Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Two outstanding reviews

Two recent pieces set the standard for what movie reporting/reviewing should be. Philip Kennicott's article in the Washington Post about the IMAX film, "Hurricane on the Bayou" refuses to be dazzled or distracted by the pretty pictures, laissez les bon temps music, and cheerful optimism. He knows that what is missing is more important than what is there:

The narrative is built, one happy cliche at a time, into a vast arch of cliches, until the story of Katrina ceases to be about appalling environmental neglect, or the colossal failure of the federal government to manage a disaster, or the role that dysfunctional politics, racism and poverty have played in the decimation of one of this country's most vibrant cultural centers. (For that movie, see Spike Lee's epic, "When the Levees Broke.")

He doesn't stop at saying the movie fails to tell the story. He finds out why. And if you guessed the answer is money, then you won't be surprised at this:

To tease out all the rottenness at the core of this film, you might start pulling at the money threads. Why does a film that seems so insistent on decrying the loss of wetlands end with little more than an anodyne lament and some empty hope? Roll the credits: The film was made with money contributed by Chevron. And Dow Chemical. And Dominion Exploration and Production, a major power company. The film's executive producers, the Audubon Nature Institute, won't say how much money came from industry sources, but the filmmakers argue that less than 8.5 percent came directly from Chevron, Dow and Dominion. More industry money may have come indirectly through the Audubon Institute.

Better yet, like the oil companies themselves, he drills down further, and finds something very valuable:
Audubon, as in the National Audubon Society, is a respected national brand in the environmental world, of course, but not this Audubon. The Audubon Nature Institute that produced "Hurricane on the Bayou" is a nonprofit group that runs public museums in New Orleans. The group also is in the Imax business and operates what it says is the only public golf course to reopen since Katrina hit.

And when it comes to the impact of the form on the content, he gets it just right:
Imax is hyper-realism, images so voluptuous that they break down the distance between the spectator and the film. They overwhelm rational response, seduce the eyes and neuter the intellect, reducing the viewer to happy cooing at the sheer beauty of it all.

It is the perfect format for a little aesthetic "green washing," the substitution of a nexus of happy things -- beautiful images and a bland statement of environmental concern -- for a serious film about what went wrong, who did it and who should pay to fix it. According to the Audubon Nature Institute, the money from Dow Chemical came in because Dow had been forced by a lawsuit to contribute to environmental projects. The company picked the perfect film at which to throw its penitential dollars.

Mark Jenkins, always worth reading, has an especially fine review of "Shooter" in Washington's City Paper. This is one of the best at his best -- erudite but not snobby, funny but not snarky. His assessment of the paranoia pleasures of the movie and the point at which "it loses its brainless charm" is astute and fair and much more fun than the movie it covers. But what really makes it memorable is the way Jenkins explicitly pairs the review with another release of the same week, the documentary "The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair." "The Shooter" is they're-out-to-get-me fiction. The documentary, about the arrest and imprisonment of a journalist on outlandish terrorism charges, is paranoia served up straight.
Fragmentary as it is, the tale of Abbas’ arrest and imprisonment is essential viewing. It may be decades before this country learns why its troops are really in Iraq, but right now The Prisoner shows what they’re doing there: running a Keystone Kops version of the very regime they overthrew.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Bracketology and Movie Deaths

Slate has an excerpt from a new book about Bracketology, the science of applying March Madness head-to-head analysis to determine the outcome of...just about anything. Go to the article and click on the Film Deaths option to get a chance to select the most memorable of all time and you'll find yourself weighing James Cagney's explosive demise in "White Heat" against Alan Rickman's spectacular fall in "Die Hard," Bonnie and Clyde's bullet-ridden shoot-out with James Caan's, and King Kong's topple with "Psycho's" shower.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Best Rock and Roll Movies

When the two most explosive cultural forces of the 20th century -- movies and rock and roll music -- the result has often been disappointing, the worst of both worlds rather than the whole exceeding the sum of the parts. But AFI's Murray Horwitz and radio listeners have come up with this list of the best rock and roll movies for
NPR, all well worth watching and hearing.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Quote of the Week -- Premonition

I had a premonition that critics would refer to the title in their reviews of this stinker. And I was right! But I got a big charge out of Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune, who managed to refer to both Rocky and Bullwinkle's Mr. Peabody and Alfed Hitchcock's "Saboutage:"

On loan from Sherman and Peabody of "The Bullwinkle Show," Sandra Bullock's wayback machine is getting quite a workout lately...Thriller aficionados may enjoy the bit where children sing a bit of "Who Killed Cock Robin?", a song figuring in a key scene from Hitchcock's "Sabotage." Too often people use Hitchcock to club another director's efforts into submission, even when the film in question isn't remotely Hitchockian.

I thought Bill Muller said it best in the Arizona Republic:

In Premonition, Sandra Bullock plays a woman going through a horrifying experience. She keeps waking up in this movie.

By the way, for the fourth time ever, I have invoked the ever-popular "Gothika Rule" (previous winners: "Gothika," of course, "The Forgotten," and "Flightplan"), which means that I will give away the ending to anyone who sends me an email at

Lighting black skin

I saw "Reign Over Me" with Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle this week and was disappointed that it makes one of the most frequent and most infuriating mistakes in films -- the lighting is designed for the white performers only. Cheadle has very dark skin, and when the camera is on his face and Sandler's together, we miss some of the subtlety of his performance because we literally cannot see his face. The movie that really sensitized me to this as an issue was the wonderful "Sounder," which I saw when I was in college. Director Martin Ritt and cinematographer John A. Alonzo did a beautiful job in showing the richness and variety of the skin tones of their brilliant cast, which included Paul Winfield, Cecily Tyson, and Taj Mahal. That film should be required viewing for every film-maker as a lesson on how to show audiences all that these performers have to offer.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

onBeing -- Brilliant little films from the Washington Post

onBeing is a new feature from the Washington Post, a series of small films by Jennifer Crandall about local people of all kinds. They are simple, just people talking about their lives in front of a white screen. A man explains that he is usually pretty easy-going and low maintenance, except that he has some standards about things like elevators and coffee. A man who came to Washington from New Orleans after Katrina explains his struggles with the racist views of his upbringing. A young nun talks about how she found her vocation and what it means to her. A Hindu teacher of devotional music sings with her daughter-in-law. A little boy talks about what he has learned and what he thinks being older will be like. A gay Mormon talks about why he did not leave his church, even though it seemed to be leaving him. A Chinese-American cheesemaker talks about learning what the cheese is trying to tell you (apparently it was telling her to quit being a lawyer). Each is a gem, utterly involving and endearing.

onBeing is a project based on the simple notion that we should get to know one another a little better. What you’ll find here is a series of videos that takes you into the musings, passions, histories and quirks of all sorts of people. The essence of who they are, who we are.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Quote of the Week -- 300

From A.O. Scott's hilarious review of "300" in the New York Times:

It offers up a bombastic spectacle of honor and betrayal, rendered in images that might have been airbrushed onto a customized van sometime in the late 1970s...The Persians, pioneers in the art of facial piercing, have vastly greater numbers — including ninjas, dervishes, elephants, a charging rhino and an angry bald giant — but the Spartans clearly have superior health clubs and electrolysis facilities...Allegory hunters will find some gristly morsels of topicality tossed in their direction, but you can find many of the same themes, conveyed with more nuance and irony, in a Pok√©mon cartoon...In time, “300” may find its cultural niche as an object of camp derision, like the sword-and-sandals epics of an earlier, pre-computer-generated-imagery age. At present, though, its muscle-bound, grunting self-seriousness is more tiresome than entertaining. Go tell the Spartans, whoever they are, to stay home and watch wrestling.

Monday, March 05, 2007

It Must Be the Motorcycles

What else could explain the stunning box office for the mediocre "Ghost Rider" and "Wild Hogs?"

Could this mean we have sequels in store?

Friday, March 02, 2007

Quote of the Week -- Black Snake Moan

Peter Rainer, in the Christian Science Monitor:

Maybe Jackson should avoid any more movies with "snake" in the title.

(I do like the soundtrack though.)

The Ultimate Gift

Thanks to Jeff and Jer listener Carol Yeh-Garner for telling me about the special opportunity for families to contribute to St. Jude's hospital when they buy advance tickets to the new movie The Ultimate Gift, starring "Little Miss Sunshine's" Abigail Breslin.

The Weekend Of Giving is a promotion celebrating the opening weekend of the movie The Ultimate Gift, which opens in nearly 800 theaters across the United States and Canada on March 9th, 10th and 11th. A donation of $1.00 will be made for every ticket purchased through for opening weekend screenings of The Ultimate Gift. Other partners and friends of the movie are using this donation to go toward their cause of choice. Once Upon A Family has chosen St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to benefit from donations raised through its Consultant network through these Weekend Of Giving showings, as well as events such as the Charity Celebrations. More than 150 organizations have already signed up to participate. To direct the contribution and give Carol credit, purchasers of movie tickets should go to this site and to enter their confirmation number and consultant name (Carol Yeh-Garner).

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Two movies about historical events are opening next week and they ask the same question -- how do you respond when faced with certain death? "300" is the story of the battle of Thermopylae, with 300 Spartans against thousands of Persians, filmed before as "The 300 Spartans." And "Beyond the Gates" takes place during the genocide in Rwanda. A priest and a young teacher turn their school into a sanctuary, but when the UN peace "monitors" leave, there is no way to protect the families hiding there from the assassins with machetes waiting outside.

Like The Alamo and Masada these stories remind us of the dignity, honor, and meaning that can be drawn from the direst of circumstances. That the stories span thousands of years of history should remind us of our failure to honor the memories of those who have died by learning how to prevent the need for such sacrifices.