Tuesday, November 27, 2007

New DVD releases November 27

At one point in Mark Fergus’ First Snow, one character tells another his future depends on which road he takes. One senses this is the line Fergus and co-writer Hawk Ostby (they both co-wrote the low-budget thriller Consequence, and were two of the writers of Children of Men) kept in mind when they were writing this movie. The plot sounds like it could come out of Bad Thrillers 101. Jimmy (Guy Pearce) is a flooring salesman who dreams of selling vintage Wurlitzer jukeboxes, and has a good relationship with his girlfriend Deirdre (Piper Perabo). One day on his route, his car breaks down. While waiting to get it fixed, he decides to kill time by going to see Vacaro (J.K. Simmons), a psychic. Of course, Jimmy doesn’t believe a word he says, but gets freaked out when Vacaro stops the session all of a sudden, tells him to leave, and even refunds the money. Then his predictions, innocuous as they seem (Vacaro tells Jimmy which way to bet on a game) come true, and Jimmy comes back demanding to know what else will happen. At this point, Vacaro reveals Jimmy’s life will be fine – until the first snow of the year, at which point he’ll die.
From the plot description, you might guess one of those overblown horror movies a la The Reaping, where everything is spelled out and special effects replace suspense. Instead, Fergus relies on old-fashioned suspense and character development. For starters, instead of being played as creepy (and as anyone who’s seen Oz knows, Simmons knows from creepy), Vacaro is reluctant to talk about his gift, and about what it means. For another, the film takes a different turn as Jimmy starts getting phone calls that hang up when he picks up, and even a shooting target in the mail. Is it Andy (Rick Gonzalez), the sales associate he fired? Or is it Vincent (Shea Whigham), who knows a guilty secret from Jimmy’s past? Fergus also deals with questions not pondered usually in American films, like whether or not man can control his own fate. At times, Fergus is almost too low key in his direction, and he and cinematographer Eric Allan Edwards sometimes overdo the dark photography. Still, they keep us hanging onto Jimmy’s fate. It helps, of course, that Pearce is quite good at playing the scoundrel in Jimmy while keeping us rooting for him. And after this and The Prestige, it looks like Perabo is growing out of bad family movies like Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel.
At the beginning of Mira Nair’s The Namesake, a young Indian woman is about to enter the living room to see her parents and to meet the man she is soon to marry by arrangement. Before she does, she sees the man’s shoes, which are American sneakers. She pauses, and tries the sneakers on. She smiles a little, takes the sneakers off, and goes to join her family and her soon-to-be husband in the living room. That’s the type of detail that made Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel so readable, and Nair often has that quality in her best films (Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding). She shows it off in this film as well, one of the year’s best so far.
The woman, Ashima (Tabu, unknown here but a Bollywood star), and the man, Ashoke (Irfan Khan), do get married and head to America. The first third of the film shows the couple trying to adjust to life in New York. Ashoke gets a job as a professor, while Ashima tries to acclimate herself to the neighborhood. Ashima soon has a boy, and they give him the name of Gogol, because when Ashoke was on a train as a boy one time, a relative praised the Russian authors, Gogol in particular. As a young boy, Gogol prefers that name instead of his first name, Nikil, but when he becomes a teen (and is played by Kal Penn, of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle fame), he sees the name as an albatross. The rest of the movie shows Nikil learning not only what his name means to him, but also what his heritage means to him and others. Unlike a filmmaker like Gurinder Chadha, Nair doesn't lecture us or sentimentalize her characters, nor does she create caricatures. Even Max (Jacinda Barrett), the white woman Gogol briefly gets involved with, is treated well. Jean Renoir once said the tragedy of life is that everybody has their reasons, and while Nair isn't quite on Renoir's level yet, it's that spirit that informs her movie, especially in the performances. Penn and Tabu both step out of more glamorous roles to do fine work here, but it's the slow and steady Khan who holds it all together. He just received a well-deserved Independent Spirit Award nomination for the movie, and I hope it leads to bigger things here.
The tagline for Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, at least in this country, was “This is your brain on anime,” and while it’s somewhat reductive, it’s also a true statement about this brilliant (albeit sometimes baffling) film. Brad Bird (The Incredibles) has said it makes him upset when people refer to animation as a genre rather than a style (or art form), and I’m sure Kon would agree; in some senses, this is a film noir/corporate thriller that happens to be done in anime (of course, the freaky dream sequences could probably only happen in animation). The plot turns on an invention called the DC Mini, which allows scientists, led by Dr. Atsuko Chiba (voiced by Megumi Hayashibara), to enter their patients’ dreams and help them. Turns out a few of the minis have been stolen, and whoever has stolen them is using them to drive people mad through their dreams. Also in the mix is Toshimi Konakawa (Akio Ohtsuka), a detective haunted by dreams of chasing a man through a variety of movie-like adventures, and being helped by a vivacious young woman named Paprika – who happens to be the avatar of Chiba (Hayashibara provides her voice as well). Although it’s pretty easy to figure out who the ultimate bad guy is, the plot turns aren’t always so apparent (what Konakawa ultimately has to do with the case, for example). But Kon, who adapted a graphic novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, captures us with eye-popping visuals that parody and celebrate old movie conventions (the detective claims he never watches movies). And although there are typical anime conventions like the electronic music, this is in no way a kids film (there’s some sexual scenes in this).
When Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress finally came to theaters, of course the subtext of every review was how sad Shelly was murdered before she could see it released. The movie itself is sweet without being cloying. Much of that has to do with the terrific cast Shelly assembled for the movie. Keri Russell finds the right kind balance as Jenna, a waitress at a restaurant who is pregnant by abusive husband (Jeremy Sisto), and whose only joy in life is the pies she makes (which she gives titles like “Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie,” which contains oatmeal and fruitcake, “flambĂ© of course”). And Nathan Fillion has great chemistry with her as Dr. Pomatter, Jenna’s gynecologist and eventual lover, as well as his usual great comic timing (he describes his neighborhood as great “if you like trees…and who doesn’t like trees?”). There’s also fine supporting turns from Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Shelly herself as Jenna’s co-workers, and even Andy Griffith does nice work as Joe, the somewhat crotchety owner of the restaurant, whom Jenna serves every day. As a writer/director, Shelly sometimes struggles with the tone – although Jenna’s co-workers are her best friends, the dialogue there sometimes sounds like it could have been written on a greeting card. But mostly, Shelly manages to keep this from getting treacly, and there are some inspired scenes, like the montage scene of Jenna’s smile after she sleeps with Dr. Pomatter for the first time. It makes you sad once again about the talent of Shelly’s that will remain unfulfilled.
This week’s major Criterion release is Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel. Like last week’s Criterion release of Sawdust and Tinsel, this is an early work by a legendary director that’s as important for what it foretold in his career as it is for the movie itself. This marked Kurosawa’s first film with Toshiro Mifune, one of the most enduring partnerships in film history (they made 16 films altogether, from Drunken Angel in 1948 to Red Beard in 1965). In his biography of the two of them, The Emperor and the Wolf, Stuart Galbraith called Mifune the instrument through which Kurosawa best told his films, and that’s readily apparent even here. Mifune plays a gangster who forces an alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura, another frequent collaborator with Kurosawa, making 22 films with him) to treat him for TB. Although this is ostensibly a crime picture (Mifune is in conflict with his boss, who’s in prison), Kurosawa is also interested in how the postwar environment is affecting Japan, and, of course, in the nature of mankind. It’s a little too heavy-handed (Kurosawa and Mifune didn’t completely hit their stride together until Stray Dog, their follow-up), but it’s still quite effective, thanks to the performances of the two leads. Mifune, possibly the greatest physical actor of all time, is commanding as the gangster, while also unafraid to show his weak side, while Shimura underplays nicely as the doctor.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

New DVD releases November 20

John Waters' original Hairspray was not only a tribute to the music of his youth, but also a sly satire of the teen exploitation movies of the time. Adam Shenkman's Hairspray, based not only on the movie but the Broadway musical version of it, falls short on both counts, even though it's done with bright energy and features a good performance. The plot is close to the original: Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) wants to get on the Corny Collins Show, and must battle the evil Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) to do not only that, but to also intergrate it. The problem on the first count is the same problem plaguing the movie version of Dreamgirls - namely, the music sounds more like generic show tunes than a pastiche of the popular music at the time (with the exception of the two numbers Queen Latifah rips through). It's not bad, just not memorable. As for the latter, Waters' film already walked a tight line between parody and playing it straight, and Shenkman is too earnest for parody (admittedly, Waters has caught up with the culture he once mocked). The performers certainly try, but like John Travolta, who tries to avoid camp by stepping in the role originally played by Divine as Tracy's mother, they come off as too gee-whiz for the material (even Christopher Walken). Only Pfeiffer seems in on the joke - though she's more obvious than Debbie Harry was in the original, she gives an actual performance, and certainly seems glad to be in a musical again. This bears the distinction of having the stars from Grease (Travolta) and Grease 2 (Pfeiffer), and unfortunately, it represents those films more than Waters' original.
I still haven’t seen Werner Herzog’s documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, so I saw Rescue Dawn, Herzog’s fictional version of that story, with fresh eyes. As with the documentary, this tells the tale of Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a U.S. Army pilot shot down during the Vietnam War while flying over Laos. The rest of the movie details how Dieter planned to escape the North Vietnamese who had captured them, though, of course, the real prison was the jungle. This, of course, is old territory for Herzog - man's struggle against nature. And while Klaus Kinski, Herzog's frequent collaborator (and sparring partner), is no more, Herzog has found actors as equally obsessive (Bale) and odd (Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn are, respectively, odd and haunting as fellow POWs) for the movie. And while Herzog was criticized in some quarters for treating the Vietnamese as Stallone and Chuck Norris did in their Vietnam films, this isn't the rah-rah movie those were; Herzog keeps things grounded in the details. Maybe it's a little too grounded; I admired the movie while watching it, but it didn't grab me emotionally. Still, it's definitely the best of the brand new movies of the week.
Since the commercial failure of his last directorial effort, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Luc Besson has stuck to writing and/or producing such films as Transporter (and its sequel), Unleashed, and High Tension. Being a fan of Besson's earlier films, as well as one of the few who thought The Messenger was an honorable failure rather than a disgrace, I was looking forward to Angel-A, his latest. Unfortunately, it's only serves as proof whatever talent Besson once had seems to have slipped away. The story has possibilities - Andre (Jamel Debbouze), a hapless con artist pursued by the many bad guys he owes money to, helps a young woman he calls "Angela" (Rie Rasmussen), who in turn tries to help him, even as he wonders if she's real, or otherwordly. I don't mind the fact that it's sentimental, I mind the fact both characters are irritating as hell. I liked Debbouze in both Amelie and Days of Glory, but quite frankly, I was rooting for the mobsters to finish him off here; he comes off as grating and one-note. And while Rasmussen is pretty in a placid sort of way, she's hardly more endearing. Instead of her being a porcelain doll, Besson goes the other way, making her foul-mouthed (there is sort of a reason why, which we learn later), but again, it's too one-note. Besson once made entertaining films about distinctly odd couples, like La Femme Nikita and The Professional, but he seems to be stuck in retread mode.
After Sylvester Stallone revived Rocky Balboa for one more film, who could blame Bruce Willis for giving John McClane another go? From a financial point of view, anyway, I guess. From an artistic point of view, Live Free or Die Hard is, well, just another sequel. True, there's an attempt to bring the franchise up to date - the director (Len Wiseman) is best known for the Underworld movies, McClane's sidekick this time is a young computer hacker named Matt (Justin Long, best known for being in a series of Apple commercials), and the villain, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), is basically hacking into the computers that control things like our transport systems, money system, etc., to show how vulnerable we are after 9/11 (a name like Gabriel only shows the movie's lack of subtlety on this point). A few other things have changed - for one, unlike the first two movies, the main law enforcement officer (Cliff Curtis), after initial impatience, is only too happy to pair up with McClane, and also, McClane is older and less resilient, which the movie treats as both a badge of honor and a joke. It also is quick to do what many other sequels do, namely reference its predecessor (there's even an FBI agent named Johnson here). Unfortunately, while Wiseman tones down the CGI madness that made the Underworld movies unbearable, gets a good performance out of Long, and a servicable cameo from Kevin Smith as another computer geek, this still seems unnecessary and desperate, and the attempts to connect it to the real world are part of the problem. It also doesn't help that while Olyphant can be a good actor, he is not a good action villain (Maggie Q, who plays his sidekick/girlfriend, would have been a much better choice). Willis does tone down the wiseass attitude he used in the first three films, instead treating the whole thing as a sly joke that he allows us to get, but he also has foregone the vulnerability of the first film. It's not even worth it to hear him say "Yippekayay" one more time.
This week’s big Criterion film is Ingmar Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel. Made before he made his international reputation with Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal, this story of a how a relationship between a ringmaster and his mistress, a horse rider, is tested when they visit a small town and partner up with an acting troupe plays like an interesting warm up to his more famous films. As John Simon points out in a perceptive essay included in the movie booklet, this was one of Bergman's first movies - and one of the first major European movies - to use humiliation in this way in a dramatic context. It also marked Bergman's first collaboration with the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and shows an early interest in experimenting with light (a flashback involving the tale of a circus clown and his wife is deliberately overexposed, and one wonders if Gordon Willis screened this film before working on the Godfather films). If the characters are a little too broad (especially the actor who has an affair with the mistress), they are also more full of life than Bergman detractors, who only see gloom, would have you expect. And while this may not have begun his lifelong attraction in movies for performers of all kinds, it plays as a good example of it. Criterion will be re-releasing four of Bergman's major films (included with the two I already mentioned are Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring), but this is worth a look as well.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

New DVD releases November 13

When I first saw the trailer to Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace, I groaned. People complain when Oliver Stone or Spike Lee present their own view of history, but they at least are alive to the contradictions of it (well, most of the time). Why isn’t there the same kind of outcry when movies wrap history up in a too-neat package, particularly when dealing with racial history, as if to say, “Yes, it was bad then, but don’t worry, it’s all better now” (and yes, Jerry Bruckheimer (Remember the Titans, Glory Road), I’m looking at you)? I thought this story of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), the British lord who, in the late 18th century, pushed to end slavery in Britain, would fall into the same trap. Well, it does and it doesn’t.
Part of what makes the movie push past the usual clichĂ©s, including Wilberforce’s romance with Barbara (Romola Garai), an activist who grew up idolizing Wilberforce, and the stilted dialogue, is how writer Steven Knight does capture how the slavery issue was wrapped up in other issues as well as bigotry. Not only did proponents argue slavery had a positive effect on the economy, they also saw it as a way to keep up with France. Also, the backhanded way Wilberforce and his supporters finally managed to pass an anti-slavery law (they banned any merchant ship from flying an American flag, which most slave-trading ships flew) is well handled. Finally, there are a group of actors who make the most of their roles (I’m afraid I found Gruffudd merely functional, along with singer Yossou N’Dour as a former slave). Rufus Sewell, who has mostly being going over the top in villain roles, and rather badly at that, is quite restrained as Thomas Clarkson, an abolitionist who also sees slavery as just one of the ills plaguing British society. Benedict Cumberbatch is likewise restrained and quite good as William Pitt, who became Prime Minister and tried to help Wilberforce. But three old pros take the acting honors here: Bill Paterson as Lord Dundas, who opposed abolition for pragmatic reasons even though he was against slavery, Michael Gambon in his usual wily turn as Lord Charles Fox, who changed from anti-abolition to pro-abolition, and Albert Finney brings gravitas to his performance as John Newton, the former slave ship owner who repented and wrote the song that gives the movie its title. Still, as movies about slaves go, I still think Amistad does a more complex job in its story.
I know almost nothing about Edith Piaf, even though her music has been used in several movies that I like (two quick examples; Audrey Hepburn sings “La Vie en Rose” as Humphrey Bogart is driving her home in the original Sabrina, and Susan Sarandon uses her music in her first night in bed with Tim Robbins in Bull Durham), so I have no way of knowing if Olivier Dahan’s La Vie En Rose, his biopic of Piaf, is accurate. What I can say, unfortunately, is it doesn’t linger in the memory. Certainly, Dahan doesn’t approach this like a traditional biopic; he shifts back and forth between when Piaf was getting sicker (too much alcohol and drug abuse catching up to her), and her early life on the streets until she was discovered and made a star. And he and cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata make this darker than the usual biopic (apparently, Piaf preferred being in the dark most of the time), and move the camera around a lot. But Dahan doesn’t really connect to the material to make it inspiring for us. There are some good moments here and there, as when Piaf (Marion Cotillard) meets Marlene Dietrich (Caroline Sihol), and it turns out Dietrich is a fan, and when Piaf finds out Marcel (Jean-Pierre Martins), the boxer who was the great love of her life, is dead, but they’re isolated from the rest of the movie. Mostly, for all the technique on display, it just feels like a standard biopic. Cotillard has been getting praise for her performance as Piaf, and she certainly captures the shyness, as well as Piaf’s often diva-like behavior. But no one else is allowed to make much of an impression. Even Gerard Depardieu, normally a strong presence in any film, doesn’t get much to do as the nightclub owner who gave Piaf her first big break. I still appreciate Piaf’s music after watching La Vie En Rose, but I don’t feel anything beyond that.
Steven Soderbergh apparently thought he was in a career rut in 1995 when he made The Underneath, which I always thought was his most underrated film. This so-called rut led him to break away from what he thought was his formula for making movies, first with the wildly experimental, and funny, Schizopolis, followed by his concert film Gray’s Anatomy (not to be confused with the TV show, of course, but rather a recording of Spalding Gray), and then his first major studio film, Out of Sight. Soderbergh has always been one of my favorite filmmakers, but in my opinion, he’s in a rut now. After the first Oceans film, which was a terrific entertainment, he’s directed six features (plus a segment from Eros, an anthology film featuring him, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Wong Kar-Wei, which I haven’t seen), two of them Oceans sequels, and only one of which I’ve liked (his underrated remake of Solaris). The fact that his experimental films (Full Frontal, Bubble, The Good German) haven’t quite worked is disappointing, but not dispiriting; at least he’s trying to stretch himself. The problem is those Oceans films. I understand he’s trying to make enough money so he and former producing partner George Clooney can make the films they want to make, but the problem is, both Oceans Twelve and Oceans Thirteen, the latest one, feel like they were made just for the money and nothing else.
The nominal plot of Thirteen is the gang gets together one more time when Willy Bank (Al Pacino), an oily casino owner, squeezes Reuben (Elliot Gould) out of ownership, which leads him to have a heart attack. The rest of the gang decide the best way to get even is to sabotage Bank’s opening of his casino, mainly by having the house lose on every game in the casino. Except for Ellen Barkin as Bank’s field boss, this is strictly a boys club (Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones are alluded to but don’t appear here), and it has the feel of boys not wanting to grow up. It’s not to say this film is irritating. Everyone here knows how to go through their paces, and Clooney, Pitt and Damon et al clearly enjoy each other’s company and the chance to play shady characters. But no one really gets a chance to do much with their roles, not even Pacino. As with most sequels, this clearly comes off as a cash register job. A lot of people hated Oceans Twelve for being too smug and having too many inside jokes, but this enervated, if harmless, movie, comes off as being more smug. Soderbergh is following up with two film biopics of controversial revolutionary Che Guevara. I hope those films allow him to get his groove back.
For whatever reason, Paris has always held a certain romance for storytellers, be it novelists, playwrights, or filmmakers. In Paris, Je T’Aime, twenty-one filmmakers were asked to make a short film set in Paris and about Paris in some way (Emmanuel Benbihy directed the transitions between some of them). Being this is an anthology film, the stories in each of the short films necessarily become less important than the mood they set. Fortunately, most of the segments, aside from being quick, are quite diverting. Of the films, I was most taken with the Coen Brothers’ segment, where Steve Buscemi plays a tourist who learns only too well what not to do in a Parisian subway, Vincenzo Natali’s segment about a young man (Elijah Wood) attacked by a vampire, which is surprisingly romantic, Walter Salles’ wrenching segment about a nanny (Catalina Sandino Moreno) traveling from taking care of her boss’ baby to taking care of her baby, Gerard Depardieu’s bittersweet segment about a couple (frequent co-stars Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands) meeting for the last time to finalize their divorce, and Alexander Payne’s segment (Payne also appears as Oscar Wilde in Wes Craven’s segment about a quarreling couple (Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell)), about an American tourist (Margo Martindale) visiting Paris. It starts off as if Payne is making a smug declaration about American tourists, but it turns into something much deeper. On the whole, this collection is light on its feet, but if like me, you’ve never been there, it still communicates the romance of the city.
Although Shane Meadows’ This is England starts and ends with news footage of what England was like under the rule of Margaret Thatcher, and clearly is meant to show how her government helped create a culture that enabled skinhead groups to flourish, this isn’t a tract. Rather, it’s Meadows’ semi-autobiographical look at how a young boy named Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), who is perpetually picked on and who has a chip on his shoulder about his short stature and his father (who died in the Falklands War), falls under the influence of a group of skinheads. I’ve never seen Meadows’ previous movies (which include Once Upon a Time in the Midlands and A Room for Romeo Brass), but he has a reputation for making films that are sharp in detail and character but rambling and sentimental when it comes to plot. That certainly applies to this film (although the sentiment is toned down), and as far as skinhead films go, it’s certainly no patch on Romper Stomper (the best film about that particular cycle of hate), but it avoids the self-importance of American History X and the like. Turgoose, a non-actor, has the raw defiance of someone forced to grow up too soon, but he also shows a surprising vulnerability, especially in scenes with his mother (Jo Hartley) and his girlfriend Smell (Rosamund Hanson). And as Combo, the charismatic and dangerous leader of the skinheads, Stephen Graham (best known as Jason Statham’s partner in Snatch) is both charismatic and dangerous, as well as being more complicated than he first appears.
This week’s top reissue is Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, his rarely screened debut film that finally garnered a modest theatrical release this year after mostly being seen at festivals and underground screenings. Burnett is one of the few filmmakers today, let alone African-American filmmakers, who can’t be put inside any sort of box, and this film, which basically follows the lives of one family in Watts as they struggle day to day, is a good example of his method. Rather than being a plotted film, this is more a mosaic of how lower-class people struggle to live their lives, yet still maintain a certain dignity. Burnett photographed the movie as well, and while this was a student film, he gets lyrical images that would shame veteran filmmakers, and his score (the main reason the film went underground for so long was his difficulty obtaining music rights), ranging from Dinah Washington to Earth, Wind and Fire, is a perfect complement to the film. The DVD comes with a collection of some of Burnett’s short films as well.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

New DVD Releases November 6

Michael Moore and Pixar are both in the spotlight of this week’s DVD releases, along with one of the most underrated movies of the 1980’s, and yet another example of a director passing on his talent to his offspring.
As everyone else has mentioned, Moore’s Sicko goes after a system almost everyone agrees is broken, and that’s our healthcare system. It’s not just the 50 million who don't have insurance who are screwed, Moore argues, but also most of the 250 million who do. As someone who has had many unwanted bills because of my health problems (ulcer, shoulder pain), I certainly feel the sadness and outrage Moore wants us to feel when he shows stories of people who have run aground of health care in this country (although he does allow for some gallows humor in the tale of a man who was only able to get treatment for his deaf daughter by dropping Moore’s name). It’s not just the big sob stories, like the woman whose baby died because her insurance policy wouldn’t cover her at the closest hospital to her, or the former health care worker who remorsefully tells of the claims she had to deny simply because it was better business. It’s also the simple tales of the couple who had to move into their daughter’s house because they couldn’t afford their medical bills anymore, or the janitor well past the retirement age who must work just to get insurance. And though his approach is somewhat simplistic (HMO’s may have started under Nixon, but our fear of “socialized” medicine came long before that, as did big business controlling government), he does a good job outlining what’s wrong here and why.
The problem, as always, is when Moore looks to other countries as an example of what the U.S. should be doing. It’s certainly true Britain, Canada and France, three of the leading Western nations, have universal health care and, for the most part, are better off for it. And Moore includes parts of an interview with Tony Benn, a retired British MP, of how universal health care is essential to a democracy. But Moore’s utopian view of health care in these countries doesn’t entirely wash. Again, having lived in Canada for 11 years, I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) without being examined. At least when the doctors here said I had an ulcer, they had examined me thoroughly. Also, he fails to mention in Britain how the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher actually tried to roll back universal health care, until Tony Blair partially restored it. And then there’ his notorious Cuba trip, where he takes injured 9/11 rescue workers (not insured because they were volunteers) to Guantanamo Bay to get the same treatment as political prisoners. Moore finds the Cuban doctors are more than happy to treat them, and it never seems to occur to him how they might be staging this for his benefit (and while Moore is right to say the U.S. has overblown Cuba as a menace, he fails to mention how many people they’ve jailed for being gay or for speaking out against the government). Once again, Moore’s message is perfectly sound, but his methods often aren’t.
Those methods are the subject of Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk’s documentary Manufacturing Dissent. Unlike such hateful works as Fahrenhype 9/11 and Michael Moore Hates America, which come from the “Love it or leave it” school of political debate, this comes from filmmakers who agree with much of what Moore says (Melnyk especially is moved by Moore’s denouncing of the media’s behavior towards the administration after 9/11) but not how he says it. As the film follows Moore on his tour promoting his film Fahrenheit 9/11, the filmmakers cover his career before his breakout hit Roger & Me, such as his brief turn as an editor at Mother Jones (he said he was dismissed because of a dispute over a story, while his colleagues insist he wasn’t that good), and examine his career, mainly that movie and Bowling for Columbine, questioning not only the veracity of his information (including the oft-repeated charge that Moore actually did interview Roger Smith for his film, but chose not to include it), but also, again, his methods (John Pierson, who produced Roger & Me, talks about how appalled he was at Moore’s interview with an obviously senile Charlton Heston at the end of Bowling for Columbine). They also include debate, on both sides, on how much good Moore’s films have actually done (for every one who thinks Moore has been a much-needed shot in the arm for the left, there are those like Errol Morris, who think Moore merely preaches to the choir). Finally, they examine what Moore has done with his celebrity, and his stands outside of his films (going from being an enthusiastic Nader supporter in 2000 to being totally against him in 2004. As Nader pointed out, what hurt is not that Moore campaigned for Kerry – as many people did, he thought Kerry had a legitimate chance of being Bush and voted accordingly – but that he repudiated Nader so thoroughly).
Like its subject, Manufacturing Dissent has both its good and bad points. On the good side, Caine and Melnyk give room to those who also praise Moore as well as damn him (or, in the case of Pierson, do both), and while they show those who think Moore is a traitor for speaking his mind, they clearly don’t have sympathy for that point of view. And much of what they target Moore for is troubling (although I’m surprised at one thing they don’t target; they bring up the cartoon Moore showed in Bowling for Columbine, but not that he implied it was done by South Park cartoonists Trey Parker and Matt Stone, since it came right after interviewing Stone. The pair retaliated by making him a villain in their movie Team America: World Police). On the other hand, often they get bogged down in nitpicking, and seem to forget every documentary film edits out something that doesn’t fit their story, even cinema verite. And often, the film seems scattershot, as if it needed Moore to come in and tighten it up a bit.
Although I do not consider Pixar the masterpiece factory many critics do, it’s undeniable their films are normally head and shoulders above most of the stuff that passes for movies made for kids (except for the merely okay Monsters Inc.). I even liked Cars more than most people did. And while Brad Bird’s Ratatouille didn’t knock me out of the park like it did many critics, it’s still an impressive piece of work. Of course, I’m one of those people who think Bird’s first film, Iron Giant, is his best film, so any film he does after that has a tough act to follow. Also, while the idea of a rat being a gourmet, let alone advising a garbage boy how to be one, is novel, a movie set in the kitchen of a restaurant isn’t really (especially when the garbage boy falls for the cook who supervises him). And the plot turns do become a bit predictable towards the end. But all of that seems like niggling next to the animation, which becomes better and more vivid with each Pixar film. Also, as in his last film, The Incredibles, Bird is celebrating talent over mediocrity, and backs it up with talent of is own, which we should all appreciate (and not-so-slyly bites the hand feeding him; it’s said one of the points of contention between Pixar and Disney is how Disney made direct-to-DVD sequels to their classic animated films, thus cheapening the originals. So in this movie, a chef wants to make fast food ripoffs of a classic restaurant.). Finally, the voice cast does terrific work here. I don’t know Patton Oswalt’s work (except as the voice of Captain Dementor on the animated show Kim Possible), but he’s quite good as Remy, that gourmet rat, even if he does sound a lot like Richard Dreyfus. I spent the entire film trying to figure out who voiced Remy’s father, not realizing it was a relatively restrained Brian Dennehy. Ian Holm as a terrific time as the Skinner, the sinister chef (though he, Janeane Garofalo (as Colette, the supervisor and love interest to garbage boy Linguini (Lou Romano), and Brad Garrett as Gusteau (the chef who inspired Remy) strain at times with their French accents), and best of all, Peter O’Toole is all oily condescension as Anton Ego, the restaurant critic. At the end of the film, Ego says that while a critic’s position is mostly negative, he must sometimes realize great talent can come from anywhere, and defend it as such. Ratatouille doesn’t quite inspire that passion from me, but like Ego and others, it did leave me hungry for more.
Included on the DVD for Ratatouille are two short films – one featuring Remy and his brother Emile (Peter Sohn) narrating an animated history of rats, and Lifted, one of the funniest bits of animated film ever made, lasting only five minutes. The latter is also available on Pixar Short Films Collection, along with 12 other shorts, including the one that started it all, The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. This set may be for completists only (most of them are available separately on other Pixar feature releases), but it’s a reminder that their short films are just as good in some ways as their features. Along with Lifted, the best of these is Jack-Jack Attack, the spin-off from The Incredibles, which explains why the babysitter was so harried when the Incredibles returned from saving the world.
This week’s big DVD collection, besides the Pixar shorts, is something called the “Leading Ladies Collection, Volume 2.” If you don’t want to pony up the $55 for the whole collection (which includes I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Rich and Famous, and Up the Down Staircase), you can just get the best film in the collection, Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon. To say Parker has had a checkered career is a gross understatement to say the least; he’s gone from very good (The Commitments) to very bad (The Life of David Gale) and back again. Shoot the Moon, however, remains his finest achievement. Bo Goldman may be best known for his Oscar-winning scripts for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Melvin and Howard, but this is his best work as well. This examination of George (Albert Finney), a writer, and his wife Faith (Diane Keaton) is the truest, most painful examination of divorce ever put to film. What makes it all the more wrenching is neither George nor Faith is entirely good or bad; both of them can be petty and selfish, yet also amazingly sympathetic. And it also pays attention to how divorce affects the children without ever getting sappy, particularly George’s relationship with his oldest daughter Sherry (Dana Hill). In an interview with American Film, Parker called this his most personal film, even though he didn’t write it, because he had four children and could relate (Goldman had six). Yet it’s never completely a downer. It’s alive to the idiosyncrasies of family life (as when Sherry and her three sisters help Faith get ready for a big evening out), and the relationships George and Faith have with others – George with Sandy (Karen Allen), and Faith with her contractor Frank (Peter Weller) – are also well drawn. Finney and Keaton are both actors who can coast on mannerisms, but they’re both terrific here, as is Hill (whose career was tragically cut short by her death at 32 of a stroke). Pauline Kael, who was usually hard to impress, wrote how afraid she was that she couldn’t do the film justice, and after watching, it’s easy to see why.
All political thrillers in this country owe a debt to Costa-Gavras’ Z, about the assassination of a prime minister in Greece, and the attempted cover-up of the investigation. Gavras’ daughter Julie is interested in politics as well, but goes for a more comic look in her feature film debut Blame it on Fidel. The film concerns Anna (Nina Kervel-Bay), a 9-year-old girl in early 1970’s Paris. Anna is generally happy with her life – her parents Marie and Fernando (Julie Depardieu and Stefano Accorsi) live in a nice house, she has friends, she goes to a Catholic school which she likes, she gets to see her grandparents all the time, and they have a Cuban nanny whom she adores. But her parents start to change when Fernando’s sister and her daughter escape from Spain. The husband has been arrested under Franco’s regime, and Fernando feels guilty enough that he and Marie turn from liberals to radicals. Before long, Anna has been taken from her house, she’s no longer allowed to attend religious classes, the nanny has been let go (having fled Cuba when Castro came to power, she’s disdainful of Communists, hence the movie’s title), to be replaced by whoever Fernando and Marie thinks needs a job the most, and Fernando has become a more activist lawyer, while Marie goes from writing about cooking to writing about women who have abortions. Anna, of course, is happy with none of this, since her life has been disrupted, and she doesn’t understand.
All of this could have been a tract, but Gavras is after something subtler. Anna decides to test out the solidarity theory her parents always talk about by joining the class in guessing the wrong answer to a question, even though she knows the right one. The new nannies she get give her different creation myths depending on their background, and she tries them on in class, with mixed results. She’s astonished when her friend from class is shocked by Fernando being naked, and that she doesn’t know where babies come from. These and other incidents show the wry humor Gavras sees this world through (although the movie is based on a popular French novel, it obviously resonates with Gavras’ own life). And while she tells her tale exclusively through Anna’s eyes, Gavras is obviously alive to what Anna herself can’t quite understand, and treats every character with kindness (even Fernando and Marie’s radical friends, who start off quite pompous, become likable). At the end, Anna is able to adjust to her new life, and we see that in small gestures, much like Gavras does with the rest of the movie.