Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

As I've said before, I'm a sucker for sci-fi, so I had to see a blockbuster like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  This picks up shortly after Transformers with Sam going to college, and the Autobots working with the military in secret, battling the Decepticons.  Earth has become a battleground for the civil war of the Transformers.  If that has lost you so far, don't worry, you're not missing much.

There is a story here, with some background of the Transformers conflicts from their home world.  But the emphasis is on the fighting, chasing, exploding.  I have no concept of the technology, computing power, and artistry it takes to create the animated Transformers, and to integrate them so seamlessly with people, sets, landscapes, and explosions.  But all that is lost in the muddle of the presentation.  There is so much to see so fast that the human eye cannot possibly take it all in.
Can  you tell what's going on in this picture?

Some of my friends who loved the Transformers cartoon series really love these movies.  I never got into the cartoons.  Maybe they were after my time.  In any case, I enjoyed the movie for the visual treat that it is, but it's ultimately overblown and forgettable.

Bottom line, 2 stars.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Flint Lockwood can't seem to fit in.  He's full of ideas, but all the ideas tend to get out of control.  When he invents a device to make food out of water, he thinks he's hit the jackpot.  The primary economy of the island village where he lives is sardines.  When the cannery closes down, hope is lost, but Flint believes he can save the town with his latest invention.

Of course things don't work out as planned.  The machine ends up in low orbit over the island, and as Flint enters requests from the control panel, the chosen food item rains from the sky!  For a while he's the most popular guy in town, and the town is on the verge of fame and fortune.  But, as usual, things go awry; falling food chaos ensues.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is good, messy fun.  My kids loved it; there were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and unexpected twists.  The visual style is colorful and arresting.  In theaters, this played in 3-D; it would have been fun to see.  Even on our old, flat TV, the animation looked terrific.

As you might guess from the topic, the danger of greed and gluttony was the big lesson from the movie.  We celebrate with Flint as his dreams seem to be coming true, but the consequences of excess are all around.  The mayor exemplifies greediness as he eats huge portions and quickly becomes so obese he can only get around on a scooter.  The town deploys a truck to take care of leftovers.  It just scoops them up and flings them into a big pile, Mount Leftovers, which turns out to be an unsustainable solution.  And as the machine accelerates its activity, Flint is forced to try to shut it down or destroy it, before the food weather system it creates takes over the world.

There's plenty to enjoy here for kids and adults alike.  The dialogue, fast-paced and witty, flies past fast enough that you might miss a few laughs, but it will keep you giggling all the way through.  And don't miss Mr. T's role as the vigilant town cop!

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Watchmen

I must say I was very much looking forward to seeing Watchmen.  I had never heard of or read the graphic novel, which is considered to be one of the greatest graphic novels ever, and is respected even outside of the usual comic circles.  I am a sucker for sci-fi/superhero movies, and this one looked pretty cool.  It was cool, but I was disappointed.

I almost hesitate to say something negative about a movie that was as painstakingly made as Watchmen seemed to be.  Accounts I've read talk about how faithful the filmmakers were to the original graphic novel, even using frames from the novel in storyboarding the film.  There were some changes made, as always happens when a movie, comic, or video game is made for the big screen.  But I think the graphic novel faithful, of whom there are many, were pleased with the results.
I was struck by the similarities to The Incredibles, which, since it came out after Watchmen was published, may have lifted some ideas.  Like The Incredibles, the Watchmen are former superheroes who have kept their identities secret after having been driven underground by an ungrateful public.  Unlike the Incredibles, the Watchmen are ordinary humans with no superpowers (with the exception of Mr. Manhattan, who attains superhuman powers due to a lab test accident).  They long to get back into the mix, and when some of the Watchmen are systematically killed, they regroup to uncover a plot.  The ringleader of the plot is a Watchman turned bad who has a secret base from which he is hatching a plot to become the most powerful man in the world. 

Despite all the parallels, Watchmen is a very different movie.  It's dark, violent, and definitely not for kids.  And it's very long.  The theatrical version was 2:42, I watched the director's cut, 3:06, and there's also an "ultimate cut," 3:35.  Sometimes a long movie is so great that when it's over it seems like it was shorter, or you want it to go on.  To me, Watchmen was way too long.  And boring.

That's not to say there weren't good parts.  Like I said, the movie was carefully crafted; almost every scene was eye-catching, artfully done, and full of so much detail that there's no way you can catch it all.  The fans that read and carefully reread the graphic novel will wear out their DVD player's remote pausing and replaying scenes to pick it all up. 
I liked the use of music in Watchmen.  A favorite composition of mine, Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi, provided the soundtrack for Mr. Manhattan's first manifestation (pictured above).  An original piece composed for this scene could not have been a better fit. 

Another element I noticed was references to The Man Who Fell to Earth, only because I recently watched it.  One brief scene showed the interior of Mr. Manhattan's apartment, clearly modeled after Newton's apartment, with the ping pong table, astroturf floor, and wallpaper that looks like woods.  In another scence, Ozymandias in front of some televisions recalls Newton's sitting in front of a bank of televisions (pictured here).  I know there were probably dozens more cultural references I missed, more scenes that will be carefully reviewed by the faithful.

As many cool, engaging, and thought-provoking elements Watchmen had, I still found it to be a bit of a bore.

Bottom line, 2 stars.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Le fils de l'├ępicier (The Grocer's Son)

If you've read this blog before, you know I love movies that offer a slice of life that's outside of my experience.  The Grocer's Son, another great movie from Film Movement, offers just that.  Antione left his home in the French countryside to live in Lyon, but life in the big city has not been kind to him.  Struggling and under-employed, when his mom asks him to come home to help with his father's grocery business, he reluctantly agrees, if nothing else because of a lack of prospects.
Antoine's father, who has had a stroke, runs a grocery business out of a van.  I've never seen anything like this, at least in modern times.  Maybe it's a European thing, or maybe American rural communities have some thing like this.  Antione takes over his route, driving to tiny villages and people's homes around the countryside in southeastern France.  The area is beautiful, the people are quirky, and Antoine is not having fun.  Thankfully his friend Claire came along.  She came to study in the quiet of the country, but decides to come along on Antoine's rounds.  Her charm and friendliness win over customers turned off by the grumpy, impersonal Antoine.

Against this backdrop we see Antoine's relationship with his parents, his brother, with Claire, and ultimately with himself grow and improve.  The Grocer's Son is a simple film, beautifully done.  With her cute face and charming personality, Clotilde Hesme lights up the screen as Claire.  I'd love to see her other movies.

Bottom line, 3 stars

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Man Who Fell to Earth

The other day I wrote a review of Wise Blood, a Criterion Collection movie I didn't like based on a Flannery O'Conner book I didn't like.  The Man Who Fell to Earth is another Criterion Collection movie.  Based on Walter Tevis's sci-fi novel of the same name, which I liked better than Wise Blood (review here), the movie is terrible.  I hated it even more than Wise Blood.  Another strike for the Criterion Collection.  Or, Criterion Collection fans might say, another strike for me.

The first part of the movie stays pretty true to the novel.  Thomas Newton, a humanoid alien, falls to earth and blends in.  The casting here is perfect: the humanoid David Bowie.  Newton obtains patents for alien technology, becomes extremely wealthy, then commences work on a space ship to take him to his home planet and bring his family back to earth.
To a certain extent, the film does capture some of the spirit of the book, but, true to its mid-1970s release, falls into a psychadlic trip.  Too many of the scenes pass into nonsensical, moody silliness.  And, true to the hippie free-love culture (and to director Nicolas Roeg's tendency to make highly sexualized films), Newton's relationship with Mary-Lou, platonic in the book, is a steamy affair.  And maybe it's just my reading, but the movie seems to make Newton's fall into decadence more of a fall into evil. 

In some people's estimation, certainly in the estimation of the Criterion, this is a classic.  In my estimation, no.

Bottom line, 1 star.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Tooth Fairy

A single man, in love with a single mom, wants to take their relationship further, and wants to be on good terms with her kids.  The relationship is complicated by the fact that he leads a sort of double life, part of which he can't tell her about.  Soon, the family becomes entangled in his alter-ego role, misunderstandings threaten the relationships, and the hero's two lives have to be sorted out.  No, this isn't The Spy Next Door, but even my 10 year old was struck by the parallels. 

Despite the similarities, The Tooth Fairy does stand on its own.  The Rock, now known as Dwayne Johnson, stars as Derek Thompson, a pro hockey player past his glory days.  He's still known as The Tooth, due to his proclivity for knocking out the teeth of his opponents.  After he nearly reveals to his girlfriend's daughter that there's no such thing as the tooth fairy, he's sentenced to serve as a tooth fairy.  He's taken to the magical tooth fairy headquarters where Julie Andrews is the head tooth fairy, and Billy Crystal is the gadget guy, supplying the shrinking cream, invisibility spray, and the cat horn.  (By the way, when Crystal's character was introduced, I thought, "That guy is trying to act like Billy Crystal."  But he looked only vaguely like Crystal.  Sure enough, it's him.)
As he begrudgingly serves out his sentence, Thompson botches things up pretty good, but finally embraces the role and begins to work things out in his own life.  It makes for a very clever, funny, entertaining story.  There's no great profound message, but a feel-good story about believing in yourself and pursuing your dreams.  My kids loved it.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Munyurangabo

Talk about a cultural experience.  A Korean-American filmmaker from rural Arkansas, Lee Isaac Chung, travels to Rwanda to make the first movie ever filmed in the Kinyawanda language.  Munyurangabo, another fine offering from Film Movement, follows the journey of two boys, one Tutsi and one Hutu, as they travel on a journey of revenge.  Ngabo wants to kill the man who killed his father, but they stop by Sangwa's home for an unexpected stay.  Sangwa hasn't been home in years, and finds himself not wanting to go on with Ngabo.
The simplicity of Munyurangabo is perhaps its greatest asset.  The actors were not professionals, so the tone is much like a documentary.  It feels very authentic.  As you would expect, the movie is refreshingly short on bells and whistles--no CGI or stuntmen needed--but long on emotion.  This is an emotional journey examining family relationships and inter-tribal relationships in post-genocide Rwanda.  Definitely worth your time.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Wise Blood

Not too long ago, I read Flannery O'Conner's Wise Blood.  (See my review here.)  I did not like the book, but glutton that I am, I decided to pick up the movie.  So, first strike: a movie based on a book I really didn't like. Second strike: it's part of the Criterion Collection, a series of films noted for being supposedly important or artful.  However, many of the films in that collection are frankly intolerable and unwatchable, for all their technical or artistic merits.
One good thing to be said for the movie is that is does capture the tone and spirit of the book, and is quite faithful to the plot.  Normally that would be a reason for praise.  In this case, not really.  I'm racking my brain trying to think of good things to say about Wise Blood.  Any commentary or criticism of Evangelicalism falls flat with the absurdity of the characters and situations.  We see no possibility of redemption in Hazel's internal struggles with his faith, and certainly the "blind" preacher and his daughter have nothing to offer. 

I know some of O'Conner's fans were happy to see Wise Blood on film, and again when Criterion put it on DVD.  Maybe I'm too shallow, too dumb, not reflective and thoughtful enough, or have bad taste, but this movie didn't do anything for me.

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

An American Carol

An American Carol is a terrible movie with some spot-on satire.  First of all, it was written and directed by David Zucker, one of the minds behind Airplane, The Naked Gun, and such classics.  In case you're not familiar with those gems, you should know that they are full of silliness, offensive humor, and political incorrectness.  With that same tone, An American Carol takes on anti-American biases in the press and liberalism in politics.
The set up for the movie has a thinly-veiled Michael Moore-like figure planning an "anti 4th of July" movement; he wants July 4 no longer to be a holiday.  As in Dicken's tale, Moore is visited by a series of ghosts who try to reveal his wicked ways to him.  Meanwhile, some Arab terrorists try to recuit him to do a propoganda film for them; after all, he seems to hate America as much as they do.  As he says, "I love America.  That's why it needs to be destroyed."

This is a movie for: people who can't stand Michael Moore, "red-meat" conservatives with a low-brow sense of humor, and people with too much time on their hands so they can afford to waste time watching bad movies.  They do make some good points in absurd, over-the-top, humorous ways, but this kind of movie won't be doing much to move the arguments. 

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Los Cronocrimenes (Timecrimes)

Time travel stories never fail to turn my brain around, sometimes to comical effect, sometimes frustratingly confusing, but there's always a layer of intrigue and possibility.  Los Cronocrimenes starts with a remarkably simple set up, sending one man into a race against his alter egos to maintain his own identity and uniqueness.
Settling into his new home, Hector relaxes in his back yard, looking around the woods through his binoculars.  He catches a glimpse of movement in the woods which turns out to be a young lady removing her shirt.  When he sees someone else, he goes to investigate and someone stabs him in the arm with a pair of scissors.  This madman with a bandage wrapped around his head starts chasing Hector, who takes refuge in some kind of lab nearby.  At the urging of the lone scientist working there, he hides in a big tub, and ends up travelling a few minutes backwards through time.  He realizes the dilemma he's in; to rectify it, he attempts to recreate the last few minutes, and discovers that he is the bandaged madman.  It gets pretty loopy from there.

As anyone who has ever seen a movie or read a book about time travel can attest, it's not easy cleaning up the messes caused by time travel, and meeting oneself is rarely without complications.  Los Cronocrimenes is admirable in that it spends little time dwelling with the mechanism of space travel or the cosmological questions.  There aren't a bunch of special effects.  It's simply a story of a man wanting to get home to his wife.  A critic on the DVD cover calls this "the perfect movie."  I don't know about all that, but it is good.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Land of the Lost

I LOVED the TV show Land of the Lost when I was a kid.  Who didn't?  Here's a piece of advice: if you loved the TV show, go rent the DVDs.  If you're a bit younger than I am, and you never saw the show, and you love Will Ferrell's mugging, physical comedy, go ahead and rent this movie.

The movie is full of clever nods to the TV show, most of which I'm sure I missed (It's been a long time since I watched those Saturday morning kids' shows!).  Ferrell, with his usual manic zaniness, runs around the set like a madman but somehow pulls of some genuinely funny scenes.  I particularly liked the scenes with ultra-lib Matt Lauer.  Early in the movie he writes Ferrell's character off as a quack; by the end, he has to eat crow.  I can't stand the guy (from a TV/political perspective; I'm sure he's an OK guy otherwise), but it's nice to see he can have some fun in a movie like this.
Thankfully, Ferrell and his traveling companions (not his son and daughter, like the TV show, but a beautiful admirer and a carnival ride operator) save the Earth from an invasion by the even-scarier-than-on-the-TV-show Sleestaks, but they couldn't save the movie from being a silly, yet nostalgic, waste of time.  Unless you loved the TV show, or love everything Ferrell's made, don't bother with this movie.

Bottom line, 1 star.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Journey from the Fall

A man loves his country, but is on the losing side of a civil war.  Living conditions are deteriorating.  He knows he doesn't want his kids to grow up there, under the current regime, but he wants to stay and work for freedom in the country he loves.  That's the backdrop of Journey from the Fall, Viet Nam, 1975.  Long fought for the South Vietnamese army, supported by the U.S.  When the U.S. pulled out, he and his family had to decide: attempt to flee the country by boat, or stay in Viet Nam.  Ultimately, Long sends his wife and daughter on their way, but he stays.  They make it to the U.S.; he makes it to government "re-education" camps.
Journey from the Fall follows both journeys.  Both Long and his wife hold out hope for the survival of the other, but despair that the other has perished.  Their spirit and determination to thrive are inspiring.  The pain of separation, though, is heart-breaking.  I have heard the term "boat people" before, referring to refugees, but the depiction of these refugees, crowded and cramped, hidden in the hold of a fishing boat, brings realism to the term.  And Communist re-education camps--the treatment of Long and his fellow prisoners flies in the face of the Communists' stated love of their fellow man.

This is a beautiful movie about an ugly slice of history, and makes me want to hear the stories of the Vietnamese I meet in my community.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Before Night Falls (Movie Glutton Opera Edition)

Rarely does one get a chance to see a world premiere opera.  We passed our chance to see the world premiere of Before Night Falls last weekend, since we were in Salado, but we switched our tickets to this week, so we got to see the second performance of it on Sunday.  Almost as good.

Modern opera typically seems to be in the same category of modern art.  Modern art tries so hard to be modern it rejects representational art, favoring the abstract, or preferring social or political badgering to art for the sake of primarily aesthetic purposes.  Opera of a century or two ago didn't have any problem being mainstream, having popular appeal.  It would have been more like a contemporary Broadway musical.  Modern opera tries to distance itself from the Broadway musical, and attempting to be more high brow, just makes itself more boring and tedious.  That was the case for Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, which we saw at the Fort Worth Opera last year, and to a lesser extent for Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men, which we saw in 2008.
This was only partly true of Before Night Falls.  Musically, I like this much better than I anticipated.  It was definitely modern, with plenty of dissonance and atonality, but not so much that it sounded like train wreck in the orchestra pit.  The composer, Jorge Martin, included musical elements from Cuba, the opera's primary setting, but did so in a rather timid way, barely adding flavor the score.  And, like the operas mentioned above, Before Night Falls lacked many memorable melodies or stand-alone arias.  I didn't find there to be any truly remarkable or memorable moments that make the listener sit up and take notice of the song or the singer.  All in all, musically, it was flat and even, the music providing an agreeable background for a sung play.

The story itself revolves around the life of Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban novelist.  At the time of Castro's revolution, Reinaldo and his friends embrace the promise of freedom and equality, joining the Revolutionary Army.  However, they quickly see the oppression and persecution Castro brings on.  Secretly, Reinaldo writes and smuggles his work out of Cuba.  He never sees his published work or hears of its international success until confronted in an interrogation room.  Only when he agrees to stop writing is he released from prison.
The story of a skilled writer using his skills to denounce a powerful, oppressive regime, risking his freedom and life, appeals to me.  I thought of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writing The Gulag Archipelago, exposing the oppression of the Soviet regime and their prison camps.  But Arenas was originally arrested not because of his writing, but because of his homosexuality.  I would vigorously defend the right of someone not to be arrested and persecuted because of their personal lifestyle choice, but I have a harder time rallying behind him and granting him hero status.

The second half of the opera has Reinaldo escaping from Cuba, tricking the guards into letting him on a boat at Mariel.  Once he arrives in New York, he desperately misses his native Cuba, and feels lost, anonymous and unappreciated.  He ends up dying of AIDS.  I am bothered by the portrayal of AIDS in this kind of art, as if the victim were some kind of martyr.  Early in the opera, Reinaldo sings of having a hundred thousand lovers, each of them a poem.  He does lament that he is dying not because of tyrants but because of his lovers.  Can we not make a connection here?  Having a hundred thousand lovers may inspire poetry, but it's not without consequence.  Reinaldo's not a martyr, but a victim of his own lifestyle choices.
The Fort Worth production of Before Night Falls was the world premiere, and the Fort Worth Opera did a terrific job presenting it.  In my review of The Elixir of Love I mentioned the great acoustics at Bass Hall.  That was true for this one, too, but there were a few times the music overwhelmed the singers.  The sets were pretty bare, but videos and lighting projected on movable, changing screens made the stage seem larger than life.  Wes Mason in the role of Reinaldo brought the house down.  This must have been a very demanding role; he was on stage almost continually, with most of the opera's action revolving around him.

Martin, with his librettist Dolores Koch, who knew Arenas and translated some of his works, have presented an interesting musical biography of Arenas, but I have a feeling Before Night Falls won't be one for the ages.  The 2110 Fort Worth Opera Festival might feature works by Donizetti, Mozart, and Handel, but Before Night Falls will be a long-forgotten memory.

But of course, I don't know what I'm talking about, so you can read other reviews here.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Elixir of Love (Movie Glutton Opera Edition)

For the second installment of the 2010 Fort Worth Opera festival, we were treated to a delightful performance of Gaetano Donizetti's The Elixir of Love (L'elisir d'amore).  Rather than setting the action in an Italian village, the Fort Worth Opera set this classic, sung in Italian, in a stereotypical turn-of-the-century town in the American heartland.  I kept thinking of The Music Man; the set was dominated by a large bandstand like the one in The Music Man.
Elixir opens with Nemorino, a poor ice cream vendor (that's his ice cream truck on the left) expressing his love for the lovely but aloof Adina.  Adina doesn't give him the time of day; she only has eyes for Belcore, a sergeant in the unit passing through town.  Adina, the town booklover, tells the story of Tristan and Isolde, in which a love potion plays a prominent role.  When Dr. Dulcamara, a traveling huxter, comes to town, Nemorino asks him if he has a love potion that would make Adina love him.  (By the way, I googled Dulcamara.  Solanum dulcamara is a plant with very attractive yet toxic berries.)  Happy to oblige, and sensing that Nemorino's not too bright, he sells Nemorino a bottle of cheap wine, convincing him that it's the love potion he's looking for.  Comedy ensues.
From here the story is pretty predictable, as romantic comedies go, but very entertaining.  If this hasn't been reinterpreted in modern movies or sit-coms, I'd be surprised.  I was surprised by the amount of slapstick humor here.  Last night the kids were watching Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel and laughed uproariously when the toy motorcycle hit the evil Ian in the crotch.  Tonight the oh-so-cultured opera crowd also got a good laugh when Nemorino racked his rival in love Belcore.  As Gene Kelly sang in Singing in the Rain, "You can study Shakespeare and be quite elite . . . Just slip on a banana peel [or punch someone in the privates] the world's at your feet!  Make 'em laugh, make 'em laugh, make 'em laugh!"  Some of the humor is in the libretto, of course, but some of the added physical humor was clearly artistic license.

As I have come to expect from the Fort Worth Opera, the singing was top-notch.  Ava Pine as Adina and tenor Michael Fabiano as Nemorino were fantastic, as was bass Rod Nelman as Dr. Dulcamara.  The players from the Fort Worth Symphony played to their usual perfection, and Bass Hall itself provided the perfect room.  We sit in the cheap seats, and I am always amazed at the acoustics in Bass Hall.  The singers use no microphones, yet even in the upper gallery, we never miss a note.
I think it's pretty cool that an opera from the early part of the 19th century, reset in the early 20th century, can still feel fresh and timely in the early 21st century.  It's not that its themes are deep and profound, it's just that romantic love and the silliness that often surrounds it haven't changed.  In Donizetti's day, it was the traveling salesman.  In early 20th century America, it was the updated snake oil salesman.  If this were set in today's America, I guess it would be the late-night infomercial or the "herbal supplements" advertised in the sports section of the paper.  Whatever the era, men want to be loved, women want to be courted, and there's no magic formula to make love happen.

For more insightful and informed reviews, take a look at these:
The Star-Telegram's review
D Magazine's review

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Prefontaine

In Mark Remy's The Runner's Rule Book, Rule 1.10 is "Get to Know Pre."  I've heard of Steve Prefontaine, but wasn't well-acquainted with him or his accomplishments and influence on the world of running.  There have been not one but two feature films made about him.  I watched Prefontaine, from 1997.  Someone thought he was popular enough for another movie the next year; Without Limits came out in 1998. 

Steve Prefontaine ran for Coach Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon.  He held every American track and field record from the 2,000 to the 10,000 meters.  He had a passion to win; as Bowerman says in the movie, "Pre turned distance running into a blood sport."  In college he won virtually every race he ran, but in the 1972 Olympics he placed 4th in the 5000.  Had he not died tragically in a car wreck, he would likely have continued to run faster; he was poised to dominate the 1976 Olympics.

Here's Steve Prefontaine.  Fast.


Here's Jared Leto as Pre.

I like the way the movie was made, shifting between documentary style and feature style, and using archival footage to add realism.  It's a well-made, well-acted movie.  They weren't shy about showing Pre as human: at times arrogant, self-centered, a womanizer.  But the focus is on why we love him: his passion to run faster and harder than anyone thought he could.

Prefontaine's brief running career marks a crucial period of the growth of running as a sport.  He was a colorful character and stunning record-breaker, so he gained lots of notoriety, even making the cover of Sports Illustrated as a teenager.  People began paying attention to running.  At the same time Coach Bowerman was making his prototype shoes using his wife's waffle iron.  He tested out his ideas on Pre and ended up turning his crazy shoe ideas into the athletic empire that is now Nike.  In one funny scene, Bowerman brings a pair of shoes to Pre before a race, and explains that the swoosh on the side was his business partner's idea.  Pre rips it off, tosses it aside, and says, "Looks like needless wind resistance to me."

I'm not sure we can overestimate Pre's influence on running.  With his fame, Bowerman's shoe innovations and founding of Nike, as well Frank Shorter and Bill Rogers's exploits, the running boom of the 1970s was born.  Prefontaine was a nice introduction to Pre, and it made me want to get out and run fast!

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Reader

I may have said this before, and I'll say it again: there is no shortage of drama and terrific stories to be told out of World War 2, The Holocaust, and the surrounding events and aftermath.  Whether it's a documentary about the fate of the Jews (like Now . . . After All These Years), a film noir take on post-war Berlin (like The Good German), a shoot-em-up revenge fantasy (like Inglourious Basterds), or a personal perspective on concentration camp life from both sides of the fence, (like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), there are inspiring, tragic, emotional stories to be told.

One group of people for whom I have never had much sympathy is the SS, who rounded up the Jews, arresting them and herding them off to concentration camps.  In The Reader, young Michael meets Hanna, a woman twice his age, but with whom he falls madly in love.  They begin a brief, passionate affair, in which we learn little about Hanna, but in which Michael learns a lot.  (Fair warning: in keeping with the nature of their secretive affair, there is some frank nudity and sexuality.  And it's rather disturbing that she is so much older than he is.)  More important than their love making, to Hanna, is the time Michael spends reading to her.  He reads to her for hours, from classic and contemporary literature, while she soaks it all in.
See, she's soaking it in.  In the tub.  Get it?  Haha.

After a few months of their affair, Hanna receives a promotion and abruptly leaves town, without leaving a note or contacting Michael.  He moves on with his life, and we meet him again several years later, when he is a law student.  With his class, he attends a trial of Nazi war criminals, including none other than--Hanna!  Before their affair, before he was born, she had been recruited by the SS.  Uneducated, working in a factory, she thought it sounded like a good opportunity.  Displeased by Hanna's penchant for telling the truth, her fellow defendants collectively put the blame on her, and she took to the fall for them.

Michael realizes that the reason Hanna loved for him to read to her was that she was illiterate.  He struggles with stepping in to her defense in the trial, but ultimately decides to let her choose her own fate.  Is her guilt less because she was uneducated?  She was "just following orders."  When the judge challenges her about her actions, she challenges back, "What would you have done?"  He is left speechless, and we wonder with him, what would we have done?  Without the benefit of hindsight, would we have made better choices than the common German?  There were certainly many heroic Germans who defied the Nazis or quietly challenged their regime, but most were silent, compliant, or, mostly, duped by the powerful propaganda machine.  Even today, in the U.S., with a free and multifaceted press, I sometimes can't be sure when to believe what our national leaders tell us.

The Reader tells this story of the moral dilemmas of war crimes and culpability, even years after the fact, but it's also a beautiful story of friendship.  Yes, Michael and Hanna came together in a chance encounter of a lonesome, middle-aged woman and a curious, lustful teenager, but the love and friendship he felt for her, and the devotion he showed her, even years later, is moving.  Her desire for literature, and her desire to read and write, will inspire anyone who has ever taught literacy.  The Reader is a beautifully made, yet disturbing and thought-provoking movie.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

O Horten

After 40 years of as a train engineer, Odd Horten (Baard Owe, nominated for the Chlotrudis Award for Best Actor.  What is a Chlotrudis Award?  An award given by the Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film, of course.) is retiring.  His routine lifestyle, as regular as the railroad schedule, is about to change, and he's not sure what to do.  We meet him on the day of his retirement dinner.  His fellow conductors put on a dinner party, then return to an apartment to continue the celebration.   Horten never quite makes it, and begins a series of improbable events and experiences that throw him off the rails and help him realize the life he's been missing.
He spends the night by the bedside of a child, and disappears in the morning like a dream.  He stays after closing time at the pool for a swim sans suit, and gets some unexpected company; again, he disappears like a ghost.  He meets a mysterious, delusional drunk who tells stories of his fictional travels and likes to drive blindfolded.  Seeking his friend, who works at the airport, he is taken on an impromptu tour of the airport, ending up smoking his pipe in the middle of the runway.  And he finally realizes the dream his mother had for him.

This is not quite The Bucket List, but it tells a similar story: why not step outside of your routine and see what else life has to offer?  Like Horten, some wait until they retire.  Others take the opposite tack, casting away responsibility and routine for the unexpected and out of the ordinary.  Surely there is a balance to be had there.  I enjoyed Owe's understated performance.  The mood and pace of the film seemed just right for a 67-year-old man's rediscovering the delights of life.  The film fits what I imagine the country and people of Norway to be: not unfriendly, but orderly, and a little gray.

Bottom line, 3 stars.