Sunday, February 28, 2010

Released this week on DVD: "The Informant!"

Grade: A

No subject is more vital yet more difficult for filmmakers to dramatize than corporate power, which extends like a slimy octopus across national boundaries and electoral tides. Director Steven Soderbergh was able to harpoon the creature with Erin Brockovich because the bait was a heroic hottie played by Julia Roberts. In The Informant! the lure is Matt Damon with a potbelly and a bad mustache, yet it works just as well.

By turning a whistle-blower into a tragicomic figure, Soderbergh sustains our interest in a complicated financial scheme and rewards it with a kickback of ghastly laughs.

The facts are these: In the early 1990s, executives at Arthur Daniels Midland, operating out of Decatur, Ill., conspired to control the price of a feed additive called lysine, thus inflating the cost of countless consumer goods. An ADM employee named Mark Whitacre went to the FBI, which persuaded him to record hundreds of secret meetings.

But it turns out that Whitacre's motivations were more complicated than mere moral outrage.

As portrayed by Damon, Whitacre is the anti-Jason Bourne, a married Midwesterner who thinks he's an international man of mystery. After he contacts the FBI, Whitacre plays the spy game like a Little Leaguer, winking at the hidden cameras.

The Informant! echoes with mordant laughter in the chasm between Whitacre's mundane reality and the action-hero fantasy implied by the exclamation point in the title. What lifts the film above facile irony is the growing suspicion that Whitacre's blundering may be symptomatic of something darker. By the last act, this ostensibly centered man is going over a cliff in slow motion, and not in a James Bond sense.

When he crashes to earth, Whitacre's shattered credibility distracts us from the much larger mess made by his employers. But the movie's skewed focus is understandable. Faced with the choice to entertain or inform, Soderbergh trades the big picture for a fascinating portrait.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Released this week on DVD: "Dead Snow"

Grade: B-minus

Chomp-chomp, zip-zip go the Nazi zombies in Dead Snow, a self-consciously outlandish horror flick about an army of restless and neatly uniformed undead haunting some woods in contemporary Norway. Set in a remote winter wonderland, presumably to accentuate the vivid contrast between all the dazzling white snow and the copious splashes of red (screams also sound louder in muffled silence), the story involves a group of disposable medical students whose vacation turns into a generic gorefest.

As a director, Tommy Wirkola, who wrote the irrelevant screenplay with Stig Frode Henriksen, doesn't just hit every horror beat; he pounds it to an indistinguishable pulp. An adherent of the relatively new fast-zombie trend, he makes his undead work, or at last run hard for their supper. The nonzombies, meanwhile, who behave as if they knew that they were being prepared for slaughter, jokingly referring to films like The Evil Dead, are such imbeciles that you look forward to their pounding (and chomping). As is often the case with movies of this type, the real stars are the special-effects team, which does some admirably disgusting work with ribbons of intestines and a brain that plops out of a ripped-open skull with surprising delicacy.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Released this week on DVD: "The Damned United"

Grade: A

The events depicted in The Damned United will likely seem new to American eyes, but it's actually the third time they've unfolded.

The first was in real life.

Brian Clough (pronounced Cluff) was a brilliant, fiery soccer player felled by injury and transformed into a brilliant, fiery coach who led a middling team, Derby County, from the lower leagues to the top of the topmost English division: national champions. The whole time, he was obsessed with Leeds United, England's longstanding best club but an outfit notorious for their dirty and cynical playing style. In 1974, their manager Don Revie -- Clough's personal bete noir -- resigned to run England's national team, and Clough, despite all the scorn he'd heaped on Leeds, replaced him. It went badly.

How badly? Imagine, to mix American sports, if Billy Martin or Bobby Knight took the helm of the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons after years of disparaging them, only to get fired from the job after a mere six weeks. That badly.

In 2006, novelist David Peace crafted these events into a brilliant experimental novel The Damned Utd., which penetrated Clough's minds and revealed a feverish mix of paranoia, ambition, jealousy, fear, pride, and, yes, genius. The book took some small liberties with facts, but it dazzingly told not one but two rise-and-fall stories, revealed Clough's dependence on the advice of his assistant Peter Taylor, and turned Old Big Head, as Clough was known, from a fondly remembered comic figure into an almost Nixonian shadow.

Now director Tom Hooper (HBO's John Adams) has filmed Preace's novel, from a screenplay by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), and he's had the uncanny good fortune to find in Michael Sheen, who starred in those other films of Morgan's scripts, an eerie simulacrum of Clough. Playing both the spirited up-and-comer in lowly Derby and the imperious self-promoting media darling at Leeds, balancing a happy (if neglected) family life with a constant state of intrigue in his workplace, claiming credit for Taylor's brilliant insights and then disparaging his assistant as too timid to succeed, Sheen's Clough is as good as his Tony Blair -- which is to say he is absolutely remarkable.

Snide and smiley and cocky and neurotic and loving and spiteful and slick and overwhelmed, the Cloughie of The Damned United is as full-blooded a character as the screen has given us in years. Sheen looks and sounds uncannily like the real man (he can even handle a soccer ball, having been a promising youth player), and that's the least of his accomplishments. What he gives us, and why the DVD should appeal to any thinking person who's barely even heard that there's such a thing as sports, is a complete human being of Shakespearean gifts and flaws. At one minute he shouts down to his Derby bosses by declaring himself bigger than any of them; at the next, he scrubs shower stalls because he doesn't trust any janitor to get them clean enough to welcome the mighty Leeds. A whole man lives in those two moments.

Those are the sorts of details in which Hooper is interested, rather than which team won or lost which match. The key events in The Damned United occur not on the playing field but in the interactions between people. Clough regards Revie from a passionate distance; he's snubbed by Review as a young coach; he phones Revie drunkenly to declare that Leeds won't play for anyone else; and he confronts Revie on live TV on the very afternoon of his firing -- an unbelievable moment, yes, but one which actually happened. Vis-a-vis Taylor -- Clough plays Revie's part, underestimating the other man's worth.

The film is richly atmospheric, conveying the dilapidation of Derby's stadium, the cold mud of a soccer field in the thick of an English winter, the garish '70s-style fashion, decor and hair styles, and the ordinary human scale at which sportsmen of the era lived. Alongside Sheen, Timothy Spall is sympathetically timorous and discerning as Taylor, Colm Meaney makes an imperious and obtuse Revie, and Jim Broadbent fills the Derby boss with frustration and righteousness.

The Damned United isn't a perfect film -- in particular, the Clough-Taylor dynamic is presented as a surrogate marriage in too heavy-handed a fashion. But it's a fascinating story about ambition and vanity and pride, and in Sheen's performance and the atmosphere captured by Hooper it contains truly fine and rare things.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Released this week on DVD: "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant"

Grade: C-minus

For whatever reason, vampires are all the rage in popular culture right now. The latest high-profile attraction on DVD is Universal's Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, which derives from a series of successful fantasy novels by U.K. author Darren Shan.

While no vampire film, no matter how bad, is going to drive a stake through the heart of such films, Cirque du Freak does remind viewers that lately these films are suffering from very tired blood.

Freak might rent well this first week out thanks to interest in the books and blood-suckers in general. But viewers might get lost in this unwieldy mixture of the undead, teenage antics, failed comedy and circus freaks. One of the film's bigger burdens is to establish characters and subplots for potential sequels. Based on these results, the likelihood of such a series is unduly optimistic.

The director is Paul Weitz, and he appears miscast. Because comedy is his forte with such hits as American Pie and About a Boy, the tone is comic. But nothing in the script he wrote with Brian Helgeland is remotely funny. And turning the vampire fights and their warp-speed travels into opportunities for special-effect slapstick undermines the creepy darkness you crave in any vampire tale.

As with the Twilight saga, the next chapter of which was done by Weitz's brother Chris, teen angst mingles with traditional vampire fare. The hero is young Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia) -- yes, the novelist names his protagonist after himself -- whose best friend, the unstable Steve (Josh Hutcherson), talks him into attending a freak show that has come to their unnamed town.

There, the duo encounters a 220-year-old vampire named Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly, who seems to be playing every one of those years). Steve, a fan of vampires, instantly recognizes the dude for who he is -- something about seeing his picture in a book once -- and the two, rather unconvincingly, become involved in the lives of Crepsley and the freak show.

Mixing vampires with freaks certainly has no tradition, but for a while, the film picks up a little energy from this twist. The freaks are entertaining CG-enhanced characters, ranging from Ken Watanabe's Mr. Tall, who runs the place, to Orlando Jones's Alexander Ribs, Frankie Faison's two-bellied gourmet, Jane Krakowski's woman with detachable limbs and Jessica Carlson's monkey girl. However, these creatures are but dress extras other than Carlson, who becomes Darren's love interest.

The story has the two boys trigger a war between clans of vampires that destroys a shaky truce. But this is dull and uninvolving. Nor is there any reason for their participation in this political strife. What's at stake (pardon the pun) for them?

The trouble is, too many characters must be introduced in the interest of future episodes without having much to do in this one. These include Salma Hayek, a bearded lady whose beard mysteriously disappears most of the time, and Willem Dafoe's vampire with a John Waters pencil mustache who literally does nothing.

Miscalculation runs through the entire movie. The tone is all wrong, the effects are poorly used and the acting styles range all over the place. Actors playing one-note minor characters are encouraged to exaggerate, and the youngsters would not be out of place in a Disney film. Sets and cinematography emphasize the story's creepiness, but the action runs counter to any chills or thrills.

Making a vampire movie without any bite is like removing guns from a Western.

Released this week on DVD: 'Sorority Row"

Grade: D

Nothing says sisterhood like slipping your college gal pal a date-rape drug to render her semi-conscious, and then throwing her body down a mine shaft after a prank goes awry. And nothing should bring a group of five graduating sorority sisters closer together than a conspiracy to cover up that friend's accidental murder, even as the body count by a revenge-seeking assassin -- who really likes his work, by the way -- piles as high as the suds in the sorority hot tub.

But of course, if Sorority Row had a cast of characters -- or a story line, for that matter -- that was as half as smart, strong, or secretive as the sisters' Theta Pi pledge, we wouldn't get all the blackmail, bitching and backhanded compliments these young women dole out to one another.

But they're trying to keep it together, and they have the frantic text messages and the stiletto heel fatigue to prove it. We do get a nagging pang of conscience from the regret-torn Cassidy (Briana Evigan). Her nemesis, naturally, is a blond Stepford Wife-in-Waiting named Jessica (Leah Piper), who wants to marry the senator's son. "Now, let's go wash the blood off in the lake and get back to the party," Jessica announces after the evil deed is done, priorities in place.

And as for Bruce Willis and Demi Moore's daughter Rumer Willis? As Ellie, she just mostly shakes and screams a lot like she's really scared. Either she's afraid the hooded killer is coming to get her next, or maybe her mom is threatening to make her watch Striptease again.

In either case, Sorority Row follows the imaginatively bankrupt trend of remaking slasher films from the 1970s and '80s. This time it's a regurgitation of Mark Rosman's "The House on Sorority Row," a mostly forgotten 1983 horror flick that features a different victim but the same hackneyed formula of nubile (and of course conniving) young women being chased, chopped, beaten, and bludgeoned.

Director Stewart Hendler plays homage to Rosman by having the girls go to a school of the same name. His other touches are less subtle. The "scary" moments are of the sneak-up-on-you-from-behind variety, but there's little suspense. And apparently no one throws a light switch or gets smoke inhalation in a burning house anymore. All of which begs the question: What on earth is Carrie Fisher (playing the crusty sorority mother, Mrs. Crenshaw) doing in this movie? Maybe she liked the idea of toting a shotgun and saying "Come to mama!" as she reloads.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Released this week on DVD: "Everybody's Fine"

Grade: C-minus

In order to make clear what's wrong with the dull and inert Everybody's Fine, I need to distinguish sentiment from sentimentality.

Sentiment is an emotional sensation born of experience and circumstance. It arises from a combination of memory, mood, and conditions. It is earned through the hard work of living, thinking and feeling. It is irreducible, inimitable, real.

Sentimentality, on the other hand, occurs when art -- make that "bad art" -- seeks to evoke emotions by manipulating various symbols of emotion. In the place of genuine feeling, sentimentality substitutes decoration that hearkens to feelings. It is skin-deep, artificial, fleeting. It is a fake.

Taking this further, the sentimentalist, someone who attempts to gull an audience into a cheap emotion or is guiled into cheap emotion by a show of mere symbols, is, at best, simple or inexperienced -- a child, say -- or, at worst, a thief. As Oscar Wilde explained, "A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it."

Everybody's Fine is, alas, rife with sentimentality. It's based on a 1990 film of the same name by Giuseppe Tornatore starring Marcello Mastroianni as a widower visiting his grown children, each of whom has lied to him about his or her life. The film served as a litmus test for admirer's of Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso, which, in the view of many, danced along the dotted line separating real emotion from faux. But where Cinema Paradiso had ardent admirers and won prizes, including an Oscar, Everybody's Fine has been largely forgotten except by Mastroianni completists.

Likely a similar fate awaits this Everybody's Fine, with the admirers of Robert De Niro doing the chores. Under the auspices of writer-director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine, Nanny McPhee), De Niro players Frank, widowed, hidebound, retired from decades of (oh! the irony) manufacturing telecommunications wiring, and off on a spontaneous road trip to see his four grown children.

We watch through a grimace as De Niro pretends to be a suburban simpleton who thinks imported wines come from England and wanders in an unsuspecting stupor from one fraudulent situation to another, dropping in on Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, and Sam Rockwell, all of whom are far closer to the bottom -- professionally or personally -- than they've let their dad know.

Along the way, Jones pushes us into one sentimentalist trap after another. Whenever Frank sees one of his children for the first time, for instance, we're shown an actual child, not the grown actor, as though the very sight of an unsullied youth somehow makes the contrivances of the plot more poignant. The death of a character we never meet is revealed through a speech soaked in crocodile tears, asking the audience, in effect, to mourn not the person but the very thought of mortality. And a tacked-on Yuletide coda, coming after hours of dysfunction, deceit and death, stands as a near-parodic use of fake snow and colored lights to wring sad-happy tears from viewers.

It's offensive, really, this blatant pandering to emotions. Consider a true classic of deep sentiment, It's a Wonderful Life, in contrast. When George Bailey loses his world near the end of that film, we cry because we saw that world be built brick by brick beneath beneath him -- indeed, beneath us -- and then felt a sickening vertigo as the certainty of it disappeared. Here, conversely, we're told explicitly how we should feel and offered shortcuts to those feelings, but we never undergo anything like the experience that would, in life, yield those feelings, and we therefore never come close to a real emotion. Indeed, following Wilde's dictum, we are robbed -- or, at least, prodded toward abetting our own robbery.

Yes, there are a handful of scenes in which the masterful De Niro cranks up his craft and makes Frank seem human and alive. But they are the sad exceptions in this slick and fraudulent pageant of cheap sentimentality.

Released this week on DVD: "Flame & Citron"

Grade: B

More than 60 years after the end of hostilities, filmmakers are still mining the Second World War for drama.

Peopled by lonely resistance fighters, double-crossing secret agents and murderous Nazis, the Danish film Flame & Citron has many elements of a very familiar formula, albeit one made freshly exotic by its bleached Scandinavian locale. But to suggest this is a run-of-the-mill war movie would do an injustice to its greatest strength, its portrayal of two conflicted idealists soldiering on a slippery slope. The film, based on the true stories of Danish resistance heroes Brent Faurschou-Hviid and Jorgen Haagen Schmith, is a satisfying thriller interestingly complicated by its study of character and compromise.

Bent and Jorgen are a team, known by their code names Flame and Citron, but their personalities could not be more different. Flame (Thure Lindhardt) is the chillingly cold killer, executing Danish Nazis, informers and collaborators as smoothly as he lights his cigarette. Citron (Mads Mikkelsen) is all twitchy and jumpy, popping pills to keep himself awake, although after a heroic bout of sabotage and smuggling, his current job mainly requires him to drive Flame's getaway car. In a country where acquiescence to the Nazi occupier has been the order of the day, Flame and Citron are both convinced that what they are doing is only right.

But is it? Their commander Winther (Peter Mygind), a Copenhagen police solicitor who reports to British intelligence, now orders them to kill a local German journalist, his secretary and a German officer, all supposedly engaged in espionage. Flame questions the order -- to avoid Nazi retaliation, the resisters don't usually target Germans -- but does take on the mission. Flame asks Citron to shoot the secretary because the seemingly imperturbable Flame does not kill women. That throws the more sensitive character into a quandary: The seemingly undefeatable Citron has never killed.

Director Ole Christian Madsen now follows two stories. The first, of Citron's increasing doubts about the morality and legality of what he is doing as he abandons his wife and daughter to another man and becomes a killer in his turn, is by far the subtler, greatly enlivened by Mikkelsen's success in portraying this odd bundle of nerves and courage.

Meanwhile Flame meets fashion designer Ketty Selmer (Stine Stengade) in a bar and wonders how she knows his real name. She says she's a resister; Winther warns him she's an informer, but when Flame confronts her, she reveals layers of betrayal he can barely comprehend. The romance between them, predictable in a James Bond kind of way, is the weakest link in the script by Madsen and Lars Andersen. As is often the case in spy stories, it is hard to believe these cool characters are capable of love. Stengade certainly can't explain whether Ketty's attraction for Flame is genuine or not.

And Lindhardt is much better when simply asking us to accept Flame's insouciance at face value: The man can't be bothered to cover his chief distinguishing feature, the red hair that gives him his name, even as the Gestapo doubles the price on his head. Rightfully, Lindhardt doesn't feel the character's actions should be justified. The script's attempt to psychoanalyze in a scene where Flame recounts his experiences working in a German restaurant where a Jewish waitress was beaten -- was she his girlfriend, Ketty has to ask -- is painfully unnecessary.

Flame and Citron did not meet their end together. That is history to which Madsen remains true, even if it deprives his film of the single powerful conclusion it needed to really cash in on this pair as the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of Denmark's war. Instead, they remain an imperfectly matched duo, and all the more fascinating for it.

Released this week on DVD: "Bliss"

Grade: A

The lake is still. A stark wind-swept dune rises above it, the image mirrored, unbroken on its surface. A herd of sheep drinks beside it. The body of a woman lies on its bank.

Her name is Meryem and though it turns out she is alive, that life is of little use to her anymore, for the sheepherder's daughter is the victim of an "honor crime"; her chastity lost brutally, her sentence in the small Turkish village of her birth -- dictated by tradition, demanded by the village's most powerful man -- is death.

And so begins the modern-day horror story of Bliss. director Abdullah Oguz's powerful adaptation of Omer Zulfu Livaneli's politically trenchant novel. The sheep, which looked so serene against their harsh landscape, now become a chilling metaphor running through the extraordinary pain and beauty of this film, which puts the stain of "tore" and those who like sheep follow it blindly, or worse, who fear to question it, under the microscope.

The Turkish film is daring for its unsparing look at a subject that still tears at its people, It is one of the divides remaining between an advancing culture and a generations-old tradition, between urban and rural ways. But being daring alone is not enough and in Oguz's good hands, Bliss offers us a great deal more.

The story takes us on many journeys both literal and figurative.

The first is Meryem's, played with a riveting quietness by Ozgu Namal, whose inability to carry out her suicide leaves the village with a problem it must solve. Cemel (Murat Han), a young soldier just back from the front lines and a distant cousin, is handed the task of taking her to Istanbul and disposing of her.

When Cemel finds he doesn't have the stomach for this killing -- at least not yet -- a slow rebirth of Meryem begins, while a disquieting awakening descends upon Cemel. If he can't kill Meryem, he will have defied his father, yet another unforgivable sin.

As the two make their way into hiding, all of the rural traditions that shape relationships and roles between men and women are tested. Each time their ties to the past loosen, Meryem flowers ever so slightly while Cemel struggles as the battle rages on inside of him.

There is solace for a while at a remote fish farm, then Irfan (Talat Bulut), a freethinking professor-author who is running from his own demons, turns up in their lives offering escape on his luxury yacht, and it takes a while for them to figure out whether he is mentor or a menace.

There are reasons that trust doesn't come easily.

While the story is a dark and difficult one, the players in this morality tale are bathed in light and lost within breathtaking landscapes thanks to director of photography Mirsad Herovic. And despite the Turkish desert forever in the distance, survival, and if not survival, growth, always comes by way of water. If not for the lake in the beginning, Meryem might not have been discovered; if not for the fishery, there might not have been a safe haven; and if not for Irfan's yacht, well, much would not have happened.

Though Oguz has given the film almost a fairy tale quality, there are hard truths embedded throughout. He has ultimately told a story of a man and a woman, alone and at odds, giving a voice to both their dilemmas. And through only one answer is humane, by treating the issue in such an exacting manner, Oguz allows the sense of outrage to grow even stronger.

Self-discovery always comes with a cost, and in Bliss the price is a great one. It is mesmerizing to watch it unfold in the lives of these two young people, and you can't help but think that the way their story ends is a window into the future and the fate of the Meryems and Cemels caught in a backwater of tradition.

Rent this DVD and see for yourself whether there is reason for hope.

Released this week on DVD: "The September Issue"

Grade: B

The September Issue, a documentary about the creation of a single, very fat issue of American Vogue in a far-off gilded age (i.e., 2007), has little to say about fashion, the real ins and outs of publishing or the inner workings and demons of the magazine's notoriously demanding meanie-in-chief Anna Wintour. Rather, this entertaining, glib movie is about the maintenance of a brand that Wintour has brilliantly cultivated since she assumed her place at the top of the editorial masthead in 1988 and which the documentary's director, R.J. Cutler, has helped polish with a take so flattering he might as well work there.

To judge from the flurries of behind-the-scenes evidence, however, if Cutler did work for the exacting Wintour he would still be doing reshoots. Shot on digital with an eye for sumptuous color by Bob Richman and briskly edited by Azin Samari, the 88-minute movie opens with Wintour explaining that "there is something about fashion that can make people very nervous." Certainly she unnerves her staff, as you soon see from all the huddled bodies and popping eyes. Even the more self-possessed, like Candy Pratts Price, seem in the grip of awe. Is Wintour the "high priestess" of the magazine, an off-camera voice asks. "I would say pope," Price says with a queasy smile.

Many will grasp this distinction, having already watched supplicants kiss the ring in the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, with Meryl Streep as a thinly disguised, fictionalized and Americanized version of Wintour. Etched in acid and often hilarious, the performance, while not wholly modeled on Wintour, helped humanize her public profile, lessening the sting of the original book, a roman a clef by one of her former assistants, Lauren Weisberger. The documentary continues this humanization largely by showing Wintour very hard at work, rather lonely and sensitive about her British family's low opinion of fashion. She's a poor little rich girl swaddled in fur and iced to the bone.

She's also pretty funny, perhaps at times accidentally so. Much of the movie's pleasure comes from the utter ease with which Wintour plays the Red Queen of fashion and orders off with their heads (and even tummies). In the case of the British actress Sienna Miller, the cover girl for the September 2007 issue, which gives the movie its structure and hook, the head in question receives the 21st-century version of a severing: It's Photoshopped to unreal perfection. However lovely, Miller proves a problematic Vogue ideal for the editors, many of whose own faces are somewhat surprisingly scored with wrinkles. It's a mark of how pitiless Wintour can come across that you end up feeling a bit sorry for Miller.

In truth Wintour was just doing her job. Yes, there's cruelty here, but of the most attenuated kind: she says no, employees tremble. The strongest, like the flame-haired Grace Coddington, the magazine's longtime creative director and the documentary's hugely diverting stealth star, seem to have figured out how to survive with their dignity intact. Most of the truly ugly stuff in fashion -- the models starving themselves, the exploited Chinese workers cranking out couture fakes and the animals inhumanely slaughtered for their fur -- remains unnoted in The September Issue, much as it often does in Vogue. And while the movie shuns any overt discussion of money, it includes an instructive scene of Wintour playing the coquette with one of the magazine's important advertisers.

Of course it really is all about money. Despite being crammed with glossy images of beautiful, weird, unattractive, ridiculous and prohibitively expensive clothes and accessories, Vogue isn't about fashion: It's about stoking the desire for those clothes and accessories. It's about the creation of lust and the transformation of wants into needs. Almost everything in this temple of consumption, including its lavish layouts and the celebrities who now often adorn its covers, hinges on stuff for sale. Some of that stuff comes with a price tag, but some of it is more ephemeral because Vogue is also in the aspiration business. Cutler doesn't notice or doesn't care about any of that, which makes his movie as facile as it is fun.

Given this, it's no surprise that Wintour is doing her part to flog the documentary: she gave a party in its honor and appeared on David Lettermen's show, with and without her signature sunglasses, her glazed stare and tight smile firmly in place. The movie affords you many opportunities to marvel at the parsimony of that smile and wonder if she's as bored as she looks, even while waiting for an agitated Stefano Pilati. the creative director at Yves Saint Laurent, to show his newest collection.

"That's pretty," she says, in a voice so drained of affect it's a wonder he doesn't commit seppuku with his scissors. You feel bad for Pilati, but it's Wintour's hauteur that makes you laugh and keeps you willingly at her side.

Released this week on DVD: "Shall We Kiss?"

Grade: B

Shall We Kiss? has been on my short list of French films that deserved to be released on DVD, but one I feared might never make it. Yet, here it is, an engaging romantic comedy that's deeper, smarter and more pessimistic than it appears at first glance, a film with shrewd insight into the mysteries of human attraction.

Two strangers meet in Nantes. He (Michael Cohen) lives there. She (Julie Gayet) is passing through. At the end of their first evening together, with the air sparkling with sexual tension, he goes to kiss her, and she pulls away. It's not that she doesn't want to. It's just that she knows two other people who could kiss casually, and it didn't work out that way.

From that framing device, the narrative switches to the main story, that of Judith (Virginie Ledoyen), a happily married woman, whose best friend since high school is Nicolas (Emmanuel Mouret). One day the perfect platonic purity of their relationship is altered when Nicolas asks her to kiss him. She says yes, and from there ... well, anyway, that's all you need to hear about that.

Though the French are great at making romantic dramas, their romantic comedies, contrary to what many Americans might think, tend to be a little off -- unpleasant, harsh and tony peculiar. But Shall We Kiss?, written and directed by Mouret, shows a masterful control of mood and genre.

At first, the story of Judith and Nicolas borders on light farce, but it moves seamlessly toward something more consequential. The movie is about the ramifications of actions that might, in the moment, seem natural and pure -- and about the atmospheres that allow love to thrive. It's about love's paradoxes and about the value and the limits of commitment. In true French style, it offers no answers but it poses the right questions.

Ledoyen is one of the joys of modern French cinema, an arresting young actress with a delicate look, an alert unsentimental intelligence and a deep, husky voice that sounds as if she started smoking prenatally. Mouret directs himself in a self-effacing but effective way that capitalizes on his comic strengths. And Gayet and Cohen give off a strong erotic charge in their present-day scenes -- all decorum on the surface, but with a churning undercurrent.

SI on Tiger's apology

In an article in the current issue of Sports Illustrated on Tiger Woods' recent televised apology, the subhead of which called it "a sad performance," writer Alan Shipnuck, makes an interesting and pertinent observation:

"Woods repeatedly apologized for his myriad mistakes, but he didn't exactly take ownership of them, 'I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me,' he said. 'I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn't have to go far to find them.' Here he sounded exactly like all those messed-up child actors on episodes of E! True Hollywood Story: Don't blame me, blame the fame."

Released this week on DVD: "Breakfast with Scot"

Grade: C

In Breakfast With Scot, an effeminate 11-year-old boy who loves boas, beads and Broadway musicals is taken in by a semi-closeted gay male couple, Eric (Tom Cavanagh) and Sam (Ben Shenkman), after his mother dies of a drug overdose. That mother was the common-law wife of Sam's wastrel brother, Billy, who has left for Brazil promising to return and leaving the boy, Scot (Noah Bernett), in the custody of child services.

Because Eric is a former hockey star turned sportscaster, the presence in his home of an auburn-haired girlie-boy with a flouncing gait and a fondness for Christmas carols threatens his masculine self-image, not to mention his reputation as a macho sports hero.

For its courage to address a ticklish subject with warmhearted humor, Breakfast With Scot, adapted from a novel by Michael Downing, deserves a light round of applause. In the novel the couple are a chiropractor and an editor at an Italian art magazine in Cambridge, Mass. The movie, directed by Laurie Lynd from a screenplay by Sean Reycraft, changes their occupations and moves the story to Toronto (Eric's former team is the Maple Leafs).

Breakfast With Scot is really an extended sitcom in the Will and Grace mode. Eric and Sam, a sports lawyer, might as well be straight roommates for all the affection they display, even when alone. The impulsive little peck that Eric dares to plant on Sam's lips at a party late in the movie comes across more as an expression of terror than as a sign of his imminent liberation from internalized homophobia.

What makes Eric's situation more confusing is that his colleagues in broadcasting all know he is gay. Eric even admits that during his years as a professional player he was nicknamed Erica. Yet elsewhere the charade of ignorance and denial continues for as long as he encourages it.

Cavanagh gives a convincing performance as a frightened man trying to be cool by tolerating behavior that raises his hackles. He doesn't begin to bond with Scot until he discovers that the boy can skate. At last he can both play surrogate father and demonstrate traditional manhood by channeling the boy's twirling and dipping figure-skating talent toward hockey.

Sam observes Eric's inner drama with raised eyebrow. But beyond being the common-sensical domestic partner, Shenkman's thankless role is that of the supportive spouse, a male Myrna Loy pouring oil on troubled waters.

The bulk of the movie's heavy lifting falls to Bennett, an endearing young actor who imbues Scot with a cheeky I-am-what-I-am attitude toward his temporary surrogate parents and his persecuting peers. He knows that Eric and Sam are gay but doesn't really know what gay means. Whether Scot is homosexual beneath his mannerisms is left open to question.

Sam believes Scot's fondness for dressing up in his mother's clothes and jewels and donning make-up is an unconscious expression of his grief and loneliness, a way of staying by her side. It is the most original notion in a small, good-hearted move that wouldn't hurt a fly.

Released this week on DVD: "Motherhood"

Grade: D

Watching Motherhood, in which Uma Thurman plays a Manhattan mom juggling kids, dog, marriage and blogging duties, I could not help but recall some of the many distinguished literary explorations of similar predicaments: A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf; Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Yellow Wallpaper; the poems of Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich; and especially the short stories of Grace Paley, set in the same West Village streets through which Thurman's character, Eliza Welch, steers her Volvo and schleps her stroller.

It would be nice to be able to place Motherhood, written and directed by Katherine Dieckmann, in such exalted company. Unfortunately the reason it may remind you of other books and films is that you'll need something to occupy your thoughts while watching. Motherhood seems to suffer from its heroine's tendency toward distraction.

Eliza is scattered, ambivalent, flaky and inconsistent -- all of which is fine, and energetically conveyed by Thurman. But what are tolerable quirks in person can be deadly to a narrative, and Dieckmann, trying for observational nuance, descends into trivia and wishful thinking.

At first things seem to promise otherwise. In a lovely opening sequence, Eliza wakes up in the pale morning light and the silence of a sleeping household. She makes coffee and checks her to-do list, a motley assortment of child-care and domestic tasks punctuated by the word -- more a plea than an imperative -- blog. Eliza, who we later learn was once a promising writer of literary fiction, now compiles her maternal thoughts on the Internet.

Her site is called the Bjorn Identity, playing on a popular brand of infant-carrier, and that labored, nonsensical pun -- wasn't there a mattress store on Seinfeld called the Lumbar Yard? -- is unfortunately typical of both Eliza's writing and Dieckmann's. The dialogue creaks with self-consciousness, and its insights have the tinny ring of greeting-card sentiments rendered in air quotes.

Eliza has an absent-minded, bookish husband (Anthony Edwards), a toddler son and an almost 6-year-old daughter, whose birthday party will be the denouement of a long and hectic day. In the meantime there are party supplies and a cake to pick up and a smattering of urban-parent rituals to attend to. The car must be moved for alternate-side parking. A furtive cigarette or two needs to be smoked. A friend (Minnie Driver, always welcome) is available for shopping and the sharing of confidences. And of course there is a city full of other mothers, who are not sisters so much as rivals in a ruthlessly competitive enterprise that makes the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange look like a tea party.

There is the aggressive playground helicopter, swooping in to take offense when Eliza says something to her belligerent little darling. There is the emo-eco-extremist, obsessively monitoring her child's food and feelings. There is the snooty French neighbor, who cloaks her disapproval for Eliza's bohemian disorder in tones of pity and admiration. All of them think they are better than Eliza, and of course she returns the favor. Eliza may radiate flaky entitlement, but she also is, in the movie's fuzzy terms and in her own muddled mind, a model of authenticity and sensitivity in a cold, phony world.

So you have to root for her to make it through the day and find some measure of equanimity in her messy, unbalanced life. And of course you do -- Thurman is impossible to dislike -- but without really believing in that life or feeling as if you've learned anything about what is really at stake. The humor is soft, the dramas are small, and the movie stumbles from loose and scruffy naturalism to sitcom tidiness.

Throughout her day Eliza is trying to write a 500-word essay -- it's for a too-good-to-be-true contest sponsored by a parent magazine -- about what motherhood means to her. She may have some trenchant thoughts on the subject, but Motherhood itself has shockingly little to say.

Council members acting foolishly

Granted, I was only giving the the proceedings half-hearted attention because I was also cooking up a stack of pancakes so I'm not sure of the entire story behind this little show, but the site of Dallas City Council members Jerry Allen, Dwayne Caraway and Carolyn Davis dancing around with boxing gloves, pretending to punch each other out over which high school had the best drum line, at today's City Council meeting left me feeling a tad squeamish. Do these elected officials have to stoop this low to make a point?

I guess it could have been done well, but it wasn't on this occasion. Instead, it was embarrassing, especially since Caraway seemed to want to prolong the charade long past its sell-by date. I think it was all designed to announce some major event taking place at City Hall next month involving the high schools in question (I believe they are Lake Highlands, Skyline and Townview, but I really can't be sure about that), but I was so turned off by these three acting like jerks I just tuned out their entire message.

I'm not saying the rivalry bit couldn't have been pulled off, the three just needed a better writer and choreographer.

Released this week on DVD: "$9.99"

Grade: B

The Israeli writer Etgar Keret possesses an imagination not easily slotted into conventional literary categories. His very short stories might be described as Kafkaesque parables, magic-realist knock-knock jokes or sad kernels of cracked cosmic wisdom. When such vignettes are strung together into a feature -- as in Jellyfish (2007), which he directed with his wife, Shira Geffen, and now in Tatia Rosenthal's $9.99 -- they become even more illusive and strange. To watch these films is to enter an eerily realistic parallel universe where people and emotions are at once perfectly recognizable and completely bizarre.

This effect is doubled by the extraordinary technique used in $9.99 yo bring Keret's world to life. Rosenthal, an Israeli animator, has cast some of Australia's finest actors, including well-known performers like Geoffrey Rush and Anthony LaPaglia, to provide voices for figures made of modeling clay. The gestures and expressions of these handmade citizens of a meticulously realized city are given more poignancy by the slight hesitancy imposed by stop-motion animation. They seem to be pausing to think before each action or utterance, even when they are being rash, heedless or irrational.

And the environment around them is dense with meaning and full of life. Both large structures -- parks, buildings, streetscapes and rooms -- and tiny objects like bottle caps and coins have been modeled with exquisite, almost compulsive care. Indeed, Rosenthal's work is so scrupulous and unassuming that after a while you might begin to take it for granted and to allow astonishment at the film's visual texture to give way to impatience with its story.

And impatience may be among the responses that Keret, who wrote the screenplay, intends. His work proceeds from the recognition that life is tedious and confusing as well as, occasionally, charmed. And the characters who populate the daisy-chain narrative of $9.99 -- one of those we're-all-vaguely-connected-by-a-vague-metaphysical-condition Babel-Crash movies -- are in various funks and malaises or else just out of sorts.

Among them are a calmly sinister homeless man (Rush), who turns into a grumpy and sarcastic angel; a put-upon businessman (LaPaglia) with two grown sons, one dating a model and the other hoping to discover the meaning of life with mail-order self-help books; a young boy who bonds with his piggy bank; and a guy visited, in the wake of his girlfriend's departure, by three thimble-size, obnoxious surfer dudes.

An aura of dreamy melancholy, accentuated by Christopher Bowen's musical score, pervades the entwined stories, which treat the bizarre and the banal as sides of the same coin. But though $9.99 manages to be quirky and enigmatic, it is in the end too self-conscious, too satisfied in its eccentricity, to achieve the full mysteriousness toward which it seems to aspire. It is cold, curious, intermittently intriguing but ultimately more interesting for its artifice than for its art.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Released this week on DVD: "Examined Life"

Grade: B-minus

Examined Life is a lofty title -- it comes from Plato, we're reminded -- for a modest, intermittently engaging film. Astra Taylor, whose previous documentary feature, Zizek!, is the second-best film ever made about the Slovanian superstar Slavoj Zizek, here expands her frame of reference to include seven other prominent contemporary thinkers.

As a matter of academic training or departmental employment, not all are philosophers, strictly speaking, but they are all entertainers of big questions as well as earnest, often entertaining talkers. Part of the fun of Examined Life comes from watching these very intelligent people try to make themselves intelligible.

And the movie is fun, within certain limits. For some reason, Taylor has drawn her subjects from a narrow intellectual precinct, where the work of philosophical speculation and the agendas of progressive politics are assumed to be congruent. When Zizek utters the word "conservative" as a self-evident synonym for "unthinking" or "pernicious," he is giving voice to a shared, in some cases unexamined, notion that, as Karl Marx put it in his 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, the point is not to interpret the world, but to change it.

You would not know, judging from Examined Life alone, that other traditions and priorities exist. But this is the filmmaker's blind spot and should not necessarily be held against the professors who oblige her curiosity and try to answer her questions.

Taylor's contribution is to set these philosophers in motion, to transport them from the page and the seminar room into public spaces. Kwame Anthony Appiah of Princeton muses on cosmopolitanism in a departure lounge at the Toronto airport. Avital Ronnell, a literary theorist at New York University, strolls slowly around Tompkins Square Park in Lower Manhattan, while Martha Nussbaum, a law professor at the University of Chicago, strides purposefully along the edge of Lake Michigan.

Zizek, ever the showman, appears in an orange safety vest at a waste-disposal site, offering a contrarian critique of the way, in his view, the ecological movement idealizes nature. His harangue is amusing and occasionally provocative, except that rather than addressing the particulars of environmental politics, he is gleefully setting fire to a straw man of his own construction.

But the time at the dump with Zizek is more illuminating than 10 minutes in a rowboat with Michael Hardt, co-author of Empire, who muses on the incongruity of talking about revolutionary politics in Central Park, a place he characterizes as "aristocratic." Perhaps he is speaking in a highly specialized political idiom, according to which free public space designed by a onetime abolitionist and radical journalist somehow supports the prerogatives of inherited wealth and power. Or perhaps he's just not a very clear thinker.

But clarity is not always the chief virtue on display in Examined Life. Cornel West, the Princeton professor whose back-seat ramblings punctuate the film (everyone else has a single, uninterrupted minicolloquium), clearly takes great pleasure in talking, and it is hard not to share it, at least in small doses. A man of great, one might say compulsive, erudition -- not one to drop the name of a single great writer, composer or sage if five are available -- he makes the case that thought can be a kind of performance art.

And, indeed, Examined Life is less a tour of present-day philosophy than a study in academic celebrity. Taylor has offered each of her subjects the chance to show off a little, and they find ways of rising to the opportunity of subverting it. Some, like Zizek, Hardt and the Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, explicitly comment on their surroundings. Judith Butler, a gender theorist at the University of California-Berkeley, makes the act of taking a walk into an occasion for philosophical inquiry. Accompanied by the filmmaker's sister Sunaura Taylor, who uses a wheelchair because of a disability, Butler in effect transposes some of her difficult and subtle ideas about bodies, identity and social space into the language of everyday life.

More such examination would enliven Examined Life, which is on the whole a bit too glamorized by its brainy stars to engage them critically. Nor does it invite them to argue with one another, such contention, after all, being the real substance and practice of philosophy.

But Taylor does make some interesting introductions, and the sincerity of her admiration is not unwelcome, since nothing is easier than subjecting serious people to mockery. Which doesn't mean that they sometimes don't deserve it.

Released this week on DVD: "Crude"

Grade: A-minus

Crude sounds like the standard "this is an outrage" environmental degradation documentary, the latest in a line that includes An Inconvenient Truth and films about the death of the ocean (see The End of the Line below), the evaporation of water, the murder of dolphins, even the disintegration of dirt. Crude fits that bill, but it is something considerably more interesting as well.

The outrage in question is the subject of a class-action suit filed by 30,000 citizens of Ecuador against Chevron, the world's fifth largest corporation, alleging that 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater were dumped into the Amazon between 1972 and 1990, fatally poisoning the land and water and sickening inhabitants. The lawsuit, with a potential cost to Chevron of $27 billion, has been going on for so long, 16 years and counting, that the original American oil company in Ecuador, Texaco, was acquired by Chevron and no longer exists.

Director Joe Berlinger (Brothers Keeper, Metallica) worked on Crude for three years, and though he feared he was coming too late to the story, a verdict is still not in sight. Having all that time to explore the situation has paid off for Berlinger, enabling him to gain the confidence of his subjects and show us situations that ordinarily would not be open to outsiders.

For what Crude does best is take us behind the scenes and show us often in candid detail how campaigns are waged, tactics decided on and strategies prioritized. For both sides realize that lawsuits like this one are not won or lost in the courtroom alone but in the critical realm of perception and public opinion.

Crude begins with a typical back-and-forth. In 2008, news clips show Pablo Fajardo, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, and his associate Luis Yanza, receiving the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. Then comes Chevron's reaction, as a representative says that the men have in effect made up the story for which they are being honored. What's going on here?

Next we see the charismatic Fajardo back in Ecuador and visiting a tiny Amazon enclave where the residents discuss often in an indigenous language, the progress of the lawsuit. Periodically throughout the film we visit places like this and see the pervasive health problems that have resulted from wretched stewardship of the country's oil resources.

We also spend a great deal of time with a Spanish-speaking environmental lawyer from New York named Steven Donziger, someone who specializes in class-action suits and is a key legal advisor to Fajardo. We see and hear Donziger in all kinds of privileged situations, even with Joseph Kohn, the Philadelphia attorney whose firm is bankrolling the case and hopes to profit financially if Chevron loses.

Donziger not only discusses legal strategy but works hard to get the kind of publicity that will galvanize public opinion. His courtship of the forceful Trudie Styler, the co-founder, along with her husband, Sting, of the Rainforest Foundation, is shown in detail and is a fascinating case study of real-world political action.

Chevron, not surprisingly, does not allow Berlinger into similar meetings, but through statements by their attorneys and representatives, we get a clear idea of the shrewd ways the oil giant is fighting back at every turn.

The company's strategy is twofold. First is the culture of denial. To see apparently sincere Chevron representatives flat out contradict everything the plaintiff's are claiming shows the power stonewalling has to, at the very least, create doubt in the public mind.

Because that strategy doesn't work well in Ecuador, where the damage is visible and hard to talk away, Chevron is ready with a moving-target series of fallback positions. Nothing was done that wasn't permitted by law, the Ecuadorean government signed off on a cleanup, most of the damage was done by the state-owned Petroecuador. Chevron also likes to claim that the only reason the suit was filed in the first place is because greedy U.S. attorneys are after the company's money.

It's true that the plaintiffs wouldn't have a prayer without American money and celebrity involvement, but does that mean their claims are any less just? It's still a David and Goliath story. What's different is that David has gotten his hands on some really choice stones.

Released this week on DVD: "The Box"

Grade: C-plus

Richard Kelly, the writer and director of the much-loved (by others, not me) Donnie Darko and the much-loathed Southland Tales, has a thing for the apocalypse. Like those films, his latest, The Box, is sincere and sinister and inevitably ambitious, a serious work that insists on its own seriousness even when it edges toward the preposterous. As in his earlier films, he is again using genre (and pretty actors) as a vehicle to ask questions about the human condition (and conditioning) amid a thicket of high, low and trash cultural illusions and against a backdrop of impending doom. But the end isn't nigh on Kelly's world. It's here.

The similarities among all three of his features (he also wrote the screenplay for Domino) are striking and suggest that Kelly is developing a worldview, puzzling through the great questions, or fast-working himself into a creative impasse, maybe all three. Based on Button, Button, a short story by fantasy writer Richard Matheson, The Box is the first of the movies Kelly has directed that he didn't write from the ground up. This doesn't much matter, because the original story, which was first published in Playboy in 1970 and runs about 10 pages, is merely a humble scaffolding for Kelly's mazelike narrative, with its sharp and snaking turns, its periodic dead ends and various pathway choices.

Navigating those paths alongside the audience are Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) and her husband, Arthur (James Marsden), an attractive, seemingly happy middle-class couple who in 1976 are living in a pleasant Virginia suburb with their only son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone). Norma, a teacher at a private high school, and Arthur, an engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration who's hoping to make astronaut, live somewhat beyond their means, or so she says. There's a sports car in the driveway, and Walter attends the school where Norma teaches Satre's No Exit to rich whelps more interested in her limp. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that after they receive an offer to earn a million dollars, they grab it.

As in the short story, the payout comes with a shocking condition: they have to murder someone first by pressing a red button on a curious little box, or so says the man making the offer, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella). Norma doesn't seem terribly shaken by this stipulation or by the fact that she can see some of Steward's teeth through the hole in his cheek. (Don't worry about it, he says, and she doesn't, though I did.) Kelly doesn't seem too concerned about the moral angle, either, which he takes his time getting to, creating a needless complication in a movie overstuffed with complications, including severed toes, watery portals to another dimension, the Mars Viking mission, murdered wives, tall ships and even, alas, the twin towers.

A lot happens. Some of what happens tracks, some does not. Sometimes this matters, sometimes not. The actors are fine, and to watch Norma trying to persuade Arthur that they need to push the button is to realize that Diaz should go dark more often. Marsden seems a little lost (you can't blame him), but he handles the story's hairpins. He's also better served by the digital cinematography than Diaz; shot by Steven Poster, the movie has been washed in 1970s browns that serve the vibe if not her skin tone. But Kelly leans too heavily on traveling shots here, and his habit of slowly moving the camera toward something or someone, a creeping meant to intensify suspense, soon feels like mannerism.

Matheson, perhaps best known for his novel I am Legend (the basis of the Will Smith thriller), has described the idea behind his short story as "a sacrifice of human dignity in exchange for a specific goal." That more or less describes the themes, which he bundles together with unadorned prose, a heavy serving of dread and a gratifying, blunt, O. Henry-like kicker. It's the kind of ending that can make you laugh out loud because the final twist of the knife is at once so expected and yet nonetheless pleasurable. (Part of the delight, of course, is having that expectation met.) Like many fine genre works, the story satisfies your appetite for tales of this type and leaves you a little something extra to savor.

For his part, Kelly has an uneasy relationship to genre, or maybe he just needs a writing partner, someone to help him edit all his bright and dim ideas. The Box is alternately fluid, and rarely dull, (though it is a little, on occasion). But too often it also feels strained, which might be expected from any movie that name-drops No Exit in one scene and the grim 1970s sitcom What's Happening!! in the other. There are, as with his previous films, visual gifts, like the spooky image of an airplane hangar glowing in the night and the odd image of Norma's little toe waving like a finger. But Kelly is so buys sampling genres and confusing the issue that he rarely gives you time or space to enjoy them. In the end, he often seems as lost as his characters, trapped in a Pandora's box of his own making.

Released this week on DVD: "The End of the Line"

Grade: B

Trendsetting restaurants wouldn't dream of offering snow leopard or white rhinoceros on their menus, notes the journalist and author Charles Clover, but they have no qualms serving bluefish tuna, a delicacy so overharvested that the species now faces destruction. The former environmental editor for the Daily Telegragh in London, Clover appears in The End of the Line, a documentary based on his book exposing the damages wrought to the sea by the usual suspects: industrialized food production, unchecked capitalism, soaring consumer demand.

This vital, if rhetorically clumsy, film by Rupert Murray subverts our ancient faith in the ocean as an inexhaustible resource, offering a persuasive case that the major species of edible fish are headed for extinction -- by some estimates, as soon as the middle of this century.

Too bad these propositions are slathered in laughable scare music by the composers Srdjan Kurpjel and Marios Takoushis. Well-researched and generally evenhanded in its delivery of information (Ted Danson provides the narration), the movie more than makes its points without needing to resort to a montage of adorable fish being bashed on the head, cross cut with ravenous diners wolfing down sushi. But the film is impressive in scope, gathering material from Alaska to Senegal, Malta to Tokyo, and righteous in its condemnation of industry, government and consumer alike. Flaws and all, it serves up a documentary Naked Lunch, showing exactly what's on the end of our forks.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Dallas to get wet?

No, this is not a weather item. Lake Highlands Today is reporting that a coalition, taking advantage of recently passed legislation that makes it easier to do things like this, is putting together a petition drive to have a proposed ordinance on this November's ballot that would legalize the sale of beer and liquor throughout the Dallas city limits. This means grocery stores in Lake Highlands, Oak Cliff and other places that up till now have not been able to sell spirits, will be able to. And you won't have to show a Unicard to get a cocktail in a restaurant anywhere in the city any longer. According to the story, Lake Highlands Dallas City Council member Jerry Allen is not taking a pro- or anti-drink position, but one of "let the people decide." Ditto for North Dallas councilman Ron Natinsky. Haven't heard yet from Oak Cliff's Dave Neumann.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

What if the City of Dallas threw a committee meeting and nobody came?

The possibility of that happening is more likely than you might imagine.

The Dallas City Council has all these standing committees and they are supposed to meet on a regular schedule, usually once every other week or so, and be briefed on issues someone on the city staff (usually the city manager) wants them to know about or on an item upcoming at a full council agenda session.

There are times, however, when the city staff ain't got a single thing to present to these committees. But, wait, they are going to meet anyway. I think their pay actually gets docked if they don't meet and you know they are not going to be happy about that.

That's when the city staff goes scurrying around for a placeholder presentation, something to present for the sole reason of having something to present. Want an example of just such a placeholder briefing? Here's one that will be presented Monday to the Council's Quality of Life Committee.

One more 1-1

We all know, or should know, about 9-1-1. That's strictly for emergencies. You might also have heard about 3-1-1 which is a city calling service offered by many municipal governments, including Dallas, to report such things as busted water mains, animals dead in the streets or to order your recycling cart because you've finally realized "Green is Good."

But there's a new 1-1 in town and on Monday the Dallas City Council's Budget, Finance and Audit Committee will hear all about it. It's 2-1-1, for health and human services (to, I guess, request a shelter in case your home has been leveled by a tornado). Whatever it is, you can get a sneak peak at the presentation right here.

Released this week on DVD: "Splinterheads"

Grade: C

A cool hobby and a hot blonde guide an aimless man to his bliss in Splinterheads, a shaggy comedy with more heart than heft.

It's summer in a nameless, featureless small town and Justin (Thomas Middleditch) is bored. Unenthusiastic about the lawn care business he shares with his best friend, Wayne (Jason Rogel), he's more titillated than angry when the exotically named and tattooed Galaxy (Rachael Taylor) rips him off at the gas station. Galaxy's grifter credentials are authenticated when Justin learns she's a splinterhead: a carnival-based con artist who works marks on the midway. She is also an aficionado of geocaching, a satellite-guided treasure hunt and a too-obvious metaphor for Justin's halfhearted search for a life.

Written and directed by Brant Sersen, who conjures his offbeat milieu without breaking a sweat, Splinterheads gains traction from an eclectic cast that knows how to work a line. Lea Thompson (little altered since her 1983 turn as Tom Cruise's high school honey in All the Right Moves) settles comfortably into her role as Justin's overprotective mom, while the estimable Christopher McDonald plays her simmering ex-boyfriend with practiced restraint. And thanks to Michael Simmonds's clean, color-rich photography, the film has a visual polish rarely seen in low-budget projects: the gags may not always work, but the skin tones are perfect.

The real hero of Tiger's tail

I finally got to see a taped replay of the Tiger Woods I'm-so-sorry-please-don't-take-away-anymore-of-my-endorsements one-act play and after it was all over I was left with this: "Really? She never hit him? Why in heaven's name not? He certainly deserved it. She must really be a saint."

If it was Tiger's aim to portray his wife Elin (pictured here) as the real hero of this saga and foster the notion that she should get out of this marriage as quickly as possible, he did a damn fine job. If his goal was anything else, he failed miserably. I have to give her additional points for not being at this event, unlike the wife of New Jersey Gov. James McGreevy who idiotically stood by her husband's side as he announced his was resigning and going to live with his male lover. No, Elin had the good sense not to be anywhere within camera range at Tiger's charade and you could read between the lines of her parents' "no comments" to know exactly how they felt about this one-ring circus.

I guess your opinion on this whole thing depends entirely upon the baggage you carried into it. Me? I don't care a whit about golf. I have no intention of ever watching a round of golf on television (it falls even below the pairs figure skating at the Winter Olympics as an event I wouldn't waste my time with). Give me a college football game, a college or a pro basketball game (these last two Mavericks games were marvelous theater), an English Premier League or World Cup soccer game, or a New York Yankees baseball game and I'm there. But golf? Blaaaahhhh!

I have nothing against those professionals that play the game. In fact, I rather liked to read about Annika Sorenstam, mainly because both physically and because of her drive for perfection she reminded me of My Hero. Tiger, to me, is just another name on the sports pages, like those Nascar drivers who all seemed to be named Bob Johnson.

Yet to many, may others, golf is a big freaking deal. And I guess I can see why. Most people will never run a basketball court like Kobe Bryant, or race for touchdowns like Reggie Bush, get the clutch game-winning hit like Derek Jeter or bend it like Beckham. But they can get out their trusty old set of golf clubs and head out for the very same courses tread by the great ones. Playing with a group of just three other guys at the Augusta Country Club, they can picture themselves trying to sink this put to win the Masters with thousands of people holding their collective breath in the gallery.

To these people, I guess, Tiger Woods is a positive symbol and they want him to do well. Woods, for all practical purposes, has saved the game of professional golf -- even elevated it. I saw an astounding graphic the other day that showed how many golfers had won $1 million in a single year before Tiger joined the tour and how many last year. The increase was astronomical -- something in the neighborhood, if I recall, of 50 times as many.

So, if you are one of these, you probably thought ol' Tiger did OK with his public confession. More power to ya. But, if you're like my son and My Hero -- the two individuals I have had analytical discussions about the event with -- you probably agree the entire thing was a complete waste of time. Yet you may also be shouting: "Run, Elin! Run!"

Released this week on DVD: "Women in Trouble"

Grade: D

To judge by the swelling bosoms spilling out of the frame, the lingerie bill for Women in Trouble must have been estimable. An ensemble piece that never coheres despite a clutch of appealing actresses -- notably Carla Gugino and Emmanuelle Chriqui -- this movie was written and directed by Sebastian Guitierrez, whose screenplay credits include The Big Bounce (the remake), Gothika and Snakes on a Plane. It's a discouraging list, true, but Gugino, an interesting actress who has yet to find a big-screen career worthy of her, seemed reason alone to take the chance. (And Robyn Hitchcock did the score.)

She wasn't, though the fault is scarcely hers, or Hitchcock's. Although some early flashes of color suggest that Guitierrez is headed for Almodovar country, he soon settles into discount Robert Altman: a character mosaic with a smattering of different if fundamentally homogeneous Los Angeles women yammering about love, sex, whatever. (Josh Brolin, meanwhile, tries out a British accent in one story thread while Simon Baker gives a little dignity to another.)

The amateurish production values might be pardonable if the cliches -- the hard-core porn star with the soft heart, the therapist who needs to heal herself -- inside the poorly lighted, badly shot images weren't so absurd and often insulting. Guitierrez, as suggested by all the decolletage, appears to be a breast man. Too bad he didn't set his sights higher.

Friday, February 19, 2010

It takes one to know one

D magazine publisher Wick Allison has crafted a fine profile on Dallas State Sen. (and possibly Dallas mayoral candidate) John Carona, a Republican who is harsher on members of his own party than many Democrats are. He are some Carona quotes gleaned from Allison's story:

"The Democrats are the party of overspending. The Republicans are also the party of overspending. The only difference is that the Republicans are hypocrites about it."

"Fiscal responsibility means nothing to (Republican office-holders). They only worry about the next primary."

"Republican officer-holders once cared about the nation's interests. Now they only care about self-interest and special interests."

Why is Carona sticking his colleagues? In short, according to Allison, it's because they want to spend as much taxpayer money as the Democrats do but, because they are wedded to the idea of "no new taxes," they can't raise the money for all that spending, thus creating a problematic deficit.

Another one of the good guys leaves the City of Dallas

The city is going to miss Dave Cook. He was not only one of the really good guys working at City Hall, he was one of the most knowledgeable and the most effective. I am more concerned now than ever over the city's budget for the next fiscal year because Dave Cook, the city's retiring CFO, and City Manager Mary Suhm were like the Joel and Ethan Coen of the budget. They played off each other beautifully, the complemented each other remarkably well. I don't know how well it will go now that only one remains.

I remember scenes at Dallas City Council meetings when some council member would be grilling a department head over some arcane detail concerning an agenda item and Dave Cook would step in with the answer the council person was looking for. I always wondered "How does he know all that?"

When I worked the City and was trying to understand all the complex financial ins and outs surrounding the budget, Dave Cook always took the time to sit with me and explain until I understood it.

City Hall reporter Rudy Bush at the Dallas Morning News wrote a story on Cook's retirement following 28 years of employment with the city and, in the comments section following the story, someone wrote anonymously "What's the real reason he is leaving?" Trust me on this. Dave Cook will always be up front with you. He will always tell you the truth.

He is leaving because he can afford to spend a lot more time with his kids who have not yet even graduated from high school while still pulling in a wonderful income from his city hall pension. Having spent marathon sessions at City Hall with Dave, especially when the budget was about to be finalized each year, I can attest that man has more than earned the right to take this time to be with his family.

Not only that, Dave Cook is not the type to run away from any challenge, no matter how daunting, which is what I think anonymous was inferring.

I am deliriously happy for Dave Cook; I am not all that thrilled for the rest of us, however.

Released this week on DVD: "Good Hair"

Grade: B

Many African-American women endure a multitude of sins, near literally it seems, to achieve fresh, fly hairdos. That's not me saying that -- it's all laid out in the Chris Rock documentary Good Hair.

But before I go any further, I guess I should explain what, according to Rock, "good hair" is. From what I gather, the term "good hair," old jargon in the black community, describes hair that's like "white hair." Actress Nia Long uses the expression "the lighter, the brighter, the better" to describe the often long, smooth and straight hair associated with "good hair."

One of Rock's daughters asked him why she didn't have "good hair," and Good Hair was born.

A woman's hair is her crowning glory, St. Louis native Maya Angelou points out. And that pursuit of "good hair" for black women and even some men -- Michael Jackson, Prince and the Rev. Al Sharpton aren't spared -- is portrayed as funny as it is near tragic. Rock shows us what's really going on with the "relaxers," a common chemical process sold over the counter that straightens coarse or curly black hair. It's seen as the road to "good hair," just don't get a smidge of the relaxer, made up of sodium hydroxide, in your eyes or on your scalp or risk blindness and burning.

A safer solution for many are weaves, though they are much more expensive. We're shown the silky locks that come in plastic bags at the neighborhood beauty store for weave usage once flowed down the backs of Indian women whose heads are shaved as sacrifice. And that's when the hair isn't stolen off Indian women's heads while they sleep.

We learn that Asians pocked most of the money in the black hair business, and that the colorfully hot mess that is the Bonner Bros. Hair Show brings in $60 million to Atlanta's economy. The behind-the-scenes of the hair show might've made an even more entertaining movie.

Some of this, a lot of this, is preaching to the choir. But it's still pretty compelling no matter what perspective you're coming from.

Rock misses the boat in deciding not to relate Good Hair to non African-Americans more. He only fleetingly mentions that white women are getting weaves and extensions more than ever.

Rock tries to sum it all up when he says he'll tell his daughters that the stuff on top of their heads is nowhere near as important as what's inside their heads. But that, paired with a closing quote from Ice-T saying women should do whatever makes them feel good, makes one wonder which is the overriding message.

Tiger flexes his muscles on TV just because he can and you can't

I did not see Tiger Woods' public confession on nationwide television this morning (I thank my lucky stars I didn't waste my time with that), but I did read about it. I find the whole thing terribly annoying and it lowered Woods in my esteem. It's like he's saying "I'm bigger than God. Watch how powerful I can be. I will go on television, blabber a few words and all the TV networks will carry it live and the news services will interrupt their regular feeds with bulletins. I will do that just because I can."

I wrote some friends a few minutes ago and asked them: "If you had run into Tiger Woods yesterday would you have told him 'Tiger, you owe me an apology'?" No one would have done that. If I had run into him yesterday and was able to engage him in conversation I probably would have asked him "When you are you going to play golf on TV again because, frankly, the game has no interest for me unless you're playing it?"

That's what I'm convinced the public wants to know: When he will play tournament golf again. The public doesn't deserve an apology, doesn't need an apology, doesn't want an apology. Only his wife and others close to him he has hurt emotionally deserve an apology.

But Tiger didn't answer the question about when he will play again so today's TV spectacular was a complete waste of time.

Released this week on DVD: "Revanche"

Grade: A-

An unidentified object sends ripples across the surface of a lake at the start of Gotz Spielmann's Revanche, and in the two hours it takes the movie to loop back to that crucial moment, we see another set of shockwaves, set forth by a bank robbery in a bucolic Austrian country town. The robbery is committed by Alex (Johannes Krisch), a proletariat lug working for a cheap-suited pimp in Vienna's red-light district, who dreams of absconding to Ibiza with a Ukranian call girl (Irina Potapenko) equally eager to escape from the pimp's thuggish clutches. It is, Alex says, in the way of all movie small-timers trying to get rich quick, a foolproof heist -- and so it might be, were it not for Robert (Andreas Lust), the provincial cop who happens to be patrolling the street where Alex illegally parks his stolen getaway car, and who fires the fateful shot that violently upends Alex's perfect plan.

Alex takes cover at his elderly grandfather's nearby farm, which turns out to abut the property of Robert and his wife, Susanne (Ursula Strauss) -- a coincidence that might have seemed like a cheap provocation in a lesser film, but which Spielmann deploys with the cool inevitability of a Greek tragedian. It's the untidiness of human relationships, however, more than the moral reckoning that drives Revanche, which was one of the few deserved nominees in the forlorn Foreign Language category at the last Academy Awards. As Alex seethes with vengeful thoughts, he finds himself unexpectedly drawn to Susanne, and soon realizes that he is not the botched robbery's only collateral victim. The shooting and its ensuing investigation has also taken its toll on Robert, and in turn formed fissures in his marriage -- or maybe (as an empty upstairs nursery suggests) magnified ones that were already there. When cop and robber finally meet again, it is not in a violent standoff, but rather a dialectic.

Directed with terrific control and economy of means by Spielmann -- a film and theater veteran who has had only one previous movie distributed in the United States -- Revanche gets its hooks into you early and leaves them there, alternately suggesting a darkly romantic film noir in the vein of Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (which navigates a similar journey from seedy urbanism to lyric countryside), a Strindbergian chamber play opened up for the great outdoors, and a Jacobean revenge drama stripped of its ceremonial bloodshed. Working with the cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, Spielmann favors fixed, spacious compositions, in which the action often drifts to the far corners of the frame, until we find ourselves craning our necks to peer around the edges of the screen. He's also marvelous with actors, particularly Krisch, a stage performer playing his first major screen role here. An intensely physical presence, Krisch can make vivid business out of scaling a wall or somersaulting across a bed to answer the door, but he is even more adept at registering the rage and resignation that pass behind Alex's eyes as he stares out into the horizon, weighing his fate.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Underrated singers of a bygone era and a bygone joint

My iPod, forever in random play, is playing while I write and up popped the Amazing Rhythm Aces' version of Dancing the Night Away. Now that is such a magnificent song, even I can't ruin it by singing it. If you want proof of this, seek out, of all people, Crystal Gayle's version of the song.

Still, it reminded me that Russell Smith, the lead singer of the Aces, was among the most under- appreciated and underrated lead singers of his era along with Peter Cetera of Chicago (I remember touring with Chicago and the Beach Boys and just marveling whenever Cetera was at the mike) as well as the great George Jones and the incomparable Al Green. From where I sit, it doesn't get much better than those four.

It also reminded me of the wonderful evening I spent watching the listening to the Aces at a saloon on Abrams and Skillman right around where that Super Target is located today. Those were some heady days. Does anyone else remember that joint? I also spent a marvelous evening seeing Waylon Jennings there in the early 1970s, but I would still, to this day, be betraying a major confidence if I so much as uttered the name of the person I was with that evening. Oh, but what a night it was.

Cameron's campaign

Avatar director James Cameron is really campaigning heavily for his film to win the top prize at next month's Oscar ceremonies, going to so far, I'm being told by industry insiders, to say "Sure, go ahead and give my ex-wife (The Hurt Locker's Kathryn Bigelow) the Oscar for best director, just give me the award for best picture." This on the heels of reports from those same insiders who are saying that if any film has a chance to pull a Shakespeare in Love-type upset of The Hurt Locker it will be Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, if for no other reason than voters are thinking Tarentino's time is due and he's got the Weinsteins going to bat for him. The other thing going for Basterds is it won the SAG ensemble award and actors make up the largest segment of the Academy's voting members. But there is no way of knowing the percentage Basterds had over Locker in that voting.

I'm still giving The Hurt Locker the edge. When was the last time a picture won the top award without a single nomination in any of the acting or writing categories? That would seem to eliminate Avatar. And there just seems, for some reason, to be a lot more love for Basterds now than there was when it was originally released, leaving me to believe that all this love is really manufactured.

Grapevine's Toy Story

Well worth the time it takes to read is Avi Selk's story of the Toy Man in the Dallas Morning News.

Oscars' new get tough policy -- the proof is in the enforcement

At the Oscar luncheon earlier this week honoring all the nominees for Hollywood's premiere movie award, the producers of the program laid down the law: No long acceptance speeches. No thanking everyone from your agent to your hairdresser. In fact, there's going to be a 45-second limit on speechmaking.

Sure. Fine. Whatever. The idea is sound -- no one in the TV audience wants to sit through a laundry list of people they never heard of. But I want to know is how they are going to enforce this? Co-producer Bill Mechanic said "Our favorite (option) was a trap drawer, but we were talked out of it." By whom? The trap drawer bit worked wonders for the late Ernie Kovacs.

Oh, and one more thing. It seems that this year's telecast is also going to eschew performing the nominated songs. Well, there goes another bathroom break.

Update: I was discussing this limitation on acceptance speeches with My Hero this evening and she said "They could just turn the microphone off." That works and also proves who is the real brainchild in my circle.

Global warming vs. global weirding

New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman has a good read in today's edition suggesting the leading scientists studying climate change should go on the offensive against the idiots who claim things like the recent 1-foot snowfall we had last week in Dallas disproves all those warnings about global warming and that we should continue to drill for oil and depend on imports of oil from the Mideast.

In fact, he argues that the notion we got all that snow while Vancouver needed to manufacture snow to conduct the Olympics proves the points the climatologists are making. But he argues that the scientific community should substitute the term "Global Weirding" for "Global Warming" because that's what's happening -- the weather is getting weirder and weirder: "The hots are expected to get hotter, the wets wetter, the dries drier and the most violent storms more numerous," Friedman writes.

Friedman says China is way ahead of the rest of the world in seeing the future of climate change and, as a result, "is investing heavily in clean-tech efficiency and high-speed rail. It sees the future trends and is betting on them. Indeed, I suspect China is quietly laughing at us right now."

Or at least China is laughing at the antics of people like Gov. Hair who argues there's no harm at all in all those pollutants in our air and is willing to sue anyone who disagrees with him.

Released this week on DVD: "Black Dynamite"

Grade: B-

In the spoof that bears his name, Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) sports every outfit in the blaxploitation-look book. While investigating the murder of his junkie brother, he wears a cheap-looking suit with lapels that belong on a pterodactyl. He drops in on a warren of pimps in a leather trench coat, leather pants, and a turtleneck (all black). He does karate (with a certain elected official) in a sky-blue suit with BeDazzled trim. The clothes, all by the inspired costume designer Ruth E. Carter, look authentically 1970-something. And for its first 50 minutes, so does Black Dynamite. It's as intentionally funny as Shaft in Africa and Dolemite are accidental comedies.

Tired, presumably, of playing a physical specimen (although not enough to keep his shirt on here), White wrote himself this part (along with Byron Minns and director Scott Sanders). And he puts a lot of comical melodramatic muscle behind the dialogue delivered by his Afro-ed martial-artist ex-CIA womanizer. When Black Dynamite -- everyone urgently calls him by both names -- hears that his brother is strung out, he turns mock-intense: "Where is he, and what has he had?"

White stuffs the screen legacies of Billy Dee Williams, Richard Roundtree, and Fred Williamson inside a pair of quotation marks. And yet the actor gives Black Dynamite enough of his own issues to stand as more than a mere impersonation of African-American machismo. The hilarious sight, for instance, of a room full of tiny heroin-addicted orphans slapping their arms for a vein causes a post-traumatic fit: "I was an orphan!" (So many actors in the film launch themselves over the top -- Arsenio Hall, Tommy Davidson, Bokeem Woodine, Kym Whitley -- that Salli Richardson seems all the funnier for playing her part as the orphanage director straight.)

Blaxploitation, of course, is perfectly capable of sending itself up. But the genre's lewd attractions and its dogmatic adherence to a clear sociopolitical code ("Whitey go home") have also rendered it eminently mockable, if not always worthy of that mockery. Blaxploitation started out as a kind of militant black entertainment. Success spoiled it: Three decades after Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song there was merely Booty Call.

Robert Townsend's timeless Hollywood Shuffle, Malcolm D. Lee's Undercover Brother, and Keenen Ivory Wayans's I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (for which Carter also did the eye-popping costumes) tried to think about and think past the genre's problems. Meanwhile, a budgetless carnival like Pootie Tang was out to embody them, then wink. Quentin Tarantino is one of the few artists with a serious commitment to the genre's uncouth glories.

Formally speaking, Black Dynamite is the most studious of all these satires. The loping camerawork and faux-sloppy editing re-create blaxploitation's haywire energy. (The original songs install Curtis Mayfield's ghetto pop with punch lines.) But there is a difference between a director pretending not to know how to make a movie, and actually having no idea. Before an hour has passed tedium overtakes Black Dynamite -- one corny martial-arts sequence turns out to be plenty -- and all the good jokes dry up. No matter how jive the turkey is you're mocking, you're still bound to end up with a little bit of turkey.