Tuesday, June 05, 2007


The other best picture of last year (non-English division) is the most satisfying film I have seen in years and indeed one of the best films I have ever seen. It is the debut of a young German filmmaker which is at once a lesson in history and in screenwriting. The film is flawless and I urge you to see it, hoping only that my advance accolades won't lessen the experience for you. The protagonist is introduced as an East German Stasi automaton giving a seminar in interrogation. This man lives and breathes the state - it is no coincidence that the film is set in 1984. It is his lot in life to infiltrate the lives of others and ferret out the heretics. I assumed I was being introduced to the antagonist because this Cold Warrior doesn't seem to fit my definition of hero, but that is the beauty of dynamic characters - they change. When he is ordered to eavesdrop on a supposedly partyline artist and told to find dirt on him, his loyalty to the state directs him to question the motives of his superiors, who seem to be abusing their authority. In entering the lives of the artist and his circle, the hero becomes deeply emotionally drawn into the predicament of his subjects to the point where he can understand their motives when they do begin expressing some anti-establishment ideals. He becomes sort of a guardian angel to the resistance by providing cover for their exploits from behind the scenes while failing to inform the party of these enemies of the state. I have already said too much and I don't want to completely ruin the experience for you which ends beautifully. You may have to wait for DVD, but you must see this film and post your comments.

Children grow up and still act like children only with the stakes raised. Kate Winslet has no outlet for her thirst for knowledge as she is consigned to babysit the daughter who is a product of a marriage to a man she no longer loves yet keeps her in a good home. She runs into her male counterpart who feels the same ennui despite the knockout successful wife. They spend time together and ultimately begin an affair and agree to run off together. It is never discussed who would be the breadwinner in this new relationship as both are skilled only in shuttling the kids from one diversion to the next, but the romance of seeking a more fulfilling life drives their passion forward. Meanwhile, lurking in the background of this happy little town is the oddball with a psychosexual disorder which compels him to do perverted things in front of little girls. It is great how he is first introduced only in mugshots, and then much later is personally introduced in very much the same way as the shark from JAWS when he invades the tranquility of the community swimming pool. The story does justice to this character by making him a real person with real problems rather than being out-and-out evil, or worse, wrongly convicted. He's got problems, he knows he's got problems, he is severely persecuted for these problems and heck, even the normal people have problems - they are just easier to hide beneath the surface and behind the smiles. All the threads converge in the final moments and the ending is rather hopeful if somewhat unsatisfying dramatically.

WORD PLAY (2005) 3.5
This is a fun little documentary about crossword puzzles and those who love them. It is firmly entrenched in the docugenre with SPELLBOUND and WORD WARS about geeky people engaged in word game competitions. In the commentary, the filmmakers admit that the original focus of the film was New York Times crossword puzzle editor Wil Shortz. He is an engaging and interesting fellow but the film did justice by broadening its outlook to include puzzle constructors, puzzle aficionados, competitive solvers, and the annual competition originated and hosted by Shortz. The best segment involved watching a constructor create a puzzle from scratch, starting from the concept of the words 'word' and 'play', then cutting between disparate luminaries solving the puzzle on camera - Bill Clinton, Mike Mussina, John Stewart, Ken Burns and the Indigo Girls. It was interesting seeing these people interrupt their daily lives to begin this ritual which begins with folding the paper a certain way and grabbing a trusted pen. I could have spent more time with Clinton since there was something really fascinating about watching a former "most powerful man in the world" do something so mundane, and deriving so much enjoyment from solving a puzzle. I like John Stewart, but I could have stood much less of him in this context since he was trying too hard to force comedy into the process which I think detracted from the impetus of the film which otherwise showed that one can leave his ordinary self behind once the paper is folded and the pen uncapped.

I'm an admirer of mature beauty and I find Joan Allen rather foxy so I've been wanting to see this one and finally got my chance. Allen's husband has up and left her with three girls still at home and a tendency towards hitting the bottle. Kevin Costner is old reliable as the washed up ballplayer who spends his days getting soused and signing baseballs. The two become drinking pals and ultimately more as they come to enjoy the low-maintenance of the other while they commiserate their failed lives as the young girls go about building their lives without proper role models. Mike Bender writes, directs and supports as Costner's cradle-robbing pal who gets in good with one of the daughters. It's basically a pleasant melodrama which is supposed to be but really isn't made more meaningful by the O Henry ending which is cute but not necessarily revelatory.

I knew I would love this movie and was surprised when I didn't. I didn't fall asleep, I wasn't diverted, I sat and stared at it the whole while and just got nothing out of it. That was a big surprise as Eastwood is one of my all-time faves. I imagine I'll give it another go in a few years and I will hope to enjoy it then. This time around I was just kind of bored. It seemed like it kept repeating the same two notes time and again. First, war is hell and every few minutes, we get another flashback to remind us. Second, duty comes first and even if you weren't the hero everyone thinks you were, just shut the hell up and sell war bonds. I've said before that Ryan Phillippe is the biggest blank slate in movies and I think he proves it again here. Meanwhile, Adam Beach creates a character whom I just wanted to kick in the teeth every time he came onscreen. I'll go back and read Tom's review to see what I missed and I'll rank it higher than I want to just because I know I should.

16 BLOCKS (2006) 3.5
This is a pedestrian, easily forgotten actioner, watchable only because Bruce Willis commands the screen like few of his generation. That said, this was an odd role for him - he doesn't really play a loser very well because he so effortlessly rises to the occasion that it is impossible to believe him when he's trying hard to portray a loser. The real performance here is David Morse, who is just a guy who is always great and someday will find the role that brings home the Best Supporting Actor accolades. I never know that he is going to be in a movie but I am always delighted to find him there. I will be equally satisfied if I never again see Mos Def in any movie ever - my god, this guy was annoying from start to finish. I guess that's all - I figured it might be this way, but I watched it anyways. That is the power of Bruce.

TAKE HER, SHE'S MINE (1963) 3.0
Tivo thought I might like this and I gave it a whirl based on the presence of latter day Jimmy Stewart. Turn him into Rod Taylor and the film is basically unwatchable but Stewart has the gravitas to make any sort of drivel at least seem meaningful. It begins at some sort of community meeting where the conservative Stewart is confronted with photo after photo of him embroiled in the most outlandish beatnik predicaments. There is of course an explanation which can be summed up by "I've got an unmarried daughter of reproductive age." The rest of the film is his recounting of episode after episode in which he followed his daughter to all ends of the earth to maintain her chastity and just as the mayhem hit its zenith, there was always a photographer around. The script cheats a bit by allowing the paparazzi to confuse Stewart's character with some famous movie star to whom he bears a striking resemblance. The daughter is played by Sandra Dee of look-at-me fame. In the end she is safely chaste and engaged and the movie ends with a great Jimmy line as he notices his younger daughter's newfound figure: "When did THAT happen?"

OPEN WATER (2003) 3.5
This looked like one of those magical little indies when it came out a few years ago and I made up my mind that I would see it as soon as possible. That day came about four years later and I was let down by all the hype. It is obviously shot on a digital camcorder which is not necessary a bad thing except that the acting is only a notch or two above what your next-door neighbors could give you if you pointed a camera at them. It's easy to get sucked into the plight of the characters once they are abandoned in the eponymous arena because the last thing anybody wants is to get eaten by sharks, so we really can't wait to see how this couple will avoid the dreaded fate. Then the guy gets a nasty sharkbite and later dies from the wound. Oh, wow, that sucks, but at least we still have the girl and, yay, there is a rescue boat on the way. But, wait, she gives up, takes off her flotation gear and offers herself to the sharks before the boat arrives. Okay, is that a stab at realism? Because as a story, it's pretty lame - I don't remember anything like this in Greek mythology and that was fairly bleak at times. I'm not sure what this conclusion offers as insight to the human condition, which is fine if the film is just going for nihilism and cheap thrills, but it wasn't. Instead, it seemed like it was leading me in one direction but then pulled the rug out from under me. Maybe it was going for a UNITED 93 kind of vibe of doomed heroes, but at least the ill-fated passengers in that film achieved an objective and became heroes, they didn't just expose their carotids to the box cutters.

SLEEPER (1973) 4.5
I can't remember if it is in actual reality or in some kind of parallel fantasy land in which this film is considered a comedy classic because the version I saw was amateurish and silly and really kind of lame. It looked like it was shot over a week and a half before the high wore off from the brainstorming session. Woody Allen, in his last broad comedy of the "early phase" of his career, is awakened after 200 years and expected to save society from itself. The banter is so Woody Allen that it plays as a caricature of the genre. There was only one gag that made me laugh - when Allen disguised himself as a robot butler and was forced to pass around a metal ball at the equivalent of a futuristic key party. The ball brought ecstasy to whomever held it and Allen was the intermediary between all the guests as the orgasmic ball was passed around. Before long, he looked dopey and was slapping away the hands of guests who tried to take it from him. Now that's funny. The rest of it, not so much.

I'm consuming all things Brady this year so it was only a matter of time before I got to this. Adult Greg is the impetus behind this memoir. It is fun seeing all the brothers/sisters pair up when the cameras aren't rolling and there is one funny gag in which Greg has to try umpteen times to give his sister an onscreen kiss that can be construed as brotherly. There were mixed messages on the Robert Reed character. It is well known that he argued with Sherwood Schwartz and considered himself head and shoulders above the level of sitcom actor, but it is also evident that he loved the kids on the show and treated everybody (but Sherwood) really well. The mystery of Tiger was cleared up for me: seems the dog died after season one and the season two lookalike was such a poor performer that he was gradually written off the show. We also see Schwartz going all Partridge Family by introducing musical numbers into the show beginning half way through season three. This would ultimately culminate in the Brady Kids Variety Hour. I'm happy I watched it to round out my Brady education but I can't in good conscious recommend it.


Tom said...

Good batch, Dude.

I missed my chance at LIVES OF OTHERS when it was in town, but you convinced me that it’s a must. I’ll get back to you the moment the DVD is released. Did WORD WARS just come out on DVD? I think I read an article about Bill Clinton writing a Crossword that was published in the NYT or someplace.

LITTLE CHILDREN will be in my upcoming batch of reviews.

UPSIDE OF ANGER convinced me that Costner needs to play jocks and ex-jocks almost exclusively where he seems comfortable and still has moments of his regular guy persona.

That’s what TAKE HER SHE’S MINE means. It never dawned on me that they were talking about a guy’s daughter.

Why did Donner let MOS DEF behave that way? You can’t let the audience beg a bullet for your supposed sympathetic character.

BRADY and OPEN WATER I saw several years ago. I only remember Greg’s date with Florence Henderson and that the seafood finally had dinner on us. I think I saw 30 minutes of SLEEPER once and went into the other room.

Why did SLEEPER get the same rating as LIVES OF OTHERS?


I can't remember if it is in actual reality or in some kind of parallel fantasy land in which this film is considered a comedy classic because the version I saw was amateurish and silly and really kind of lame.

E said...

I've never seen any of these movies and possibly never will, but I love your reviews. Also I routinely forward them to three movie buffs at work who just eat them up.

E said...

I read GROWING UP BRADY about ten years ago and I have to admit I really enjoyed it. Who didn't want to make out with Marcia? According to Robert Reed, the orange hair episode is where Brady jumped the shark.

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