romantic. Even on the second viewing, I smiled from the first to the last frame of Allen's best movie in recent years. And one of these days I'm going to Paris.

The Artist

I'll say this first and get it out of the way: I loved "The Artist." Looks great, terrific acting, clever, entertaining, funny, courageous (silent, no car chases, a dog is one of the stars). The shape of the plot may be too familiar - likable protagonist at peak of career brought low by pride but eventually redeemed by love - but for my money there's something far more intriguing going on in this film. What happens when a carefully constructed public identity, one that has led to considerable success, is stripped away and a person seriously asks himself "Who am I?" What happens when the answer is "I don't know," or worse, "Nobody?" As the great silent screen star, George Valentin, is brought low by the invention of talkies, after silent screen "mugging" and melodrama goes out of style and George can't adjust, he is forced to ask himself that question, while still battling what's left of his pride. Levels of identity are stripped away, not without substantial pain, until George reaches a shocking level of despair. The genius of the film is that we experience all of this without explanatory words, or at least none that are voiced. We are totally dependent on what we think is going on in George's head as expressed by his face and body. Jean Dujardin, who plays George, transforms himself from a dashing, confident leading man to a desperate man in search of his identity. His performance is so profoundly affective that it transcends the limitations of the plot and makes George Valentin's torment real. All without words. The title "The Artist," works on many levels in this film. If you're like me, after you see it you'll spend days thinking about it. Because who hasn't been George at one time or another, with no words to express the depth of our personal conflict, no words to talk our way out of despair? Don't miss "The Artist."


Why did Gus Van Sant make "Restless?" It's the story or two fragile teens who find each other while dealing with recent and impending death. They hang out at funerals and morgues. They are gifted with other worldly sensitivity and tenderness, and quirky interests like ornithology and playing Battleship with an invisible friend who happens to be the ghost of a WWII kamikaze pilot. And they have suitably oddball names: Annabell and Enoch. Yes, Enoch. This territory has been covered many times before, all the way back to "David and Lisa" and the brilliant "Harlold and Maude." My guess is that Van Sant couldn't resist the opportunity to work with the ethereally beautiful Mia Wasikowska, a wisp of a girl with a waif-like haircut who literally drifts through the movie like a dandelion puff wearing a variety of charming thrift store outfits. She's matched with the equally delicate Henry Hopper, son of Dennis. I won't detail the plot, but one has to die to "save" the other. The worst scenes are when Enoch gets angry and the best are when the two young lovers are comforting one another, especially the first kiss. It's not first-rate Van Sant, but second or even third rate Van Sant, plus the pleasure of watching Wasikowska work, makes the film worth watching after dinner on Wednesday evening before getting back to a good book. And you only have to invest 90 minutes.

The Horse Boy

If you were diagnosed with cancer and someone told you there was a Mongolian reindeer herder shaman who could cure you but was only accessible by a tortuous journey via van and horseback to the northern most regions of Mongolia, would you go?  Not likely, right? First you would exhaust every possibility available to you within reason, and, if all else failed, then you might consider it? Again, not likely.  What if it was your four-year-old son, but his problem was autism, not cancer? This amazing documentary follows Rupert and Kristin Isaacson as they seek help for Rowan. Their advantages on the trek are professional experience with native cultures and vast travel experience, but none of that matters in their harrowing and exhausting day-to-day life with an autistic child. "The Horse Boy" is a beautiful study of unconditional love and the vast, unexplained healing powers of the universe that most of us never attempt to access due to our reliance on western medicine. See this film. Keep your options open.  

This film is a two hour and twenty minute derivative mess that works because of fine performances by Nick Nolte, a formerly abusive recovering alcoholic who destroyed his family, and Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, the tough sons he alienated while drinking. Hardy is particulalry intriguing as a UFC Marlon Brando/Mike Tyson hybrid with rage to spare, a la  De Niro as Jake LaMotta. Throw in a mixed martial arts tournament, a martyred mother, multiple resentments, the Iraq war, a failed economy, the mean streets of Philly and Pittsburgh, and the neon and rhinestone glitter of Atlantic City, and you get a heady Oedipal brew that leaves almost no one standing. In a stroke of genius that trumps Rocky, you get two underdogs for the price of one, and they just happen to be brothers. Fortunately, there's enough honest emotion and top notch action to get past the "suspend your disbelief" turns in the plot. This is classic B movie fare for a Saturday night at home. Check it out, but keep your guard up and protect yourself at all times!

Safe House

Car chases, house-to-house chases, rooftop chases, close quarters hand-to-hand combat, bad guys with even worse aim who insist on walking directly into the good guy's line of fire, double agents, corrupt bosses, scores of bodies, jumpy camera work, grainy close-ups, ear splitting action sequences. If all of this sounds too familiar, don't go to see the new Denzel Washington film, "Safe House." Unfortunately, even Denzel is disappointing, playing his character as if the air has been let out of him. Yes, he's a world weary, off-the-reservation CIA agent who's seen and done it all trying for one last big score, so he's supposed to be heavy and slow, but not almost inert. He's always great to look at, and we get to see some of that signature Denzel cool-as-a-cucumber lope, the best walk this side of vintage Clint Eastwood, but that's not enough to make this film worthwhile. And, sorry Ryan Reynolds, but you're beady-eyed longing look reminds me too much of someone doing a George Bush impersonation. And, wonderfully ironic and I hope intentional, your character is a Yale graduate! Sadly, even Vera Farmiga seems to be walking through this role and somehow the camera isn't kind to her. How could a director screw that up? There are worse ways to spend eight bucks, but don't plan your whole weekend around going to see "Safe House." Better to stay safe in your house and watch a classic Denzel, like "Training Day." 

It's bad enough when Adam (Gordon Joseph-Levitt), only 27, is diagnosed with possibly fatal spinal cancer, but it's even worse when his girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) is less than committed to their relationship and his smothering mother Diane (Anjelica Huston), who's already caring for his Alzheimer's stricken father, makes him feel guilty about his condition. Fortunately, Adam has forever adolescent best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) to ply him with alcohol and drugs and drag him to Seattle bars in hopes of using his condition to get sympathy sex from attractive young women. In the meantime, Adam is vomiting from the after effects of chemotherapy, voluntarily shaving his head, losing weight and trying not to freak out completely. Also fortunately, his therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick) just happens to be a 24-year-old Ph.D. candidate with some issues of her own, like a car full of old food wrappers. She's also cute. And insecure. And, based on her own neediness, unsure about the line between personal and professional. Cancer isn't funny, but despite the perpeually gloomy skies of Seattle as a backdrop, and even with Rogen relentlessly being Rogen, the film manages to remain warm and humorous thanks to the combined flaws of all the characters and their interrelations. Gordon-Levitt's dreamy, sad, helpless, honest charm illuminates everyone, even as the possibility of death looms. Better than the average "Terms of Endearment" movie. As a bonus, some wonderful scenes with Adam's partners in chemotherapy. Check it out.

"Pina" is Wim Wenders' documentary tribute to the German choreographer, Pina Bausch, shot in 3D. Since I have very little experiece with dance, or with dance as theater, I'm going to write about the film, Bausch's work, and the performance of her dancers, as art. To stick with my short attention span format, I'm really going to have to simplify, which means I'm available for coffee if you want to discuss this further. Since I'm no expert on either dance or art, you may even want to stop reading now. If not, here goes. It seems the best art begins with some kind of inspiration, either external or from intense self-investigation. The inspiration/investigation leads to a level of self-discovery which is then expressed as art. For the observer the art becomes the stimulus for the same process: self-investigation followed by self-discovery. The very best art yields insights not just about individual observers but about a whole society or universe of observers. Pina Bausch depends on her dancers to represent the process that yields her art. In the film we learn that she constantly encourages her dancers to explore more deeply whatever emotion, feeling or condition she is attempting to have them present. When they dance it appears as if the "process," for lack of a better word, is all happening at once: self-investigation, self-discovery, representation as art, and it is spellbinding, beautiful, and at times terrifying, to watch. Even though we know performance is preceded by production and rehearsal, we as observers feel the excitement of the art being created right before our eyes, and we are caught up in the artistic cycle. As the director of the film, Wenders chooses landscapes, sets, camera angles and stark images of the dancers at rest talking about Pina, as his canvas for the visual art of the film to complement the art of the dance. Settle in and let this film carry you. Be a part of it. You won't regret it.

Pina Bausch died from cancer during production for the film, before any of it was shot. Out of sadness, grief and respect for Bausch, Wenders almost didn't make "Pina." It's good he did. Now everyone has the chance to see the film and be transported by Pina Bausch's art. As a friend wrote (and please smile as you read this), "Woke up this morn with dancing on my mind. Jumped up and twinkled to the kitchen. Made coffee while holding a toe stand. My hands move in smooth, poetic motions never still. I am a new being." Here is an excellent website to learn more about "Pina."


Sadly, at any given time there are any number of brutal civil wars being waged in small and large countries all over the planet. Race against race, religion against religion, these wars victimize countless innocent victims, often through unthinkable brutality. They happen so frequently that we often forget about those that happened earlier in our lifetime as they recede into world history and the scars have begun to heal, at least on the surface. The Lebanese civil war, the subject of "Incedies," is an example. In this film, twins Jeanne and Simon, living in Canada, are directed by their mother's will to locate two people from their, and her, Lebanese past: the father they never knew and the brother they didn't know existed. Simon resists, at first, but Jeanne is determined to fulfill her mother's last wishes and sets out on an odyssey with many unexpected twists and turns, as might be expected in trying to uncover the truth about something that happened during the chaos of civil war nearly 40 years ago. Told in flashbacks, the story and truth they discover is almost unbearable, but it proves that in war anything is possible, so thoroughly does it destroy our common humanity and the ties that bind us all. "Incendies" is not an easy film to watch. Whatever love exists in the world is badly tattered by the events we witness, events that could happen in any war at anytime. The impossible becomes possible, the worst that we know exists but rarely experience in our safe daily lives, is manifest. Regardless, hope survives and even the beast in us has a chance to repent and be forgiven. I recommend "Incendies," but be prepared for a rough ride.

There was a lot of buzz about this film, starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, when it first came out. Gosling plays a mechanic/stunt man who moonlights as a free lance getaway driver in LA. Mulligan is the girl down the hall whose husband is in prison, leavng her alone to care for their son. Driver (Gosling's character has no name in the film), cares for Irene and Benicio, and he tries to help Irene's husband, Standard, after he's released from prison. Two garrulous hoods, Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, do most of the talking in the film, with some additional nervous talk by Gosling's garage owner friend and employer, Bryan Cranston. Driver and Irene say more with their eyes than they do with their words, but it would have been fun to know what they were thinking, like "Why doesn't this film have a script?" . After building a lot of tension and expectation early, the film dissolves into another opportunity for psychopaths to hurt people. After a stick up set up with bad results, Driver turns to vengeance and the film explodes (literally) in violence.  Most disappointing is how little great driving actually happens. This is no Bullitt. It's not The French Connection. I could trace the long history of silent outside-the-law avengers in movie history, which would probably be more interesting than the movie itself. Gosling and Mulligan are wasted in this film. Why does Irene wear ankle length skirts in almost every scene? Is Gosling auditioning for the return of Dirty Harry? Sorry, but Drive doesn't deliver.

When Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and Anna (Melanie Laurent) meet for the first time at a party, he's disguised as Freud and she's disguised as a man. She also has laryngitis, which further diminishes communication and foreshadows the awkward courting dance that follows for the rest of the film. While the attraction is clear, it is also clear that there's a resistance to the romance, a fear of commitment based on the pasts of these two thirty-somethings. She's an actress living in a hotel in LA, he's a photographer working on photos for a rock group's album, and both of them are distracted by unresolved issues that make them seem alone in a crowded room. What are the issues? Hers are implied by phone calls that she never answers from an unstable father, his are explained in the other arc of the film, his recently deceased father Hal's (Christopher Plummer) late life announcement that he's gay, following his wife's death. The film moves back and forth from the forward movement of Oliver and Anna's relationship to flashbacks of Oliver's life with his parents, both pre and post announcement. Oliver, dreamy and prescient even as a child, knows things aren't right between his parents, even though there's outward stability in the family. The major irony in the film is that Hal flourishes in his new identity, while we learn that Oliver has stumbled through a series of temporary relationships that he portrays in simple line drawings as the film proceeds. Hal dies surrounded by a tribe of healthy gay men, while Oliver lives in emotional isolation. This film works because the unwinding of the emotional conflicts never lurches into melodrama. Just as Hal had a future after his wife's death, Oliver has a future, too, if he can break loose from his past through his relationship with Anna, who, like Oliver, is an emotional Beginner. Check it out to see what happens in this unusual but compelling love story. By the way, Christopher Plummer won the Academy Award for his performance, and Melanie Laurent (the theater owner in Inglorious Basterds) is stunning throughout.

The Hunger Games
There may be other young femals stars who could have played Katniss Everdeen, but there's no doubt that without Jennifer Lawrence this film would have been a dud. She has the proper combination of natural beauty, quiet strength that emanates from within, and physical presence to convince viewers that she's up to the task at hand. Just as in "Winter's Bone," Lawrence commands attention in "The Hunger Games," and really does project the grit and resolve necessary to confront her adversaries and the focused intelligence to succeed. The makers of "The Hunger Games" couldn't have chosen a better female hero. Now, what's going on in this film?
In the dystopian world of Panem, sometime in the future of North America, a privileged few rule the masses through fear, intimidation, unrelenting poverty, surveillance and a media event that distracts and entertains them while pitting them against themselves in a reminder of what happens to rebels,  leaving them grateful that they have not been chosen for sacrifice. Minions due the bidding of a calm, rational, blood thirsty leader who tends his roses while dispensing death sentences. In the end the masses celebrate the victor of "The Hunger Games," a blood sport not unlike the gladiators in Rome, and everyone is pacified for another year. Every possible reference to tyranny surfaces in this film, from crowd scenes reminiscent of death camps to characters named Claudius, and I suppose it's meant to be a cautionary tale sending the clear message, "Look out, this or somethng like it is in our future if we're not careful," hence the need for a hero who will defy the tyranny, one who kills only in self-defense, never as a means to an end, even when surrounded by those attempting to kill her. There are a lot of questionable escapes, lurching plot turns and stereotypical characters in "The Hunger Games," and I can do without the too frequent use of the "shaky cam," but there is a chilling reality to this film (and, I suppose, the novels), that separates it from the superhero and fantasy genres and leads to some thoughtful reflection. I want to know what's going to happen next. Worth seeing for more reasons than just being one of the few regular movie goers who won't see it.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of the more famous Olsen twins, is spellbinding as a young woman with deep psychological scars who runs away from a rural cult led by a charismatic played by John Hawkes, who is the perfect incarnation of restrained, smiling, sotto voce violence. Hawkes looks like he should be playing guitar for the Stones or cooking meth, as he did in "Winter's Bone," and he is terrifying. Martha's escape, which occurs early in the film, is a relief for the viewer as flashbacks fill in the disturbing details of her life on the farm. The problem is that she doesn't have much to run to except the conventional life her sister, her only surviving relative, and husband live in New York and Connecticut, so running is not necessarily the end of, or the solution to, her problems. Shocking utterances, fragmented examples of "cult speak," sudden emotional outbursts and paranoid delusions reveal the depth of her dislocation from reality and her need for more than familial care. As in most pyschological thrillers, it is sometimes hard to know when what we're seeing is real and when it is a projection of the character's subconscious, but, when successful, as it is in this film, this narrative device adds to the tension and the uncertainty about the character's moment-to-moment sanity and safety. Watching "MMMM" reminded me of the creepy discomfort of reading Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw." Olsen beautifully projects the haunted look of someone whose identity is locked deep inside her confused emotions and fear. As suggested by the title (her real name is Martha but she's immediately christened Marcy May by Hawkes when she arrives at the farm), identity is elusive  under the best of circumstances. Under the worst, it may be lost forever. See this movie. Like me, at times you may find you've forgotten to breathe for awhile.

Woody Harrelson is convincing as a Vietnam veteran, twice married (to sisters, in fact: it's almost comical when he explains to his youngest daughter that she's first cousin and half sister to his oldest daughter)dirty LA cop on the way down. Many good performances by the likes of Steve Buscemi, Ned Beatty, Anne Heche, Ben Foster, Robin Wright and Sigourney Weaver, all of whom must have seen something original in this script or else were trying to support the career of director/writer Oren Moverman, whose first film, "The Messenger," tackled equally painful material and also starred Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster. The problem I had is that this movie has been made many times before. Harrelson's character, Dave Brown, an officer in the notorious Rampart Division, beats perpetrators mercilessly, kills them when it's to his advantage to do so, practices vigilante justice, blames his behavior on Nam, and then pops pills, guzzles booze and uses women and the depraved LA drug and sex subculture to deal with his pain and his inability to change his behavior. His family is expendable, his friendships only of value when he benefits from them, and he doesn't have the courage to choose one of the two best options available to him: go to prison or kill himself. Why did Moverman think it was important to make this film? Why did Harrelson? I don't know. When the moment of truth comes for Dave Brown, he comes up with yet another manipulative scam to save himself. He's a despicable guy. If you like to watch films that relentlessly depict people circling the toilet, "Rampart" is your for you. Otherwise, don't bother. Watch "LA Confidential," "Bad Lieutenant," or even "Leaving Las Vegas" instead. "Rampart" includes elements of all of them, only without avoiding cliche. Or, for a real treat, watch Dana Andrews in the noir classic, "Where the Sidewalk Ends" from 1950. That's a great movie!

Salmon Fishing in Yemen
Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor star in a movie whose title is a metaphor for the idea that anything is possible, even a relationship between the characters they play. McGregor is a wonky Scottish fishing enthusiast who works for what appears to be the British state department and Blunt an assistant for a posh investment firm whose major client, a Yemeni sheik, wants to start a salmon run in an artificially created Yemen river. Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor) is a decent guy stuck in a loveless marriage. Harriet (Blunt) is newly in love with a handsome British soldier off to Afghanistan. Brought together by the sheik's "vision," everything is in place for an unlikely romance to blossom. Of course it helps with the metaphor that salmon swim upstream, which is what one or both of these characters will have to do to make this romance work. This is a romantic comedy that comes close to activating a seasoned movie goers gag reflexes at times, but it is saved by the charming lead characters, especially McGregor with his Scottish accent and acerbic Scottish wit. Blunt looks great and successfully anguishes between concern about her MIA boyfriend and her emerging feelings for Alfred. Throw in some terrorists, a Machiavellian publicist (Kristin Scott Thomas in a rare comic turn) for the Prime Minister, and a couple of worthless bureaucrats, and you have a sweet date night confection that will leave a little glow for the rest of the evening.
City of Life and Death
This devastating black-and-white depiction of what is known as the Nanking Massacre or the Rape of Nanking captures the murderous brutality inflicted by the Japanese Army on the residents of Nanking in the winter of 1937-38 during the Second Sino-Japanese War. It is estimated that 300,000 Chinese died during the occupation and that tens of thousands of Chinese women were raped and murdered while being held as sex slaves for the Japanese soldiers.  It is numbing to watch the treatment of the Chinese soldiers and citizens, including mass murders of thousands of helpless prisoners-of-war. The question of how one group of human beings could so ruthlessly deny the humanity of another group, especially the women and children, with little or no sense of guilt or remorse, blankets the mind while watching the film. Pulling back, of course, there is the reality that this ruthlessness is the savage hallmark of the 19th and 20th century in many parts of the world. Except for the heroic, if futile, actions of some of the captured Chinese and Western aide workers, very little light penetrates this film. Even the final scene cancels out hope with yet another tragedy. "City of Life and Death" is exceptionally well made, a remarkable recreation of a ruined city, an army of proud but scared conquerors, and masses of defeated, dirty and helpless victims. In one of the film's great ironies, the compassionate protector of the Chinese in the Nanking Safety Zone is a German businessman, John Rabe, affiliated with the Nazi party. As the dying Alec Guinness said at the end of "Bridge Over the River Kwai," "Madness, madness."

Another Earth

A seventeen-year-old who has just been accepted to MIT drives drunk and kills the family of a famous composer. Four years later she's released from jail, transformed into a withdrawn, reclusive loner suffering guilt and remorse silently. At the same time, a new planet is discovered, named Earth 2 because it appears to look like Earth and be populated by our doubles. As the film progesses the new planet draws ever closer to Earth and a company sponsors an essay contest, the winner of which will get to visit Earth 2. Rhoda, played perfectly by Brit Marling, who shares writing credit with director Mike Cahill, attempts to apologize to the emotionally ruined composer, loses her nerve and ends up as his house cleaner. He doesn't know her true identity. Rhoda decides to compete for the trip to Earth 2. I can't reveal any more of the plot without a spoiler alert, which is not my style. This low budget sci-fi drama held my attention from start to finish despite the large doses of willingness to suspend disbelief required. It is a film about redemption, the possibility of starting over and the simple truth that life and all its hopes and dreams can be altered in a tragic heart beat. That one bad decision by an otherwise good person can result in damages so great that escaping to another planet seems like a reasonable solution to the problem. Ultimately, for a film like this to work we have to be convinced that the pain the characters suffer is real, and we have to recognize the potential for or own suffering in theirs.  "Another Earth" meets both criteria. Watch this Sundance winner if you have a chance.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
A prime time ensemble cast that includes Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and Maggie Smith, romps through this "senior" comedy about English pensioners who fall for an internet brochure and find themselves at a rundown hotel in Jaipur, India. In short, this is a film about attitude, honesty, expectations and accetance, and by the end everyone learns something about him or herself without having to suffer too much pain in the process, unless sudden death from a pre-existing heart condition after learning the liberating truth about a haunting past experience, as happens to one of the characters, can be considered painful. The disorienting color and chaos of India are both the perfect setting and the catalyst for self-discovery, so the film goer gets to ask himself the same questions posed by the cast without actually having to go through with the experience, although most older travelers have by now dealt with unexpected circumstances in foreign lands. In the end, most of the characters find that, no matter how old or hidebound to the traditions of one culture, there is a future even in late life, and that looking forward is far healthier than looking back. Lots of laughs, some predictable epiphanies (oxymoronic euphemism for cliches), great fun. Oh, yeah, there were a lot of "old" people at the matinee my wife and I attended. Go figure.
Higher Ground
Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) directed and stars in this excellent indie film that follows a woman's life from youth to maturity as part of a small evangelical christian group in up state New York. At first as a naive pre-teen whose motives for inviting Christ into her heart are probably purer than those of the preacher who invites her to do so, through being saved following a near fatal accident (it's not her life that's almost lost), and then as she grows increasingly uncomfortable with her commitment and the role of women in the community, Farmiga never lets the viewer off the hook by providing easy solutions or by completely demonizing those she questions and the faith they profess. One remarkable reaction to her dilemma exhibited by Corinne, Farmiga's character, is spiritual distress and discomfort portrayed as extreme physical discomfort, a frequent twisting and stretching like someone trying to squirm out of her own skin and run away from herself. It suggests both the seriousness and painfulness of her spiritual quest. Corinne wants to know God. She wants direction and insight that transcends blind faith and biblical platitudes. And she rebels when "God's will" is the answer provided under even the most unimaginably devastating circumstances. This movie is worth watching for anyone who has experienced the "dark night of the soul" or wonders how an accomplished actor might portray a character who has. With an excellent soundtrack, a bucolic setting and fine performances throughout, including the always intriguing John Hawkes (Winter's Bone.)


  1. Nice format - I like the brevity and incisive take on the films. Reminds me a bit of Rex Reed without all the snarky remarks and general disdain for the medium. Which means it's nothing like Rex Reed and you can forget I said that.

  2. Excellent take on "The Artist". Hit the nail on the head. I was equally moved by the depth of the story and the effectiveness of Dujardin in conveying the conflict at the center of this wonderful film.

  3. First God, now Clooney? I am not in your demographic. You are on thin ice with me, Jones.

    1. I'm doing figure eights on your thin ice. I like the juxtaposition of God and George!

    2. Very funny. Great site, Will. Lots to think about. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I will be visiting often.